Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 47: Taking Stock
Though the meeting with Prince Terrato over, Applejack walked out of the Grand Meeting Hall as uncertain of the future as she was when she walked in. Like Twilight, and probably the rest of her friends, she had expected Prince Terrato to immediately lay out plans to stop Black Rose and get Princess Celestia's power back. When that wasn't the case, she found herself at a loss as to how to feel about the prince. Princess Celestia was his family and family should come first. For him to set aside getting his sister's power back from this Black Rose was…difficult to swallow.
Yet, when Twilight openly protested against Terrato's priorities, Applejack couldn't bring herself to join her friend. She considered herself loyal to the princess. She knew that Twilight was even more so but that didn't make her disloyal. But some part of her held back when Twilight spoke out. Was the difference in their loyalty really that much? She looked towards her other friends. None of them had spoken out either. Perhaps it was simply Terrato's intimidating presence or none of them could match Twilight's devotion to her teacher.
With the meeting over, the rest of them were already splitting up to go back to their duties. Rarity was walking off with Spike on her back. Pinkie Pie was hopping off to the kitchens and Fluttershy looked about to leave as well. The only exception seemed to be Twilight and that was because Applejack couldn't find her. 'Must have gone off to stay with the princess,' she thought. She had to admire that about Twilight. Banishment, signing up for the Legion and the loss of her teacher's power didn't faze her loyalty one bit.
Speaking of loyalty, Applejack's gaze focused on a particular pony associated with that Element of Harmony. For the past two days, Rainbow Dash had avoided her entirely. She had always felt that Rainbow Dash's ability to fly gave the pegasus a distinct advantage over her. Trying to pin down one of Equestria's finest flyers in a busy city was nigh impossible. Seeing a chance to do something about it while all of them were still walking, she decided to change her approach. She walked over to Rainbow Dash who, at the sight of her, was already about to take off. "Hey, RD!" she started. "You were uh…you were pretty awesome during that last fight!"
Rainbow Dash hesitated, something that Applejack took as a good sign. "You think so?" she asked cautiously.
The still-healing gashes around Rainbow's head made it difficult for Applejack to agree but she forced down her concern like a one-too-many slice of apple pie. "Yeah, without that Sonic Rainboom you smacked Nightmare Moon's wall with, we would have never beaten her!"
The corners of Rainbow's lips twitched briefly. Before Applejack could say another word however, Scarlet's voice threatened to halt the small bit of progress she was making.
"Hey, Rainbow! You up for tonight? Today's payday and we can go for the really good stuff!"
Applejack gritted her teeth as she felt Rainbow start to pull away. "Wait just a goll-darn-!"
"No drinking for you tonight, Scarlet, I've got orders for you. Let's go."
To hear Vanguard stop what would have been another drinking session between the two was sheer music to Applejack's ears.
"But, Captain, it's payday! We're not under siege anymore and Storm Brew's got a fresh batch of 'Good Stuff' lined up!"
"I said 'orders', Scarlet, not 'polite requests'. Let's go."
As the two stallions were about to leave, Vanguard gave Applejack a quick glance and a nod. His way for apologizing for Scarlet and helping her out, she guessed. She replied with a smile and a nod of her own as he passed by her, then turned her focus back to Rainbow. "Right, like I was…why are you looking at me like that, Rainbow?"
"I saw that," Rainbow remarked with a sly smile. It was the first smile that Applejack had seen from her friend in days and it was the sort that she didn't really like. While the two of them were talking again, she knew that Rainbow was doing her best to steer the conversation into other things.
"You know what I'm talking about!"
When Applejack stared at her blankly in response, Rainbow's amusement turned into puzzlement. "You like Vanguard, don't you?" she tried again.
"Of course I like Vanguard. What kind of a silly question is that?"
"I mean you really, really like him!"
Another blank response had Rainbow putting a hoof to her face. "Forget it. There's no point poking you if you won't squirm."
"You keep your poking to yourself, RD."
