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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20. Chapter 11 - Ten Months Part 2

“Time to celebrate!” Citrine declared. “I’ve got a party ready to go in my room. Anyone else want to leave this oven and join me?”

There was a chorus of agreement, although Cinder scoffed at the implied complaint about the heat.

The parents each picked up one of their children and they all left the room to cool off in their absence. Citrine was true to her word and had provided all sorts of party foods and drink for everyone. Even the hatchlings got a first feed of suitable food sourced on the advice of Cinder. For a while, everyone ate, drank, and laughed, enjoying the family atmosphere. The hatchlings quickly tired though, and they were tucked away in Citrine and Pif’s bed while the adults continued to party. However, eventually the inevitable was brought up.

“I suppose this means that we will head for home now,” Silk said.

“Yes,” Destined replied. “As long as Cinder doesn’t object?”

The dragoness shook her head. “The children are strong. There won’t be a problem.”

“Actually, I’d like to finish off the school year before we leave,” Lucida said.

Several of them looked at her in surprise.

“Weren’t you the one who wanted us to leave as soon as possible originally?” Destined asked.

“I know, I know. I just feel that I would leave things incomplete if we leave now.”

“We’re going to go back in time – it won’t make a difference.”

Pif cleared her throat. “Umm… speaking of making a difference, I hate the thought that all my efforts to save the abused foundlings will count for nothing.”

Destined frowned. “You knew that before you started, Pif.”

“Yes, I did, and I don’t regret it one bit, but that still sucks for the orphans.”

Citrine weighed in. “Piffy isn’t the only one to make a difference, y’know? The Canterlot Business Association has told me that they are going to give me an award for my work in bringing about a positive change in the griffon community, and making the tavern a better place to visit for all.”

Pif looked at Citrine. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“They only told me on Friday, and it’s a silly thing anyway. I just wanted to make the tavern a fun place to work.”

Silk spoke up. “Actually they talked to me too after Garth told them that I was Pif’s friend and she recommended me. They seem to regard it as a team effort.”

Destined sighed. “Look, it’s a great accomplishment, but in the end it’s just a tavern and some relatively minor incidents in terms of History. We have to look at the bigger picture.”

“Des, before we came here, did you ever hear anything about the DFI?” Pif asked.

“Umm… I don’t think so.”

Pif looked around the room. “Anyone? Most of us are pretty familiar with much of Canterlot.” She got a lot of blank looks. “Who hasn’t heard of the Royal Canterlot Orphanage?” Pif asked.

Only Citrine held up a hoof, which was understandable seeing as she had not visited Canterlot much. Even Cinder had heard of it before.

“Has it occurred to anyone that the reason why no one has heard of the Displaced Foundlings Institute is that I was responsible for getting it shut down, and that’s how History has always gone?”

“You can’t know that for sure, Pif. Somepony else might have done something later,” Destined argued.

“You don’t know how tight that group was. If it wasn’t for my special abilities, I would never have been able to get in and gather the evidence without being discovered.”

Lucida spoke up before Destined could reply. “Des, there’s another thing we do know about History, and that is Cirrus was introduced to Path by his teacher, which is exactly what I did. However, we were only able to get the positions because they were short on teachers, and Cirrus and Path’s temporary instructor was Lengthy Numbers who had little interest in the loneliness of a little griffon. Who introduced them if I didn’t?”

Destined opened his mouth to reply, but found himself stuck for words. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

Blue snorted in amusement. “Looks like both our time expert and our team coordinator have made themselves part of History whether they intended to or not.”

“What’s your opinion, Blue?” Pif asked. “Should we go back and cancel out what we all did, or go forward and straight home.”

Blue sat back on his rump and folded his arms. “I’ll be honest, guys – I don’t care if we have affected History. I only care that we have foiled Chrysalis and haven’t hurt anypony in the process.”

“But we have no right to make those decisions!” Destined protested.

