"Well, that could have gone better," I muttered, leaning heavily on my staff as I stumped down the ancient steps behind Twilight and her friends.
Once the tempers were cooled, the negotiations had turned from tense to tedious, but I was not the most relieved when an agreement was finally reached, shaken on, (most briefly) and the Hunter seen off into the twilight forest. If anything, the princess's attitude toward me turned even frostier once he was gone, but I couldn't exactly blame her. No one enjoys the realization that bringing in a tiger to deal with your rat problem wasn't such a good idea after all.
Behind us, a near-constant stream of pretty white pegasi in shiny golden armor were coming and going from both entries to the high tower room. In a fit of practicality, Celestia had chosen to coordinate the search-and-rescue for the rest of her lost subjects from there. I'd offered her what specifics of their location I had gleaned from the unraveled shapeshifting spells as a feeble sort of olive branch, and she had accepted the information with what looked to be the last bit of grace she was willing to offer me. Once I was done, she'd told Twilight, in no uncertain terms, to "get the wizard out of here now, before he does any more damage," which I felt was just a little unfair, but I held my tongue. Apparently another hall of the ancient castle contained a magical circle much like the one they had used to bring me here in the first place, so we wouldn't even have to leave the forest again before they ejected me from their world.
I suppose I should have been relieved.
Despite my lagging steps, we arrived at our destination very soon. Twilight hunted out the circle in the center of the big room—which unlike the ones we'd been in earlier was little more than a flattened spot in the rampant shrubbery—and started cleaning it up for use. I hovered uncomfortably at the edge of the space, finding it hard to cope with standing up straight again.
Applejack and Pinkie Pie pitched in with the cleaning once they saw what their friend was up to, and in no time all the space within the golden circle and a couple of feet all around it were practically polished to a high gloss. Rarity watched them work from a safe distance, while the two pegasi loitered near me, looking uncomfortable.
As Twilight's helpers moved away from her work area and she started laying out her props again, I began to approach her, but before I'd taken a step, Rainbow Dash blurted, "So, Harry," I turned to her and waited patiently. She rubbed one fore-hoof against the back of her neck in an awkward, "I'm a jock so I don't know how to talk about feelings" kind of gesture, and went on, "I—Thanks."
I raised an eyebrow and said, "Didn't we already cover that? We're good."
"No. Not for saving us. That's covered. For—" she hesitated, and tossed her head back toward the busy tower. "For that. 'Cause Celestia didn't think to say it, and I thought you should know that we…we appreciate what you did. Even if it's not perfect."
I frowned. Fluttershy, who had been watching both of us very carefully through this exchange, piped up softly, "Yes. Thank you, Sir Harry, for making things come out better than they might have."
Why did both of them seem so uncomfortable? Maybe it was me. They hadn't had much chance to get used to my un-pony-like appearance, after all. But I didn't think that was all of it. Then it hit me. "You haven't seen your princess really angry very often, have you?"
They both startled a little at the question, then Fluttershy looked away—her long mane concealing her face—and Rainbow Dash pawed uncomfortably at the ground before her. "No," she admitted after a moment. "Not really. Not like that. I'm glad you kept her from doing something she'd regret."
"Me too." I coughed. "Consider yourselves welcome."
"Sir Harry?" Rarity's elegant, civilized voice was almost as diffident as her pink-maned friend's.
I dropped to one knee as she approached, feeling as though my height were somehow an insult to proper decorum in her presence. "Yes?" I asked.
"Did you truly mean what you said to Celestia?"
"Which part?" I asked.
"About wanting to stay here, if you could?"
I frowned, thinking about it for a moment. Did I? "Yes. At least in part. You've got a good thing going here. I hope you realize that." I shrugged uncomfortably. "But I wouldn't fit in. Not least because things would never really be square between me and your ruler. And there are a lot of people back home depending on me." Plus, I've only been here two days, and I'm already dying for a steak sandwich. "But it's okay. I'm leaving Equestria in good hands."
"Yeah, the Princess knows what she's doing," Rainbow asserted.
"Heh. Silly pony. I meant yours." I shifted my staff to my left hand and held out my right to the zippy pegasus.
She hardly hesitated at all before she put her hoof in it and shook firmly. "Of course you did!" she said. "Together, the six of us can do anything!"