The two of them walked on in silence. Applejack noticed that it wasn't long until they came upon the corner which would lead to Flight Dreadwing's barracks. She had to say something now or waste this chance. "About the last fight…" she started again.
"It wasn't enough," Rainbow said quietly.
"What wasn't enough? Your Sonic Rainboom? But you broke through that wall!"
"I mean breaking the wall wasn't enough."
"Enough for what?" Applejack asked cautiously. She was getting somewhere here, she could feel it.
"Enough to…to…" Rainbow hesitated and looked away. Her wings twitched as if she was about to fly off without saying anything. Applejack understood the temptation. It seemed so much easier than trying to talk things out. But the pegasus pressed her lips and closed her eyes briefly, trying to gather some courage. "Enough to make up for what happened to you!" she finally blurted out.
Applejack frowned at the answer. "Now listen here. Nopony ever blamed you about what happened to me during that battle. Especially not me!"
"I blame me," Rainbow retorted. "I messed up. Badly. I have to do something to make up for it and the last battle wasn't enough!"
"And when will it be enough?" Applejack asked gently. "There ain't some dip stick you can use to tell if you've done enough."
"I'll…I'll just know," Rainbow insisted. "I have to go, Applejack. The flight captain's going to get angry if she catches me just hanging around instead of getting back to my duties."
Applejack nodded and the pegasus started to fly off. "Rainbow!" she called out at the last moment. Rainbow Dash hovered in mid air for a second. "Stay with us tonight."
Rainbow hesitated again, her eyes looking everywhere except at Applejack. "I'll try," she finally answered.
Applejack let herself smile. "I'll be waiting for you," she said. With that, Rainbow flew off while she made her way towards her platoon. That was all she was going to get from Rainbow today but she was glad that there was at least something accomplished besides a hoof to the face for either of them.
With Terrato's roar still ringing in her ears, Twilight Sparkle walked next to the two princesses as they followed a pair of guards to their quarters. Prince Terrato had assigned them to the best room in all of Bastion City, a room that had been prepared for him but he had decided to let his sisters use. Like all of Bastion City, even "the best room in the city" was modest at best.
By the time Celestia was heading towards the bed, she was already having trouble staying on her hooves. Twilight and Luna stood by either side of her, ready to help as soon as it became necessary.
"The prince requests that you stay in this room until he gives the word otherwise, your higness," one of the guards told Celestia. His words tried to be polite but his tone underneath his barding was flinty.
"What?" Twilight asked indignantly. "Is he going to keep her prisoner here?"
"We do as the prince commands, Legionnaire Sparkle," the guard replied. "You better remember that if you don't want another go at the whipping post."
"Twilight," Luna chastised her sister's student. She looked to the two guards and gave a nod of acknowledgement. "Thank you," she told them. "We'll do just that."
The two guards bowed respectfully at Luna, then left. "We will remain outside your door in case you need anything," one of them added before closing the door.
With the guards gone, Twilight was about to help her teacher lie down and get some rest when Celestia put a hoof on her shoulder. She looked up to find concern on her mentor's face. "Twilight, what did that guard mean by 'another go'?" Celestia asked.
Silently cursing at the guard for his poor choice of words, Twilight struggled to come up with an explanation. "W-well, what he meant was…" She caught a passing glance at Princess Luna. It only took that for the alicorn to tell her wordlessly that the truth was the best option here. "That's because…that's because I've been whipped before, princess," she admitted.
"Big brother was going to have the pony who gave her the trigger hanged, big sister," Luna hastened to add when she saw Celestia's eyes widen. "Twilight agreed to be whipped alongside him to save his life."
Even though she was still wearing her mage-coat, Twilight felt as if the few remaining marks of the whip along her back lit up for her mentor to see. She closed her eyes, fearing an angry outburst. No such thing came.
Upon hearing those words from Celestia, Twilight opened her eyes and looked up to her mentor's face in confusion. There was no outraged expression waiting for her, only a pained, sorrowful look that caused her chest to ache. "Princess, you don't-"
"I was the one who ordered the division. Terrato did nothing more than enforce my law. I'm so sorry, Twilight."