“Who made you the arbiter of what is correct History? Our dads and moms taught us to respect everypony and everygriff, and do our best to make life better for all, but they each had their different ways of going about it. What we did to correct History in one circumstance isn’t necessarily the right way to do it for every instance. If our going back in time and cancelling out our achievements does evil for so many, how can you argue that it’s the right thing to do?”

Destined pondered that for a while and then replied, “What if we go home and find things have gone wrong because we didn’t go back and erase our interference?”

“Then we go back and fix it, just like we’ve been doing.”

Lucida said, “I think that’s the most telling argument. We can take advantage of our ability to fix mistakes. So who thinks we should go straight home?” She raised a hoof.

Pif raised her hoof immediately, followed by Citrine and Silk. As soon as Blue put his up, Cinder raised a claw in agreement with him.

Destined looked at all the raised hooves and sighed. He raised his also. “I’m still not totally convinced, but I can’t say that you’re completely wrong either. We’ll see when we get back.”

“Great!” Citrine said cheerfully. “Now that that’s decided, can we stop being so depressing and get back to partying? We’ve barely begun celebrating Blue and Cinder’s new kids!”

The others laughed as the tension left the room. The party was still going when Sterling ended his shift, came home, and joined in the celebrations. No one got much sleep that night.

# # #

Lucida and Destined finished the final two weeks of the school year. To her surprise, her pupils gave her a going-away gift, and she was moved to tears. It had not been an easy ten and a half months, but it had been a truly fulfilling time.

Citrine and Silk had already put in their notice, but it did not stop Garth from trying to dissuade them from leaving anyway. Citrine compensated his loss a little by recommending one of the regulars for the job, but there was little else that either could do.

Pif wound up her work with the Royal Canterlot Orphanage, but she was still left with one major dilemma – what to do about Zark.

“I give up,” Pif admitted to the others. “The best that I can do for Zark will still leave him a vegetable after I download his data.”

Lucida clucked sympathetically. “The hardest lesson to learn is that we cannot win every time. Zark was always a pawn, and while he might deserve better, his fate was always sealed.”

Pif sighed. “I know. Well… I suppose there’s no point putting it off any longer. Seeing as I can’t take him back with us because it would break my hold on him, I have to download the information now. I’ve called in all my agents, and the last of them will be here in about an hour. After I’ve finished transferring the data, then we can leave for home.”

“What’s going to happen to the agents?”

“I thought we’d take them with us.”

“What? No, we can’t do that. Eight highly-placed ‘ponies’ all disappearing at once will have a huge impact on History,” Lucida explained.

“Oh. I forgot about that; I was worrying too much about Zark. But if I leave the agents here, their link to a hive-mind will be broken without me there as the hub.”

Sterling said, “Believe me, it hasn’t been fun living without the link. Sure, I learned to live without it, but if I had the opportunity, I’d link up again in a moment. Without that link, those same highly-placed ponies would cause a stir due to their strange behavior. Depending on the individual, they might even accidentally betray their nature.”

“Damn!” Lucida swore. “Why has nopony thought about this before? Pif – tell me that you can do something about this!”

Pif didn’t seem to hear her though as she had the faraway look that she wore whenever she cogitating a problem. To Lucida’s surprise, a smile slowly grew on her sister’s face.

“I think I have a solution to two problems, if I can pull it off,” she finally announced.

“Let’s hear it then.”

“What’s one of the most significant differences between ordinary drones, and Chrysalis’ special agents?”

“Umm… they’re all enhanced in several ways… Oh! They can connect to the hive-mind by themselves.”

“Correct! While Zark’s mind will be burned out, his ability to connect will still exist. I can make a mini-hub out of him for my mini-network. My agents will still be able to link in my absence, and Zark will still be able to be useful.”

“But useful doesn’t mean whole,” Sterling pointed out.

“No, but we already conceded that would always be the case. The lives of everyone on Equus could depend on getting that information. It’s horrible but true. However, if my guess is correct, we might have something new and wonderful as a consequence.”

“What do you mean, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Wait and see. It’s not something that has ever been tried before, so I can’t guarantee success.”

