Quantum Gallop

Five of the youth of House Path are abruptly whisked away by the enigmatic Doctor Whooves, and they find themselves in a Ponyville that they can scarcely recognize. A tyrant queen rules Equestria, alliances were never forged with Griffonia and the Changeling Hives, and three of the group had never been born! Someone has changed history, and it's up to them to figure out when, how, and who did it, or Equestria will suffer, and the rest of the world along with it.
This is the direct sequel to "The Growing Years" and "A Different Perspective", and I advise reading those stories first.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/328566/quantum-gallop

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17. Chapter 10 - School Days

“Are you nuts?!” Pif protested. “How are we supposed to avoid making unnecessary changes to history for ten months, especially if we have to take jobs?”

Lucida grimaced. “It’s not like we have any choice.”

Blue’s expression clouded and he gave Lucida a glare. “We should have had a choice! I kept telling you that Cinder was close to laying her egg… eggs. I might not have anticipated this exact situation, but I feared that something could go wrong.”

“We still needed to understand how history went so bad, so we could look out for other problems,” Lucida insisted.

“No we didn’t! We knew the final result, and we could guess at reasons, but the exact causes weren’t important enough to risk Cinder and the eggs! We could have gone home ages ago, but no, you had to satisfy your curiosity.”

“Blue’s right,” Pif interjected. “We had enough information to perform a perfectly surgical operation that we pulled off without a hitch and the absolute minimum of interference with History, but that all could be ruined if we have to stick around. We should have done this after the first check jump.”

“It was a calculated risk…” Lucida started.

Blue snorted, his ears lowering in anger. “Risk?! You talk about risk when you’re talking about my mate and children?” He came up to Lucida and started poking her in the sternum with a hoof. “Your first and most important consideration is to family. Once we knew how to save Cirrus’ parents and catch the agent, our next priority should have been getting Cinder home. Anything else should have been secondary to that.”

Lucida slapped away Blue’s hoof. “Don’t lecture me! I never forgot about Cinder. I just overestimated the time we had to spare. She should have laid the eggs at least another week away.”

“And what makes you such an expert on dragon pregnancies? What do you know of the effects of time travel on her? Did two eggs cause a premature laying? Did the stress of this situation have anything to do with it? I didn’t know. Cinder didn’t know. How in Tartarus did you think that you could know any better?!”

“I… I… couldn’t.” Lucida hung her head in shame. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough, Lucy,” Blue said, his anger easing off. “Figure out what to do about this mess. Now everyone leave this room. Cinder and I need time to ourselves.”

Lucida nodded and headed for the door. The rest of the team followed suit, leaving Blue alone with his mate. He went over to the bed and climbed up next to Cinder. Unlike the wariness she exhibited a short time ago, she welcomed him, spreading a wing over Blue to draw him closer in a protective snuggle around the eggs.

“Thank you, Blue. I hope our children have your strength of character.”

“I hope they are as beautiful and precious as you, my love.”

They nuzzled and admired the eggs, neither admitting to the worries that the situation had caused.

# # #

Everyone trooped into Lucida and Sterling’s room. As soon as the door was closed, Lucida spoke up.

“I know we have a difficult situation to sort out, but first I think we had better deal with the changeling agent. We paid a price for this information, so it had better answer a lot of our questions. Pif, can you bring it forward, please?”

Pif instructed the changeling agent to stand in the middle of the room, surrounded by all the others. It stood there utterly quiescent until addressed.

“Is he completely under control, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Who do you obey, agent?” Pif asked.

“You, your siblings, and friends, Queen Epiphany.”

“You have met them all now, agent. No others may give you orders that override mine. Do you understand?”

“I understand and will obey, my Queen.”

Pif turned to the hippogriff. “Satisfied, Lucy?”

Lucida nodded. “For now. Time for answers. Agent, what is your name?”

“I am called Zark.”

“Zark, who sent you to take Cirrus?”

“Queen Chrysalis.”

“Well, that’s hardly a surprise,” Citrine muttered loudly.

“Not now, Citrine. We need to be thorough, even if we think we know the answers. Zark, what were you supposed to do with Cirrus after you abducted him?”

“Cirrus is Princess Gossamer, daughter of Queen Chrysalis who wanted her returned to the hive and into the Queen’s care. My task was to take Gossamer to the hive by any means necessary.”

“Why did you intend to kill Thundercloud and Zephyr instead of just abducting Cirrus?”

“Queen Chrysalis wanted her daughter’s relationship with her foster parents completely severed so that she would not desire to return to them. Death was the simplest solution.”

Destined snorted in contempt. “Once again, Chrysalis shows how little she understands griffons and ponies. That was never going to work the way she intended.”

