Beginning Anew
by Bernard Doove


This is a spin-off from Off The Mark.




 

CHAPTER 1

 

“I’m just stepping out for a breath of fresh air,” Caleb said as he pushed himself upright off the sofa with a grunt. It had been a good evening capping off a great day with his friends, but he might have had one beer too many. It did not stop him from bringing along the can he’d been drinking. He made his way unsteadily to the back door of the cabin he and his workmates had rented for their Las Vegas getaway. Opening the door, he was greeted by the evening air that had cooled to a pleasantly mild temperature after the heat of the day. There was no sign of the wild electrical storm that had forced him and his buddies inside earlier, leaving the sky clear. Although there was still some light pollution from nearby Sin City, the cabin was located far enough away from the town to allow some stars to shine brightly. A nearly full moon spoiled that view to the east but it gave some illumination to the desert that backed onto the property. Drunkenly confident in his ability to navigate under those conditions, the man stepped off the porch and wandered away from the cabin. Only then did he notice that he had no shoes on. He stopped, considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “Screw it. I’m not going far.”

Caleb needed this holiday. The pressure to finish a project on time had been relentless and he was worn out. His workmates were too, so they had decided to take a trip together to Las Vegas to celebrate the project's successful completion and, more importantly, to unwind. He wandered over the rough ground in bare feet, his tough soles oblivious to the small stones. He dodged the occasional hardy bush and took a drink from his can of beer. Despite his drunkenness, the fresh air helped clear his head and he became aware of a weird thrumming in the air. He turned around to see the light streaming from the windows of the cabin clearly showing the way back. The strange sensation was not coming from there though. Curious, he swiveled his head to localize it. He took a few steps in that direction, still not seeing a source for the odd vibration. Then his foot failed to find the ground and he fell forward. Light and heat burst around him as he crashed to the dirt, his T-shirt and shorts catching and ripping on something along the way.

Groaning, the man shaded his eyes from the glare, trying to see what had happened to him. Through his watery vision, he could make out a rough cliff face with rubble at its base which he had fallen upon. Caleb was confused – there wasn’t any cliff near the cabin, only flat desert. And why was it daytime? He was certain that he hadn’t passed out despite his inebriation. And even if he had, his buddies would have come looking for him, wouldn’t they? Then again, they were pretty smashed too.

Caleb struggled to his feet, wincing at the aches and pains that he had accrued, swaying from dizziness. He squinted to block out the brilliant sunshine that was already heating him to an uncomfortable degree. He was still in a desert but one that looked a lot different from where he was supposed to be. Instead of stony ground with low scrub, this one was sandy with the occasional cactus plant. He took a few steps away from the cliff, grimacing as pain shot through his left ankle. It wasn’t overwhelming, so he figured he had avoided getting a bad sprain. Pain on his right hip made Caleb check there. Something had torn through his shorts and underwear and scraped his skin but, fortunately, the bleeding was trivial. He trudged up a nearby dune to get a better view but, when he got to the top, all he saw was more desert and cacti. Of civilization, there was nothing to be seen.

Where the fuck am I?!” he yelled.

Had he imagined falling over in Nevada and ending up somewhere else? Had someone clobbered him and carted him off here? Nothing in his experience explained his present predicament. However, even in his drunken (but rapidly sobering) state, he knew he had to find shelter from the scorching sun. He wasn’t prone to sunburn, but even he wouldn’t last long wearing only a torn T-shirt to protect his upper body. Looking around, there wasn’t anywhere likely to find shade. The cliff was also angled wrong to provide a shadow. That left Caleb only one alternative – start walking and pray he would find something. Without an obvious choice of direction, he settled for heading the way he was facing.

About an hour later, Caleb collapsed into the shadow of a stand of cacti – the first real shade he had found. He was sober by now but getting nauseous from incipient heatstroke. He had no intention of budging from this spot until the sun lowered. He was desperately thirsty though and he knew he would have to try to find water before he lost the light. In the meantime, he would keep as cool as he could. After a while, he fell into a restless sleep.

Caleb woke up, his breath rasping in his throat, his mouth completely dry. He had survived the heat but he might not survive dehydration. He had to find water at all costs. He stood up, cursing his habit of walking around in bare feet. His soles were plenty tough enough for wandering around a yard for a few minutes but traveling so far across this terrain had been much harsher. Both feet were cut and abraded, and he dreaded adding to those problems, but he could not remain where he was. However, he finally had some good luck.

The lowering sun had passed behind a tall mesa and spared him the direct rays that had burned him earlier. However, it also meant that night would not be too long away, and he had to find water before he lost the light. Figuring that he might be more likely to find the precious fluid near the cliffs than in the middle of the barren plain, Caleb set off in that direction. Forty minutes later, he spotted a patch of green, and he altered course for it. Another quarter-hour later, he stumbled upon a spring that was keeping a small pocket of vegetation verdant. It was little more than a large puddle, but it was clean. He threw himself down to the ground at the edge and greedily slurped up the cool refreshing liquid. With his belly full of water, Caleb pushed himself away and sprawled on his back, exhausted from his efforts.

What now?’ Caleb wondered. For the moment, he could think of something other than his greatest need. ‘I still have no idea where I am and haven’t seen a soul. This tiny oasis can’t feed me, and I have nothing to carry water. Face it – I’m in deep shit. I just wish I knew why.

Just to add to his problems, the sunlight faded with terrifying rapidity. Moments later, he saw the full moon rise like it was shot out of a cannon, but then inexplicably slow down to a normal pace.

That’s it – the heat has fried my brain. Anyway, nighttime solves one problem. I’ve got to find my way out of this desert and it’s better to do that while it’s cooler. The full moon will give me enough light to see my way. I hope. I’ll just rest for a few minutes while the desert cools a bit.

Despite his intentions, he did not leave for a long while due to falling into an exhausted sleep. Hours later, he woke up, shivering. ‘I forgot how cold deserts get at night. Better start walking to warm myself up again.’ His stomach growled, reminding him of how long it had been since he’d had a proper meal. There was no food here eside from a few berries on one of the bushes that might be poisonous. With a sigh, he took a few more mouthfuls of water before setting out once more.

Caleb hoped that he was making progress as he trudged through the moonlit desert. So far, he had mashed both sets of toes on rocks and fallen down a gully. Despite cursing his present circumstances, he knew it was still better than enduring the sun. Therefore, when the moon set with indecent haste to be replaced on the other horizon with an equally speedy sunrise, he dreaded what the next few hours would bring. At least, with the better illumination, he could look for shelter. That was the way he found the rocky overhang that offered welcome shade. He was not so addled to fail to check for snakes or other nasties before rolling under it. Then he fell into an exhausted sleep.

Hunger and thirst woke him up once more. He was contemplating whether it would be worth braving the sun when he noticed what looked like a column of smoke on the horizon rising from between two faraway hills. “Hopefully, that’s a sign of civilization,” he croaked. With a specific goal, at last, he ventured out once more. Clouds were gathering though, bringing relief from the solar rays. Something about the way they accumulated seemed odd to him, but he was just grateful for the reprieve from the worst of the heat. Three hours later, however, he collapsed, well short of the desert township that had sent up the smoky beacon.



“What is it?”

“How should I know? It’s not like any creature I’ve seen before.”

“Maybe it’s one of those new races the Triarchs have been contacting?”

“Maybe, but what’s it doing here in the San Palomino Desert?”

“Dying, I reckon.”

“Should we help it? It might be some weird monster.”

“What monsters wear clothes?”

“Call those clothes?”

“Well, I wouldn’t wear them to the Grand Galloping Gala, but they certainly are clothes, even if they’re torn and filthy.”

The words slowly penetrated Caleb’s mind and he looked up through bleary eyes. Two… creatures… stood in front of him. One of them seemed to be fanning itself with… its wings? He couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing, but unless he was hallucinating everything, he had been found.

“Help… please,” he managed to say before slipping into unconsciousness.

The blue pegasus mare said to the yellow pegasus stallion, “Well, that settles that. We’ve got to get it to town to the doc.”

“Do you have any idea how heavy that creature is?”

“You should have thought of that before sightseeing instead of cloud-pushing. You grab its forelegs and I’ll take the hind.”

The stallion grumbled but complied. Moments later, they were airborne and on their way to Horseshoe Gulch.



Caleb’s first thought was, “This isn’t the desert.” He struggled to prop himself up on one arm to look around and a moist towel fell off his forehead. He was inside some sparsely furnished room with wooden walls. It was hot and stuffy but a vast improvement over the baking sand and rock. He was lying on a bed and his feet had been bandaged. There was some kind of small yellow horse watching him, and were those wings folded along its… no, his side?

“Good, you’re awake,” the stallion said.

Caleb gaped in shock. “You… you talked!

“Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction to you too. Listen, the local doc ain’t in town, so we just patched up the worst of your scrapes. Corporal Slipstream has sanitized you so we can take you to Canterlot where a doctor can attend to you properly.”

“Canterlot? What about Las Vegas? That’s gotta be closer. And why am I talking to what has to be a product of my fevered mind?”

“Las… Vegas? Do you mean Los Pegasus?” Then the stallion shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll take a portal back to the city, so we’ll be there in no time. Are you able to stand?”

“I think so,” Caleb replied hoarsely. He had no idea what was going on with this impossible creature, but he had no better plan. He rose, wincing at the pain in his feet which he saw had been bandaged. He swayed dizzily before sitting down on the bed again. “I need a drink.”

“Told you he was a biped,” said someone entering the room.

It was another of those creatures – a blue one this time dressed in some kind of golden armor. And she was carrying a glass of water with a wing!

“Here – you need this,” the newcomer said. “My name is Slipstream, by the way.”

Caleb grabbed the glass and drank thirstily. He noted a slightly salty taste to it.

“Better?”

The human’s mind was clearing and he nodded.

“Great! We’re under instruction to take you to EUP headquarters in Canterlot. That drink contained a painkiller, but the sooner we get you to HQ, the sooner we can get a proper doctor to look you over as opposed to our field medic. You’re lucky that Zipline here spotted you when he should have been paying attention to building our cloud camp.”

“I’ve got no idea what a cloud camp is, but I’m grateful you found me before I died. A pity it was too late to save my brain from being fried. I swear it seems I’m talking to miniature horses with wings!” The man chuckled weakly.

“Watch it with that word!” Zipline said with a scowl. “We’re ponies – pegasi to be specific, not whorses. Sounds like we need to get you more help than we first thought. Try standing again.”

Caleb managed it this time. “I’m ready,” he croaked.

Slipstream said, “Come with me, please.”

The man gingerly followed, trying not to aggravate his abused feet. Once outside, he saw that they were in a stereotypical western-style township. He’d call it a one-horse town, but there was yet another of these ponies waiting for them, this one with a horn instead of wings.

Great! Now I’m seeing unicorns!

The new pony was standing by a stake driven into the ground. At a nod from the corporal, she touched her horn to something mounted on the top. Caleb’s eyes widened as a hole opened in midair, through which he could see a room that looked nothing like the rustic edifices here.

“Go on through the portal,” the orange stallion instructed him.

The man shrugged. What was one more crazy thing? He stepped through the strange gateway and was instantly enveloped by deliciously cool air which helped clear his head. “This is amazing!” he said hoarsely.

“Yeah,” agreed the blue mare who had followed him. “Modern magic tools save a lot of time and effort. Now, let’s get you to the doctor so he can patch you up properly before we get to the bottom of why you were in the desert with no protection.”

They led Caleb out of the room and down some corridors, garnering curious or nervous looks from the staff and what appeared to be armored guards. Gold segmented plates covered their necks, backs, and sides. Gold helmets complete with Roman centurion-style brushes protected their heads. This time, some of them were not ponies, or at least not like those he had met so far. They had shiny insect-like carapaces and weird eyes. Then they came upon a tall, dark red pony with neither wings nor a horn in the company of a creature that looked like it was half eagle and half leopard. Both wore the now familiar gold armor, although it had been heavily customized for the catbird. The man couldn’t help but stare at the strange being and hardly noticed when the pony halted his pegasi minders.

“Soldiers – where did you find this human?” the pony asked.

That grabbed Caleb’s attention. This pony knew what he was!

Slipstream answered. “This… hue-man… was discovered in the Los Palomino Desert. We found him just after he collapsed from heat and thirst. Our field medic treated him but now we’re taking him to be attended to properly by the company doctor.”

The pony frowned. “That’s extremely strange. If he’s fit enough, Prince Mark will want to see him immediately.”

The mare frowned. “On whose authority are you asking us to do that?”

“I am Lieutenant Crimson Boulder, one of Prince Mark’s bodyguards and confidante. That is why I recognized this man’s species and why I know the Prince will want to see him straight away.”

“Very well, sir. Where can we find His Highness?”

“Follow me,” Crimson replied before turning to his griffon companion. “I’ll join you later.”

The catbird nodded. “I’ll let the others know that you’ll be delayed, sir.” He spread his wings and jumped into the air. With a few noisy flaps of his wings, the soldier was gone.

Crimson Boulder led Caleb and his two pegasus minders upstairs and down a hall to a doorway flanked by two armored guards who just nodded in acknowledgment of the pony’s right to be there. Crimson knocked on the door and it was quickly answered. Caleb saw that it was another mare but this one had bat-like wings. How many different types of ponies were there in this strange land? The two exchanged a few brief hushed words, the mare glancing at the man and nodding before stepping back and fully opening the door.

The earth pony urged the EUP soldiers inside with their charge but remained out in the hall. Caleb caught sight of the multitude of different creatures, stopped, and gaped. The soldiers saluted two ponies in particular – both possessing wings and a horn.

Slipstream said, “Your Highnesses – we found this creature stumbling around the edge of the San Palomino Desert not far from Los Pegasus. It appears to be dehydrated and disoriented. It keeps asking what happened to something called Las Vegas. Because we did not recognize the species, I applied the sanitizing crystal as per Princess Sparkle’s standard procedure. We then used a daggerscale portal to bring it here and we were going to have it treated and interrogated. However, Lieutenant Crimson Boulder saw us and told us that you would want to see it immediately.”

The blue alicorn silently scrutinized the man while the green one frowned and beckoned Crimson to come in before saying to the soldier, “Find Doctor Bellows and have him come here to evaluate this human. Then I want extra patrols sent out to check the desert in case there are more of them. If so, approach them cautiously but do not treat them as hostile unless they are clearly a danger. Have them brought here too. Oh, and provide them with water and food.”

“Yes, sir!” The soldiers saluted again and departed.

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on!” Caleb croaked, his mouth dry once more.

The green alicorn got up and gently steered the man to a lounge chair. The man towered over the pony and probably most of the others in the room, so it was not surprising that the furniture was lower than normal for humans. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable while we sort this out.”

Caleb gratefully sank onto the chair despite its low height.

A yellow earth pony stallion with a simple crown said, “He looks like he could use a drink.” The pony sat next to the largest creature in the room. For that matter, the largest equine Caleb had yet seen. The white alicorn mare had a multi-color pastel mane and tail that seemed to move on its own.

“Agreed,” the green stallion said. His horn glowed and a glass and a jug of some kind of beverage floated over to the man.

“What the fuck?!” Caleb said, staring at the objects suspended in the same glow as the horn.

“It’s magical levitation,” the alicorn said. “Don’t question it for now. Take these and pour yourself a glass.”

Caleb gingerly grasped them and did so, then draining the lemon drink like someone dying of thirst. The stallion stopped him from pouring another glass.

“Too much too quickly isn’t good for you,” he told the man. “Let your body absorb that first. Meanwhile, tell us your name.”

“My name is Caleb Awad. Who and what are you?”

“I am Prince Mark Wells and I am an alicorn, as is my wife, Princess Beatrix Lulamoon.” He then indicated a couple on the sofa. “These are Princess Celestia and Prince Bean, guests from another world. Yes, you heard me right. They aren’t from this dimension, just as you aren’t either. This world is called Equus and you are now in the Equestrian Empire.”

“But… you’re all horses!”

Princess Trixie clucked her tongue disapprovingly.

“Ponies,” the Prince corrected. “Magical colorful talking ponies. Some are pegasi like the Royal Guards that brought you in. Some are unicorns. Some are batponies or earth ponies like my bodyguards.” Mark gestured in their direction. “But all of them are sapient citizens of this country and just one of the many races that fill this world. I know that this is all hard to take in quickly, but you have to accept the situation that you’re in while we figure out how you got here.”

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have what looks like animals telling me to be calm. It’s all a bit too surreal.”

“Believe me – I do understand. I was once a human too.”

Caleb’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re shitting me?!”

“Nope. You’re looking at a North Carolina native, believe it or not.”

“What happened to you?”

“An accident with a portal.”

“And that made you a prince?” Caleb asked doubtfully.

Mark laughed. “Hell, no! However, that’s a very long story. What we need to know is how you ended up here in Equestria and why you were not transformed like I was. Then we will have to see if we can get you back home. The soldier mentioned something about Las Vegas – is that where you’re from?”

“No, I was just visiting. A bunch of my work buddies and I went there for a weekend. We all got a bit drunk and I stepped outside for some fresh air. Not sure how, but next thing I know, I’m waking up in the desert with civilization nowhere in sight. I wandered around for a day and cooked in the heat, then froze that night. Those winged ponies found me the next day. I thought I was hallucinating. Still not sure I’m not.”

“You stumbled into a portal in the middle of Sin City?” the alicorn asked dubiously.

“Nah. We had rented a cabin on the outskirts of town to save money for other stuff. The desert was on our doorstep. I walked into it for a minute or so to get away from the stuffy guesthouse. The lights of the city still drowned out the night sky though. And then… they didn’t.”

“You poor creature,” Prince Bean said, getting up from the sofa. He grabbed a tray of chocolate treats and brought them over. “You must be starving. Help yourself to some of these. We’ll get you a proper meal later.”

“How in blazes are you holding that?” Caleb asked even as he reached for the food. He hungrily ate one and his eyes widened. “Oh, wow! These are amazing!” That earned a smile from Prince Bean. Caleb continued. “Did you earn your crown in a cooking competition?”

Trixie and Celestia laughed so hard they had to hold onto each other to keep from falling over.

For his part, Prince Bean sighed. “If only it had been that easy.”

“He’s holding the tray with magic,” Mark told Caleb. “It’s pretty much everywhere. Anyway, it sounds like you ran into a random natural portal between our worlds.”

“Does that happen a lot?” he asked between bites.

“Not really, and not necessarily to Earth.”

“What about the way you got here?” Caleb asked.

“Magic mirror that was created with a spell,” Mark informed him.

“Can I get back that way?”

“Maybe. We’ll definitely try that but there’s one problem and it’s a doozy.”

Caleb frowned. “And what’s that?”

“The world I came from might not be the Earth that you know.” Mark waved his hoof towards Celestia and Bean. “Our guests here are also from Equus, but an entirely different one. I have personally been to several other Equuses and they all differ from this one – some by a little and others by a lot. We might get to my Earth and find that there’s already a Caleb Awad there, or that Caleb never existed. The multiverse is enormous.”

The human slumped in his chair. “Sounds like I’m screwed unless I can get to that portal again.”

Celestia spoke up. “I’m afraid that we have more bad news. Natural portals tend to be temporary, according to our dimension’s research on the subject. That’s why we affix ours to a permanent object such as a mirror. The portal that brought you here may or may not still exist.”

Caleb bolted up out of his chair. “Crap! I gotta go find that portal!”

“Calm down,” Mark said. “While what Celestia said is true, natural portals tend to last as long as there’s mana to power them. Out in the desert, there’s little else using mana so it should stay around for a while. On the other hoof, I admit I don’t know when it opened, but if the other end was in such close proximity to the place you were staying and hadn’t been encountered before, I’d guess that it was fairly new. Was there some sort of major storm that had recently passed through the area?”

“Yeah. There was a helluva lightning storm while we were in town. It had cleared away by the time we got home that night though.”

“That sounds plausible as the cause.” There was a knock at the door and Crimson admitted a unicorn clad in a classic white lab coat, presumably the doctor who had been summoned. “First, we get you checked out. Then we get you cleaned up and given a proper meal while we search for the portal.” Mark turned to the physician. “Doc, we have a visitor that has suffered from exposure in a desert, and lack of food and water. His species is called a human and you’ll find that he’s very similar in many ways to anthro ponies, physiologically speaking, so he should be safe to treat. However, he doesn’t possess any form of magic ability.”

Bellows nodded, unfazed. He addressed his unusual patient. “Please remove your clothing so I may examine you properly.”

Caleb’s eyes shot wide open. “What?!”

Mark chuckled. “No nudity taboo here, Caleb. Just take off your shirt if you don’t have anything wrong elsewhere.”

The doctor glared at him but proceeded with the examination when the man removed his T-shirt. After a thorough check-up, he pronounced that Caleb was dehydrated and sunburnt but otherwise in good physical condition under the circumstances. Bellows patched up his scrapes, gave him some salt tablets, and cast a spell to accelerate the healing of his feet and hip. The man was also allowed another glass of lemon drink. The doctor promised to send a salve for his skin before departing.

While the doctor was busy, Mark arranged to assign more squads to search the location of the portal. Given that Caleb had been wandering for so long, the area to be checked was quite extensive and there was a chance that the portal might be gone anyway. Nevertheless, it had to be tried for the man’s sake. Trixie sent a servant to bring a decent meal for their guest and a maid turned up with a hearty vegetable stew. Not unexpectedly, a full stomach quickly made the exhausted man drowsy.

Two Guards were summoned to take the human to a guest room to get some sleep. Mark instructed the stallions to keep watch at the suite’s door and let them know when Caleb woke up or if anything else needed their attention. The human barely made it under the sheets before plunging into a deep and dreamless sleep.



Caleb did not wake up until the following morning. He discovered that the fancy suite had an attached bathroom which he gratefully used. When he walked out of it with a towel wrapped around his waist, he was surprised to see a unicorn mare in a maid outfit placing a folded garment on the bed. Upon noticing him, she bowed her head briefly.

“Good morning, sir. My name is Silky Sheets. I have been assigned to assist you to get ready to have breakfast with their Highnesses this morning. Your garments have been taken to be cleaned but, as I was informed that you insist on being clothed, I have brought you a minotaur robe to wear instead.”

Considering the decrepit condition that his clothes had been in, he wasn’t surprised that the maid had taken them to be cleaned. He was just grateful that some form of clothing had been provided in its stead. “Thank you,” he told the mare.

“Does sir require anything else?”

“I don’t think so. I only need directions to wherever breakfast is being served.”

“There are guards posted outside your door. Ask one of them to accompany you there when you’re ready.”

“Okay, thanks.”

The maid smiled, bowed once more, then left the room.

Caleb heaved a sigh of relief. For a moment there, he wondered if she was going to try to help him dress. He had no idea what was expected of him in a palace. He dropped the towel and tried on the robe. Despite his height, it was a little large for him which made him wonder how big minotaurs were. Still, it didn’t look too bad on him. Pity there wasn’t any underwear to go with it, but he could deal with that for the moment. He was as ready as he would ever be, so he headed out of the suite.

The Royal Guards outside were politely respectful and one led the way to the dining room where Caleb found Prince Mark already eating his breakfast. The alicorn stallion smiled upon seeing the man arrive.

“Good morning, Caleb. Pull up a chair and help yourself. I trust that you’re feeling better today?”

“Much better, thanks,” the man replied as he took the indicated seat which he noticed was suited to someone his size. “That stuff the doctor used worked miracles. Even my feet are completely healed. Good thing because I don’t have shoes. Heck! I don’t even have my own clothes at the moment.”

“While that robe looks good on you, we’ll get you some more clothes if necessary,” Mark promised.

Caleb raised an eyebrow. “Ponies make clothes? For humans?”

“Yes to the first, and the second as well if you ask the right pony.”

“Any word on finding the portal?”

“No luck yet, I’m afraid,” the alicorn replied as he poured syrup on his waffles.

“So I might be stuck here if your mirror isn’t the way home?” Caleb sighed. “I suppose I should be grateful that I’m still alive and not a pastel pony. What was it like turning into a green four-legger with wings and horn?”

“For starters, I didn’t have the horn then. I was only a pegasus when I arrived and I had no idea how to use these wings. I barely managed to walk. I crashed a lot but I learned. Now, I wouldn’t give up being able to fly for anything. There are worse fates than becoming a pony.”

“So, how did you get the horn?”

“Got a few weeks for me to tell you the whole story?”

“I might,” Caleb replied glumly. “For now, though, give me the highlights.”

So he did. The man scoffed about the effect of poison joke so Mark demonstrated. Caleb’s eyes bulged out, scarcely believing what he was seeing. After that demonstration though, the rest of the alicorn’s tale, no matter how outlandish, had a lot more credibility.

After breakfast, Mark asked Caleb to follow him, and the prince took the man down to the room that had the portal mirror to Mark’s friend’s home. That Earth was the obvious first possibility to eliminate. Despite the implication that alicorn would take human form there, Caleb was still surprised to see both Mark and Penumbra standing on two legs and fully clothed while he just had the robe. Mark was a small dark-skinned man while his wife was a towering amazon. Nobody seeing them would ever believe that both were normally ponies.

Mark opened a drawer in a cupboard in that room and pulled out a cell phone. He turned it on and waited for it to start up. When the home screen appeared, he turned to Caleb.

“Okay – simple first test. What’s your number?” Caleb told him and he dialed it, putting the phone on speaker so both could hear.

The phone rang for five seconds before it was answered. “Caleb Awad speaking,” came a very familiar voice.

Caleb’s face fell as Mark replied to the man at the other end. “Oops! My apologies. Wrong number!” He ended the call and looked at the distraught man. “Sorry, my friend. Wrong universe.”

Caleb winced. “Can’t say you didn’t warn me. What now?”

“While this world is possibly very alike to yours, I don’t recommend that you stay here. I won’t force your choice but you’re alien to this world and you can’t replace the other Caleb. With modern identification systems, you’d be a non-person at best. We’ll have to move on to plan B.” He turned off the phone and put it away. “Let’s go back now.”

Caleb nodded and turned toward the portal mirror, but Mark stopped him.

“Give me a moment to disable the adaptation spell. If you step through now, you’ll be transformed into a pony or other sapient species.”

“Wait. If I ended up like you, would I still become a human again if I came back here?” Caleb asked.

“Yes – the adaptation spell is designed to give you the physical form best suited to you in the destination world. Naturally, that means that you’d revert to your normal human self on this side of the portal.”

Caleb’s curiosity was fully aroused by now. “In that case, can I at least see what I could have become?”

Mark shrugged. “Can’t hurt if that’s what you truly want. If it freaks you out, normality is just a couple of steps away.”

“YOLO,” Caleb replied and stepped through before he chickened out. He found himself on four legs and the robe was so big that it was getting underfoot… or hoof, more accurately now. He was getting tangled until he felt it lift off him, lit up in the glow of the alicorn’s magic. Now free of the encumbrance, he turned to the mirror to use its reflective properties to study himself. What he saw was a well-muscled stallion with a golden-brown coat and a maroon mane and tail. He nodded approvingly and Mark reckoned that he made a handsome specimen.

“Feel like staying that way?” Mark asked.

Caleb chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. I was kind of hoping I’d get wings so I could try flying. No such luck. I gotta admit though that I don’t look half bad. Still, I don’t plan on staying, so I’d rather be human again.”

“Better take this with you then,” the alicorn said as he levitated the robe onto the new stallion’s back. “The adaptation spell is placed on the departure gate, so let Captain Penumbra know what you want to do.”

“Thanks.” Caleb stepped through the mirror.

“Back so soon, handsome?” Penumbra asked with a grin, looking the man up and down.

The man blushed and hastily wrapped the robe around himself again. “Being a pony is not for me. Could you turn off the adaptation spell, please?”

The batpony nodded and pressed a jeweled stud on the frame. “You’re good to go now.”

“Okay.” Caleb then stepped back into Equestria. “Man, that felt weird. I don’t think I could ever get used to that.” He flexed his fingers, happy to have their mobility back. “What’s our next move?”

“We consult with this world’s expert on portals. Twilight Sparkle should be awake by now. She’s not a morning pony,” Mark explained.



Caleb continued to be awed by the ridiculous ease of traveling long distances in this world. Going from one city to another was as simple as walking through a portal – a hole in space. He stepped out into a crystalline structure which Mark explained was Friendship Castle in Ponyville. He led the way to the dining room where they found a purple alicorn at the breakfast table. Her eyes were still half-closed as she drank her coffee – black, of course. She barely raised an eyebrow at the sight of the human.

“Morning, Sparkles,” Mark said cheerfully. “I’ve got a problem.”

Twilight brightened. “A Friendship Problem?”

“If you’d prefer to look at it that way, yes. This is Caleb Awad and it appears he has fallen through a wild portal into our world. He wants to rejoin his friends on his Earth.”

“Not the same Earth as yours, I take it?”

“Nope. Already checked that out.”

“And you haven’t found the wild portal yet?”

“We’ve got squads searching for it but no luck so far.”

“How long has he been here?”

“A couple of days but we only knew about him since yesterday afternoon. He was in fairly bad shape and we had the doctor patch him up and let him rest. I figured we could tell you this morning and here we are.”

Just then, a dragon arrived with a plate of waffles dripping with syrup. The young adult placed it in front of Twilight before noticing Caleb. “Hey! I haven’t seen a human in a while. Where are you from?” he asked with a smile.

Caleb looked gobsmacked as he stared at Spike who was nearly as tall as him.

“Are… are you a dragon?”

“Sure am. Spike’s the name. I’m Twilight’s Number One assistant and Ponyville’s Librarian.”

Caleb’s eyebrows rose. “Seriously? I didn’t think that’s what a dragon would do.”

Spike put his hands on his hips and fixed the man with a frown. “What do you think I should be doing? Menacing ponies and hoarding gold?”

The man was flustered and tried to respond to the accusation. “Umm… well… you see…”

The dragon grinned and laughed. “Just messing with you. My family and friends are my treasure, so this is where I belong.”

In the short time that the conversation had taken place, Twilight had wolfed down her breakfast. Wiping her lips with a napkin, she said, “It shouldn’t be a problem setting up a portal tuned to his home universe. All I need is some inanimate object from there to get a fix on the thaumatic and quantum frequencies. Seeing as Caleb has only been here a couple of days, that’s well within the usable parameters before it becomes hopelessly contaminated. What can you give me?”

It had slipped Mark’s mind that Twilight could do that. It had been many years since it had been necessary. “He arrived with only the clothes he had been wearing.”

“Those will do. It’s obviously not that minotaur robe he’s wearing though. Where are his clothes?”

“A maid took them away to be cleaned. Will that be a problem?”

The purple alicorn looked thoughtful. “Hmm… no, although it does reduce the window of opportunity. We’d better get on it straight away. Let’s go to Canterlot now.” She got up from her chair and started heading for the door before pausing and looking back to her brother. “Thanks, Spike. That was a great breakfast.”

“You’re welcome, Twilight.”

Caleb shook his head. “I still can’t get over a dragon serving waffles to a pony.”

Mark chuckled. “My friend, you’ve seen nothing yet.”



You WHAT?!” Caleb screamed.

Silky Sheets took a nervous step backward. “Burned them, sir,” she repeated.

“Why would you do that?!” the man wailed.

“They needed to be sanitized but since they were judged to be irreparable, it was simpler just to burn them.”

Mark facehoofed. It was completely logical and the worst thing she could have done. “Thank you, Silky. You’re dismissed.”

The maid shot him a grateful look and hastily departed.

Caleb turned to Mark and asked, “Why would anyone burn someone’s clothing? Especially since I don’t have anything else to wear besides this silly robe!”

“Calm down. You have to realize that clothes are unusual here. Aside from uniforms, protective wear, and fancy outfits made for special occasions, most ponies simply don’t wear clothes. The same goes for griffons, hippogriffs, kirin, and other species. There’s no nudity taboo here, remember? It’s usually simpler to buy new items to replace seriously damaged ones. Silky didn’t know that you would need them for non-wearing purposes.”

The man sank onto a chair. “Can’t you just tune the portal to me instead?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, a living creature won’t do as it’s easily molded by the new dimension and your body has already been too contaminated by Equestrian oxygen and food.”

“Is there any chance that you had something else with you when you passed through the portal and then left it behind? A cell phone? A flashlight?” Mark asked, grasping at straws.

Caleb shook his head. “I… don’t think so. I just went outside to get some fresh air. I was pretty drunk at the time still.”

“Then it’s even more imperative that we find that wild portal because we’ve run out of alternatives,” the alicorn prince said. “We’ll go personally and have a look around the region where you arrived. There are already several squads combing the vicinity but, if you recognize any landmarks, it could help us narrow down the search area.”

“Haven’t you got the morning session of Day Court today?” Twilight asked.

Mark grimaced. “Can you handle it? I’ll take the afternoon session instead.”

The alicorn mare nodded. “I have a few audiences scheduled but I’ll see if they can come in early. Caleb’s needs are more urgent.”

“Thanks, Sparkles. Come on, Caleb – we’ve got a portal to find.”



“Lieutenant Aerial Ace is in charge of the search,” Mark explained as they reached the daggerscale portal room. “He and about two-thirds of the EUP squads assigned to the search are pegasi. Their keen eyes and ability to cover large areas quickly make them the ideal ponies for the job, although there are a few griffons too. The ground crews are a mix of earth ponies and unicorns. The latter are using their talents to try to detect the magic of the wild portal. However, considering how much mana those holes in the universe leaked, it doesn’t bode well for the search if it hasn’t been found yet. Nevertheless, the ground squads will continue checking out the ravines and other places that are awkward for the pegasi to check from the air.” The alicorn activated the daggerscale portal and he, Caleb, and Penumbra stepped through to immediately encounter a golden-brown pegasus stallion in army uniform.

“Any luck, Lieutenant?” Mark asked.

Aerial Ace saluted. “No, Your Highness. No tracks were found because of a sandstorm last night. The area that the human could have traversed has already been swept at altitude without any sign. I have ordered the squads to tighten their sweeps but this will take at least four times as long as the initial search. We are about a third through it so far.”

The prince grimaced. “We may be running out of time. I’ve brought Caleb here to join the search in the hope that he might recognize any landmarks.”

The pegasus nodded. “That could be useful. Seeing as an aerial perspective would probably be of no help in his case, I will assign a ground team to him. Please follow me.”

The visitors fell in behind Aerial Ace and he took them to a nearby tent where they found about twenty ponies taking a break. While it was still fairly early in the day, this was a desert and it heated up fast. The searchers had to cool down and re-hydrate frequently. Several of them looked nervously at Caleb. As a prey species, it was an unfortunate trait of ponies that the unfamiliar was often regarded with fear, and that was true of these soldiers as much as civilians. Familiarity would cure that but they didn’t have time for socializing.

Lieutenant Aerial Ace narrowed his eyes as he scanned the soldiers. “I need a three-pony squad – one earth, one unicorn, and one pegasus to accompany the human, Caleb. He will be attempting to retrace his steps. Any volunteers?”

The alicorn prince nodded in approval. The lieutenant knew better than to force a human onto a nervous soldier.

A silvery-grey-coated earth pony mare with a blue mane with purple streaks promptly stepped forward. “I’ll do it, sir.”

“Very good, Sergeant Willow Branch. You can lead the squad.”

A yellow unicorn stallion named Exact Point was next but no pegasus volunteered. After it became apparent that none of the winged ponies wanted the job, Aerial Ace ‘volunteered’ one. “Private Hawkeye – you’re up.”

“Yes, sir,” the mare replied after a pause.

“Take a cart with supplies,” Ace ordered the sergeant. “You have full autonomy and may continue the search as long as needed, subject only to my recall. You have my authority to call upon pegasus scouts to check potential sites.”

Willow saluted. “Understood, Lieutenant.” She turned to Caleb. “Please follow me, sir.”

Mark spoke up. “I will be accompanying you for a few hours. I wish to learn more about our visitor while I have the opportunity.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the mare replied. “Please let me know if you think you can be of assistance.”

The prince nodded, aware that he had just been very tactfully told to stay out of their way while they got on with business.

Willow Branch was very efficient, and she had the cart organized and ready to depart within minutes. Meanwhile, Caleb had been scanning the surroundings, trying to find any familiar landmarks. The base camp had been set up at the spot where the human had been found, so hopefully, something would strike a chord.

“Any luck?” Mark asked when the man came over to rejoin the others.

“I think so. I seem to recall those twin sandstone peaks,” Caleb said as he pointed out the feature. “I think I was using them as a goal, but I was pretty much a wreck by that point. And is there a town in that direction? I was following some smoke.”

“Yes, sir. There is a small hamlet that way. We’ll start in the opposite direction,” Willow said. “Get aboard the cart, please.” She proceeded to strap herself into the drawbars.

“Is she going to pull this entire load by herself?” Caleb asked skeptically.

Mark chuckled and urged the man onto the cart to sit by his side. “You’re grossly underestimating her. Earth ponies are very strong.”

Considering how diminutive the mare looked in comparison to the cart and its contents, Caleb still felt doubtful but climbed inside anyway. Those doubts were quickly allayed when the mare started pulling the load without visible effort.

Hawkeye elected to fly alongside as Willow trotted out of the camp. Penumbra flew on the other side, her aviator sunglasses firmly in place against the desert glare. Now that they were on their way, Mark took the opportunity to learn more about the man.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a boilermaker by trade.”

Mark’s eyebrow rose. “Oh? You’re good at welding then?”

“Not to brag, but I can weld any material you care to name with the right equipment. Not that I can see that being much use here with everything I see being done either manually or with magic. Still can’t quite wrap my head around the latter.”

“What makes you think we can’t use your equipment?”

Caleb gave the stallion a keen look. “So, you do use electricity here?”

“Yes,” Mark replied, “although we are still rolling out the infrastructure. Our two biggest hurdles are environmentally clean methods of power generation and enough expertise in the field to build networks that are efficient and safe. Is a robust power source important to you?” he asked with a sparkle in his eye.

“MIG and TIG welding kind of need it.”

Mark chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Actually, you’d come in handy to teach some of our tradesponies modern techniques.”

“Not that I plan on hanging around, but where would you get the welding machines?”

“From Phil’s Earth that you visited briefly. We’re doing some contract work for his company with our revolutionary ‘special technology’.”

“Magic, you mean,” Caleb said with a smirk.

“Of course, but that’s a closely guarded secret. Anyway, the money we earn from those contracts allows us to buy equipment that we can’t produce here yet.”

“Sounds good. What about the expertise problem?”

“We’re exploring the possibility of recruiting some humans, but our first choice is finding the technology in an alternate Equestria. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been using our portal generator to explore the parallel worlds. So far, though, we haven’t found any Equestria that has a better knowledge of electricity and electronics although some worlds have some superior magitek , which is a combination of magic and technology. It’s our expertise with portals that has enabled us to bring advances to our world that might have taken decades or centuries to otherwise come about. And it’s also your one real hope of getting home.”

Caleb’s face fell. “Tell me straight – do you think we’re going to find the portal?”

The alicorn took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. “My friend, if it’s there, we’ll find it. But considering that it has eluded us thus far is not a good sign.”

“Yeah, I thought so,” the man said despondently.

Conversation lapsed for a short while before Mark started it up again with what he hoped were safer subjects. “So, how old are you? You look like you’re in your thirties.”

“Good guess – I’m thirty-four.”

“And judging by how you went to Las Vegas with just your buddies, you’re single.”

“Right again.”

“Fair game for the mares, then,” Mark declared with a grin.

Caleb blinked. “Say what?”



Willow Branch brought them to a halt. Despite pulling the cart around for over two hours, the only sign of strain on the pony was some sweat staining her coat. Caleb had become a believer in her durability long before then.

“We’ve reached the gully that Hawkeye spotted,” she declared as she unstrapped herself.

“It doesn’t ring a bell with me,” Caleb said.

“Nevertheless, we’ll check it out and eliminate that possibility,” Mark said. “Let me levitate you down.” Just as he had done at various other places, the alicorn used his magic to move the human to a position where he could walk safely. Exact Point was able to levitate himself to the bottom of the depression before using a spell to scan for a portal signature. Willow declined help because she didn’t need it. She was quite adept at reshaping rock to give her secure footing – a process that Caleb found endlessly fascinating. It certainly helped keep his mind off his predicament!

The site was yet another bust. When they returned to the top, Penny pointed out that it was time for the prince to head back.

“Caleb, I have to attend Day Court. You’re welcome to continue the search. If you don’t find the portal, I’d like you to join my family for dinner.”

The man scratched his head uncertainly. “Maybe I should stay out here and camp overnight if we don’t find anything this afternoon. That way, we can get off to an early start.”

Willow Branch spoke up. “That’s not necessary, sir. We have daggerscales to take us back to base and we would leave one where we finished so that we could resume the search first thing in the morning.”

“That’s right,” Mark said. “So, unless you find the portal, I’ll see you again tonight. For your sake, though, I hope to miss the opportunity to chat more.” He spread his wings to take off but paused. “If you do get to Las Vegas, try chucking something back through the portal that we can tune into with one of ours.”

“I’ll do that,” the man promised.

The alicorn and his bodyguard flew off. Willow said, “We’ll take a ten-minute break in the shade. Have a drink and a snack – we’ve still got a lot of the desert to search and we’re running out of time.”

 


 

CHAPTER 2

 

“It has closed.”

Those three little words uttered by the yellow unicorn stallion caused Caleb Awad’s world to come crashing down. With a moan, the human sank to the ground, uncaring of the rough, rocky surface. He put his head into his hands, shutting off his view of the Equestrian desert as if that would cause it to go away and he would find himself back on his world.

“Are you absolutely sure?” asked Willow Branch.

Exact Point reluctantly nodded as he tapped the sheer cliff face where the portal had been identified. “I’m afraid the detection spell is conclusive. Judging by the fading magical signature, I would say that it shut three to four hours ago. If we had come to this location even a couple of hours later, we would never have detected anything.”

The earth pony mare sighed and looked over to her charge. The man’s despair was palpable and she could not blame him. He was stranded on an unfamiliar world, dumped here by a capricious portal caused by an arcane storm, and now he was cut off from home, family, friends, and everything else familiar to him. There was still one thing that might give him a shred of hope though. “Search the area for anything that Caleb may have brought with him. Remember, Prince Wells said that Princess Sparkle can tune in on the dimensional frequency of inanimate objects.” She had learned more about portals in the couple of hours spent with the Prince than she had ever wanted to know.

Exact Point said, “Yes, Sarge!” He looked up to the hovering third soldier in their party, a pegasus mare. “Hawkeye – use those sharp eyes of yours to check the surroundings while I search the proximity.”

The mare nodded and began her task.

Willow turned her attention back to the human. She walked over to him and put a comforting foreleg around his shoulders. “I’m sorry, but we’re grasping at straws here. However, I’m sure the Triarchs will support you until you can get back on your hooves.”

Caleb snorted. “I don’t have hooves.”

“Whatever those things are called.” She smiled. “You know, those flat stompy things with wriggly bits attached.” Her grin slipped when her attempt at humor fell flat. Willow sighed. “Anyway, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on and you make the best of things.”

Caleb glared at the earth pony. “What do you know? How would you like it if you were cut off from every person important to you?”

That shook Willow deeply but she understood his pain. “My family has been military going back many generations. Several years back, my parents both died defending Canterlot from invasion by the Storm King. Later, when Grogar tried to take over the world, my fiancé was killed by one of his monsters. I took the Triarch’s offer of a compassionate discharge for everypony who wanted it. And I needed it.”

Caleb frowned. “I’m sorry for your loss, but it doesn’t look like you’re out of the military to me.”

The mare shrugged. “Like I said, it’s in our family’s blood. I became a reservist. When the Crown needs a fast response to a great need, they call upon us instead of trying to recall troops deployed elsewhere. Half of the ponies searching for the portal are the same as me. The Triarchs really pulled out all the stops to try to get you home.”

“At least you had something to fall back upon. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

“Maybe Prince Wells can answer that for you,” Willow suggested. “He’s reputed to come from another world too.”

“Yeah, he does. Pity it’s not mine.”

“If there are as many different universes out there as he said there are, there may be one for you. Or you could start a new life here. I hear Equestria is a pretty nice place,” she said with a small smile.

Caleb stared at her for a long moment before shaking his head and suppressing a chuckle. “Biased much?”

Willow held up a hoof and waggled it. “Maybe a bit. Tell you what – when we get back, I’ll buy you a beer and we can talk about it.”

The man’s eyebrows rose. “Ponies drink beer?”

The mare poked him in the chest with her hoof. “Of course. I bet I could drink you under the table.”

Caleb smirked. “Now I know you’re military. Okay, you’re on.”

“Deal!” She looked up to see her compatriots approaching. “Find anything?”

“Nothing,” Hawkeye replied.

Exact Point levitated a tiny scrap of cloth. “I found this in the rubble at the base of the cliff.”

Caleb snatched it out of the air to look at it more closely. “This must have ripped off my T-shirt when I fell out of the portal and cut myself on the rocks below. Maybe this will be enough for tracking down my homeworld.”

Willow looked at it doubtfully. “I dunno. Looks awfully small to me. I don’t want you to get your hopes too high.”

“What choice do I have? Let’s go!”

Willow nodded. “Can do. First, let me put that scrap into my saddlebags so it doesn't get lost.”

Caleb shook his head. “Don't bother. I'll put it in... my ... pocket.”

The earth pony mare grinned while waiting for the human stallion to come to the obvious conclusion. She wasn't disappointed.

Caleb glared at her and held out the small piece of cloth. “Fine.”

Willow shrugged before taking the scrap and putting it away. “Not my fault minotaurs don't like pockets.” She tried very hard not to smile... too much.

She turned away, all business again. “Exact – set up the daggerscale portal to take us back to base.”

The unicorn quickly did as he was ordered and the party soon transited it along with all their equipment before it closed once more. Sadly, none of them noticed the almost empty beer can lodged in the middle branches of a nearby bush where it had landed after Caleb had dropped it as he fell out of the portal.



After reporting their discovery to Lieutenant Aerial Ace, the commander of the search team, he ordered Willow to take Caleb to Canterlot and inform Prince Mark Wells. He then set about recalling the search teams while the earth pony mare organized a portal to the capital.

Upon arriving there, the Royal Guards on duty at the portal room informed her that the prince was still holding court but was due to finish soon. One of them escorted Willow and Caleb to the hall outside the living room where Mark Wells would be joining his family prior to mealtime. They did not have to wait long but it was enough for Caleb’s depression to gnaw at him once more. His shoulders slumped and his gaze sunk to the floor.

As soon as the green alicorn spotted the human and his earth pony minder, he said, “Report, Sergeant!”

Willow saluted him. “Your Highness, we found the site of the wild portal. It has already closed.”

Prince Mark sighed. “I feared as much.”

“We did find this scrap of cloth though,” Willow added, holding it up for him.

The alicorn took it in his magic and looked at it skeptically. “It’s awfully small, but we’ll give it a try.” He turned to the Royal Guard who had brought the two there. “Find Princess Twilight Sparkle and pass on my request for her to join us here. Tell her that it’s in regards to Caleb.”

The Guard saluted. “Yes, Your Highness.” He left at a trot.

Mark then addressed the human once more. “While we’re waiting for Twilight, please join us. Even if this scrap is enough, she won’t be able to do anything with it until tomorrow. There’s also plenty of room at the dinner table later.”

Caleb blinked uncertainly. “Actually, Willow and I kind of agreed to go have a couple of beer–OW!”

The earth mare had rapped him in the shin with her hoof. She glared at him meaningfully as she said, “What Caleb means is that he’ll be delighted to accept your invitation, Your Highness.”

Mark chuckled. “At ease, Sergeant. You can join us too. You can always have your beers later if you wish.”

“Me, sire? I’m just a reservist.”

“And I’m just a pony looking forward to relaxing and having something to eat. Relax Willow. Consider yourself off-duty. I sure as Tartarus am, and I don’t give a buck about rank at those times. Come with me.”

The stunned mare hesitated before another mare stepped up. Willow’s eyes widened at the sight of the glossy black carapace and the glittering mane and insectile wings. She gave the earth pony and human both a fang-filled smirk.

“While my husband is affable to a fault, it would not be wise to ignore his invitation.” The changeling queen then followed the prince.

Willow gave Caleb a shove in the same direction as she hastily complied.

“Who’s that?” Caleb hoarsely whispered.

“That is Queen Chrysalis of the Canterlot Hive and herdmate to Prince Mark Wells. Don’t piss her off!” Willow advised in the same low tone.

“Is she some kind of bug-pony?”

“She’s a changeling. Now, shut up and behave yourself among the royal family!”

Inside the living room, a blue alicorn was lounging on a sofa while reading to a foal. The purple pegacorn colt was enraptured with every word as the mare dramatically enhanced the text with a waving hoof and the occasional flash of colored motes of light cascading from her horn. A yellow unicorn mare and a very green batpony stallion, both youths, were playing some kind of board game on a nearby table. A white unicorn mare was engrossed in fitting a dress to a very tall orange dragoness while a bipedal unicorn mare watched and occasionally made a comment on the outfit. A powder blue unicorn mare and a female changeling were excitedly poring over a comic book on the table. Another female changeling, almost as big and gaudy as Chrysalis but much younger, was studying a book while lounging on another sofa.

“Oh, good,” Mark said. “Looks like most of the family is here—”

Before the alicorn could continue, a large wooden creature bounded through the double doors that led to the courtyard. The canine monster leaped at the Prince, knocking him over and standing on his chest, pinning the pony to the floor.

Caleb watched in horror as the creature lowered his jaws toward Mark’s head and then… started licking his face?

“GALLUS! Get your dog off of me!”

The human blinked in confusion. That was a dog? He turned to Willow, his expression begging for answers.

The earth pony said, “That’s the pet timberwolf of the Prince’s son, Gallus. I’m told that he’s completely harmless, although I admit that I wouldn’t want to be in His Highnesses horse shoes right now.”

“Twiggy! Heel, boy!” a voice called from the doorway.

The ligneous creature barked and bounded over to his master, a blue griffon dressed in military uniform. Gallus scratched behind his pet’s ears and its leafy tongue lolled in pleasure.

“Sorry about that, Dad,” Gallus said. “I wanted to surprise you but I didn’t have time to shut Twiggy in his yard.”

Mark climbed back to his hooves. “Let’s face it, son – he’s just too excitable to control when you’re home. Speaking of which, I thought you were still deployed in Abyssinia?”

“I’m on leave for a week. I figured I’d surprise you.” The griffon then noticed the human staring at him. “Who’s our guest, Dad?”

“Glad you asked,” Mark replied. “This is Caleb Awad, a visitor from another Earth who got dumped in Equestria by a wild portal. We’ve been trying to get him home. Caleb – these are my herdmates and our children.”

The alicorn proceeded to introduce everyone including the two the human had met already. After Mark had proudly given a kiss to each of his wives – Trixie, Rarity, Penumbra, and Chrysalis, he also pointed out his children – Gemini, Allura, Pearl, Verdant, Diadem, Lacewing, Spotlight, and adopted son Gallus. Caleb learned that the dragoness, Smolder, was mated to the griffon and thus the alicorn’s daughter-in-law.

“Wow! How do you deal with all of this?” Caleb asked in wonder.

“Frankly, I have my mares to thank for that,” Mark admitted. “You’ll learn that it’s a very different social dynamic here in Equestria.”

Before the man could inquire further, they were interrupted by the arrival of a purple alicorn mare.

“I got here as fast as I could when I heard the news,” Twilight Sparkle said, slightly out of breath from having galloped to join them.

Caleb had met the alicorn mare before but his curiosity had been aroused. “Are you Mark’s wife too?”

Twilight snorted and tossed her head. “Why does every being ask me that?”

Most of those in the room began laughing.

“There’s room for one more mare in the herd, darling,” Rarity said with a broad smile.

“I’m fine with my husband, Thorax, thank you!” Twilight said with a roll of her eyes, eliciting more laughs.

Mark said, “They located the portal, Sparkles. It has already closed though. However, they found a scrap of cloth from Caleb’s shirt.” He held it up for his co-ruler.

Twilight took the fabric in her magic and her horn glowed bright for a few seconds before her face fell. She looked at the human and said, “I’m sorry, Caleb. The dimensional frequency is very faint and there’s a minimum amount of mass needed to detect it. This scrap is far too small to be usable. I’m afraid that I can’t get you home with this.”

Caleb stood silently for a long moment before taking a deep breath and letting it out in a long sigh. “Yeah, I figured as much. Didn’t let my hopes get too high. Well, all the cards have been played now and I’ve lost everything. I’m stuck here for life.”

Twilight startled him by stepping up and giving him a hug. “You haven’t lost everything, Caleb. You have friends, and that is no small thing.”

Willow approached the human and put a hoof on his arm to draw his attention. “What she said, and you can count me in.”

 


 

CHAPTER 3

 

Caleb shifted awkwardly in the purple alicorn’s embrace, discomfited by her and Willow’s familiarity. “Umm… thanks. Could you let me go now?”

Both mares stepped back, a little sad that they had not done much to reassure the human.

“So – what now?” Caleb asked with a tired sigh.

“Now we have a drink and chat about how to go forward from here,” Prince Mark replied as a maid rolled in a service trolley. “Tea Cozy here can serve you tea, coffee, or lemon squash if you prefer.”

“Coffee, I suppose.”

“How do you take it, sir?” the earth pony mare in a cute maid’s outfit asked him.

“Black with two sugars,” the man replied, curious to see how the mare would cope. He had spent an afternoon with Willow and still could not believe how dexterous these creatures were without hands or magic levitation.

Tea Cozy picked up a silver jug by a handle that was large enough to slip her hoof under. It stayed there firmly as she poured the dark brown brew into a mug with a likewise oversize handle. However, she didn’t have the benefit of a similar device when she took a spoon in her hoof to add sugar, but the utensil still stuck as if magnetized. Caleb just shook his head in wonder. No matter how many times he saw something like that, it always boggled his mind that the seemingly helpless animals were anything but.

The maid put the mug on a tray and brought it over to Caleb, the beverage perfectly steady despite Cozy’s three-legged gait.

“Thank you,” he said as he took the mug.

“You’re welcome, sir.” The maid then returned to her trolley to dispense more drinks.

Meanwhile, Mark had poured himself a mug of tea. While he was willing to avail himself of the maid’s services, he had few pretensions and thought nothing of helping himself rather than letting the maid do all the work. Cozy didn’t even bat an eye – she was quite used to the prince’s eccentricities.

The green alicorn gave the mare a smile. “Tea Cozy – please let Honey Mustard know that we have a couple of guests for dinner tonight. Caleb here has similar dietary requirements to Pearl.” The anthro mare was an omnivore and ate meat, but not to the same degree as humans. Neither did she eat hay, so Mark knew it would suit the human’s needs. “Willow and my son, Gallus, will also be there.” He turned to Twilight. “Joining us for dinner, Sparkles?”

The purple alicorn nodded. “Thorax is away at his hive tonight, so I’m free.”

“That’s four then,” Mark concluded.

“I’ll let her know, sire,” Cozy replied.

When the maid finished serving the drinks, she departed with her trolley.

While Cozy had been busy, Caleb found himself a chair and sat down. It was a bit too low for his tastes but otherwise quite comfortable. He sipped absently on his hot coffee while trying to make sense of the turmoil of his thoughts. He sighed in frustration as he saw no path to a bright future. He watched the maid depart, still bemused by the flawless execution of her tasks by a creature with only hooves to manipulate objects. A thought crossed his mind. “Won’t the cooks be annoyed at all these extra last-minute guests, especially someone like me?”

Trixie spoke up. “The kitchen crew is aware that our needs may change at a moment’s notice. Diplomatic necessities often require an alteration in the schedule, quantity, or even cuisine.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You just had to bring up my attempts to placate the Yaks, didn’t you?”

My wife continued like she hadn’t been interrupted. “Therefore, they always prepare far more than our normal family meal requirements. Just imagine if the Great and Genial Trixie was to invite a visiting dignitary to a fine repast and the chef could not oblige!”

“Doesn’t that mean that there’s a lot of wasted food then?”

Mark laughed. “Good grief, no. Any food not required at our table is given to the staff. Because we have many races employed at the castle including anthro ponies, there’s always someone eager to claim a fine meal.”

Caleb snorted. “You treat your staff way better than most places that I can think of. I can’t see any of them getting food fit for a king. Or prince and princesses in this case.”

Twilight smiled. “All of us Triarchs started as civilians – Mark wasn’t even a pony before coming to Equestria. None of us have forgotten our roots.”

“Yeah,” piped up the green batpony colt. “Whenever we foals acted like we were better than the servants, Mom and Dad sent us to the kitchen to scrub pots or with a maid to clean the bathrooms. We sure learned that lesson.”

The blue unicorn filly laughed, “Except you were the one who got the most punishments, Verdant!”

“Shut up, Allura,” Verdant grumbled as the others chuckled.

Caleb had to smile. Royalty or not, this was a family dynamic that he knew well. With his mood slightly improved, he asked, “Since I’m stuck here, do you think I can get some decent clothes?”

“We’ll take care of that tomorrow like I promised,” Mark replied. “However, as the full Triarchy is scheduled to hold Court tomorrow morning, we’ll have to do it after lunch. I’ll have someone assigned to you to help you out until then.”

Willow said, “I can do that for tonight, Your Highness. I still intend to take Caleb out for a couple of beers later.”

Mark gave her a thoughtful look before nodding. “You said you are a reservist, right?”

The mare nodded. “Yes, sire.”

“When does your duty end?”

“As I was activated to assist with the search effort, I assume that I will be released again now that it’s concluded. I just have to report back to my commander.”

“I see. What’s your normal profession?”

“Construction laborer, sire. But I’m between jobs at the moment.”

“Oh? Then I will be extending your reservist duties. Until further notice, you are to act as Caleb’s guide to Equestria. Help him deal with anything that he finds unfamiliar. Protect him in difficult situations. Can you handle that?”

“I believe so, sire,” the earth pony replied, a little surprised by her assigned task but not displeased.

Twilight said, “I’ll have my castle set up a room for Caleb which he can use until he finds more permanent accommodation.”

Caleb thought that was a strange way of phrasing it. Perhaps she meant her castle staff?

“Good idea,” Mark replied. “He’ll probably be more comfortable in Ponyville than Canterlot anyway.” He looked at Willow. “By the way, where do you live?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m a resident of Ponyville too.”

The green alicorn grinned. “I thought you looked familiar. I’ve seen you on my walks about town. Weren’t you working on the new communications center?”

“I was, sire. My part of the construction job has been completed, so I’ve been waiting for the next building project to begin.”

Twilight said, “The way that Ponyville has been booming in growth lately, that shouldn’t be long.”

Willow nodded. “There’s always work for experienced earth pony laborers.”

“Maybe Caleb and you can chat about what you have in common. You would probably find his welding work quite interesting.”

“I overheard some of that while you were talking with him on the cart, sire. It sounds fascinating.”

Caleb smiled. “It’s like nothing you have here, apparently.”

“Almost,” piped up the strange black-carapaced creature who had been introduced to Caleb as Lacewing. “Allura and I have been bugging Dad about setting up a workshop. We’re fascinated by that kind of stuff.”

The man lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? How do you know about modern welding techniques?”

Allura held up the magazine she and Lacewing had been reading. “Comics! They got us interested in human world technology.”