Choking back a sob, Twilight stepped forward to hug Celestia, who returned the gesture tenderly. From afar, Luna watched the two of them with a smile. After a few moments of silence, Twilight spoke again. "Aren't you angry that I'm a legionnaire now?" she asked.
"But I-I did things that were…expected of legionnaires. The things you feared would only turn ponies into monsters like the wolven!"
Celestia didn't answer right away. For a moment, both Luna and Twilight feared that she was angry now that she was reminded of that fact. But there was still no anger. Instead, Celestia stared ahead of her sadly before finally replying. "Just a few days ago, some ponies attacked the royal palace," she began. "They killed some of my guards while they were trying to steal the Elements of Harmony. When I got to the Chamber of Harmony and saw what they had done…" She paused and closed her eyes tightly for a second. "I was so angry that I…that I lashed out."
Still in an embrace, Twilight could feel Celestia tremble slightly.
"I have never killed a mortal before, pony or otherwise," Celestia continued. "It happened so quickly that I couldn't help but be frightened."
Twilight looked at her teacher in concern. "Princess…" she started. She felt Celestia's long exhale.
Celestia was quiet again. "But now I have done such a thing," she continued. She mustered a weak smile. "I've realized that I'm just as prone to anger and violence as any of my little ponies. Now that I've spent a little time talking to Luna and Terrato, I'm starting to think that I've been too hasty to judge." She pushed Twilight gently so she could look at her faithful student's eyes. Twilight glanced away, afraid of what her mentor would find if she looked too deeply. She also didn't want to see the reaction. If Celestia were to turn away in disgust or disappointment, she just knew that she would crumble on the spot. When she finally forced herself to glance briefly, however, she found neither.
"I want to see for myself what happens out here and to the ponies who live here," Celestia went on. "I want to know if there is a truth to what Terrato had been telling me. I want to see everything first before making a judgment again."
"Oh, princess," Twilight said joyously. "I knew you'd understand!"
Even Luna couldn't help but smile. "You should get some rest, big sister," she said.
Celestia nodded in agreement and lay down on the bed. The furs disconcerted her a little but she quickly settled down and closed her eyes. With one more fond glance at Celestia, Twilight went over to Luna, who was sitting by a desk with a book. "You should be resting too, your highness," she said. "You really exerted yourself in that last fight."
"I'll be fine, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied as she turned a page. "You should be going. I'm sure you have other duties as a legionnaire and I doubt playing nursemaid to two princesses is one of them."
"I will," Twilight replied. She walked over to Luna and looked over the princess's shoulder. "Doing some reading, your highness?" she asked. "Where'd you get those?" She looked at the title on the cover: "Barrier Lands Law".
"I had some of the guards get them during my last visit," Luna answered. When she noticed the quizzical look on Twilight's face, she elaborated on her choice of subject. "I knew this was going to happen eventually. Now that the division is over, I want to be prepared to rule over a united Equestria with my siblings. Knowing and understanding the laws that Terrato has laid down out here should help."
"Sounds like a good plan," Twilight remarked. "I'll be going then, princess." She didn't hide the admiration in her tone. She hadn't thought of things like that. The three siblings ruling together in a single Equestria…she had almost forgotten that the division's end should be a good thing because of the manner it ended. Her smile lessened when her thoughts turned towards Prince Terrato. It wasn't fear for her life that kept her silent amid all his shouting. She could feel his resentment boiling through his words. Even now, he confined his eldest sister to a room and planned things without her. If there was going to be a chance to unite Equestria, he was needed.