Lucida shrugged. “She probably thought that since Cirrus was really a changeling, he would not react as he did, but we all know that Papa Free has always had more in common with his griffon parents than his changeling heritage. Perhaps it’s part of his mutant nature, or perhaps it’s because of how deeply loved he was by Grandpa and Grandma. Maybe both. Anyway…” She turned back to Zark. “How were you going to return to the future?”

“I cannot return to the future.”

“What?! Do you mean that you were to take Cirrus to the present-day hive?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever done previous time-jumps?”

“No.”

“What were you supposed to do once you brought Cirrus to present-day Chrysalis?”

“I was supposed to connect to the Queen’s old network, explain how I came to be here, and stand by for further orders.”

Pif said, “As far as Zark is concerned, past-Chrysalis and future-Chrysalis are the same Queen, and he’s essentially right. Our Chrysalis doesn’t need to fetch Cirrus back to the future to accomplish her plans.”

Lucida nodded. “Zark, are you aware of other agents performing time-jumps?”

“I know nothing of them.”

“What do you know of Chrysalis’ plans?”

“I only know what Queen Chrysalis told me for this mission.”

“What of the other drones? What are they doing?”

“I don’t know.”

Lucida was getting a little frustrated. “Why not?”

“I was given the information needed for my mission while I was being educated over the network as a nymph. As soon as I changed into an adult drone, I was sent on the mission.”

“Sheesh! This drone’s barely more than a foal!” Silk exclaimed.

“That’s not all,” Pif said. “It sounds like Zark was bred specifically for this mission. He might not know anything of use to us.”

Lucida shook her head. “No – you’re forgetting that future-Chrysalis instructed Zark to tell her past self how he came to be there with Cirrus. Zark – pretend Epiphany is Chrysalis of this time, and tell her what you were instructed to say.”

Zark turned to face Pif and began reciting, “My Queen, I am special agent Zark, sent by your future self to correct wrongs done to you in the future. I have returned your daughter, Princess Gossamer, for the glory of the hive. Within my mind is stored all the knowledge that will enable you to conquer Equestria. I am at your command.” The changeling stopped abruptly.

“That’s all?” Lucida asked.

“Yes.”

“What is the knowledge that you were to give Chrysalis?”

“I do not know.”

“How could you not know?”

“I have been mind-locked.”

“Oh, Sweet Celestia!” Pif exclaimed. “She didn’t!”

“Didn’t do what, Pif?” Lucida asked with a frown.

“The only reason to put a mind-lock on a drone is if there’s too much for the drone’s mind to contain. Chrysalis must have poured a significant portion of the hive’s knowledge into Zark and then locked it off so his brain would not burn out.”

“So if Chrysalis was to access it?”

“She would drain everything into the hive’s network, but Zark would not survive the process.”

“That’s cold,” Destined said with a shudder.

“Since when did Gramgram ever care about what happened to her drones?” Pif asked with a snarl.

“And the side-effect is that he can’t give away any secrets,” Lucida said with frustration written on her face. “He only knows what he needs to accomplish the mission, and no more.”

“Are you sure about that, Lucy?” Destined asked. “Zark, where is future-Chrysalis?”

“I do not know.”

“How did you get to the past?” Destined persisted.

“Queen Chrysalis took me to a room where several zebras were seated in a circle. I was placed in the middle of a pattern of stones inscribed with runes. A fire burned in the center, and an old zebra threw something on the flames that filled the room with sweet smoke. The zebras started chanting, and a shadow grew out of Queen Chrysalis to surround the old zebra. I became dizzy and found myself endlessly falling until I emerged in the Canterlot Gardens.”

Destined looked at Lucida. “Are you thinking of Zebrican shamans too?”

“Their rune and potion magic is so much more different from pony magic, it’s not hard to believe that they have a way of time-travelling that we haven’t discovered. What I find interesting is that there were so many of them. I have never heard of more than two outside of their lands in any one place.”

“Sounds like there’s a strong possibility that Chrysalis fled to Zebrica and found allies.” Destined turned back to Zark. “Is Chrysalis’ new hive in Zebrica?”

For the first time, Zark hesitated before answering. “I have heard the name mentioned while I was nymph, but I do not know if that is significant.”

“Buck!” Pif swore. “Well, at least we still know more than we used to.”

“Could you tap Zark’s knowledge, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“I could if I had a network to work with. If I tried to take it all just by myself, I probably could, but it might be too much for me also.”

“So if you had access to the Chrome Hive’s network, you could get that information?”

“Easily, but Zark would still burn out.”

“You seem awfully concerned for a drone that would have killed Cirrus’ parents without compunction,” Lucida said with a frown.