“May I see that?” Caleb asked. Allura levitated it over to the man and his eyebrows rose. “Iron Man? You know that this is science fiction armor, right?”

“Yeah,” Lacewing replied, “but as Lu said, it got us interested in the real thing.”

“Show Caleb your special trick, you two,” Gemini said.

The changeling and the unicorn looked at each other and then at their father.

“Go ahead,” Mark agreed.

Caleb watched as Allura allowed Lacewing to climb on her back, then gasped as the changeling burst into green flames. As the fire burned down, her form seemed to flow over the unicorn’s. In less than a second, the two were transformed into a pony version of the human superhero. They spread their translucent wings and lifted into the air.

“We are Iron Mare!”

Caleb gaped. “How…?”

Chrysalis spoke up. “My people are called changelings and shape-shifting is our special ability. My daughter has formed a special bond with Allura and they turned their passion into a reality. However, their abilities in that form are powered by magic, not technology.”

The man shook his head in disbelief. “That’s the most extraordinary thing that I’ve seen here yet!”

Trixie smirked. “You have been in Equestria mere days. You have yet to see all the wonders of this world.”

Caleb slumped back in his chair. “I’m going to need an aspirin or two to deal with all this.”

“You’ll feel better after you have a good meal,” Mark promised. “Let’s head for the dining room now if you’ve finished your drink.”

The man drained the dregs of the coffee and put the empty mug on the table beside him. “I’ve got to admit that I’m hungry,” he said as he got up to follow the others out of the room.

Once seated at the table, it wasn’t long before servants emerged laden with trays of bowls. While some were floated in magic levitation fields, others were balanced on the backs of the ponies. Despite the first course being soup, Caleb did not see the slightest amount of slop during the transport and placement of the bowls. He found that downright uncanny. The soup was a vegetable broth and delicious, and he quickly forgot about that feat.

The main course was varied according to the species. Caleb was presented with what looked like salmon served on a bed of rice with a creamy herb and garlic sauce. There was also a side of asparagus grilled to perfection. Not normally a fan of fish, the man was willing to be converted after tasting the delicious meal.

If that wasn’t enough, they had dessert too – sticky date pudding with caramel sauce. Caleb was thoroughly stuffed by the time he finished the last spoonful.

Ponies started excusing themselves from the table after that. Mark got up too. “Normally, I would invite you to chat with us a bit more, but I think it best if you got settled in first. So, I’ll leave you in Twilight’s capable hooves. Goodnight, Caleb.”

“Same to you, Mark.”

As the green stallion left with his herdmates, Twilight touched his arm to get his attention. “You and Willow follow me, please.”

The human and mare accompanied the alicorn to the portal room that Caleb had been to once previously and they transitioned to Twilight’s castle. She then perplexed him by putting her hoof onto the crystalline wall. There was a magical glow and she said, “Please prepare a room for our human guest.”

The glow brightened for a moment before an orange dashed line extended down the hallway.

“What’s going on?” Caleb asked.

“My castle is a living thing,” Twilight explained as she followed the indicated path. “It will create a room ideally suited to your needs.”

“It can do that? That’s amazing!”

“Don’t forget to thank the castle later. It’s rather proud of what it does.”

Caleb could not decide if the alicorn was pulling his leg or not, so he decided he’d take her advice… preferably when there was no one there to see him making a fool of himself.

The line led to one of many identical doors. Conveniently, his name was inscribed on a nameplate, so he could identify his room later. They stepped inside. At first glance, it reminded Caleb of a five-star hotel room. There was a dresser, a desk, a sofa, and a couple of lounge chairs beside a coffee table. The room was tastefully decorated albeit with Equestrian-themed art. And there was a huge bed, easily at least king-size, and more than adequate for the man’s needs. A door to one side led to an en suite bathroom which had a shower stall big enough for two humans. He supposed that the quadrupedal ponies needed the extra floor space though. Huge fluffy towels, brushes, and various lotions were provided too. An identical oversized robe clued him in: The furnishings and accessories were likely procured for minotaur guests. During the time it took to get to his room, the castle had somehow transported everything here. ‘Magic’, Caleb supposed.

“This is great!” Caleb said. “I feel like a VIP.”

“All my friends are VIPs as far as I’m concerned,” Twilight replied cheerfully. “You’re welcome to come and go as you please. I’ll let the Royal Guards know to let you pass at will. If you have any problems, Spike can help you sort them out. Anyway, I have a busy morning ahead of me and I need to finish my preparations, so I’ll bid you goodnight now.”

Before Caleb could stop her, the alicorn gave him a parting hug.

When Twilight was gone, Willow said, “Wanna get those beers now?”

“Give me a few minutes to freshen up first. I wish I had something else to wear besides this robe though.”

“It’s a warm night – why bother with anything?” Willow asked.

Caleb frowned and replied, “I’m not walking around naked, okay?”

The mare shrugged. “If that’s your fetish, I won’t stop you.”

As he headed to the bathroom, the human wondered how a species could regard wearing normal clothes as a fetish. Several minutes later, the two left his new quarters and headed into town.

 


 

CHAPTER 4

 

As amazing as Twilight’s castle was, Caleb expected to step out into some kind of grand city. What greeted his eyes that evening was anything but impressive. Quaint thatched-roof homes and colonial-style buildings abounded. The most modern things about the unpaved roads were the electric lamp posts lining the streets giving the scene a warm homey glow. All the shops were closed but he did notice some establishments were still lit – restaurants perhaps? And he supposed one was the bar that was their destination.

“I was under the impression that Ponyville was a bit more progressive than this,” Caleb remarked.

Willow chuckled. “This is the Old Town sector – it is heritage preserved. The most modern thing about it is the underground electric supply to every building. All the new structures with modern designs are built outside this central area. However, if you want to see something more impressive, look behind you.”

They had walked maybe fifty yards from the castle by now and, when the human turned around, he was able to see its bizarre tree-like structure. Having been told that it was a living thing sounded even more believable now. However, that was not what caught his attention. To the right of the castle and slightly behind, extending into the nearby hills, was a larger sprawling edifice. The main section still echoed the style of the township but with a more up-to-date vibe. Even more buildings behind the castle were designed to fit in with the others. These showed signs of recent construction as evidenced by piles of dismantled scaffolding.

Willow said, “That the School of Friendship. Aside from Princess Twilight Sparkle making Ponyville her home base, it’s largely responsible for the growth of this town. Creatures from all over the world vie to come here to study. The institution had to double in size to cope with the demand. That’s what those newer buildings are for. They also contain facilities for some of the newer curriculums being taught.”

“They study friendship?” Caleb asked with a skeptical eyebrow raised.

“Yep. It was Princess Twilight’s idea to bring all kinds of races together to learn ways that their different cultures could harmonize with each other. Of course, the school teaches all the regular subjects too, but the students who graduate from there are regarded more favorably than most universities.”

“And with the growth of the school came the expansion in population and all the businesses that come with it,” Caleb guessed.

The earth pony nodded. “You got it. Ponyville used to be famous for its orchards, then as the Princess’s home, but now it’s because it’s also a major educational center.” She smiled. “Hence all the new construction that keeps me employed.”

Caleb turned around and resumed his walk down the road. Willow fell in beside him.

“This reminds me of how many towns in the United States grew into what they are now.”

“You can tell me about them later. My job is to get you up to speed with the way things are here,” the mare reminded him.

A unicorn mare approaching them on the same side of the street suddenly stopped and then hastened to the other side before scurrying past them.

Caleb watched as the pony cast nervous looks back at them. “What was that all about?”

“Don’t mind her,” Willow replied. “Ponies tend to be nervous around strange beings. While the citizens of Ponyville have gotten inured to many of the Equian species due to the School of Friendship, not all are comfortable with every race. And let’s face it – you’re new and unique and nopony knows what you are like.”

“You didn’t seem to have a problem when we first met,” Caleb pointed out.

“I’ve fought monsters uglier and more dangerous than you. You seemed pretty harmless.”

The man gave her a flat look. “You saying I’m ugly?”

Willow giggled. “Well, you’d never make it onto the cover of Cosmarepolitan.”

Caleb rolled his eyes. “What would a pony know about humans anyway? And don’t think I haven’t seen you staring at me while I’ve been walking. If it isn’t my rugged good looks, then what?”

“Oh! It’s the way you walk on just two legs. It’s fascinating how you do that without constantly falling over.”

The man gave her a dubious look. “I already know you have other bipedal races. I’ve even seen a minotaur from a distance.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never met one before aside from the battlefield, and my attention was focused elsewhere then. Standing on just our hind legs is tricky for ponies.”

“Put it down to our superior sense of balance. Walking is really a controlled fall. As we fall forward, we move a leg under us to prevent that and the momentum carries us onward until we reach the falling point again and we move the other leg under us. It’s pretty simple in principle.”

“Still fascinating to watch though,” Willow confessed.

Caleb said, “If you find that wondrous, you should see our acrobats!”

“Maybe I will someday.”

A few more ponies passed them as they continued onward, but those merely gave the human a cautious look and an acknowledging nod. Then, the two came upon a building from which came not just light but also music. The scent of beer confirmed to Caleb that they had reached their destination. He opened the door and waved in his companion.

“After you,” he said.

The mare smirked. “A stallion holding the door for a mare? What next? Are you going to pay the bill on your first date?” she asked as she stepped inside.

“What’s wrong with that?” the puzzled human asked as he followed her.

Willow made her way toward the bar. The pub was well patronized at that time and the conversation was quite loud, so it was very noticeable when it gradually died down as they progressed further in. A burly bay stallion behind the bar frowned in the direction of the disturbance but Willow ignored the reaction.

“Hi, Foamy Brew! Got a visitor for you to meet. Mind if I make an announcement?”

Without waiting for an answer, the mare jumped up onto the counter, causing the bartender to frown even deeper. However, he held his tongue while Willow addressed the room, now completely quiet as the musicians in the corner had stopped playing too.

“Mares and Gentlecolts! I would like you to meet Caleb Awad. He is a human from a distant land and Prince Mark Wells has asked me to show him around town. He’s new to everything here, so try not to overwhelm him. Let’s give a big Ponyville welcome to our new friend!”

Caleb was surprised by the rousing cheer and cries of welcome. He smiled and waved. “Thanks, everyone!”

Willow nudged him. “Everypony!” she said in a hoarse whisper.

Although it sounded a bit silly, the man repeated himself. “I appreciate the warm welcome, everypony!”

Willow jumped down from the bar and Foamy pointedly wiped it down with a cleaning rag. “Are ya gonna order anything or just make a nuisance of yerself?” he asked.

“A jug of Clydesdale Draught and two tankards, please,” the mare replied, fishing a purse from out of her mane.

Caleb wondered how it had stayed there even as Willow took out coins to pay for the brew.

Foamy filled a large jug and placed two clean glass tankards on the bar.

“Would you bring those while I find us a table?” Willow asked the human.

Caleb grabbed the jug in one hand and the two tankard handles in the other. The man ignored the gasps followed by the chatter caused by his mundane bit of manual dexterity. He then followed the mare deeper into the crowded room. They were lucky as a threesome was just leaving and they offered their booth to the newcomers. The man placed one of the tankards in front of Willow and the jug in the middle of the table before seating himself. He then poured some of the beer into each of their glasses which had had very large handles. Caleb noted how the mare’s hoof slipped easily under the handle to firmly hold the tankard which she then drew to her lips and took a hefty swig.

“Ah! Just what I needed,” she said.

Caleb followed suit and found the brew to be quite agreeable. The beer was earthy with a toffee-like malt flavor. It was also strong which, upon reflection, made sense for an earth pony village. Caleb took another swig before addressing his companion. “I’m surprised at how accepting everyo– everypony was.”

Willow shrugged. “Aside from a hoofful like the mare we met along the way, you won’t find a town full of ponies more accepting of strangers than Ponyville. It has seen many strange and wonderful things over the years, and the citizens are used to new things happening all the time. In fact, once they get over their shyness, you’ll probably find them a bit too friendly.”

The man raised an eyebrow. “Too friendly?”

“Fair warning, Caleb – ponies are very touchy-feely and hugs are going to happen. I noticed your reaction when Twilight hugged you; I gather that you’re not a fan?”

“Not from virtual strangers, no. Thanks for the warning. I’ll try to keep that in mind in the future.”

“Good.” Willow took another drink, half emptying her tankard. “Now – more advice. If royalty invites you to dinner, you better have a bucking good excuse to decline.”

“That why you kicked me in the shin?”

“Yep. You don’t fart in the face of the Triarch who is trying to help you in favor of having a beer with a soldier.”

“I got the impression that Mark was pretty easygoing and would not have minded.”

“That’s Prince Mark to you. Let’s get down to the hard facts – you’re stuck here whether you like it or not, and as you can’t simply be a non-entity in the empire, you will be made a citizen of this nation. Prince Mark is one of the three highest authorities in this country and also one of the most powerful beings in the entire world. While he may be friendly and personable, he is still somepony who demands respect, and you don’t just blow him off. And even if he doesn’t get mad at you, you don’t want to get his wives annoyed. Believe me; they’re not nearly as tolerant of disrespect as he is.”

“Okay! Okay! I get the picture,” Caleb said, raising his hands in surrender. “But what’s this about wives? I thought he had one wife and three mares… umm… herdmates?”

Willow sighed and took another drink, draining her glass. As Caleb refilled it, she said, “According to strict legal terms, a stallion is only allowed to marry one mare. He can accept further mares into what is called a herd. However, that law was only put in place for the benefit of the nobility who wanted tight control over who was and was not an heir. They did not want any bastard foals turning up to claim part of their estates. The reality is that all the mares in the herd are the stallion’s wives, but there’s seniority with the first one being known as the lead mare.”

“Is bigamy really that common here?”

“Bigamy wasn’t even a legal concept in Equestria until the nobles interfered. Look about you – how many of the ponies here are male?”

Caleb paid close attention for the first time. He tried counting the stallions and frowned, then counted again. “I think only a third at most in this crowd. Isn’t that unusual?”

“Nope. How many stallions were taking a break at the search command center when Prince Mark brought you there?”

“Come to think of it, only two or three.”

“Right again.” Willow looked at the human earnestly. “Caleb – mares outnumber stallions about three to one. Even putting aside the fillyfoolers, that’s a huge number of females to every male. We need to make herds.”

“Fillyfoolers?” he queried.

“Lesbians,” she clarified. “And because there are still quite a lot of monogamous couples or two-mare herds, that just increases the ratio of unmated mares to stallions. Prince Mark’s four is hardly unusual.”

Caleb refilled his glass and took a long drink as he thought about that. “I don’t know how you ponies can cope with that. Heck, I don’t know how I would deal with having two wives let alone four.”

Willow chuckled. “Lucky for the stallions, they don’t have to deal with it at all. It’s the lead mare’s job to make sure that any mare joining the herd is compatible with all the others. That way, everypony is happy.”

The man thought of something he saw back at Twilight’s castle. “Is that why my bed is so huge? It’s designed to hold several adults?”

“You got it. One big cuddle pile,” Willow replied with a grin.

“What if one wants sexy fun times?”

“The lead mare has priority and the others have to wait their turn.”

“No, I mean do the others get asked to leave the room while they get it on?”

Willow gave the man an uncomprehending look. “Why would they do that?”

Oookay – ponies are into orgies,’ Caleb thought. “Forget I said anything. Anyway, if you have so many more mares than stallions, does that mean your army is mostly mares too?”

“Well, considering that the EUP nowadays has so many other species in it that don’t have the gender imbalance, that’s no longer completely correct. However, back when it was only ponies, that was true. And if you go back before the Unification, stallions were banned from the earth pony military fighting forces.”

“Mares only? That’s the opposite of what my country’s policy used to be. Even now, there aren’t too many females on the front line.”

“You obviously had males to spare – ponies could not afford to lose any of the limited number of stallions. Only the pegasi regularly had male soldiers, but they were always more arrogant about their military capabilities.”

“I suppose that makes sense. I know that in our last great war, we lost far too many men of marrying age. However, didn’t that affect your ability to put your strongest peop– ponies into battle? I can see the stallions in this bar are all bigger than the mares.”

“For pegasi, size isn’t really an advantage. Smaller ponies are more agile and maneuverable in the air which is where they do the most fighting. Unicorns rely on magic rather than physical prowess. And any earth pony is far stronger than those from the other tribes. Remember that cart I was pulling all day? I could lift that fully loaded with one hoof.”

“Pull the other one,” Caleb retorted.

Willow slammed down the now-empty tankard and stepped out of the booth. She stood there glaring defiantly at him. “Nothing suitable to lift here, but try making me move.”

“If you insist.” Caleb got up, put his hands on her barrel, and pushed. The mare didn’t move in the slightest. He then shoved a lot harder, but once again, she didn’t budge. Willow grinned mockingly.

“Are you even trying?” she asked.

Annoyed, the man leaned down and put his shoulder to the mare’s barrel. He pushed with all his might, but she might as well have been a bronze statue bolted to the floor for all the difference that it made. His feet skidded out from under him and he fell to his knees amid laughter from the nearby patrons who had been watching his antics.

Willow held out a hoof to help him up. “Earth pony strength,” she explained. “Once I anchored my hooves, you didn’t stand a chance of moving me. And I get a lot of exercise while doing my construction work. Yeah, the stallions can be stronger, but earth pony military mares have always been the backbone of the army.”

“I’m convinced,” Caleb said as he resumed his seat and reached for the empty beer jug. He held it up and caught Foamy’s eye, and the barkeep soon brought over a fresh jug. “In fact, it seems to me that you’d be a lot stronger than Prince Mark.”

Willow started howling with laughter.

The man scowled at the impudent mare. “Okay, what’s so funny?”

“The prince is an alicorn!” she gasped out.

“So? That makes him a flying unicorn, right?”

“Wrong. Alicorns are ascended beings. They possess all the abilities of every tribe including earth ponies, only to a much greater degree. I wouldn’t stand a chance against any alicorn, let alone the Prince.”

“He didn’t look that strong when that huge wooden dog had him pinned to the floor.”

“First – that’s the family pet and Prince Mark had no intention of harming him. Second, the Prince has to restrain himself or else cause injury to others. I don’t think Twiggy would have appreciated being smashed into kindling.”

“I don’t think any creature would like being killed but it wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”

Willow chuckled. “Timberwolves can reassemble themselves. Twiggy would have had his feelings hurt at the very least.”

“Good God! How would you stop one of those creatures if it attacked ponies?”

“Fire. It’s the only thing that can permanently stop timberwolves. Smash them and set them alight before they can put themselves back together.”

“And they keep one as a pet? Sheesh!” Caleb took a few gulps of his beer.

“Yeah, you don’t want to meet one of those in the Everfree Forest. They were raised on its wild magic and they are far from friendly.”

Caleb shuddered and took another swig of beer. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

“Which?” Willow asked. “The timber wolves or alicorn power?”

“Both!” he replied fervently.

 


 

CHAPTER 5

 

Caleb mused on what he had just learned. He had a good look around the bar, noting the customers. Aside from a couple of griffons raucously socializing in the far corner, the patrons were all ponies, and the majority of them were of one tribe.

“Is it my imagination or are there way more earth ponies here than unicorns or pegasi?” he asked.

“Nope, that’s pretty normal,” Willow replied. “Ponyville was originally an earth pony settlement and the population is still biased in favor of us. And besides, this bar is our favorite. You’d find a whole different crowd over at The Bucking Mare.”

“You’ve got me curious. I might have to go there sometime and check it out. See if they have beer as good as this there too.” He then drained half his glass.

“Nah! They go for the more frou-frou drinks there. The entertainment ain’t bad though.” She then matched the human’s drinking effort.

“I suppose I’ll find out for myself sooner or later seeing as I’m stuck here.” He sighed and finished off his beer before fidgeting with his tankard.

Willow watched in fascination as Caleb twirled the cup around and balanced it on one digit. “Those things of yours – they’re mesmerizing.”

“Things?”

The mare pointed to his hand. “Those things on your paws.”

“You mean my fingers?” He held up his hand and wiggled them.

“Yeah. They’re kind of weird how they grasp things.”

Caleb snorted. This from a horse with only hooves to hold stuff. How the hell does a species without hands develop a civilization? Even if you can do magic!”

“Can’t be too hard if nearly hairless apes can do it too. And don’t call us horses – that’s an insult here.”

“Calling us apes is the same,” Caleb replied with a frown.

“Eh. Sorry about that. My point still stands though.”

Caleb held his right hand out in front of the mare. “Hands and fingers are flexible, versatile, and pretty strong for their size. Your hooves are big and rigid. Not going to argue about their strength however.” He then picked up the beer jug and refilled his tankard.

Willow held up her free hoof with the bottom facing the man. “See the frog?” At Caleb’s uncomprehending look, she added, “The soft part under the hoof itself. That can be manipulated to hold items like small tools and little objects such as money.” She reached into her mane and pulled out her purse. With zero difficulty, she opened it and extracted a coin which she held up to show to the man. “See? No problem.”

Caleb perceived that the frog had expanded a little around the coin. “That’s amazing, although slightly less so than how you stash that purse of yours.”

“Oh, the frog is used for fine control. Everything else is tactile magic. We can use our mane and tail to hold things so most of us store our bit purses there. It’s also how we can manage larger stuff like the harness that I put on to pull the cart today.”

The man recalled wondering about how she had done that but had been too preoccupied with his predicament to pursue it at the time. “I suppose that’s also what you use to do your construction work?”

“You got it. Speaking of work, I overheard you and Prince Mark discussing modern welding for construction purposes. What’s that all about?”

“It’s quite a complex subject but, basically, it involves using electricity to weld metals rather than bolting or riveting them. It allows you to go beyond the limitations of your current techniques, if what Prince Mark told me is accurate.”

“Sounds fascinating. You’ll have to show me sometime.”

Caleb took a long drink and grimaced. “I’ll probably get the chance. If I’m here permanently—”

Anything else the man was about to say was cut off by a gasp that sliced through the air and halted all conversation. Caleb turned to see what had to be the happiest pony in all of Equestria, if her beaming smile, clopping forehooves, and body vibration somewhere high on the Richter Scale were any indication. The unicorn mare had a mint green coat and a blue mane and tail with white highlights.

Having only eyes for the man, she jumped over two tables and plowed through a couple more on her straight line journey to stand in front of Caleb. “Standing” might not be the correct word because she danced on her tippyhooves . “A human! A real-live human! Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! You’re already my favorite person in all of Equus!”

Caleb laughed. This mare’s enthusiasm looked more like a potty-dance than anything else. He doubted she cared. “I didn’t realize I already had a fan club.”

“Yep, that’s me! Lyra Heartstrings at your service!” Her dancing stopped and the unicorn thrust out her right foreleg, twisted to expose the frog.

The man smiled wider and shook the offered hoof. “I’m Caleb. And it’s nice to meet you, Lyra.”

“Eeeee!” The mare’s rapid bouncing started again. Lyra’s eyes shifted to a frowning Willow. Her jumping stopped and her voice lost all trace of its previous happiness. “Oh… I’m sorry. I know we’ve met… but… what was your name again?”

The earth pony’s nose flared with a huff. “Willow Branch. It’s the same name I had when I worked on your house… last month.”

Lyra nodded her head slowly. “Oooooh… that’s riiiiiiight.”

“For over a week.”

A new voice cut in. “Sorry if my spouse has been bothering you, Caleb.” The man turned to see a creamy yellow earth pony mare with a pink and blue mane and tail. She wrapped a foreleg around the light green unicorn. “Come on, dear. Let them enjoy their date.”

The unicorn protested even as she was being dragged backward. Lyra waved her hooves for emphasis. “But, Bonnie! Human! Right here! Not my imagination!”

The man called out to the retreating earth pony, “I’m Caleb, by the way. Nice to meet you!”

“Bon Bon. Have a good night, Mr. Awad.”

As the sounds of Lyra’s protests died away, Caleb turned back to Willow. “Well, that was a bit odd. And how did Bon Bon know my last name?”

The earth pony cocked an eyebrow. “By Ponyville standards, that was everyday-normal. Trust me.” Her smile returned. “Anyway, before we were so rudely interrupted, you were talking about your past employment.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll need to get a job. And if the Prince’s goals are anything to go by, he’s going to need someone like me to teach somepony like you how to use that modern equipment.”

“Put me in for an apprenticeship,” Willow said with a grin as she refilled her tankard.

The man chuckled. “Not enamored with your current job?”

The mare shrugged. “It’s okay but not exactly mind-stimulating.”

“Heh! You’d be my first apprentice. I wonder if I’ll need a license to teach here?”

“Sounds like that’s the Triarchy’s problem if they want the benefit of your experience.”

“Probably. They can build a trade school and give diplomas to the graduates,” Caleb said a little too enthusiastically as he was getting quite inebriated by now.

The mare grinned and waved her forehooves expansively. “I’ll hang mine on my wall so everypony can see that see that Willow Branch is a Professional Welderer!”

Caleb chuckled. “I’d like to see that. By the way, I like your name, but how do you get one like that? All the ponies I’ve met seem to have descriptive names.”

“I was named that because I’m strong but flexible.” She slid out of the booth and into the aisle. She then reared up on her hind legs and continued to bend back until her forehooves touched the floor behind her. Next, she pushed with her hind legs to bring them up and over her until they were firmly on the floor once more. “See?” she asked with a smile.

Caleb had seen way more than he wanted to from the nude mare. He just nodded though and replied, “Yeah. But how did your parents know you’d be like that?”

“Appropriate names come to parents when the time arrives,” she explained as she sat down again. “But what about your name? It sounds like a bunch of meaningless syllables to me.” She picked up her beer to take a swig.

“That’s probably because it’s derived from another language. Caleb means ‘Faithful’ and Awad means ‘Kindness’.”

Willow slammed down her tankard and pointed at the man. “Now that’s a proper pony name! Faithful Kindness! You ought to put that on your teaching license when you get it.”

Caleb laughed. “I don’t think so, but glad you like it anyway.”

“So, where does a name like that come from?”

“My parents came from a country called Lebanon. They immigrated to America which is where I was born but they still gave me a traditional Lebanese name.”

“Funny name for countries too,” Willow said with a grin before having another drink.

Caleb glared at her. “This from a world with pun names like Los Pegasus and Canterlot!”

Willow returned his gaze with a steely one of her own. For a long moment, they locked eyes unwaveringly. Then they both suddenly burst into laughter.

Willow refilled her glass and then did the same for Caleb. “What was your family like?”

The human swallowed a few mouthfuls before replying. “Pretty great, actually. My parents moved us to get away from the troubles in that region. I was born two months after they arrived but my brother and sister were conceived in America. Dad worked hard to build a new life for us. Dad and Mom made sure that we kids got a good education and they were very proud of our accomplishments. We had our troubles but everyone was there for each other.” He looked at his beer mournfully before finishing it off. “I’m going to miss our family gatherings.”

The mare nodded in agreement. “My folks were pretty great too. Pretty strict and traditional but a lot of military families are like that. I still miss them after all these years.”

Willow drained her glass and considered getting more but decided against it. “I think we’ve both have had enough,” she slurred. “Better get you back to your room.”

Caleb snorted. “Yeah, I s'pose.” He unsteadily got to his feet as the mare slid out of her seat.

They both headed for the door and stepped out into the cool evening air. Willow noticed the human swaying a little and wondered if his amazing balance was failing him in his drunken state. “Are you okay, Caleb?”

“Sure. I’ll be fine.” He started staggering in the direction of Twilight’s castle.

At least he still knows which way to go,’ Willow thought as she followed, not too steady on her hooves either.

“Yoo hoo!”

Willow sighed. Already dreading who could have called out. Sure enough, a mint-colored unicorn trotted up.

“Do you remember me, Caleb? I’m Lyra.”

The human turned a bit too fast and had to catch his balance. “Aha! My number one fan!”

She giggled. “The very one! Actually, as much as I’d love to chat, I have to get back home before Bonnie notice… well, I just needed to tell you I know the perfect job for you here in Equestria until you use your technology superpowers to go back home.”

Caleb stood a bit straighter. “Oh?” Willow walked closer with the intention of getting between the human and the unicorn. The man held out a hand to stop her. “I want to hear this.”

Lyra pointed with a hoof. “With those wide palms, strong fingers and stronger muscles, you’d get a job easy with Aloe and Lotus at the Ponyville Spa. You’d make the best masseur in all of Equestria!”

“Uh… massages?”

The unicorn beamed. “Absolutely!” She turned around to face away from the man. “Run your hands on either side of my spine, please.”

The man shrugged and did as instructed. As he stroked and kneaded along both sides of the unicorn’s mane, Lyra’s mouth dropped open. “Uh…. Uh…”

Caleb stopped his motions. “Sorry. I haven’t done this before. Not good?”

“No! Don’t stop. It’s… it feels really nice.” She shifted her hooves. “You’re making me so relaxed I want to fall over.”

Willow tried to get the man’s attention with a tap of her hoof on his flank. She flattened her ears on her head and cleared her throat. “Caleb, I think you’re a bit too drunk—”

Caleb didn’t hear Willow or notice her icy glare. “Yeah, I can feel how relaxed your muscles are getting, Lyra.” He moved his hands down the mare’s back and gave it a few strokes, accompanied by a slight gasp from Lyra. “Huh. Everything is limp except for your tail. That’s rising up.” The man nodded to himself. “Makes sense. Humans get super-tense in their lower backs. Do you want me to rub down there?”

Lyra closed her eyes and her smile turned predatory. “Oh, I’ll tell you when your hands are low enough. Keep going.”

Willow leaned into Caleb with her shoulder to force him back a step. “Ohhhhh-kaaaaay. Job tryout time is over. We’re done here now.”

From the darkness behind the three, a voice called out. “Lyra! Where are you, you crazy mare!”

The unicorn’s eyes flew open and she jumped. “Oh, umm… gotta go!” Lyra trotted forward. “See you later, Caleb!”

The man pointed behind himself with a finger. “But the voice is calling you from that way!”

Said voice called out again. “I swear, Lyra! If you’ve been bothering the human, again…”

The unicorn’s gait turned into a gallop and she disappeared into the darkness.

Caleb needed Willow’s help to stand straight again. “How about that. I guess you ponies really are touchy-feely,” he said with a snicker. He patted the earth pony mare on the head affectionately then staggered forward. For a few seconds, Willow didn’t follow, torn between three emotions: Outrage at being handled like a pet, joy that Caleb actually initiated physical contact, and exasperation at the sheer cluelessness of stallions – human ones included.

They were about halfway to the castle when Caleb stumbled and collapsed to the ground. He pushed himself up into a sitting position and leaned on a nearby shop’s wall.

“Do you need some help?”

“Just give me a moment,” he replied, closing his eyes.

The mare waited until she heard snoring. She rolled her eyes and snorted. “Typical stallion – can’t hold his booze.” She then grabbed his robe in her teeth and hauled him onto her back. A second grab let her position him more or less evenly to allow her to carry him properly. She continued down the street, even if a bit unsteadily. “See? Four legs are superior to two,” she told her unconscious passenger.

The Royal Guard batponies positioned at the front entrance to the castle snorted in amusement as Willow carried him inside. “He couldn’t quite out-drink an earth pony, could he?”

“Nope! But as long as the Triarchs are covering his tab, I’ll let him try!”

That elicited a laugh from both soldiers.

The stairs were slightly more challenging but, eventually, she reached his room. She pulled back the sheet and blanket on his bed before rolling him off onto it without waking him. She sighed.

“I suppose I’m going to have to undress you too. Sheesh! I’d rather be back in the barracks. At least those drunkards could get their own uniforms off!”

She managed to drag the robe off the human, marveling that not even that disturbed his slumber. She then had a good look at Caleb in an unclothed state for the first time.

“That’s the only place he has more hair? No wonder he needs to wear clothes. Maybe he should ask Princess Twilight if she can magic up a decent pony coat for him.” She thought about that for a moment. “Dark blue would suit him, I think, but he’d probably want something to match his skin color. Stallions are picky like that.”

Willow then pulled the bedsheet over him before considering her next step. It was a long walk back to her house and, after her efforts to get the human here, she really didn’t feel like doing so in her inebriated state.

“Ah, buck it!” She climbed into bed on the opposite side to Caleb. “At least this will save me time in the morning. Got lots to show him yet.” She yawned hugely. “Maybe check in with the forepony…. Let her know… I’m gonna be….”

Sleep claimed her before she could finish that thought.

 


 

CHAPTER 6

 

Caleb woke to the familiar headache of a brutal hangover. What wasn’t so normal was the dimly lit room that he saw when he managed to open his eyes. It took him a long moment to recognize the crystalline walls as being part of the castle in which he had been given accommodation. He groaned, recalling exactly why he needed it. Not ready to face up to that reality, he closed his eyes again, snuggling into the covers with their pleasant warmth letting him pretty much ignore the dull throb in his head. Then a thought penetrated the fog in his brain. What was the firm warm object smelling faintly of lavender he was cozying up to? Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and turned his head to see a mess of blue and purple mane. His eyes shot wide open as he identified its source.

What the fuck?!” The man scrambled away from the mare, but he was hindered by the sheet and blanket that had somehow partially wrapped around them. He was also far from the edge of the huge bed and his extended struggles managed to wake the slumbering pony.

“Can’t a mare enjoy her day off and sleep in?” Willow grumbled.

“Why are you even in my bed?!” Caleb demanded even as he finally untangled himself from the sheet. Then he noticed something else more alarming. “Why the fuck am I naked?!” He wrenched the sheet off the bed and wrapped it around himself, leaving the mare exposed but him not so much.

Willow rolled over to give him a flat look. “Who goes to bed with clothes on?”

“Have none of you ever heard of pajamas?”

The mare gave him a puzzled look. “Is that some kind of stallion lingerie?”

“No! Bed clothes!”

“Sounds pointless to me.” She stretched and then hopped off the bed. “Well, if you’re going to obsess over covering yourself up, I’m going to have a shower.” She started heading toward the bathroom. “Hopefully there’s aspirin in there too,” she murmured. “I can’t deal with his silliness on top of a headache.”

“You didn’t explain why you were in my bed!” Caleb called after her.

“Why the buck do you think?” she called back before slamming the door behind.

Caleb winced at the noise. Frankly, considering that he couldn’t remember anything much past leaving the bar, he didn’t want to think of the possibilities. The frazzled human looked around for his sole item of clothing and found it heaped at the foot of the bed. Dropping his makeshift bedsheet toga, he hastily donned it, wrinkling his nose at the lingering smell of stale beer adhering to it. Apparently he had been a bit sloppy after getting drunk.

“That’s just great. I’m going to smell like a bum when Prince Mark arrives,” he grumbled. “I pray he doesn’t forget his promise to get me more clothes.” He caught a whiff of another odor. “And I’d better have a shower too. Hopefully that mare doesn’t spend an hour in there.” Another biological function chose that moment to greatly increase in urgency. “I really hope she’s faster than my last girlfriend! Ack! That makes it sound like Willow is my current girlfriend! Bad mind!”

Fortunately for Caleb, the mare was fairly quick, emerging from the bathroom with a curry brush and mane brush in her mouth, allowing the human to use the bathroom. As he hurried past her, she caught the aromas coming off him.

“Try using the scented oils on your coat!” she suggested strongly.

“I don’t have a coat, you batty mare!” he retorted as he closed the door.

“I’m an earth pony, not a batpony!” she yelled back.

Caleb had no idea what Willow meant by that but he was more concerned about emptying his bursting bladder right then. Finally relieved, he went in search of something to lessen the pounding in his skull. The cabinet behind the mirror proved to have several useful items including the aspirin he sought. He took two tablets out of the pill bottle and washed them down his throat with a glass of water before entering the shower. Because it was designed for quadrupeds, he discovered it was plenty roomy. It also had two outlets positioned best for both tall humans and normal sized ponies. It seemed that magic castles were quite clever. The rounded taps designed to be grasped by the frog of a hoof weren’t optimal for a hand, but they didn’t cause him much trouble.

The shower was wonderful! It felt like it was washing away a lot of his troubles as well as the grime of the previous day. He checked out the various lotions on the shelf and found a spearmint scented bath gel that he used liberally. There was also a mane shampoo that he figured would be just as good on his hair and beard. It was with great reluctance that he finally emerged from the shower.

In his search for aspirin, he had discovered that there had been a new toothbrush and toothpaste also provided. Three minutes later, his mouth was minty fresh and he was feeling a lot better. He regarded himself in the mirror and decided his facial hair needed to be trimmed. Fortunately, there were scissors there too. He set to work.



Willow frowned and tapped her hoof impatiently. It seemed that human stallions were just as bad as pony ones when it came to using the bathroom for an eternity. Her belly rumbled in reminder that she hadn’t had breakfast yet and Caleb was stopping her from answering that call. She decided that she had waited long enough. She yelled through the door, “Would you hurry up and get your plot out here!”

It was still another half a minute before Caleb emerged, a towel wrapped around his waist, carrying the robe he’d been wearing.

“Do you know what I can do about this beer stain?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” she replied. “Give it to me.”

Caleb allowed Willow to grab it in her mouth and she headed back into the bathroom. However, when she dumped it in the laundry basket, the man objected.

“Hey! I’ve got to wear that!” He tried to get past her to retrieve the robe.

Willow stuck out a foreleg and inexorably pushed him out of the bathroom. “No you don’t. It’s a perfectly nice day outside and—”

“I’m not walking out there naked!” Caleb interrupted.

The mare smirked. “Well, you’re going to look extremely silly wearing that towel.”

“I’ll wear the sheets as a toga if that’s what it takes,” the man insisted moving toward the bed.

“Or you can wear the clean robe that I asked Spike to get you while you spent half the day primping yourself.” She pointed at the dresser next to the bed.

Caleb turned to see the neatly folded garment lying there. “Oh. Umm… thanks.”

“Hurry up and get dressed so we can go get some breakfast.”

“Would you mind looking away?”

Willow rolled her eyes but complied. “It’s not like I’m going to see any more than I have already. What’s your big hang-up about that anyway?”

“Humans have a taboo about public nudity,” Caleb replied as he hastily donned the robe. “Or even in private with anyone they’re not in an intimate relationship with.”

Willow raised an eyebrow. “So is that why you want to wear clothes when you share your beds?”

“We don’t share our beds. At least, not like you seem to think. What was wrong with going home and sleeping in yours?”

“What was wrong with sharing yours?” she countered. “My friends and I do it all the time after we’ve had a big night out.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a pony!” Caleb said with some exasperation.

“You can say that again! Yaks are more laid-back than you,” the mare accused.

Yaks are intelligent too? What next? Cows?” When he saw Willow start to open her mouth, he held up his hand in a halt motion. “Don’t answer that.” His stomach gurgled and he sighed. “Let’s get that breakfast you promised.”

“Great idea.” Willow headed for the door. She held it open for him as a gentlemare should. “After you.”

As he passed by, she breathed in his scent and smiled. “I’m glad you took my advice about the scented oil.”

Caleb blushed a little but didn’t reply.

“So – where are we going?” the man asked as they made their way downstairs.

“I found that we missed the morning meal here at the castle. However, there’s a place that serves breakfast all day.”

“You have a diner? Good enough for me.”

After exiting the castle, Willow took them on a different route than the previous night. The architecture started out the same, but the huge oak tree that they passed was certainly different. Caleb saw that the trunk possessed a door and several windows.

“Is that a kids’ treehouse?” he inquired.

“First, we don’t have any goats living in Ponyville at the moment. Second, it’s the library, like the sign says,” the mare replied, pointing to the conspicuous placard.

Caleb had noticed it but the style of writing made it difficult for him to make out the words. Looking harder this time, he managed to identify them. “Golden… Oak… Library.” He looked at the tree again. “You’re kidding, right? How would you fit a library inside of that?”

Willow rolled her eyes. Stallions got so easily distracted. “Come on, I’ll show you, and then maybe we can get our food. I caught Spike just before he left for the library, so I know it’s open.” She pushed through the door without bothering to knock.

The man shrugged. Must be opening hours. He followed her inside, ducking a bit to clear the low doorway. Then he stopped and stared for a long moment before turning around and going back outside. He walked all the way around the tree and then re-entered. The inside was still far larger than the outside. Row upon row of books were on shelves carved into the trunk but, judging from the depth of the recessed window, that still left a great thickness of wood between the tomes and the bark outside. And yet, there was still more. Stairs led up to a second level! Craning his neck, the man saw more staircases reaching a third and even a fourth story.

“How the hell does this work?!” Caleb exclaimed.

“Never seen a magically expanded interior before?” asked Spike.

The man jumped, startled by the approach of the dragon whom he had failed to notice while he was being boggled. “This is impossible!”

“Nah – just dimensionally transcendental, as Doctor Whooves calls it. Pretty typical of library trees actually. Anyway, was there something you needed, Caleb?”

Willow answered instead. “I was just showing him around. We’re off to breakfast, actually.”

“Okay,” Spike replied, picking up some books from the desk to re-shelve them. “Have a great day!”

“I’m officially in a fairy tale,” Caleb mumbled as they left.

They passed a couple of earth pony mares who were headed inside. They both grinned at seeing the duo and the yellow one with a two-toned orange mane spoke up. “Still with your coltfriend, Willow? Must have been a great date,” she said with a smirk.

“He’s not my coltfriend, Junebug!” Willow snapped back. “And we weren’t on a date. Prince Mark has assigned me to guide Caleb around and help him get familiar with Ponyville and its citizens.”

“So – how familiar with him did you get after you carried your stallion home?” asked the pink mare with a dark pink mane and tail, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

“Once again, not my stallion, Berryshine! I just took him home, undressed him, and put him to bed.”

“Did you have to add the part about undressing me?” Caleb asked with embarrassed exasperation. “Listen ladies, she’s not even my species!”

The two mares looked at each other with broad grins before giggling and continuing on their way.

“Great!” grumbled Willow. “Now I have two of the biggest gossips in town thinking I can’t score with a stallion.”

“But we weren’t on a date!” the human objected.

“And you saw how much difference that made,” the mare replied sarcastically. “Come on – I need food.” Willow marched ahead, forcing Caleb to hasten to catch up.

Caleb noticed what Willow had told him about the previous evening – at least three out of four ponies he saw were mares. While a few gave him nervous looks, most were curious about the new creature in town. He even recognized a few from the bar and gave them a wave which they returned with smiles.

Along the way, Caleb got to see many unusual buildings in this eclectic mix of architectural styles and whimsy. However, the gingerbread house they were headed for had to take the cake, pun intended. He guessed that this had to be Sugarcube Corner. He dreaded to think what else it could be otherwise. Willow marched right up to it though and held the door open for him once more, so in he went.

Half of the interior seemed to be devoted to a typical shop counter with displays of baked goods, but the other half had seating in the form of booths and free-standing tables. Willow immediately headed to one of the latter and indicated that the human should join her by holding out a chair for him. Caleb reluctantly sat down on the far-too-low seat, his knees coming halfway up his chest. He would have preferred a booth which had higher cushioned seats that ponies could lie on instead. His guide seemed oblivious to his discomfort though and he just sighed and rolled with it.

“OH WOW! A NEWCOMER!” someone squealed excitedly right next to Caleb, causing him to almost fall out of his awkward chair.

The man looked around to see a bright pink earth pony practically vibrating with enthusiasm, her eyes wide and her grin stretching from ear to ear.

“The moment I woke up this morning, I got a twitchy ear, a tingle in my tail, and a flutter in my heart that told me that we were getting a very special new citizen in Ponyville and here you are in Sugarcube Corner where I can meet you and welcome you to our town and feed you your very first ‘Welcome To Ponyville’ breakfast while I find out all about you, like what’s your favorite food, where you’re staying, your birthday, your favorite color, your pets, what friends you’d like to bring to your party where you can tell us all about the world you came from and how you got here and—”

Pinkie!” Willow firmly interrupted.

“Yes, Willow Branch?” the pink mare asked with a scarcely dimmed smile.

“Caleb and I would like to order, please. You can plan the party later.”

Pinkie tried to look innocent. “What party? Who said anything about a party?” She then leaned close Willow and said in a whisper that was nevertheless still loud enough for the human to hear. “Ssh! You’ll spoil the surprise.

Willow rolled her eyes. “Right. I’d like the Breakfast Special. What about you, Caleb?”

“What’s in the Special?” he asked.

Pinkie replied, “Waffles, hayfries, and a thick shake – seventeen different flavors.”

“Not all in one shake, I hope,” Caleb joked.

“Only if you order it that way,” the pink mare replied, “but I personally think the pineapple clashes with the spearmint.”

The man felt a little queasy at the thought and wished he hadn’t brought it up. “Okay, I’d prefer coffee anyway, and I don’t think I can eat hay. Got any eggs and bacon?”

Willow looked a little aghast at the suggestion but Pinkie took it in stride. “No, silly! This is a bakery, not a griffon restaurant. How about I bring you waffles with extra syrup and ice cream? And a banana and strawberry smoothie?”

“That seems like an awful lot of sugar,” Caleb said doubtfully.

“Nonsense!” Willow scoffed. “Gotta keep up your sugar intake to maintain your stalliony figure.”

He gave her the side-eye, wondering if she was pulling his leg. Then he shrugged. Once wasn’t going to hurt. “Sounds good, umm… Pinkie, was it?”

“That’s me – Pinkie Pie! Baker and party planner extraordinaire! I’ll be right back with your food.” And then dashed off so fast that it seemed to Caleb that she had vanished, leaving just a pink streak lingering in the air.

“Well… that happened,” the man said, slightly dazed by the experience.

“You’ll get used to her,” Willow assured him. “As the Bearer of the Element of Laughter, she’s always upbeat, although perhaps a little too much sometimes.”

“Element of Laughter?”

“Oh, right – you don’t know about those, do you?”

Willow started explaining and continued to tell their history even after their food arrived. Caleb found the tale fascinating but almost unbelievable. He might have queried it more if he hadn’t been distracted by the absolutely delicious food that he’d been served. He figured he’d have more than a bit of a “stalliony figure” if he ate like this too often.

“So, the day was saved by the Magic of Friendship?” he asked skeptically.

“Yeah, I know,” Willow sympathized, “and as a soldier, I would tend to agree with your assessment, but that stuff really works. Harmony is a powerful force here. Knock it at your peril.”

As he watched a unicorn customer levitate a box of donuts out of the shop, Caleb reminded himself that magic rewrote all the rules he was familiar with. He had a lot to learn about this world he was stuck in. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he assured her.

Willow got up out of her chair, leaving payment for the meal on the table. “Let’s go. I’ve got to show you around more of Ponyville before we have to get back to the castle to meet up with Prince Mark.”

He nodded and followed. They had no sooner stepped out of the shop when there was a gasp from one side.

“It’s you!”

Caleb turned to his left to see a familiar mint green unicorn excitedly pronking on the spot.

“Oh. Hi… Lyra, wasn’t it?” the man said with a polite smile.

“Have you thought any more about that job I suggested?”

“Job? What job?”

The minty mare walked up to him. “You know! Masseur at the Ponyville Spa! I want to be your first customer!”

Caleb’s headache had faded but it threatened to return as he strained to recall what had happened later in the evening. “Oh, yeah, I think I remember that. I don’t think so. Not really my thing.”

“But you’re so good at it!” Lyra then thrust her head under his hand and he reflexively petted her. “Ooh! See!”

“Knock it off, Lyra,” Willow demanded. “You’re annoying Caleb.”

“No I’m not!” She turned wide, quivering eyes up at the man. “Am I, handsome human stallion?”

Caleb chuckled. “You and that pleading look of yours might be the most adorable thing I’ve seen in my entire life.” That earned a squee from the unicorn mare.

Willow glared at her then yelled, “Bon Bon! Your wife is harassing my human!

Lyra jerked away from Caleb. “No! Don’t say that!”

Too late. From a side street, they heard, “Lyra Heartstrings! Are you doing it again after I told you not to?

Lyra gave them a forced smile. “Gotta go. Catch you later!” Then she galloped off… away from the accusatory voice.

Caleb looked at Willow with a raised eyebrow. “Your human?”

The earth mare blushed. “I meant you are my responsibility. Of course.”

The man chuckled. “Right. Shall we proceed with the tour, mistress?” he teased.

Willow’s blush deepened as she turned away. What would the other mares think of her trying to claim a stallion for herself? Even one of another species? “Come on – we’re burning daylight!”

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but Caleb learned the location of several useful places such as the hardware store and the lumber yard. He puzzled over “Quills & Sofas” and other bizarre combinations though. They passed the railway station just as a train pulled in. Caleb called Willow over to point out something to her.

“See the steam engine and how everything is riveted together? Well, if I can bring modern welding techniques to Equestria, you can learn how to weld components to make them stronger. That way, you can get higher steam pressures and greater efficiency.”

“Sounds great. Do you plan to mention that to the Triarchs?”

“Yep.”

“So – not a masseur then?” Willow asked drolly.

Caleb laughed. “No, or at least not as a job. I might try it as a hobby though.” He smiled wickedly as he put his hand on the mare’s head and scritched her behind the ears.

Willow melted. It felt so… oooooh. Then her eyes widened. ‘Oh, crap! Not here in public. I’ll lose my mare card for sure!’ She hastily pulled away from the human. “Not the time for that. Come – we’ve got to head back to the castle now.” She trotted off without waiting to see if he followed.

Caleb chuckled as he hurried to catch up with the mare.

 


 

CHAPTER 7

 

As Caleb and Willow approached Twilight’s castle, they were still discussing the places and characters that they had encountered on the tour of Ponyville.

“I don’t see what’s your problem with Lyra,” Caleb said. “She’s the only one besides yourself who has gone out of their way to socialize with me.”

“What? Aside from how pushy she is, it isn’t right for a mare to harass a stallion like that.”

“I thought she was being cute.”

“She’s the town kook!” Willow retorted. “She’s been obsessed with strange fictional creatures for ages and you are just fanning that mania.”

“Do I look fictional to you?” the man asked with a smirk. He put his hand on her head to scratch her between the ears. “Does this feel unreal?”

A thrill of pleasure went through the mare. ‘Ack! No! Bad thoughts!’ She pulled away and scowled at him. “Are all you humans this depraved? Save that for the bedroom!”

Caleb’s grin grew. “Okay – we’ll resume that when we get back to my room.”

“What?” Willow gaped then shook her head. “No! I meant with a human mare!”

“Too late – you’ve already made your desires clear, my pretty little pony.”

That almost caused Willow to lock up. Was this stallion a slut, parading his wanton cravings in public? Did he think it was okay to lead on a mare for all others to see? Was he… was he laughing at her? She fumed as she realized that he was having a joke at her expense. How dare he tease her light that! She stalked away, highly irritated at falling for it.

Caleb followed, chuckling at having gotten a rise out of the mare as betrayed by her lashing tail.

As they reached the castle entrance, one of the Royal Guard stallions stationed there approached him.

“Excuse me, sir. Prince Mark Wells has asked me to inform you that he will meet you in your room at one o’clock. Please do not keep His Highness waiting.”

Caleb glanced in the direction of the clock tower that could be seen over the roofs of the township. There was about a bit over twenty minutes before that appointment. “Thank you,” he said.

The Guard nodded and resumed his post.

Willow and Caleb headed inside. The mare paused in the large vestibule and looked up at her charge. “I’m feeling peckish. Want to grab a snack before the Prince arrives?”

“Sounds good to me. I hope we can get something less sweet this time though.”

Willow caught the attention of a servant on cleaning duties. “Where can Princess Twilight’s guest get something to eat?”

They were guided to a dining room where a maid promptly attended them. “How can I help you?” she asked.

“I’d like something quick and savory? Any suggestions?” Caleb asked with a smile.

The maid noted the canine teeth but had dealt with many different species while serving under Princess Twilight. “Would sir like a tuna fish sandwich?”

“Perfect! What about you, Willow?”

“A daisy salad sandwich, please.”

The maid smiled. “I will bring those out to you right away.”

After she departed, Caleb said to Willow, “I noticed something earlier that has me curious.”

“What’s that?”

“Remember how you told me that ponies in the army are mostly mares? Yet, I have noticed that the majority of Royal Guards I’ve seen so far are stallions. What’s that about?”

Willow chuckled. “That’s a hangover from the days when Princess Celestia was solely ruling Equestria. Back then, the Royal Guard was mostly a stallion’s role. That’s changed a lot since the Triarchy took over.”

“So, why the reverse of the army?”

“Well, there’s the official reason and there’s the unofficial one.”

“Let’s start with the official one,” Caleb said.

“That stems from the reason why mares dominate in the armed forces – we don’t like risking the lives of our stallions in warfare. Nevertheless, some males wanted to go into that kind of career. The Royal Guard acts more like a police force, especially as everypony knows that alicorns are far more capable of protecting themselves than any ordinary pony could. Therefore, the stallions are far less likely to get into a life-or-death situation than as a soldier. However, that started changing back when Shining Armor was the Captain of the Guard, but it was the invasion of Canterlot by the Storm King that swayed the minds of the holdout conservatives. They agreed that the Royal Guards needed to be much more than just flashy constables. Nowadays, all Royal Guards get intense training that puts them closer on a par with the military. And, of course, some mares preferred that career over the EUP too. As the existing Guards retire, you’ll probably find that the balance of the sexes will even out a lot more.”

“Makes sense, I suppose. So, what’s the unofficial reason?”

Willow grinned. “Princess Celestia loved to surround herself with handsome stallions. Can’t say that I blame her.”

Caleb had no response to that. Whether it was true or not, the mares seemed to think so, and that was all that mattered. He wondered if he’d ever get to meet that Princess and ask if it was true.

Their sandwiches arrived and they ate them with gusto. By then the clock on the wall informed them that it was time to head up to Caleb’s room. The man took the opportunity to freshen up and he did not have to wait long after that for the Prince to arrive.

Willow answered the knock on the door and saluted Prince Mark as he entered with his batpony bodyguard in tow.

“Take it easy, Willow Branch. I’m not on royal business, so there’s no need for excessive formality.” Mark then turned his attention to Caleb. “How’s your day been so far? You look a lot better than yesterday.”

Caleb shrugged. “I’m trying not to think about how I’m stuck here now. Willow was showing me around town and keeping my mind off it.”

“Keep up the good work, Willow,” the Prince said in an aside to the mare. “Anyway, I bet you’re dying to get something else to wear besides minotaur robes. Although, aside from the fit, I have to say that they don’t look bad on you.”

“Yeah, but they’re a bit drafty about the nethers, if you know what I mean?”

Mark grinned. “I figured as much. I’m sorry that I couldn’t loan you any of my human clothes, but you saw for yourself our size difference when we were on my Earth.”

“Yeah, at least two sizes too small for me,” Caleb agreed.

“However, there’s one thing that I can supply for you.” Mark withdrew a package from underneath his wing and levitated it to the human.

Caleb looked at it and grinned. It was a five-pack of underpants! “Thanks. Right size too.”

“Put on a pair and we’ll head off to get you fitted with some more suitable clothes.”

“I’ll be back in a moment.” The man went into the bathroom and closed the door.

Willow smiled apologetically. “I’ve been trying to tell him that he doesn’t need to worry about dressing up in front of us, but he’s very self-conscious about being nude.”

Mark chuckled. “It’s okay. I understand why he’s like that. He’ll cope in time. How was your night at the bar?”

The mare grimaced. “It wasn’t bad, but it was so strange at times. If I didn’t know that he’s from a whole other world, I would think he has mental problems. Even so, I just don’t understand his ways sometimes.”

“You’re both facing a steep learning curve. Believe me – I know.” The human emerged from the bathroom just then. Mark grinned at the satisfied look on the man’s face. “And now, Caleb is in for a bit more of a culture shock.”

The man looked bewildered by that statement. “I am?”

“Yep, we’re heading off to another Equestria to meet your tailor. You don’t think quadrupedal ponies excel at making clothes for bipeds, do you?”

“I suppose not.”

“Do you still need me, sir?” Willow asked.

“I think I’d prefer it if you keep up your escort duties for now. Ever been to the anthro Equestria?”

“Like your daughter? No, Your Highness.”

“I didn’t think you would have. Come on – you’re both in for an education.” Mark then opened the door and exited, his bodyguard following with a knowing grin.

Caleb and Willow shared a concerned look and tagged along, both wondering what they were getting into.

The alicorn prince led them back to the portal room, but he walked up to a different mirror than the one that led to Canterlot Castle. His horn glowed for a moment.

“Just have to make sure that the adaptation spell is turned off,” he informed them.

Mark stepped through and Penumbra waved the human and mare to go after him before she brought up the rear. For a moment, Caleb thought that something had gone wrong because they were in an identical room. However, he quickly noticed that there were fewer mirrors. He did not have time to look much more as the alicorn had already trotted out of the room, and he and Willow hastened to catch up.

They were still in Friendship Castle, but as soon as they exited the hall into the grand entrance, it was clear it was not the same one that they had just left. The staff members there were dealing with the public just like theirs, but the patrons were all bipeds – anthro ponies. Caleb even recognized one of them, or at least their quadrupedal versions. Like Mark’s daughter, Pearl, they had a very humanlike body except that that the legs were unguligrade, terminating in hooves, and their heads were virtually the same as normal ponies. They all possessed tails and the pegasi had wings. The big difference from the human form was that they all had the same multi-hued hair coats and cutie marks as the ponies Caleb was familiar with. That, however, did little to distract from the fact that they also wore exactly the same amount of clothing as the four-legged variety which, in most cases, meant none at all.

Caleb couldn’t help but stare. While they were still recognizably not human, there was no escaping the fact that the mares had very sexy bodies and he didn’t see a flat chest among them. Suddenly, he was very glad that he was wearing a voluminous robe to hide his physical reaction.

As much as the man found the locals distracting, it was easily matched by their fascination with the group. Three quadrupedal ponies and a human were not a common occurrence even for Ponyville. A couple of the castle staff greeted Mark and he smiled and waved back. He was, after all, a very regular visitor because of his daughter, not to mention inter-universal diplomatic relations.

Like the world he had just left, this Equestria was dominated by mares. Unfortunately for Caleb, he inevitably got a full-frontal view of a stallion soon after leaving the castle. He quickly understood where the phrase – ‘hung like a horse’ came from. He had done his best to ignore the nude stallions back in the other world, but a four-legged stance and tail helped to conceal their junk, not to mention that they were more animal-like to his perceptions despite their intelligence. It all hung out here though. The human kneaded his forehead while murmuring, “Oh God, I did not need to see that.”

Willow nudged him with her shoulder to get his attention. When he looked down at her, she smirked and said, “Not bad, hey? I wouldn’t mind getting my hooves on one of these stallions.” When she noticed his expression, she added, “Don’t let it get to you. You can’t help it that you’re not a pony and only are… umm… human-size.”

Caleb’s eyes widened and he stared at the oblivious mare. Did she just flat-out say that he had a small dick? He didn’t know whether to be insulted or mortified. It did have the effect of distracting him enough that he managed not to stare at any of the other ponies whom they passed, especially the males.

Their destination became clear as Mark led them toward a round building that had been decorated in a manner resembling a carousel. Caleb remembered seeing it during the tour of Ponyville but they hadn’t entered it then. For some reason, Willow had chosen to bypass it. Now, he would get to see inside.