“Okay. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Thanks for not fighting me on this, Lucy.”

Lucida shrugged. “I learned my lesson, Pif. Sometimes you have the confidence to let your team members do their thing without interference.” She smirked a little. “As long as you remember that it works both ways.”

“Been there, done that, sis. Trying not to do it again.”

Over the next hour, Pif’s agents arrived and were fortified with some love-gel sandwiches for their task. When the eighth finally arrived, they shifted into their natural forms and made a circle around Pif and Zark. Pif strengthened the links between them all so as to facilitate the flow of information. There was just one last thing to do.

“Even though he’s under my control, Zark has been keyed to unlock the mind-lock to Chrysalis alone. Therefore I’m going to take grandma’s form for this purpose. Don’t be concerned by anything you see.”

“Can we help in any way while you’re doing this?” Destined asked.

“No. In fact it will probably be very boring because I’ll be taking it as slow as I can in order to minimize the damage to Zark’s mind. You might want to go and do something else while we’re working.”

“Okay, we’ll probably do that. I’ll have some refreshments for all of you when you’re done.”

“Great, thanks! Now, let’s get started.” Pif’s magic flames flared and moments later she was the exact image of Chrysalis. “Agent, report!”

The drone had been totally passive until that moment, but he seemed to come alive then. “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.”

“Release the mind-lock!” Pif/Chrysalis demanded imperiously.

Zark stiffened, as did all the other drones. Pif frowned in concentration as the information poured out of the drone’s mind and she distributed it throughout her mini-network. This continued unchanged for a while before Destined headed for the door.

“Let’s leave them to it for now. Like Pif said, this may take a while.”

“You go. I’m going to watch over Pif,” Citrine replied firmly, her gaze never leaving her beloved.

“No problem, Citrine,” Lucida said as she followed the others out.

Pif had been correct – absolutely nothing changed for a long time, but Citrine waited patiently. Seventy-two minutes after they started, the information exchange finally finished, and Pif’s agents relaxed with a sigh. However, Pif’s concentration seemed to intensify, and Zark collapsed. The agents watched with interest as their Queen worked on Zark, their expressions flickering as Pif drew upon each of them for her mysterious secondary goal. Pif eventually sighed and relaxed before changing back to her unicorn guise. Then she addressed the special drone.

“Zark, how do you feel?”

Zark’s eyes opened and he stood up. He faced Pif and said, “We are feeling fine, Your Majesty.”

Zark’s voice was multi-tonal, almost as if several were talking at once in perfect synchronization. Pif smiled in relief.

“What is your purpose?”

“We are our network’s hive-mind,” Zark replied in that same strange tone.

“What is your goal?”

“To enable the Hive to work towards protecting Equus and its inhabitants,” Zark replied with equanimity.

“Are you hungry?” Pif asked with a smile.

That question seemed to rattle the drone for the first time. “We… are, Your Majesty.”

“Good – so am I. Let’s go eat.” She gave a tilt of her head to her agents and headed for the door. “Coming, Citrine?”

“Of course! What’s going on with Zark though? He sounds weird.”

“I’ll tell you along with all the others.”

They all made their way to Destined’s room for the promised meal. It was rather crowded with everyone in the one room, but they managed to fit. The rest of the team was curious to see that Zark was apparently okay, and they immediately pressed Pif for answers.

Pif grinned proudly. “You’re looking at the first-ever multiple-mind personality. As I said, Zark’s original mind would be mostly burned out, but I built a replacement by using the mind-links with everyling attached to him. Zark’s mind is actually all of ours in fusion, shaped by what remains of the original.”

Lucida asked, “So this is in effect a whole new person? Are you sure that he can’t be used by Chrysalis now?”

Instead of answering, Pif said, “Zark, why don’t you answer that?”

Zark faced Lucida. “We are the gestalt of all those linked to me. We cannot act against you any more than you could act against yourself.”

“That’s reassuring. So you’re going to serve as the hub for the other eight while Pif is gone?”