Sterling spoke up for the first time. “Zark was apparently programmed to do a task from nymph-hood. He knows no other way of doing things. Queens can do that, but only Chrysalis practices that abomination.”

“How would you know that they don’t, Sterling?” Lucida asked.

“It is one of the Rules of the Forbidden that every 'ling knows, and to which all the Hives subscribe, excepting the Blue Hive apparently since Chrysalis stopped attending the Council of the Queens.”

“What other rules are there?” Silk asked curiously.

“Do Not Impersonate Royalty, for example,” Sterling replied.

Destined snorted and said, “That makes Chrysalis zero for two so far.”

“Really? You need to tell me about it.”

“I’ll tell you about a certain wedding later. Any other rules?”

“Plenty. Live and Let Live – do not interfere with another hive’s harvesters, or else they might interfere with you.”

“I don’t think I heard of her doing that.”

“We are Changelings, Not Animals – do not forcefully drain emotions like parasites.”

Pif laughed derisively. “That one’s such a big fail, it ought to count as two strikes.”

“Do not Dishonor the Queens – you do not have to follow their orders, but you should respect them, lest your Queen be disrespected by others.”

“I’d say that rule went out the window after Chrysalis went bonkers,” Lucida commented.

“We are felt but never seen – Every 'ling leaves their mark, but make sure yours is unseen.”

“Ooh! What’s that swarm of bugs?” Silk said melodramatically as he pretended to observe the Canterlot invaders. The others chuckled at that.

Sterling smiled too before saying the next rule. “Do Not Soil the Well – if another Harvester is collecting there, move on. His harvest will be richer, as will yours when you choose new territory.”

“Chrysalis wanted it all,” Destined commented. “However, I think we’re getting off subject here. What are we going to do about getting at Zark’s knowledge?”

Silk said, “Guys – I think you’re overlooking something else that Zark mentioned. What about that shadow that he said came out of Chrysalis? Is that significant?”

Destined screwed up his face in perplexity. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem to fit with anything we know about either the zebras or Chrysalis.”

Pif said, “It seems that Chrysalis is doing a lot of odd things lately, and this is just the latest. I’m going to guess that she’s found something new to augment her power though. Time-travelling is no easy task.”

“I suppose that’s one more thing that we won’t understand until we unlock the knowledge that Zark is carrying,” Lucida said as she turned to face the quiescent drone once more. “So much is tied up in this one changeling; perhaps even the way we can end this time-war forever. Looks like we’re going to have to wait another ten months before we can find out though.”

Pif cleared her throat, drawing the attention of all. “Well… not necessarily. If I can get hold of enough drones to build a mini-network, we can access it much sooner.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Sterling asked. “I can’t even contact my own hive because of this situation, so how are you going to get some drones, and Blues at that?”

“We know that in this time period, Chrysalis had already gone mad and had started her plans to take over Equestria. She was placing infiltrators in various positions to help make that easier. I have no qualms about taking them out of the picture, just like we did with Zark.”

The Red Changeling frowned in thought before responding, “Of course we’ve noticed Blue Changelings before, but always passed them off as Emotion Harvesters. This is a perfectly normal thing, as we’ve always ignored them as we have all the other hives’ Harvesters.”

“Probably most are just that,” Pif agreed. “However, a significant number are actually sleeper agents.”

“So you’re suggesting that we hunt them down, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Yes. At worst we won’t lose anything by trying, and at best we can learn a lot more a great deal sooner.”

“You can’t just snatch the disguised drones!” Sterling said. “Their absence will be noticed, and won’t that cause a lot of disruption to History that you’re trying to avoid?”

Pif grinned smugly. “You’ve never met my lab assistants. I have a dozen drones that used to be part of Chrysalis’ network, but who now are faithful to me. I’m a Queen, Sterling, and I can swap those infiltrators to my network because even though I’m a mutant, I’m still a Blue. I’ve found that most drones will willingly work with me because, unlike Chrysalis, I treat them with respect. Once I have their cooperation, I can send them back to their assumed lives and they can continue doing whatever they are supposed to be doing. They just won’t respond to Chrysalis when the time of the invasion comes around, and by then it will be too late for Chrysalis to do anything about it.”

Sterling nodded thoughtfully. “I see what you mean. That sort of thing would not have occurred to me because utter loyalty is a hallmark of Red Changelings, but Chrysalis’ aberrations are an entirely different situation.”

“How do you intend to tell the Harvesters from the Infiltrators?”

“Oh, I have an idea. I’ll just ask them to report.”

Sterling blinked in confusion. “Report? What do you mean by that?”

“It means that I know my grandmother pretty well.” Magic fire swirled around Pif, and in her stead stood Queen Chrysalis. She now towered over Sterling, and she leaned down and said in exact imitation of the Queen’s imperial voice, “Drone – report your status!”