Mark entered without hesitation and everyone followed. Caleb immediately noticed the mannequins with various dresses displayed on them. So they did wear clothes sometimes! Judging by how fancy they were, he guessed that they were for special occasions only. He found it difficult to comprehend why the mares would willingly dress up in such finery but be totally okay with walking about nude normally.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique!” came a lovely cultured voice. “Oh! Prince Mark! How lovely to see you, darling. I wasn’t expecting you to stop by – the first fittings for the autumn fashions aren’t due for a couple of weeks yet.”

“Hi, Rarity. I have brought you an unusual customer. Let me introduce Caleb Awad – he is in need of your unique skills.”

The mare turned to face Caleb. She had an alabaster coat with a perfectly coiffed mane and tail. A long spiral horn rose above brilliant blue eyes with long black lashes. Full and firm boobs graced a gorgeous hourglass figure that was neither too lean nor excessively padded. She nodded in recognition and said, “A human, I see. Frankly, dear, it is a crime to fashion to see you settle for minotaur-style robes.”

 

The man wanted very much to differ right then as the erection that he had managed to get under control came raging back.

Mark chuckled, guessing the source of the man’s discomfort. “Rarity, Caleb had the misfortune to fall through a wild portal into the Equestrian desert. His clothing was destroyed and he needs something better than that robe to wear while he’s stranded on my world.”

“I presume he’s not from your Earth then, but has he the same peculiar aversion to nudity that yours does?”

“You got that right, ma’am,” Caleb said fervently. “Can you make me some proper trousers and shirts?”

“Of course, darling! I am Prince Mark’s clothier of choice.”

Mark said, “While my own Rarity would have been willing to make human-style clothes, she recommended her anthro colleague here due to her greater familiarity with the biped form. She has made me several outfits for when I need to do business on Earth. Rarity – I’d like to commission you to provide Caleb with a range of clothing. He needs some casual outfits, something formal, and some durable work clothes. I know the latter isn’t your forte, but I would appreciate it.”

The unicorn smiled indulgently. “Darling, just because an ensemble is intended for protection against harsh conditions doesn’t mean that it can’t look fabulous too. I ame happy to accept the challenge.” She turned to the human. “Caleb, dear, I presume that you want some streetwear immediately? I have the time to tailor you an outfit right now, although the rest will have to wait.”

“I would hugely appreciate that, Ms. Belle,” Caleb replied.

“Excellent! Let’s start by getting your measurements. Please remove your robe.”

The man’s eyes widened in panic. He was still fully aroused despite his attempts to play it cool. “Can’t I just tell you my waist and chest sizes?”

“Nonsense! This isn’t a retail market selling mass-produced T-shirts and such. I need to fit you properly. Let me help you with that robe.”

Rarity’s horn lit up and Caleb felt the robe being pulled open. He wanted to resist but realized it was futile. Moments later, he stood there naked except for his firmly tented underwear.

Willow’s eyebrows shot up as she stared at the man’s crotch. “What I said a few minutes ago? I take it back!”

The unicorn looked him over appraisingly and smiled. “Is that for me? I’m flattered, but we need to get down to business.” A tape measure flew over to her in the glow of her telekinesis, but she took it in her hands to do the actual measuring. “Let’s start with your lovely broad shoulders.”

“I’ll leave Caleb in your hands, Rarity. I have other tasks to do right now. A prince’s work is never finished. Willow Branch here is Caleb’s guide and minder and I’ll leave her to look after him in my absence.”

Willow jerked in shock. She was being left here to watch a stallion spend hours fussing over clothes? She’d rather spend that time in Tartarus! Nevertheless, she was given a task by the prince. She gave him a weak smile. “As you wish, Your Highness.”

“I’ll be back around 3:30 pm. Is that okay?”

“That will be fine, darling. It will give Caleb and me time to discuss his preferences for his other outfits.”

Mark said, “See you later, Caleb.” He then headed out the door.

Penumbra gave Willow a sympathetic look before following. The batpony knew what the mare was in for.



Willow honestly thought she was going to die of boredom. She had been practically forgotten by the others and had been left nothing to do except look around the boutique filled with the frou-frou dresses she so disliked. Give her a stout set of armor or work overalls any day rather than those ridiculously gaudy outfits. What did mares see in them anyway? All a mare needed was to keep a trim figure and groom her coat, mane, and tail to look good for a stallion. A strong, healthy mare was always a good choice for a herdmate, right?

And the fuss Caleb had been making over the outfit that Rarity had put together for him! He had gushed over the fit and comfort of the item he called trousers, and he actually begged the fashionista to make several more shirts of various designs for him. How many different shirts did a stallion need? As long as a single sturdy set of clothes protected that bare skin of his, what more did he want? Still, not content with all that, he was going over some fashion magazines with Rarity, discussing the formal wear option.

The worst part of the experience wasn’t the mind-crushing boredom, it was the shameless flirting. The fact that this world’s Rarity could banter and flatter on par with the fashionista back home was not a surprise. Any successful businessmare and socialite developed those skills as a matter of necessity. What really ground Willow’s gears was Caleb. Even now, the two were gabbing away in the next room. It seemed that being around an anthro-shaped female let him relax and loosen up… especially his tongue.

“Thank you for opening my eyes to the fashions of this world, Miss Rarity. Words can’t tell you how grateful I am. I see how you earned your position as the Prince’s official clothier.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, but thank you for the compliment. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion? Darling, when you next visit this wonderful dimension, you simply must get control of your… shall we say ‘stallion instincts’? Why, just the scent of a male with that much passion might be more temptation than your average poor, defenseless mare could withstand.”

“Ah, but can you blame me, Miss Rarity?” His voice lost a half-octave. “After all, every mare I see here is more beautiful than the last.”

A delighted titter filtered into the adjacent room. Willow rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time. “I am quite certain that this is not what I signed up for,” she groused to herself.

Willow felt her brain would melt before Prince Mark finally returned.

“Looking good, Caleb,” Mark said appraisingly. The charcoal trousers fit the man’s waist perfectly and the light blue silk shirt complemented Caleb’s skin tone. “Ready to go back?”

“Yeah. Rarity and I have worked out some of my other requirements and she made a recommendation for a shoemaker. I didn’t think that there would be such a thing here, but apparently they’re a high-end fashion item too.”

“Sounds like a plan. At least that will do until I can get you footwear from Earth. You’re going to need something a little more durable than shoes meant to be worn on formal occasions.” The alicorn turned his attention back to the unicorn. “Thanks, Rarity. Send me the bill.”

“It’s been a pleasure darling. I’ll see you again soon for the fitting appointment.”

“Looking forward to it! Come on, Caleb. We’ve got more to accomplish today.”

Caleb picked up the small bundle of new clothing (something Willow had heard described as “sweat clothes”) and the minotaur robe and followed. Once they were outside, he asked Mark, “What are you getting fitted for? I would have thought your wife would be the one doing that.”

The alicorn grinned. “I model for her.”

“There’s some sort of fashion show for stallions?”

“Nope. Remember my female form that I showed you? Now, imagine that as an anthro.”

The picture that brought to his mind made Caleb sincerely wish he hadn’t asked.

 


 

CHAPTER 8

 

Once back in the normal pony universe, Prince Mark brought Caleb and Willow to his office in Canterlot Castle. After inviting them to make themselves comfortable, he seated himself behind his desk.

“While you were occupied at Rarity’s boutique, I was doing some research into your situation. Frankly, I don’t have much on the positive side to tell you. However, now that you have some clothes that won’t draw undue attention, I can at least allow you to do some shopping on my Earth to get some essential items such as the aforementioned shoes.”

“You weren’t keen on my staying there though,” Caleb pointed out.

“No, and I won’t be letting you go there unaccompanied. I don’t think you realize how problematic it is for you to be there. That is my native world and even I can’t visit with impunity.”

“Why not?”

“Because I was gone for so long that I was pronounced ‘Missing Presumed Deceased’. My will was executed and my worldly possessions given to my best friend. I had no wife or children, and no close relatives. Anyway, if I tried to use my social security number to acquire goods and services which require it, I’d either be refused or arrested for fraud and identity theft. I can’t open a bank account or get a credit card. My driver’s license has expired and I can’t renew it, so I never drive over there anymore. I can’t afford to be pulled over for any reason because I would not be able to prove my identity. If I tried to get my supposed death canceled, I’d have to explain what happened to me. All these things would be your problem too with the added bonus of having a doppelganger.”

“What if I could get a fake I.D. and start a new life somewhere far away from the other Caleb?”

Mark sighed. “I suppose that would be possible, but I’m an honest person and I haven’t a clue how to go about getting a fake I.D. that would be good enough to successfully keep you out of trouble for the rest of your life. I’m betting that you don’t either.” Looking at the man’s face, the alicorn knew that he had scored on that point. “Anyway, even if you could get it, I really don’t want you to go there to live. You would compromise the secret of the portal to this and other worlds. In my ignorance, I made a couple of mistakes that I won’t repeat. All my dealings with Earth are done through my friend and business partner’s company. My cell phone is registered to that company as is my credit card. Even so, I use them as little as possible.”

“So, basically you’re trying your best to dissuade me from making your Earth my new home,” Caleb summarized.

“Yes. If it comes to the crunch, it is the final option. I don’t wish to dictate your life, but I must put this world’s welfare first.”

Caleb folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “So, what other options are there?”

“The anthro pony world, for starters. I could have asked Rarity to come here but I wanted you to experience it for yourself. While there aren’t a lot of differences between that world and this, at least they’re bipedal and possessing hands—”

“And they all walk around stark naked,” the man interrupted. “I don’t think I could ever get used to that.”

“My anthro counterpart was able to,” Mark pointed out.

“I am not you, no matter which universe,” Caleb rebutted. “I reckon it's safe to say that we don't see this the same way.”

“You seemed to be pretty comfortable with Rarity just before we left,” Willow said snarkily.

Caleb glared at the mare. “I got involved enough with the clothes that I was distracted sufficiently. It doesn’t mean that I had gotten over seeing her sexy body paraded in front of me without a shred of modesty.”

Mark said, “I still think you could get used to it. I had to do the same here.”

Caleb frowned. “Oh, sure! Like it’s even the same thing. You can hide your naughty bits with your tails, and you stallions have sheathes for your penises. Over there, it all just hangs out!” He shuddered. “I have no intention of looking at that every day. Besides, there’s something else that bothers me.”

The alicorn raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What would that be?”

The man tried to put his thoughts into words. “They… look human in many ways, especially when it comes to their torso and sexual characteristics, but then they still have pony heads and hooves, not to mention their coats. It… just… feels weird, even though I can see that they are perfectly sensible… life-forms, if you know what I mean?”

Mark nodded. “I do. It’s a phenomenon called ‘The Uncanny Valley’. It’s when something is very close to human but you can tell something is off about it. It’s like those humanoid robots that look so real but you can sense that something is wrong with them. Anyway, that’s two strikes against the anthro world.”

“I don’t suppose there’s another where they do wear clothes?” Caleb asked hopefully.

“Not that we’ve found so far and, frankly, not something we were looking for. That particular world was discovered by accident in unusual circumstances.”

“How about another human world? Or are they all going to have the same problems as yours?”

“Probably, although the only other Earth we have access to is far different from the one you know. It’s possible that you might be able to fit in there somehow. It’s not without its drawbacks though.”

“Seems to me that you could have offered that before the anthro world,” Caleb pointed out.

Mark opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a photo album. “Let me show you what you’d be in for. These are photos that I took of some friends I met over there.” He telekinetically passed it over to the man.

Caleb opened the album and his eyes widened. He turned the pages and his jaw dropped. “You have got to be kidding me?”

“Nope. That’s what the whole world population is like.”

“They’re all colored like ponies. Equestrian ones, I mean. And they look… strange too. Their body proportions are way off.”

“Yep. You would stand out like a sore thumb. On the plus side, you can buy clothes and shoes there without much of a problem.”

Caleb sighed, closed the album, and passed it back to Mark. “Next!”

“There really isn’t a next. You’re just left with this Equestria, or others near enough like it as to not matter. On the plus side though, here you have the Triarchy backing you up, and we’re prepared to offer you a lucrative job.”

“You mentioned something about increasing welding skills when we were searching for my portal.”

“Exactly. Through my business partner, Equestria is purchasing a lot of modern welding equipment. The catch is that we don’t have anyone here who is qualified to use it.”

Willow said, “Caleb was talking last night about setting up a trade school to teach welding.”

“That’s right. We want to offer you a job to teach our tradesponies, griffons, changelings, and so forth, in modern welding techniques. We’ll be modifying the equipment to make it useable by various species, but that won’t make the tradies instant experts.”

“What materials are we talking about?”

“Ordinary steel for starters, but we want to be able to work with stainless steel and aluminum too. We want to train up a lot of workers to be experts in as short a time as possible. Equestria is going through quite a boom period and we need this knowledge to deal with it and be prepared for our future needs too.”

“There’s a lot more to mastering welding than sticking two pieces of steel together.”

“Which is why we need someone like you. Caleb – we can’t get you back to your Earth, but we can make this world your new home. We can give you a well-paid job using your superior skills. We will support you until you’re settled in. I’ll even let you visit my Earth occasionally if you get homesick for something tastier than a hayburger.”

“And you’ll have me as a drinking buddy,” Willow added with a grin.

Caleb chuckled. “As long as we don’t get as smashed as last night, okay?” He turned back to Mark and his face grew serious once more. “What if I insist that you let me go to your Earth?”

“I really won’t like it, but I’m not your jailor. I’ll let you go. However, I’d blindfold you, drive in random directions for several hours, then push you out the door with a wad of cash and my best wishes. I’d never want to see or hear from you again.”

“Where’s the love?” Caleb asked with a smirk. “Okay, I’ll play nice. I’ll try your suggestion. What’s your best offer?”

Mark opened another drawer and took out a sheaf of papers. “I spent half the afternoon finalizing a contract for you. Look it over and sign it if you’re satisfied.”

The alicorn passed it over to the man who began reading it. About ten minutes later, there was a knock on the office door.

“Come in!” Mark said.

A reddish-brown unicorn entered and looked at the occupants of the room before addressing the prince. “Hi, Mark. I got your message. So, this is the human you mentioned.”

“Yep. This is Caleb Awad. Caleb, this is my best friend and business partner, Phil. I’m afraid that we won’t be telling you his surname for security reasons. Anyway, if you sign that contract, you’ll be dealing with him a lot for your equipment and materials needs.”

Phil held out a hoof to the human. “Pleased to meet you, Caleb.”

The man took the hoof in his hand and shook it. “Same here, but I had been expecting you to be a human.”

“I am a human, or at least I am back on Earth. I prefer to be a unicorn while I’m in Equestria. You should see my wife though – she becomes a large griffon. Maybe you should give it a try?”

“I did. Briefly, just to see what happened. I became an earth pony. After looking myself over, I changed back immediately. It was too weird for me.”

Phil shrugged. “It was for me too at first, but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it.”

“Even though ponies go around nude all the time, and you’re one of them?” Caleb asked doubtfully.

“Believe it or not, after a few days, you just stop seeing it.”

Mark said, “It was the same for me. I think actually being a pony affects how you view other ponies sexually. They have to deliberately act in a sexual manner to be perceived in such a way.”

Caleb looked doubtful but conceded the point. “I still prefer not to change. I like being a human.”

“Don’t worry, Caleb,” Willow said while giving him a condescending pat on the hip. “I’ll teach you how to be more like a pony so you fit in better.”

The man rolled his eyes. “As I said, I don’t want to be a pony; I just need to learn the local customs.”

“Who’s this?” Phil asked.

“Sorry – rude of me not to introduce you sooner,” Mark said. “This is Sergeant Willow Branch of the EUP Reserves. She’s currently assigned to Caleb as his guide and minder. You’ll probably be seeing a lot of her until Caleb is settled in.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Phil said, giving the mare a hoof-bump.

“And I’m delighted to meet a handsome unicorn stallion like yourself.”

“Married,” he reminded her. “And not making a herd either.”

“Too bad,” she replied, a little sadly.

Mark said, “You don’t have to sign that contract right this moment, Caleb. However, in anticipation of you accepting, Twilight and her husband have invited you to have dinner with them and Phil tonight. Seeing as we plan to set up the trade school in Ponyville, that falls under Twilight’s purview. She’ll also ease you through the bureaucracy involved. She loves paperwork. Don’t ask her about her checklists.”

“You seem pretty confident that I’ll accept your offer,” Caleb said.

“I’ve been co-ruler of an empire for many years – you get a sense for these things,” the prince replied with a smug smile.

The man laughed. “I guess you would. Okay, I’m going to finish reading this contract first, but you can pretty much consider it a done deal unless I see something unacceptable. I kind of like the idea of being the head of my own welding school – the best in the entire world!”

“The only one in the world,” Willow pointed out drolly.

“Like I said, the best!”

Mark grinned. “That’s what I like to hear. Anyway, I’ll let you go back to Ponyville now. Phil and I have a lot to discuss. We’ll meet you later for dinner.”

Caleb and Willow got up.

“Catch you later, Mark,” the man said as he headed for the door.

“Likewise, Your Highness,” Willow said with a quick salute.

When the door closed, Phil smirked and said to Mark, “Did you really need to pair Caleb up with a mare?”

The alicorn chuckled. “No, although it was convenient at the time. They seem to get along okay, so let’s see how things go. If nothing else, she’ll help distract him from the fact that he’s stuck in a world he never wanted.”

 


 

CHAPTER 9

 

Caleb paused outside Mark’s office. “Know any good places to get a drink here in Canterlot? A beer garden would be good in this weather.”

Willow replied, “I’m not very familiar with the city. I’m sure we could find one easily enough if you don’t want to go back to Ponyville.”

“Not just yet. I need to go over the rest of the contract and mull over what Prince Mark told me.”

“May I suggest the Canter Heights Tavern?” came a voice from the side of the outer office.

Caleb turned and his eyes widened when he saw a changeling queen seated behind a large desk. “My apologies, Your Highness – I did not realize you were there.”

Chrysalis gave the human a smug smile. “A changeling’s greatest skill is to remain unnoticed in any circumstance. One learns a lot more that way. However, today I am here for routine proceedings. As my husband’s Chief Advisor, I work with him on current and future projects, such as the proposed trade school.”

“I see. So you’re aware of what he’s just offered me?”

“Quite. You are wise to consider your future carefully. The Canter Heights Tavern has an excellent beer garden overlooking the valley. Their selection is second to none and their bartenders are the best in the city.”

Willow asked, “Would at least one of them happen to be a changeling from your hive?”

Chrysalis’s eyes narrowed and she spoke with a clipped tone. “Indeed. Which means I know what I am talking about.”

The earth pony mare smirked. “Plus this gives the Triarchy the benefit of intelligence off the street, plus access to a wide array of sources that know who is doing what across the city.”

Chrysalis smiled and shifted her eyes to the human. “This one is both unafraid and intelligent. Have you spoken to my husband about herds?”

Not what he wanted to discuss! Caleb steered the conversation back on topic. “Where can I find this beer garden, ma’am?”

Without any sign from the queen, a changeling Royal Guard stationed by the door walked up to the pair.

Chrysalis said, “Sergeant Vectrix will accompany you.”

“Umm… directions would be fine, ma’am,” the human said with a glance at the Guard.

“Perhaps, but you cannot freely wander through the castle by yourself. While my husband was responsible for you up until now, you will require a Guard to accompany you to the gates. And as you will be returning to the castle later to use the portal back to Ponyville, you will need a Guard once more. Vectrix shall remain with you. I advise taking advantage of his local knowledge.”

“In that case, thank you for your help, Your Majesty.”

“You’re welcome. I hope that you find our offer… enticing.”

Chrysalis gave the man a fang-filled smile and Caleb shuddered a little. He had a feeling that her polite words were more like a strong suggestion to comply. He hastily turned and headed out the door, Willow quickly falling in beside him. He paused, suddenly unsure of which direction to take.

“This way, sir,” the changeling Royal Guard said with a rigid expression.

There were no further words exchanged between them until they exited the castle. Then they were thrust into the hustle and bustle of Equestria’s capital city. Although Caleb had been to the castle twice now, this was his first time experiencing the actual metropolis. While he had been in several Earth cities before, they couldn’t compare with what he was seeing now. Not a scrap of dull grey concrete could be seen. Marble façades were common but white-painted stone blocks with sturdy timber framing brought a European feel to the buildings. Red-tiled roofs were visible both above and below on the lower levels, while multi-hued banners and pennants brought more splashes of color throughout the city. And that was even without the plethora of citizens with their pastel coats adding to the overall effect. After several seconds, the changeling guard walked toward a street that led away from the castle and gradually rose in elevation. The man and earth pony jogged to fall into step at his sides.

“It usually hits most newcomers to Canterlot that way,” Vectrix said cheerfully.

Caleb shot the guard a questioning glance.

The drone chuckled. “Emotion eater, remember? I taste amazement with a strong dash of appreciation of beauty plus just a pinch of feeling overwhelmed.”

The man examined the changeling who now seemed more relaxed and friendly. He raised an eyebrow. “What’s with the change from the stiff guard inside?”

Vectrix grinned. “Gotta be formal within the castle. Right now though, you’re my assignment and I get to be myself.”

“Oh? And why were you picked for this duty?”

“Because, as Her Majesty said, I have a thorough knowledge of what this city has to offer. And, I happen to enjoy a beer or two also.”

Caleb grinned. “Are you allowed to drink on duty?”

“When circumstances call for it, yes.”

Willow spoke up. “I get it! You’re here to help persuade Caleb to agree to Prince Mark’s offer.”

The changeling gave her a wink. “Shh! You’ll give away our nefarious plans!”

“Just what are you up to, Sergeant?” Caleb demanded.

“I’ll explain it in a moment. We’re here.” Vectrix held open the glass door which had “Canter Heights Tavern” in gold calligraphy upon it.

Caleb entered, followed by the suspicious earth pony mare. They made their way through the bar to the back which opened out onto a balcony with the promised view.

“We’re in luck – there are still a few good places to sit. Take your pick.”

Caleb selected a table with a sun umbrella and seats close to the wall. While the chairs were only pony-height, he could still easily see the magnificent vista. The complete lack of any visible pollution let the man see clearly to the horizon. Looking further down, he could make out Twilight’s castle and from there pick out a couple of landmarks in Ponyville. A waitress came along as soon as the other two sat down and she took their orders. Caleb and Willow chose the house lager while the changeling selected a Porter from Vanhoover.

Vectrix took off his helmet and set it aside. “So, time for explanations. First off, there’s nothing underhanded going on. That contract that Prince Mark gave you is genuine, but it only covers the practical side of staying here and heading up the trade school. However, as emotivores, we changelings understand all too well how much emotional turmoil you are going through. My Queen has tasked me with helping you in this regard.”

Caleb snorted with amusement. “So, you’re saying you’re my counselor?”

Vectrix nodded. “In a manner of speaking, yes. My species is uniquely qualified to help you cope with the emotional stresses that you are experiencing. You’re not expected to suddenly dismiss your ties to those you’re parted from. However, the way you deal with those stresses may not always be healthy. It will be my responsibility to watch out for your emotional health and come up with ways to help you that you will find comfortable.”

Willow smirked. “Like being his drinking buddy?”

Vectrix winked. “I did say that I enjoy a beer. And it gets even better. Technically, I’m still on duty. I’m getting paid to share a drink with you!”

The waitress arrived just then with said libations. They each took their drinks and sipped a bit.

Caleb said, “Well, I said I was going to read the rest of this contract, so don’t mind me if I’m quiet for a while.”

“Go right ahead,” Vectrix said with a smile. “Willow and I can chat and admire the view.”

The man nodded and tuned them out while he read the contract thoroughly.

The changeling and earth pony moved over to an adjacent table so they wouldn’t disturb Caleb. After silently drinking for a minute or so, Willow folded her forelegs across her chest and frowned at Vectrix. “Y’know, I’ve already been helping Caleb fit into pony life.”

“I believe you, but what about griffon life? Minotaur life? Changeling life? Caleb will have to deal with every species, not just yours.”

“So that’s the real reason you’re here? I’m not good enough for the task Prince Mark gave me?”

“No, you could be exactly what he needs – a good friend. However, you can’t be expected to be able to teach him everything or know when he needs help coping. The next few days are going to be tough for Caleb. I can tell that he’s holding back a lot already. Sooner or later, that dam wall will burst.”

“He’s a stallion – they’re always emotional. He’ll just have to mare up.”

“Oh? What was it like for you when you lost your fiancé? I believe you had to be medically discharged due to your psychological breakdown.”

Willow slammed her stein down on the table. When Caleb looked up with a cocked eyebrow, the mare forced a smile onto her face. After the man returned to his reading, Willow hissed, “How dare you! How do you know all that?”

“Do you think it was a coincidence that I was standing by at Prince Mark’s office? I’ve been informed regarding everything about you two. If you could not handle your loss, how do you expect to cope when Caleb finally has to come to grips with the fact that he’s never going to see his marefriends, his siblings, his parents, or his relatives? Not to mention his workmates and other friends. You lost one pony but he’s lost his whole world – what are you going to do about it?”

The earth mare scowled at the rebuke, but she had to admit that Vectrix had a point. “I can be there for him.”

“And that will be a huge help. However, you won’t have to do it alone. Work with me, Willow Branch. Together, we can help Caleb build a new life. Are you up to the challenge?”

“I wasn’t expecting this job to be so complicated when I was given it, but damned if I’m going to let Caleb down.”

“Excellent,” Vectrix said with a satisfied smile. “Feel free to call on me whenever you need help.”

Willow nodded and finished off her beer. “I’m going to need another one of these.”

It was several minutes later before Caleb took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. He got up and joined his companions at the other table.

“So, what did you think of the contract?” the earth mare asked.

“Almost too good to be true. I have a question though. What are Gold Bits worth? I have no idea about the relative value of your monetary system.”

“Oh. Well, first you need to know the denominations. We just had a currency switchover a couple of years back. No more apples for a Gold Bit apiece, no matter how good they were! Anyway, only the New Equestrian Bits are in circulation now so everyone just calls them bits. Copper coins are the smallest, and there are a hundred of them to one Silver. Then there are a hundred Silvers to a Gold Bit. The last two are alloys to make them tougher. As for their value, a day’s wage for a Royal Guard is one Gold Bit, for example. Does that give you enough of an idea?”

The man asked, “Do you have a Gold Bit I can look at?”

Willow nodded, fished one out of her purse, and placed it on his outstretched palm. It was about the size of a half dollar but a bit thicker. The weight confirmed that it consisted of mostly gold.

Caleb held the coin up between two fingers. “Let’s say I had this much aluminum. How much would that cost in whichever kind of bits?”

Vectrix and Willow laughed. The changeling said, “You’d have to tell us when you had it for sale. Nowadays, about fifty Copper Bits.”

Willow waved her hoof to point beyond the wall. “But twenty years ago, you could have bought half of Ponyville for that much pure aluminum metal. Maybe the Castle of Friendship, too.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the changeling, “you’d have to throw in a dozen books on some new subject before Princess Twilight would jump on that deal.”

Willow smirked. “You don’t know her as well as I do. A half-dozen at most.”

The man stared at his drink f or a moment. “OK, so I picked a bad example. How about this beer?”

Vectrix said, “Your beer cost two Silvers.”

Caleb reckoned he could research the value of various items for comparison, but even with a beer rule-of-thumb, he calculated the wage he had been offered. He whistled long and low. Willow raised an eyebrow and he held up the contract that showed the pay offer. The mare’s eyes bulged.

“Holy horsefeathers! Sign that sucker right now!”

The man chuckled. “If Prince Mark is that eager to sign me up, it won’t hurt to wait until I see him tomorrow to clarify a couple of things. But yeah, there’s no way I’m going to miss this golden opportunity.” He grabbed his stein and chugged the remainder down.

“You like Equestrian beer, I take it?” Vectrix asked. “Another round?”

“One more, I think. Have they got any snacks here?”

Willow signaled the waitress. “They sure do.”

They ordered another round of beers and a bowl of potato chips. Then they ate and drank while Caleb looked at the beautiful scenery and asked questions. Half an hour later, the man rose to his feet and gestured to the south.

“Well, Ponyville’s there and so should we be soon if we aren’t going to be late for dinner with Princess Twilight.”

“It won’t take long to get you to the portal,” Vectrix said as he picked up and donned his helmet. “Plenty of time to make one stop before departing.”

“What did you have in mind?” Caleb asked.

“Nobody should ever travel to Canterlot without experiencing the food of the gods. We’re visiting Donut Joe.”



If it wasn’t for the dinner that he was going to spend with Twilight Sparkle, the box of doughnuts that they bought might not have survived the trip to Ponyville. Caleb heroically refrained from eating more than two… okay, three.

There was more than ample time for the man and the mare to freshen up after Vectrix saw them off to the Castle of Friendship. They then made their way to the dining room where they found Spike supervising the servants who were setting the table for the meal. The dragon grinned at seeing them arrive.

“Hey, dude! Looking good!”

“Thanks, Spike,” Caleb replied. “They’re nothing fancy but they’re really comfortable.”

“I don’t think Rarity is capable of making uncomfortable clothing – she’s that good.”

The man gave the drake a keen look. “Sounds to me like the voice of experience.”

Spike grinned. “Heck, yeah. Both this world’s Rarity and the anthro world’s have made suits for me to wear to the Grand Galloping Gala and other formal events. I think they’re in a friendly competition.”

“For a world where the vast majority of the population prefers to walk around nude, you sure love your fancy outfits.”

“Of course, we do! They’re for special occasions and that’s when we dress to impress. The rest of the time, we have natural protection like my scales or ponies’ coats. I get why you dress up in bad weather – you have nothing but bare skin. But on days like this, nopony understands why you don’t enjoy freedom from confining clothes.”

“Spike, my friend, on this subject, I doubt we’ll ever agree,” Caleb said with a grimace. “Put it down to a human quirk.”

“Is there a problem?” came a voice from the doorway.

Caleb turned to see Princess Twilight, but it was the being next to her that caught his attention. He had many similarities to Queen Chrysalis but the resemblance quickly ended with the striking coloration and antlers. He tilted his head slightly and regarded the human with curiosity.

After a few seconds, Caleb found his voice. “Just a difference of opinion regarding the relevance of clothing, Your Highness.”

Twilight smiled in amusement, quite familiar with the human foibles about public nudity by now. “I see. And just call me Twilight please, Caleb. Let me introduce my husband, Thorax, King of the Crystal Changeling Hive.”

At that moment, another being appeared out of the shadows in one corner of the room. He had some of the features of both Thorax and Twilight and looked to be either an older teenager or young adult. “Are you going to block the door all evening, Mom and Dad?” he complained.

The purple alicorn rolled her eyes. “And this is our impatient son, Regis Novellus.”

Caleb gaped. “How…?”

Spike snorted. “He’s a shadow-walker and a show-off.”

“Nah, just hungry,” Regis retorted. “Is dinner ready yet?”

The dragon nodded. “Now that everypony’s here, I’ll have the meal served.” He bustled off in what Caleb presumed was the direction of the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Twilight and Thorax approached the man. The changeling smiled and said, “Twilight has told me about your unfortunate arrival in our world. I hope that you’ve been coping – I can sense some stress.”

Caleb shrugged. “I’m doing well enough. Can’t say that it’s all been rosy so far, but Willow here has been a great help.”

“Don’t hesitate to ask for help, Mister Awad. My wife and I are invested in your wellbeing.”

“Seems a lot of that going around,” the man replied with a lopsided smile. “Fortunately, I had some doughnut therapy this afternoon.”

Twilight grinned. “You’ve been to Donut Joe’s shop? That was always my favorite place to visit when I was feeling low.”

“Hard not to see why,” Caleb agreed.

“Soup’s up!” Spike announced.

Everybody made their way to the dining table and seated themselves. As usual, Willow took her place next to the human. She still felt self-conscious about being casually familiar with royalty, but while she was tasked with lending support to Caleb, at least she didn’t feel like she was going to be ejected at a moment’s notice.

As the meal progressed, Twilight inquired about the man’s day. He regaled them all with a description of everything that had happened since he had last seen her. Thorax was most interested in his impressions of his experiences.

“I’ve still got a million questions though,” Caleb said. “There are so many things that seem unusual or even weird to me. Like, why do you ponies have pictures on your butts?”

“They’re called cutie marks,” Willow informed him primly.

He looked at her askance. “You’re shitting me! Seriously?”

“That’s their official name,” Twilight confirmed. “As a matter of fact, they are part of the presentation that I intend to give you after dinner. It’s something that I put together for visitors from other dimensions who might not be familiar with our world. I call it An Introduction to Equestria and the World of Equus. You’ll be glad to know I’ve greatly expanded and improved the presentation since I showed version 12.1 to Mark Wells. It was difficult to condense all the important details down to just eight hours, but I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating and informative.”

Caleb noticed Spike rolling his eyes and he began to regret asking.



The human wondered if there was any way to escape this torture. He doubted that the alicorn would even notice if he got up and left the room, she was that engrossed in her lecture. However, Willow had already succumbed to the tedium. Her head had initially leaned up against his shoulder but had gradually slid down his arm until it now rested on his leg where she was making his trousers sodden with her drool. He stroked her mane subconsciously until he noticed himself doing it and pulled his hand away. He envied her state of oblivion even as he cursed his entrapment. Spike came up, offering him a third mug of black coffee in the hope of caffeine keeping him awake. Caleb accepted it gratefully but he felt he was fighting a losing battle.

Somewhere around the Fourth Century of the Celestial Era, Caleb’s eyes closed and failed to open again.



“…and that marked the beginning of the Triarchy and the modern era,” Twilight said almost reverentially. “Tomorrow night, we’ll examine Equestria’s expansion into an empire and a pan-dimensional culture.” She turned away from the screen for the first time in hours. “Have you any… questions…? Oh, for the love of Celestia!”

The alicorn realized that Caleb was sound asleep, his head lolled up against the back of the sofa. His empty coffee mug dangled from one finger, in danger of falling at any moment. And Willow was just as unconscious, her head on Caleb's leg and drooling on his trousers.

 

Twilight pouted. How could she get feedback on the presentation if neither he nor the mare stayed awake for its entirety? “Spike! How long have they been asleep?” she asked testily.

The dragon looked up from the comic he had been reading and put it aside on the stack of others he had plowed through during the evening. “I dunno. A couple of hours, I guess.”

She looked at him aghast. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

He shrugged. “You were on a roll and I figured you needed to rehearse the speech anyway.”

“Arrgh! We’re supposed to be helping Caleb learn about this world so he doesn’t feel so out of place.”

“Then don’t drown him in facts. He’s overwhelmed already.”

Twilight glared at him for a long moment but then deflated with a sigh. “You’re right. He’s obviously exhausted, mentally if not physically. We’d better let him sleep. I’ll take him up to his room.” She paused for a moment. “You told me that Willow slept with Caleb last night, right?”

“Yep. She had me fetch him a fresh robe in the morning.”

“Oh, good. That means he must be fine with sharing it with her. I’ll put them both in his bed. Bring Willow’s saddlebags, please.” The alicorn carefully levitated her two slumbering guests and carried them upstairs without waking them.

When she arrived at the room, Spike pulled back the sheets and she lowered the mare onto the bed.

“You’re not going to put Caleb into bed while still wearing his clothes, are you?” Spike asked.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. A little precision teleporting will fix that.” Her horn glowed brighter and Caleb’s clothing disappeared and reappeared in a pile at the foot of the bed. She then lowered him to join the mare. “Hmm… he does have some more hair. I must get him down to my laboratory soon to give him a thorough examination. After all, he needs to make up for sleeping through my presentation.” She pulled the covers over the two.

Spike shuddered in sympathy for the poor human as they left the room.

As the door closed behind them, Willow yawned and snuggled up against Caleb. With a soft smile of contentment on her lips, she fell back into her happy dream.

 


 

CHAPTER 10

 

Caleb woke to a pressing need to empty his bladder. As the events of the previous evening slowly trickled back into his brain, the sheer amount of coffee he had consumed was obviously the culprit. However, he wondered why he hadn’t used the toilet before going to bed. Then he realized that he couldn’t recall going up to his room, let alone preparing to sleep. Solving that puzzle would have to wait though. He began to extricate himself from the covers when he felt something pull him back.

“No-o-o… don’t go-o-o,” murmured a sleepy but familiar voice.

Suddenly, Caleb was wide awake and he glanced over his shoulder to see Willow beside him, one foreleg draped over his torso and a relaxed smile on her face. The mare had been asleep until his movement prompted her to pull him back into the comfortable snuggle. And when an earth pony wanted to hold you in place, you knew it!

“What the hell? What are you doing in bed with me, Willow?”

The earth pony’s eyes opened and focused on the human. “Hmmm? Oh. Good morning, Caleb.”

“Don’t ‘good morning’ me – why are you here in bed again?”

“Dunno. Last I remember was Princess Twilight droning on about… something. Nice place to wake up though.”

The events of the previous night came back and Caleb figured he’d passed out there too. “That doesn’t explain why we’re both here in bed together now.” He sat up and realized something else. “And I’m naked again! What’s with you ponies wanting to strip me nude all the time?!” He grabbed a pillow to cover himself as he stood up and headed for the bathroom. The answers could wait – his bladder could not.

“Why would you want to wear clothes to bed?” Willow retorted before he closed the door behind him.

As Caleb relieved himself, he considered her question. Frankly, he didn’t have a good answer. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t slept nude on hot nights, but that was by himself. And that did not even include the times he’d had sex with girlfriends. But it was a whole different scenario waking up to a pony whom he’d known for just a couple of days. The strange thing was that she seemed to think that there was nothing unusual about it. She had smiled when she greeted him this morning. Were all ponies like her or was she some weirdo with a kink for sleeping with other species?

Caleb decided that he needed to have a shower. Upon exiting to dry off, he saw his clothes piled neatly on the vanity. Willow must have brought them in without him noticing. That left him more confused. She considered clothes to be unnecessary but she had been thoughtful enough of his preferences to bring them to him. He sighed. He was never going to figure out females, even if they were another species.

When he emerged from the bathroom, He found Willow brushing her mane in front of the mirror. “The bathroom’s yours now,” he told her.

“Thanks,” she replied with a bright smile before heading there.

Caleb chose to put aside the incident. Willow seemed happier and more cheerful than ever and he was being the grouch about it. She had told him that ponies were very social creatures, so it wasn’t as if he hadn’t been warned. Besides, if they had both fallen asleep on the sofa last night, then it was fairly obvious who was responsible for bedding them both. He wondered how Twilight had taken off his clothes without waking him though. Then he groaned. Another mare had seen him fully naked. Who was next? Prince Mark’s wives? Maybe he should start selling tickets – Come see the amazing human! Watch as he puts on clothes for your titillation! Gaze in amazement as no mare allows him to undress himself!

The return of Willow dragged his thoughts away from that silliness. “Not taking a shower?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m okay. I’m hungry though. Let’s get us some breakfast.”

The man had to agree and they were soon on their way to the dining room.

To Caleb’s surprise, he found Vectrix there. The changeling grinned and said, “Good morning. I was wondering when you two would show up.”

“No alarm clock, so I slept until nature called,” the man replied as he seated himself at the table.

“Fair enough. You’re not on any schedule yet, although that might change once you sign that contract.”

“Where’s Twilight and Spike?”

“Princess Twilight has Day Court duties this morning, and Spike left to open the library.”

As Willow sat beside the human, she said, “I suppose that you’re here to bring Caleb to Prince Mark?”

“Yep, although I’ll still be helping both of you for the foreseeable future.”

The conversation paused while a maid came over to get the breakfast orders from the two. When that was done, Willow resumed her chat.

“What I want to know is why you in particular? You told me a lot about your task yesterday but why couldn’t that have been done by a pony, for example?”

“Changelings have resources that other species don’t. Besides, he already has you. As for why me in particular, you saw some of it yesterday, but it’s mainly because I’m not bonded.”

“What do you mean by that?” Caleb asked with a frown.

“Many of my generation of changelings of the Canterlot Hive form bonds with other species – ponies in particular. You will find quite a few of them paired with Royal Guards, for example, and several of the palace staff members have changeling partners. However, those drones are focused on the wellbeing of the one with whom they’ve bonded, whereas I’m open to the needs of others – in this case, you.”

“You want to bond with him,” Willow accused.

“A bond can’t be forced,” Vectrix retorted. “Queen Chrysalis chose me for the job because she determined that I was the best fit for the task, and that means that Caleb and I have the potential to form a bond. I can’t say that I am averse to that, but don’t make it sound like a conspiracy. We changelings have been doing this kind of thing for years with the approval of the Triarchy. Shards! Even one of Prince Mark’s daughters has a bonded partner. They’re inseparable. If it happens to us, I’d be delighted because it has benefits for both parties.”

Caleb said, “Yeah, I’ve seen what Lacewing and Allura can do. You and I are going to have a long talk about those supposed benefits later. Right now, the food’s here and I’m hungry.”

The man took his time because he didn’t have an appointment to keep and Vectrix didn’t try to hurry him. So it was about half an hour later before the three headed to Canterlot.

Chrysalis was not in the outer office this time, but the yellow earth pony secretary stationed there told Caleb to knock on the Prince’s door and go right in as he was expected. Mark looked up from the paperwork he was working on and put it aside upon recognizing Caleb. The alicorn got up from his chair to meet the human with a raised hoof which the man shook.

“I’m guessing that you’re happy with the contract?” Mark asked as he resumed his seat.

“Pretty much,” Caleb replied as he sat in a chair that suited his proportions that had been thoughtfully provided. He pulled the contract out of his bag and set it on the table. “Just a couple of questions before I sign on the dotted line.”

“Let’s get those out of the way then. Shoot.”

“When do you expect me to start?”

“Immediately, if you’re up to it. I’ll understand if you want to take a few more days to adjust though.”

“I’d rather stay busy to keep from losing my mind. However, I’d like to review my responsibilities and hours after I’ve had the opportunity to assess the job.”

Mark nodded. “I’m not going to quibble over little details, Caleb. It’s not as if we’ve got several other welding experts waiting in the wings. You represent quite a windfall for us, so while we do have backup plans, you’re easily our best option.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Caleb said with a grin. He shuffled to a page about halfway through the contract and pointed with his finger. “Anyway, what does the section about assisting me to find suitable accommodation entail?”

“While the Crown has been happy to house and feed you these past few days, that won’t be a permanent situation. As you will be earning a substantial salary, you will be expected to find a place to live in Ponyville where the trade school will be built. I suggest that you ask Willow and Vectrix about your options, but if you require a deposit for that purpose, we will give you an interest-free loan to cover you.”

The man nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I get it – Twilight Sparkle doesn’t run a hotel. I’ll look into changing my accommodations soon.”

“That’s not to say that you won’t be welcome to visit regularly. Phil and I wouldn’t mind another player for poker night,” Mark said with a chuckle.

Caleb grinned. “As long as you don’t mind losing. At least I’ll be able to pay off that loan quickly.”

“Don’t count your bits too soon,” Mark retorted. “Anyway, anything else?”

“I’m not clear on what my responsibilities extend to.”

“Because you’ll be running a school, albeit for teaching a trade, you will come under the authority of the Equestrian Board of Education. You will be supplied with an extract of the regulations pertaining to your school. As long as you comply with those rules, you are pretty much in control of every aspect of the job, including the staff that you will need to help run it. I will point out though that, as the school is sponsored by the Crown, the Triarchy is the ultimate boss. However, we’re very hooves-off, so unless you screw up badly, you won’t see us sticking our muzzles into your business.”

“I can live with that. Looks like I have a bit of studying to do. Anyway, next item…”

The human and the alicorn discussed the fine details of a few more points. Once those were sorted out, Mark had his secretary type up the amended pages of the contract and Caleb signed it.

Mark got out from behind his desk. “Seeing as you want to get straight into work, let’s go down to the workshop that you will be using until the new facility is completed.”

“Whoa!” Caleb said. “I need my protective gear first, and while I don’t mind walking around in bare feet most of the time, I certainly won’t do so in a workshop!”

The alicorn grinned and opened a cupboard, revealing a few boxes stacked within. He levitated the one on top and passed it to the man. “Firstly, the anthro-world’s Rarity completed the work clothes. They may not look as durable as leather, but she imbued them with toughness and heat resistance enchantments. There are two sets in there for starters and we can order more as necessary now that she has your measurements.”

Caleb opened the box to reveal neatly folded garments made from some sort of sturdy material… in fashionable pink with baby blue trim. ‘Oh well, I suppose that counts as hi-vis. At least I bet it’s comfortable.’ He looked back to the prince. “Rarity doesn’t make work boots though.”

“What’s your size?”

“Nine and a half.”

Mark peered at the remaining boxes and then pulled one of them out. “Here you go. I hope you find them satisfactory.”

Caleb opened the box to find a high-quality pair of steel-capped lace-up boots with zip sides. “How…?”

“Easy. I told you that I’m in business with Phil over on Earth. His company supplies PPE to the employees. I asked him to give me one each of several sizes which I was sure would fall in your range.” He levitated over another small package. “And those are a dozen pairs of work socks to go with them.”

The man chuckled. “You’re keen to get me started, aren’t you?”

Mark shrugged. “We’ve been putting everything together that we would need for a while now. Finding a suitable teacher was our only stumbling block. We’ve been trying to decide on a safe way to recruit humans without giving away the secret of the portal to Equus.”

“Fair enough. Give me a moment to change and we can head off to the workshop.”

“You can change right here. We’ll wait for you outside.”

Willow said, “I’m curious to see how you put on those clothes.”

Mark’s horn lit up and he started chivying her out the door. “Nope. Let the man dress in private.”

“Thanks, Mark.”

The alicorn gave him a knowing wink. “No problem. And call me ‘Boss’ now that you’re on the clock.”

Caleb chuckled. “Yes, boss.”

The man emerged from the office a couple of minutes later, his normal clothes bundled under his arm. As he had expected, the workwear was ridiculously comfortable. If he didn’t know better, Caleb would have sworn the pants, shirt, and long-sleeved jacket were made of silk. Time would tell if it was as durable as it needed to be. No gloves, eye protection, or face shields were included. Caleb made a note to himself to check for these at the workshop. He was also glad that Mark’s office did not have a mirror. Caleb was pretty sure that pink just wasn’t his color.

“Okay, let’s go.”

Willow looked him over as they walked and she smiled in satisfaction. “You’re certainly dressed to impress. Your students will know that they have a real professional teaching them.”

Caleb wondered what pony workwear looked like if this impressed the construction worker mare.

Mark took them through a different portal to Ponyville this time, and they emerged inside a medium-size workshop. While various types of equipment were set up there, Caleb could see that it was mostly old-fashioned. Some of it was hand-operated or hoof-operated more accurately. Some were belt-driven, perhaps from a steam engine. However, there were also some very modern electrically powered devices. They looked incongruous beside the older equipment. Several other items were still in crates or on pallets.

The alicorn said, “We’re in the process of modernizing this workshop. It’s the second one we’ve done – the first is currently in full production mode manufacturing goods bound for Earth. I think you’ll find these facilities adequate for your needs though. While some of this equipment is very basic, the welding equipment is all up-to-date. For example,” he moved over to an open crate, “in here we have a Tweco brand 400 Amp MIG welder. The actual torch has been removed to modify the handle for operation by hooves. As you may imagine, that’s a little tricky if you’re not a unicorn.”

“I had been wondering about that,” Caleb admitted. “Another thing that I’d like to know is how you get all this stuff through the mirror in your friend’s house. Do you have another portal to Earth?”

“Yep. Aside from needing a backup in case something goes wrong with the house portal, we needed something big enough to fit a small forklift and standard-size pallet. We have that set up in the other workshop and it leads to a secure warehouse on Earth. Finished goods are taken there while no humans are present, and a shutter closes access to the portal before the other door can open for the goods to be taken away. Of course, we bring in equipment and supplies the same way.”

“It’s a top-secret operation, I guess. Ever had anyone try to smuggle themselves in to discover your special techniques?”

Mark smirked. “As a matter of fact, yes. One enterprising employee of a rival company packed himself in a crate that was put with some others bound for Equus. He didn’t count on one thing though. Remember that adaptation spell on Phil’s mirror?”

Caleb nodded. “Yeah. You have one on the big portal too?”

“Only in the Equus direction unless we turn on the Earth direction deliberately. Anyway, he ended up as a batpony and freaked out. His fight-or-flight response instinctively activated his flight magic. After smashing into the ceiling and all four walls, our security guards finally got him pinned to the ground, fortunately before he hurt himself too badly. He’s currently working off his sentence laboring in a factory. Twilight enchanted a band around his neck that prevents him from approaching any dimensional portal.”

“I suppose you couldn’t just extradite him home. How long is he stuck here?”

“Six years altogether.” At Caleb’s surprised expression, Mark explained, “He got five for illegal immigration, criminal trespass, and espionage. He got an extra year for insulting the Triarchy.”

Caleb gave him a flat look. “I didn’t take you for being that thin-skinned.”

Mark shook his head. “It wasn’t me; he called Trixie a horse.”

The man heard Willow gasp without understanding why. “Well, that’s not far off from a pony, is it?”

“Put a ‘W’ in front of the way you normally spell the word.”

Caleb did so and it clicked. “Ooh, I see. And your wife didn’t make allowances for his ignorance, did she?”

“Not when a convicted criminal uses one of the worst insults, no. He actually got off easy. I had to talk Trixie down from ten years.”

“I’m surprised that he didn’t demand to be sent back to Earth.”

“He did. There’s no extradition treaty between our worlds and no laws compelling us to accede to his demands,” Mark replied with a smile.

“What happens when his sentence is up?”

Mark’s smile grew into a wide grin. “There’s also nothing to compel us to change him back to a human. We’ll see whether he’ll want to go back to Earth while stuck permanently as a batpony. There’s also the matter of his pegasus marefriend.”

The man pursed his lips. “Let me guess. Flight instructor?”

“Nope. Combination probation officer and hoof-to-hoof combat teacher. They both have very… ah… passionate personalities and hit it off immediately.”

Caleb smirked. “You mean literally?”

“Among other ways. As long as both are willing to pay for their own medical care from their shenanigans, I’m not going to stop them from spraining each other’s limbs.” Mark frowned. “So far, the collateral damage hasn’t involved anypony else, and that arrangement saved me from having to take more drastic measures.”

Caleb realized then that, despite the alicorn’s easygoing nature, he wasn’t to be trifled with. He decided to change the subject. “So, can I start setting up everything?”

“This facility is yours to do with as you see fit. You’re the manager as well as the teacher. You’re only answerable to the Triarchy, thus me as this is my special project. Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to your workshop assistants. While they will be under your command, I hope you will respect their opinions and local experience.”

“Don’t worry about that, boss. I’m still feeling my way around here. I sure won’t mind listening to anyone who would stop me making any stupid blunders like calling someone a horse.”

“Great! Well, I’ll let you get to it. You’re invited to have dinner with us this evening, by the way.”

“I’ll see you then. Have a great day, sir.” Caleb turned to Willow. “Want to help me uncrate all this stuff?”

Willow grinned. “I was feeling the need to get a bit of exercise. What do you want first?”



Caleb had to admit that they had not stinted on either the equipment or the requisite ancillary tools and gear. The electrical wall plugs were new – an American brand that he recognized. The switchboard and circuit breakers were also new and well-labeled. The pallets included a comprehensive supply of welding consumables such as arc welding rods of various grades, welding wire for mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminum, plus the various gases used for each type. Heavy aprons designed for protecting ponies and other species from weld spatter were not made from leather, but some kind of special material that escaped his ability to identify. Vectrix informed him that it was a magically enhanced cloth imbued with changeling resin. Caleb promised himself to test it before trusting his or anyone else’s safety to it. There were gauntlets designed to cover hooves, talons, and what he guessed had to be huge hands. Willow reckoned that they suited minotaurs or diamond dogs. Lastly, protective eyewear including modern welding helmets with self-darkening lenses.

The man set about placing and assembling every welding unit. He was a little cramped for room but that would only be an issue until the new dedicated school was completed. Willow helped him move the heavy equipment. She continued to amaze him by how much she could lift with ease. The one time he tried to warn her to not overstrain herself, she merely rolled her eyes and said, “Save it for the really heavy stuff. I can lift this crap all day!” Unable to contradict her, he let the mare do her thing uninterrupted.

Vectrix helped with the fiddly details. After Caleb taught him how to follow the assembly instructions, the changeling acted as another set of hands for the man. Vectrix faithfully helped Caleb construct every unit, picking up on everything that the man taught him immediately, even comprehending some things that Caleb hadn’t felt the need to teach him yet. Their teamwork progressed to the point that they didn’t need to speak to work their way through any task. Vectrix also fetched drinks and snacks when the man showed no sign of slowing down for lunch despite some hunger pangs.

Once everything was set up to Caleb’s satisfaction, he then started doing test runs at each station. Where a MIG unit was missing its torch, he moved one from a previously tested machine. Willow donned protective gear and followed Caleb’s every move, occasionally asking him questions.

Vectrix looked at the clock and frowned. “Caleb – we’re going to be late for dinner with Prince Mark.”

“Just a few more machines to test yet,” the man responded.

“They can wait until tomorrow!”

“No point in leaving it until then if we’re going to get anything productive done with the new assistants tomorrow. Willow, bring me two pieces of stainless, please.”

The mare lifted her welding helmet. “A couple bars of two-inch 316 good?”

“Yep, that will be fine.”

The changeling sighed and shook his head. It was obvious even to a non-empath that Caleb was obsessing over his work. He knew the man was trying to keep his mind off being stranded in this world, but he was going too far. He could taste the single-mindedness that was driving him, and Willow’s willingness to go along with everything the human wanted was only reinforcing it. While the mare’s influence was usually a moderating factor in Caleb’s emotional state, right now, it seemed to be backfiring.

“Please, Caleb – we are all expected for dinner at the castle.”

“Nobody’s stopping you, Vectrix,” the man replied, slightly muffled by the welding shield he lowered just then before beginning yet another test weld.

The changeling felt helpless. He couldn’t persuade Caleb to stop, nor could he abuse his abilities to force the man. With nothing left for him to do, Vectrix could only sit and wait. It was about an hour later when he heard the hum of approaching wings, a sound with which he was very familiar. Moments later, Iron Mare appeared and landed in front of him. There was a flare of magical green flame and the new arrival had split into the unicorn and changeling partners, Allura and Lacewing.

“What’s going on, Vex?” Allura asked. “Caleb and Willow were supposed to be back in Canterlot ages ago. Dad held up dinner for a while until he decided you weren’t coming.”

As usual, Lacewing finished the thought. “He sent us to find out if there was a problem.”

Vectrix gestured helplessly in the human’s direction. “He won’t stop. He has focused on his work to the point of mania. I recognized it too late to ameliorate it. If I tried now, he might collapse from the sudden withdrawal… or lose his temper.”

“Dad would be pissed off with you if you tried that,” agreed Lacewing.

“Aren’t they hungry by now?” the unicorn asked.

Lacewing said, “I can tell that Willow is at least.”

“Caleb is too, but he’s blocked the sensation,” Vectrix added.

“I know what we can do,” Allura said with a smirk.

Vectrix caught the whiff of deviousness. “What’s that?”

“If he won’t come to dinner, it’ll have to come to him.”

“I brought him snacks earlier and they barely slowed him down.”

“That’s because you didn’t do it right. Wait here – Lacy and I need to fetch our secret weapon.”

A moment later, the two were united as one again and they flew away, leaving their brother sorely puzzled.

It was about half an hour later when they returned with a large soup tureen. The duo placed it on the bench in front of Caleb and lifted the lid. The room almost instantly filled with the delicious aroma of its contents. The man stopped what he was doing and took off his welding helmet.

“What’s that smell?” he asked.

“Only the best vegetable stew in the world made by the Royal Chef. Want to try some?”

“Yeah, I’m feeling quite peckish.”

“Great!” The pair separated again, revealing that they had been carrying bowls, spoons, plus a ladle. Allura started doling out the contents into the bowls and Caleb sat down and hungrily tore into his, soon followed by an equally ravenous Willow. Vectrix hadn’t worked as hard as the other two, and he had gotten emotional sustenance from both, so his need for solid food was much less than theirs. Nevertheless, he gratefully savored his share. The other two started on their second helping before he finished his first. The earth pony followed the man’s lead and tore off pieces of a baguette before dipping it in the thick stew. Willow and Caleb happily chatted about their cultures’ dining customs while scarcely slowing down their food intake.

Vectrix drew his sisters away and asked, “How did you know that would work?”

Allura grinned. “The sense of smell is a very powerful thing, at least for non-changelings. It can evoke memories or feelings, and it can remind someone that they are very hungry. I asked the chef for something hearty with a strong mouthwatering aroma. That’s the result.”

“Can’t argue with success,” her brother agreed.

The changeling put aside his bowl and watched his charges. He waited patiently while they got stuck into a third bowl. Eventually, Caleb leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh.

“That was delicious. My compliments to the chef.”

“Would you like some tea to wash that down?” Allura asked.

“Got any coffee?”

“Sorry, just green tea. It’s very nice.”

“Okay, that’ll do.”

“What about you, Willow?”

“Yes, please,” she replied wearily.

“You sound tired,” Allura said as she poured the tea into mugs.

“Comes from trying to stop Caleb from doing too much of what should be a mare’s job.”

The man frowned at her. “You and I are going to have a chat about what constitutes whose job.”

Vectrix said, “I think you’re both going to have to come to terms with the other species’ concepts of who should do which work. Right now, just drink your tea, please.”

“Yeah, okay,” Caleb agreed. “I still want to get those last two machines tested.”

The scalding hot tea slowed his consumption though. By the time he finished it, his eyelids were drooping. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Willow blinked and smiled. “A nap would be good.” And then she lay her head down.

Allura giggled. “Right on cue!”

Vectrix looked at her curiously. “Did you put a sleeping potion in that stew? I’m not feeling it if you did.”

“Nah, it’s just food torpor. After Lacy and I have had a hard day, dinner tends to do the same to us, or at least mostly to me.”

“But our bond makes it affect me anyway,” Lacewing said.

Allura nodded. “Anyway, I figured it would do the same for Caleb. So now he’s fed and no longer obsessing.”

“Great. Now what?” asked Vectrix.

The unicorn blinked. “Umm… normally Lacy and I would go to bed before we got too sleepy.”

“I don’t want to wake Caleb up to do that in case he gets his second wind.”

Lacewing asked, “What did they do last night?”

Her brother frowned. “Spike told me that Princess Twilight put them to bed after they fell asleep during her lecture.”

“She did that without waking them? Sounds like a plan to me,” Allura said.

Vectrix nodded. “I’ll go see the Princess. You watch Caleb and Willow until we get back.” He hurriedly took off to Friendship Castle.

 



Twilight pouted at the sleeping human. “I was going to run tests on him this evening. Now I suppose I’m going to have to put them off again.” She sighed. “Oh well, an early night means more time for experiments tomorrow. Let’s get them to bed.” Her horn lit up.



A strong beam of sunlight came through the window whose curtains had not been drawn. It hit Caleb in the eyes, waking him up. He grumbled and turned over, away from the offending glare, only to behold the silver-grey face of Willow. She gave him a dreamy smile and said, “Good morning!”

“Oh, for fuck's sake, not again!”

 


 

CHAPTER 11

 

Willow giggled. “It’s not so bad waking up like this, is it?”

Caleb sighed. “I suppose not. It’s just that they keep throwing us in bed together without asking. And I can tell that I’m naked again.”