“That is correct.”

“That’s great. It also explains why you refer to yourself in the plural.”

“We are one, but many,” Zark replied cryptically.

“That’s going to take a bit of getting used to,” Lucida admitted. Then she frowned. “What are you doing?”

Zark had suddenly squatted. He hesitated before relying, “Our body has been programmed to execute a task upon successful completion of the information transfer. We cannot stop this.”

“Everypony get back!” Lucida ordered. “Destined and Pif, be ready with your magic.”

Everyone watched with wary concern for Zark, but he only groaned and then stood up again. Leaving something deposited on the rug.

“Is that an egg?” Citrine asked.

“It sure is,” Pif answered.

“I thought Zark was male?”

“Zark is in male form, but like all drones, he’s infertile. No, it seems he’s been used as an egg-bearer.”

Citrine looked at Pif with incomprehension. “A what?”

“Drones can be used as mobile incubators. If the hive is under threat, or moving, eggs can be stored within the drones and kept there until circumstances are favorable, no matter how long it takes.”

“So why does Zark have an egg?”

Lucida interjected. “Actually that’s not hard to figure out. I’m betting that egg has one of Chrysalis’ super-drones that she sent to her past self to improve her hive with the goal of conquering Equus in mind.”

“You are correct,” Zark said. “That knowledge came to the fore upon activating the egg-depositing procedure.”

“What are we going to do with it?” Blue asked. “We can’t have one of Chrysalis’ super-drones among us. It’s too great a risk.”

Pif shook her head. “Sorry, Blue, but you’ve got that the wrong way around. The loyalty of drones is not fixed until they hatch and bond with the Queen. If we take this back to the Chrome Hive, the hatchling will bond with Papa Free. The egg will be utterly loyal to Queen Gossamer.”

“Please don’t use Dad’s birth name, Pif,” Blue said with a shudder. “It creeps me out after our experience with his alternate self.”

“Sorry, Blue,” Pif said contritely.

Lucida said, “This is an exciting development. Rather than enhancing her past self’s hive, Chrysalis has inadvertently given us the means of enhancing the Chrome Hive instead. We will also have a super-drone to study at our leisure.”

“That’s going to please our parents,” Blue said. “This calls for a celebration! Who wants a drink?” He headed for the alcohol.

There was a chorus of replies, and Blue was kept busy for a while, serving up many glasses of various beers and spirits. Meanwhile, Pif shifted to alicorn form, gathered up the egg, and tucked it under a wing for safe-keeping. Then she joined in on a move to the table loaded with food.

As they enjoyed the repast, Lucida asked Pif, “So, what did you learn from Zark?”

Pif finished the mouthful of food before replying, “I’m still processing the data, but I can confirm that Chrysalis is allied with the Zebras. She is currently based in a Zebrican village. However, I have learned one more critical piece of information. We’ve been wondering where Chrysalis has found the power and means to pull off some of this stuff. Wonder no more. The Nightmare is responsible.”

“The Nightmare?!” exclaimed Destined. “As in Nightmare Moon?”

“Yep. It seems the Nightmare has found another pawn to further its goals.”

“Doesn’t Chrysalis realize that she’s being used?”

Pif shook her head. “No more than Auntie Luna did until too late. The Nightmare enhances and feeds on its host’s negative feelings until it takes control, so if we can’t stop the Mad Queen soon, we will inevitably be dealing with Nightmare Chrysalis, and that’s going to make her doubly dangerous.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a downer,” Citrine said sadly.

“That’s why I was going to save it until after the celebration. Sorry about that,” Pif said.

“I choose to look at this positively,” Lucida said firmly. “Until now, we have merely been reacting to events. Now we can start being proactive. We deserve to celebrate.”

“That’s more like it!” Citrine declared.

There was a definite party atmosphere which continued until the changeling agents prepared to leave. Most of them had positions that did not allow for their extended absence. Pif had some final words with them before they departed.