Sterling took a reflexive step backwards, and his jaw worked soundlessly for a few seconds before he shook his head to clear it. “Amazing! In spite of the fact that you’re not my Queen, I almost responded to your command.”

Pif laughed in Chrysalis’ evil manner before shifting back to her normal guise. “Exactly. The drones will report without even realizing that I’m tapping into them. If they’re normal Harvesters, I will tell them to carry on and to forget that I had been there. However, if they’re Infiltrators, they will reveal themselves, and I will take control of them like Zark. Once I have them debriefed, I will send them back to their normal pony lives, only they’ll be part of my mini-network from then on.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Lucida declared. “Go ahead and do it, but please take utmost precautions, and try to let me know before you snatch any of them.”

“Why? You think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

“I’m just trying to keep this situation under control, Pif.”

“Yeah, we found out how well that worked out last time, didn’t we?” Pif replied snarkily.

“Are you going to keep nagging me over one mistake?”

“One huge mistake, and yes – I’m not happy at all to be stuck here because of it.”

“At least you’re stuck here with me,” Citrine said with a grin and a cuddle for Pif, trying to lighten the situation.

“I think we’re all frustrated due to this situation,” Destined said. “I suggest that we all take a break for now; perhaps get a start on finding a job. Anything to get our minds off this for a while.”

“Great idea, Des. Let’s go, Citrine.” Pif inclined her head towards the door and her companion took the hint.

“What about Zark?” Lucida protested.

“He’s not going to do a thing!” Pif shot back before she pointedly slammed the door.

After the couple had left the room, Destined said, “I’ll get back to you later, Lucy. Silk, how about we go out for dinner? We haven’t had a chance to… have a date… since we’ve been here,” he added shyly.

Silk brightened considerably. “Don’t mind if I do, Des! Thanks for asking!”

The two quickly followed in Pif and Citrine’s hoofsteps.

Lucida’s shoulders slumped when the door closed behind the two stallions. “The team’s falling apart, and it’s my fault,” she said morosely.

Sterling came over to the hippogriff and put a reassuring arm around her. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it from me – a commanding officer is never going to be perfect, and as your team’s leader, you will inevitably make mistakes like this time. You have to own those mistakes, learn from them, and move on.”

“But I’ve lost their confidence! They’ve all just walked out on me!”

“Take it from a Red Changeling – you haven’t lost the loyalty of a single one of them. They’re just angry, but I’ve been with this group long enough now to know that they’ll get over it. Trust in your team members’ judgement and cut them some slack. Know when to command and when to let them do their own thing independently. You have family, not drones.”

Lucida sniffled a bit as she laid her head against his neck. “Thanks. Now I know why your alternative history self was so instrumental in pony-changeling relations when you started going about undisguised. You really understand us.”

“Comes of emulating a pony for so long. Still gives me the creeps thinking about walking around in public in my natural form though,” he added with a chuckle.

Lucida giggled. “You would survive it, just like I’ll survive this incident.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, I reckon Destined had the right idea. Let’s go find some comfort food.”

Lucida gestured at the silent changeling drone. “What will we do about Zark?”

“He’s enthralled to Epiphany, and under orders to obey you. Do whatever you wish.”

Lucida went over to Zark and pointed to a corner of the room. Go over there and sit down. Don’t do anything until I return.”

Zark walked over and sat down without a word.

“That’s just a little bit unsettling,” Lucida said.

“If it makes you feel any better, I find it disturbing too. Still, he’s harmless for now. Let’s go eat.”

“Lead the way!”

# # #

All of the couples went straight back to their respective rooms that evening, and Lucida decided to let them sleep on the problem for now. She was happy to see them all gather as normal in her room the following morning, with the obvious exception of Cinder. When Blue arrived, Lucida gave him a questioning look.

Blue gave a deep sigh. “Look, I’m still annoyed by what you’ve got us into, but what’s done is done. It’s time to deal with this new situation and move on. Don’t try to talk to Cinder for a few days though. You should know by now how long it takes for dragons to calm their anger.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind, Blue. Now, before we go to breakfast, has anyone come up with anything new that’s relevant to this situation?” Lucida looked hopefully at Destined.

The alicorn shrugged. “Yes and no. I wracked my brain last night, but there’s no way that I can think of avoiding a ten-month stay short of forcing Cinder to come back with us. Stop glaring at me, Blue! I’m not proposing that we do that. Just saying, is all. However, if changing History is our sole other major problem, I’d like to point out that after the eggs hatch, we can jump back in time to just after we had caught the agent, and start a new History track that omits whatever we do in those ten months. We can then jump forward to our proper time.”