The mare stretched languorously. “I still don’t get what your obsession with clothing is all about, especially in bed.”

“You’d know why I want to wear at least pants if you had to cope with male genitals. Anyway, do you want to shower this morning?”

“Hmm?” Her head ducked under the sheets for a moment and her nose was wrinkled when she emerged. “Phew! We both need it. We put in quite a lot of work yesterday.”

“You can go first. It’ll give you more time to dry your coat and mane.”

Willow pushed back the covers and rolled off the mattress, landing neatly on all four hooves. “Thanks. Meanwhile, you’ll find something to wear before you have to take it off again to wash, right?” She smirked.

“Now you’re getting it.”

The mare giggled as she headed for the bathroom. The human leaned back into his pillow and sighed again. It seemed he was fated to be embarrassed by these nudist ponies, so he may as well get used to it. At least, he couldn’t complain about the sleep that he had gotten the past couple of nights. He could seldom recall being so well-rested. His stomach gurgled, reminding him that he needed breakfast.

“Time to stir your bones,” he told himself as he pushed away the deliciously warm covers. “Now, where are my pants?”



When Caleb and Willow entered the dining room, they found Twilight Sparkle there as well as Vectrix. The man reasoned that they had gone to sleep very early, so they had woken up in time to join the alicorn for breakfast.

“Good morning, Princess,” the man said respectfully.

She looked at the newcomers with bleary eyes. “Just *yawn* Twilight, please,” she replied sleepily.

Judging by the empty mug and lack of anything on the table in front of the alicorn, Caleb reckoned that Twilight had just risen and she was not a morning person. On the other hand, Vectrix looked bright and alert. “Would you be responsible for me and Willow ending up in bed again?”

“Partly. Princess Twilight did the actual deed.”

Caleb figured that getting mad at his host wasn’t going to achieve much, especially when she was still half-asleep. He would have a word with her in private later when she was more alert.

Spike walked in with a tray bearing food and a coffee pot. “Hi, there! I’ll get you two your breakfasts just as soon as I finish with Twilight’s.” He placed the tray on the table and put pancakes and syrup in front of the alicorn before pouring a cup of coffee. He left the pot with the alicorn. Without thinking, the purple mare wrapped a wing around it protectively. Spike smiled at the earth pony and human. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Twilight had already consumed half of her mug’s contents and was intent on demolishing the other half, so Caleb turned his attention to Vectrix. “So, what’s the itinerary for today?”

“You’ve still got two welding units to test, but you’ll want to meet your assistants first. That way, you can bring them up to speed with the new equipment.”

“Will they be learning how to weld too?”

“Yes. Originally, they were just going to learn the principles in so far as they affected their areas of responsibility. However, both expressed interest in doing the full course.”

“And what would their responsibilities be?”

“They will provide whatever is needed for your apprentices. Your assistants will offload you of tasks that would keep you from concentrating on teaching your special skill. For example, if you need a part turned in a lathe or an apprentice taught how to use that tool, your assistants will take care of it. You’ve seen the workshop, so the students will be able to work on practical applications of all kinds rather than just random pieces of steel welded together. Nikos is a smith and he’s interested in how the new technology affects his trade.”

“Nikos doesn’t sound like a pony name,” Caleb commented.

“That’s because he’s a minotaur,” Vectrix explained. “On the other hoof, Coiled Steel is an earth pony mare. She’s familiar with all workshop processes, whether it be bending, folding, drilling, or lifting. She was a workshop foremare before volunteering for this position, so she’ll be able to keep your students in line if needed.”

“They sound like interesting people to know. Anything else?”

“While Equestria has milling machines and lathes that can work metal, we don’t have anything like the CNC models in the workshop. Nikos and Coiled Steel are very keen on getting you to show them how those work.”

Caleb smiled. “And perhaps do some playing on them for their own special projects?”

The changeling shrugged. “You know how it is with big kids and their bigger toys.”

The man nodded his head and laughed.

Vectrix patted a folder that lay on the table to his right. “I have here the extract from the Equestrian Board of Education with the regulations that pertain to your school. There’s a caveat that these rules might need to be amended in light of experience with the new discipline, but as yours isn’t the only type of trade school in Equestria, it’s unlikely to be an issue. Anyway, I suggest you study it well before your first class.”

“Fair enough. I’m new to this side of things, so I’d better know my stuff before trying to teach.”

Twilight finished her second cup of coffee by then and was looking considerably more alert. “The E.B.E. comes under my area of responsibility, so if you have any problems, don’t hesitate to come to me about them.”

“I’ll do that, thanks.”

Spike emerged from the kitchen just then with a steaming pile of pancakes, so Caleb and Willow concentrated on their breakfast for the moment. The dragon also supplied both of them with coffee and fruit juice.

After a few minutes, Caleb asked, “Will Prince Mark be joining us?”

Vectrix shook his head. “Not today – he’s got other obligations to tend to. The time he spent with you on the search the other day left him with a bit of a backlog, so he and Queen Chrysalis gave me detailed instructions on what to do if needed. Consider me your right-hoof stallion.”

“Yeah, I suppose a nation’s ruler has only so much spare time.”

“The Prince did say that you’re always welcome to see him whenever he’s not holding a Court session. After all, this is still his special project.”

“I’ll try not to abuse that, although I already have a few things I’ll need to discuss with him before we get into full swing.”

“That’s not unexpected. There are always going to be unanticipated details in any new endeavor.”

Caleb looked at Vectrix keenly. “You know, for someone who is supposed to be a Royal Guard, you seem pretty up to speed on a totally unrelated professional project.”

The changeling chuckled. “Companions are different from most other changelings. Adaptability is our major trait, and I’m not just referring to our ability to shape-change. If we don’t bond with another being or quickly find a vocation that we enjoy, we go into a holding profession. We often serve the Crown or the Hive in some form until our circumstances change. I became a Royal Guard, as do many others of my kind.”

“So, what changed for you? Why were you really assigned to me?”

Vectrix sighed. “Am I really that easy to read? Fine. I admit that I approached the Queen for the job.”

“Why?”

“You passed by me in the castle and I felt a sympathetic pull. Remember what I told you about how we form bonds with ponies and other creatures? That is how it starts.”

Caleb frowned. “You mean that when you told me you hoped for that to happen to you, it had already begun?”

“I believed so. The time we have spent together has only strengthened that feeling.”

“What makes you think I will feel the same?”

“Caleb, look at me. While my form resembles a pony, I have a carapace rather than a coat. My wings are similar to an insect’s. I have fangs. My eyes are softly glowing orbs. We’re often called bug ponies but we’re something completely different – so different that many beings are repulsed by us at first sight. And yet, when we first met outside Prince Mark’s office, you were okay with me, and when we went to the tavern, we enjoyed a beer together like old buddies. Why is that?”

The man reviewed the event in his mind and realized that what Vectrix had said was true – he had been instantly comfortable with the changeling. “You’re right, I don’t normally warm up to strangers that quickly, especially someone who’s just thrust upon me. Yet I instantly felt like I knew you.”

Twilight spoke up. “My husband says that bonding occurs when your souls are in harmony. As that is one of the most powerful influences in this world, it’s hard to refute.”

“That’s… a little bit scary. It’s not quite like anything I’m used to back on Earth.”

Vectrix said, “That’s why I was trying to ease you into it. To me, it’s a wonderful thing to be desired. To you, it’s a frightening unknown. You told me that we would have to discuss the supposed benefits of being bonded, but I felt that you needed to experience some of them for yourself first. You already know about the tavern, but yesterday was more telling. We were working together without words for half the day, each of us instinctively knowing what the other needed. A partner bond is the most intimate relationship you will ever have, and I’m not talking about sex. We would share our joys and our sorrows equally. Our partners’ needs are our needs. We would hate being separated even for a short time. It’s both the most gravely serious and the most wonderful thing you would ever commit to. And it’s for life.”

Caleb frowned. “Commit? You make it sound as if I have a choice but it seems I have been willingly going along with this from the start like it’s a forgone conclusion.”

“I told you that a bond can’t be forced. While a changeling will never reject a bond, the potential partner has to go into it with a clear desire. You haven’t reached that point quite yet.”

“I see. When will I be?”

“When you don’t need to ask that question anymore.”

Caleb regarded the changeling for a long moment. He thought he could sense Vectrix’s barely restrained desire to complete their partnership. But it was too soon for the man. A lifetime commitment to a ‘bug pony’ was an enormous step that he was not ready to take yet. “You know, this would be a lot easier if you were a pretty woman doing the asking,” Caleb said with a weak grin.

“I could be if you wanted it,” Vectrix replied. “Shape-changer, remember?”

Caleb’s eyes widened. “What? Aren’t you male?”

“My sex is male, but my gender is whatever I want it to be. Like I said earlier, changelings are adaptable.”

“I thought you said a bond wasn’t about sex?”

“It isn’t, but it can be one of the perks.”

“O-k-a-y… That’s something I’m really going to have to mull over.”

“May I suggest that you do so later? We need to get over to the school,” Willow pointed out, a little irked at being left out of the conversation with her charge.

“You’re right.” Caleb pushed back his chair and stood up, happy to have the discussion put on hold for now. “Let’s get going.”

Twilight said, “I expect you here for dinner tonight. Don’t do what you did yesterday, please.”

“Will do, Your Highness,” Caleb cheerfully called back as he walked out the door. “I promise not to get any more distracted than you do when you receive a new shipment of books.”

The man heard a scandalized gasp from behind him. “I fail to see any similarity whatsoever! And I told you to call me Twilight!” she shouted to the rapidly retreating human.

 


 

CHAPTER 12

 

When Caleb, Willow, and Vectrix arrived at the workshop, they found a male minotaur and earth pony mare lounging around a rough wooden table, drinking coffee. Upon noticing their arrival, the pair stood up and waited for the newcomers to approach. The human felt their intense regard of him, assessing the unusual being that was going to be their boss.

When Caleb stopped in front of the two, he was more than a little impressed by the size of Nikos who stood a head taller than the human. On the other hand, the mare was only a little bigger than Willow. However, the corded muscles that defined Coiled Steel were the opposite of his friend’s lithe form. Both certainly looked the part of heavy-industry workers. It was time to formally introduce himself.

“Hello. I am Caleb Awad and I will be teaching the skills of modern arc welding. I’m told that you will be my assistants. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.” He held out his hand to the minotaur, hoping that it was a gesture that they used here.

Apparently it was because the minotaur took Caleb’s hand in his huge one and practically crushed it in an extremely firm handshake. “I am Nikos, master smith. Well met.”

The earth pony mare held out her hoof in anticipation of the same gesture. After giving his hand a subtle stretch to relieve the ache of Nikos’ grip, Caleb took her hoof and shook it.

“Coiled Steel, boilermaker 'n sheet metal worker. I was foremare of this here facility until they ope'd up the new-fangled one.”

Caleb thought he could detect some sourness in her voice. Perhaps the old school mare didn’t fit in so well in the modern factory. He decided to put a positive spin on things. “That’s great! That means that you have a thorough familiarity with all the equipment here bar the new welders. That will make teaching a lot easier with you to show the students the non-welding aspects of manufacturing.” He turned back to the minotaur. “I hear that you are also interested in welding.”

“A true master never stops learning,” the bull rumbled in reply.

“Well, then, I have two welding units left to finish setting up and testing. Let’s start off by doing that. You both can get familiar with the equipment and how it is configured. We’ll be starting with the most basic methods and materials.”

Caleb led the way to one of the incomplete units and turned on the power. He opened the valve to the cylinder of argon/carbon dioxide mixture and explained its use as a shielding gas. He then triggered the welding torch away from any materials to show how the wire fed out of the contact tip, pointing out the speed control on the wire feeder. He explained the different thicknesses and grades of wire for various applications. Then he ensured everyone donned Personal Protective Equipment from the stock available in the workshop: welding shields, hand/hoof protection, and a fireproof jacket or apron. After some awkwardness in getting them to fit properly, Caleb demonstrated a welding run. After using side-cutters to remove the unused wire from the torch, he laid down a bead on two pieces of scrap steel. Satisfied with the result, Caleb gave the demo sample to the minotaur who inspected it closely before passing it to his compatriot.

“Hmmph! Not bad,” Coiled Steel said grumpily. “What makes this better 'n brazin' though?”

Caleb replied, “Actually if you want to join dissimilar metals, brazing soundly beats welding. As long as the filler material is metallurgically compatible with both base metals and melts at a lower temperature, brazing can create strong joints with barely any alteration of the base metals’ properties. However, there are disadvantages to brazing which include producing lower strength joints compared to welding, producing joints that are not as well suited to high-temperature applications as welds, and the fluxes that are used in conjunction may contain toxic components. So, while there remain many applications where brazing is more desirable, as a boilermaker, you can appreciate the greater strength and safety of a weld.”

The mare reluctantly conceded the point with a grunt and a wave of one hoof.

Caleb turned to point out the other types of welders. “Besides MIG welding, I will also be teaching the students to use stick electrodes and TIG welding. Let me demonstrate each of those to you.”

After that was done, he went over all the safety procedures that both students and staff would be required to adhere to. He informed them that they would also be setting the standards which the Equestrian Board of Education would be codifying for all future trade schools teaching these skills. Then he had his assistants set up and test the final MIG welder. Nikos was allowed to try a welding run and he produced a rough weld. The minotaur frowned at the result but Caleb assured him that perfection took practice – lots of practice. Coiled also tried but the unmodified torch was too awkward for her to operate. The human promised that she would get the opportunity to try one of the customized versions when they were delivered.

“Could I give it a go?” Vectrix asked.

Caleb blinked in surprise. “Why didn’t you ask yesterday?”

“You were too focused on setting up the equipment and, well, I was too much in tune with you to do otherwise.”

The man realized that this had much to do with the growing bond the changeling was experiencing. “Okay, but you have hooves too, so you have the same problem as Coiled.”

There was a flare of magic green flames and then there were two Calebs. The new one held up a hand and wiggled his fingers. “Got that covered,” he said with a grin.

“That’s damned weird,” Willow commented, her eyes shifting back and forth between the two.

Vectrix shrugged. “Once I get the opportunity to scan other humans, I can take on different forms like that woman I mentioned earlier today,” he said with a wink in Caleb’s direction.

The man blushed and then hastily said, “Right. Well… get on with trying the welder.”

Vectrix nodded and picked up the torch. Lowering his face shield, he then proceeded to do a very good weld. He finished with a smile of satisfaction and then reverted to his normal form. “How’s that, teacher?”

Caleb inspected it and, to his experienced eye, it looked near-perfect. “How did you do so well on your first try?”

“I cheated,” the changeling admitted. “By copying your form, I also copied your muscle memory. I let that guide me. Right now, even if I could utilize the torch, I wouldn’t be able to replicate that weld.”

“I see. If you want to learn how to weld properly, there won’t be any shortcuts in the future.”

“Understood,” the changeling acknowledged without rancor just as a bell rang from one side of the workshop.

“What’s that?” Caleb asked.

“Loadin' dock,” replied Coiled. “ 'Scuse me a moment while I take care of it.”

The earth pony wasn’t gone long, but when she returned, she was carrying a crate so huge that it made the man’s back ache just thinking of how heavy it had to be. Nevertheless, Coiled treated it as if it was an empty cardboard box, putting it down in front of the others without the slightest sign of strain.

“What’s in there?” Willow asked curiously.

Coiled handed a sheet of paper to Caleb and a glance through what it said made his smile. “Ladies and gents, we have ourselves a batch of modified welding torches. I should have realized there would be lots more than just the ones supplied with the machines. There are too many different species to cater to.”

Nikos grabbed a crowbar and started prying off the lid. Moments later, the crate was open, revealing not only a couple of dozen welding guns but also protective gear for a large variety of students of different sizes and shapes. The human took out one of the modified torches, admiring the modifications.

“Hey, Coiled – want to give this a try?”

The mare grunted and nodded. Caleb fitted the torch to one of the MIG machines missing that essential piece of equipment. Then Coiled Steel put her upper pastern into a bracket on the handle which firmly held the gun in place while her hoof extended into a shroud containing the modified switch. The mare could activate the trigger with an easy flex of her hoof. When she felt comfortable, the mare then did a few test welds. While the results were amateurish, they weren’t terrible. Caleb figured that she would get a lot better with practice.

“Not bad,” Coiled conceded as she opened the bracket to put the welding torch aside. “I could learn to like this.”

“Damned with faint praise,” Caleb said with a chuckle as he turned to face the others. “And now, time for a break.”

They all opted for coffee. Fortunately, the two old hands had brought their own mugs as there would not have been enough to go around otherwise. Sipping on his scalding hot brew, Caleb decided to try to start up a conversation.

“So, this is where they started manufacturing goods bound for Earth before they constructed a new purpose-built facility. Where’s that?”

“Right next door,” Nikos answered. “The rail line is here, so the factory needed to be here also for convenient access to rail freight.”

“Oh? Can I have a look?” Caleb asked.

“Sure. Follow me.”

“What about us?” Willow asked.

Nikos shrugged. “Fine by me.”

The minotaur led them toward a large doorway through which the man presumed they brought in carts, but they exited through a small side door. To his right was a spur line of the railway. A ramp led up to a loading platform and a crane used for heavy goods. However, it was the new-looking building straight ahead that was their goal. The minotaur led them to a door marked – “Strictly Authorized Personnel Only. Trespassers Prosecuted. All Inquiries At The Front Office.” Nikos opened the door without hesitation and strode through. With a little trepidation, Caleb followed.

They were barely inside when the minotaur bellowed, “Hey, Sharp Bends!

An annoyed-looking blue unicorn mare with a yellow mane emerged from an office door marked ‘Foremare’ moments later, glaring at Nikos.

“I’ve told you not to do that! And what’s the idea of bringing unauthorized people here?”

“This is Caleb Awad, the head of the new welding school.”

Sharp Bends looked Caleb over. “So, you’re the human that I’ve been hearing about from the Prince. I’m curious to see how that works out. Pleased to meet you. I don’t suppose that there’s a problem letting you in here.” Her eyes shifted to Vectrix and Willow. “On the other hoof, why did you bring these two?”

Caleb said, “They’re my minders and assistants.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re allowed here.”

Vectrix brought out something from his satchel and held it up for the unicorn.

Sharp Bends’ eyes widened, then she nodded. “Okay, if that’s the case, you’re all welcome. I suppose you want to meet our interdimensional guest?”

Caleb was startled. “You mean he’s here? Yeah, I’d like to see him.”

“Follow me.” The unicorn trotted down the short corridor next to the foremare’s office and out onto the factory floor.

The facility was very modern by Equestria’s standards, and not too far behind Earth’s. Various automated machinery that the man did not recognize manufactured parts that went onto a production line where pony, changeling, and griffon workers were assembling and testing the goods. Beyond that was another set of machines and workers producing a different item. Caleb wondered what the products were that required such a degree of security.

They reached an area fenced off from the rest. Rather than bothering to enter, Sharp Bends called out to the workers inside. “Yo! Chipped Hoof! You’ve got a visitor!

Willow rolled her eyes. “I thought she didn’t like ponies shouting at the top of their lungs?”

Caleb chuckled but the yell had the desired effect. A deep blue batpony stallion with a black mane was coming their way from the direction of one of the assembly lines. A white pegasus mare with a yellow and blue mane tagged along.

The bat-winged equine called out, “You bellowed, boss?” Then his eyes widened as he spotted Caleb. “Whoa! A human in Equestria? What the hell? Why didn’t they change you into a pony, too?”

Sharp Bends said, “Ask him yourself. I’m betting because unlike you, he lacks ugliness.”

That earned a tight-lipped frown from the stallion which turned into a smirk. He raised his wings and threw his chest out. “Aha! So you admit I’m incredibly handsome.”

His boss didn’t miss a beat. “Just like how a frozen horse-apple is shinier than one you step in.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Sharp Bends rolled her eyes and muttered. “It’s true. All stallions are the same, no matter where they’re from.” She raised her voice. “Chipped, what you can take is your break early. You've got fifteen minutes.” She then turned to the human. “Please keep out of the way of the workers. Delta Vee can show you around. I'll be in my office, sir.” She then trotted off.

Caleb wondered what Vectrix had shown her that had made the mare so accommodating. That was something he would need to check later. Right now, he had a batpony to meet. He raised an eyebrow. “Chipped Hoof? I was expecting a human name. Are you or are you not the would-be industrial spy?”

The batpony grinned. “Yeah, yeah. My reputation proceeds me. My name is Charles Hoff, but I’ve been called Chip since I was a kid, so that’s what I told these guys. Believe me when I say it’s not my fault that they changed it.”

The human thought about it for a moment. Changing Chip Hoff to Chipped Hoof sounded exactly like what these ponies would do. He bent over and held out his hand to shake Chip’s hoof. “You still have it better than me. If it was up to Willow here, I’d be called Faithful Kindness.”

Chip blinked. “Tell me you didn’t let them do that to you.”

“I made the mistake of explaining what my actual name meant from its Lebanese origins. I’m Caleb Awad, and this is Willow Branch, my friend and minder, and Vectrix, my social worker.”

The changeling gave Caleb a flat look but refrained from saying anything.

Chip indicated the pegasus with him. “As Sharp said, this is Delta Vee, my minder, flying instructor, and hoof-to-hoof combat trainer, and more than occasional – Ow!” He rubbed a spot just beneath where his left wing met his barrel. He glared at the mare by his side. “Maybe I wasn’t going to actually say anything! Maybe you owe me an apology!”

“You were thinking it, which is more than enough. There are ways of introducing a mare that have consequences. Congratulations, you just found one.” Delta Vee finished stepping forward and lifted a hoof to shake Caleb’s offered hand.

Caleb gripped the outstretched limb Cautiously. He hadn’t seen the blow or even noticed the mare breaking stride. “Pleased to meet you. So… uh... combat trainer?”

Delta smiled. “Martial arts are a hobby of mine. When I found out that Chipped enjoyed it too, we started sparring regularly.”

Well, that jibes with what Prince Mark told me,’ Caleb thought. “Fair enough. Anyway, Chip, I was surprised to find you working here. I thought that you would be confined to some sort of work gang because of your six-year sentence.”

The batpony grinned and shrugged. “Where am I going to run off to? This whole world is my prison. I’m free to go anywhere I want to. If I hadn’t dissed the princess, I probably wouldn’t have even spent a few weeks in the dungeon.” He frowned. “Lemme tell you, that mare is scary when she's ticked off.”

“Isn’t there a portal to Earth here? Prince Mark mentioned it. Couldn’t you slip through it and go home?”

Chip pointed at a jeweled collar around his neck. “See this bling? It ain’t just for show. It prevents me from using the portal. The prince had me try just so I was convinced. Besides, I’d still be a pony. Not having myself be captured by the Men In Black, thank you. I have other plans.”

Caleb frowned. “What about when your sentence is up in six years? Prince Mark told me that he’s under no obligation to turn you back to a human.”

“Ha! He tried pulling that joke on me but I wasn’t buying it. Nah, his sense of humor might be a bit twisted but he won’t do that to me. Besides, I have other plans. Wait… did the Lions get to the Super Bowl either this year or last year? I have twenty bucks at five-hundred-to-one odds that they won the NFC. I could probably bribe Prince Mark to get that bet cashed in.”

The man laughed. “Great odds but bad bet. Sorry, bottom of their division again. They won’t get there in our lifetimes.” Caleb didn’t feel it was necessary to say that he was from a different Earth. There were some constants that he was confident held true across multiple universes. The Lions were just that bad.

The batpony pointed a hoof. “You let me know when you’re ready to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t let me down by backing out.” The stallion gave the man a piercing stare.

Caleb let the thinly veiled insult slide. “You said you had other plans… twice.”

Chip’s wings spread wide. “Oh, yeah! Some weekends, Spike and his little filly Sweetie Belle go out hunting for gems and I tag along. After six years, I figure I’ll have a hoard that any dragon would envy.”

Delta smiled. “If Spike doesn’t get hungry and gobble them all down as a snack.”

The batpony narrowed his eyes. “Don’t interrupt me. Naw, he ain’t gonna do that.” He looked back at Caleb. “Anyway, I’ll have some employees take the stuff through the portal and sell it in NYC in the Diamond District. Then they can bring luxury goods back through the portal which I’ll sell here. I’ll make a mint on both ends and I’ll be the richest pony in Equestria.”

Caleb was stunned. He couldn’t imagine not wanting to go back home. If every possibility of returning had not already been tried, he wouldn’t be here right now with a contract to honor. “Why wouldn’t you want to go back to being human? Don’t you miss your family and friends?”

Chip flared his leathery wings. “See these beauties? Do you know how fucking awesome it is to be able to fly? Delta and I go on flights every day after work. We also do a bit of strength and combat training if we’re not too tired. We do a lot more on the weekend. I’ve lost count of the minor injuries I’ve brought to work on Monday.”

Delta spoke up. “Chipped fails to mention that he’s not the only one to end up on the wrong end of a hoof.”

The batpony grinned and gave her a wink. For the first time, his smile reached to the corners of his eyes. “Or the right end of somepony else.”

The pegasus blushed and looked at the floor.

Chip turned his attention back to Caleb. “As for my family, I come from a small town interstate and I moved to the city to get work. So, visiting my folks in person isn’t something I could do very often. However, I chat on the phone with them regularly. When the portal is open, I can get a strong signal. My parents only have a flip phone, so I don’t have to worry about video calls. They’re happy that I have a steady job and a girlfriend. Delta has had a couple of brief careful chats with Mom too. No one can tell that we’re both ponies. As for friends, I hadn’t been at my old company long enough to make any. I’d barely made it past the ‘my boss actually remembered my name’ stage before I ended up here.”

Caleb realized that the man had pretty much gone native. That’s why the Prince hadn’t been particularly worried about the end of Chip’s sentence. Nevertheless, there were still some other problems. “Won’t your folks expect you to at least see them on Thanksgiving or Christmas sometime? I can’t imagine them letting you dodge them for six years. And then there’s the job that you’re supposed to be working on Earth. What if they call your workplace and they say that you don’t work there and haven’t for… how many months?”

“Seventeen by now, and yeah, we get along great,” the batpony answered. He gestured toward Vectrix with his right wing. “There’s your answer. Those bugponies copied me and took my place for long enough for ‘me’ to resign and take up employment with Prince Mark’s company on Earth instead. Since someone there knows exactly what’s going on, I’m legitimately employed for all intents and purposes. They tell me I’m still paying taxes to the IRS too!” Then his face fell a little. “As for my parents – that’s a little trickier. I don’t trust the changelings to pull off fooling my Mom and Dad.”

“You’d be surprised,” Vectrix commented.

“I don’t want to be surprised,” Chip retorted. “I want you to leave them the hell alone.”

Caleb didn’t want this talk to degenerate into an argument with the changeling, so he hastily changed the subject. “How did you end up trying to smuggle yourself in here in a crate? Don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

Chip shrugged. “I had food and water, and even a bottle to pee in.”

The human frowned. “I’m talking about shipping accidents. Goods are damaged in transit all the time. Stuff gets unloaded at depots and forgotten or lost for days. You might have gotten surrounded by heavy crates on all sides and suffocated. And that’s just getting to the destination! What did you think they were going to do with a mysterious shipment?”

The batpony waved a hoof lazily to brush off Caleb’s listing of the dangers to focus on the last bit “Nah, my old company had that covered. They had a man on the inside who would see to it that my crate would be put in the secure area. As soon as they locked up and I was alone, I was supposed to use my halligan bar get out of the crate and start snooping around. Just my luck that I didn’t get that chance. I was carted through the portal and things got weird.”

Caleb rolled his eyes. “You got lucky. If this had been an Earth facility, you’d be in jail right now. Whose idea was it to try breaking into the secure facility anyway?”

Chip grinned. “Mine. I was ambitious and wanted to climb the totem pole fast, so when I heard that my employers were concerned about how their competitor was beating the pants off them with their revolutionary new devices, I figured I could earn a lot of points by finding out how they did it. So, I went to my boss and he was all aboard with it. I was on my way two days later.”

Willow snorted. “You’ve been watching too many Flame Pond movies.”

“What would you know?” the batpony sneered. “If it wasn’t for this whole magic thing, I’d be enjoying the high life right now.”

Caleb decided that he had heard enough from Chip. “Delta Vee, Sharp Bends said you could show us around. Care to give us a quick tour?”

“Sure! Follow me,” the mare replied, turning around and trotting toward the nearest production line.

Everyone trailed after the pegasus and the human noted that the batpony looked irked to have had his soapbox pulled from under him.

Aside from the nature of the products and how they were manufactured, Caleb reckoned that this facility wasn’t too much different from several others that he had worked in. There wasn’t the same degree of automation, but the usage of magic eliminated a lot of complex machinery. Between unicorns and enchanted equipment, the output rivaled that of much larger set-ups. He was particularly impressed by the batteries and power cells that they made. The rated power, if accurate, put to shame the best that Tesla had to offer. Delta Vee explained that Mark's company was the world leader in the creation of metal ceramic alloys, two of which were used in the anodes and cathodes.

The pegasus mare led them to a second production line. By using unicorn magic to carefully control heat and pressure, the alloy’s grain size and composition could be controlled throughout the piece. This determined the ductility and strength of every portion of the forged part. After that, standard machining produced the finished product, in this case, high-performance auto parts. Looking to the future, the company was beginning the regulatory process to expand into the manufacture of spacecraft struts and panels.

A bellow from across the factory floor reminded their guide that their break was over. Caleb thanked Delta Vee and they headed back to the exit. Chip stopped Caleb with a hoof. “It’s been cool getting to know ya, Caleb. I can help you blend in with the natives. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.”

The human looked down at the batpony’s extended hoof before deciding to give it a firm shake. Just like Chip, Caleb’s smile didn’t reach all the way to the corners of his eyes. “See you around, Chipped Hoof.” After the batpony and pegasus parted ways, the group rejoined Nikos and they went back to their workshop.

As they walked across the yard, Caleb asked, “What were your impressions of Chip?”

“He’s full of horseapples,” Willow said contemptuously. “I’m glad not all stallions from Earth are that obnoxious.”

Vectrix said, “I could taste his deceptiveness. He was also very selective with some of the information he shared. For example, Chip ignored many of your comments but answered that he got along great with his parents even though you never asked. Honestly, it felt more like a sparring match than a conversation. Is this kind of thing common for when human stallions meet each other?”

Caleb shook his head. “No, not really.”

The changeling frowned. “Why would Chip do so then?”

“Well, no one wants to look like a fool, so he could have been acting defensively. Or he could have been testing me, seeing how I would respond to his aggressiveness, hoping I’d try to placate him.”

Vectrix smiled. “Aha! So humans are like timberwolves – always trying to take over the alpha spot.”

The man shook his head. “No, not always, and he seemed to give up on it after I didn’t react. He’s also very defensive about his parents.”

“That would be because he’s a mama’s colt,” the changeling explained. “When Prince Mark’s investigators checked him out, they found that Chip had gone to the big city to prove himself. And he certainly didn’t come up with the idea of sneaking into our secure facility. He was the only lowly employee dumb enough to take on some middle-level manager’s brilliantly stupid plan to discover our secrets.”

“Let me guess,” Willow said. “Chip was a pawn whom they could blame for ‘unauthorized’ espionage. The manager figured that his ego wouldn’t allow him to admit that he’d been set up – which is exactly what we saw today.”

“Pretty much,” Vectrix conceded.

“How do you know so much about him if you only got involved with me a couple of days ago?” Caleb asked.

“Queen Chrysalis filled me in on everything. She knew that you would inevitably run into Chip sooner or later and would be asking questions.”

“Fair enough. Then maybe you would know what Prince Mark intends to do when his parents insist on visiting him?”

“He’s considering giving Chip a day pass. Between the batpony’s ego, his genuine love of flying, his marefriend, and scheme to become wealthy, the Prince figures that there’s little chance of Chip blabbing or not wanting to come back. In fact, there’s more of a risk of unwanted snooping if he apparently refuses to visit his parents.”

Caleb snorted. “Yeah, some mothers are like that. So, what do you think his chances are of Prince Mark allowing him to carry out his get-rich-quick scheme?”

Vectrix tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Oh, assuming there is free trade between our worlds and ponies are a regular and welcome sight there… it’s a thousand times more likely that the Lions will reach the Stupor Bowl next season.”

Caleb roared with laughter.

 


 

CHAPTER 13

 

Upon their return to the workshop, Caleb ran through the basics of other tasks carried out in the welding shop: when pre-heating a piece is advisable, removing rust and slag with grinders and pneumatic needle scalers, methods of aligning and securing tools and equipment, checking dimensions and tolerances with mathematics and instruments such as Vernier calipers, and machine maintenance including cleaning and lubrication.

At that point, Nikos raised a hand. “I appreciate that those can all be just as important as the fun stuff, but when can we get back to playing?”

Caleb laughed. “Fine, fine! All work and no play, I take it?”

Coiled chimed in. “Nope! All work is fun. Just some more’n the rest!”

Caleb turned to Willow. “How about you?”

The earth pony smiled. “So long as I’m assigned to keep you out of trouble, I might as well learn something.”

The man grinned. “Something useful?”

“Hmmm.” Willow turned her head to the side and tapped her chin with a hoof before looking back at him. “I’ll let you know.” That drew a laugh out of Caleb.

Willow, Nikos, and Coiled were all practicing with stick electrodes when Vectrix announced that he was going to fetch lunch for everyone.

Caleb raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were interested in everything I do?”

“I am,” the changeling replied, “but I don’t plan on making a career out of welding. Instead, I think you’re going to need me for another role.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“This may be your trade school, but you’re going to be mostly concerned with the teaching aspect. You’ll need somepony for the administrative side of things. Somepony who knows every facet of what is needed to run it. Princess Twilight started the School of Friendship, but even she needed a headmare to run it because of all her other obligations.”

Caleb nodded. “I see. So, by learning what’s involved in welding, you will understand all of the school’s technical requirements.” The man chuckled. “Still trying to push that indispensable Companion agenda of yours, are you?”

“Yep. Is it working?” Vectrix replied with a grin.

“Seeing as you know when to feed me, I’d say it’s possible.”

“Anything, in particular, you’d like?”

“Let’s see if you’re beginning to know me well enough. Surprise me.”

The changeling chuckled. “Okay. How about you, Willow?”

“I’ll go with whatever Caleb gets as long as it’s suitable for a pony.”

Nikos and Coiled indicated that they had brought food, so Vectrix headed off.

Everyone continued their welding practice until the changeling returned and they all stopped for lunch. Caleb was given a tuna sub with lettuce, cheese, tomato, and olives. Willow got a salad sub with extra pickles and sweet onion sauce.

“How’d you know I like pickles?” the mare asked between bites.

“A good Companion observes not only their partner but also those close to them. I saw your dinner preferences.”

The mare grinned and turned to Caleb. “He’s a keeper.”

The man just rolled his eyes. That caused his gaze to land on Coiled Spring and specifically, her choice of cuisine. Nikos eyed the earth mare dubiously as she nibbled on what could only be spicy chicken wings. Caleb shrugged. To each their own.

After lunch, Caleb messed with the settings of the MIG machines to test his students’ knowledge of what they had learned. Nikos corrected his properly but Coiled Steel and Willow needed a bit more coaching. Then the man showed them how to identify problems that were related to incorrect wire feed speed, gas flow, or amperage.

“A good solid earth ground is also a must, but while we can attach the clamp directly to the work, it can be simpler if we have a suitable workbench upon which to place the materials. The grounding clamp can then be permanently in place and out of the way. Therefore, your first real project will be to make some basic workbenches. While they will all serve the same function, I want them of various sizes to suit the needs of different species. In other words, everything from minotaur size to small pony size. I am assuming that will cover our needs. While I don’t expect your welds to be perfect yet, it won’t matter for these although I require you all to do your best.”

Caleb drew a rough sketch of what would be required that included measurements. He got them to make scaled up or down versions which he double-checked before giving them the go-ahead. After the three determined what they needed, they set about fetching and cutting materials before starting the actual welding process. The human watched their progress and made corrections to their welding technique. By late afternoon, they had three workbenches completed.

Caleb nodded in satisfaction. “Great work for your first day, everyone. Now you all know how I plan to start the curriculum. So far, you’ve been working with mild steel. We’ll get into welding other materials like stainless steel and aluminum later in the course. Speaking of which, does anyone know when we’re officially starting?”

Vectrix said, “The first group of students will be here Monday morning at eight.”

Caleb realized he didn’t have a clue what day of the week it was here in Equestria. “When’s that?” he asked with some embarrassment.

“Today’s Friday,” Willow informed him. “You’ve got the weekend to relax and get ready.”

“What the hell? That soon? I can draw up a class schedule for the first week but there’s no way I can get all the regulation steps done in time.”

Vectrix said, “I can offload you of those, but we’ll need to get together for a couple of hours on Sunday to review and finalize.”

“OK, thanks. I also need to see Prince Mark before then.” Caleb turned to his assistants. “I’ll let you go now and I’ll see you here on Monday at, let’s say, seven-thirty.”

The smith agreed but the foremare just grunted and nodded.

Caleb headed for the exit, looking back over his shoulder at Willow and Vectrix. “Come on – I want to catch the Prince before he quits work for the day.”



No one was seated at the assistant’s desk in the outer office, but Caleb could see Chrysalis and Prince Mark discussing some plans that were lying on his desk. The man knocked on the open door to get their attention. Chrysalis shot a glance at Caleb before quickly closing the file in front of her. She then stepped out of the office silently but not without a hard stare at Vectrix who flinched under her gaze.

Caleb looked back to the alicorn and asked, “Am I interrupting something?”

Mark smiled. “No – just some boring business stuff. How can I help you, Caleb?”

“I’ve just spent the day with Coiled Steel and Nikos getting them up to speed with what I’ll be doing next week. You’ve done a great job of fitting us out but there are still some materials and tools we need if you wish to do everything properly.”

“No problem. We want the trade school one hundred percent capable of teaching every aspect of welding. Give the list to Chrysalis and she’ll see to it that it all gets supplied. You won’t need it all immediately, I hope?”

“Nope. I have everything I require for the beginning classes. Speaking of which, I hadn’t realized we’d be starting so soon. It’s been rather a crash course for me as well as my assistants.”

“We’d be starting tomorrow if it wasn’t for the weekend and several of the students have to come from distant places. Monday was the soonest I could get them all together.”

Vectrix said, “Plus that gives Caleb and me enough time to jump through the EBE’s hoops.”

Caleb acknowledged his partner’s help with a nod then turned back to the prince. “You’re that eager to get the school off the ground?”

“We’ve been stuck without an instructor for a while. We’re not ready to open up to Earth yet, so when you appeared, the project was fast-tracked. As soon as we were sure you would sign up for the job, we submitted the forms to the Equestrian Board of Education and informed the prospective students. You’ll find that they will be equally eager to learn as they have been waiting so long for the trade school to open.”

“Nothing like jumping in the deep end,” Caleb muttered.

“Sorry about that.” When the man looked at him with surprise at being heard, the alicorn pointed at his ears. “Ponies have great hearing. Anyway, anything else you needed to talk about?”

“As a matter of fact, you mentioned visiting Earth so that I can pick up some personal stuff I can’t get here. I understand from Twilight that the time of day and day of the week are synchronized between worlds. So, since it’s the weekend, perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”

Mark shook his head. “Sorry, but I’m committed to family activities for both days. However, I can have a word with Phil to see if he can accompany you.”

“That would be appreciated.”

Vectrix said, “Would it be okay if I go with Caleb, Your Highness?”

The alicorn raised an eyebrow. “Is there any particular reason why you want to do that?”

“I’d like to get more familiar with humans and their culture. It would help me relate to Caleb better.”

Mark considered it for a moment before nodding. “Alright, but you will need to strictly follow any instructions that Phil and/or Rosa give you. Let Chrysalis know and she will put you in touch with her chief Earth operative who will provide you with a temporary human identity.” He then looked at Willow. “Are you going to ask to go too?”

“Me?!” squeaked the mare. “What would I do there? And wouldn’t a pony like me stand out?”

The alicorn smiled. “We have ways around that. Just ask Caleb later. Anyway, if that’s everything, I’ve got a bit more paperwork to finish before dinner. I’ll send word to you tonight to confirm that tomorrow’s trip is on. Oh! We’re having a poker night on Saturday at Twilight’s place if you’re interested.”

The man grinned. “I’ll be there.”

“Great! Now shoo! An alicorn prince’s work is never done.”



The trio headed back to Twilight’s castle for dinner although they had to wait for her to arrive. They chatted with Thorax in the meantime. The purple alicorn came almost immediately after her afternoon session of Day Court was done, apologizing for keeping them waiting. Their meal had just finished when she inquired about their plans for the evening.

Caleb replied, “Vectrix is going to take us to his favorite bar in Ponyville.”

“I see. I suppose you can still do that after I’ve had my chance to run some tests on you in my laboratory.”

Caleb froze. “Say what?”

“Oh, I’ve been dying to do scans and a reasonable number of medical procedures on you since you arrived in Equestria. It’s not often that I have access to a true human. I’m afraid a changeling imitating one just doesn’t work.”

The man frowned. “Pardon me, but are you a licensed physician? A doctor of medicine?”

“No, although I have heavily studied many aspects of the biology of various Equestrian species.”

“Then I decline,” Caleb said with finality.

This time it was Twilight’s turn to blink in shock. “What? But why?”

“I’m under no obligation to be your guinea pig. If you want details of my biology, ask Doctor Bellows. He gave me a very thorough examination. He might share that data with you.”

The alicorn gaped at him. “But… but… nopony has ever said ‘no’ before. I always run tests on anything new.”

Caleb pushed back his chair and got to his feet. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a pony. Now, my friends and I are going to have some beers and socialize with the natives. Good night, Princess.” He headed out of the door while Willow and Vectrix hastily said their farewells and followed.

Twilight turned to her husband and pouted. “But he owes me! What about all the time I invested presenting An Introduction to Equestria and the World of Equus?”

The changeling king put a comforting hoof around her shoulders. “Sorry, love, but Caleb’s right.”

Spike chuckled. “Face it, Twilight – it had to happen eventually.”

The mare’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe I can get Mark to persuade Caleb to cooperate? Or I could revise the EBE guidelines to include an ultra-thorough physical?”

Both males sighed in exasperation.

 


 

CHAPTER 14

 

“Wow! That took a lot of guts to say no to Princess Twilight,” Willow said as they stepped out of the alicorn’s castle. “Aren’t you afraid she will pay you back for that?”

Caleb shook his head. “She may be presumptuous and overzealous in her pursuit of science, but she’s also the Princess of Friendship. She’ll get over it. Heck, I might even let her do some scans someday as long as she goes about it the right way instead of just assuming I’d drop everything and willingly be her lab rat.”

“Still, she’s not going to be very happy. You are her guest, after all, and a little favor in return wouldn’t hurt.”

The man frowned. “It’s not like I asked for any of that. Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for all their help. However, because I’m stuck here, I’ll end up doing a lot more for Equestria than they have done for me.”

Vectrix said, “Forgive me for being selfish, but I’m glad that you’ll be staying.”

Caleb smirked at him. “Yeah, I know. Can’t say I blame you if I’m understanding your situation fully.”

Willow nudged the man with her shoulder. “Well, I’m glad you came to Equestria because I’ve been enjoying myself more than I’ve done so in years.”

“You two have really helped me,” Caleb admitted. “You’ve kept me sane in this crazy situation. I think if I was left by myself, I’d go nuts before long.”

“I guess we’ll just have to keep you entertained,” Vectrix said. “That’s why I’m taking you to The Bucking Mare tonight.”

Willow gave the changeling a startled look. “You think he’s ready for that?”

“Yep. Besides, he needs to see all sides of pony culture.”

The mare shrugged. “I suppose so. It’s been a while since I’ve patronized that bar. It should be fun.”

The man gave the two a doubtful look. “What are you two getting me into?”

“Let’s just say that you don’t go to that bar for a quiet drink,” Willow said with a mischievous grin.

When they arrived at The Bucking Mare, Caleb thought he understood the earth pony’s cryptic comment due to the loud music that could be heard from outside.

Not so different from many bars back home,’ he thought as they headed for the door.

That conclusion rapidly flew away as soon as he got inside. To the right was the actual bar, but to the left was a large area with tables and chairs that faced a stage. Performing upon it were two mares – an earth pony and a unicorn. Both wore bridles and harnesses that looked more for show than practicality, but they were otherwise just as nude as the average pony. What boggled Caleb’s mind was that they were pole-dancing, and their routine was both very professional and left little to the imagination.

“Pony exotic dancers – now I’ve seen it all,” Caleb murmured, unable to tear his eyes from the sight.

The crowd was a fairly even mix of mares and stallions, but both were enjoying the performance of the two very flexible mares on the stage.

“I found us a spot!” Vectrix declared, breaking the man’s fixation on the dancers.

Caleb shook his head and followed… a black stallion with a green mane who spoke with the changeling’s voice.

The pony turned and winked at him. “Yeah, it’s me. Just changing things up for the occasion.” He led them to a table where a pegasus couple was cuddling and kissing. When they saw Vectrix arrive with Willow and Caleb, they waved, got off their chairs, and headed out, wing-in-wing. “Take a seat,” the changeling said. “Those two had gotten in the mood to do more than watch.”

Caleb said, “Vectrix, some things are universal and don’t need any explanation. Still, I never expected this.” He turned to Willow. “Are you cool being here?”

“I’m fine if you’re fine,” the mare replied.

“Okay. So, let’s get ourselves our drinks.”

They hailed a waitress and ordered their libations. Soon, they were all sipping their drinks, listening to the music, and watching the dancers. While Caleb was ambivalent about the suggestive nature of the performance, he had no doubts about the skill and creativity. Meanwhile, Willow was picking up some tips. With her flexibility, she could duplicate all of those moves, but whether she could match their artistry was another question. She looked at the human and observed his enjoyment of the show. Maybe with an appreciative audience, she could give it a try.

Vectrix was quietly congratulating himself. Bringing Caleb here had been a bit of a gamble, but his instincts had been correct. The man was relaxed and happy while Willow was opening herself up more and more. He wondered if she realized how much she meant to his hopes. He was certain that the human was his destined Companion but the bond was being very slow to develop. Part of it he knew was because of Caleb’s resistance to the concept, but there was also the feeling of alienation due to being stranded in a very different universe. Outings like these would help, but he sensed that the mare’s relationship to the human was also going to be the key to unlocking Caleb. It was not enough to make him welcome – he had to feel at home. And home was not just a place – it was people. Vectrix intended that he and Willow would be at the forefront of those people but it might take a bit of time for his efforts to bear fruit. Meanwhile, he would enjoy the beer and the company.



The three were pleasantly buzzed but not drunk when they wandered back to Twilight’s castle while enjoying the clear evening air. They had barely stepped inside before Spike came hastening up to them.

“I’m glad I caught you. Prince Mark left word for Caleb to meet Phil at the portal room tomorrow at ten.”

“Thanks, Spike,” Caleb said. “You could have just left a note in my room though.”

“Yeah, no. I didn’t want to risk you wandering into the living room. We spent a lot of time persuading Twilight not to persist in hassling you for her tests and we don’t want to set her off again.”

“Is she always this bad?”

“Not really since everypony normally cooperates, as she said. I think she has a hard time grasping that not everyone is interested in furthering science in that manner.”

“I might have been a bit more amenable to the idea if she hadn’t just laid it on me like that,” Caleb admitted.

Spike held up both his hands in a stop motion. “Whoa! Don’t mention that to her – she’ll never quit. Best to avoid her as much as you can. Any progress with finding digs for yourself yet, by the way?”

The man shook his head. “I haven’t had the time. Perhaps tomorrow after my trip to Earth.”

The dragon nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Well, I’d better head straight up to my room, I guess. It’s a bit early to go to bed yet though. Would you be interested in a game of cards?”

Vectrix grinned at the man. “I don’t suggest playing poker. You can’t bluff changelings.”

Caleb grimaced. “Right. That emotion-sensing thing. Okay, let me introduce you to a card game that my family calls ‘Oh, Hell!’. The first rule of the game is to come with a sense of humor!”



“Urk! Not… Guk! sorry,” Vectrix choked out as Caleb mock-strangled him.

Spike and Willow laughed at the man’s antics – schadenfreude was strong right then. Caleb had been poised to win the game, only to be beaten by a lowly Two of Hearts. Winning the game was only half the objective – making the other players lose in frustrating ways was the other. Vectrix had been masterful in the execution of the latter. He wasn’t even the overall winner – that honor was claimed by Spike.

Caleb released his victim who smirked while the human pouted. “You’re not supposed to be that damn good on your first try at the game,” the man complained.

“We think the same way at times like these, so of course I caught on quickly,” the changeling replied.

“I never knew a card game could get so physical,” Willow commented. “But it was certainly fun. We’ll have to play this again sometime.”

“Yeah, you can count me in for a rematch,” Spike said. “I’ll have to defend my title, after all.”

“What title?” Caleb asked.

“First grand champion of ‘Oh, Hell!’ in Equestria, of course!”

The man had to admit that the dragon had a point. “Well, we’ll pencil it in for next weekend. Right now though, I think I’d better hit the sack. I don’t want to oversleep tomorrow morning.”

Spike got up and headed for the door. “That’s my cue to say goodnight. Sleep well, folks.”

Vectrix said, “Before Caleb decides to have another try at choking me to death, I reckon I’d better head out too. I’ve got to prepare for the trip to Earth.”

“Okay, I’ll catch you in the morning in Canterlot,” the man replied.

As the door closed behind the changeling, Caleb looked at Willow who was still seated and was showing no signs of getting up. He raised a querying eyebrow at the mare who looked away, biting her lip. “Haven’t you got a home to go to, Willow?”

She nodded. “Of course I do.”

“And you’re still just sitting there why?”

The mare turned back to him, a pleading look in her eyes. “I’d rather stay here with you tonight.”

Caleb blinked in surprise. “You’re neither half-drunk nor passed out from tiredness, so you won’t be mysteriously ending up in my bed yet again. So, why do you want to stay? Afraid of walking home by yourself in the middle of the night?”

Willow snorted contemptuously. “I’m a trained soldier – anypony trying to mug me would come off second-best.”

“The question still stands.”

For a long moment, Caleb thought that the mare wasn’t going to reply. Then she sighed and said, “Because I haven’t slept so well in years. And for the first time since I lost my fiancé, I haven’t had nightmares for three nights in a row.”

Caleb was stunned. He moved his chair next to Willow’s and put an arm around her withers. “Want to tell me about this problem?”

Willow reluctantly nodded. “Blazing Shield and I had been promised for a couple of years. We had our big plan – we would save most of our pay to buy a house for ourselves and start a family. We finally put enough together to purchase a little cottage on the outskirts of Ponyville. We took all our belongings out of the barracks and moved in immediately. Then, when we were settled in, we intended to have a combination marriage and housewarming party. The day before the wedding was scheduled to occur, we were deployed to deal with the threat of Grogar. It was frustrating, but that’s what happens sometimes when you’re in the military. What neither of us dreamed of was that only one of us would return. That cozy little cottage felt so empty and cold.”

The mare sniffled and wiped her watering eyes. “I couldn’t get to sleep for three days. On the fourth, I took my Captain's advice and asked for a compassionate discharge. That night I drank myself to sleep. Same for the next several nights before I finally dragged myself out of the bottle and stopped feeling so damned sorry for myself. I was a military mare, not wussy colt! I volunteered for reconstruction with the Equestrian Damage Control Corporation. That’s how I got into construction work. Ever since then, I have lived by myself in that cottage and kept as busy as possible during the day so that I don’t have much time to think. I go to bed exhausted most nights but I never sleep well. Almost every night I have nightmares – mostly of how Blazing died so horribly in the jaws of one of Grogar’s monsters.”

“Doesn’t Equestria have mental health services?” Caleb asked with concern.

Willow nodded. “It does, but I was too proud to ask for help, and since I was an active member of society again, I was not forced to undergo counseling.”

“It can’t have been good living all by yourself though. Wasn’t there an alternative?”

“I told you earlier that my parents were killed. I have two sisters, but they’re in the army and live in the barracks. I can’t stay there because I’m no longer in active service – reserve status doesn’t count. I literally had no place else to go.”

Caleb frowned. “I’m told that the battle with Grogar happened many years ago, so couldn’t you have found someone… somepony else to fill your life?”

“I felt I didn’t need anypony. I didn’t want anypony else. Oh, I hung out in the bars with the mares and ogled the stallions, but my heart was never really in it. So I kept going home to my empty bed with the promise of yet another nightmare. And then, one day, I woke up in bed with you. For the first time in years, my sleep had been undisturbed and I felt rested. The next night was even better because I had no hangover. The third night, I could feel your presence comforting me and I had the first really pleasant dream since before Blazing’s death. I woke up at peace with myself at last.”

“Willow, I’m not a replacement for your dead fiancé.”

The mare gave the man a gentle smile, her eyes brimming with emotion. “You could never replace Blazing Shield – he and I had a special relationship. But that relationship came to an end years ago. I’m not saying that we have one yet but I feel something with you that I haven’t in a very long while. I feel safe with you. I don’t know why – we only met a few days ago, but I love the feel of you being there with me in bed. We’re herd creatures, Caleb, and I was foolish to ignore that. Now that I’ve had a taste of it again, I don’t want it to go away. So I’m asking you again – can I stay with you tonight?”

“I… well… I’m not used to the idea of sharing a bed with someone who isn’t a human.”

Willow raised an eyebrow. “Was it so bad sharing it with me?”

Caleb had to admit that, up until the moment he had realized who was there with him, it had felt quite nice to have someone to cuddle up to. Just because the revelation had shocked him didn’t change the fact that it had been harmless and pleasant. Did it really matter if that someone was a pony? “No, it wasn’t,” he admitted.

“Then, can we go to bed now?”

The man sighed. “I give up. Sure – go ahead. But I’m not sleeping nude!”

Willow giggled. “You’re so silly, but I can live with that.” She slid out from under his arm and trotted over to the bed. After pulling back the covers, she jumped onto the mattress and patted a spot next to her. “Coming?”

Caleb shook his head in wonder. How had he ever gotten himself into this situation? He turned off the main lights, leaving the room illuminated solely by a small bed-stand lamp. He then stripped down to his undershorts before joining the mare on the bed. He turned off the lamp, pulled the covers over both of them, and settled in.

After a few moments, Willow murmured, “Caleb?”

“Yes?”

“Would you cuddle up close to me, please?”

The man considered the request and then shrugged. He did as he had been asked, one arm going over the mare’s barrel. It felt odd but pleasant at the same time. He realized then that he had missed company in bed too. He sighed and relaxed completely. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard a whisper.

“Thank you.”

 


 

CHAPTER 15

 

Something jostled Willow, interrupting her sleep. Opening her eyes, she saw Caleb frowning at her.

“What are you doing in my bed? Again!?” the man asked in an annoyed tone.

Still half asleep and completely flustered, she said, “But I told ... you said ... I asked...” Then Willow noticed him smirking. The earth mare huffed, expanding her nostrils. “You're just messing with me, aren't you?”

“Yep. I thought it had become traditional by now for me to ask that question.”

“You couldn’t have just let me sleep in?”

“Nope. You’re lying on my arm and you kept resisting my attempts to get it free without disturbing you.”

“Oh!” She rolled away from him and freed his appendage.

Caleb shook his arm. “Bleah! It’s gone to sleep.”

“Sorry about that,” the mare said as she got out of bed.

“Don’t worry about it – this is not the first time it’s happened. Probably not the last. Anyway, I better have my shower. I want to leave plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast before heading to Canterlot.”

Willow checked the clock. “I think we’ve missed breakfast here at the castle.”

“Maybe. It’s the weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone is a late starter. However, I plan to avoid Twilight and grab something from Sugarcube Corner.”

“Good idea. If you’re prepared to wait a few minutes, I’ll join you. I’ll settle for freshening up for now.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Caleb agreed as he headed for the bathroom with his clothes in his arms.

About half an hour later, the human and the mare exited the castle and made a beeline for Sugarcube Corner. The business had lots of customers but they were still able to score a table for two. They both ordered pancakes but while Caleb added only maple syrup, Willow heaped hers with berry compote. They each had coffee to wash it down but the man also had a glass of orange juice.

“Gotta have the vitamin C,” he explained. “Anyway, what are your plans for the morning?”

“I intend to go back to my place after breakfast to do some chores. I’ll meet you at the Canterlot portal room when you get back. How long do you think you’ll be?”

“I’m not sure. I intend to get several pairs of shoes, some more clothes, and a few knick-knacks, depending on what my hosts are willing to spend on me. I’ll probably have lunch there too. Let’s say I’ll be back between one and two o’clock.”

“Okay, I can work with that.”

After they finished their meals, they parted ways. Caleb hustled to the portal room in Twilight’s castle. The Royal Guards posted there greeted him.

“Good morning, sir. You’re expected – go right ahead.”

“Thank you.” He stepped through to the Canterlot portal room and found himself nearly face-to-face with a human.

And not just any human but a very attractive woman. She stood almost as tall as him, had a medium build, wide hips, and a fairly large bust. Her skin was similar in shade to Caleb’s and her black hair hung straight below her shoulder blades. She wore a low-cut, fitted silk blouse that revealed a little bit of cleavage and a skirt that stopped just above the knees, showing off her legs. Her ensemble was completed by a tasteful silver necklace bearing an emerald and a pair of glossy black flat shoes. Her blue eyes twinkled as she smiled at him.

“You’re a little early, Mister Awad.”

“I’d rather be early than late. I was expecting to meet my pal, Vectrix, and Prince Mark’s friend, Phil Martine – are you his assistant or acquaintance?”

“I have yet to meet Mister Martine. My name is Victoria Channing, but you can call me Vicky. I will be accompanying you.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Channing, although I don’t know why you would be coming with me to do some shopping for myself.”

“I take an interest in everything you do, Caleb.”

“Why is that, Vicky…” The man’s eyes widened. “Vicky Channing? Vectrix Changeling?!”

The woman grinned and held up her arms to spin around to show off her form. “In the human flesh! Like it?”

“But… you’re a guy!”

The changeling tutted and shook a finger at him. “I already told you that my gender is what I want or need it to be. When choosing a suitable human form to accompany you, this is the one that felt right. Besides, every changeling makes use of their abilities as the need arises.”

“But as a female?”

“Caleb – all Companion Class changelings are bisexual. That way, they can adapt best to their future life partner if they are fortunate enough to find them. I had all but given up on that dream until I met you, but now that I have, I’m getting to understand what you need and desire. In this case, a female human form is optimal.”

“So – you’re changing to suit me? But what about you and your desires?”

“Firstly – change is in our nature. We expect to make some adjustments to best fit in with our Companions for the greatest happiness of both. This is quite normal for whenever a Companion Class first meets their future partner. Secondly, only when we make those changes do we discover aspects of ourselves that have been dormant. After spending a couple of days with you, I am starting to understand the complexity of your needs. Caleb, for you, I would be delighted to be your male changeling drinking buddy, your mare when we go out for dinner at a fancy restaurant, your stallion pal when we’re cheering on our team at a hoofball match, and your woman when you need human companionship. All of them are aspects of me.”

Caleb was gobsmacked by this revelation. All he could think to say was, “Well, you sure have good taste in female forms.”