“As I have said already, you are to carry on as much as possible as if you are still following Chrysalis’ directives, short of giving her any really useful information. Your true purpose is now the reverse – you are to gather as much intelligence on her operations as possible, as well as any other possible threats to Equestria. I have given you the important events to watch out for so that you don’t otherwise interfere with History, but can still keep abreast of Chrysalis’ plans. Get out of Canterlot before the invasion and do not return until the Chrome Hive is established and Blue Changelings are loyal to Queen Free. Above all, don’t let yourselves be caught by Chrysalis; I want you to all have long and happy lives.”

They thanked Pif, and Zark prepared to leave with one of the female agents, having taken the form of a blue unicorn.

“I live alone,” Bright Spark said, “but it would be of advantage to my cover to be in a relationship with a stallion. Zark can live with me and fulfil that role.”

Pif nodded. “Sounds like a good plan. I think that it will be good for Zark too as he learns more about himself. Right now he’s a blend of your personalities, but I believe that he will grow to be a true individual, although that is a bit of a misnomer considering his gestalt nature.” She smiled at Zark. “Good luck, Zark.”

“Thank you,” Zark said. “Farewell, My Queen.”

“Call me Pif!” was her last command to the unique changeling drone.

Lucida got up from the sofa and called for everyone’s attention. “That takes care of the last important detail. Now if everypony will help clear up, we can be on our way back to our proper time. I’ve booked cleaners to thoroughly cleanse the apartments tomorrow, and one of Pif’s agents is going to do a final inspection before returning the keys and getting our deposit back. Blue can collect that again in about thirty-six years.”

There was a round of chuckles.

“Okay, let’s get to work. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can go home.”

Everyone did their bit to clear the plates and glasses, or tidy up various items. This was the last apartment to be readied, so the task was quickly completed. As the rest waited for Blue to come back after taking out the trash, Lucida turned to Sterling with a smile.

“Are you as excited as I am at going back to the future?” she asked.

Sterling hesitated, and then shook his head. “I’m not going back with you, Lucy.”

Lucida blinked uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“Your future is not my future, and I would not fit in there any better than here. I’ve decided that I will continue with my duty and stand guard over Cirrus. If Chrysalis tries for him again, I will try my best to ensure that she does not succeed.”

“But… I thought… maybe…?” Words failed the normally eloquent hippogriff.

Sterling smiled fondly at Lucida. “You thought that perhaps we would form a more permanent relationship? I once seriously considered that also. After we made love for the first time, I thought long and hard about it. The truth is, Lucy, you needed the comfort of a companion, and you certainly enjoyed sex with me, but do we really have that much in common? I am much older than you, for starters, and we have very diverse interests. I’m also absolutely dedicated to my work, and that would not give me time to properly devote to a family. There’s a good reason why Red Changelings form far fewer personal relationships with ponies than the other hives. I am very fond of you, Lucida, and I have enjoyed every moment that we spent together, but you know in your heart that it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”

Tears started rolling down Lucida’s cheeks, but she knew he was right. She did not love him like that. He was a friend, a lover, and a protector, but not her soul-mate. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. “Think of me occasionally while you do your duty,” she said softly.

 

 

“I doubt that I could do otherwise, but don’t let your memory of me stop you from seeking out a suitable mate. Promise me that you won’t turn a blind eye to somepony or somegriff just because he’s not me.”

Lucida sniffled a little. “I promise.”

Blue returned at that moment, and the two stepped apart. Lucida wiped away her tears while Sterling called for the attention of the others.

“My friends and loyal companions, as I have just told Lucida, I will not be returning with you to the future. Instead I intend to continue my duties in this time.”

Pif said, “I suspected that you might stay, which is why I made a point of telling you a lot about future events. Try not to screw them up for us,” she added with a grin.

“I believe I will know when to get involved, and when not to interfere,” Sterling said with a matching smile. “For that reason, I will be taking the new name of Steady Gaze so that there won’t be two Sterlings in the future.”

“You realize that you can never reconnect to your hive?” Destined pointed out.