Lucida nodded. “If that’s the best you have to offer, then I suppose we will have to go with that. Anyone disagree?” She looked around at the others’ faces, but they had nothing to offer. “Okay, let’s go get breakfast before we talk about what we’re going to do for the best part of the year.”

# # #

“For now, I’m going to keep a watch on Cirrus,” Sterling declared when they had returned from breakfast for a team meeting. “If he was a target for Chrysalis now, it stands to reason that she could try again.”

“That’s a good point, Sterling,” Lucida said with a thoughtful nod. “In fact, that gives me an idea about what I could do for a job if I can pull it off. Seeing as Cirrus is going to school now, it would be good to have someone on the inside there to watch him during school hours. I’m going to apply for a teaching job.”

“Are you sure, Lucy?” Destined asked. “I know you’ve taught a few classes for our House, but those were all older students.”

“Not all of them. Parents have been enrolling their foals and chicks at much younger ages nowadays as House Path’s prestige has grown. Admittedly none as young as Cirrus, but at least I have had some experience with youngsters.”

“If you reckon you’re up for it, then I say go for it. As Sterling said, Cirrus could be targeted again, and it would save us a lot of trouble if we can deal with it immediately rather than go about it the long way again.”

“I’ll check it out this morning. Anyone else have any ideas about what to do to earn some money?”

“I’m going to check out any spas and such to see if I can put my skills to work,” Silk said.

“Aren’t you concerned about standing out too much?” Lucida asked.

“Look, I know thestrals were rarely seen in Canterlot before Luna returned and brought in some for her Lunar Guard, but we aren’t a complete anomaly like an undisguised changeling would be. I’d like to get back into my profession again.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.”

“And I am still prepared to do evening shifts watching over Cirrus. Sterling doesn’t have to do all the work.”

“Thanks, Silk. You’ve really become a useful member of this team, even if you came by accident.”

“Don’t mention it, Lucida. Believe it or not, I’ve been enjoying myself. Worse things than being stranded with your coltfriend,” he added with a wink at Destined who blushed furiously.

Lucida came to her brother’s rescue. “So, Des, have you thought of something to do?”

Destined shook his head. “I’ve been too preoccupied with our predicament to give it much thought. Maybe I’ll do the same as you? I’ve always been in an academic situation, and seeing as this is a primarily unicorn city, perhaps I could teach elementary magic?”

“That would certainly be your forte. Let’s go together and apply this morning.”

“Umm… do you realize that a hippogriff teacher would tend to stand out in Cirrus’ memory as he grows up? Wouldn’t he find it strange that Lucida Path looks exactly like a former teacher?”

“Well, we should be going back to the future before we cover that time track again, but you do have a point, Des. Could you do a disguise for me with your illusions?”

“I could, but you do know the limitations of them? They require constant upkeep, and there’s always the possibility of being seen through, especially in the long term. I do have an alternative to suggest though.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a spell that I have concocted that combines transmogrification with illusion that will have a permanent effect until the spell is used again. I designed it specifically with our missions in mind, but up until now, such a drastic spell hasn’t been needed.”

“What’s the drawbacks? Any side effects?”

“Oh no! I’ve thoroughly tested it in Mom’s laboratory. She helped me tighten up the formula, and has approved its usage.”

“Oh. You had me worried there.”

“Yeah, there’s absolutely almost no chance of me turning you into a chicken,” Destined said with a wink at the others.

Lucida glared at Destined as everyone chuckled. “Alright, smart-ass. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Destined smiled confidently as Lucida placed herself right in front of him. His horn lit up as he wrote the spell in his mind and funneled mana into it. A beam of magic enveloped Lucida, and when the glow died, a very different hippogriff now stood before him.

Lucida looked at herself and noted the bright white feathers of her griffin half, and the golden coat of her pony half. “Hmm, so much different from my normal looks. I like it! What about my cutie mark though?”

Destined shrugged. “Cutie marks have their own special magic, and Mom advised me to never meddle with them. Yours isn’t so unusual that it will stand out too much anyway.”

“Okay, I can live with that. What about you and your wings though?”

“Maintaining an illusion on myself is a lot easier, but I do have another idea. Seeing as a large proportion of Canterlot ponies prefer to wear some form of clothing, I’m thinking of getting some sort of coat to keep my wings covered. Not only would I look more professional, the extra bulk would also make me look a bit more solidly built.”

Sterling said, “Take it from me – subtle changes like that make very effective disguises. You will still have to control your reactions though. Pegasi and alicorns tend to be expressive with their wings.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be the hardest part. Anyway, that’s my plan for now. Anyone else?”