“Thank you. And a marefriend shopping with you isn’t so unusual, is it?”

“That’s girlfriend, and no, it’s not weird.”

“Pardon my slip-up. I only received my Earth indoctrination last night and haven’t quite got every part of it down pat yet.”

“I find it amazing that you can do it at all.”

“That’s the advantage of being able to access the hive memory. I can simply fetch the knowledge that I need for the task from the experiences of others from my hive. It does take a while before some of it becomes automatic though. Agents normally take a few days to settle into their roles; I’ve only had a few hours.”

“If you weren’t so out of place and throwing hints at me, I would never have realized that you weren’t human.”

“I wouldn’t be a very competent changeling if it had been easy to tell.”

“Don’t you think that there might be some very perceptive humans that could spot your mistakes?”

“I’m informed that you humans have a very broad range of idiosyncrasies – I doubt that I’ll be too conspicuous.”

“Wanna bet?” Caleb asked with a smirk.

The changeling turned human arched her eyebrow. “Oh? You’re challenging my professional abilities?”

“Yep. Once you’re on my turf, you’re going to make at least one huge blunder.”

“Ha! I can handle anything that you throw at me.”

Caleb replied, “Without the knowledge of all the social mores gained by living in my culture, you'll stick out like a sore thumb.”

Vicky rolled her eyes. “Changelings are masters of blending in, so that’s not going to happen. What are your stakes?”

“Loser buys the drinks for everyone next time we’re at the bar.”

“You’re on!”

“Am I invited?” came a new voice.

Unnoticed, a unicorn stallion had stepped through the mirror portal just moments earlier. He gave the human woman an appraising look.

“Vectrix, I’m guessing?”

The changeling nodded. “And you’re Phil Martine, I presume. You can call me Vicky. I suppose Prince Mark informed you that I’d be accompanying Caleb?”

“He did, although I got the impression that you were male.”

“She was up until yesterday,” Caleb said with a roll of his eyes.

Phil glanced between the two and grinned. He had a good idea of what changelings would do and why, and the fact that Vectrix had chosen a female alter ego was very telling. That ought to make the trip interesting. “Well, if you’re ready, let’s go.” The stallion stepped back through the mirror.

Knowing what to expect, Caleb followed without hesitation and Vectrix was hot on his heels. He found an average size man with Latino features waiting, fortunately fully dressed. “Neat trick with the clothes.”

“Enchanted garments,” Phil explained. “They disappear on the Equestrian side and reappear on this side. It saves a lot of time and effort when going back and forth. Anyway, follow me.”

They exited the room and headed downstairs.

“Rosa! Our guests are here! Are you ready?” Phil called.

“Be there in a second, mi amor!”

Moments later, a short Latina woman emerged from the kitchen followed by two teenage girls. One was obviously the couple’s daughter while the other was African-American. All three looked at the newcomers with curiosity.

Phil said, “Caleb, this is my wife, Rosa, and the girls are our daughter, Yolanda, and her best friend, Latisha. Everyone, this is Caleb Awad and his companion, Vicky.”

Caleb reached out his hand to shake Rosa’s, though he paused for a moment at hearing the word ‘companion’. He recovered to say, “Pleased to meet you.”

“Yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Vectrix said with a big smile.

Yolanda looked the woman up and down before turning to her friend. “I’m thinking she’s a changeling. What about you?”

Latisha nodded. “Gotta be,” she agreed.

Vectrix looked stunned. “How did you know? I thought I had the human form down pat!”

Yolanda snickered. “Simple – you look too relaxed for somepony who has come to our world for the first time. Most ponies are too befuddled by their new form for a while.”

“I see. Still, I should do better out in public where the humans don’t know better.”

The two girls looked at each other and snickered. Then Yolanda said, “We’re going to Ponyville now, Dad. Catch you at dinner.”

“Have fun,” Phil replied as the two headed past him.

Caleb watched them sprint upstairs before turning back to his hosts. “Do they just come and go as they please to Equestria?”

Rosa replied, “Our daughter has spent a large part of her life growing up there since she was a baby. She’s old enough and sufficiently responsible to go there by herself within reasonable limits. Latisha earned our trust and often goes with her.”

Caleb grimaced. “There’s something to be said for Equestrian society when those two can go there as they please while I’ve got to be careful coming to this version of Earth.”

Phil said, “Yeah, you’re not wrong. However, we’ll make sure that you don’t have any problems. Anyway, have you got your shopping list? Time’s wasting!”

“I’ve got a lot of essentials and several things on my wish list. How much of a budget have I got?”

“Don’t worry about that – I’ve made arrangements with Mark to cover whatever you need within reason. What did you have in mind?”

“A laptop computer among other things. I’ll need it for my school.”

“That makes sense. You will probably need a printer to go with it. Those can easily be counted as business expenses.”

Rosa said, “You two can discuss what else Caleb wants on the way. Right now, I believe his most urgent requirement is shoes.” She looked at Vectrix. “And Vicky and I can have a chat too.”

The changeling tasted some very strong emotions from the woman – primarily curiosity and shrewd appraisal. Somehow, Vectrix didn’t think this human became a pony on the other side of the portal.

“Follow me,” Phil said, grabbing a set of keys along the way.

A door let into a double garage and Phil opened the rear door of a Ford SUV for his guests. However, Rosa decided to sit in the back with Vectrix after encouraging the changeling to get into the unfamiliar vehicle and fasten the seat belt. Caleb snickered before taking the front passenger seat. Moments later, they were on their way.

Phil drove them to a nearby mall and their first stop was a shoe store where Caleb bought a couple of pairs of sneakers, sandals, and dress shoes. Meanwhile, an eager sales lady managed to draw Vectrix aside and had her try on some high heels. After nearly falling flat on her face, the changeling decided that they were an instrument of torture rather than footwear. Rosa stepped in to help and soon had Vicky outfitted with a comfortable pair of flats. Caleb chuckled as they left the store with the pouting changeling. He shifted the bag containing his shoes to his left hand and put his right arm around Vectrix’s waist.

“No fashionable high heels? I thought you said you were good at blending in, Vicky?” he said.

She poked her tongue out at him but, although annoyed at the jab, she was feeling not a little pleasure at his familiarity.

The next stop was a clothing store. While Caleb was more than happy with the apparel that Rarity had provided for him, he still wanted some proper pajama shorts, some casual shorts, a pair of jeans, and a selection of shirts. More socks and underwear wouldn’t go astray also. While he was preoccupied in the men’s section, Vicky was indulging her curiosity in the women’s department with Rosa keeping an eye on the changeling. Phil’s wife had to stop her from stripping off her top in the middle of the store to try on an article of clothing and instruct her on the existence of changing rooms.

With apparel taken care of, the next destination was Best Buy to pick up a laptop and printer. Phil suggested a few other items for the office as well as a carton of paper. By then, it was well into lunchtime and everyone was feeling hungry.

“You’re our guests,” Phil said, “so you get the choice of eatery. There’s a good variety of sit-down places in this area.”

Vicky said, “Oh! I’m intrigued by the kind of foods that humans eat that we don’t have back in Equestria.”

Caleb smirked. “I know! Is there a barbecue restaurant around here?”

“Sure is,” Phil replied. “It’s just down the road a mile.”

When they got there, Caleb realized that many others had the same idea and it was crowded. When they finally got to the front of the line, Vicky had already read the menu and placed her order confidently. Caleb was more than a bit surprised that Vicky was smiling in anticipation of a half-rack of baby-back pork ribs.

“Are you sure you know what you’re ordering?” he asked quietly.

“I know that sapient livestock doesn't exist on Earth and changelings are omnivores too,” she reassured him before adding spicy sauce, okra, and fried green tomatoes to the order.

Caleb shrugged and ordered a full rack of beef ribs with sides of BBQ beans and coleslaw.

Once seated with their food, Vicky asked, “Could I taste those beans?” Given permission, she leaned over to sample them, ignoring the sauce that dripped onto her blouse. Perhaps coincidentally, this gave the man a better view of her cleavage. Vicky sat back and gave a little shimmy. “I love this place.” Her eyes practically shined. “Everything is so tasty!”

Caleb poured Memphis-style sweet sauce on a rib, a bit disheartened that his attempt to prank the changeling hadn't worked. A loud crunching noise soon changed his mood though. He watched as Vicky held the rack to her mouth and bit off another large chunk, bone and all. She chewed noisily as Caleb tried to refrain from grinning.

Rosa said, “Vicky, dear, we don't eat the bones, we just bite the meat off of them.”

Vicky paused and noticed the stares and the stunned silence of the people in her vicinity. She gave them a strained smile before resuming her meal, this time with much more restrained nibbles. However, the sauce quickly spread on her face and she used her sleeve to wipe it away before resuming her meal. Vicky felt the negative emotions of the other customers but ignored their stares as she worked at finishing her ribs. Soon, a small pile of bones (a third less than she had started with) lay on her plate and a very happy changeling eyed Caleb's half-finished meal.

Caleb smirked and asked, “You still hungry?”

Vicky held out a hand. She smiled and said loudly, “Bone me, Caleb.”

All talk in the restaurant stopped. Vicky noticed and looked around, biting her lip.

Phil face-palmed and Caleb tried to suppress his laughter... unsuccessfully. “Here... here you go.” He handed her a beef rib and conversation slowly started up again around them.

Vicky sat immobile with the rib still in her hand, looking at Caleb with a worried frown.

Caleb took mercy on her. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I’m afraid you’ve made a bit of a spectacle of yourself. You have barbeque sauce all over your clothes, and what you just said was a… rather blatant sexual innuendo.”

Vicky blushed furiously and looked down at her plate. Caleb laughed even more.

“Masters of blending in... I see.” When she didn't try to eat the rib, Caleb took pity on her and got up. “Come on. I'm getting a take-out box. Why don't you stop by the ladies' room and wash your hands and face? We'll take care of your clothes later.”

“I'm sure you will,” quipped a man from a neighboring table, eliciting a round of chuckles from the diners all around them.

Vicky blushed even more. After Rosa ensured that the changeling knew which of the restrooms to use, Vicky practically fled the table. By the time she returned, Phil and his wife had finished their meals and everyone’s extras were packed in take-out boxes. Once they were outside the restaurant, Vicky ducked into an alley and put her hand to the emerald on her necklace. Caleb saw the ghostly outline of her horn appear long enough to cast a cleaning spell.

“Wow. Neat trick,” he said when she returned.

Vicky was still too embarrassed by her mistakes to say anything.

Caleb wrapped her in a hug as she tried to brush past. She struggled for a moment before sighing and leaning into him. “I've never been that humiliated.”

“Wasn't my intention. Still, I hope you've learned something today.”

She looked up and narrowed her eyes. “Never trust a smart-alec human.”

Caleb laughed. “Yep. That's it.”

They shared a smile, both realizing how close they were. Then the moment passed and they broke apart.

Phil said, “If you two are quite ready, let’s finish shopping and head home.”



“Thanks for all your help today, Phil and Rosa,” Caleb said as they stood next to the portal mirror.

“Not a problem, Caleb. I’ll make sure that your laptop and other equipment get delivered to your office.”

“I’d like to thank you too,” Vicky said. “Despite some… mishaps, I enjoyed this excursion. It was certainly a learning experience.”

Rosa said, “Don’t let it bother you, dear. I made my share of mistakes as a newly changed griffon in Equestria. We all learned a lot, did we not, husband?”

Phil chuckled. “We did indeed. Anyway, I’ve turned off the adaptation spell, so you’re free to go through.”

“Thanks again. See you soon, I hope,” Caleb replied, picking up bags containing his clothes in his right hand.

Vicky took the remaining bag containing the shoes in her left hand and grabbed Caleb’s free hand. “Come on – I want to see what you look like in those,” she said as she tugged him toward the mirror.

“Alright! Alright!” he said with a laugh as she pulled him through.

They emerged into the portal room, still hand in hand, only to be confronted by a startled mare. Willow looked Vicky up and down and asked, “Who’s this?”

Caleb answered, “This is Vectrix. She was going to accompany me, remember? So, she needed to take human form.”

“A female form?” she asked with a frown.

“It was the optimum gender,” the changeling replied. She sensed that the mare was upset though and resumed his normal form. The clothes that Vicky had been wearing slumped to hang loosely on him. “I’ll talk to you about it later. I believe you are here to meet Caleb?”

Willow gave Vectrix a flat look before sighing and nodding. She turned to the human and said, “I’ve arranged for your new accommodation and gotten Prince Mark’s approval. We can head there right now if you’d like?”

“Sure! Where is it?” Caleb asked, intrigued.

“My place! I spent the morning cleaning it up in preparation.” She blushed a little. “I’m afraid I let things go for a long time. All my motivation to maintain the place had gone until now. There’s some maintenance needed.”

Caleb smirked. “So, you wanted to keep up the cuddling in bed?”

Willow blushed even harder. “I might. You liked it too!” she accused.

The man laughed. “You got me. Okay, let’s see how this works. Lead us there!”



Willow’s home was a small cottage on the south side of Ponyville about ten minutes’ walk from Caleb’s trade school. The garden was a disaster due to being left untended since the war with Grogar. Nothing that couldn’t be remedied with a bit of hard work, Caleb figured. Vectrix made a note to himself to learn more about horticulture and human dietary requirements. Thankfully, the insides were much better. The smell of bleach gave evidence to the recent cleaning efforts. The only thing that immediately stood out as being a problem were the furnishings.

“I’m going to have to get some custom furniture, aren’t I?” Caleb asked rhetorically.

Everything was sized for ponies. Unlike at the castles which catered for a variety of species, this home had been made and furnished for the equine quadrupeds alone. The table was so low that the man barely had to lift his bags to put them on it. The chairs were worse – he’d have to squat to use them. The kitchen benches would give him a backache trying to work at them. However, the bed, while still a little lower than a human one, was just as big as the one he had been sleeping in at Twilight’s place.

“This bed is huge! Why did you and Blazing Shield need something this big?” Caleb asked Willow.

The mare gave him a puzzled look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about; it’s a standard herd-size bed.”

The man blinked. “You mean – it’s made for several adults?”

“Of course. If we took in any more mares, they would need a place to sleep. Also good for overnight guests.”

Guests?!

Vectrix nudged him and said, “Ponies like to sleep together. It makes them feel secure, remember?”

Caleb didn’t realize that it extended to the bedroom too. “I hope you don’t mind if we pander to my human sensibilities and not have guests in our bed.”

Willow’s eyes widened a little. “Oh! Of course. That won’t be a problem. So – do you like?”

The human looked around, taking in the cottage as a whole, and he smiled. “Yeah, I like.”

The mare’s smile grew large. “Then, welcome home, Caleb!”

 


 

CHAPTER 16

 

“My new home needs a bigger chair,” Caleb declared. “I can deal with everything else for now, but I need something to sit on that’s human-proportioned.”

Quills and Sofas might still be open,” suggested Vectrix. “We’ll have to hurry though. Davenport likes to close early on Saturdays if business is slow.”

“What about tomorrow?” the man asked.

Willow replied, “The only places open on Sunday in Ponyville are those that serve food and drink. Nopony else works that day otherwise.” The mare turned her head away, gazing at the floor. She muttered, “Even if they really wanted to.”

Caleb didn’t miss that and Vectrix felt a spike in her emotions, tasting of deep sadness. The mare turned back to them and realized that she had been indiscreet. She sighed.

“I used my job to keep myself busy and not think about the loss of Blazing Shield. Eventually, it became all-consuming. Sundays left me dangling, so I slept in as long as I could before heading to the bar and getting drunk. Honestly, this is the first time in years that I’ve broken out of my rut.”

The human understood all too well. He had seen too many colleagues in that self-destructive cycle. He put his hand on Willow’s head and scratched between her ears. “Time to put that behind you, filly. Now you get to stop me from doing the same.”

Willow nickered in pleasure at the feel of his fingers. She smiled and pushed her head more firmly into his hand. “It will be my privilege – just keep doing that!”

Caleb chuckled. “We’ll both need to test our restraint later. Vectrix is buying the drinks tonight and I plan to take full advantage of it.”

The mare looked at the changeling who cringed a little. Her eyebrow rose. “Oh? Why is that, Caleb?”

“I’ll tell you all about it on our way to the furniture store,” the man replied with a grin as Vectrix sighed in resignation.



Willow drew stares from the passers-by as she laughed uproariously. Caleb had embellished the incidents where the overconfident changeling had made a spectacle of herself, hugely amusing the mare. Vectrix had mixed feelings about it. On the one hoof, the humiliation still stung. On the other though, Willow’s attitude to his human alter ego was completely turned around now. The earth pony wanted to see ‘Vicky’ try to emulate a woman without messing it up.

“I’d like to see you try to pass as a human,” Vectrix grumbled.

“Maybe I’ll tag along next time Caleb goes to Earth,” she replied with a smirk. “I couldn’t do much worse.”

The human wondered what other disasters that would cause. At least the changeling had some ability to blend in. How would a mare with zero experience in that field cope? He tried to guess what sort of woman she would look like after the adaptation spell worked its magic. That made Caleb remember how the changeling had said that he could be a mare for him in the appropriate circumstances. He grinned.

“Hey, Vectrix – how about you try to redeem a bit of pride and show me how you can blend in as a mare instead?”

Both the man’s companions were surprised by that request, but the changeling nodded and complied. Magic green fire swept over his form revealing a yellow pegasus mare with a light-blue mane.

“I call this identity Butterfly Sky,” Vectrix said in sweet feminine tones.

“No cutie mark?” Willow asked.

“I haven’t seen the point of adding one yet,” Butterfly replied with a flutter of her wings. “This is a standby identity that I haven’t needed before now. If that changes, I’ll choose one to suit her.”

Caleb had not noticed the absence but he recalled how important they were to the ponies. “Maybe you’ll think of something appropriate while I take you two mare friends of mine shopping for furniture.”

Willow’s ears perked up at the ‘marefriends’ bit while Butterfly smiled brightly. The human remained blissfully unaware of the feelings that his choice of words had stirred. The two mares looked at each other as they followed Caleb, exchanging a grin and a nod.

The Quills and Sofas store was still open although very quiet. There was one pony couple in there already being attended to by an earth pony stallion – the proprietor Davenport, Caleb was informed. The man was happy to be able to browse for a bit before being bothered by the salespony. He quickly found a sturdy chair that suited his needs.

“That was easy,” Caleb said. “I thought it would be harder to find something my size and I’d have to resort to placing an order for one.”

Butterfly said, “With all the new species moving into Ponyville, this store has had to enlarge its selection. That chair was built for a minotaur or a moderately-sized dragon to use.”

“Well, it suits me fine. While we’re waiting, we might as well have a look at some of the other furniture. I noticed that the cottage is very sparsely furnished. You don’t even have a sofa.”

Willow looked abashed. “Blazing and I spent our remaining bits after buying the house on just the basics. We planned to get a sofa and several other items once we were settled in and could afford it.”

“Since I got my sign-up bonus in advance and Phil paid for everything while I was on Earth, I’ve got money burning a hole in my pocket. I might as well start contributing to my new home. Why don’t you two girls go decide on a suitable sofa? I’ll have a look at some other stuff while I’m waiting for the proprietor.”

Willow grinned. “Mom always used to tell me to find a good homemaker.”

“And my dad always advised me to let the women choose the furnishings if I wanted a peaceful life,” Caleb replied with a wink.

The two mares giggled and immediately turned their attention to the sofas on display. The man watched them for a while. He honestly would not have been able to pick Butterfly as a changeling by her current behavior. Perhaps once he’d been in Equestria for long enough he’d pick up some nuances, but he suspected otherwise. While Vectrix had been foolishly overconfident in his ability to emulate a human, no doubt he had ponies down pat. He wondered what the changeling’s pony stallion form looked like. Caleb supposed he’d find out soon enough – Butterfly Sky was trying her best to impress him. And perhaps Willow too?

The two mares were still discussing the merits of the various sofas on offer when Davenport finished with his other customers. Given that those items of furniture were part of the business’ name, it was unsurprising that there was a large range to choose from. If the proprietor was nervous about meeting a human for the first time, the earth pony stallion hid it well. Caleb purchased the chair before pointing out his companions.

“Once my mare friends decide on a sofa, I intend to buy that too. Do you deliver?”

Caleb saw the stallion’s eyes light up at the thought of an easy sale. “Certainly, sir! Would you like your items this afternoon? I am free once I close for the day.”

“We intend to go out for dinner – can you deliver before then?”

“I was considering closing up after attending to you anyway, so I could do so immediately.”

“Great! Shall we find out if the ladies have decided on something yet?”

The mares had narrowed their choices down to two and left it up to the human to select his preferred option. He tried both sofas out and they were both very comfortable and attractive. However, bearing in mind the ponies’ propensity for hugging and being close, he chose the larger one. He figured that he might as well be proactive about the inevitable.

After Caleb paid for the furniture and Willow supplied her address for the delivery, they headed back to the cottage. The earth pony mare insisted on carrying his new chair back with them.

“You ought to be able to sit down once we’re home,” she explained.

“You need any help with that?” Caleb asked.

“Are you kidding? I’ve carried stuff bigger and heavier than this all day on the job.”

The man wasn’t concerned about the weight – it wasn’t that big a chair. It was the awkwardness. And yet, the chair inexplicably stayed on the mare’s back as securely as if it was strapped into place. Once again, he could only put it down to magic. More and more, he was seeing how a race with hooves and no hands could build a civilization.

While Caleb did try out his new chair when they got back home, it was only briefly. Then he got to work putting away his new acquisitions. Fortunately, Willow did possess a wardrobe.

“For a race that doesn’t wear clothes much, that’s a big wardrobe,” the man commented.

“It had to be big enough for two sets of regulation armor, not to mention our dress uniforms. Blazing’s armor was returned to the armory while he was buried in the dress uniform. So, hopefully, that’s enough room for your clothes and shoes for now. There’s a bit of other junk in there.”

“I forgot to get a dresser for more clothing and underwear. And I haven’t even gotten the formal wear from the other Rarity yet.”

“Do you need to make another trip to the anthro world to get it?” Butterfly asked. “I’d be interested in paying her boutique another visit.”

Willow narrowed her eyes. “But you weren’t with us when Mark took Caleb there.”

The changeling smiled and held up a placating hoof. “I had some business of my own to take care of.”

Caleb glanced between the two. “Anyway, that world’s Rarity told me that she would deliver it in person. I suppose I’ll have to let her know where I’ve moved.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Butterfly was nearest, so she opened it. To Caleb’s surprise, he could see Davenport outside, blithely carrying their sofa sideways on his back.

The business pony smiled and said, “If somepony would care to help, we can get your purchase inside.”

Willow hastened to the doorway and, between the two ponies, they maneuvered the furniture through the door and into place against the wall.

Davenport nodded in satisfaction and then turned to Caleb. “Thank you for your custom, Mister Awad. I look forward to providing you with more furnishings suitable for your needs.”

The man replied, “Thank you for your prompt service, Mister Davenport. We’ll enjoy using the sofa tonight.” He then showed the stallion out the door. He turned to the others. “Well, I think it’s time we started thinking about dinner. Because I didn’t have to spend much of my money on Earth, I’ll spring for the meal. Seeing as Vectrix, or as she’s still a mare I should say Butterfly, is paying for the drinks, I reckon the three of us should go to a nice restaurant. Any suggestions?”

“I have the perfect place in mind,” Willow replied with a grin.

“You intend to take two mares to dinner?” Butterfly asked.

“Aren’t you the one who said you’d be happy to do that?” Caleb asked.

“Yes, but two? Tongues are going to wag,” she replied with a smirk.

The man shrugged. “Let them. I’m a focus for gossip anyway – might as well roll with it.”



The Fig Tree was located on the east side of town at the top of a low hill that afforded it great views of the surrounding scenery. It got its name from the enormous fig that grew in the courtyard at the center of the restaurant. Patrons had the choice of dining under the roof or the skies. Unsurprisingly, pegasi tended to prefer the latter but Caleb and the mares asked for a table near a window that overlooked Ponyville. From there, they were able to watch as the sun sank below the horizon and the street lamps lit the streets, giving the town a warm and welcoming glow.

Caleb ordered a walnut-lentil bolognese, Willow opted for a roasted sweet potato salad, while Butterfly selected a vegetarian burrito bowl with avocado crema and a bottle of wine that the server recommended.

“Want some bones with that?” Caleb asked the changeling with a smirk.

Butterfly’s cheeks pinked and she stuck her tongue out at him. “Careful, dear, or I might buy us some cheap booze for later instead of something nicer and more expensive.”

Willow gave her a keen look. “Speaking of expensive, your mention of visiting anthro Rarity again reminded me of where I saw the outfit that Vicky was wearing. Those were part of her Spring Collection on display in her boutique, along with their price tags. That was quite an investment you made to impress Caleb.”

The unicorn changeling shrugged. “I’ve already made it plain that I will do whatever it takes to get closer to Caleb. He’s my destined Companion.”

“Seems to me that you’re aiming for a little more than that,” Willow replied archly.

“How can there be more? A Companion bond is as intimate a relationship as is possible.”

“To the exclusion of all other mares?”

“That’s not the case, Willow. Companions do not dominate – they harmonize. If Caleb has any feelings for another, then I would too. I’m not competing for your stallion.”

Willow blushed and looked away. “Who said he’s my stallion?”

“Empath, remember?”

“Whoa!” Caleb said. “I’m not completely sure what’s going on here, but I’m here to have a nice meal with my two friends. Can we please have a civilized conversation?”

“Yes, Caleb,” the two mares chorused.

“Good. Now, let’s change the subject, shall we? What do you have in mind for us to do tomorrow?”

“Umm… I was thinking that we could work on fixing the garden,” the earth pony replied. “That is if you want to?”

The man nodded. “Sounds like a good idea. You in, Butterfly?”

“Vectrix will be, at least,” she replied.

“Excellent! Now – what did you have in mind for the garden, Willow?”



They spent about three hours at the restaurant enjoying a leisurely meal, good alcohol, and pleasant conversation. After cappuccinos all around, they asked for the check. When Caleb reached for his wallet, Willow bluntly told him that it was the mare’s place to pay for dinner when on a date. When the human had looked to the changeling for support, Butterfly sided with the Willow.

“She’s right – we two will split the bill.”

“I said it was going to be my treat, and you’re already paying for the booze!” Caleb objected.

“Not going to change things,” Butterfly said with finality.

Caleb ended up giving the staff an extra-large tip in defiance.

They ambled back to the cottage, a mare on each side of the human. Only when they got to the door did Butterfly thank him for a wonderful evening before resuming his natural form and flying away. Willow opened the door as Caleb watched him disappearing in the dark. She waited a moment before nudging the man.

“Are you coming in?”

“Huh? Oh! Yeah, I’m coming.” He turned and followed the mare inside. “It’s strange but I felt as if I had lost something for a moment.”

Willow nodded. “Sounds like that bond that Vectrix is always talking about is starting to happen.”

“I’m still not sure how I feel about that.”

“Neither am I, Caleb. I’m told it’s a wonderful thing and Vectrix tries to be reassuring, but it’s still a little scary.”

The man took a deep breath and let it out as a lengthy sigh. “No use getting stressed. Perhaps we should sleep on it.” He grinned. “Wanna see my new pajama shorts?”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Why would they matter to me?”

They had cartoon ponies printed on them. Caleb laughed as the mare face-hoofed.



Caleb slowly awoke, feeling the usual confusion that came from the bleary realization that he was in an unfamiliar place. He opened his eyes to see violet eyes staring into his.

“Thank you,” said the earth pony mare.

Caleb's brain kicked into gear, now remembering where he was and who was lying in bed with him. “For what, Willow?”

She replied, “For the first time in ages, I woke up in my bed with a smile.”

Caleb blushed, which caused the mare to giggle. The man coughed a couple of times to regain his composure. “Umm... glad I could help, although I think that I should be thanking you too.”

Willow’s eyebrow rose. “Why is that?”

“Because without you and Vectrix, I reckon that I’d be having a nervous breakdown. Here I am, stranded in a universe that is not mine and so very different from anything I’ve ever known. I should be massively depressed at the very least, but you two have been doing your best to keep me occupied and invested in all the changes in my life. You’ve even made me like the idea of going to bed with a pony.” He reached up to boop the mare on her snout with his finger. “You’ve made the unbearable a pleasure instead.”

The earth pony squirmed and giggled again. “It seems we’ve been good for each other, Faithful Kindness. So, let’s get up and begin this new phase in our lives.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Willow Branch,” Caleb replied with a smile. Then he rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. “Dibs on the shower first!”

“HEY!” Willow yelled in mock outrage while struggling to free herself from the sheets. “That wasn’t what I meant!”

 


 

CHAPTER 17

 

“How was your shower?” Willow asked as Caleb emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist.

“Well, everything from my belly down got a thorough wash. I’m going to have to get in a plumber and raise that shower head a couple of feet at least!”

The mare giggled. “I realized that belatedly. This cottage was constructed with normal ponies in mind. Nopony had even dreamed of the mixture of races that would inhabit Ponyville when this house was built.”

The man sat on the edge of the bed and nodded. “Yeah. I consider myself lucky that I make it through the door without bashing my head on the frame. I’m glad this place has vaulted ceilings so I don’t feel like I’m boxed in.”

“We’ll work out the problems as we find them, I promise. Right now though, it’s my turn to have a shower. Can you start breakfast in the meantime?”

“You trust me to cook?” Caleb asked with a smirk.

Willow paused in the bathroom doorway and looked back at him. “What stallion doesn’t know their way around a kitchen?” She then entered and closed the door behind her.

Caleb shrugged and started dressing. “I guess they all do in this back-to-front world. Of course, just because I’m a man and not a pony stallion doesn’t mean I’m helpless. Now, let’s see what I’ve got to work with.” He went to the fridge and opened it. Inside, he found eggs, butter, milk, cheese, tomatoes, plus a variety of fruits and vegetables. The man nodded in satisfaction. “Looks like Willow did a market run yesterday. I think I’ll whip up some omelets.”

Caleb pulled out the necessary ingredients and put them on the workbench. Finding a mixing bowl was tricky but he discovered it in one of the low cupboards. He quickly whipped up a tomato and cheese mixture before turning on the stove. He was grateful that this old cottage had some modern appliances and he didn’t have to light a fire in a wood-burning stove. A check around the appliance didn’t show any wires, so Caleb had to assume some sort of self-charging magic crystal was involved. A mystery for another time.

A large cast-iron skillet was hanging on the wall along with a few other items of cookware and he put it on the stove to heat up. After melting a tablespoon or so of butter, he then poured some of the mixture into the skillet. He was sliding the cooked omelet onto a plate when Willow emerged.

“Just in time,” Caleb declared. “Breakfast is served, milady. Bon appetit!”

“That smells wonderful,” the mare declared as she seated herself at the table.

“As a bachelor, I had to cook for myself a lot. It was either that or eat out often. Omelets are simple and nutritious. The only thing missing is bacon,” he said wistfully as he poured the remainder of the mixture into the skillet.

Willow paused with a forkful halfway to her mouth. “Haybacon, you mean?”

“Nope. Real bacon. From pigs.”

“Are you trying to ruin my appetite?” the mare said with a frown.

“You’ve shacked up with an omnivore, filly, so you better get used to it. Remember that Vicky ate that delicious carnivore meal yesterday. She loved it so much, she ate the bones too.”

The earth pony grimaced and resumed eating. She wasn’t going to be outdone by the changeling!

Caleb chuckled and tended to his omelet.

When Willow finished hers, she took her plate and utensils to the sink and then went to the fridge to extract some juice. “Hey, Caleb – what’s your preference? Apple, orange, or pear juice?”

“Like I said the other morning – gotta have my vitamin C. Orange for me, please.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Willow took the bottles of apple and orange juices and put them on the table before answering the knock. When she opened the door, she found a light blue unicorn stallion with a yellow mane waiting outside. He gave her a cheerful grin.

“Good morning! May I come in?”

Willow blinked in surprise. “Who are you? And why should I let you in?”

“Forgive me for not introducing myself. You can call me Vex.”

The mare frowned. “Vex? I’ve never heard…” Her eyes widened. “Vectrix?”

The stallion chuckled. “Didn’t take you long to figure that out, although the name was a pretty big hint. I did say that I was going to come around this morning. So, may I?”

Willow stepped aside and gestured with a sweep of her foreleg. “Enter and be welcome, strange unicorn whom I’ve never met,” she said loudly.

“Thank you,” Vex said, trotting inside. “Good morning, Caleb.”

The man looked at the pony and smiled. “Looking good, Vectrix. So that’s your stallion form?”

“Yep. As I told Willow, I’m called Vex in this identity – short for Vexing Conundrum. It’s also my siblings’ nickname for me.”

Caleb noticed that Vex’s hindquarters bore the image of a question mark crossed over by a magnifying glass. “So, you have a cutie mark in this identity,” he observed.

“Yeah. I’ve used it several times. I have a talent for solving difficult problems so it seemed appropriate. Anyway, this will be my persona for managing your trade school.”

“What’s wrong with just being your normal self?” the man asked with a frown.

Vex sighed and looked over to Willow. “Do you want to tell him?”

The mare grimaced. “Caleb – Vectrix’s hive isn’t the only one in this world, and the experience of some nations with them has not always been amicable. That changed a lot in recent history, mostly due to Prince Mark’s efforts, especially when he took Queen Chrysalis into his herd. However, there are a few races that have long memories and less forgiveness in their hearts than most ponies. Some of them will be among your students. Now, it’s quite likely that there won’t be any problems with them, or those close to them, back where they came from, but it’s better to play it safe.”

Caleb scowled. “So, you’re saying that changelings are discriminated against?”

Vectrix nodded. “It’s true, but at least it’s not without some good reasons, albeit historical ones. I’d tell you to ask Princess Twilight about them but I hear you fall asleep during her lectures.”

The man rolled his eyes. “You still can be yourself at my school.”

“I appreciate that. Regardless, I had already intended to keep my personal and work identities separate. Easier to do when I can become someone else. Anyway, I didn’t come here today to talk about those things. I believe we have some garden work to do.”

Willow said, “So you came as a unicorn?”

“You’ve got the earth pony side covered, and a pegasus isn’t the best at earthbound chores, so I reckoned being a unicorn would be of the most use.”

The mare shrugged. “Fair enough. Just let us finish our breakfasts first and then we can get stuck into the work. Your assistance will be appreciated. Besides, it’s not as if anypony is forcing you to help us.”

As the mare and the man resumed their meal, Vex said, “You’re wrong, Willow. I keep telling you that my life is entwined with Caleb’s now. Once the bond completes, he will understand.” The stallion looked keenly at them. “You both will.”



Caleb stood with his hands on his hips as he took in the task ahead of them. The garden beds held mostly weeds, the grass was above his knees in places, and the trees and bushes were badly in need of pruning. “Where do we start?”

Willow said, “I intend to dig up the garden beds and start afresh. That won’t take too long because I don’t need to be delicate about it.”

The man frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“This,” the mare said, stomping her forehoof into one of the beds. The ground erupted in a long furrow from the point where her hoof had struck. She leaned down and grabbed a mouthful of weeds now loosened from the soil and gave them a shake, dislodging the dirt from the roots. She then dropped it to one side. “Like that. I should be able to work through each of these in a couple of hours tops.”

“That beats the hell out of doing it with a spade and fork,” Caleb admitted. “I forgot how you can manipulate earth and rock like that.”

Vex said, “I’ll tackle the grass. A slashing spell from my military training should make short work of the worst of it. Have you got a mower to finish the job?”

Willow shook her head. “I was going to ask Clarabelle and her sisters if they’d be interested in trimming it into shape.”

“Who are they?” Caleb asked.

“They’re Ponyville’s milk suppliers,” the mare replied.

The man’s eyebrow rose. “They’re cows? They’re intelligent like ponies?” He hadn’t seen any cattle so far, so he hadn’t been aware of their status despite drinking their milk. It frankly made it a little weird that the cows were literally in the business of selling it.

Vex said, “Some varieties are sapient. Cows aren’t very bright and they spend most of their day grazing, but they’re pleasant to chat with. Especially about dairy-related subjects.”

“Who'd a thunk it?” Caleb said with a grin. “Anyway, I suppose that leaves me to tackle the pruning. Do you have a saw, Willow?”

That I do have. There’s a shed attached to the back of the cottage where a few tools are stored. You should find it there.”

The man headed around the house and saw the shed. It was unlocked, but in this neighborhood, theft wasn’t an issue. Finding the saw was not hard because there were few tools to clutter the place – hardly surprising considering how little else had been bought for the cottage so far. The blade was in good condition and free from rust by virtue of having never been used and it had retained its protective coating. There was also a pair of hedge clippers, and he took them back to the front and sized up his first task.

“Anything you don’t want me to touch, Willow?” he asked.

“No. I trust your judgment. Besides, it’s usually a stallion’s prerogative to decide the esthetics of the garden while the mare or mares make it happen.”

Caleb remembered how his mother had been the queen of the garden while his father did most of the work. As usual, the roles seemed to be reversed here. “Well, I reckon that we’re more egalitarian here, but I think I can do a decent job to suit us all.”

All three went to work. Caleb dragged the branches to the back where he cut them up smaller and stacked them up. Vex levitated the hewn grass into a pile as a start to a compost heap. Later, he added Willow’s weeds. Over the coming days, vegetable scraps would be put into it also. Caleb figured that it would make good fertilizer for a veggie garden a few weeks later.

Vex finished his task first and joined Caleb in the pruning job. He tackled the shrubs and vines with the hedge clippers. The yard began to look like a garden once more by the time they were done. They then rejoined Willow.

The mare said, “The weeding is complete but I need to turn over the soil a bit more and break up the clods of earth to prepare the beds for replanting. Speaking of which, we’ll need some flowers and such. Perhaps you two can get some from the plant nursery while I’m doing this?”

“I thought you said every shop was closed on Sundays,” Caleb pointed out.

“Not the Flower Sisters – they do half of their business on the weekend. They take Tuesdays off instead. I just forgot to mention them.”

“Okay. Anything, in particular, you’d like?”

“I just want a lot of colors to brighten up the place after so many years of neglect. Other than that, suit yourself. Take my wagon – you’re going to need it.”

“Right. Let’s go, Vex. I assume you know where the nursery is?”

“Of course I do. So, Willow, how many this time, since I’ll have Caleb with me?”

The earth pony mare chuckled. “As long as you stay disguised? Put me down for two. I’m sure they’ve gotten used to the occasional odd folk now and again.”

Vex tossed his head. “I’ll go for three.”

Caleb furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

The changeling waited until he was done settling into the wagon’s harness then tilted his head. “You’ll see. Come along.”

The stallion and the human strolled up the lane. They had been walking quietly for a minute when Caleb broke the silence.

“Last night when we had finished dinner, you wouldn’t let me pay like I said I was going to. If you’re so keen to draw me into that bond you’re always talking about, why did you defy me?”

Vex frowned and then, with a swirl of magic fire, Butterfly stood in his place. She looked at Caleb intensely before replying, “You have to understand that when I am a mare, it’s not just appearances. I emulate one completely and I was reacting as one. I was also stopping you from committing a major social faux pas.”

Caleb stopped and gave her a hard look. “What are you talking about?”

“You already know about the imbalance between the sexes among pony kind. However, you don’t understand all the implications and the social dynamics yet. Last night, two mares had taken their stallion to dinner. Uh-uh!” the pegasus mare said, holding up a hoof to stop the man from interjecting. “Don’t say that it was you taking us to the restaurant. That’s not how all the others there perceived it. And if you had said nothing when the bill arrived, there would not have been an issue. We could have split the cost and nothing more would have happened. But you loudly told the waiter that you would be paying the tab. At that point, you were making us look bad. Everypony in earshot was thinking that we were taking advantage of you. At the very least, we looked like cheapskates. We had to make it clear that we would be paying the entire bill just to maintain our standing in the community. In the meantime, you came off as being eccentrically generous.”

“You could have told me all this before we got there, you know?”

Butterfly sighed. “Mistakes were made. We both assumed you meant to pay your part of the bill. I should have known better as I have some inkling of how different the human world is compared to ours.”

“Okay, I get it but, in the future, if I say I’m paying for something, it means I’m covering the lot. If we have to make a show of it otherwise, that’s fine – I’ll compensate you later.”

“That works for me, and I’m sure it does for Willow too.”

“Good. Now change back into Vex. I’m not going through all this again at the nursery. Seeing as I never paid for dinner, I still have money to spare.”

The changeling resumed his unicorn form, chuckling. “Fair enough.”



The duo headed home from the nursery, their cart filled with seedlings and small plants. Vex was hitched to the cart while Caleb carried a bag containing packets of seeds and a variety of bulbs.

The man sighed. “I can’t believe that I made Lily faint.”

Vex said, “Twice. You made her faint twice. Daisy had to excuse herself and fainted just inside their door, so I’m counting it. Willow may disagree with me, but I think I won our bet. Roseluck was scared to death but pushed herself to be polite and businesslike.”

“Yeah, the forced smile didn’t hide her knocking knees and pupils the size of pinpricks.”

The disguised unicorn nodded. “That was a good idea asking for her professional opinion on what varieties to get for the most colorful blooms throughout the summer. That got her back on her game.”

Caleb grinned. “I might have intentionally said I was going to plant sunflowers through the middle of the garden. All that shade on both sides couldn’t hurt anything, right?”

Vex laughed. “I didn’t think you had it in you. Let me give you a free piece of advice. Never get an earth pony mare angry at you. You were lucky that she just removed those sprouts from the wagon and said, ‘You aren’t ready for sunflowers, yet.’” After his smile faded, Vex’s head drooped.

The man looked at the stallion with some concern.

“You’re looking tired. Are you okay?”

Vex nodded. “I spent a lot of energy slashing the grass earlier. When we get back, I’ll top up on some love juice that I brought with me and I’ll be fine.”

“It still boggles me that you get your energy from emotions instead of food,” Caleb admitted.

“Good thing we can store some of it as juice or gel to mix with our solid food,” Vex replied.

“Maybe you should have brought some of it with you if you’re that tired.”

“I’ll be okay, honestly.”

Caleb was skeptical but he had an idea. A little hesitantly, he put his hand on Vex’s withers and tried projecting his feelings for his friend. Vex was startled by the sudden influx of positive emotion and he looked up to the man gratefully.

“Thanks, Caleb. This means a lot to me.”

“Can’t have you keeling over. I’m not pulling that cart if you do!” the man replied with a smirk.

Vex laughed. “I suppose not. Puny humans aren’t built for the job.”

Caleb gave him the middle finger, not at all surprised that species without said appendages understood the meaning perfectly well.

And their bond continued to grow.



Upon the return of the males, Willow decided that it was time for a break. Refreshments were prepared and consumed while they recuperated.

There came a knock at the door and, because he was sitting the closest, Caleb answered it. He was shocked to find himself face-to-face with somepony rather than having to look down as normal.

Anthro Rarity gave the man a pleased smile. “Just the human that I wanted to see. I have your formal garments ready. Have you a few moments to spare while I check the fit?”

Caleb blinked, a little stunned. The mare was not nude. And she looked fabulous! Her thigh-length skirt and form-fitting shirt delightfully accentuated her perfect curves and looked sexier than the naked mare ever had to his eyes.

 

“That’s quite a delightful outfit you’re wearing, Rarity.”

“Why, thank you, darling! I was asked to design a uniform for a large company in Manehattan, and I always try my new workwear designs for comfort and fit. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to put it to the test, as it may.”

“I can’t argue with that. Come on in.”

The others greeted the mare as she stepped inside. She smiled and said, “Thank you for the welcome. I know that you weren’t expecting me but I was in the neighborhood, paying your Prince Mark and his Rarity a visit.”

“How did you know where I had moved to?” Caleb asked.

“Vicky Channing sent word to me and your Spikey Wikey most helpfully showed me the way. I’m a little surprised not to see Vicky here today. I got the impression that she hoped to spend more time with you, Caleb.”

Both the man and the earth pony glanced at the unicorn in the room before Willow replied, “Oh, believe me, she’s been here a lot.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow, realizing that she was missing something. She decided not to pry – secrets tended to leak out eventually. “Anyway, as I said, I’d like to have you try your clothes on. While I’m confident that they will be to your satisfaction, I always aim for perfection.”

Willow rose from the sofa. “Vex and I will resume work in the garden, while you two do your thing.”

Caleb disrobed while Rarity unpacked the clothes. The man donned the black three-piece suit and paraded for the fashionista who, after a minor alteration to the pant length, deemed them to be perfect. Caleb was delighted with the fit and comfort and he had to admit that he looked dashing in the outfit.

“You have outdone yourself, Rarity. You make this humble tradesman look like a noble.”

Rarity tittered. “Thank you, darling. I am always happy to hear that my customers are completely satisfied. Please do come to see me for any other items of apparel that you may require.”

“I’ll be sure to do so. And thanks again for bringing these around today.”

“It’s always a pleasure to visit friends. However, I must be going. I have a social engagement to attend soon. Do have a wonderful day, dear.”

“You too, Rarity.”

Caleb followed the anthro mare to the door and waved goodbye. Then he changed out of the formal wear and back into the yard clothes to resume his work in the garden. He stopped beside Vex first though.

“I’m guessing that you visited Rarity as Butterfly Sky which is why she didn’t realize that you were Vicky.”

“Anthro Butterfly, actually. Naturally, Rarity knows that she’s a changeling after I took human form. However, Rarity has assumed that I’m a female changeling and sticking to my natural gender.”

“Are things different for changelings over there?”

“A bit, yeah – different history and attitudes.”

Caleb smirked. “But the same when it comes to attracting a potential Companion, right?”

Vex smiled. “Guilty. And Rarity is always a willing accomplice for that kind of thing no matter which universe.”

The man chuckled and slapped the stallion on his withers before heading to his next task.

The seedlings and such were planted and watered while some more finicky jobs were done such as trimming around the overgrown pavers. Once they were finished, the garden looked a hundred times better than when they had started. The lawn still needed to be properly mowed and the various plants had to establish themselves yet, but overall, the garden looked as if it was cared about for the first time in years.

“Well, my little ponies, I think we’ve done a good day’s work. Let’s say we go out and celebrate?” Caleb suggested.

The earth pony and the unicorn gave the man a strange look at his turn of phrase but eagerly nodded. They all went inside to clean up and prepare for a well-earned night out.

 


 

CHAPTER 18

 

The evening had been a lot different from what Caleb had in mind. He should have been a little bit more suspicious when Vex had insisted on a particular venue. He could hardly blame the changeling for his part in the surprise party that Pinkie Pie had arranged for the human at Sugarcube Corner. Caleb learned that the party planner was a bit more laidback than she used to be – a claim that he had serious doubts about after the events of the night. However, he was reliably informed that the pink mare used to slap these affairs together within hours of a newcomer’s arrival. He would have hated to have been subjected to that at the time. Thankfully, Pinkie had mellowed somewhat after getting married and having a foal and was thus more aware of suitable timing.

Her parties were still outrageously good fun though. Caleb had been introduced to many new friends and made to feel welcome in his new hometown. In particular, the human found a kindred musical soul in the DJ, who gleefully answered his challenge to pump up the bass. He, Willow, and Vex headed home after an evening of good food, plenty of drinks, and lots of games. The man thanked his pal for helping make the day so memorable before the changeling parted ways with the man and the mare. The two then cleaned their teeth and went to bed. Tomorrow was the first day for the trade school and they both needed to be well-rested.



Because Willow took more time to dry after her morning shower, Caleb let the mare have hers first while he prepared breakfast.

“I’ll invest in a drying booth as soon as I can afford it,” Willow promised.

“Can the plumber install that when they modify the shower?” Caleb asked as he served up eggs Florentine and a fruit cocktail.

The mare eyed the meal with a smile and a nicker before replying. “Yes, but as I said, I need to put aside the money for it first.”

“I can pay for it. I’ve still got plenty of bits left over from my advance,” he reminded her.

“Yes, but you shouldn’t have to pay for improvements for my home that only benefit me.”

“Well, since we’re going to be roomies for the foreseeable future and your long shower times do affect me, I don’t believe that you’re the sole beneficiary. However, if it makes you feel better, you can consider it a loan which you can pay back at your leisure.”

“I… think I can live with that. Thanks, Caleb.”

“I’ll have a word with Vectrix today. He should have time to organize those for us.”

The two ate their breakfast before Caleb went to have his shower while Willow groomed her damp coat and mane. Vectrix turned up at their place when they were almost ready. To their surprise, she was in her Butterfly Sky identity. Except…

“Aren’t you supposed to be a pegasus?”

“I’m still workshopping this identity,” the earth pony mare replied. “I figured wings weren’t needed for office work.”

“I thought you were going to run the office as Vex?” Caleb queried.

“I reconsidered and I reckon that Butterfly would be a better fit. Ponies are used to mares being in charge of schools and I didn’t think this needed to be an exception. I made myself a cutie mark for the occasion.” She turned around to better show off her hindquarters where an open ledger was displayed. “Like it?”

 

“It looks good,” Willow commented.

“It’s certainly appropriate,” Caleb admitted. “Okay, Ms. Sky, you have the job.”

They had the time for a leisurely walk from the cottage to the school. The man and mare explained their plumbing needs to the changeling pegasus along the way and she promised to look into getting it done. They arrived at about half-past seven – well before the scheduled eight o’clock start for the first day. There were already several creatures waiting outside the doors – students eager to begin their training.

Coiled Steel gave the human a nod and tossed her head toward the school. “Nikos is gettin’ all the vittles out. I got the stations all prepped an’ ready to go.”

“Thanks, Coiled.” Caleb stepped up to the gathered beings to address them. “Good morning, everyone. I assume that you’re all students enrolled in the welding course?” Upon affirming chirps, grunts, and head nods, he continued. “I’ll be starting lessons promptly at eight. Meanwhile, head up to the tea room where you will find various refreshments that you are welcome to have before we start. That will serve as a meeting room for lectures too. Coiled Steel will show you where to go.” He pointed to the earth pony mare who waved a hoof. Caleb then opened the door to the building and went inside. He, Willow, and Butterfly headed upstairs to the admin area. There was an outer office with a doorway that led to another office, the latter being Caleb’s while the former would be Butterfly’s. There, they found all the equipment bought on Earth had been set up, ready to go to work. Fortunately, both desks had computers and monitors, something that Caleb realized belatedly that they would need rather than just the one for himself.

“Whose idea was it to get a second computer?” Caleb asked.

“I pointed out the need to Mister Martine and he agreed,” Butterfly replied.

The man nodded. “Good idea. There will be times when we both will want to use a computer. Wait! How are you going to operate the keyboard? It’s designed for fingers and you can’t use unicorn magic in that form.”

“Easy!” Butterfly replied before green magic fire flared. A moment later, Butterfly stood there in anthro form. To Caleb’s relief, she was clothed in an office-suitable jacket and skirt as well as open-hoofed sandals. She held up a hand and wiggled her fingers. “See?”

Caleb gave her a flat look. “You were just waiting to do that to me, weren’t you?”

Butterfly giggled. “When I said I was going to be Butterfly as your admin officer, I may have neglected to mention that it would be as my anthro form. Besides, it was easier to show off my new cutie mark as a pony. Otherwise, I would have to do this!” She inclined a hip towards Caleb and hiked up the skirt on that side, revealing the cutie mark… and not much else.

Caleb wondered if the omission of underwear was deliberate before shaking his head. Of course, it was! These ponies, changeling or otherwise, loved to tease him. “Okay, Ms. Sky, I assume you know how to use a computer?”

She nodded. “We have them in the hive. Prince Mark and Princess Twilight have them too although they’re kept out of public view.”

“Right. Since you think that’s your most suitable identity, stick to it. No changing forms at the school unless it’s an emergency. And just to make sure we don’t identify you as the mare I arrived with today, we’re going to call you Sky from now on. Butterfly will be your four-legged name.”

Sky smiled. “That’s always a practical idea for changelings when dealing with alternative alter egos. Now, shall we get set up for today’s class?”

“I’ll go join the other students,” Willow said. “Good luck with your first day, Caleb.”

“Thanks, Willow.”

Sky and Caleb spent some time familiarizing themselves with the office setup. The man was shocked to find that he had access to the internet. Sky explained that a mini-portal had been put in place especially to make a permanent connection to Earth. “The link goes through the Harmonic Composites corporate server and several sites are blocked, but otherwise you have pretty free access.”

“You have been busy,” Caleb murmured.

Sky heard the comment and smiled to herself.

A few minutes before the class was due to start, they headed for the tea room. There were considerably more beings there now and Caleb looked them over while he made a mug of coffee for himself. More than half of them were ponies of the various tribes, but he saw two dragons, a kirin, three griffons, a hippogriff, two bipedal catlike beings, a parrot-like male with gaudy plumage, and another minotaur besides Nikos. Including the foremare and the smith, he had an even two dozen students. He suspected that some of them could be changelings but he didn’t care that they chose to maintain alter egos.

The clock on the wall chimed the hour and Caleb placed his mug and a notepad on the lectern located on one side of the room where a blackboard had been set up on the wall.

“Good morning, everyone. My name is Caleb Awad and I will be teaching you electric arc welding. This is Ms. Sky, my administrative assistant. You will see her for any problems not related to the lessons. Most of you will probably not recognize my species. We are called humans and I came from a different world where the engineering sciences are far more advanced. Ponyville is my home now though and it is my goal to send you all back to yours with a complete and thorough education in the techniques and applications of the various forms of arc welding.”

“Now that I have introduced myself, I’d like to get to know all my students. Could you come forward one by one and introduce yourselves to us. I hope you’ll forgive me if I forget any of your names later but I assure you that I am utterly unbiased – I forget everyone’s equally!”

There was a chuckle all-around before one of the older earth pony mares stepped up.

“I am Sturdy Build and I’ve been working in the construction industry for twenty years. I’m looking forward to learning some advanced skills.”

A male dragon swaggered forward. “Rock Crusher is the name. Call me Crusher. I’ve been looking for a career to challenge me and this is just the thing.”

One of the felines was next – the female. “I’m Sasha. Have you ever seen Abyssinian construction work? It sucks. Me and my brother Topper intend to build a business based on what we learn here and make our fortunes.”

A teenage unicorn colt stepped up. “I’m Smooth Fit and I’m a first-year apprentice. When I was choosing my career, this new field had just come available and I want to be in on the ground floor.”

The anthropomorphic parrot introduced himself as Fernando. “My goal is to construct things of strength and beauty!”

A lithe griffon cock stepped up, stroking his thin, curled mustache. The bald patches and scars all over his body did nothing to detract from his confident attitude. “My name is Phillipe. My destiny is to create timeless artwork with metal, so I would greatly appreciate if everyone would save their scraps and castoffs for me. I have hundreds of creations in my head waiting to be born into this world!”

Caleb perked up. “An artist! There are many metalworkers on my homeworld in that profession. Tell me, do you have a patron who sponsors your work?”

Phillipe sagged. “Tragically, no. I fear I must learn the practical art first so that I may continue to eat.”

“I’ll tell you what. Impress me with your work ethic…” He glanced over the griffon’s scarred form. “…and your dedication to proper safety protocol and I’ll put in a word with Prince Mark. In a year’s time, you could be teaching a class to other budding artists.”

The griffon bowed low. “I shall impress you with my dedication and passion, exalted teacher.”

Caleb smiled. “If you like, I can ask Mark’s friend Phil for books on the metal art of his world.”

Phillipe held up a clawed hand. “Non. First, I must create a personal style by developing my own skills. I shall not become a poor imitation of more experienced artists.”

“An excellent attitude.” The man turned to the rest of his students. “Next?”

The kirin mare hopped on her hooves and her smile practically beamed. “Hi! I’m Marigold. I’m so happy to see and work and learn and have grrrrreat times with everypony!” Her smile fell. “Just… don’t make me upset.” The students nearest to her scrambled away, except for Crusher who rolled his eyes.

Marigold caught fire, her coat turning from white to black. Blue and red flames replaced her green mane and tail. “Nopony likes me when I’m upset!

To Caleb’s shock, this alarming display was met with laughter, applause, and hoof stomps. He had been told by both Willow and Vectrix that Ponyville was the epicenter of odd happenings in Equestria. Maybe this was just another flaming example of exactly that. Regardless, he had to take charge of the class again. “Very impressive, Marigold. Keep in mind that in either of your forms, you’ll need to use PPE like everyone else.”

The nirik’s snarl cut off abruptly. Marigold returned to her previous form with a pop. “What’s PPE?”

“Personal Protection Equipment. That will be the first lesson for today.”

Her bright smile returned. “Ok! Sounds like a grrreat plan!”

A red changeling marched forward two steps and saluted. “Sir! I am a Lieutenant in the Red Hive armed forces. My name translates to Blood of Vigilance. My goal is to fashion lightweight combat armor to augment our troops against projectile weapons. Sir!”

Caleb nodded. “Commendable. However, I think you’ll find the skill of welding applies better to other aspects of the military: tanks, armored personnel carriers, munition containers, maybe even entrenching tools.”

“Ah... I see, sir.”

“Yep. Welded metal plates are just too heavy for the job. The most advanced body armor in our world uses ceramics inside clothing woven from high-tensile strength fibers.”

The changeling’s voice lost all trace of a precise, clipped tone. “Whoa. Really?”

“That’s right. Who’s next?”

A pink earth pony mare with a somewhat clumpy yellow mane and tail gave the human a big smile. “Cherry Berry. I’ve taken wood and cloth heavier-than-air craft about as far as they can go. Any time your plane leaves an important piece behind because you pushed the envelope just a bit too far, there’s too much of a chance to have a Bad Day. I calculate that a steel frame and skin will let me go faster than sound and maybe all the way to space.”

The man nodded. “It might, but you’ll probably need to use titanium or at least a titanium alloy for spaceflight.”

The mare’s ears pointed directly at Caleb and her eyes sparkled. “You don’t saaaaaay.”

“I do. The temperatures generated on reentry are extremely high. Next!”

Each of the remaining students continued to step up until everyone had been introduced and perhaps adding a personal note. Caleb put down the pen that he’d been using to write down the names and comments before looking up at the students. No sign of a smile was left on his face.

“Before we get started on the lessons – safety! I’m not up to speed with every safety procedure in the various industries and countries that you come from but I assure you that I will not tolerate anything less than full compliance with all of the safety procedures that I set here. Horseplay… uh… messing around and pranking each other will not be tolerated, even once. Ms. Sky will post a full list of the safety procedures later but I will go over them now. First of all – protective clothing and equipment. Some of you will have experience with them before but more are required for this profession. I don’t care what you have considered adequate before but I will require you all to wear specified overalls, head protection, and footwear for this course. That is why you were required to send in sizes along with your applications to the school. Yes, Crusher?”

The dragon who had held up his talons said, “Our hides are tougher than any possible clothing short of magically enhanced material. Do we dragons need to wear overalls? They would only hinder us.”

Caleb frowned. “I hear that your species likes to bathe in lava. Is this true or just an exaggeration?”

“It’s true, sir. It’s good for dealing with parasites and muscle aches. It’s very relaxing too. I had a lava bath last night.”

“Very well, in your case, overalls might be more of a liability than a benefit, so I will leave that as an option for you two dragons. However, you will still be required to wear a high-vis vest. No exceptions!” Caleb continued when Crusher sat down.