Sterling nodded. “It won’t be easy, but I promise that I will not.”

“You could always join my mini-network,” Pif offered.

Sterling hesitated. “A Red linked to a Blue hive-mind? Such a thing has never been done.”

Pif shook her head. “No, this is a Chrome network, and we specialize in doing new and different things.”

The Red Changeling paused as he considered her words, but then slowly shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but no. My loyalty remains with the Red Hive, even if I cannot be one with it.” He smiled proudly. “I am honored to have met you all and to have served with you. I wish you every success with your future endeavors.”

“And the same to you, buddy,” Blue replied.

The others added their sentiments and a few parting hugs or hoof-bumps. Sterling then stepped aside to watch them depart.

“All set, Blue?” Destined asked.

“All powered up and ready to go, Des.”

“Then let’s go!”

Blue fed power into the vortex manipulator, and Destined shaped it to point to their destination. The group plunged into the time vortex, leaving the room empty but for one unicorn-changeling.

“Farewell my dear friends,” he murmured as a tear trickled down one cheek. He wiped it away before leaving the apartment, firmly closing the door on it and a chapter in his life.

# # #

Watchful Eyes was still berating herself while sunken up to her muzzle in the otherwise empty hot tub. The soothing jets were doing little to calm her frazzled nerves as she pondered how Queen Carpacia was going to punish her for her failure. To her surprise though, the vortex that only moments ago had taken away those she should have been guarding suddenly reappeared. With no further warning, several forms fell out of it on top of her. There was a mighty splash, and Watchful found herself struggling to hold her breath under water as several persons thrashed about her. With a gasp, she made it back to the surface to stare disbelievingly.

“Des!” Lucida sputtered indignantly. “When I told you to get us back as close to when we left as possible, I didn’t mean this close!”

“Sorry, sis. Would you believe I forgot where we were after all this time?”

Watchful boggled at that statement. “How long have you been gone?!” she blurted out.

Lucida looked at the changeling guardian in surprise. “What are you doing in the hot tub, Watchful?”

“I dived in trying to follow you! What did Destined mean by ‘all this time’? And what in Tartarus happened to your feather color?” she asked.

“A-heh! We had to stay in the past a teeny bit longer than planned.”

“Yeah! If you call most of a year a teeny bit!” Citrine chortled. “Get a load of these!” She pointed in the direction of the two dragon hatchlings who were delightedly splashing in the warm water.

Watchful looked at the dragonlings in shock. “A year? Queen Carpacia is going to kill me, then revive me and kill me again!”

Citrine threw an arm around the distressed changeling. “Aw, we won’t let that happen. Where would we get another watchdog like you?”

Somehow Watchful was not particularly reassured, but she sighed and stopped stressing over it. The damage was done; it was time to see what could be salvaged.

“Let’s get out of here and head home,” Blue suggested as he began climbing out of the tub. “Cinder and I have got to show off our children to their grandparents.”

“Good idea,” Destined agreed and started following suit.

Soon they had all exited the tub and were toweling off. Destined obliged with some quick-drying spells, and they headed out. Aloe and Lotus were quite surprised to see Blue and Cinder carry out a hatchling each, but with the experience of long-time inhabitants of Equestria’s most incident-prone town, they quickly shrugged it off and returned to their work.

The sun was just setting, but there was still plenty of light to take in the sights of their Ponyville home town. It buoyed the spirits of all the time-travelers, and they grew more excited as they approached the crystalline tree-castle. Lucida was wearing a huge grin as she talked with Citrine about something, but Pif was not paying attention. As the others made their way into the castle, she paused and opened her mind to hive network, reveling in being fully connected once more. Then she sought out a discrete mini-network and sighed in relief when it connected.

Zark – report!’ she commanded.

At your command, Your Majesty,’ came an immediate reply. ‘Welcome home, Pif.

Pif’s happy grin was so wide, it threatened to split her face in two.

# # #

“Hey, Dad! Papa Free! Guess who I bumped into while in Canterlot!” Blue announced excitedly as he entered the living room where their parents were relaxing at the end of the day before the evening meal.