Blue said, “I’ll be wanting to spend a lot more time with Cinder, but I’m thinking that a good part-time job for me would be as a courier. Even without stretching my super speed, I can navigate the streets of Canterlot as fast as a pegasus, and get into more awkward places. It’s the kind of job that I don’t have to be doing all day, so it would give me flexibility.”

“That leaves Pif and Citrine,” Lucida said. “Any ideas, girls?”

Pif snorted. “Oh, yeah. I came up with the perfect idea last night. Remember how I was so pissed off with that institute that orphaned Cirrus was put into? Well, I’m going to do something about that.”

“But if we go back to the future after looping back in time, anything that you do there won’t happen.”

“Don’t care, Lucy. I’m not going to spend ten months here knowing what’s going on in there, and not do anything about it.”

Lucida held up her talons in surrender. “I won’t stop you. In fact, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t let you even if we weren’t going to cover our tracks later.”

“Thanks. If nothing else, I might know what to do about it when we get back to our own time. I’ll also be keeping a watch for Blue Changeling infiltrators.”

Lucida looked at Citrine. “That just leaves you. Got something in mind yet?”

The crystal pony looked thoughtful for a moment. “Remember that griffin tavern we went to the other night, Pif?”

“The Broken Beak? What about it?”

“I saw a sign that they’re looking for bartenders.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s the roughest and rowdiest bar in Canterlot, and maybe one of the worst in Equestria! Why do you think they’re looking for staff? Because they don’t last in a place like that!”

“Think I can’t handle myself in there?” Citrine asked with a confident smirk.

Blue said, “You’ve seen her fight, Pif; Citrine’s a brawler without peer. I think she’ll be able to hold her own in there.”

Pif nodded reluctantly. “Just be careful, okay?”

Citrine grinned and hugged Pif. “I’ll always be back for snuggles at night.”

The way she said snuggles left no doubt in the minds of all the others that she had something else in mind.

# # #

The big hawk-faced griffin threw back his head and screeched in laughter. “You? A little pony bartending here? You wouldn’t last five minutes!”

Citrine gave the bar owner her biggest and most confident grin. “Try me! If I can last a shift, you hire me full-time. If I don’t, you don’t have to pay me a single bit. Whaddya say?”

Garth chuckled some more. He had to credit the pony’s audacity, and he was curious enough to see what happened. “Deal. See Gail behind the bar. She’ll show you the ropes.”

Citrine headed off to the bar, and Garth watched with a grin. He noted one of his regular customers and equally regular trouble-maker had already noticed the pony. “Five minutes?” he murmured. “She’ll be lucky to make it to three!”

Sure enough, even as Gail was showing Citrine the various liquors that they had available, the golden eagle/leopard-spotted griffin that Garth was watching meandered up to the two. He put his talons up on the bar and loomed over them. “What the fuck is a pony doing in here?” he growled.

The griffin was easily almost double Citrine’s size, but she grinned up at him undeterred. “I’m the new hire. Can I help you, sir?”

“You can help me by getting your puny pony ass out of here!” he roared in her face.

“Sorry – not going to happen. Can I interest you in a drink?”

Gail was trying hard to stifle a laugh at Citrine’s impudence, while the customer’s face was starting to grow darker with anger.

“I’ll drink your blood!” the griffin screamed, reaching for the irksome pony.

A minute later, the griffin found himself outside in the street, sprawled upside down among the planter boxes decorating the road, blood dripping from a smashed beak. “Wha… what happened?” he asked dazedly.

“That’s why they call this place The Broken Beak,” Citrine informed him cheerily before going back inside.

Garth stared at the pony incredulously. He had seen it all happen with his own two eyes, and still couldn’t credit how the pony had so effortlessly dealt with one of his worst customers. He didn’t care if she was the worst bartender in history – he had just found his new bouncer!

# # #

The school principal looked at the odd pair seated in front of her. “Brother and sister, you say?”

“Same father, different mothers,” Lucida explained.

“Obviously, Miss Lightgiver. You’re only the second hippogriff that I have ever seen, but I do know how it works. Anyway, this is most unusual as we have already started the new school year. However, due to an unexpected retirement of one teacher, and another having been called away to tend to a very ill father, we have found ourselves a bit short-staffed.” She shuffled the papers that they had given her for references. Destined had enchanted them with a spell that made her see what she expected to see in those documents. “Your details seem to be in order, and I believe we can take you on. I am particularly pleased that you have indicated that you enjoy working with young foals, Miss Lightgiver, as we have a class full of them that have need of your skills. Instructor Lengthy Numbers is a little out of her depth,” she added with a wry smile.

Lucida chuckled dutifully.