"I think you're right." Grinning, I offered my hand to Fluttershy next. She barely touched it with hers, but then surprised me completely by leaning in to give me a peck on the cheek, light and brief as the brush of a butterfly's wing. I held perfectly still, grinning like an idiot, until she pulled back, then turned to Rarity. She placed her hoof daintily in my palm, and I raised it gently to my lips, just like a good storybook knight.
Applejack and Pinkie Pie had walked up while that was going on, and the cowgirl pony stepped up next, grabbing my hand in both fore-hooves and pumping my arm so hard she nearly shook something loose in my elbow. "It was mighty fine meetin' ya'll, Harry. An' thanks fer ever'thang!"
"The same to you, Applejack," I said, when I finally managed to extract my paw from her grip. "And thank you too."
Pinkie Pie wasn't going to be upstaged by anybody. No sooner had I gotten away from Applejack than I found myself being hugged to within an inch of my life. "You were the coolest, Harry! I had a great time hanging out with you!"
"Even all the times you nearly got killed?" I asked incredulously.
Behind me, there was a sharp snort from Rainbow Dash.
"Of course, silly willy! Those were the best! It's gonna be seriously boring around here without you, or that yellow guy, or Discord."
"Pin-kie!" the rest of them chorused.
"I have a feeling you'll find some way to stay entertained," I told her.
"I'm ready whenever you are, Sir Harry," Twilight called from her station in the middle of the crumbled room.
"Yeah," I said, lumbering back to my feet. "No point putting it off, eh?"
Her circle was prepared; six candles and six focus items laid out around the intricate inscriptions. "Huh," I muttered, considering the formerly inexplicable collection of objects. "They represent the six of you, don't they?"
"Of course. Friendship is magic. And my magic is inextricably tied to my friends." Twilight blinked up at me. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
I nodded acknowledgment of that, and knelt once more to offer her my hand as well. Her shake was firm and calm. "Of course not," I said. "I'm very glad to have met you, Twilight. And your friends. And I hope you never need my help again. But if you do, know that I'll give it, no question."
"I know. You're our friend too." And with that, she turned away and began the travel spell. It came together in a matter of moments here, the purple-white dome reforming just as I'd seen it before, echoing the brilliant light of her horn.
I stood up, rubbing at the middle of my forehead, and strode through without a backward glance.
The sun was just as brilliant in the parking lot behind my office as it had been when I left. In fact, it looked as though no more than a couple of hours had gone by. "Huh. Figures the time difference would only run in a useful direction when I didn't need it to," I muttered. "Hey, Clyde, you miss me?"
The faerie steed was waiting patiently where I left him, returned to his shiny white Dodge Charger look, and only responded with a short, sharp noise halfway between a horse's snort and a big-block engine revving. "Yeah, that's what I thought," I answered, as if I had any idea what he'd really meant. I swung open his driver's door, letting the Earlking's heavy black sword slide off my shoulder finally, and leaning in to set it on the floor, against the passenger's seat. "Well, we've got a little errand to run back to mommy dearest's court, it looks like. I think I'll let her decide how best to get this thing back to its rightful owner." Mab would probably have some sneaky, convoluted arrangement all set up to get as much diplomatic leverage out of the Goblin King as she could in doing so. I'd leave her to it. I had no desire at all to run across that particular hunter again, under any circumstances.
I was about to swing myself into Clyde's seat when a familiar, throaty roar cut through the morning quiet, approaching quickly. I stood back up. "Hmm. Change of plan, maybe."
Sure enough, a moment later a small woman in black leathers on a black Harley rolled up into the lot, and glided to a smooth stop in front of me. She cut the engine and pulled off her black helmet, revealing bright blue eyes and a short brush of golden blonde hair framing a cute cheerleader's face.
"Heya, Murph!" I greeted her.
"Hi, Harry. You free? There's something I could use your help with down at headquarters."
"Sure, no problem. You just caught me. I'll follow you."
She paused, looking me up and down. "You look pretty beat for this early in the day. What have you been up to?"
I smirked at her. "Oh, you know. Just horsing around."
She nodded acceptingly and I turned to climb into the car. From behind me I heard, "Is that why you have a 'Kick Me' sign on your back?"