Path smiled at his son’s excitement. “I’m guessing that I’d never be able to guess, so give us a clue.”

Blue grinned. “Better yet, let me introduce you.”

On cue, Lucida walked into the room, still in her new colors. “Long Path! Cirrus Ironbeak! I’m still waiting for that final class project, and I won’t believe that General Mayhem stole it this time,” she said sternly.

Path and Free gaped at the sight of someone whom they had not seen in three dozen years.

“Ms. Lightgiver?” Path said disbelievingly. “You… haven’t aged a bit!”

“Now, now! A student should not be complimenting their teacher on their looks,” the hippogriff chided.

Free’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward as if to examine his old teacher more closely. Then his eyes flew open in surprise and his talons flew up to his beak to choke off a response. Only a tiny ‘snrk!’ escaped him, but it went unnoticed by Path.

“I have no idea what project you’re talking about, Ms. Lightgiver, but I’m happy to see you again. Free and I owe you a lot!”

“Who is this Free person?” Lucida asked in apparent puzzlement.

A much louder choked-back sound came from Free, and Path glanced at him in puzzlement before replying, “Cirrus changed his name to Free Agent. Surely you have heard of him? Married Princess Twilight?”

“I heard she married a male alicorn. Surely you wouldn’t have me believe that mischievous griffon could ever be taken seriously by a princess?”

Free couldn’t hold it in anymore, and a laugh exploded out of him. “HA! Hee-hee-heee!”

He continued giggling as Path looked at him with consternation, as did Twilight and Roseclaw.

Destined walked in at that moment in his Inevitable Fate colors and wearing his wing-concealing jacket despite it still being damp from the plunge in the tub. “My dear, what have you been doing to our former students?” he asked with a slightly deeper voice.

“Finding out that Cirrus is still his irrepressible self, apparently,” Lucida replied.

“Instructor Fate? You and Ms. Lightgiver? So is that what happened to you two after that one year?”

Free totally lost it then. “Bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!” he whooped with laughter, pounding the floor, tears streaming from his eyes.

“Will somepony tell me what’s so funny?” Path demanded.

Lucida walked up to Path and hugged him. “It means you can’t fool Papa Free for long, Dad.”

Finally Path realized how familiar Lightgiver’s voice was. “Lucida?”

“Yes, Dad,” she replied with a grin.

“What happened to you? Why do you look like my old teacher?”

“Because I am your old teacher. I am Ms. Lightgiver. Don’t you remember what my real name means?”

Path looked at her in shock, and even Free calmed down to listen curiously.

“Ms. Lightgiver was our teacher for a whole school year! What happened? And since when did you have a cutie mark?” Path asked.

“It’s a long story, Dad,” Destined said as he shucked his coat and let the color illusion drop. “We’ll tell you all about while you have dinner.”

Twilight said, “I’d like to hear about that cutie mark first. I never knew that Free’s teacher had one. Although hippogriffs are half-pony, I haven’t met one with a cutie mark before. Is it even real?” she asked Lucida.

“Yes, Mama. I got it literally just before we went back in time. It surprised the heck out of me.”

Free put an arm around Lucida and started steering her towards the dining room. “You can satisfy your mother’s curiosity while we eat, Ms. Teacher.”

“Think you can pay attention in class, Commander Trotty?” Lucida asked with an eyebrow arched skeptically.

Free chuckled. “As long as Captain Cluck doesn’t need my help.”

Path stuck his tongue out at Free, but laughed anyway.

Their puzzled wives followed, wondering what craziness was about to be unleashed this time.

# # #

Blue, Lucida, and Destined took turns relating an abbreviated version of the events of the latest history change that they had to fix. Free was dismayed to hear what had happened to his alternate self, but absolutely livid when he learned the cause.

“Chrysalis tried to have my parents killed to get me back? When I get my talons on her, she’s going to regret ever laying my egg! Death is way too good for that bitch!”