The principal then looked at Destined. “As for you, Mr. Fate, while you indicate that you have degrees in advanced spellcasting, I hope that you will be able to assist in teaching the fundamentals to the young unicorns also.”

Destined a.k.a. Inevitable Fate smiled at the principal. “All advanced knowledge is built on a firm foundation of basic magic theory. I would be happy to teach that as well, Miss Chalkboard.”

“Excellent! It’s almost time for the lunchtime break, so I will be able to introduce you to the other members of the teaching staff, and we can devise a new schedule to fit you in. You can both start tomorrow morning. Welcome to Canterlot Junior School.” She stood up and shook hooves with both of them.

# # #

The despatcher blinked in disbelief. “You’re back already?”

Blue passed the receipt to him.

The pegasus stared at the proof, then looked back up at Blue Streak. “You’re hired!”

# # #

Pif nodded politely as she was introduced to her new co-workers. She had almost not gotten the job, and it had taken the application of a bit of changeling magic to get the boss to change her mind. Pif did not intend to tell Lucida that she had temporarily enthralled the boss to get the position though, but this was too important to her for her to be prevented from helping the powerless children in the institute’s care. She had taken on the responsibility of righting a wrong, and if she had to be a bit pragmatic about how she accomplished that, then so be it!

# # #

Silk glared angrily at the sign in the spa’s window that advertised for staff. At least the manager had been honest about it, unlike all the other places that he had tried.

“Nobody is gonna want a creepy bat-pony putting their hooves on them,” the manager had told him bluntly.

Silk knew that attitudes towards thestrals had improved a lot over the years, but until now he had no idea how badly they were regarded before Luna had brought them back into the community. Now he wasn’t sure what he was going to do if that was the kind of response he was going to get from all potential employers. He had to think about the situation more.

The thestral spread his wings and flew off to somewhere secluded, and considerably more shaded, to ponder his dilemma.

# # #

That afternoon before they went out to dinner, they gathered as usual in Lucida’s room. Sterling was the last to arrive, having waited until Cirrus was safely at home with his parents, plus a bit more time after that. Lucida addressed the changeling Guardsman as he entered the room.

“Looks like you and Silk are the only ones not to get a job.”

“Funny that you should mention that,” Sterling replied. “I can’t rejoin the Royal Guard because they don’t know me at this time, and I’m too old to be accepted as a new recruit, but seeing Zephyr reminded me that the City Guard could use somepony with my experience, so I went by Zephyr’s watch house to check out the possibility. They’re having a recruitment drive next week, and I believe I can get a position there.”

That sounds good, although it isn’t really necessary. Enough of us have jobs now to cover our costs with a bit to spare.”

Sterling frowned at Lucida. “Do you think I would shirk my duty just because of these unusual circumstances? I swore an oath to the Crown that I would protect the princesses and the people of Equestria. If I can’t do that as a Royal Guard, I will do it in whatever other way that I can. The money is irrelevant.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that, Sterling. You’ve done and are still doing lots for the benefit of Equestria.”

Sterling shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I overreacted. It hasn’t been easy for me being disconnected from my hive and my career.”

Pif said, “I know exactly how you feel. I’ve had more practice with it, and I still hate it.”

Silk sighed. “I don’t know about hive-networks and such, but I am feeling a bit isolated too. I’m the only thestral here, and I’m pretty much unwanted.”

“That’s because you’re looking in the wrong place,” Citrine said with a smirk.

Silk gave Citrine a hard look. “What do you mean?”

“I know a place where they won’t give a damn what you are, as long as you can hold your own.”

“And that is…?”

“The Broken Beak Tavern, of course. Bar of choice for some of the rowdiest and liveliest griffons in Canterlot. Only took disposing of one obnoxious griff for me to get respect there. I’m gonna enjoy that job. So can you if you want. Garth was advertising for more than one new bartender, and he still needs someone for the evening shift. Think you can handle it?”

Silk smirked. “Well, I know my way around a bar. I didn’t exactly grow up in the lap of luxury, y’know? Life was tough for many years, and I had to be tougher.”

“That explains how you were able to fight so well when we were dealing with Queen Gossamer’s minions,” Blue commented. “I didn’t catch much of it due to being enthralled at the time, but I noticed you came through unscathed.”

“Yeah, I’ve had my share of fights when growing up. I also have my secret weapon.”

“Secret weapon? You never told me about that,” Destined said with curiosity written on his face.

“Believe me, you don’t want me to demonstrate,” Silk said with a smirk.

# # #

Garth stared at the odd bat-winged pegasus for a long time before saying, “It must be my day for getting surprises. Okay, why do you think you’re good for the job?”

“Yellow Quartz sent me. She said the job would suit me,” Silk replied with a grin, name-dropping Citrine’s alias.