Luna watched as Twilight Sparkle left the room, then turned her attention to her now sleeping sister. 'This isn't how I hoped it was going to happen but we are finally moving forward, big sister,' she thought. She looked towards the door, thinking of her other sibling. 'Now if only some of us can help instead of making things more difficult…'
The medical ward was quiet by the time Fluttershy made it back. After the initial rush of injured after the last battle, the activity in the ward had slowed down to a peaceful crawl. She was thankful for that much at least. After she had returned to her duties, Doctor Redbrand had given her an earful which the other medics thought was too light after what they had gone through. For today, she hoped that the doctor was in a better mood. She spotted Redbrand from afar sitting quietly by his desk. There was that morose expression on his face again. She sometimes wondered if it was actually better if he was angrily shouting at ponies. Whenever he quieted down, he had that depressed expression which only served to highlight every line on his face. She was about to walk over and see if there was something she could do for him when she passed by two senior medics talking: Headwrap and Kneescrape as she recognized them.
"Mail's finally here!" Headwrap said with a grin as he held up a bundle of letters. "First its payday and now we get all our mail in one go!"
"Good thing the damn siege didn't last long or we'd have a mountain of them to sort out," Kneescrape muttered while Headwrap sorted through the bundle.
Noticing Fluttershy nearby, Headwrap looked at her. "You expecting mail, Fluttershy?" he asked good-naturedly.
"She's from the Heartland, idiot," Kneescrape remarked. "How is she supposed to get any mail?"
"I would love to get some mail, though," Fluttershy said to try and placate Headwrap. "Did you two get any?"
"Looks like I got one from my sister here," Headwrap said.
"Doubt I'd get any from my family," Kneescrape muttered. "Probably one from that mule, Goldtouch, telling me to pay off my debt."
"Here's one for Redbrand!" Headwrap said, his enthusiasm fading.
"Oh throw it away. It's probably his nag of a wife bleeding him dry again. Get rid of it and tell him that it must have gotten lost during delivery if he asks around. You'd be doing the old pony a favor."
"No way. If he finds out he'll saw my legs off."
"Doctor Redbrand has a wife?" Fluttershy interrupted.
"Not exactly something he likes to bring up," Headwrap replied. He gave an annoyed glance at Kneescrape before returning his attention to Fluttershy. "You're always on his good side, Fluttershy, you can give this to him."
Fluttershy nodded, then took the plain white envelope in her mouth. While the two continued to sort through the mail, she headed for Redbrand's desk.
"About time you came back!" Redbrand snapped at her as soon as she came closer. "Your pay's here." He gestured towards the pouch of bits on his desk. "What's that letter you've got there?"
Fluttershy handed the envelope over before replying. "It's from your wife," she said with some enthusiasm. Despite what Headwrap and Kneescrape were talking about earlier, she still felt that receiving letters from loved ones was a good thing.
"Bah! The money's on the way as it always is!" Redbrand groused. He opened the enveloped, glanced at the letter, then tossed it into a nearby waste bin. "I don't know why she has to waste time and paper reminding me every month."
"Aren't you happy that your wife sent you a letter?" Fluttershy asked in confusion.
"Ever been married, Fluttershy?" Redbrand responded. When Fluttershy shook her head, he snorted. "Thank your Princess Celestia or whoever. Nothing sours things between ponies like marriage." He waved a hoof dismissively and looked away. When Fluttershy didn't leave, he frowned and turned his attention back on her. "What in the hay do you still want?"
"Is that why you drink so much and look sad so often?"
"Terrato grind me, you're a stubborn filly!" Redbrand pulled out his flask and opened it only to catch a disapproving look from Fluttershy. He lowered the flask briefly and scowled. "You're cruel for keeping an old pony from the few comforts he can afford."
"You know that it doesn't work."
"And do you have an alternative?" Redbrand snorted again. Before he could take a drink however, Fluttershy moved closer and around his desk. A moment later, he felt her hooves around him.
"I'm sorry about your wife."
A moment of silence passed before Redbrand grumbled again. He had put the flask aside in the meantime. "I don't see what you're trying to do besides ending up smelling like a brewery on fire."
Hearing no protest, Fluttershy stayed that way for some time.