“Now let’s see a show of hands… hooves, or whatever other body parts you can hold up.” Caleb pulled a small screwdriver from a pants pocket. “You’ll notice the four-pointed tip on the end of this tool. How many of you have skin or scales tough enough to shrug off a blow from the pointy end if it flew into you at the speed of a pegasus?”

Both dragons and two of the changelings grinned and raised a limb.

“And how many feel the same way if it struck you square in the eye?”

Slowly, both the raised arms and forelegs fell, along with the grins.

The man nodded. “That’s exactly why everyone here will be wearing eye protection at all times equipment is in use. My assistants Coiled Steel, Nikos, and I will adjust the fit of your goggles before we start. Keep in mind that the goggles are not designed to cut down the blinding light generated by arc welding. There is additional eye protection for that.”

“Next – you will need to familiarize yourselves with this facility. Learn where all the exits are, the locations of the fire-fighting equipment, the circuit-breakers for the electrical devices, and so forth. While Coiled Steel will be learning to weld too, she is still the foremare of this facility and very familiar with its layout and capabilities. When we leave here, she will give you a tour of the workshop and point out everything that you will need to know. In all other situations, you will be expected to keep to best practices where safety is concerned. You will not be responsible for just yourself but for everyone who is in this school with you. Am I clear?”

There was a chorus of assent.

Caleb nodded. “Good. After the orientation, I will introduce you to the various equipment that you will be learning to use. Every student will have their own set of equipment which they will be expected to maintain in peak condition. Doing so will be part of the lesson. Hopefully, the modifications done to suit each species will work for you. If you have any problems, see me about them. We want to spend our time learning and practicing, not wrestling with incompatible equipment.”

The man then pointed to the corner of the room where cardboard boxes had been neatly stacked up. “In those boxes is all the protective gear that you will require for this course. They have been marked with your names. Please find yours and put it on now.”

The students shuffled over there. The first, not finding theirs on top, called out the names and passed the boxes out until they got to theirs. They then switched out with another who did the same until everyone had their safety gear. By that time, some of them were fully dressed while others were still figuring out what to do with some of it. The dragons had been provided with overalls but Caleb allowed them to settle for just the footwear, goggles, and high-vis vests as promised.

When everyone was ready, Caleb said, “You will have noticed that you have been provided with two sets of overalls as you will be expected to launder one while using the other. Some of the safety gear will need to be replaced regularly due to wear and some daily. General replacements will be kept readily available to be taken as needed from a shelf in the stores' area that Coiled Steel will show you during orientation. If you need to replace hoof or footwear, see Ms. Sky about procuring new ones. Alright, let’s get the orientation started. Coiled, they’re all yours.”

The earth pony took the students on a tour of the entire workplace before bringing them to an open area central to all the workstations which is where Caleb resumed control of the class. He smiled at them and said, “Now, if no one has any questions, let’s get started on learning your new skills.”



Caleb threw himself onto the new sofa with a sigh of relief. Willow climbed up next to him while Sky settled down on the other side.

The man put an arm around each and said, “Well, ladies, I think that went pretty well for our first day. I truly believe this is going to work out great.”

Willow replied, “Of course it will! You’re a born teacher. Even with my head start, I learned so much more today.”

“You know your subject and you’re good at passing that knowledge on to the students,” Sky said. “I would have liked to have watched more but I had a few tasks to complete elsewhere.”

The man looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “Did you manage to get a plumber lined up?”

“Yes. She had Wednesday afternoon free and I’ve arranged to have her provide the dryer that Willow needs.”

“Awesome!” the man replied. “By the way, are you intending to stay in that anthro form?”

“As long as you keep that arm around me, I am,” she replied with a sly smile.

Willow giggled and Caleb smirked. “Fair enough. So – what are our dinner plans? I don’t know about you two, but I’ve worked up an appetite.”

“We can’t keep going out to eat – that gets expensive real fast,” Willow said.

“And you’ve been spending your advance prolifically,” Sky pointed out. “Since I didn’t have to do too much today, I volunteer to cook dinner.”

“You can cook too?” Caleb asked before turning to Willow. “Can we keep her?”

The earth pony giggled again. “Just remember who’s the number one mare in this house!” she replied with a grin.

“Although I’m reluctant to leave this comfortable position, I’d better get started.” Sky leaned forward and slid out of Caleb’s embrace.

The man noted the odd texture of the clothing and that reminded him of something. “When you arrived here, you weren’t wearing anything, but you were when you changed to anthro form. Did you magic those up somehow?”

Sky grinned. “Oh, no – I can’t do dimensional pockets like a unicorn. These clothes are a part of me – copies of the real ones I bought from Rarity.”

“Part of you? I don’t understand.”

The anthro mare leaned over the man and pulled open her jacket to reveal a black bra restraining her bust.

 

Then green magic fire burned the bra away just like it did when the changeling transformed, revealing her naked boobs. Caleb stared at them as Sky continued talking.

 

“They’re a part of me like my wings and mane, only reshaped for the purpose of this identity.” She then stood up straight and closed the jacket. Sky walked to the kitchen with a sway to her hips. “Technically, I’m still nude.”

Caleb gulped. She might have had to take a crash course in what human males like, but she sure was learning fast!

 


 

CHAPTER 19

 

Sky began looking through the fridge and pantry for suitable ingredients for a meal. The way she bent over allowing Caleb to observe her rear was obviously deliberate, but the man realized something despite the distraction.

“You’re going to get a backache working at those low workbenches,” the man observed.

“Not a problem,” Sky replied before lighting up with green magic fire. Butterfly replaced the anthro mare, but as a pegasus once again. She wiggled her hindquarters. “See?”

“Yeah, but now you don’t have hands anymore.”

“I don’t? We’ll see how much that hinders me.” She opened her wings and used them to pick up a carrot with one and a peeler with the other. The feathers curved around the handle of the tool in an impossible manner and the mare got to work.

“Oh, come on! That’s cheating with shape-changing magic!” Caleb complained.

“No, it’s not,” Willow contradicted. When the man looked at her with a sharply lifted eyebrow, she added, “All pegasi can manipulate their feathers like that.”

“Really?” he replied incredulously. “I hadn’t noticed before now.”

“A hoof grip is stronger,” the earth pony admitted, “but for fine manipulation, pegasi will normally use their feathers.”

“The more I learn, the more I’m boggled about how magic shapes you ponies.” Then a thought occurred to him, and he turned back to Butterfly. “Wait! If you have such fine control, then you could use a keyboard. However, you walked up here as an earth pony and stayed one as an anthro. Why?”

The pegasus gave him an innocent smile. “I told you that I was still working on this identity.”

Caleb gave her a flat look. “How convenient that it left me with an anthro office manager who likes to flash her boobs at me.”

“Yes, and now you’re stuck with Sky because of your edict that she stays that way,” Butterfly replied smugly even as she continued to prepare the food.

The man leaned back into the sofa with his arms folded, a grumpy look on his face. “I’m being thoroughly manipulated by pony mares.”

Willow chuckled. “Don’t worry so much, Caleb. We only do it because we know what’s best for our stallion.”

“The fact that I’m a human and not a pony makes no difference?” he retorted.

“Hasn’t so far,” Willow replied with an indulgent smile before laying her head in his lap.

Caleb wanted to argue the point but found it difficult to do so with the pony whose head he had automatically started scratching. The coos of pleasure completely derailed his chain of thought. He sighed. “You win this round, ladies,” he murmured.



Butterfly Sky had certainly proven that she could cook. Despite the unplanned nature of the meal, the mix of vegetables and pasta had been tasty and nutritious. Caleb and Willow cleaned up after the meal and the three sat down for coffee and conversation. They discussed how the first day of the trade school had gone and their impressions of the students. Then the changeling said goodnight and headed back to the hive. The man and the earth pony spent an hour or so reading before heading off to bed for an early night.

As before, Willow snuggled her back into Caleb and he put his arm around her. As they lay there, the man had some thoughts that rose to the surface now that there were no more distractions.

“Willow?”

“Hmm?”

“Doesn’t it bother you at all that another mare is essentially horning in on me right here in your home?”

Your home now too,” she corrected. “But to answer your question, putting aside the fact that the mare in question is actually a changeling, no, I don’t.”

“Why not?”

Willow was quiet for a moment before squirming around to face Caleb. In the darkened room, the man could see moonlight shimmering in the mare’s eyes as she gazed at him. “We’ve talked about this on our first evening together. We mares are always doing everything in our repertoire to make ourselves attractive to a stallion we fancy. It’s a normal part of our lives.”

“But surely it irritates you that she’s doing it right under your nose?”

“No. And before you ask why not, it’s because she isn’t a threat to me.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“First of all, she’s a changeling. She’s trying to forge a Companion Bond with you. Just because many of the tactics she’s trying are the same as flirting by mares looking for a mate doesn’t mean that she’s competing directly with me. Secondly, you heard me remind her who’s the number one mare here, right?”

“Yes, I did,” Caleb acknowledged.

“Butterfly did not dispute it, did she?”

“No, she didn’t. So – that makes you the alpha mare, right?”

Willow bopped him on the nose with her hoof. “You better believe it!” She then turned over again and snuggled back into him.

Caleb didn’t know if he should be relieved or worried. On one hand, there wasn’t going to be an outbreak of bitter rivalry between the two. On the other hand, it seemed that he had two mares firmly determined to fit themselves into his life in the only ways they knew how. It was a dilemma, albeit not an unpleasant one. He nuzzled the mare who whickered softly in response. There were worse fates, he figured. Right now though, sleep was the more important priority.



The remainder of the week was similar to Monday. Caleb and Willow would get up, shower, and make breakfast. Sky would arrive about then and all three headed off to the trade school. Lectures and practical lessons were given and then the three would go back to the cottage. Only a few things changed.

On Wednesday, the trio returned to the house to find the shower modified and drier installed. Willow told the surprised human that nopony locked their house doors in Ponyville and it made more sense to get everything done while they were away at work. Caleb was able to stand under one of the shower heads while the other was on a hose and mounted at a height to suit Willow. The mare could now unhook it to move it around her body to reach some awkward areas.

The second addition was a small steel workbench welded together as practice by some of Caleb’s students. Willow carried it home after class was finished. Now he had something far better suited to his height to prepare food upon without having to bend over constantly. It was very durable but not attractive, although a coat of paint would certainly help. That was put on the to-do list for the weekend.

Butterfly stayed for dinner each night but the others shared the preparation and cooking duties with her. As Willow did not seem to find the changeling’s uninvited presence unusual, Caleb just shrugged it off as a pony thing. He liked the mare even as she continued to flirt with him shamelessly, regardless of which form she was in.

Friday afternoon came and the school closed for the week. Caleb locked the door before turning to Willow and Sky.

“Well, ladies, I believe we’ve earned ourselves a night off from kitchen duties. Let’s go to a bistro for a meal and a few drinks. Any preferences?”

“How fancy do you wanna be?” Willow asked. “I need to freshen up at least first.”

“Something informal this time. I know you mares would prefer to dress up for the occasion if we went to a high-class restaurant. I just want to unwind and relax in good company.”

The two mares looked at each other and grinned. “The Bucking Mare!” they chorused.

Caleb gaped before lifting a finger as if to raise a point. “That’s not what I meant by… oh, forget it. I really stepped in it this time, didn’t I?”

Sky grinned and replied, “Maybe, but I think this works for all of us.”

The changeling was right. Everyone could let their hair or mane down there and all three needed to relax. They ate a good meal and consumed just the right amount of alcohol while enjoying the entertainment. They then walked leisurely home. When they arrived, Willow went inside but Caleb held back.

“I think I’ll sit outside for a while and enjoy the night air. The stars are particularly pretty tonight.”

Willow’s eyebrows rose and she glanced at Sky. A few moments later, she shrugged. “Okay. I’m going to make coffee. Want some?”

“Yeah. Give me a yell when it’s ready.” Caleb wandered over to the sole piece of outside furniture – a simple two-seater park bench – and sat down. He leaned back to gaze at the stars while Sky quietly sat beside him.

After a long moment of silence, Sky said, “Something is bothering you – I can taste it.”

The man turned to look at the anthro mare’s eyes which gleamed in the moonlight, reminding him of Willow’s. He gave Sky a lopsided smile. “You could say that. I’ve been in Equestria a couple of weeks now and my life has been turned upside-down. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got it good so far. I could have died out in that desert or been left to fend for myself. I could have had many other things go wrong. However, here I am with a good job, a nice place to live, and two mares determined to make me part of their lives. It’s all a bit much to take in so quickly.”

Sky bit her lip before replying. “I’d offer to stop my flirting if it would help, but I know you like it, even if you won’t admit it.”

Caleb shook his head. “No, you’re right. Despite being disparate species, I do find you attractive – sexy even. Not sure how that works but my ape brain likes what you’re doing in spite of my rational mind pointing out our differences.” He sighed. “It’s just you’re doing it right under Willow’s nose and that is making me feel conflicted. I like her and it has been surprisingly pleasant to go to bed with her each night. But I think she wants more too. I don’t know how to feel about that, and I certainly don’t know how to deal with two mares wanting a piece of me.”

Sky put her hand on the man’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We both want what is best for you because that is best for us too. Willow is undergoing a huge change in her life also. She spent years merely existing after her fiancé died but you awakened her zest for life once more. Of course she’s going to want more. And you already know my motivation. We’re closer than ever, Caleb, but I sense that you won’t ever bond with me until you resolve your conflicts.”

“How am I supposed to do that, Sky? This whole world is so different from mine. I’m not used to so many things that you take for granted. I had a conversation with Willow in bed a few nights ago and she tried to make our situation clearer. However, knowing it empirically and feeling it are two different things. I’m a product of my Earth upbringing while you two behave in Equestrian ways. And you’re both totally different species on top of that. If this was back on Earth, I would be called a pervert for some of the thoughts I’ve been having, and yet here, it’s so normal that you’re surprised when I bring up the subject.”

“I could be a human for you if it mattered,” Sky said. Magic fire flared and Vicky replaced the anthro mare. “But no – that’s not the answer. You know what I am behind this façade and that changes nothing. And it still leaves your feelings about Willow unresolved. If it helps, I sense that you two are a very good match despite your physical differences.”

“But where does that leave you?” Caleb asked.

“You still don’t understand the nature of a Companion Bond. What it means is that we would be so in sync with each other that we would both desire the same things. I know your feelings for her because I feel them too. And Willow has spent much of her life in an era where having a changeling partner has become normalized. She may see us as a package deal. However, she also has to deal with someone who doesn’t explicitly understand her needs and desires because his background is so different. She struggles with your gung-ho… masculinity is that how you say it? – while her mare instincts are telling her that you need to be protected and nurtured.”

Caleb grimaced and snorted. “The problem for both of us is that I’m not a pony stallion.”

“It doesn’t need to be a problem. Take it from someone who could be anything she desires – it’s not the physical things that make for a successful relationship. If it was, I would have had a partner many years ago.”

“I notice that I haven’t seen your male form since last weekend.”

“Oh, Vex will be around again, but we both prefer when I’m female.” She shifted back to anthro mare form. “And you like Sky best.”

Caleb chuckled. “Yeah, you got me there. A tad more exotic than Vicky. Best of both worlds, right?”

Sky grinned. “I like to think so. And I’d like to emphasize that I don’t merely look feminine in this form. I very much am female and find your masculinity as attractive as you find my boobs fascinating.”

The man laughed. “Nice to know. Any more words of wisdom before Willow comes looking for us?”

“She knows we’re having a serious talk and has been giving us privacy. But, yes, I do have one more piece of advice. You should seek counsel from an expert. I suggest you make an appointment to see Princess Cadance.”

“What?! You want me to bug a princess over my personal issues?”

Sky nodded. “Yes, I do, and she would want you to. She’s not called the Princess of Love for nothing.”

“I’m not seeking marital advice!”

“Love comes in many different forms, Caleb. Go see her – you’ll be glad you did.”

“I’ll… think about it.” He shivered. “It’s getting a bit too cool out here for me. How about we go inside for that coffee?”

“Now that’s another example of how we think alike. Let’s go!”



As Caleb settled down in bed for the night with Willow, the mare asked, “Did you have a good talk with Sky?”

The man was silent for a moment before replying. “She gave me some food for thought.”

“Good. I think I might have a chat with her too. I suspect she’s going to play a big part in our lives.”

“I reckon you’re right. I just hope that we can work things out to our mutual satisfaction.”

“Me too. But for now – snuggles?”

Caleb gave her a smile she couldn’t see. “Gladly.”

 


 

CHAPTER 20

 

In the magical land of Equestria, some things proved to be exactly as reliable as they were back on Earth. Caleb found that out to his frustration mere weeks into his new job. A meeting was arranged and he visited Canterlot that afternoon immediately after his lessons were finished.

Caleb said, “Thanks for the spare laptop, Phil. With my thumb drive backups, I’ll be up and running in no time. I’ll make sure the hard drive is wiped before getting the broken laptop back to you. It should still be under warranty.”

“You’re very welcome, Caleb. Yes, I still have all the paperwork and receipts. If you can bring it by Friday afternoon, Rosa can take you back to Best Buy. She has a history with our store’s Geek Squad and frankly, they are terrified of her.”

Caleb chuckled. “That would be worth the price of admission right there. Oh, and if Harmonic Composites is still open then, I’d be curious to see what Chipped Hoof looks like as a human.”

Phil tilted his head. “Who?”

“Charles Hoff. The guy who did a breaking and entering into Equestria and insulted the Great and Illustrious Trixie. There’s a rotating cast of changeling lookalikes of him that works at Mark’s factory.”

“Oh, him. No, he doesn’t work there. Didn’t know there was a changeling copy of him in my world. Anyway, gotta go. Yolanda and Latisha are trying their hand at Indian cooking tonight. Don’t want to be late.” Phil waved to Willow and Butterfly before trotting through the portal.

Caleb stood stock still long after the other human had left, clenching his jaw.

Willow eventually broke the silence. “Caleb? Is something wrong?”

Caleb didn’t reply but looked at the changeling who rustled her wings while looking anywhere but at him.

The human sank to one knee to get to Butterfly’s level. “Your natural form, please.” A flash of green flame later, Vectrix stood next to the man. Caleb leaned forward. “Chip said that his doppelganger was working for Mark’s company. That’s one of the few things he told me that I’m fairly confident he wasn’t exaggerating or making up on the fly.” At the changeling’s continued silence, Caleb said, “Why, exactly, was Chip lied to?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Vectrix shrugged in an unconcerned manner, but Caleb narrowed his eyes. “I don’t believe you. I can tell when you’re lying, you know.”

Willow snorted with laughter. “No way. Changelings are masters at deception.”

Caleb stood. “Not this one. At least not with me. Come on. Let’s see if Prince Mark is still in his office.” The man heard a pitiful whine behind him. Looking back, he saw Vectrix hanging his head and trudging after him.

Willow patted Vectrix on the withers. “Don’t be like that. It’s not like you’re marching to your funeral.” That just elicited a louder whine from the changeling.

Ten minutes later, they were informed that Prince Mark had finished his office hours for the day. Fortunately, there were standing orders to bring the human to Mark’s location outside of family private time. One of the Royal Guards escorted the trio to a nearby lounge where Mark, Chrysalis, and Trixie were relaxing. The two mares said nothing but turned to regard the newcomers with the same amused expression. On the changeling queen, that turned into a piercing glare at Vectrix.

The alicorn stallion stood up and walked closer. “Caleb! I’ve been hearing great things about your class. How do you like teaching now that you’ve gotten your feet wet?”

“Ah… thank you. I’m enjoying things so far, Your Highness.”

“As always, just Mark. We were about to grind up and sample a variety of this season’s first tea imports from Zebrica. Can I talk you, Willow, and Vectrix into joining us?”

“Umm… Yeah, that would be great.”

“I’m sure you have important business matters to discuss, but I don’t want that to get in the way of a relaxing evening.” Mark walked back to a low table set in the center of four sofas. Caleb saw a teapot, a small grinder, several diffusers, three cups and saucers, and four cubical boxes that he presumed contained the tea leaves.

The human sat directly across from Trixie, who levitated the three saucers away from their cups. In a flash of her magic, three more identical teacups appeared where the saucers had been. Caleb felt Willow climb up on his left while a shivering Vectrix pressed up against his right side. Glancing at Chrysalis worsened Caleb’s already sour mood. “If you don’t mind, would you ask your wife to stop scaring my Vectrix?”

Mark stopped fussing with the tea set to look over his withers. “Dear?”

Chrysalis’s mood immediately shifted to a beaming smile. “Yes, husband?”

“Please share your silent conversation with Vectrix. The rest of us don’t have the benefit of your emotion reading or knowledge of the existing orders you have imposed on him.”

The changeling queen’s eyes narrowed and flicked towards the drone. “He has shared something confidential with Caleb that has the man upset. What specific information, I do not yet know.”

Willow said, “But isn’t that exactly what you want between Companions? No secrets?”

No one spoke for a few seconds until Chrysalis broke the silence. “Nevertheless, these two are not yet bonded. Until then, my drones need to understand where their loyalties lie.”

Mark turned away from his herdmate. “So what is upsetting you, Caleb?”

“Chip Hoff was lied to. His changeling doppelganger is not working at Harmonic Composites. He’s still working at Chip’s old company, isn’t he?”

The alicorn stallion’s head snapped up. “Wait, what?”

Chrysalis shrugged. “And what of it? This does not affect you in any way.”

Caleb clenched and relaxed a fist. “I was told it was too risky for me to build a new life on Phil’s Earth. Exactly how many copies of my form are living there right now?”

The changeling queen waved a placating hoof. “Ah! I see your concern. No, I give you my word that none of my drones are disguised in your likeness.”

Mark turned to fully face his herdmate. “Sally, what’s this?”

“Were you not paying attention, husband? Our herd decided to use my drones to maintain Chipped Hoof’s presence in the human world. His crimes were not capital offenses and returning a dead body was not feasible.”

“No, I mean why isn’t he working at Harmonic Composites, as I was told?”

Chrysalis shrugged. “That was the original plan, true. However, the opportunity to gather useful intelligence from our most brazen competitor was too good to pass up.”

In the drawn-out silence, Caleb didn’t need a changeling’s senses to read Mark’s facial expression. The alicorn practically growled. “And you didn’t think this was worth mentioning to the rest of the herd.” It wasn’t a question.

“Day to day activities of the Canterlot Hive drones are my purview.”

Mark countered, “… unless they put the discovery of Equestria at too great of a risk, which this does. Your stand-ins for Charles Hoff need to resign from International Performance Products immediately.”

Chrysalis looked to the side and tapped a forehoof against her chin. “Mmmmm… no.”

The alicorn stallion blinked. “No?”

“Indeed. If you recall, dear husband, I am sworn to obey my senior herdmates, not you. I am formally calling on Lead Mare Trixie Lulamoon to resolve our dispute.” Both Mark and Chrysalis turned to look at Trixie.

Caleb stood, quickly followed by his companions. “Thank you for the hospitality. I’ve had my question answered and don’t want to intrude—”

“Please stay,” said Trixie, although the tone she used made it sound like anything but a request. Slowly, Caleb returned to his seat, followed by Willow and Vectrix.

Trixie let out a long sigh, then sat up straight and frowned. Caleb had a front-row seat to the blue mare putting on her aloof regal bearing. “One thing is for certain – Trixie won’t listen to the bickering of others until Trixie has her tea.”

Queen Chrysalis and Prince Mark worked quickly to heat the water, grind the tea, fill a diffuser, and set a cup on the table in front of their herdmate. It only took a narrowing of Trixie’s eyes to prompt the two to repeat the process for everyone else present. Chrysalis and Mark stared down at the teacups during the intervening silence.

Caleb could still feel Vectrix shivering on his right. No chance to get any information from him. The human turned to Willow on his left, opening his mouth. A hard jab in the ribs with a forehoof and a look of panic convinced the human not to try starting a conversation.

After another minute, Mark’s magic removed the diffuser from Trixie’s cup while Chrysalis lifted the cup to her senior herdmate. Trixie sipped at the tea twice before nodding her head. Mark and Chrysalis prepared the remaining cups, serving everyone present. Both leaned back in their seats, looking expectantly at Trixie.

Caleb tasted his tea and decided it was a tad bitter. A small dab of honey and a stir later fixed that, although tea had never been his favorite drink. That’s when he noticed his friends hadn’t moved. What had gotten into them? A strong nudge to each got his two friends out of their catatonia. Dutifully, both took a single swallow of their tea.

Trixie looked over her cup. “Chrysalis. List the accomplishments of your team of drones that take turns emulating Charles Hoff.”

“Yes, Lead Mare. To date, they have uncovered two spies working at Harmonic Composites. Both were terminated before they gained access to sensitive information or restricted areas of the warehouse.”

“Excuse me? Terminated?!” exclaimed Mark.

“What? No. No need for that. They were fired.”

“Trixie will inform you when it is your turn to speak, husband. Please continue, Chrysalis. What else?”

“The three lawsuits we are fighting in court all originate from the same middle manager Quincy MacMillan.”

Trixie squinted her eyes. “Why is that name familiar?”

“Charles Hoff’s boss who encouraged him to slip into our warehouse,” supplied Chrysalis.

“Ah, yes. Continue.”

“Mr. McMillan hired some… extra-legal computer consultants to infiltrate the computer system of Harmonic Composites. With the help of Rosa and a shell corporation, I hired much better ones to infiltrate theirs.” Chrysalis looked pointedly at Mark. “Without measures of this gravity, we would not know of the scope of Mr. McMillan’s activities.” The alicorn stallion ground his teeth but said nothing.

Trixie took one more sip. “And that is a complete retelling?”

“Regarding this subject matter? Yes.”

Caleb was curious what other interesting tidbits regarding changeling network activities might be happening on Phil’s Earth. It was not his place to ask though.

Trixie turned to her husband. “Prince Mark, what are your concerns? Chrysalis, please address them.”

He snorted. “Where do I start? Our changeling’s cover being blown by his parents deciding to visit where they’ve been told he is employed… or calling.”

The changeling queen said, “Social norms in that dimension make the former nearly unheard of. Because a changeling runs the front desk and telephone switchboard, the latter is not a problem.”

“If one of our changelings gets into trouble at our competitor’s company, that could jeopardize our entire operation on Earth. The U.S. government would respond to an invasion of its territory with extreme prejudice.”

“The infiltrators of the Canterlot Hive are unmatched in their skill and knowledge of the human world. The Triarchy has determined the risks we take are worth the benefits.”

Mark glared at Chrysalis. “The risks we approved did not include activities that break multiple laws. I’ve done my research. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act makes it a felony for our changeling team to work at International Performance Products under a false identity. Add to that: corporate espionage and computer hacking. If this scandal gets pointed back to Harmonic Composites, the company would be shut down and all records seized.”

The changeling queen waved a hoof. “All records kept in that dimension are unrelated to our intelligence gathering. Only the occasional encrypted data transfer to Equestria occurs, and that is only one way.”

Mark’s response was cut off by Trixie. “Trixie has heard enough.” She slowly put the cup and saucer onto the table in front of her while everyone waited.

The blue alicorn looked at Chrysalis. “All these illegal activities stem from this one middle manager?”

“Yes, Lead Mare. Our agents have gathered proof of his culpability in both audio recordings and electronic messages.”

Mark said, “Can the audio messages be traced back to Charles Hoff being present at the time they were recorded?”

Chrysalis pursed her lips. “Possibly.”

Trixie said, “Chrysalis, you will send a copy of the electronic correspondence to the company’s president and legal counsel. Do this anonymously. If they do not take appropriate action, follow up in a week with a message that the information will be sent to that world’s legal authorities. Do so if they continue to employ this manager, although Trixie suspects that will not be necessary.”

The hive queen bowed her head. “It shall be done, Lead Mare.”

“After a month, if the company takes no further illegal action against us, Chipped Hoof will resign in a manner consistent with his temperament and immaturity.”

Trixie turned to a smiling Mark. “And you, husband, will spend the next three months becoming familiar with all aspects of changeling infiltration. This happened because you did not fulfill your obligation to stay aware of all areas of our operations in your home dimension.”

The stallion’s head jerked back. “I… yes, Trixie.”

The blue mare gave a slight smile and pointed a hoof at her teacup. Mark lifted the cup in his magic while Chrysalis poured. Trixie then took the offered cup and nodded. “You two may go. Trixie wishes to speak to these three privately.” Mark and Chrysalis bowed once more and left without a word.

As soon as the door was closed, Trixie practically collapsed, the regal stiffness leaving her body. Some of the tea sloshed out of the cup as the blue mare returned it to the table. “Oh, how Trixie hates having to do that.”

Caleb blinked. “What, exactly, Your Highness?”

She rolled her eyes. “Just Trixie right now, please. The show is over. Trixie… I apologize for the behavior of my mates.”

Willow said, “You were playing the role of the wise elder, weren’t you? Settling a dispute that the youngsters could not.”

Trixie pointed a hoof at the earth pony. “Precisely. This is one of the less pleasant tasks of becoming a lead mare. Something you should bear in mind.” She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “It should never have come to this. Chrysalis is too fond of her secrets. Add to that her impulsive nature – first to push the boundaries of her purview then to call on me to resolve the issue rather than to discuss the matter in-depth with our husband. And Mark has no business dictating how the hive drones are to be employed until he learns all of the facts.”

Caleb pursed his lips. “Actually… the thing that surprised me most was Mark’s attitude. He submitted to your ruling on the matter without comment. He fell into the role of being your subordinate naturally.” The man loomed over Willow slightly and gave her his best incisor-filled smile, causing her to lean away from him. “I hope you aren’t expecting me to capitulate to your whims, no matter what the future brings. Just not in my nature, I’m afraid.”

Trixie said, “You forget how long Mark has been a pony. He has adapted to Equestrian culture over the many years. In some ways, he is not the same person I met or married.”

Vectrix took a deep breath. Everyone waited until he spoke. “Does that… no, never mind.”

The blue mare finished his question. “Does that take away from what makes him special?” She smiled. “No, not to me. He is different, yes, but in many good ways.” She picked up her cup with a hoof and looked expectantly at Caleb.

He knew when he was being played. He growled, “Pour your own damn tea.”

Trixie laughed long and hard while Willow stared at the man in shock. Vectrix got in some giggles. His emotion reading gave him a heads-up as to what Caleb did and why.

After a while, Trixie wiped the tears from her eyes. “Oh, my goodness. Yes, I do still remember the attitude of militant independence from the early days of my time with Snark Bells. Thank you for reminding me.” She looked to the door. “In fact, I half expect him to burst in here and tell me where to ‘stick myself and my mind games’.”

The other three turned to face the door, but nothing happened.

“Hmmm…,” said the blue mare. “It seems maturity is another way my husband has changed.” She looked up. “I hope today has been educational for all three of you.”

“It certainly has been an eye-opener,” the man admitted.

Trixie stood. “Caleb Awad, the Triarchy wants you to be happy here in Equestria. Your close friends are likely the key.” The blue alicorn lifted her head, again putting on her regal airs. “I’m off to ensure my husband and junior herdmate spend ample time together to repair their relationship and mutual trust.”

Before Caleb could voice his thanks, there was an inrush of air, and Trixie was gone.

The man turned to look at his downcast changeling friend and grimaced. “Sorry about dragging you into this mess. If I’d known what would happen, I wouldn’t have come here.”

Vectrix shook his head. “It’s not your fault. I should not have needed to keep you in the dark.”

Willow said, “I don’t like the way Chrysalis plays games with people’s lives.”

The changeling replied, “The Queen always has the benefit of the Equestrian Empire in mind as she swore to do when joining Prince Mark’s herd. However, her methods are not always… appreciated.”

Caleb snorted. “That’s one way of putting it. Hopefully, Trixie sorts her out. Anyway, I don’t know about you but I’m feeling hungry. Let’s head home.”

“Perhaps I should stay in Canterlot and head back to the hive right now.”

Caleb shot a glance at Willow who shook her head. The man put a finger on Vectrix’s nose and said, “Butterfly! Now!”

The startled changeling promptly transformed into her pegasus identity. Willow put a foreleg around her withers.

“Like the man said – let’s go home.”

Butterfly giggled. “Okay! Okay! I get the hint. What would you two like for dinner tonight?”



While Caleb and Willow helped with the preparation, it was Butterfly who was truly the chef. The pegasus mare had proven herself to be an excellent cook and she regularly headed the culinary efforts at home. This night, she prepared Prench green lentil soup with quinoa and mushrooms. The protein-rich meal was both tasty and satisfying. After dinner, the man brewed coffee while the earth pony cut slices of lemon tart to round off the meal. The three settled onto the sofa, Caleb between them as usual.

“Thanks, guys,” Butterfly said. “I feel a lot better now.”

“You just needed some pleasant familiar tasks to get you back on track,” Caleb said before taking a sip of his hot coffee.

“Yeah,” Willow agreed. “Evenings wouldn’t be the same without you here with us.”

“I suppose not. I didn’t really want to go back to the hive. I only wanted to spare you my bad mood.”

The earth pony mare gave the pegasus a stern look. “You don’t want to go back to the hive at all, do you? I think it’s about time we changed that. You should start staying with us full-time.”

Butterfly’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Really?” She glanced at Caleb. “Where would I sleep?”

The man rolled his eyes. “You’ve spent weeks trying to get me used to the idea of ponies sharing their sleeping arrangements, so don’t be surprised when I say that there’s room in that herd-size bed of ours for you.”

“Are you sure you’re ready for that step, Caleb?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. Fair warning though – you ever change into a male while in bed with me and I’ll boot you out the door without opening it first.”

Butterfly laughed long and hard, tears leaking from her eyes. “That suits me fine. I promise that I will always be a mare for you within these walls.”

“Good enough. Now, there’s just one question left to be answered,” Caleb said.

“What’s that?” the pegasus asked.

“Big spoon or little spoon?”



Caleb put his arm over Butterfly’s barrel and snuggled in close while Willow did the same behind him. The changeling had reckoned she was happy with either position but, for this first time, she wanted to be embraced by the man. He had been happy to oblige, having gotten used to doing so with the earth pony to help make her feel secure. It felt right, and now that he was sandwiched between two mares, he began to understand how Mark Wells had so readily gone native.

“What next?” he wondered.

He didn’t think he had said anything aloud but Butterfly murmured, “The best is yet to come.”

 


 

CHAPTER 21

 

“I appreciate that your method is an efficient way of pre-heating the work, Marigold, but in the interests of safety, please return to your normal form,” Caleb said with a touch of exasperation.

The nirik’s flames doused and the kirin looked up at the man with puppy dog eyes. “But I made sure that my work area was clear beforehoof.”

“I know, but it’s always better to assume that the unexpected could happen. That’s why you need to learn how to do things the accepted way initially. Once you’ve mastered the technique and you’ve graduated, you may experiment with alternative methods. However, to pass my course, you need to do things my way first.”

Marigold nodded. “No problem, Teach!” She then picked up her acetylene equipment and fitted the heating nozzle. She lit it with a brief lick of flame from her hoof and set to work.

Satisfied, Caleb turned to observe the progress of his other students. He walked up behind a frowning Willow who was pressing her hooves against different parts of a freshly welded joint. He said, “A copper bit for your thoughts?” Willow swished her tail while staring at the piece. Eventually, she looked up at Caleb.

"It just doesn't make sense. Anything else in the world: Pottery, wood, bones, ceramics – all of these are by definition weaker where they have broken and been repaired. But with welding, the bead is stronger than the surrounding metal. I can feel it in my hooves."

Caleb smiled. "Which is why Prince Mark is so gung ho on the idea."

"I guess so." The earth pony mare grinned up at him. "It's almost like you are bringing your own kind of magic to Equestria."

Before the man could fully process this, a shout drew his attention.

“Hey, Caleb! You’ve got a visitor!”

Looking to the upstairs walkway, he saw Sky who had attracted his attention. Next to the anthro mare was a familiar figure waving at him – a young adult male dragon.

The man waved back. “Hi, Spike! Give me a moment and I’ll be up there.”

Caleb made sure that the rest of his trainees were doing their tasks properly before heading up to meet his friend. He gestured for the drake to join him in his office. The man could still keep an eye on the students through the large window overlooking the workshop in case a problem arose. He pulled out a seat for his guest before sitting behind the desk.

It’s good to see you, Spike. What brings you here today?”

“I don’t know why I haven’t checked this place out before. It all looks fascinating. Anyway, I’m here to invite you to Guy’s Night up at Canterlot.”

“Guy’s Night?”

“Yeah, a bunch of us get together to play poker, have a few drinks, and generally hang out while our mares are off doing their own thing.”

“Sounds fun. Who will be there?”

“Prince Mark Wells, Prince Shining Armor, Gallus, Phil Martine – unicorn style, Crimson Boulder, King Thorax, and me, of course.”

“Hobnobbing with the power players? Sure, why not?” Caleb said with a chuckle. “Things have gotten a little routine lately. Mind if I bring along Vex?”

Spike tilted his head and raised an eye ridge. “Who’s Vex?”

“Vectrix’s unicorn stallion alter ego.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s fine.”

“So – when is it?”

“This Saturday. We’ll meet for dinner first.”

“Good. I had plans with my mares for earlier that afternoon.”

“Right. Be up at the castle by six. Now that that’s sorted, mind if I ask a couple of questions?”

The human took a long look across the shop before answering. “Curious about what we do here?”

The dragon nodded. “This is all new to me. I’ve been to many places with Twilight, but I’ve never seen anything like this welding school.”

Caleb chuckled. “That’s not surprising considering it’s the first of its kind. I’m teaching skills that are new to this world.”

“You have a lot of different creatures here besides ponies. The Triarchy is sure serious about spreading those skills around. How long does it take to learn to be a welder anyway?”

“Well, that depends. If this was back on Earth, some start as teenage apprentices or entry-level positions and it would take them three or four years to earn their certification. However, this is Equus and there’s nowhere for apprentices to learn. Take Smooth Fit, for example.” Caleb gestured out the window, pointing to the unicorn colt. “He had already started as an apprentice in an engineering workshop before getting wind of this course. Now, instead of spending years in a factory, he’s getting an intensive course that will cut his apprenticeship in half. On Earth, students could get their diploma from a community college with a one or two-year degree. On the other hand… uh… hoof, several of these students are already experienced metalworking professionals who want to learn new techniques. They might be ready in less than a year. I don’t know yet. I have zero data to work with until I get through the curriculum that I’ve laid out. I don’t expect every being to progress at the same rate. However, none will be certified by me until I am satisfied that they have a thorough knowledge of and practical ability with every aspect of the trade.”

Spike looked back at Caleb. “You sound very strict about it.”

“I have to be. Many of my students will go back to their hometowns and will teach their own students. I intend that they don’t take back any bad habits or misconceptions.”

“That makes sense,” the dragon said with a thoughtful nod. He then grinned. “Mind if I try my claws at welding? Just for kicks, I mean. I have a career already.”

“Not during classes, but maybe we can plan a day some weekend soon… or a Friday evening if we are both free.”

The dragon shook his head. “Can’t be this week. The Canterlot Comic and Gaming Convention starts Friday and I’ve signed up to play one of your Earth games Friday night: Risk.”

The human sat up straight. “Risk? Really?”

“Sure. Strategy games are a hit across pretty much all species. Plus I have to defend my title from last year.” The dragon narrowed his eyes and smirked. “You know, we could make a little side wager on who places higher in the tournament. That’s if you decide to get your flank handed to you… I mean decide to play.”

Caleb chuckled. “You don’t fool me one bit. You’re trying to get a feel for how I play before the poker game. Still, what sort of wager are you talking about?”

Spike spread his arms wide. “Just the standard amount between dragons. A tenth of your body weight in medium and high-quality gems or gold, your pick.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I can’t believe the apprentice to the Alicorn of Friendship is trying to hustle me. No bet.”

Spike showed off his sharp teeth. Somehow, he made it look friendly. “Actually, younger brother or Number One Assistant. Anyway, feel free to stop by the convention center when you get off work on Friday. It’s the latest extension added to Canterlot Castle.”

“I think…yeah. That sounds like fun. I’ll do that.”

“Good enough. Well, I’d better get back to the library. My lunch break is nearly over.”

Caleb stood up. “Good to see you again, pal. I’ll see you Friday night.”



Caleb locked the door to the school. He turned to see Willow staring at him with one raised eyebrow.

“You seriously want me to go to a comic convention?”

“Sure! Spike will be there. It should be fun.”

The earth mare’s look intensified into what could only be described as ‘the stink eye, equine edition.’

The man turned to Sky, who shrugged. “Sorry. No interest. Plus, I have some mandatory training I can’t put off any longer.” With a flash of green fire, the changeling appeared in his base form. “I’ll be back around midnight.” With a buzz of wings, Vectrix was gone.

Bereft of any reinforcements, Caleb crossed his arms and tried to give Willow the same stare in return. “So what’s so awful about comic conventions?”

“The ponies there… smell funny – like they haven’t bathed in days.”

“Hmm. Well, it won’t just be ponies. Also, there will be gamers there, too.”

“They smell even worse. Wait.” Willow’s ears swiveled forward. “Do they have wargaming? Like Advanced Squad Leader or Tactics II?”

The man blinked, recalling those names from his childhood. “I don’t… hold on. How do you know about those?”

The mare clopped her hooves. “Our commanding officer Aerial Ace brought in his copies and told us all about them. Constantly shifting strategies carried out on a battlefield made up of hexagonal cells. Intricate rules to memorize and apply better than your opponent. What’s not to love? I just hope they have a novice tier.” She cantered toward the Castle of Friendship, swishing her tail. “Let’s get a move on!”

Caleb had to jog to keep up. Exactly what had he unwittingly awakened in his friend and roommate?



Caleb had attended a few board gaming tournaments as a teen. He found the atmosphere of the gaming room to be comfortably familiar. The various colored clothing worn by humans had been replaced with many shades of coat colors and plumage. Good-natured discussions happened all around him with no regard made to race… except for the zebras who seemed more stand-offish than other participants. Still, everyone was civil and in a good mood. Everyone except for Spike, whose reputation as last year’s winner resulted in his opening round opponents focusing on him in the early game. A few bad rolls of the dice later, he had been knocked out.

Caleb won his round after a seesaw battle with an adolescent minotaur heifer left him on top. The human offered to shake hands on a good game, only to have the female kiss the back of his hand, look at him knowingly, and leave the table. The human was not sure what that meant in the minotaur culture and decided it was safer not to know.

With a half-hour to wait until the final round and Willow fully engaged in her board game, Caleb wandered across the hallway to the comic dealers’ room. The first and most prominent table featured all sorts of merchandise for a superhero group called The Power Ponies. Before he could study it further, he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello, Caleb. It’s nice to see you again.”

After turning around, he was brought up short to see a white anthro unicorn with a blond mane and tail smile at him shyly.

The man recognized her from the first day that he had come to Canterlot. She was one of Mark’s daughters, although he forgot by which of his wives. Thankfully, like the last time he had seen the mare, she was clothed, sparing him the embarrassment of looking at a nude female. However, bizarrely, she was wearing a superhero outfit.

“Is that a Wonder Woman costume?”

 

The young mare’s blue eyes sparkled and she pumped a fist. “Yes! You recognized it! Do you like it?” She twirled around to show it off. She faced him once more, drawing in a deep breath that made her bust and cleavage stand out.

Struggling to keep his eyes off her boobs, he replied, “Well, yes, it looks very authentic. But why are you wearing it now?”

“I love superheroes and their costumes! Uncle Phil brings all the latest movies from Earth and my mother makes replicas of the costumes for me.”

A bespectacled hippogriff with a clipboard trotted up. “Sorry! Sorry! Director Pearl? I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s another emergency, I’m afraid.”

“Ah. Excuse me.” The anthro mare looked away from the human. “What is it this time, Sunbeam?”

The hippogriff adjusted her glasses. “Endless Scroll says he’s as sick as a dragon with scale rot. He won’t be able to lead the panel about his Far Vision Trilogy.”

Pearl rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. Our favorite unicorn author ate meat… again.”

“Of course! Something called ‘artificial bacon bits,’ whatever that is.”

“I wish he’d research his griffon stories ANY OTHER TIME!” The anthro mare sighed. “OK. Go find Splint Wing. She should be at her dealer table. Tell her she’s now leading that panel at ten o’clock. No one knows Endless Scroll’s universe like she does. Ironwood can look after her table while she’s gone. Anything else?”

The hippogriff beamed over her withers as she cantered away. “Until the next emergency comes along? Nope! Enjoy your five minutes of peace, Director.”

“Director?” asked Caleb.

Pearl turned back to face the man. “Yep! I loved superheroes and Uncle Spike’s comics so much growing up that I decided to organize a convention. We added gaming two years ago and speaker panels this year. It’s a headache, but soooo worth it!” The mare hopped up and down once, giving Caleb a hypnotic demonstration of boob physics.

“Uhh… I see them. I mean, I see!”

A tinny voice came from the speakers overhead. “Two minute notice! Seating for the Risk finals happening now!”

Caleb said, “That’s my call. Anyway, this convention is great – thanks for making it happen. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” He held out his hand to shake.

Pearl looked down at the offered hand for a moment before grasping it and repeating the gesture the minotaur had done. She stared into his eyes. “Take my luck with you.”

Caleb noticed her cheeks were blushing as she turned away.

Slowly, he lowered his hand back to his side. “What exactly just happened?” After a few seconds, he hustled back to the game room. “I think I’d better learn a bit more about minotaur customs.”



The next evening, Caleb stepped out of the Canterlot portal, closely followed by Vex and Willow. The man had been concerned that the mare would be put out by her exemption from the evening’s activities. However, Willow pointed out that if all the stallions were gathered for their night out, their mares had surely planned some social activity too. Caleb couldn’t argue with that, so he had no objection to her tagging along.

The Royal Guards stationed at the entry to the portal room nodded in acknowledgment of the human and his companions, but it was a large earth pony that stepped up to greet them.

“Welcome, Caleb. Good to see you again.”

The man frowned as he tried to remember where he had met this reddish-colored pony. Then his eyebrows rose in realization. “Crimson Boulder, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you since you brought me to Prince Mark just after I arrived in Equestria. You did me a solid favor that day.”

The pony grinned. “You’re welcome.” He turned to the others. “So, this is your stallion form, Vectrix? Not bad. Might even be Guard material.”

“Oh, ha-ha, Crimson. I’m retired to the reserves now and don’t have to put up with your smart flank anymore. And call me Vexing Conundrum in this form, please.”

Crimson chuckled before addressing the last one in the group. “Welcome to you too, Willow Branch. Princess Trixie guessed that you’d come along and she has invited you to join her and the rest of the mares after dinner. She says that you all have lots to talk about.”

Willow grinned as she shot a glance at Caleb. “Called it!”

The stallion said, “If you’ll all follow me, dinner will be served as soon as we get to the dining hall.”

“We’re the last to get here?” Caleb asked. “We could have been earlier if necessary.”

“No, you’re exactly on time. Their highnesses had matters to discuss with some of the other guests prior to your arrival.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” the man replied as they walked briskly down the hallway.

Upon entering the dining hall, Caleb found all the previously mentioned male guests as well their partners and a few other members of the royal family. He greeted them casually as he had learned that Prince Mark and family preferred outside of formal occasions.

Pearl bounced up to him with a broad smile. “Congratulations on your victory, Caleb! Would… would you teach me how to play the Risk board game?”

The man was surprised to see her still in her Wonder Woman cosplay outfit. He thought the convention’s last day was Friday. Before he could enquire further, Mark’s voice cut through the air.

“Pearl – please allow our guest to join us at the table.”

That sounded a bit terser to Caleb’s ears than he was used to hearing from the alicorn stallion. Also, why were his wings puffed out? “Okay, Dad!”

The anthro mare stepped aside and the man took a seat at the table with Vex on his right and Willow his left. Vex nudged him and said quietly, “I bet you wouldn’t mind seeing Sky in that outfit.”

Caleb rolled his eyes at the grinning stallion before looking around at everyone already seated. He recognized most of those at the table including Mark’s other wives; the griffon, Gallus, and his dragon mate, Smolder; Phil Martine the unicorn with his griffon wife, Rosa; Princess Twilight Sparkle and the King of the Crystal Hive, Thorax; and Spike, of course. Seated next to the dragon was a unicorn mare with a light purple and pink mane who introduced herself as Sweetie Belle.

Mark’s wife spoke up. “Trixie is glad that you could join us, Caleb. Trixie believes you have yet to meet Princess Cadance and her husband, Prince Shining Armor.” She indicated the pink alicorn mare to her left and the white unicorn stallion accompanying her.

Upon hearing Cadance’s name, Caleb began to wonder if there was a little more to this night out than had been let on. Nevertheless, he smiled politely and said, “Pleased to meet you, Your Highnesses.”

The alicorn mare’s smile held genuine warmth. “The pleasure is ours, Caleb, and please – just Cadance will do.”

“And you can call me Shining,” the stallion added in a surprising accent reminiscent of a California surfer rather than something more cultured.

At that moment, the servants emerged from a door, pushing trolleys laden with food. Conversation paused while the castle staff placed bowls in front of the diners.

The first course was curried pumpkin soup served with warm bread rolls and pats of golden yellow butter. The main course was ratatouille with goat cheese polenta. After the dessert course of apple pie a la mode, Caleb felt quite full but he still appreciated the cappuccino to finish off the repast.

Normally, this was when everyone would converse for a while, allowing their meal to settle. However, Trixie stood up and declared, “It’s time to allow our stallions to have their little get-together. If you mares would care to accompany Trixie, she has some light entertainment prepared for us.”

All the females got up, most kissing their partners before following the blue alicorn. Before leaving, Twilight promised to later compare notes with Caleb about their experiences as teachers. The man readily agreed, happy that the Alicorn of Learning had something to discuss with him other than medical tests… on himself. Chrysalis smirked at the man before trailing after the others. Now Caleb was certain that something wasn’t quite right, but he had yet to figure out what.

“So – what have you got planned?” the man asked.

Mark replied, “Oh, a few games of poker, some drinks, and chatting about guy stuff. Have you seen any sporting events here yet?”

“As a matter of fact, Vex and I went to a hoofball match just last weekend. I’m still learning the rules but I could become a fan. Now I have a question. Something seems a bit fishy about this evening. What’s going on?”

Shining Armor laughed. “Told you he’d catch on as soon as he met Cady.”

Mark sighed and said, “First of all, we really are having a Guy’s Night. We do so fairly regularly. However, I admit that we had an ulterior motive. We have an interest in your welfare and we hope to address one issue affecting you.”

Caleb folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “And what would that be?”

“Mixed species relationships. Don’t give me that look – it’s perfectly natural and understandable, but it still bears bringing up. All of us here have had involvement with it. My son, Gallus, is a griffon while his mate is a dragon.”

“A real hot dragon, if you know what I mean,” Gallus said with a grin.

Mark continued, “Phil is a human who becomes a unicorn with a griffon hen as his wife.”

Phil said, “I can’t imagine Rosa being a mare, and that suits me fine.”

The alicorn nodded in agreement. “And then there’s Thorax, an evolved changeling with an alicorn wife.”

The changeling king smiled. “There could be no one who knows me and loves me more, and I her.”

Mark pointed to the white unicorn next. “Shining has a changeling son.”

“Whom I love and I’m very proud of,” the stallion said with a broad smile.

“And there’s Spike who was raised by ponies and is Shining and Twilight’s brother. Plus he’s dating my wife Rarity’s younger sister.”

“Right on!” Spike declared and fist-bumped Shining’s hoof before turning back to Mark. “So, future dad-in-law – when can I get back-pay on all that allowance you’re gonna owe me?”

Mark said, “You’ll have to talk to Hondo Flanks on that one.” That got a chuckle from around the table. “And I have a changeling queen for a mate.” He gave Caleb an earnest look. “Then we have Vectrix, you, and Willow. We all have had varied experiences – both the good and the bad. Yours isn’t a new situation but, coming from an Earth background, you have very little understanding of how to deal with it. I know it was quite a culture shock for me at first. We’re here to give you advice from our perspectives if you need it.”

All of you?” the man asked. “What about Crimson Boulder? You never said anything about him.”

“Dating a kirin,” the earth pony replied.

Mark asked, “I thought you were still with that hippogriff? Are you ever going to settle down with a mare?”

“Not if I can help it,” the stallion replied.

“You don’t know what you’re missing out on,” Phil said.

“Pretty sure I do, thanks.”

“I bet Cady could change your mind,” Shining said.

“Why? Want to be in a threesome with me?” Crimson shot back with a smirk.

Everyone laughed as Shining gave him a flat look. “You know what I mean.”

Caleb said, “Speaking of Cadance, I presume her presence today isn’t a coincidence. I know there’s a portal to the Crystal Kingdom so it’s not like you’d be away from your wife for a few days just for this get-together.”

Shining looked at him earnestly. “Sooner or later, you should talk with her. She has a way of putting things into perspective.”

The man looked at his unicorn changeling companion and nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been given that advice already. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I was promised a game of poker. We can talk while we play. Who’s got the cards?”



There were too many players for one game, so they broke up into three groups of three. The human asked how any betting game could be fair when playing against creatures that read your every emotion. Shining put a wing on his shoulder and gave him two pieces of advice. “First, control your emotions – for all of us, it’s second nature by now. Second and most importantly, get good.”

Fortunately for Caleb, Vex and Thorax ended up in different groups.

When one player was eliminated from each group, the remaining six were recombined into two groups. Once again, a player was taken out of the game from each and they had their final four. Caleb survived the two elimination rounds but was the first to go bust after that. Gallus mercilessly crushed his father next, but the eventual winner was a very smug Crimson Boulder.

“Thank you, gents,” the earth pony said as he raked in his winnings. “This makes a nice addition to my meager wages.”

Vex rolled his eyes. “Says one of the highest-paid personal guards in the castle.”

Mark said, “Anyone for coffee and cake? I’ve had enough booze for tonight.”

There were several who accepted the offer and they all settled into lounge chairs to chat some more while indulging their refreshments when the servants brought them in.

“I hope we’ve given you some perspective about interspecies relationships tonight, Caleb,” Phil said.

“Your experiences were enlightening, I admit, even if I’m not sure yet how I will fit in. However, I’m sure Willow will appreciate your help.” The man glanced at Vex. “Not to mention Butterfly Sky. I’ll mull it over for a while.” He took a swig of his coffee before giving Mark and Shining Armor a serious look. “Now, tell me straight – was this evening your idea or Princess Cadance’s?”

The white unicorn chuckled. “Do I need to answer that?”

Caleb shook his head. “I figured that was the case from what I’ve heard about her. She probably learned a lot about me from Princess Twilight and Princess Trixie.”

“Got it in one,” Shining admitted. “She also knew you’d realize it was her idea and told me to tell you that she was ready to discuss any issues you have.”

“It still seems weird to me that the ruler of a kingdom would find so much time for someone like me,” Caleb said.

“Love of all kinds is Cady’s domain and special cases like yours always interest her. You’d be doing both of you a favor indulging her.”

“I already promised somepony I’d consider it. But, for now, I think I’ll let things develop a little longer. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon and I don’t want to rush something important like this.”

Mark said, “Wise move, I reckon. Anyway, enough about that for tonight. Who’s got an idea for our next Guy’s Night?”



As Caleb and the two mares settled into bed that night, the man asked Willow, “Did you and Princess Cadance talk about our relationship too?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“Patience.”

“What? For whom?”

The mare didn’t reply except to snuggle in closer as Butterfly did the same behind him.

Caleb sighed. “I get it. If I want answers, I have to go ask her myself.”

“Smart stallion,” Willow murmured sleepily.

The man mused that being patient probably was the answer for now. After all, it was hard to be worried when sandwiched between two warm mares. He let himself drift off to sleep with that thought in mind.

 


 

CHAPTER 22

 

The garden was looking far different from when Caleb, Willow, and Vex had first started fixing it up. Gone was any hint of the weed-infested unkempt yard. Flower beds were in full bloom, hedge plants neatly trimmed, and the lawn looked green and healthy. However, it took some regular work to keep it looking that good or make improvements. Therefore, at least some time each weekend was devoted to yard maintenance by all three. Today, Caleb was building a trellis arch over the entry path in order to train some climbing plants. He smiled and put down his tools when Vex came over with a mug of tea for him.

“Thanks,” the man said before taking a sip of his beverage. “This is thirsty work.”

“I figured you’d need it,” the changeling unicorn replied. “Besides, I’d like a word with you while Willow is preparing the new vegetable bed.”

“Oh? What did you want to talk about?”

“You’ve been pretty quiet and preoccupied since the poker game last night. I was wondering if anything is wrong.”

“Nothing drastic – I’ve just been given a lot to think about. You should know from your emotion-sensing thing that I’m not upset though.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I can read your mind. Wanna talk about it?”

Caleb shrugged. “It’s no big deal. I initially thought that it was Princess Cadance’s attempt to push a romantic relationship with Willow. However, I realize that it was far more than that. It’s how I relate to all beings that I meet and interact with. I’m particularly impressed with how Prince Mark adopted a griffon and those two obviously have a close relationship. And Gallus in turn has taken a dragoness for a mate. The whole family seems to be species-blind. All the other examples just reinforce this perception. They were showing me that I don’t need other humans to have a happy and successful relationship with others.”

Vex frowned. “If you understood all that, why are you still hesitant? Willow would like more from you, and you know what I want.”

The man chuckled. “Because I’m a human with all the baggage that comes with it. I still find it strange to deal with other species as sapient beings. Mark had the benefit of being changed into one from the start and could more readily empathize with ponies and other creatures, but even he didn’t get married until much time had passed. Gallus and Smolder are pretty much what I would compare to high school sweethearts back on Earth. All the other guys last night have had the benefit of growing up in a multi-species society while I haven’t. I just… need more time to adjust to it.”

“Which is why you’ve been thoughtful rather than upset,” Vex nodded in understanding. “I heard Willow mention patience last night. Do you think she was referring to you or her?”

“Both of us, I reckon,” Caleb replied. He took another swig of his tea before adding, “Maybe you too, although I think you’re already resigned to that.”

The unicorn changeling gave him a half-smile. “Yeah. I’m confident about the outcome but not when it will happen.”

“It’s the uncertainty that gets to me. I like Willow and if she was a woman, I could see myself dating her. But while she’s a very attractive mare, my monkey brain just hasn’t made the same emotional connection yet. And, frankly, I don’t think it has for her either. Not that I think it’s a species thing for reasons I’ve already stated. Something is holding her back. While she has told me that she feels secure in my arms, it’s not the same thing as being in a relationship with me.”

“Yes, I’ve sensed that conflict in both of you. And yet, I’ve met pony couples who were less comfortable with each other than you two.”

Caleb snorted. “Weird, isn’t it? As I said, if she was a human, I’d be really into her. Ah well, patience was prescribed and patient we’ll have to be. I suppose we all need to learn more about each other before we make a commitment, whatever form that commitment may take.” He finished off the rest of the tea in a few gulps before handing the mug back to Vex. “I guess it’s time to get back to work. Trellises don’t build themselves.”



The following Monday, Caleb pulled Nikos aside before classes started. “So… something interesting happened at the gaming tournament over the weekend. I’m hoping you can clear up what it meant.”

The hulking minotaur huffed. “Ask.”

“I defeated a minotaur heifer at a board game, and when I tried to shake her hand, she pulled mine up to her lips and kissed it.”