The pony had fangs! And Quartz recommended him? This he had to see for himself. “Okay, pal, I’ll give you the same deal that I gave Quartz. If you last a shift, you’re hired. If you don’t, I won’t pay you a single bit.”

“Sounds good to me. Want me to start right away?”

Garth gestured toward the bar. “Go see Giselle. She’ll get you up to speed.”

Silk nodded and headed to the bar.

Garth surveyed his customers. As it happened, he didn’t have any of his rowdiest customers here at the moment, but that would change soon. He noticed that his current clientele were giving the bat-pony cautious looks. Considering his odd appearance, they didn’t know what to make of him right now. That would quickly change, especially when a couple of his evening patrons turned up. Garth found himself unexpectedly looking forward to that. For now though, he turned back to the actual business of running the bar.

It was about half an hour later when a grizzled griffoness entered the bar. She wasn’t as big as the cock that Quartz had thrown out of the bar, but she was easily the worst of his customers to ever cross. She hated anyone not a griffon, and not a few of those too. Garth constantly wondered what kept the hen in Canterlot; sheer stubbornness he supposed. She regarded the tavern as a sanctuary against all she despised. Garth put aside his work and propped up his head on one taloned hand to watch the entertainment.

The griffoness stomped up to the bar, and then froze when she spotted the bat-pony. Her hackles rose and tail lashed, and she hissed in anger. “Shards! What the fuck is this thing doing in here?!

Silk turned to the griffoness and smiled. “This thing is here to bartend. How can I serve you?”

She smiled nastily. “You can serve me by letting me work out my frustrations on you.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer a nice strong drink instead?” Silk suggested, his smile only slipping a little.

“Fucking smart-ass!” The she-griff grabbed Silk by the jacket that Giselle had given him that had the tavern’s logo stitched on it. It was meant for a bigger griffon and not for a small pony, so there was plenty of slack for her talons to latch onto. She hauled Silk over the bar and her other arm swung back to rake him with her talons.

Silk opened his mouth wide and emitted a super-high-pitched screech.

Garth slapped his hands over his ears in pain, as did the rest of the customers in the bar. However, the screech was focused on Silk’s aggressor, and she screamed in agony, dropping the bat-pony and covering her ears also. The damage was done though, and she stumbled away from the bar, extremely dizzy. She fell over and tried to get back up again, but fell over once more, groaning in pain. Try as she might, she could not get her balance.

Silk walked around the bar and hooked a foreleg around the griffoness’ tail. He then dragged her to the entrance as she screeched in pain and frustration. Garth and the customers heard him loudly speak to her, presumably to get past the ringing in her ears.

“Come back when you’re ready to order a drink, and not give me attitude!”

The bat-pony then strolled back into the tavern and looked at the stunned griffons. “Sorry about that, guys. Some griffs just don’t wanna behave themselves though. Personally I would have settled for an Eyrish whiskey, but if it’s a fight she wants….” He shrugged.

He let the sentence hang, and the clientele got the hint – don’t mess with the bat-pony!

Garth chuckled. He hoped that the griffoness would be back – she was always a big spender. This day’s entertainment had been priceless though. “I wonder if Quartz has more surprising friends?” he muttered before getting back to work.

# # #

The team soon settled into a new routine. Sterling successfully applied for a position in the City Guard and soon made himself popular by taking the undesirable evening shifts. That left him free to watch over Cirrus during the daytime while the others worked. While Cirrus was at school, the main responsibility fell on Lucida and Destined until school was done for the day, and then Sterling resumed his watch until Cirrus had his dinner. Then one of the other team members would take over for the evening watch until midnight while he went to work. He would come back to Lucida’s room in the early hours to curl up on her sofa to sleep for a few hours until it was time to get up and start all over again.

One morning, Sterling woke up to see Lucida watching him with concern.

“Is something the matter?” he asked.

“I’m worried about you, Sterling. You work long hours and barely sleep any.”

Sterling smiled reassuringly. “Changelings don’t really need much sleep. As long as we have sufficient positive emotional energy to keep us going, then we’re able to go on with only an hour or two of sleep at most. Pif is really spoiled in that regard. Or maybe Queens need more sleep than drones? I really don’t know, but I assure you that I am fine.”

“But are you really getting enough energy? You don’t have a partner like Pif does.”

“For starters, as a Harvester, I usually have to drain off a large proportion of the emotional energy that I gather so that it can be sent to the hive. Cut off from my hive like I am, I get to keep all that energy for myself, and believe me, with all the love and loyalty this family of yours has leaking from them constantly, I am very well fed.”

Lucida looked relieved. “That’s good, but surely that sofa isn’t the most comfortable bed?”

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