“Calm down, Papa,” Lucida said soothingly, giving him a warm hug with plenty of love.

Free sank back into his chair with a groan. “Alright, but I meant what I said.”

Destined said, “Stopping their murders and catching the agent was a simple task once we knew what had happened. Pif was able to get a huge amount of information out of the agent, and he’s now Pif’s loyal minion, so please don’t think of harming him if she brings him here.”

“None of this explains why you and Lucida were our teachers for so long though,” Path protested.

“Well, you know that Cinder was pregnant? She laid the eggs, and refused to risk them in the time vortex. We had no other safe option than to wait until they hatched.”

Twilight sat bolt upright, her ears sharply bent forward, eyes wide as saucers. “Eggs? More than one? Hatched?!

Blue called out through the door to where Cinder had been patiently waiting out of sight, with Citrine and Pif helping to keep Eon and Era quiet and amused. “That’s your cue, love!”

Cinder walked in with a grin on her face, the dracopony hatchlings clinging onto her back. Twilight bolted out of her chair and around the table, almost colliding with Roseclaw who had done the same. The two started squealing with delight, and picked up a grandchild each, and hugged and cooed over them, and pointing out to each other the characteristics of their hatchling, and comparing to the other.

Blue and Cinder just watched and smiled proudly as Path and Free came over to have a closer look also.

“Congratulations on being grandparents,” Blue said to them.

Path put an arm around Blue’s shoulder. “What’s it like for you being a parent for the first time?”

“Kind of awesome. Also a little weird. It’s a bit like they were born twice – once when Cinder laid their eggs, and a second time when they hatched.”

“I suppose when you have a dragon for a mate, you’re going to have more than a few weird moments in your life,” Path conceded. “As long as it’s a good kind of weird, I think you’ll survive.”

Blue chuckled. “I think we all grew up in a weird family. What’s a little more?”

“True. Now, let’s see if I can pry one of them off my wife for a moment. So what are their names?”

“Mama Roseclaw is holding your granddaughter, Era, and Mama Twilight has your grandson, Eon.”

“How old are they?” Free asked. “They look too lively for being just hatched.”

“They’re a couple of weeks old. It’s amazing how strong they’ve gotten in such a short time, but I suppose that’s their dragon heritage.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how much of them is pony, and how much is dragon, aside from just their looks,” Free commented as they watched Path take Era into his forelegs, careful to not get raked by her claws. “Take it from a changeling raised by griffons with an alicorn for a wife – you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

# # #

By mutual consent, they decided to put off a thorough debriefing until the next day, preferring instead to enjoy some quiet family time. After nearly a year away, the time-team wanted nothing more than to just spend a relaxing evening chatting with their elders. Eventually Cinder left to put two tired children to bed. Free and Path excused themselves for the moment, saying that their wives had had their turn, but it was time for the grandpas to tuck in their grandchildren. They were gone for quite a while though, and Lucida and Destined were beginning to wonder what was taking them so long.

Suddenly the doors to the living room burst open and two figures leaped into the room.

“Never fear! We are here!” proclaimed one.

“Let evildoers beware!” exclaimed the other.

The time-travelers stared in disbelief at Path and Free. Path had cardboard wings with a few feathers sticky-taped onto them, and a paper beak taped to his muzzle, while Free was wearing his status cape and with a paper pony muzzle taped over his beak plus large soup cans over his talons and paws.

Lucida cracked up and started rolling on the floor, howling with laughter. Destined guffawed too, while the rest chuckled in amusement, having only heard about the adventures of Captain Cluck and Commander Trotty from the others.

Free looked at Path and said, “I believe our work here is done, Captain.” He held up one foreleg.

Path hoof-bumped him as he replied, “Indeed, Commander. Let us away!”

They made a dramatic exit, leaving Lucida still helplessly giggling on the floor.

Destined wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. “Three dozen years, and they still haven’t completely grown up.” He shook his head in wonder. “Thank Celestia!”

# # # # # # # # #

 
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