Nikos’ eyes bugged out and he stifled a snort with a hand to his lips. When he refrained from saying any more, Caleb continued. “Later, Prince Mark’s daughter Pearl Belle did the same thing. What does that mean in the minotaur culture when a female does that?”

All the muscles on the minotaur’s face quivered until he burst out laughing. He only stopped long enough to look at Caleb and then laugh some more. He was still chuckling when he walked away from his boss.

After several seconds, the man turned to Willow and Sky. He didn’t have to ask the obvious question.

The anthro mare shrugged. “Sorry. A comprehensive understanding of minotaur customs was not in my training regimen at the Hive or as a guard.”

Willow was just as much help. “All I can do is guess, Caleb. You naturally make a much better impression on females than you realize.”

The changeling turned to the earth mare. “And without any effort! Such a special stallion.”

Willow nodded. “Indeed. Trouble just finds him.”

Sky showed her teeth. “Let’s just hope it’s not more than he can handle.”

Caleb facepalmed and sighed. “Somehow, Marigold trying to set fire to the school doesn’t seem like such a problem anymore. I’m off to see my students.”



Another month passed quietly with the status quo not changing much. Then, as Caleb’s students were finishing up for the day, one of them approached him.

“Have you got any plans for the upcoming two-week break, Teach?” Marigold asked.

Caleb looked at the kirin with a raised eyebrow. “Not really – why do you want to know?”

“Just curious. I’m looking forward to going back home to visit my family, but I know you can’t do that.”

“I’ve been thinking of spending a few days on Earth. It depends on whether I can get Willow interested in joining me.” He nodded in the direction of the mare who was currently getting out of her protective clothing.

Marigold’s eyes widened. “I hear that anypony going to that world is turned into a human too. Is that right?”

“There’s an adaptation spell on the mirror that changes you,” Caleb confirmed. “Are you interested in going there?”

“Yep! Sounds like fun!”

The man chuckled. “Sorry, but travel there is strictly controlled. Maybe someday I’ll persuade Prince Mark to allow a few visitors.”

“Aw. Okay! I can wait.” The kirin pranced away, her spirits barely dimmed by the disappointment.

Caleb mulled over the idea a bit before shrugging. “Can’t put off asking much longer,” he said to himself.

As he, Willow, and Sky were walking home, the man decided it was time to pose the question. “Hey, Willow, would you be interested in joining me on a visit to Earth?”

The mare stopped to look at him, her head tilted and an eyebrow raised. “Wouldn’t I have to be turned into a human to do that?”

“Of course, but you’d get to experience a lot of what my world is like.”

“I’ve seen plenty of what it’s like from those movies you’ve shown me,” she replied before resuming her walk.

Caleb rolled his eyes. “You get a pretty skewed idea of Earth if that’s all you get to judge it by.”

The mare didn’t respond for a while. When she did, she gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry, but I don’t really want to be a human.”

“It’s just for a few days.”

Willow stopped again and gave him a frown. “Would you be prepared to spend the same number of days here as a pony?”

“It’s not the same thing,” he replied.

“Answer the question,” the mare insisted.

Caleb sighed. “No, I suppose not.”

“There’s nothing stopping you and Vicky going,” Willow pointed out.

“I kind of wanted all three of us to spend a few days there together.”

“Sorry, Caleb. I’m not ready to do that,” she replied a little irritably.

The man had been afraid that that would be the case and he could tell that she wasn’t in the mood to discuss it further. “Okay – let me know if you change your mind.”

However, there was no hint of any second thoughts before they went to bed that night.



Caleb woke to a persistent pressure on his neck and the side of his face. Lifting and turning his head, he saw Willow in the dim pre-dawn light coming through the window. She had been nuzzling him and she lifted her head to continue to do so.

“What are you doing, Willow?” the man asked.

“You smell soooo good,” she replied.

“Umm, thanks. You smell fine yourself, but did you need to wake me for it?”

“Mmm-hmmmm,” the mare replied, redoubling her efforts.

OK. Being polite hadn’t worked. Time for Plan B. “Knock it off! What’s got into you?”

“She’s gone into heat,” came Butterfly’s response from behind him.

Caleb turned to look at the pegasus changeling. “My memory might be playing tricks on me, but wasn’t I told that Mating Season is months away yet?”

“It is, but mares go into a minor heat every three months. They get horny like this then, but it’s only during Mating Season that the desire goes through the roof. That’s when the mares and the stallions have to separate for a while unless they want a foal. It takes a huge amount of willpower at that time not to succumb to the need for sex. It’s simpler just to avoid the problem. Ponies make arrangements to spend time with friends or family members of the same gender to take care of their needs. Right now though, she just finds your male scent arousing.” Butterfly shifted a bit closer and sniffed. “Have to agree with her, though. I can still smell garlic and onions on your breath.”

The man glanced at Willow who gazed back with half-lidded eyes. He cringed a little before turning back to Butterfly. “I don’t think brushing my teeth again will help. What should I do about this?”

The pegasus rolled her eyes. “Do I really need to explain everything to you? Either have sex with her or turn her down. It’s your choice.”

“Just like that?” Caleb queried. “Nothing about taking advantage of a mare under the influence of her hormones?”

“Believe me, hormones or not, she wouldn’t press you for sex if there wasn’t genuine desire behind it.”

The man turned back to the earth pony who had not ceased her efforts. “Nope. I’m not comfortable with that yet.” He then pushed the mare off the side of the bed.

Willow thumped to the floor with a squawk that was a mixture of annoyance and disappointment. She looked up at Caleb and pouted. “That was mean.”

“Go take a shower,” he told her. “We still need to go to work later.”

The mare got to her hooves and sulkily trudged to the bathroom.

Caleb turned back to Butterfly who smiled in amusement and said, “That’s one way of dealing with it.”

“How long is her heat going to last?”

“A week or so. Be a bit cautious around her during that time. Her distraction due to the heat might cause problems for someone like you who is not used to this situation.”

“Okay. What about you?”

“Changelings don’t go into heat,” Butterfly informed him before a flare of green magic fire replaced the pegasus with an anthro pony mare. A fully nude anthro pony mare. “Of course, I wouldn’t say no if sex was what you really wanted from me,” Sky said, putting her hand on Caleb’s cheek.

A moment later, Sky was on the floor. She laughed at the dirty look that Caleb gave her.

“Can’t blame me for trying to make my destined Companion happy.”

“I thought you said that sex wasn’t the point of a bond with you?”

Sky stood up and booped him on the nose. “I said it was a perk, and not just for you. Once we’re fully bonded, you’ll understand.” She changed back to Butterfly. “I might as well get breakfast started.”

As she trotted away, Caleb let his head thump back onto the pillow. “Mares! I’m going to have to put up with this sort of thing for a week or more? Sheesh!”

 


 

CHAPTER 23

 

Caleb watched with some puzzlement as Sky folded and placed clothes into her suitcase, having finished packing his own for the trip to Earth. The anthro mare looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“What’s bothering you?” she asked.

“Why do you even need to pack clothing if you can simply transform yourself as I’ve seen you done before?”

Sky smiled indulgently. “That’s because we’ve only ever made day trips before now. I didn’t have to change my outfit while on Earth. Since we’re going away for a few days, I need to pack appropriately. And, no, I won’t be using my transformation ability instead because I can’t afford to waste my magic.”

Caleb frowned. “I’ve heard that there’s no true magic there.”

“Not exactly. There’s some but not enough to sustain beings like me. Even the portal mirror on that side needs to connect regularly to Equus to recharge. That’s one reason why it automatically opens by itself if it hasn’t been used in a long time.”

“How bad will it be for you then?”

Sky grimaced. “You know changelings get their energy from love and other positive emotions, right? Well, it takes magic to convert love to physical energy. Take away the magic and we have zero energy. It’s like taking the battery out of a toy. However, unlike a toy, once we run out of magic, there’s no restarting us with a new battery. We’re dead.”

“What?! Then how do you survive on Earth in the long term if you run out of magic so easily?”

The anthro mare put her hand on the silver necklace with the emerald pendant that hung around her neck. “This isn’t just for show. This is a mana storage gem. It holds enough raw magic to sustain me for about a week as long as I don’t waste it on needless transformations. And that’s why I take along my real clothing instead.”

The man nodded in comprehension. “I assume that all the changelings operating on Earth have something similar?”

“That’s right. They have to get theirs recharged regularly because if the gem runs empty, they only have half a day at most before their body stores run out.”

“Yikes! Are you sure you don’t want to pack an emergency spare?”

Sky reached into her suitcase and brought out an identical necklace. “Believe me; I’m not taking any chances.”

Willow walked into the bedroom just then. “Aren’t you two finished packing yet? I thought you wanted to get to Canterlot early?”

“Relax!” Caleb replied. “We’re on schedule. In fact, there’s still time for you to change your mind and come with us.”

“No, and that’s my final answer. Becoming something other than a pony is not anything I want to try. I know you need to be among your own kind occasionally and it makes sense for Vicky to accompany you, but leave me out of it.”

The man sighed. “Okay, but you don’t know what you’re missing.” He turned to Sky. “Do you need anything else?”

She shook her head and closed up the suitcase. “I believe I have everything. Besides, Rosa said she would help me out if necessary.”

“Then it seems we’re ready to go.” Caleb knelt in front of Willow to hug her. “We’ll miss you while we’re away.”

Willow snorted even as she returned the hug. “It’s not as if I haven’t survived by myself before.”

“Just don’t forget to water the plants while we’re gone. I don’t want to come back to shriveled flowers.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “Are you trying to insult my earth pony heritage? Please! As if I’d let that happen… again.”

Caleb chuckled as he got up and grabbed his suitcase. “Okay, let’s go, Sky.”

The anthro mare also gave Willow a quick hug before following the human out the door.

It was a familiar walk to Twilight’s castle and then the trip through the portal to Canterlot. A Royal Guard escorted them to a lounge room where they found Prince Mark, Princess Trixie, Lady Rarity, and Captain Penumbra socializing with Phil and Rosa Martine. Sky and Caleb had morning tea with them before heading for the other portal room which housed the mirror that linked to Earth. There, Sky transformed to her human form, Vicky, before she and Caleb followed the unicorn and griffon through the gateway.

On the other side, Rosa stretched her now-human back and arms. She then beckoned to them. “Let me show you to the room where you’ll be sleeping while you’re here.”

The guest bedroom had a king-size bed, a large wardrobe, and a set of drawers on either side of the room. Caleb and Vicky unpacked before heading downstairs. The four of them then got into the Martines’ car to start their vacation activities.

Over the following days, they visited a museum, picnicked in a national park, went to a baseball game (Vicky said she enjoyed the novelty but wasn’t in a hurry to go again), dined out at various restaurants, and enjoyed a stage play and a movie. While at the latter, Vicky was pleased when Caleb put his arm around her, allowing her to more intimately experience the emotions evoked by the film. Afterward, she commented on this.

“Thank you for sharing your feelings, Caleb.”

“Hmm? What do you mean?”

“Your arm around me, remember?”

“Oh. Right. That’s kind of expected when you go to a movie with your girlfriend.”

Vicky blushed with pleasure. While being a Companion was slightly different, in their present context, it was the next closest thing and she loved it.

“I noticed something though,” Caleb added.

This time it was Vicky’s turn to be puzzled. “About what?”

“Your clothes.”

She blinked. “What about them?”

“They feel real.”

Vicky gave Caleb a flat look. “That’s because they are real. You saw me pack them.”

“You’re missing the point. On our previous day trips, you’ve come over with transformed clothes. You do the same when going to work as Sky. Although they look perfect, there’s a subtle but distinct difference to their texture.”

Vicky blushed. “And here I thought I had mastered textiles. There’s so little need for it in Equestria that I must have overlooked some fine points. Why didn’t you say something before now?”

The man shrugged. “It wasn’t important. I only mentioned it now because I was reminded of it.”

She sat up and wiggled her back slightly. The motion reminded Caleb of when Butterfly fluttered her wings in irritation. Vicky huffed. “I’ll work on it when we get back home, if only to assuage my pride.”



The activities in the human world clarified several things for Vicky. While she had heard that humans were monogamous, it was another thing entirely to experience it firsthoof… or firsthand in this case. Her emotion-reading worked just fine in her human form and this time she paid attention to the feelings of those around her. Not once did she encounter a triad of two females bonded to one male. Curiously, multiple men pursuing and perhaps competing for one woman wasn’t uncommon. Vicky realized that Caleb’s social conditioning simply wouldn’t allow him to commit to multiple romantic partners at the same time. At least, not yet. Out of an abundance of caution, none of their holiday activities were more than a day trip. They were back at the Martine residence every night, although sometimes very late. Vicky joined Caleb in bed just as she had been doing in Equestria but still in human form. She also refused to wear pajamas and slept nude. Caleb had shared a bed with several women over the years, always with carnal pursuits in mind. However, this time it was different. The changeling was a warm and familiar bed companion curled up behind him and thoughts of sex never entered his mind.

Maybe that’s how Willow feels with me,’ the man mused as he drifted off to sleep.

As for Vicky, she was very pleased with how much closer their bond had become. Sharing their experiences on this holiday had been a wonderful idea. She only wished that Willow had consented to come along too. The changeling was certain that the mare was the key to the completion of their union. Perhaps when they returned to Equestria, the three of them could use the rest of the break to do something extra special together? Vicky fell asleep dreaming up ways to encourage Willow to fully open herself up to Caleb.



All good things come to an end and the day came that Caleb and Vicky said their farewells to Phil and Rosa. After returning to Equestria and the changeling transformed back to her Sky anthro form, they wasted no time making their way to the portal that took them to Ponyville. They saw Twilight Sparkle on her balcony as they exited the Castle of Friendship. The alicorn had her head buried in a book as she set the sun and returned inside. The man and changeling walked home, occasionally waving and greeting friends along the way.

Willow could not be seen in the garden, so as Caleb entered the house, he called out, “Willow – we’re home!”

The mare did not reply and she was not to be found anywhere. Both the man and Sky were puzzled as Willow knew that they would be returning now. They had half-expected the mare to have some sort of celebration awaiting them.

“Perhaps she’s shopping for something she forgot?” Sky suggested.

Caleb replied, “I can’t think of anything that would be more important to her than meeting us the moment we arrived… and why are there dishes piled in the sink?”

A knock at the door interrupted their speculation. The man answered it and found himself looking at an elderly blue unicorn mare whom he recognized as one of his neighbors.

“Can I help you, Mrs. Candlebright?”

The mare frowned and replied, “It’s about time that you showed your sorry flanks again! What were you two youngsters thinking — leaving your mare here all alone? I haven’t seen that poor filly so out of sorts since her beau died.”

Caleb’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“She’s been coming home drunk these past two nights and I saw her heading for the bar again this morning.”

The man looked over to Sky who looked equally alarmed. He turned back to their neighbor. “Can you tell us which bar, ma’am?”

“The Royal Flagon.”

“Thanks. Come on, Sky – let’s find out what’s going on.”

Sky disrobed and switched to unicorn stallion form, suspecting Vex’s magic might be needed. The two jogged to the tavern which didn’t take long because it was the one closest to their home. Finding Willow wasn’t hard as she was a loud drunk.

“I’m telling you… telling you all… Fifteenth Armored Shquad were *BURP*… were the besht. An’ Blazhing Shield was the beshtest. Bucking kick your plots from here to Tueshday. No! Thurshday!”

The barkeep Berry Punch gave a long-suffering sigh. “For the thousandth time, Willow, we know. And stop disturbing the other customers.”

“Hey! Them cushomers deserve to know how *BURP*… how bucking great he wash. All hish shquad! Bucking heroesh!”

Caleb stopped the mare from raising her tankard to her lips. “You’ve had more than enough, Willow. Time to go home.”

The plum-colored bartender shot him a grateful look while sliding wine glasses into the wooden rack above the bar. “Heya, Caleb! Thank Celestia you’re finally back! Any other night I’d ask what you’re thirsty for, but…”

Willow gave the man a sozzled grin. “Hey! Jusht in time to join me in a toasht. To Blazhing Shield!”

This time, the earth pony’s strength overcame the human’s, but Vex foiled her efforts with his telekinesis. Between them, they managed to relieve the inebriated mare of her drink.

Caleb said, “Come on, Willow – you can tell us about him on the way home.”

“Oh. Okay,” the mare replied before collapsing and nearly falling out of her seat.

Vex caught the unconscious mare in his magic. “I’ll carry her home,” he told Caleb.

They garnered several curious stares as they made their way back to the house. Caleb pulled back the covers on the bed and Vex laid her down before the man tucked her in. They then left the bedroom and closed the door behind them.

“What do you think happened?” Caleb asked.

Vex grimaced. “Judging by what she said, something set her off regarding her deceased fiancé. It was a mistake leaving her here by herself. She may have regressed a lot because we weren’t here when she needed us. Needed you.”

Caleb groaned. “You know I tried to get her to come along. I needed some time with other humans.”

Vex switched to Butterfly before replying, “You’re going to have to make a choice between the humans and your mares – at least until this is resolved. I’m going to unpack.”

Caleb slumped in his lounge chair. “ ‘Mares’ plural? Now what have I done?”



The sound of a low moan prodded Caleb awake. Soon, he figured out that the sound had not come from himself or the anthro changeling draped across his back. After some gentle shifting around, the man got his feet on the floor without waking Sky. Standing up from the couch, he stretched and felt his vertebrae pop. As comfortable as the couch was to sit in, it was never designed for two grown adults to use as a bed. Even though it was early morning, he did not feel well-rested.

The moans started up from the bathroom again, followed by retching sounds. Caleb peeked in to see Willow speaking in tongues at the porcelain throne. Kneeling, he held her mane out of the way as she tried to purge an already empty stomach.

After her body gave up, Willow sat on her haunches and started shivering. Caleb hustled to the bedroom to grab the sheet, only to change course for the linen closet after he saw and smelled the state of the bed. The man returned to the bathroom, wrapping the mare with a comforter. Caleb wondered exactly how much the mare had been drinking to affect her this badly even with her earth pony constitution.

“I’ll… I’ll…” Willow gulped. “I’ll clean up the bed.”

Caleb gently stroked her withers. “Nope. I’ll take care of it. Are you hungry for anything?”

“Uhhhhhh!” Just the thought of food set off another round of dry heaves. While holding back her mane again, the human chastised himself. Not the best help to offer.

When the mare got her breath back, Caleb said, “We’ll talk later. Right now, you need more rest.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I couldn’t… I’m so sorry.” Tears leaked from her eyes.

Caleb realized that she may not have been talking to him. “No worries. Come on.”

The human led the stumbling mare into the living room. She kept her eyes tightly shut, perhaps because of the brightness. Sky was awake and vacated the couch as Caleb practically lifted Willow onto it. A few seconds later, the changeling tucked the comforter around the mare while the man adjusted a throw pillow under the earth pony’s head. Willow’s mumbled apologies died out and her breathing slowed.

The changeling put a hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of the bedroom.”

The man’s eyes lingered on the snoring mare on the couch then he stood. “No. We’ll do it together.”



By lunchtime, Willow was somewhat awake and only a bit hungover. She sat at the kitchen table with her ears flat on her head in a clear sign of embarrassment. Her contrite demeanor changed to a warning growl only once when Caleb tried to take the mare’s near-empty coffee mug.

“Aha! So you are capable of rational thought. Thoughts like, ‘Touch my wake-up juice at your own peril’.”

The man joined the earth pony at the kitchen table while waving Sky over. “Mind telling us what happened?”

Willow clenched her jaw a few times while running a hoof through her unkempt mane. “I… I guess I look pretty awful, don’t I?”

Caleb scooted his chair closer and put an arm around her withers. “I’ll help you take a shower later. How does that sound?” This made Sky open her eyes a bit wider but drew no reaction from the earth pony. After several seconds, Willow sighed and drooped her head.

“So a few hours after you left, four of my buddies from the Fifteenth Armored Squad stopped by. Hadn’t seen them in ages! They insisted we head out to Berry Punch’s bar and I didn’t say no.” The mare took another sip of her black coffee, scrunched her muzzle at the bitter taste, then continued. “So we started making toasts, and of course, Blazing Shield’s name came up. After that, it was just a race to drink enough to stay ahead of the pain.”

Caleb strengthened his hug, holding the mare to his side. He looked up hopelessly at the changeling, who transformed into her Butterfly pegasus form. She slowly flapped her wings a couple of times, her brow furrowed. “Did they just happen to stop by? You didn’t tell us about any reunion planned.”

“They were on their way to Canterlot. Remembrance Day was coming up, and they wanted me to go with them to the Memorial. Didn’t feel like going.”

Caleb asked, “Memorial?”

The pegasus mare stared at Willow with narrowed eyes then shifted her gaze to Caleb. “That’s right; you’ve never been there, have you? The Equus Unity Memorial is in the plains beneath Canterlot. All those who fought and died in the final battle against Grogar and his minions are buried there.” She came up to Caleb’s side. “I know you’ve talked at Twilight Sparkle’s school a couple of times, but honestly, you’ll never have a full appreciation of how Harmony between races works until you go there. Well, it’s the weekend and it’s my turn to choose the day trip. I choose the Memorial.”

Willow shivered beneath Caleb’s arm. “Remembrance Day was two days ago.”

“No crowds, plus you don’t have to wear your uniform. The Memorial is always open.”

It took a full minute before the earth pony said in a tiny voice, “OK. I’ll clean myself up.”



Caleb didn’t know what to expect, but perfectly manicured grass and rows of dark gray rectangular obelisks wasn’t it. The flat terrain showed no one else was present. A few steps before the grass started, Butterfly changed into his Vectrix form. At the man’s raised eyebrow, the changeling said, “Showing my true form as a matter of respect.”

When Caleb’s shoe touched the grass, translucent busts appeared above every stone pillar and words appeared on the front face of each. Hundreds of heads floated in space, holding vigil over the remains. As the trio walked silently along the rows, the man noticed that each bust would show the species and gender of the soldier. In the case of ponies, the head also showed the tribe. Beyond that, no discernable features were evident. The bust for a male diamond dog looked identical to every other male diamond dog. The human reflected that this made sense, as they were all equal now in their status as defenders of Equus.

Caleb turned to Willow, who trudged along with her head low. “Have you been here before?”

“No. Never made time to come here somehow.” The human and changeling shared a knowing look. Being busy had nothing to do with it.

The mare stopped in her tracks and took a deep breath. She moved away from her companions to stand before one of the obelisks. The stocky features in the floating visage identified him as an earth pony. The obelisk on the right named the hippogriff mare as Lieutenant Barrier Reef while the pillar on the left stated the female changeling was Princess Diadem. Caleb blinked and made a mental note to ask Prince Mark about the familiar name.

The human had to take a step to the side to read the expected words on the memorial in front of them: Sergeant Blazing Shield. Vectrix sat on his haunches and waved Caleb to kneel. They waited behind their friend as she gathered her words.

After several seconds, Willow cleared her throat. “Hey, Blaze. Sorry I haven’t stopped by. I figured you weren’t going anywhere so… heh.” She swallowed. “Yeah, you would have found that to be funny. Always trying to make me laugh, no matter the time or place.”

She smirked. “Remember when you whispered to me that Princess Trixie had her crown on crooked? You gave me a running commentary on all the things you imagined she and Prince Mark were doing just before the inspection. I’ve never had to try so hard not to burst out laughing.” Willow wiped a tear from her eye. “See, you’ve… you’ve got me crying again, just like that day.”

She took a few deep breaths. “I really miss you, Blazing Shield. I’ve been broken for a long time, to be honest. You took the very best part of me with you.” She sighed. “But I finally found friends again. People I want to be with. People I want to live with.”

The earth pony reached out with a hoof then put it down again. “I… I have to leave now, Blaze.” Her voice cracked. “I know we promised to always be together, but I can’t. I just can’t.”

She wiped her eyes. “I’ll always love you, my wonderful stallion. Maybe I’ll see you someday on the rolling fields of Elysium. We can gallop free together once again. But… but now, I have to say goodbye.”

The mare turned around and threw herself onto Caleb’s shoulder, bawling her eyes out. The man wrapped her in his arms and Vectrix added his hooves for emotional support. They stayed there, alone but together in the Memorial with only the heroes of Equus as their witnesses.

 



Upon their return home, Butterfly announced that she was going to make tea for all of them. Caleb settled on the sofa with an arm around Willow who laid her head on his shoulders. They remained quiet until Butterfly served up the tea along with raisin cookies. After thanking her, there was silence again while they consumed their refreshments. It was their changeling companion who broke their reverie.

“I sense that you are finally at peace, Willow. You are no longer holding yourself back emotionally.”

The earth pony mare nodded. “Yes. I never realized until today just how much I was still clinging to the past. I felt so insecure before Caleb arrived to get me out of my rut. I feel a little ashamed that I took advantage of him like that.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Willow,” Caleb replied. “I think I needed companionship as badly as you, even if I didn’t know it at the time. We both had our lives cut out from under us, so we were lucky to find each other. I’m just sorry that you had to spend all those years waiting for me.”

Willow laid aside her mug and looked up into the man’s eyes earnestly. “Yes, we did find each other, didn’t we? And you know what? I think I’m ready to face the future with you. Caleb Awad, will you be my Special Somepony? I don’t care that you’re not actually a pony.”

Caleb’s eyes widened as he took in the mare’s hopeful gaze. He swallowed, unsure how to respond. “Special Somepony?”

Butterfly came to his rescue. “The nearest human equivalent is somewhere between going steady and a marriage proposal.”

The man nervously bit his lip as he let that sink in. He thought back to what he had learned this day and all that they had done together since he had first arrived in Equestria. He had come to understand and appreciate the different social dynamics of this mixed-race society with the help of friends. Most of all, he had learned to see them not as other species but as different kinds of people. And he had missed one of those people a lot while he had been on Earth. Without even noticing it, he realized that he had fallen in love with the earth pony that was waiting in anticipation of his answer. He gave her a gentle smile.

“You know what? I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

Willow squealed with delight and threw her forelegs around Caleb’s neck. The man knew what was coming next and his lips met hers. It felt different from any girl he had kissed previously but he didn’t care because there was passion and love behind it that had never been present in any of those women. They were both panting for breath by the time they parted.

Caleb noticed Butterfly grinning hugely and he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah! You saw this coming a mile off, didn’t you?”

The pegasus changeling’s eyes twinkled as she replied. “Yep. And I also know what’s coming next. I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” She trotted to the front door and headed outside.

The man looked back to Willow who gave him a smoldering gaze in return. “Do you know what she meant?”

“Finish your tea.”

Caleb dutifully sipped at his drink, stealing an occasional glance at his Special Somepony. Her intense stare and almost carnivorous grin made him a bit nervous.

A minute or so later, the human put down the empty cup. “OK? So…?”

“You’re my stallion and I’m your mare. Figure it out, stud.”

Caleb’s eyes widened as he put one and one together. “You mean…?”

“Yes!”

Willow closed her mouth around one of his wrists and firmly dragged him toward the bedroom. Helpless to resist her earth pony strength, he stumbled along in the awkward grasp until she let him go to climb up onto the bed. She lay down and gave him a sultry look.

“Take me, my handsome stallion.”

Caleb had never been so uncertain about an offer of sex. “Are you sure about this, Willow?”

“I am. I’ve been ignoring my needs for too long. Now that I have my Special Somepony, I intend to make up for lost opportunities. And I think you need this too.”

Caleb would never have admitted to having multiple instances of blue balls during his stay in Equestria, but he knew that Willow had seen right through him. And right now, his pants were getting way too tight. “Umm… How do we go about this? It’s not as if I have ever had sex with a pony before.”

“I’ve never had sex with a human either, so let’s just have fun figuring it out.”

The man had run out of excuses. It was not that he didn’t desire sex but, for the first time in his life, he was nervous about doing the deed. Perhaps it was because this would mean so much more than any of his trysts with human women. None of them had engaged him emotionally as this mare did. This mare to whom he had just committed his life to. He took a deep breath and began undressing as Willow watched in anticipation. He was soon nude, deliberately so in front of her for the first time. The mare licked her lips in appreciation of Caleb’s manhood as he got onto the bed with her. They kissed once more before they started figuring out the best approach to having sex. After a couple of false starts, the two were joined to mutual groans of pleasure.

“I love you, Willow Branch,” Caleb declared as their union was complete.

“I love you too, Caleb Awad. Now – buck me hard, my stallion.”

And that’s what he did to the best of his ability. In the end, it was not so different from making love to a human, but the satisfaction that he got from making her scream in ecstasy far outweighed his own sexual gratification. They were no longer man and mare – they were lovers of the deepest and truest kind.

While Willow was brought to orgasm several times, she did not let Caleb settle for filling her just once. She used her experience with Blazing Shield to ensure that the man got as good as he gave. Thus, the two were panting in near exhaustion by the time they finished their lovemaking. Caleb lay face to face with Willow and smiled.

“Thank you for my new life,” he told her sincerely.

“Thank you for bringing back mine,” she replied.

“So – does this make me your fiancé?”

“That depends on whether you want a traditional or modern relationship. If it’s the former, we agree to be married and set a date. Then I will be your fiancée. If it’s the latter, then we are already herdmates, even if we’re just a herd of two.”

“That’s equivalent to a de facto relationship among humans. However, I’m guessing that you’d prefer the traditional route. That’s what you were going to do with Blazing Shield.”

Willow nodded. “We both wanted it, but you’re the stallion and it’s your decision to make.”

Caleb raised an eyebrow. “What? You don’t have a say?”

“Traditionally, mares cannot ask a stallion to marry them. While we have the absolute right to ask any stallion of a similar social rank for sex, it’s the male who gets to decide whether to accept and whether to pursue the relationship further.”

“What about this Special Somepony thing then?”

“That’s how we mares have of getting around that tradition. That way, we declare our desires without abrogating the rights of the stallion.”

“Bleah. A little too one-sided for my human tastes, even though I have learned the necessity of your species’ practices. As a human, let me make this perfectly clear. I love you, Willow. Will you marry me?”

Tears of joy welled in the mare’s eyes. “Yes, Caleb Awad. I will be your wife!”

She pushed him onto his back and climbed on top of the man to kiss him thoroughly. Caleb discovered then that perhaps he wasn’t so exhausted after all, much to his fiancée’s delight.



The two were quietly enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking as they cuddled on the bed. Willow eventually broke the silence.

“There’s something we need to talk about.”

“There are probably many things we need to discuss,” Caleb replied. “Which one?”

“Butterfly Sky.”

The man’s expression fell. “Oh. Right. I suppose it would be a bit awkward to share our bed with her now that we’re engaged.”

Willow blinked and then laughed. “No, that’s not a problem at all. She and I already know who’s lead mare in this relationship.”

Caleb grimaced. “I keep forgetting how that works here. Are you sure though?”

“My silly stallion, I am your wife-to-be. She is your Companion and has her place in our herd. You two need to formalize that though. You’ve been dancing around each other for months. She’s been afraid of pushing you too hard, and you’ve been afraid of something that was totally foreign to you before coming to Equestria. You’ve now made a commitment to me and this world. It’s time you finalized that last piece of the puzzle that is your new life.”

To the mare’s surprise, the man rolled away from her and propped himself up on one elbow. Caleb slapped his hand against the pillow on which his head had been resting a moment ago. “First, we need to get rid of this thing! I think it’s so stained now that it’s a lost cause! Let’s throw it out… no… let’s burn it!”

Willow looked at the man as if he had suddenly gone insane. “What are you doing, Caleb?”

He ignored her and punched the pillow this time. “I told you that I could tell the difference between real and imitation textiles!”

The pillow rippled violently like a pond that had a boulder tossed into it. Caleb and Willow half-jumped, half-fell off either side of the bed and onto the floor. Suddenly, the pillow burst into green fire and was replaced by a nude anthro mare. Sky got up off the bed and stood nervously rubbing the back of her neck. The changeling had to wait until Willow finished howling with laughter before Sky could address Caleb. “How long have you known?”

“Since before I proposed to Willow. Couldn’t help yourself, could you? Wanted all that sweet love, right?”

Sky gave him a chagrined smile. “Yeah. True love has an irresistible flavor and you two gave me a feast. But I didn’t want to be an unwanted bystander as you consummated your relationship, so I snuck in through the window before you got here. Sorry about the deception.”

Caleb waved it off as he stepped closer to the changeling. “I appreciate that illusion of privacy. However, I know that feeding off our love is what sustains you. That’s why I didn’t reveal you when I figured out that you were the pillow. As long as you don’t try that stunt again, we’re cool.”

“Never again, I promise,” Sky assured him.

Willow said, “Good. So, now that that’s settled, it’s time for you to ask.”

The anthro mare didn’t need to be told what to ask. She nodded to the earth pony and then faced Caleb with her chin raised and her hands firmly clasped before her. In a firm voice, she said, “Caleb Awad, would you do me the honor and privilege of letting me join your herd and being my stallion and Companion?”

“Butterfly Sky, I am delighted to have you join my herd. Let’s see if we can complete that bond somehow. Meanwhile…” He held out his arms to the changeling and she walked into his embrace. Then they kissed.

Whatever either had expected, it was not the explosion of their consciousness when their lips met.

For Caleb, it was the sudden ability to sense the emotions of those around him. Not only could he practically taste the changeling’s joy, Willow’s love washed over and through him, filling him with energy. His perceptions broadened to include an awareness of form and function that had no equivalent in human abilities.

For Butterfly Sky, it was like finding a part of her that had been missing all her life. She gained an understanding of concepts that had always eluded her until now. It molded the changeling into something new and greater.

Willow gaped at the two as a golden glow surrounded them. Features seemed to shift and change constantly on both. Caleb’s hair was briefly replaced by a mane and a tail manifested even as Sky shifted to human form but with Butterfly’s wings. Then the man’s hair returned but changeling wings quivered on his back. Sky’s wings disappeared but the human form gained a chitinous cladding. Several more strange transformations happened in quick succession while the two remained locked in their embrace.

What’s happening? ’ Caleb wondered.

Your conflicts have resolved and you have accepted your destiny. Our bond is complete,’ came the unspoken reply.

You can hear my thoughts?’

It is gestalt. We are one. At this time of ultimate unity, there are no barriers between us and our thoughts are as loud as the spoken word. Treasure this moment because it will not last. However, we will forever more be aware of each other’s requirements and desires to the point where we will not always need to speak. You are part of me, and I a part of you, my soul-mate.

Soul-mate? Yes! If only I had understood sooner. I believe our lives will be so much greater from now on.

Now you know why finding a Companion is the ultimate goal of changelings like me…

The gestalt that had been crystal clear abruptly faded and the two found themselves to be individuals once more. However, there remained a reassuring link as they gazed at each other.

“You’ve changed,” Caleb commented with a grin.

He stepped back to take in Vectrix’s new form. Caleb could best describe it as Sky but as an anthro changeling. And not just any changeling but one more strongly resembling a queen. She gazed back at him with eyes that had slit pupils in an iris rather than with softly glowing orbs. She retained the sexy feminine form but she had a changeling’s silky smooth chitin. In the man’s opinion, she looked hot.

Vectrix looked at herself before closing her eyes for a moment. She opened them again with a joyous smile. “I am female.”

“Master of the bloody obvious,” Caleb said with a chuckle.

Vectrix rolled her eyes. “No, I mean that I was a male changeling that could take female form. I am now a female changeling who can take male form. Call me Vectrix when I’m in this body, because it is my base form now.”

Caleb’s eyebrows rose. “That can happen?”

“A Companion changeling can transform during the bonding moment to be their partner’s perfect match. This is now my default form and I am very happy with it.” She then transformed back into anthro mare Sky. “But this is still my daily alter ego, and Butterfly will still be around too. Of course, I’m not the only one to change.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Caleb looked at himself. “I seem to be the same.”

It was Willow who answered. “Let’s just say that I like what you’ve done with your mane,” she said with a giggle.

Caleb reached up to the back of his head. Instead of finding his normal short cut, his hand encountered long and thick hanks of hair. He pulled some forward to see that they were tinted maroon. “What the fuck?”

Sky said, “As I became a bit more like you, you became a bit more like me.”

The man stared at the hair for a little longer before chuckling. “Fair enough, but it’s going to be tricky explaining it when I next visit Earth.”

“Well, I think it suits you,” Willow said as she reared up to nuzzle his long locks. “Smells nice too.”

Caleb snorted. “Just what I needed – something to make me more attractive to mares. Two’s enough for me!” He put an arm each around Willow and Sky. “A mate of my heart and a mate of my soul – what man or stallion could ask for anything more?”

The two mares looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. Neither intended to ever give Caleb a reason to answer that question.

 


 

CHAPTER 24

 

Caleb, Willow, and Sky celebrated their new herd by climbing into bed together… but only to cuddle. It was more than enough for the three whose spirits were so high that nothing more could be done to increase them. All was right with their herd and their world, so it was no surprise when they all fell asleep.

A loud knock on the front door woke them. Sky extended her senses to ascertain who was calling at this time. Her eyes widened.

“It’s for me,” she announced as she slid out of bed and headed for the door.

Caleb was hot on her heels, picking up on his Companion’s state of mind through their new link. He was startled but intrigued when she transformed into her new anthro changeling form before opening the door.

Vectrix bowed to their visitor – a tall chitin-clad mare with an imposing horn. “Good afternoon, Your Majesty.”

Chrysalis frowned. “So it’s true. I felt your bond to the hive wither away.”

“Yes – Caleb and I are now one.” Vectrix half-turned to invite the man to join her.

Suddenly realizing he was still naked, Caleb hesitated for a moment before reminding himself that Equestrians barely comprehended what a nudity taboo was. He stepped up to Vectrix who put her arm around his waist and he did likewise to her. “Is she in trouble, Your Majesty?”

Chrysalis gave him a long assessing stare before her features relaxed and she chuckled. “No. I merely wished to behold the outcome of this overdue bonding with a human.” She looked back to the anthro mare. “Most intriguing. My only disappointment was that it took so long.”

Vectrix said, “There were complicat—”

Chrysalis waved her explanations off. “Yes! Yes! I know all about them. That marefriend of yours whom I see trying to be inconspicuous behind you finally got her head jammed on straight.”

“Indelicate but true,” Caleb muttered.

The changeling queen laughed. “No matter. The deed is done and you are now free from service to the Hive, Vectrix. Let me know when you breed. I will be interested in which traits this human brings to your progeny.” Without a word of farewell, Chrysalis took off and flew away.

Caleb turned to Vectrix and raised an eyebrow. “We can breed?”

The anthro mare nodded. “I am a female Companion-Class changeling and, as such, inter-fertile with my male bondmate.”

The man blinked. “Do you want to have kids?”

Vectrix gave him a very happy smile. “Oh, yes! As many as you desire. However…” She turned to look at Willow. “Our lead mare has the right to give you your first foal.”

Willow started to return the changeling’s smile, but then her face fell. “I… can’t. Not without a compatibility charm.”

“What’s that?” Caleb asked.

Vectrix replied, “It’s an object enchanted to enable disparate species to have children.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The spell to create a compatibility charm is extremely complex and unique to every combination of species. The greater the difference between them, the more difficult they are to make. And because you are the only human in Equestria, one doesn’t exist for you.”

Caleb saw how sad his fiancée was at that news and his heart fell. He hadn’t even thought about children yet, but it was obvious that his future wife had. Perhaps even as long ago as when Blazing Shield was her intended husband. “Then we’ll get one made,” he declared.

Vectrix sighed. “It could take years and you wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

“Why not? I’m not exactly poorly paid.”

“Because the enormous cost has always been amortized among all the future clients. You are just one person and would have to bear the price alone. No mage is going to devote their time and effort to give you a gigantic discount.”

By the way that Vectrix emphasized the word ‘enormous’, Caleb had a feeling that his office manager was not exaggerating. He could sense her regret for having to tell him the bad news. Nevertheless, he was not prepared to give up without trying. He knelt before Willow and lifted her chin to look her in the eyes. “Tell me truthfully – do you want to have foals by me?”

The earth pony nodded. “Of course I do. You are my stallion and I wish to give you foals. I want to be a mother someday.” Tears started welling in her eyes.

Caleb kissed her and wiped away the teardrops. “Willow, as your stallion and future husband, I swear that I will find a way to give you those foals.”

Willow sniffled but a slight smile grew on her face. “I believe you, my love.” Then she kissed him long and thoroughly.

When they finally parted, Vectrix switched to Sky and announced, “Enough of this sad stuff. Today, we are celebrating becoming a herd. I propose we go out to dinner at The Fig Tree.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” Caleb replied. “What do you think, Willow?”

“I’m all for it too. But you might want to dress up for it, darling.”

“Of course. Why did you… Oh.” As he headed back to the bedroom to retrieve his clothes, Caleb wondered if bonding with Vectrix had turned off his nudity aversion. Perhaps a shower was in order first, considering what he and his mares had been up to. Now there was an idea. After all, what was the point of having such a large shower stall if you didn’t take advantage of it? “Oh, g-i-r-l-s…!”



After a long and mutually enjoyable shower, the man and changeling teamed up to dry Willow with their towels. The earth pony trotted outside to water the flowers while Caleb and Vectrix set to toweling off each other.

The changeling wiped a smile off her muzzle, trying to look serious. “I changed my mind. I think you should spend the Mating Season here in Ponyville.”

While in physical contact with his Companion, the man could feel the good humor of his partner along with… was that mischievousness? “Really?”

Vectrix battled to hide her smirk. “Oh, absolutely. You see, I hadn't considered all the upsides. For instance, you'd have the chance to... interact with mares of several races. And since seven out of eight townsbeings are mares, you'd never grow bored.”

Caleb hung up his towel, narrowed his eyes, and crossed his arms across his chest.

The changeling beamed. “Think of all the cultural understanding that would happen... and in such a short period of time! Plus this would guarantee a positive teacher rating from the majority of your class.”

The human turned on his heel. “We're done here.”

Vectrix laughed openly, waving a hoof in a half-hearted attempt to get Caleb's attention again. “You know that Twilight Sparkle is both married and powerful enough to keep all the mares at bay, don't you? All you'd have to do is hide out in her lab for seven to ten days as her latest test subject!”

“Very much done here!” called out the retreating man.



With Caleb tied up teaching his classes all day and Willow taking said classes, it was up to Sky to make most of the arrangements for the marriage ceremony. The three of them had discussed when they wanted to have it over dinner at The Fig Tree, and they had agreed that they wanted to make their vows as soon as possible. Of course, they had to allow a reasonable amount of time to send out invitations, book a venue, and do everything else that was involved in planning a wedding reception. Once the date was decided, there was still the legal aspect. The marriage ceremony had to be performed by a duly authorized officiant. Back in the early days of Ponyville, this was the task and joy of Mayor Mare herself. However, with the explosive growth that the township had experienced ever since Mark Wells had arrived in Equestria and Twilight Sparkle had ascended, it had become necessary to authorize a couple more certified officiants while the mayor was occupied by her increased workload. Sky was sure that she would be booking one of those but was surprised when the mayor insisted on the privilege. The anthro changeling gathered that her Companion was somewhat of a celebrity in the mayor’s eyes. Of course, having the ear of one of the Triarchs tended to do that.

Caleb invited all his students as well as Prince Mark “& family”. He had no idea how many of the royals would actually be interested in attending the wedding of Equus’ sole human but he thought it was the polite thing to do considering all they had done to kick start his new life. Willow sent invitations to her former squad mates. Vectrix also invited some of her family.

While most creatures seldom dressed up for anything, a wedding was a notable exception. Sky made an appointment with anthro Rarity to have Caleb and herself outfitted with something special for the day. As for the bride, the changeling narrowly averted a potential disaster. Willow had called Sky to the bedroom where the earth pony mare was found standing in front of an open hope chest, holding up a wedding dress.

“What do you think, Sky? Do you reckon this has gone out of style?” Willow asked.

The changeling blinked. “Is… is that the dress you were going to marry Blazing Shield in?”

“Yes. I never got to wear it.”

Sky stepped up to the mare and took it out of her hooves. “And you’re still not.” She stuffed it back in the chest and closed it.

Willow frowned at her. “What do you think you’re doing, Sky?”

“Saving you from making a terrible mistake.”

The earth mare put her forehooves on her hips and glared at the anthro mare. “How is wearing my wedding dress a mistake?”

“If Caleb learns that this is the dress made for Blazing, and he almost certainly will, how do you think he’ll respond to that? He’s going to feel as if you’re using him as a stand-in for your lost love.”

A hoof flew to Willow’s mouth as she gasped. “Oh, no! I didn’t think about that. I’d never want Caleb to feel that way!” She looked forlornly at the chest. “But it’s such a waste of a perfectly good dress.”

Sky shook her head. “I’ll take it around to Rarity’s boutique and see if she is willing to entertain a trade-in discount for a new dress. If so, I will set up an appointment for you to get measured.”

Willow brightened for a moment before her face fell once more. “I can’t afford even a discounted dress. I’ve been a student for months and the only income I’ve had in that time was from the meager stipend I receive for watching Caleb. And that stipend will be going away once we marry. There’ll be nothing left of my savings.”

Sky put an arm around the earth pony and hugged her. “Silly filly – I’ll cover that.”

“But you and Caleb already bear most of the financial responsibility until I start working once more.”

“My dear herdmate, that is irrelevant. We are already a family, and family provides for each other’s needs. You need that dress. I need my Companion to be happy. And the best way for him to be happy on the day is for you to be a beautiful bride in a dress made just for the occasion. Now, stop arguing and say thank you.”

Willow giggled. “Thank you, Mama Sky.”



The weeks flew by and the wedding day was upon them. The girls were excited but Caleb was calmly anticipating the big moment. After all, it was just a matter of formalizing their relationship and celebrating it with their friends.

Getting fitted for a tuxedo and subsequently wearing it didn’t set off his nerves in the slightest. That was before Prince Mark regaled him with the tale of his unforgettable wedding day. From that moment, Caleb kept wondering what disasters might befall his marriage ceremony. Every one of the prince’s wives had turned up as well as Princesses Cadance and Twilight Sparkle, the rest of the Element Bearers, and Phil’s family. Rarity and Rosa had teamed up to decorate the interior of Town Hall while Applejack and Pinkie Pie had taken care of food and refreshments. The man couldn’t stop imagining all the ways things could go pear-shaped in front of such august company. He kept on sweating right up until the moment that his bride joined him in front of Mayor Mare. Rarity had created a white lace and chiffon dress embroidered with patterns of aquamarine and amethyst that beautifully complemented Willow’s mane and tail. The joyful loving smile his fiancée gave him swept away all his cares and the ceremony proceeded without a hitch.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife!” Mayor Mare intoned.

Caleb knelt to kiss Willow to the cheers and hoof-stomps of the guests. Then he stood up and they both turned toward Vectrix who had been standing to one side during the ceremony. She wore a gossamer, peach-colored dress that tastefully showed off her figure. Anthro Rarity had made sure of that! The man held out a hand to her and Willow held up a hoof. The anthro changeling mare stepped between them, taking both with her own hands.

 

Caleb looked over to the audience and said, “Now, as you know, Equestrian law allows a stallion only one wife.” He then grinned. “Of course, even after just a few months living here, I have come to realize that there’s a vast difference between the strict interpretation of the law and day-to-day reality. Am I right, ladies?”

Several of the mares in the audience giggled and a few blushed. The stallions with them either stood a little prouder or smirked knowingly. The nobles might have had a lock on the legal interpretation of marriage, but the common pony did as they wished. Nopony bothered telling the Canterlot elite that though.

The human continued. “My Bond Companion, Vectrix, is as much a part of this… shall we say union… as Willow, and we both would be the less without her. As such, I, Caleb Awad…”

“And I, Willow Branch…” added the earth pony mare.

They finished together, “… take Vectrix a.k.a. Butterfly Sky into our family as our herdmate.”

Caleb winked at the audience before getting serious once more. “Ladies and gentlecolts, I give you Herd Faithful Kindness!”

He kissed the changeling on the left cheek while Willow reared up onto her hind legs to kiss Sky on the right. There was another round of applause that was just as enthusiastic as the first.

Willow resumed her four-legged stance and grinned at the audience. “And now that we’re hitched, officially or otherwise, break out the booze and the food. We’ve got a ton of celebrating to do!”



“Congratulations, Caleb,” Twilight Sparkle told the man as he and his mares mingled with their guests. “You’ve done extraordinarily well in adapting to this world. In my opinion, you made a marvelous choice in taking Willow as your wife.”

“Thank you. While I would never have believed it if you had told me this would happen back when I first arrived in Equestria, I’ve never done anything that felt so right as marrying my beautiful pony bride.”

“I suppose that the next thing on her mind will be foals.”

“As a matter of fact, that subject has already been brought up. There’s a little matter of making a compatibility charm though.”

“Well, with long-term plans of opening up interdimensional relations with Mark Wells’ Earth, there is the possibility of other Terran-Equian pairings occurring. They, too, would be requiring a charm, so I’ve already entertained the idea of creating one for humans.” The alicorn gave the man a sly look. “Now, if you had given me samples of every fluid your body produces months ago when I first asked, perhaps that work would be farther along.”

A mental nudge caused Caleb to look around to see Sky shake her head. He grinned and winked at her before turning back to Twilight. “But wouldn't any cell with a complete set of male human DNA work just as well? Like a sample from Phil which you’ve had access to for years?”

Twilight looked askance and her tail flicked as she was forced to concede the point. “Well… technically.”

“I figured as much. Let me know how that goes.” Caleb then turned his attention to another guest.

Said guest stood out from all the others. The white anthro mare only had to stand up to do so. Caleb blinked at Pearl’s choice of attire: white button-down shirt, vest, and bowtie; black top hat held in one hand; a dress coat with tails; and thigh-length boots over fishnet stockings. The mare’s smile widened when she caught Caleb’s eye.

“Behold the power of the incomparable Zatanna Zatara!” The unicorn waved a hand with a flourish, causing a black wand to appear. “Be amazed as I summon the most ferocious of wild beasts!” She brought her wand down and tapped the rim of the top hat three times. The third hit smacked the head of an emerging rabbit.

Angel glared at Pearl as he rubbed his head. The unicorn mare grinned sheepishly and whispered “My bad. I should have practiced our timing some more.” The wand disappeared again, Caleb noticed her horn didn’t light up, so no pony magic was involved. Pearl smirked and declared, “Ta-da!”

 

Angel gave his partner a disapproving stare, then his ears perked up. He leaped from the hat and made a beeline for the hors d’oeuvres table.

Caleb ignored the screams coming from that direction to ask, “Zatanna was it?”

The mare grinned. “Yep! My third most favorite DC comics character! Princess Trixie inspired me to learn the human way to do sleight of hand tricks.” She waved her arms and a bunch of silk flowers shot from out one of her sleeves. Pearl’s attempt to catch them was a bit slow and Caleb had to duck his head to avoid getting brained.

“Sorry!”

The man chuckled. “So – a magical pony? Who’da thunk it?” He looked her up and down. “Well, the outfit certainly is formal enough for the occasion.”

“Uh-huh! I’m always wearing one costume or another that mom or anthro-auntie Rarity makes for me. I just knew this one would be perfect for today!”

Realization hit Caleb like a galloping earth pony hauling a wagonload of bricks. He gasped and looked into her eyes. “Pearl, how old are you?”

“I just turned eighteen last month. So I’m an adult making adult decisions in an adult way!” She raised her arms over her head triumphantly. For his part, Caleb’s perception of the girl changed. He saw her happy-go-lucky attitude in a fresh light.

Pearl’s cheeky smile fell and she chewed her lip. “Sooooo… I think you’re pretty cool and wondered… ah… could we go out to dinner… I mean could I take you out to dinner sometime?” At the man’s hesitation, she said, “There are a bunch of great places along Restaurant Row, and I can tell you all about how Dad and Aunt Starlight saved it from the evil mind control magic of Zesty Gourmand.”

Caleb held up a hand. “Thanks for the offer, Pearl, but I’m going to have to turn you down. My dating days are over. Two wives are enough for me. I don’t plan on changing that near term… probably long term, too.”

“Awww…” The anthro mare wilted. “It’s the outfit, isn’t it?”

The man laughed and gave the mare a side hug. “Like I said, I think your cosplay is great. I’m happy that you have a hobby you enjoy with a passion.” The sound of something large breaking drew his attention. “For now, though. I think you need to go get your stage prop before the Mother of the Bride Queen Chrysalis decides to eat him for ruining the reception.”

The young mare’s mood changed in a flash. She went from standing still to a dead run. “Angel! Get back here!”



On the other side of the hall, Rarity held a restraining hoof on her husband. “Mark, dear. Calm yourself.”

The alicorn stallion snorted. “Dang it, Rares! Don’t tell me this is a mare’s cultural prerogative. Caleb is a grown man and Pearl is still just a kid! She’s gonna get hurt!”

“And what is wrong with that, darling?” At Mark’s shocked expression, she said, “I agree with you wholeheartedly. They are at completely different stages of life and Pearl lacks an adult’s maturity.”

The stallion tapped his forehoof against the ground impatiently. “…however?”

“However, Pearl needs to get over her crush on her own. Perhaps someday she’ll be ready for a stallion like Caleb. That isn’t the most important lesson to be learned though.” Mark pricked his ears forward. “Dear, think about the message you would be giving our daughter if you intervened. You would be telling her that you don’t trust her judgment. That she’s incapable of making her own decisions. That you don’t believe in her.”

Mark’s ears went flat on his head. “But I…”

Rarity stared into her husband’s eyes. “And that would be a terrible thing, don’t you agree?”

The one and only Alicorn of Lightning, Triarch of the Equestrian Empire, and father to many foals took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “You’re right. Thanks for straightening me out.”

They shared a tender kiss.

Mark glanced at Caleb and saw the man looking his way. With a flash of magic to the emerald on his crown, Mark transformed a forehoof into a green-pelted hand long enough to give Caleb the thumbs up.



Across the room, the human returned the friendly gesture then walked to rejoin his wives.

On the way, he furrowed his brow. “I wonder what that was all about?”



Willow and Caleb made love most nights, but this evening was extra special as they consummated their marriage. Then the mare surprised him by stopping him from another round.

“Now that we’re a formal herd, I think there’s something that you should do.”

“What’s that?” Caleb asked, his eyebrow rising to new heights.

Willow pointed at Sky who was lying to one side of the bed. The changeling reveled in their love-making although she didn’t take an active part in it. She didn’t have to since she shared through her bond with Caleb. And since the man had bonded with her, he didn’t think twice about her presence during sex. It would have been like removing a piece of himself if he asked for privacy.

“It’s time you made love to your other wife,” Willow declared.

Sky was startled. “But… you know I share Caleb’s experiences. It’s not necessary right now.”

“Are you arguing with your lead mare?” Willow asked with a smirk.

Sky giggled. “No, ma’am!” She looked at Caleb. “I suppose the time is right to show you what sex with your Companion is like.” She took a seductive pose.

Caleb leaned in to kiss her. “If it’s anything like when we bonded, it’ll be awesome.” He then started exploring her body starting with her perfect breasts. She was soon moaning in delight but the man was shuddering from the stimulation too. Just as Sky shared in his gratification when making love to Willow, he was discovering that the reverse was true. The pleasure he elicited in her echoed through their bond, arousing him in record time. However, it paled in comparison to when they finally joined. There could not be any long-drawn-out love-making between the two because the positive feedback loop it created brought them both to orgasm in moments. With each sharing the other’s ecstasy, it practically blew their minds. They fell apart, panting as if they had just run a marathon.

When Sky finally caught her breath, she said, “Now do you see why I said sex is a perk of our bonding?”

Still panting a little, Caleb replied, “Did you know… that it would be… so intense?”

“From what other Companions told me, kind of. The actual experience still exceeded my expectations.”

“I don’t think… I could handle that… too frequently. I’m beat.”

Sky giggled. “Stick to fondling my boobs – I liked that.”

“Believe me, I know!”

“Wusses!” Willow said before snuggling up to her husband. “I’m ready for more.”

Caleb could only moan.

 


 

CHAPTER 25

 

The next several weeks were among the happiest that Caleb had ever known. He had a loving wife and Companion, and a job that he genuinely enjoyed. He hadn’t realized that he would be any good as a teacher before taking on the position, but instructing his students was a daily pleasure. It helped that they were all eager to learn, of course, but they were also a diversely interesting group. He spent many a lunch break with them in the tea room rather than his office so that he could chat with them.

The only sour note the herd experienced was when another minor heat rolled around and they were reminded that Willow could not conceive by her stallion. Caleb was beginning to seriously reconsider his objections to being poked and prodded by the local alicorn princess, if only it might help reach a solution.

On the other hand, Sky came up with an answer to her and Caleb’s mating problem. One evening at bedtime, she held up a choker.

“Guess what this is!” she demanded with a sly grin.

“Your latest fashion statement?” Caleb guessed.

“Nope. You’ve heard of the horn rings that they use to suppress unicorn magic, right?”

“Yeah. Does that do the same thing for non-unicorns?”

“Kind of. This one has been optimized for our use. It will block a lot of the transfer of sensation between us. It can’t break our bond but it will… dull it down sufficiently that we can make love normally.”

Caleb grinned. “You mean we can have sex that lasts longer than a few seconds? It must be Christmas!”

“What’s Christmas?” Willow asked.

“A human holiday held around Hearth’s Warming and celebrated in a similar manner,” Sky informed her before putting on the choker. “But you don’t have to wait until then to unwrap this present, Caleb.”

The man decided that he knew all he needed to know about Hearth’s Warming right then and took his soul-mate into his embrace. “Don’t mind if I do!”



The weather pegasi decreed that it was time for winter, and the first scheduled snowfall of the season fell overnight. Caleb’s herd woke to the sound of foals squealing and laughing as they cavorted in the snow. For the man and his mares though, it was just another weekday. Caleb was glad that he had acquired some extra warm clothing in preparation for the season and even Sky wore a jacket as they walked to the trade school. Willow, on the other hoof, just put on a scarf, blithely oblivious to the cold otherwise.

The turn of the season reminded Caleb that the school was scheduled to close for a week to allow some of the students to travel home to spend Hearth’s Warming with their families. For others, it was an excuse for a holiday, and Willow was among those making plans for that week.

“Let’s go to the Crystal Kingdom,” she suggested at dinner one evening. “The travel agent tells me that they put on quite a pageant for Hearth’s Warming, and there are plenty of winter activities to enjoy on the other days.”

“Have you ever been there before?” Caleb asked.

“No, I haven’t. That’s one reason why I’d like to go there.”

“I haven’t been there either,” Sky admitted. “Sounds to me like a good destination for the postponed honeymoon.”

Caleb looked at Willow and the earth pony mare grinned hopefully. “You two already decided on this haven’t you?”

The mares both nodded, not feeling guilty at all.

The man chuckled. “Okay! Okay! Good thing I don’t mind winter holidays. Maybe it’s time for me to try skiing again.”



“I’m never going skiing again!” Caleb declared with a groan as he elevated his bandaged ankle onto an ottoman. Although he would have preferred to be back on the slopes, he had to admit that the couch in their suite was extremely pleasant.

“Are you comfortable?” Willow asked solicitously as she fluffed up a cushion for him.

“I’ll be fine, love,” the man replied. “It’s only a sprain – the rest of me is relatively intact.”

Sky said, “The healing potion the doc gave him should have it good as new in a day.”