"Don't they have some other pegasus for this?" Scarlet protested. "Why am I always getting tagged for special deliveries?"
"Because you're the best pony for the job," Vanguard replied tersely. "These orders need to get to our agents down south as soon as possible and you're our fastest."
"Not for long," Scarlet replied with a grin.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You saw it, Captain! That sparkly, flashy exploding thing that Rainbow Dash did!"
"I believe it's called 'Sonic Rainboom'." Vanguard replied. He had asked Twilight about the move a day ago. He was certainly impressed but it also made him worry and he was now seeing why.
"She could beat me in a race," Scarlet said, his face now serious. "A fair race. If she did that Sonic Rainboom, she'd blow past me!"
Vanguard matched the serious tone with his own. "And if she fails like Overcast, are you going to go into a rage and beat her half to death?" he asked. "I'm not letting that happen again. If it does, mark my words there will be no cover up this time."
"There won't be a next time," Scarlet replied. "I know she can do it. Even Tailwind knows she can do it!"
"Take your weights off," Vanguard ordered. "We need you at your fastest."
With a shrug, Scarlet undid the straps on some of his barding, revealing what appeared to be a large strip of padded cloth wrapped around his torso. A few more straps and the cloth fell to the ground with a heavy, metallic clank, revealing several large bars tucked into the fabric. The pavement vibrated upon impact.
"Do not goad her into racing you, Scarlet," Vanguard said. He gripped the pegasus by his harness and pulled him closer. "I don't care if she stands a good chance at beating you. I'm asking as your friend and ordering you as your captain. If you race and she gets hurt, I will tie that noose around your neck myself.
"Okay, Captain. If you're that serious about it, I won't."
Vanguard let his friend go. "Good," he said. "One more thing. No more heavy drinking sessions with her."
"Now that's just unfair! We're just having good times! It's got nothing to do with racing!"
Vanguard let out a sigh and patted Scarlet on the shoulder. "I know," he said. "I know you mean well by being friendly, Scarlet, but your friendship is…well, like Storm Brew's 'Strong Stuff'. Not everypony is capable of dealing with it."
"Rainbow Dash can."
"No. She can't. She's like that filly who goes into a bar and pretends like she can hold her liquor while the rest of us laugh as staggers around. Keep some distance from now on alright?"
Scarlet practically deflated when he replied. "Alright, Captain. I'm taking off now then."
"Right, be on your way."
Vanguard blinked once and Scarlet was already gone. He tried to scan the sky for the pegasus but he didn't even catch a silhouette. 'Of all the pegasi in Equestria to be gifted with that speed, why did it have to be you, Scarlet?' he silently asked.
With Scarlet dealt with for now, Vanguard went on with the rest of his duties.
The sun was setting and Applejack was heading back to her shared quarters when she heard a familiar, deep-voiced growl of a voice call out her name from behind her. She turned around, a smile already on her lips. "Oh howdy, Vanguard," she said as the black-armored stallion walked up to her. "You done for the day?"
"Almost." he said. "I was thinking of getting a drink. Would you like to join me?"
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "That's not Special Operations talk for catching more criminals is it?" she asked.
Vanguard chuckled. "No. There's going to be actual drinking involved this time. Scarlet mentioned that Storm Brew has a new batch of 'Good Stuff'."
"I reckon I can stay for a spell and be back to wait for Rainbow in time."
The two of them turned at one corner. "By the way, thank you kindly for dealing with Scarlet Rabbit earlier," Applejack said.
"Did you get to talk with Rainbow Dash?"
"A little. It's going to take more than a talk or two to patch things up but I'm just glad we took a step forward today."
"Good. I hope you don't take this against Scarlet. He means well. He just...perceives things differently."
Applejack nodded in understanding. The two of them finally reached Storm Brew's new brewery. They were just about to walk through the free-swinging double doors when a white unicorn mare with a bright purple mane that look like she had just been struck by lightning leaped over the counter to greet them. "Vanguard!" she called out. "I knew you'd come for this batch! Where's Scarlet and that new drinking buddy of his?"