Willow frowned in concern. “Will you be able to go out to dinner tonight? Should I cancel our reservation?”

Caleb lifted his arm and gestured for the earth pony mare to come close. As soon as she was in reach, he pulled her into him and kissed her lengthily. When he finally let her go, he said, “Does that feel like I’m helpless? We’re going to dinner as planned. Right?”

“Mmm, okay,” Willow replied dreamily.

“I’m going to order us something to drink and nibble on,” Sky said. “We’ve got a great view from our hotel room, so let’s just enjoy spending the rest of the afternoon chatting and watching others trying not to copy Caleb’s crash.”

The man stuck his tongue out at the anthro mare before adding, “Food sounds good. I’m feeling quite peckish.”

Willow said, “That’s the potion at work – it draws heavily on your body reserves.”

“A great excuse for snacking if ever I’ve heard one,” Caleb replied. “The sooner I’m up and running again, the sooner we can get back to having fun together.”

Willow climbed up onto the sofa and cuddled up to him. “Are you saying we can’t have fun until then?” she asked with a mischievous grin.

“Nobody told me I was marrying a nympho,” Caleb replied drolly.

The mare just giggled while Sky rolled her eyes before calling room service. Seemed like the human wasn’t the only one who would be needing extra energy.



Just when he thought he was inured to everything that this world could throw at him, Caleb reckoned that Ponyville’s Winter Wrap-up had to be one of the most bizarre events in Equestria. It practically did his head in. They roped him into making nests for birds, for fuck’s sake! Why, God? Why?



Caleb and his mares stopped at the general store on the way home to pick up some groceries. The man paused to look at a sign posted outside the door. He had seen similar signs advising of closures from next week. This one stated that the store would be only open for limited hours on specific days.

“Okay – what’s the deal with all the shops closing?” he asked his companions.

“It’s the start of Mating Season – you knew that already,” Willow replied.

“So?”

Sky said, “So the mares are going to be preoccupied with something more urgent than commerce, while the stallions will be making themselves scarce.”

Caleb’s eyebrows rose. “It’s really that big a deal?”

Willow said, “You’ve seen me when I’m in a normal heat. Now quadruple that. If the mares don’t keep separate from the stallions, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to mate. It’s virtually guaranteed that she would get pregnant, so unless that is their intention, all mares stay separated from the stallions for about two weeks. All stallions – not just their special someponies.”

“Don’t the stallions get randy too?”

“Of course, which is why camping and fishing trips are popular at this time. Anything to get away from the scent of females in heat. And that’s why the shops are normally closed except for essential services, and even those with limited hours. There are too few able or willing to work during Mating Season.”

Sky added, “Not that it’s a problem for us. I control when I’m fertile, and Willow… well… you know. You’ll want to avoid going out for a while though. Desperate mares aren’t very choosy about species.”

Caleb pondered the possibility of being kidnapped for snu-snu and decided he would have his hands full with just one sex-mad mare. Sadly, that one actually wanted to get pregnant. Was this going to be the most depressing couple of weeks of their marriage?



Five days later, Caleb didn’t need to be told that his wife had gone into heat. She woke him up as she tried to get intimate with him. There was no subtlety in their coupling that morning but the man did his best to make it a good experience for both of them. With her need relieved for the moment, Willow cuddled up to Caleb and kissed him on the cheek.

“I’m sorry, my love. When the heat hits on the first day, it pretty much turns off rational thought. It won’t be quite so bad after this.”

“What did you do in the years before we met?” Caleb wondered.

“There are drugs to lessen the urges and plenty of toys for self-stimulation.”

“Doesn’t sound like very much fun.”

“No. No, it wasn’t.”

“And this is what it’s going to be like for what? A week or so?”

“It averages about ten days. Some mares start sooner and some later, so that’s why Mating Season is officially two weeks.”

“Well, I’ll do my best for you, dear, but I’m only human.”

Sky spoke up. “There’s a pick-me-up made for stallions for that reason. I took the liberty of purchasing some. I’m assured that it is efficacious for multiple mammalian species.”

“Thanks, Sky,” Caleb said. “Do you mind if we put on hold our love-making while Willow is like this?”

“Not at all. Sex has always been a bonus, not a requirement between us. Willow needs you more than ever right now.”

What she needs is a real stallion,’ Caleb thought sourly. Then his eyes widened as he realized something. “Sky, I know that the town has practically shut down, but can I still move around if I want?”

“Well, yes. Most don’t because of how awkward it is at the moment, but there isn’t an actual prohibition. As long as you are in the direct company of your chosen mare, the rest will respect that and keep their distance.”

“Good. You and I have an errand to run after breakfast.”

“We do?” Sky asked, sensing her Companion’s uptick in mood. “What are we going to do?”

“And how long will you be?” Willow asked. “I really don’t want to be without you for long right now.”

Caleb gave them a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry – if all goes well, it won’t take long. You’ll find out what I’ll be doing when I get back.”

Sky’s excitement grew to match her soul-mate’s – the changeling suspected that Caleb had a wonderful idea that was going to change everything!



A little over an hour after Caleb and Sky had left, the changeling opened the door to call out, “We’re back!”

“Oh, good!” came Willow’s voice from the bedroom. She headed out to join her herdmates. “Why are you in your pegasus form, Butterfly? I was just changing the shee-e-eeek! Who’s this strange stallion?” She hurriedly backpedaled into the bedroom, stopping just inside the doorway to peek out at the male pony whose scent was already wafting her way.

The stallion was of average build, had a golden-brown coat and a maroon mane and tail. Peculiarly, he didn’t have a cutie mark but his eyes were oddly familiar.

 

Butterfly grinned at the stallion. “She has a point. You are kind of strange.”

“But I wouldn’t exactly call myself a stranger,” he said with a humorous tone Willow knew well.

The mare’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. That voice… that mane color… “Caleb?”

The stallion grinned. “In the pony flesh! Like it?”

“But… but how?”

“When I visit Earth, I have to make sure that the adaptation spell on the portal mirror is turned off before I return. This time, I didn’t turn it off. I told you I’d find a way to give you a foal.”

With a squeal of joy, Willow hurled herself at her husband. Having been at the receiving end of these tackle-hugs before, Caleb braced himself for the collision. To his surprise, rather than finding himself on the floor with his mare on top of him, his pony body easily absorbed the impact and he was able to hold Willow while she peppered him with kisses. His earth pony form was obviously a match for hers, a turnabout that he intended to put to good use. When Willow switched to burying her nose in his mane and breathing in his scent, he used his new strength to half-pull/half-carry his mate to the bedroom.

“Time for me to fulfil my promise to you, darling,” he said as he laid her on the bed.

Butterfly didn’t need her changeling senses to tell how much joy and ecstasy filled their home that day.



Caleb had his upper body propped up on pillows as he gently stroked Willow’s mane while she napped with her head on his chest.

Butterfly entered the room carrying a tray with two large glasses containing milk shakes. “Here – something to replenish both fluid and energy,” she said.

“Thanks,” Caleb replied. He held out a hoof, blinked, and then grinned sheepishly. “I don’t know how to grab things without hands yet.”

“I’ll hold it for you,” the changeling replied, putting the tray on the bedside drawers. She lifted one of the glasses to the stallion’s lips and he took a few gulps of the cool drink.

“That’s great, Butterfly. Should I wake Willow so she can drink hers?”

“Don’t bother. She’ll wake up soon enough by herself.”

“I’m surprised that I’m not feeling exhausted after what we just did. It obviously took a lot out of her.”

“That’s because pony stallions are evolved to deal with the needs of a herd full of mares. You simply have way more stamina in that form. Something I plan to take advantage of later.”

“Is that why you’re still in pegasus form? Sounds like fun. Want me to lay Willow aside right now?”

Butterfly chuckled. Caleb’s stallion instincts had well and truly kicked in. With all the pheromones filling the air, it was little wonder that he was behaving in an extra horny manner. “You don’t think you’re done with Willow yet, do you?” she replied.

The mare in question stirred and opened her eyes. She spotted the glass that Butterfly offered and reached out to grab it. She drank the milk shake eagerly while the changeling brought Caleb’s drink to his mouth.

“Better finish this quick. Willow is going to want round two very soon.”

“Thanks, Butterfly.” The stallion took her advice before turning his attention back to his reinvigorated wife.

The pegasus set aside the glasses to watch and enjoy her herdmates making love, knowing that it would be her turn soon enough.



Caleb doubted that he would ever feel as fulfilled as he did today. He lay with his mares on either side of him as they delighted in simply being together. His mates were happy and a fertilization-sensing amulet confirmed he had well and truly impregnated his wife. He wondered what their child would be like – aside from being a pony, of course. He supposed he had better look into what was involved in preparing for a foal. And would it be a boy or a girl?

“Hey, honey – what are you hoping for? A colt or a filly?”

Willow pursed her lips in thought. “Lots of mares say they want a colt because the odds are against having any, but I wouldn’t mind having a filly for my first foal. What do you think?”

“Sounds fine to me. Considering that I was doubtful of every having children, I’m happy to get either.”

“You know that you could always have a foal with Sky?” Willow pointed out.

The changeling said, “Caleb and I wanted you to have the first foal. We would have had a hard time committing to having children when you couldn’t.”

“Thank you for thinking of me. And, Caleb, thank you for becoming a pony for me. I know that it couldn’t have been an easy decision. I don’t know that I would have been able to become a human for you.”

“You’re wrong, Willow. It was the easiest decision that I have ever made. Sure, it’s a bit awkward for me in an unfamiliar body which can only do the most basic of things, but it can do the one thing my human self can’t and that made it a no-brainer.”

Willow stroked his coat. “I must admit that I will miss this but I know you’ll want to change back as soon as possible.”

Caleb grinned at her. “There are still some things that you don’t know about me. Such as – I’m not the kind of stallion to knock you up and disappear. You’ve got yourself a pony stallion for the next couple of days at least. You two can use the time to teach me how to be a proper pony, right?”

The mare giggled and kissed him.

“I think you’re off to a great start already,” Willow replied.

 



Caleb stepped through the portal and emerged into Equestria as a human once more. Both his herdmates were waiting for him although the changeling had resumed her anthro form in the interim.

The man kissed his hands. “How I have missed you, fingers!”

“Me too,” Willow said. “They can work wonders that the most talented hooves can’t emulate.”

Caleb smirked. “Haven’t you had enough of that kind of fun these past few days?”

“Just because my heat has faded due to being pregnant doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on the pleasure of having the best stallion in Equestria attend to me!”

“Make that two of us,” Sky chimed in.

The man rolled his eyes. “A stallion’s work is never done. Okay, come on girls – let’s head home. It’s not as if there’s much else we can do while we’re still in the middle of Mating Season.”

The mares exchanged a gleeful look. Sky grabbed his hand and Willow put her head against the man’s back. As they both pulled and pushed him eagerly, Caleb realized that he already missed his earth pony strength.



A few weeks later, Caleb stretched after locking the door to the welding school. “Well, I’m beat. I don’t know about you two, but I’m ready for the weekend. Shall we go home?”

A scroll materialized in flames a few inches from his nose, causing him to jump back and yell in alarm. “What? What?”

Sky and Willow laughed. The changeling reached down and picked up the scroll. “I take it this is the first time you’ve received a message sent by dragonfire. Don’t worry. The flames are mostly harmless.”

“Mostly,” the human repeated with some snark. “You don’t know how comforting I find that.”

Willow walked up next to Sky and reared onto her hind legs. “So what does the Princess of Friendship want?”

“She’s politely asking for Caleb to stop by her castle this evening. Doesn’t say why.” The anthro-mare rolled up the scroll. “But I can guess.”

The human sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Well, she is technically our sovereign, so there’s no good reason to keep her waiting.”

They arrived just when the sun and moon exchanged places in the Equestrian sky. After knocking on the crystalline double doors, one of the guards led the trio deeper into the castle. In the center of a large hallway, they found an unexpected sight.

 

The alicorn mare nodded and gave a self-assured smile. “Good evening, Mr. Caleb Awad, Miss Sky, Miss Willow Branch. Thank you so much for coming so promptly.”

If the white lab coat didn’t clue Caleb in, the stethoscope certainly did. “You’re a medical doctor now? Seriously?”

The purple mare’s smile grew a bit smugger. She cleaned some imaginary dust off her spectacles then returned them to her muzzle. “Indeed. Thank you for pointing out that deficiency in my list of academic degrees. I’ll show you my diploma downstairs in my medium-sized applied biology lab. Please follow me.”

Caleb looked to his wives for help. Willow shrugged. “You did say you would agree to an exam if she became a medical doctor.”

Sky smiled. “You should have set the bar higher. No one to blame but yourself for this one.”

The man groaned and trudged after the princess. “Exactly how long is this going to take?”

Twilight called over her shoulder. “I’ve had a long time to prepare a comprehensive testing regimen. I can’t see this first round taking more than a few hours.”

Caleb was about to protest when he got side-tracked by badly concealed snickers on either side. Then a gentle pat on his hip from Sky filled him with reassurance. His mares were not going to let the alicorn keep him tied up indefinitely, princess or no.

Two levels down, Twilight led them into a square room about 30 feet on each side. The mare levitated a gigantic hypodermic needle from behind a lab bench only to have Willow hold up a hoof. “Prince Mark gave Caleb a complete rundown of his experience with poison joke, including the trip to your laboratory.”

The alicorn sighed and returned the prop to its hiding place. “So much for starting the exam on a humorous note.”

Caleb had missed the exchange as he was studying the newest framed certificate on the wall. “Twilight, is this your new diploma? From St. George's University on the island of Grenada?”

The purple mare beamed. “Yes, indeed! I knew only a doctor’s degree from a university on Earth would do, so I did everything mail order!”

The man turned to face her and smiled. “Is that so?”

Twilight pranced on her tippy-hooves. “That’s right! I just had to order the books through them, write a bunch of essays on the contents, and perform the research for a dissertation. Mine was Hydroxyl radical-induced decline in motility and increase in lipid peroxidation and DNA modification in human sperm.”

Willow tilted her head. “Where did you get… do I even want to know?”

“Humans store sperm in liquid nitrogen as a hedge against infertility. Periodically, those sperm banks purge samples from clients who don’t pay their bills. These samples are made available for academic use and Phil arranged for the final leg of the transport.”

Caleb’s smile grew a bit predatory. “Let me guess. This institution promised you a medical degree years faster than anywhere else. Plus, all of your reports and even your dissertation were accepted without any comments from the university faculty, weren’t they? In fact, your only real communication was with their Bursar? No interaction with their medical faculty at all, was there?”

Twilight started blinking and she frowned. “Ahhh…. Yes, that’s true. I just took that to mean my work was of outstanding quality and they didn’t have any feedback.”

The man laughed openly. “Oh, I’m sure it was. The problem is, you didn’t research the institution thoroughly enough.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “St. George's University is a diploma mill.”

At the alicorn’s blank stare, Caleb continued. “They are not an accredited institution of higher education. They sell willing suckers overpriced books and charge them for every fee possible on their way to a diploma that isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. It’s fake.”

Twilight gaped. “But… all my studying!” She pointed to a set of bookshelves holding dozens of medical books, scores of multi-colored Post-it notes sticking out the top of each. “What about my continuing research? My dissertation was printed in the St. George’s Journal of Medicine!” With a pop, a thin magazine appeared in her magic field. “I can’t believe humans would do that! To deceive others for… for money!”

Caleb waved his mares over to him as he walked toward the room’s exit. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure yours was the finest piece of medical research published in their make-believe scientific journal, of which you doubtless have the only copy. Sorry, Twilight. A real doctor’s degree requires years of study followed by more years of residency. There are no shortcuts, no matter how smart you are.”

The trio left a sputtering alicorn behind as they entered the hallway. As they headed for the stairs, Sky nudged her Companion. “Cover your ears.” Caleb noticed that both mares stopped in their tracks to do so. Without argument, the man followed their lead.

Moments later, the reason became clear. In the Royal Canterlot Voice, the Princess of Friendship yelled, “AAAAARRRRRRRGGGGHHHHH!”

 


 

CHAPTER 26

 

Caleb entered the welding school’s tea room/meeting room closely followed by Sky. Each of them was carrying a tray of snacks which they put on the table next to the coffee machine. When conversation died down, the man looked around at those present.

“It looks like everyone is here so I’ll start up this meeting momentarily. Feel free to grab your favorite snacks first.”

His students enthusiastically queued up for the goodies. When they had all settled down again, Caleb nodded in satisfaction. He took a gulp of his coffee before setting the mug aside and grinning at his students.

“Yesterday, I received the results of the analyses of the test pieces that I had you make. I’m happy to announce that you all passed with flying colors.” The man allowed his pupils a few moments to express their pleasure before continuing. “With that completed, I am pleased to declare that your exams are finished and you have all officially graduated as qualified welders!”

This time there were loud cheers, hoof-stomps, hugs, and various other forms of exuberant delight.

When Caleb reckoned that he could be heard clearly once more, he continued. “As the Dean of Equestria’s royally appointed welding school, I will be presenting to each of you your official Welding Certificate. While this is obviously something new to this world, I assure you that they would get you a job at any construction job on Earth.” He held up his hands and shrugged his shoulders. “You might have a bit of difficulty explaining why you’re a pony or a dragon though.”

There was a round of laughter as the students had been regaled by Caleb with many stories of his experiences on Earth.

The man grinned as he opened up a folder. “Before I hand out the certificates, I want you to know that I am very pleased with the work and dedication that you have all put in during this course. If I was an employer, I would have no hesitation in hiring any one of you. However, we are not all created equal and some of you have excelled above and beyond expectations. The one who has shown the most talent for the welding disciplines is a pony who, if he didn’t already have a cutie mark, would have undoubtedly earned one in welding months ago. Smooth Fit – please step up here.”

To accompanying cheers, hoof stomps, and chitters, the colt approached Caleb who held out a certificate to him. Taking it in his hoof, Smooth Fit read what was printed within its elegant borders.

EQUESTRIAN CERTIFICATE of WELDING

By appointment by the Equestrian Triarchy,
the Equestrian Institute of Engineering Welding hereby certifies that

Smooth Fit

has satisfactorily completed Advanced Welding Training and is fully
qualified in all forms of electric arc welding and associated skills.

The certificate was signed by both Caleb and Prince Mark with the addition of the Ponyville Registrar’s seal.

 

“Congratulations on being the class valedictorian, Smooth. I predict that you’ll go far in your new career.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ve enjoyed every moment of this course.”

“Glad to hear it.” Caleb turned back to the others. “The runner-up came as a pleasant surprise to me. Rock Crusher, please step up.”

The dragon blinked and then a grin split his maw. “Alright!” he declared as he made his way forward.

The man handed the drake his certificate. “You’ve been a fun student. I’m going to miss having you around.”

“Thanks, Teach. It’s been a blast.”

Caleb was still grinning when he faced his audience once more. “And to prove you can teach an old pony new tricks, Coiled Steel, please come forward.”

The normally taciturn mare’s face betrayed a hint of a smile as she trotted up to accept her certificate.

“Well done, Coiled. You’ll be keeping the apprentices in line for a long time yet.”

The mare grunted and nodded. “Tha’ goes with na sayin’, sir.”

Caleb passed out the rest of the certificates in alphabetical order. As far as he was concerned, there was no last place in his graduating class. He also did not want any comments on favoritism because his wife had come in fourth place. He gave the former students a few minutes before calling for their attention again.

“Now I don’t know what all of you have planned to do with those spanking-new certificates, but I have a visitor who might be able to help you decide. Ms. Sky – will you show in our guest, please.”

The anthro mare opened the door to allow a green alicorn stallion inside, followed by a batpony mare and a changeling queen. The students bowed to the prince who acknowledged them with a wave of his hoof.

“Relax, everybeing. I’m here today first of all to congratulate you on your successful completion of this course. Second and more importantly, I am going to make an offer of employment to all of you. You are, of course, free to follow your own dreams, but I think you’ll find that most of you will like what I have to say. Equestria has had an urgent need of your new skills for quite some time and there are places ready and willing to employ you immediately and pay you handsomely.” The prince’s eyes fell on the unicorn colt who had led the class. “Smooth Fit – I believe you come from Baltimare, correct?”

“That’s right, Your Highness.”

“We have a major facility there in the Royal Shipyards that’s in dire need of your skills. While your age precludes you from a direct leadership position, we would like to offer you a spot reporting directly to Admiral Sundowner. She will be under instruction to provide you with whatever is required to facilitate the job. In other words, when it comes to welding, you’ll be the number one pony. Interested?”

The colt’s jaw dropped and eyes widened. “That… that would be… awesome!”

“Excellent! My Advisor, Queen Chrysalis, will be happy to sort out the details with you in the office.”

“Accompany me, stripling,” Chrysalis commanded. She turned and headed out the door without looking to see if the colt followed. Smooth hastened to join her.

Mark Wells smirked. “My herdmate’s demeanor may be a bit daunting, but she will ensure that you will all get the best out of your employment contracts. Speaking of which, you will all have noticed that there have been extensions made to the manufacturing facility next door. It may not come as a surprise to you that the new section requires welders. Coiled Steel and Nikos, we would like to offer you the position of foremare and lead assistant respectively.”

The grizzled mare smirked. “Straight inta th’ thick of it? I like that.”

The minotaur nodded in satisfaction. “I’m up to the task. Looking forward to it.”

“I figured you’d like that. See Chrysalis when she is done with Smooth Fit. As for the rest of you, there are lots of positions open both here and in Baltimare. If neither suits you, feel free to discuss your preferences. We may have an alternative to suit you. Are there any questions?”

Crusher cleared his throat.

The alicorn looked at the drake. “Yes?”

The dragon nervously rubbed his neck and looked askance. “I was thinking – now that Ms. Steel and Mr. Nikos will be leaving the school, Teach… I mean Mr. Awad will be without a teaching assistant. And… well… I liked helping out the other students when they needed it and I enjoy chatting with Teach… What I’m trying to say is – could I stay here as his assistant?”

Caleb looked at Mark. “He’s got a point, you know.”

The alicorn grinned. “I suppose we can’t leave you to run the school by yourself, especially since we have an even larger number of students lined up for the next class.”

The man looked back to the hopeful dragon. “If you’re going to be my assistant, there’s no more of this ‘Teach’ business. The name’s Caleb. Welcome to the team!”

He shook hands/talons with Crusher who looked as if he had just been given a bowl of rubies and sapphires to gorge on. Sky had seldom tasted so much joy in a dragon.



With the last of the graduates having made their career decisions and signed contracts, the welding school was officially closed until the beginning of the new semester. Caleb locked the door with a satisfying click before turning to his herdmates.

“Well, ladies, time to celebrate a little. Seeing as it’s just past midday, I suggest we find someplace to have lunch and a few drinks.”

“I’m all for that,” Sky replied as they headed into town.

“Me too,” Willow said. “I can also celebrate having a job again. Good thing that Coiled Steel and I get along well if I’m going to be working under her. I want to start saving some money towards having this foal.” She glanced at her belly which had barely begun showing a bulge.

“You know we already have that covered,” Caleb replied. “We’re not rich but the foal isn’t going to lack for anything.”

“Actually, Caleb, we might want to add to that buffer,” Sky said.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Two foals are more expensive,” the anthro mare replied.

Caleb stopped, blinked, then looked hard at Willow. “You’re having twins?”

The earth pony giggled. “No, silly! Sky is telling you that she wants your foal.”

The man changed his shocked gaze to the changeling. “But… I thought you intended to wait until Willow gives birth?”

“Caleb – Willow has several months’ head-start on me. She will have her foal long before I do despite the difference in our gestation periods.”

“Oh. Um… yeah. I see why you’d want us to put aside some more cash.” The man looked back to the earth pony. “Is that why you decided to start your job immediately rather than holidaying with Sky and me for the entire break?”

“That’s part of it,” Willow agreed as they resumed their walk. “The other is – I’ve missed the job and my workplace friends. It’s time I got back into the swing of things.”

“How long before you have to go on leave because of your pregnancy?” Caleb asked.

“We earth ponies aren’t slowed down when we’re with foal. I’ll be working right up until the first contractions hit.”

“It’s true,” Sky reassured the skeptical human. “Although her walk will be more of a waddle by then.”

Willow stuck her tongue out at the changeling. “What about you? How’s pregnancy going to affect you?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m the first Companion to bond with a human and we don’t have any past experience to go by.”

“What? Hasn’t any Companion bonded with an anthro pony at least?” Caleb asked.

“Not so far. The anthro population in this world is still quite small and so is the number of Companion Changelings. You and I are the first.”

“Well, if human females are anything to go by, you sure won’t be wanting to do physical work right up until childbirth,” the man said with feeling. “Not unless you change into an earth pony like Willow.”

Sky shook her head. “I won’t be changing out of bipedal form for the duration of my pregnancy. While I can maintain a stable internal environment between my changeling, anthro, and human forms, there’s a lot of reconfiguring for other forms. The risk is low but I won’t take any chances.”

“I’m all for taking no unnecessary risks,” Caleb agreed. “So – when do you want to do this? When are you going to be on heat? Wait! You told me changelings don’t go into heat, so how do you know when you’ll be fertile?”

Sky grinned. “I can control my fertility completely. You are going to knock me up tonight.”

Caleb chuckled. “Looks like we get to celebrate something else in advance. And with that theme in mind, want to go to The Bucking Mare?”

Both the mares laughed and agreed.



With the rest of the afternoon free, Caleb and his mares took their time to enjoy it without worrying about any obligations. After they left The Bucking Mare, they wandered through town, stopping to chat with friends. Eventually, they made their way home and Sky started preparing the evening meal while Caleb and Willow tended to the garden. By the time they had finished weeding and watering, dinner was ready.

Normally after Sky had cooked dinner, Willow and Caleb would share the task of cleaning up. However, the earth pony insisted that she handle it alone.

“Go join Sky outside. This evening belongs to the two of you.”

“Thanks, love,” the man replied. He kissed her on the cheek before heading outside.

Caleb found the anthro mare sitting on the porch swing that he had made at the welding school. Willow had painted it a light blue and Sky had made some cushions for it. Now she was enjoying watching the sun setting while gently rocking back and forth. She smiled at her Companion when she saw him emerge from the house and she patted the cushion next to her, inviting him to join her.

Caleb sat beside Sky and put his arm around her. They swung in silence, soaking in the delightful atmosphere and the pleasure of their proximity. Eventually, the man spoke up.

“So – why did you suddenly decide that you wanted to have a foal now?”

“There was nothing sudden about it. I’ve wanted your foal since we bonded. Before that, even. It’s just that now seems an ideal time.”

Before we bonded? You were still a male changeling then.”

“It didn’t matter. I already had a feeling that I would be your mare. Even if my base gender hadn’t changed, I could tell that my relationship with you was going to be heterosexual. That’s why I was so pleased that I did change.”

“Did you ever feel that way towards a male before?”

Sky shook her head. “Irrelevant. I’m not a pony, Caleb. I’m a changeling and change is what defines us. Before I bonded with you, I was incomplete and my personality and needs were still in flux. As soon as I met you, those needs finally started to come into focus. I required you to make me whole and, in turn, my bond with you fulfilled some longing within you. We are one now, my soul-mate, and there is nothing that expresses the culmination of that union more than to create a child. And I intend to do so tonight. I have waited long enough.”

Caleb nodded thoughtfully. “I can’t say that I haven’t thought about it a few times since I found out that we could have children. Tell me – if I had said back then that I wanted to have a child with you immediately, would you have done so?”

Sky giggled. “Oh, most certainly, but that was never going to happen. We have been in synch since the bonding which means that we share desires, and we wanted Willow to have your foal first. Even now, months after we bonded, you don’t fully comprehend how deep that bond goes. We can’t truly argue because we intimately understand and appreciate the perspective of the other. That’s why I know that you are ready to father my foal. You feel my desire and you respond instinctively to it.” She put a hand on his cheek and leaned in to kiss him. “We’re going to make a perfect child.”

The man smiled fondly at his mare. “Yes, we are.” He then leaned back in the chair to regard the sunset. “Sky – if somebody had told me a year ago that I was going to bond with a changeling, marry a pony, and have children with both, I would have thought they were on drugs or hopelessly insane. Even now, I find it amazing. I come from a world where humans are essentially the only sapient species. Some others are quite smart and can communicate, but they don’t build civilizations and we certainly don’t mate and breed with them. And yet, within weeks of me arriving here, I found myself in a relationship with two very different beings. What started out as fulfilling a mutual need with Willow turned into so much more. I have to ask – did your presence have anything to do with that?”

The changeling gave him a serious look. “Caleb, no changeling can create feelings for another, not even a Companion. However, the changes that we both underwent in the weeks together before we bonded may have fanned the flames, so to speak. In other words, you already had those feelings and they grew, just like two ponies would have done as they shared their lives and found that they enjoyed doing so. You fell in love with her by yourself, my dear soul-mate, and now I love her just as deeply, but because of you, not because of me.”

Caleb chuckled. “So I’m just a weird human with a taste for mares. No wonder I never made it with women back on Earth.”

“Good thing you ended up here then,” Sky pointed out.

“Ha! Yeah.”

They were quiet for a couple of minutes, enjoying each other’s company. Then Sky stood up and held out a hand to Caleb. “Come here – there’s something that I want to do before I put an embargo on shape-shifting.”

The man put his hand in hers and she pulled him to his feet. He was no longer surprised at how strong the changeling was despite being of smaller stature than him. “Okay, what do you have in mind?”

“Do you remember how Allura and Lacewing can combine to make the identity that they call ‘Iron Mare’?”

“Yes. Are you thinking of doing the same? I’m not that into superheroes.”

Sky smiled. “I don’t have quite the same thing in mind. I want us to fly together though. Feeling game?”

“I… suppose so. I mean… I trust you but… I have no idea how I’ll react.”

“Oh, I think you do because I am feeling your excitement. Now, please take off your shirt. I need direct flesh to flesh contact for this to work perfectly.”

Caleb took off his shirt, saying, “Okay, but what about your… oh.”

As he spoke, Sky’s magic flared and her clothing disappeared, leaving the anthro mare nude. She grinned at him. “No problem.”

The man smirked. “Who do you think you’re kidding? Those clothes were a part of you, so they qualified as ‘flesh-to-flesh’.”

The mare’s grin widened. “True, but you’re still thrilled by the sight. Now, turn around and hold your arms a little away from your body.”

Caleb complied and Sky hugged him from behind, her arms firmly around his chest.

“This is the fun bit,” she said as magic green flames engulfed both of them.

Moments later, just one person stood there. They were still mostly human but their height and build had both increased a little over the human’s and two large feathered wings spread from their back. The man’s feet had also been replaced with hooves and they swayed a moment before the merged being caught their balance in this new form. Without knowing how, Caleb gently flapped their wings once, getting the feel of the golden-yellow plumed appendages.

“My god! I can feel these wings like I’ve always had them!”

That’s because you’re experiencing them through our bond and I have always had wings of one kind or another,” came Vectrix’s voice in his head. “At least, when I am not being an anthro earth pony.

Caleb’s eyes widened. “You can talk like this?”

Obviously. Allura and Lacewing do the same when they meld. Communication is on a deeper level. We share emotions directly in this form.

“Maybe so, but I still don’t know how to fly.”

Leave that to me for now. Once we have a chance to practice together, you’ll be able to synch with my abilities and be able to control our flight.

“Sounds good. I have just one more question. Why do I have boobs?”

There wasn’t any audible laughter but Caleb still felt the changeling’s chuckle. “I didn’t need all my body mass to create the wings, flight muscles, and hooves, so I left my boobs in the appropriate place.

“S-u-u-r-e you didn’t need the mass,” Caleb replied drolly as he put his hands on the familiar mammaries. His eyes widened. “Oh, wow! They feel like they belong! You didn’t turn me into a female while you were at it?”

That’s not within my capability, but if I resculpted my mass into a different configuration, I could make you look like one.

“Um… let’s not go there right now. You said you wanted to take us flying?”

Yes! Before we lose the light!

Their wings lifted and then beat down hard. The united mates lifted into the sky.

“Wahoo! This is awesome!”

We’ve only just begun,” came the changeling’s smug reply.

Vectrix took them on a flight over Ponyville, gifting Caleb with a view of his new home from a pegasus’ viewpoint. In the distance, they saw Twilight Sparkle on the highest balcony of Friendship Castle, her horn aglow and mane whipping in a nonexistent wind as she lowered the sun. The street lights were just coming on as evening descended, illuminating the shadows and lending the town an enchanting appearance. They startled a couple of the winged locals which had Caleb grinning from ear to ear. Then Vectrix started climbing.

“What are you up to, Vex?”

There’s one more thing you need to experience,” she replied.

They kept ascending and the man realized that they were headed for one of the high fluffy clouds catching the last rays of the sun that was dipping below the horizon. They climbed above the pink cloud and headed for the edge. Caleb fully expected to plunge through it but as soon as his hooves encountered the first wisps, he felt some slight resistance that rapidly grew. Within moments, the tenuous cloud had firmed into a surface that he could best describe as like a trampoline – it gave way under his weight but only so far before it would stretch no further. He took a tentative step and then another.

“Holy shit! I’m walking on a cloud!”

All beings that utilize magic to fly can also cloud-walk. While you’re merged with me, so can you.

“What if I want to sit down on it?”

There was another echo of amusement. “It works for your sexy plot too.

Caleb chuckled and walked to the edge of the cloud. Carefully, he sat down where he felt the support start to dwindle and dangled his legs over the side. He wondered why he didn’t feel more nervous about this impossible feat before realizing that Vectrix had to be moderating his fears. From this vantage point, he could see not only the entirety of Ponyville but also the fields surrounding it on several sides. And in the distance, Canterlot was slightly below his eye-level. It was now lit up against the rapidly darkening sky, the streetlights and house lamps lending it a fairytale look.

We had better head home now. Willow will be wondering where we’ve gone.

“Yeah. Thanks for this, Vex. I’ve enjoyed every moment and I hope we get to do this again sometime soon after you have your foal.”

Already marked it in my mental calendar, Caleb. And now that I have successfully set the mood, time for the next part of this wonderful evening. Care to get us going?

“Sure thing!” Caleb leaned forward and pushed their self over the edge. Vectrix unfurled their wings and sent them into a steep glide that quickly brought the bonded pair to their neighborhood. They pulled up to arrest their fall and made a gentle touchdown in front of their house. Caleb headed inside, saying, “Don’t separate from me yet.”

Wouldn’t dream of it.

“Honey, we’re back!” Caleb called out as he opened the door, somewhat unnecessarily because Willow was lounging in a chair nearby.

The mare’s eyes widened at the sight of her husband with a large pair of wings and big hooves. He stood there, letting her take in the sight. Finally, she smiled.

“They suit you,” was her verdict.

“Which? The wings or the hooves?” Caleb asked.

“The boobs!” Willow said with a laugh.

The man had forgotten about them in the enjoyment of the flight. “Vectrix’s idea of a little joke when she melded with me. Come on out, Vex.”

There was the usual flare of changeling magic and nude Sky stepped back from her bond-mate, the boobs now back where they belonged.

Willow contained her giggling enough to ask, “So, how was your private moment together?”

Caleb said, “If that was a typical example of changeling pre-mating foreplay, we’re going to have an awful lot of children!”

Sky grinned at her Companion. “It was pure joy. And Caleb’s not exaggerating much. We’re both really in the mood. Now, I must formally ask my lead mare if she wishes to exert her right to bed her husband first.”

The earth pony mare smiled and shook her head. “Our husband needs to save his seed for the mare who needs it most tonight. You have my permission to proceed with your mating.”

“Thank you, Willow.” Sky then faced Caleb. “Which bipedal form would you prefer I take?” she asked seriously.

The man looked over the nude anthro mare and smiled. “You know how sexy I find that form, but tonight I am creating a child with my changeling Companion and that is how I want to make love to her. Besides, your base form is hot too.”

Vectrix smiled and morphed into her changeling form before leaning in to kiss him. She then took his hand and led him into the bedroom. She took from the bedside drawer the choker that stopped the positive feedback loop and put it on. “I intend that this mating be long and loving,” she declared.

In the meantime, Caleb had taken off his remaining clothes and he put an arm around Vectrix to draw her close. “I do too,” he said fervently.

And it was.



The Companions lay next to each other, enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking. Eventually, Caleb spoke.

“So – do you think it will take? We tried hard enough.”

Vectrix giggled. “Oh, it will take. There is none of the uncertainty that ponies go through. My egg has been fertilized.”

Caleb turned his head to face her. “That reminds me – are you actually going to lay an egg? I hear Queen Chrysalis lays several a week.”

The changeling laughed. “No, I’ll be having a live birth after a normal nine-month pregnancy like anthro ponies do. The Queen could too but, if she did, she would not be able to lay eggs for the duration of her pregnancy. It is more important to her to keep building the hive’s population.”

“I see. I wonder if Prince Mark has ever asked her to do so. Do you think she would?”

Vectrix pondered that for a moment. “I’m not sure. She has a lot of respect for the Prince, but she has her priorities. It could come down to what Princess Trixie has to say about the matter. The Queen has always strictly complied with her lead mare’s directives as she swore to do upon joining the Prince’s herd.”

“What do you think she should do?”

The changeling grinned and sat up. She removed the choker and transformed into her Sky identity. “She should do what I am about to do with you!”

“Celestia save me!” Caleb murmured before his attention was firmly focused on his lover once more.



Several months later

Sky hastened from the office and down the stairs to seek out Caleb, her growing belly not slowing her down at all. The man was currently demonstrating how to weld stainless steel to his new class of students but he immediately stopped when his mate called out to him.

“What’s up, Sky?” he answered as he lifted his welding shield.

“I just got a call from the manufacturing plant – Willow has gone into labor. She’s being taken to the maternity ward at Ponyville Hospital right now.”

“Damn! She said she’d work right until she got her contractions and she wasn’t kidding.” He stripped off his gloves, welding shield, and heatproof apron. “Crusher – I’m heading out. Take over for me!”

“I’ve got this, Boss,” the dragon replied. “Give my best to Willow.”

Caleb nodded, took Sky’s hand, and they headed out.



A couple of hours later, Willow cradled her newborn foal. She fondly smiled at the earth pony filly that had her sire’s golden coat color but the light purple mane and tail more reminiscent of her mother’s.

“What should we name her?” asked the proud father as he gently stroked the foal’s head.

Willow replied, “I’ve had a few names in mind, but since seeing her mane, I was thinking Lilac.”

“That’s a pretty name,” Caleb conceded. “But she needs a surname. I don’t want to use mine because it just doesn’t suit a pony, but Branch doesn’t really go with Lilac either.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Sky asked.

“Of course,” Willow replied. “You’ll be her Mama Sky, after all.”

“How about Meadow?”

“Lilac Meadow,” Caleb said thoughtfully. “Hmmm… I like it. What do you think, love?”

Just then, the filly started whimpering.

“She’s hungry,” Sky said, picking up on the foal’s emotions.

Willow pushed back the bed covers to allow her to move the filly to her udder. The foal latched onto a teat and started suckling. The new mother smiled and said, “I think Lilac Meadow suits our child perfectly.”

 

 


 

CHAPTER 27

 

Caleb knew that he was in for some difficult times with the birth of his daughter. He’d never had a human baby let alone a pony foal. He hadn’t even had experience with a younger sibling, so everything that he knew about taking care of foals had been either read in a book or passed on to him by some helpful mare. None of them had told him how close to impossible that it was to control an earth pony foal that had no intention of cooperating. He had discovered that even letting one hoof touch the ground was a bad mistake. The filly had a ridiculous amount of strength for a creature her size and she could tear out of his grasp in nothing flat. The only way that he could stop her from making a dash for her mother was to hold her by her barrel and not let any of her flailing limbs make contact with anything. This, of course, made it impossible for him to diaper her, bathe her, or pretty much do anything. Thankfully, he had help.

“Tell me again why foals can walk so young,” the man whined as Sky prepared a fresh diaper while he held his stinky daughter at arm’s length.

The anthro changeling didn’t bother answering – as a prey species, ponies had evolved the ability to run from predators soon after birth. This was pretty self-explanatory and didn’t need repeating. Not that she could blame Caleb for his frustration. He’d had to give up on taking Lilac for walks on a leash after she had taken off at a gallop one day and pulled him off his feet. She had dragged him a hundred yards up the lane before Willow had caught up and halted their wayward foal. The gravel rash had been painful and quite the incentive to let the filly’s mother handle walks from now on. Caleb didn’t know whether to be proud or disturbed that a foal not yet out of diapers was that strong.

Fortunately for the human, Lilac always settled down after she was cleaned up and freshly diapered. The fact that this favored condition would be more quickly achieved if she didn’t make it so difficult for everyone was lost on the foal. And so, the struggle continued every day.

“Please tell me that your baby isn’t going to be like Lilac,” Caleb practically begged Sky.

“We’ll both find out when the foal is born, but at least he or she won’t have earth pony strength.”

“Amen to that!”



One thing that had greatly concerned Caleb prior to the birth of Lilac was what to do about the foal when Willow went back to work. His wife had been adamant that she would be returning to her job as soon as her paid maternity leave was used up. He and Sky couldn’t cope with a foal at the school either. Then he learned about the Equestrian crèche system. The gender imbalance and different social dynamics of the pony civilization had necessitated the creation of a combination nursery and day-care center which could be found in every township. While these were constructed and maintained by the local council, the running costs were met by fees paid by the parents who used the service. Ponyville’s crèche had recently been expanded to cope with its rapidly growing population, and its director was proud to explain all the services it provided when the three of them visited to enroll Lilac there.

“And, in addition to Milky Way, our resident wet-nurse of twenty-six years, we have also engaged the services of Jennis, a Canterlot changeling specializing in foal services. Jen’s empathic abilities enable us to quickly and accurately determine your foal’s needs. An additional service she offers is in cases where a foal is reluctant to nurse from an unfamiliar mare, Jen can replicate their mother perfectly, thus reassuring the foal while feeding her or him. All we require is written permission for her to do this. There is no fee for this premium service because Jennis gets extra love from these foals. I trust that you don’t have a problem with changelings?”

Caleb grinned and put his arm around Sky who transformed her eyes in demonstration. “I have a changeling Companion – suffice to say that it isn’t a problem.”

“Excellent!” Director Sunflower replied before looking back to Willow. “Does this service interest you then?”

Willow smiled. “Sky has already been helping with the middle-of-the-night feeds as she can replicate pony milk. I can see the advantage of having a changeling on staff to do the same thing.”

The earth pony mare had been grateful for the extra sleep she had been able to get with Sky’s help. Caleb had been appreciative of his Companion’s enlarged boobs. Win-win for everyone.

When Willow’s maternity leave expired, the three of them headed for the crèche each weekday morning to leave Lilac in their care. They then went to the school or factory to put in a normal day’s work before collecting their child again on the way home. Willow relieved her full udder feeding their foal while Sky and Caleb prepared their meal. When dinner was done and clean-up completed, the four enjoyed a little family bonding time. Life seemed perfect to the human and he wondered how much better it could be when his second child was born.



“We’ve gotten an invitation to Rosa’s birthday party the Saturday after next,” Sky announced as she checked through the day’s mail one evening.

“Where’s it being held?” Caleb asked.

“Umm… their home on Earth,” the changeling answered as she read the details. “Seems it’s a big family affair, so it has to be held on the human side. And before you ask, I’ve checked with Princess Sparkle. She assures me the passage between worlds is perfectly safe for my growing foal.”

The man glanced at his earth pony wife with a sad look. “While I’m flattered that Rosa includes us in her circle, I don’t really feel comfortable accepting without Willow. She’s a lot closer to Rosa than either of us.”

“Tell them we accept,” Willow said.

Caleb’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “Who are you and what have you done with my wife?”

The mare giggled before putting a foreleg around the man’s waist to pull him in for a kiss. “Despite preferring to be a human, you transformed yourself into a pony to give me the foal that I wanted so badly. And you stayed that way for several days because you love me and want the best for me. How could I do any less for you?”

“Are you really sure about this, Willow? I don’t want you to feel pressured into accepting.”

“I’m sure. It will be strange and a little bit frightening, but with you there to support me, I will deal with it and we will enjoy the party.”



On the day of the event, by pre-arrangement with the Martines, Caleb’s herd headed for Earth several hours before the party was due to start. This was to give Willow a chance to adjust as well as deal with clothing issues. No one had a clue how the portal’s adaptation spell would transform her, so they had to plan for the unknown.

Caleb preceded Willow through the mirror so that he could help her when she stepped through. Rosa was there to meet them but, after a perfunctory greeting, he turned to face the portal. A few seconds later, a nude woman stepped through and wobbled on her two legs for a moment as she fought to keep her balance. Willow held up her hands and stared at them.

“This is so weird.”

Caleb admired his now-human wife. She appeared to be about five and a half feet (~168 cm) tall, of stocky build, and had an impressive pair of tits. Considering that she was still nursing their foal, he assumed that was why they were so big. Her skin tone was a near-perfect match for his own, but her hair was still its normal shade of blue although lacking the purples stripes. She looked at him with familiar violet eyes and smiled.

“Like what you see?” she asked.

Caleb embraced his wife. “No – I love what I see. You make a gorgeous woman, darling.”

Rosa tapped him on the shoulder. “Enough, lover-boy. Your esposa needs to be properly dressed for the occasion. Come, Willow – we have much to do.” The woman bustled the new human out of the room.

Caleb was a little nonplussed by the precipitous departure of the women, but he was quickly distracted by Vicky stepping through the portal carrying Lilac. The foal was now a very young girl and her bright eyes looked about with boundless curiosity. Vicky put the infant down on the floor, anticipating that the child would take some time adjusting to her transformation. Said adjustment took approximately five microseconds before Lilac climbed to her feet and toddled for the door.

“Hey! Human children aren’t even supposed to be able to walk yet at your age!” Caleb protested as he intercepted her before she could get herself into trouble.

Vicky grinned. “It seems some things carry over from Equestria. Little Lilac doesn’t believe that she can’t walk because she’s already been doing so, albeit on four legs.”

“That adaptation spell is a little too good,” Caleb complained.

“At least she doesn’t have her earth pony strength in that form,” his Companion pointed out.

“Thank heavens for small mercies,” the man said fervently. “Now help me catch Lilac so we can get her dressed.”



Caleb was chatting with Phil when, about half an hour later, Willow returned with Rosa keeping a close eye on the transformed mare who was now clothed in slacks, a flattering blouse, and flats. Caleb assumed she also had a bra on because her bosom was under restraint. Willow did a careful turnabout in front of her husband to show off the ensemble.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“You look great!” Caleb exclaimed as he got up from his chair to hug Willow. “Rosa – how did you manage to have an outfit that fitted her so well?”

The woman snorted. “If you had a grown-up daughter, you would know how quickly they outgrow their clothes in their teenage years. Some of them were only worn a few times before they became too small. Yolanda is already taller than Willow and those slacks no longer fit her. The only challenge was providing a bra. I used my old maternity bra – it’s not a perfect fit but, hopefully, it should be comfortable enough.”

Willow put her hands on her ample chest and said, “Now I understand why Vicky wears one – these boobs tend to flop about so much!”

That brought up an image in Caleb’s mind that he had to quickly quash. Phil snorted as he restrained a laugh and Vicky grinned in amusement.

Rosa rolled her eyes. “Willow, querida niña, we do not give our menfolk such thoughts in public.”

Caleb knew for certain that the party was going to be an interesting challenge for his wife. Fortunately, Vicky had more than enough experience on Earth by now to help Willow negotiate the minefield that human social interaction was. For some reason, he reckoned that explaining that his wife was normally a mare would not fly well.



Fortunately for the herd, most of the focus was on the birthday girl during the party. Vicky also drew attention away from Willow due to her gravid condition. However, Lilac stole the evening with her precocious behavior. It highlighted for Caleb just how different pony children were from humans in several areas. He made a mental note to check his assumptions when it came to his foal.

Caleb and his mares were the last guests to leave, for obvious reasons. Willow and Vicky gave Rosa a parting hug before stepping through the portal mirror. When the man followed moments later, he laughed at the sight of the earth pony clad in human clothes.

“Maybe you should have stripped before coming back to Equestria,” Caleb said with a chuckle.

“Shut up and help me get these things off,” Willow replied grumpily.

Sky had to grow a unicorn horn to use telekinesis to facilitate the removal of the slacks.

Willow sighed in relief when she was completely disrobed. “It feels so good not to have my teats restrained anymore.”

Caleb happily agreed.



Gardening was still the main family activity on Sundays. While the adults were engaged in various tasks, Lilac amused herself for the most part. She found the various bugs endlessly fascinating and was particularly enraptured by butterflies. She chased them around the backyard and would follow them off the property if not for her alert guardians. Normally, the fence behind the house that enclosed the yard was enough to constrain the foal, with the access to the front watched by her parents. Naturally, Lilac managed to find another way.

The first that Caleb knew of his daughter’s improvised route was the sound of giggling from above him. Following the laughter and the tapping of hooves, he traced it to the roof of the house. His eyes bulged and his heart leaped into his mouth as he saw Lilac chasing a blue and gold butterfly over the terracotta tiles.

Vectrix! Get over here!” he yelled.

The changeling looked up from where she was watering some seedlings and gasped. She shape-changed immediately, but the wayward foal had already reached the edge of the roof. Lilac jumped after the elusive insect and out of Vectrix’s line of sight. Caleb had started heading toward his daughter the moment he had spotted her, but he was too far away. He cried in anguish as the foal plummeted to the ground…

… and practically bounced on her hooves and continued the chase.

“What the f—”

“Wow! I remember doing that as a filly,” came Willow’s voice as she trotted up next to the man. He turned to stare at her uncomprehendingly. She chuckled at his expression. “Caleb, dear, Lilac is an earth pony like me, and she’s obviously inherited my ability to transfer all falling energy into the ground without damage. As long as she lands on her hooves, she’s in no danger. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. I did the same thing all the time as a filly.”

Noting the dent left in the lawn, Caleb said, “And what if she doesn’t land on her hooves?”

“Ah! Well, that’s why we’re going to have to spoil her fun. She’s a bit young yet to play like that responsibly. Let’s see if we can figure out how our daughter managed to get up onto the roof.”

“Good idea. Stick with me though as I might collapse from shock at any moment.”

“Me too,” Vectrix said fervently, still in full changeling form and able to use both wings and horn. “And not just because of my bond with Caleb.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t make light of it,” Willow responded. “My parents always kept a watch over me when I played that way, so I’m a bit blasé about it.”

The three entered the backyard to see the filly chasing a white and gold butterfly, the other apparently having successfully evaded the curious foal. They looked around but could not see any obvious way for Lilac to have gotten on the roof. Even the fence was ruled out as it stopped at the tool shed at the back of the house. As they stood around scratching their heads in puzzlement, the filly pursued the butterfly that remained just out of reach. Occasionally, she would leap up toward it if it fluttered particularly low but always missed it. Then she chased it to the woodpile stacked next to the shed. She clambered up the pile and, to everyone’s surprise, jumped onto the shed’s roof. From there, it was just another similar jump onto the house.

“The little scamp! She’s already learned how to power jump,” Willow said admiringly.

“Want me to collect her?” Vectrix asked, her horn already glowing.

“I suppose you’d better,” the earth pony replied.

“And I’m going to re-stack the wood elsewhere,” Caleb said with a determined look as the changeling levitated the giggling filly down.

“Good idea,” Willow replied. “When she can leap up onto the roof like this…” She promptly demonstrated her ability to power jump that high. “… then we can stop worrying about Lilac hurting herself. Whee!” She executed a double backflip off the roof, showing that she hadn’t lost any of the flexibility that had earned the mare her name. She landed with a much louder thump than their foal.

“Great. Now I’m going to have to fill in that crater too,” Caleb said grumpily.



As the time approached for Vectrix to give birth, she continued her job at the welding school. Unlike Willow though, she stuck strictly to desk work, and her morning and afternoon commutes were done on the wing rather than trying to walk with her gravid belly.

As it happened, the moment came on the weekend as the changeling was resting on the porch swing.

“Caleb! Willow! My water just broke!”

The man stopped mowing the grass and the earth pony abandoned her weeding to hasten over to their herdmate.

Caleb said, “Let’s get you to the hospital.”

“I’ll fetch the cart to let you ride,” Willow added.

“That isn’t necessary,” Vectrix replied as she got to her hooves. “I’ll give birth in the bedroom.”

“What?!” the man exclaimed. “Giving birth is a serious business. We don’t even have a midwife.”

“It’s serious because ponies and humans need to push a foal through a narrow channel. It’s difficult and painful, as you both well know. However, as a changeling, I can transform myself to allow easy passage. At the first contraction, this foal is coming out!”

“I’m already very envious,” Willow said. “However, that doesn’t preclude other problems.”

“Believe me, I’ve been monitoring the foal since he began emoting in the womb. He is not in any distress,” Vectrix reassured them as she laid down on the bed.

“He? I’m going to have a son?” Caleb asked.

“Feels like a male. We’ll know for certain when the foal is born.”

It was only a few minutes later that a contraction came. True to her prognostication, the foal slid out quickly and easily onto the towel that Willow had placed there. Caleb picked up the foal in the towel and held him upside down. The new father then gently wiped off the excess fluid. As Vectrix had predicted, the child was a male. The tiny human/changeling hybrid’s mouth opened and fluid spilled out with a cough, then he drew in a breath. Expecting the child to start crying, he was surprised when the foal chirped loudly instead.

“Is that normal?” Caleb asked as he rested the baby across his forearm.

“So I’m told,” Vectrix replied. “Let’s have a good look at our new colt.”

The anthro child’s changeling heritage was obvious as he had the same dark chitin as his mother. He also had the horn and ear-stalks of that species. His wings were rapidly filling out and it was already noticeable how unusual they were. They looked more like a dragonfly’s than that of a typical changeling. However, his unfocused eyes were very human and the same light brown as his sire, and his mane and tail were the identical maroon as Caleb’s. His muzzle was smaller than anticipated but there was no sign of fangs until the foal yawned and then they spotted small ones that stayed entirely within the mouth. The biggest giveaway of his human genes though was that he had feet rather than hooves.

“He’s wonderful,” Caleb declared, nuzzling his infant son. “Do you need to feed him?”

“You already are,” Vectrix replied with a happy smile. She then switched to her Sky persona, her breasts swollen with milk. “I’ll give him his second course when you’re done.”

The man had to admit that there was something to be said for children who could thrive on their parents’ love. “Have you decided on a name for him?”

Sky nodded. “I settled on one that suits either sex – Tranquil Boon. Do you like it?”

Caleb considered it for potentially aggravating nicknames before he gave a nod of approval. “That sounds like a great choice, love. What do you think, Willow?”

“He’s definitely a boon to our herd,” she said with an approving nod. “We’ll find out soon enough how tranquil he is.”

The human looked fondly at his son and said, “Welcome to the family, Tranquil Boon.”

The foal chirped back happily.



“Are we finally ready?” asked Caleb.

Willow came up to the human and gave him a long kiss. The man felt his exasperation melt away. It wasn’t just his changeling wife who had this effect on him. “Yes, my dear husband. Thank you for being patient. Vectrix is quite recovered from her trip out to the site.”

A dark-gray blur sped by overhead followed by a gold and lavender-hued blur underfoot. The pair of foals giggled as they zipped around the yard at high speed. Right on cue, the anthro changeling mare sauntered up to Caleb. “I hope you’ve saved a few kisses for me.”

After receiving a healthy dose of affection, she pulled back. “Caleb, why don’t you follow the lead of the rest of your herd? You don’t need to wear clothes where we’re going.”

The man laughed. “Yeah, nice try. I remember how hot it is in that desert. No way. I don’t need sunburn on mentionable or unmentionable areas of my body, thanks.” He hefted his backpack and called out. “Well, since only well-behaved foals can come along on this trip, I suppose just the adults…”

With a clattering of hooves and wings, Lilac Meadow and Tranquil Boon came to a stop in front of their father. They wore the same beaming smile and eyes filled with innocence.

Caleb leaned over and furrowed his brow. “Oh, where did these two little angels come from? They weren’t here a second ago. Is Auntie Trixie performing another show?” This just made the foals smile wider and practically radiate virtue.

Caleb waited for Vectrix to place a waist-high wooden pole in the ground. The top glistened in the sun with a rainbow of colors.

The human straightened up. “Well, then. Whichever of you wants to turn on the portal—”

That’s as far as he got.

The earth pony filly shot toward the pole with impressive speed, only to lose the race to a blast of magic from the changeling colt that struck the top of the pole. A fraction of a second later, Lilac Meadow plunged through the rapidly expanding portal, followed quickly by her brother.

The adults were not far behind their children, and they stepped out into the glare and heat of the desert. Fortunately, at that time of the day, a nearby cliff threw some welcome shade. This was lost on the energetic foals as they dashed about, exploring the area. Lilac scrambled up the precipitous cliff face as if it was level ground. Once at the top, she indulged in her favorite game of land-diving.

Inured by now to his daughter’s heart-stopping activity, Caleb stared at the familiar cliffside. He walked over to a particular rock and sat down upon it. He smiled.

“Four years ago today, I arrived in Equestria at this exact spot. Hurt myself on this stupid rock. Wandered off into the desert, got sunburnt, heat stroke, and nearly died of thirst. I thought it was the worst day of my life.” He gestured to his herdmates who sat on either side of him. “Instead, it was a turning point. My life had been pretty empty until then, but I was lucky enough to meet an earth pony and a changeling who changed everything for the better. Today, I celebrate the anniversary of the start of my new life, the love of two beautiful mares, and our two wonderful children.”

“Soon to be three foals,” Willow said with a pat of her swelling belly.

Caleb chuckled and kissed his wife. “Indeed. How many did you say you planned to have?”

“I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough,” she replied with a giggle.

“And you?” the man asked the changeling mare, not for the first time.

“I’m still happy with just our son for now,” Vectrix replied.

“Leaving your options open still, I see.”

“I’m letting Tranquil grow up some more first. He’s a special child and I want to devote a lot of my time to him before giving him another sibling.”

“Fair enough.” He kissed her too.

The three watched their children at play. Tranquil boon was turning over rocks and checking out what was underneath them. Their mountain goat daughter continued her breathtaking leaps from the cliff, sometimes landing on flat ground with a firm thud, and sometimes skidding down the slope, spewing dirt and gravel everywhere along with her laughter. Then she stopped moving and stared at a bush. She dived inside and her parents winced, concerned about the nasty thorns. Instead, she re-emerged unscathed, chewing on something metallic.

“Bring that over here, Lilac,” Caleb said, recognition lighting his eyes.

Lilac proudly deposited the object into her father’s hands before scampering away once more.

Both mares held their breath as Caleb turned over the beer can with the faded logo in his hands. “How much mass did the object need to have for Twilight to get a fix on its dimensional point of origin? About an ounce, right?”

Willow nodded while Vectrix broke out in a grin.

Caleb tossed the can over his shoulder. “Well, I won't tell her if you don't.”

Willow put on a serious voice. “Now there's just the matter of your littering. So irresponsible for a stallion.”

“Meh. Statute of Limitations in the first place; plus you’ve resigned from the Guard Reserve. Not your problem anymore.” He pulled his mares closer. “I'm afraid you'll have to take me as I am, warts and all.”

Vectrix grinned up at him. “It's a date. Tonight, your two wives will take you, for sure.”

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