"They're not coming, Storm Brew, we'll have some of that 'Good Stuff' though," Vanguard replied.
Applejack looked at Vanguard in surprise. "That's Storm Brew?" she asked I thought he-I mean she-"
"Was some crusty, old, bearded stallion?" Storm Brew asked. "I get that often." She showed them over to the counter just as some more ponies stepped into the building. It wasn't long until both of them had a glass of the clear, crackling liquid in front of them.
"Is this going to shock me like it did Pinkie if I drink it?" Applejack asked worriedly.
"Only if you gulp it down," Vanguard replied before taking a sip. "This is a drink made for moderation."
Following his example, Applejack took a sip and grimaced, expecting an electric shock anyway. When none came, she licked her lips, pleasantly surprised at the tingly feeling in her mouth."She wasn't kidding with the name," she remarked. "This is good stuff!"
"And another convert joins up!" Storm Brew said with a laugh. "I don't know about all the things I keep hearing about the chosen but I know for sure that you have good taste." She looked over to Vanguard. "Figures you'd go for an earth pony," she said slyly.
"I get enough of that from my mother, Storm Brew," Vanguard replied.
With another laugh, Storm Brew left them to tend to the other customers. Vanguard unfastened his champron and set it on the bar. Applejack found herself staring. Vanguard wore his barding almost all the time so the sight of his face left her feeling…odd. His black, curly mane somehow remained carefully arranged despite being trapped in metal for long periods of time. A few locks proved rebellious and peeked down his eyes. She noticed her hoof seemingly move on its own as if to brush them away until she consciously set it on the bar. 'What in tarnation…what was that all about?'
They sat there for a while, quietly sipping their drinks. It was Vanguard who spoke again. "So how are you holding up?" he asked.
"Holding up? What do you mean? My injury? It's fine. It doesn't hurt at all."
"I mean about Twocolt. The two of you were friends right?"
Applejack stared at her drink for a moment. "I should just be happy that his highness decided not to hang him," she said with a wistful smile. "That's good enough, right?"
They were quiet again. This time, it was Applejack who broke that. "So you need something?" she asked.
Vanguard raised an eyebrow. "A relaxing drink not enough?" he asked.
Applejack couldn't help but chuckle. "Not for you!" she replied.
"Alright, I'll get to it. I spoke with Commander Dreadstep today. He told me that you and the others are going to stay grouped as a squad to make use of the Elements of Harmony whenever they're needed. He's asked me to lead this squad whenever it's deployed in battle."
"So...does that mean you got promoted?" Applejack asked. She didn't like the idea of the Elements of Harmony being "deployed". It just didn't seem like what ponies should think about doing with them.
"More like a re-assignment. I assume that this squad is only needed for Nightmare Moon and possibly Black Rose."
"So why'd you need to talk to me about this?"
Vanguard looked at Applejack carefully. For some reason, she couldn't match his stare and had to look away. Perhaps it was the eyes, his wolven-eyes seemed too intense today.
"I need a vice-captain for this squad at least. I was thinking that you should take that position."
"Me?" Applejack asked in surprise. "But...but why not Twilight? Her magic's a lot more useful and stuff!"
"It's not power or utility I'm looking for. It's restraint. That's why I want you."
Applejack felt blood rush to her face. "Couldn't you have said that some other way?" she muttered.
Vanguard didn't seem to notice. "Well?" he asked.
"I…uh…well alright, Vanguard Clash. I'll do it."
"Thank you." Vanguard said with a smile. "That puts me at ease a bit."
Applejack emptied her glass hastily. The tingling sensation turned into a jolt that almost made her jump from her chair. Some of the liquid got caught in her throat, making her splutter. "Heh…all your dramatic talk's getting me flustered," she said. To make things worse, Vanguard put a hoof on her back, forcing her to look away to hide her face.
"Take it easy, vice-captain." Vanguard said. "We've got work tomorrow."