TSAB Central Command Building
NCY 0076, Late Spring
Griffith was waiting for him at the landing pad. That was never a good sign.
Chrono carefully climbed out of the helicopter, the wind from the rotors rustling his hair as he stepped onto the ground. Unlike the candidates who had to take the train back to Central from the Urban Combat Training Zone, Chrono and Twilight had taken the helicopter. It was one of the perks of his rank, after all.
Griffith quickly came to attention, saluting as Chrono approached him. “Welcome back, Sir.”
“At ease, Griffith.” Chrono waved his good hand gently as Twilight stepped out of the helicopter behind him. “What’s the problem this time?”
Griffith sighed, ruffling his hair. “Lieutenant General Gais wishes to speak with you, Sir.”
“Something wrong, Chrono?” Twilight looked up to him curiously.
Chrono sighed, shaking his head. “Just politics as usual, Twilight. Nothing out of the ordinary. I‘m used to it by now.”
“Sir,” Griffith quickly fell in beside Chrono as he began walking, Twilight matching their pace as they headed towards the elevator, “if you would like, I could accompany you-”
“I’ll be fine Griffith. Besides, you and Twilight have to get ready for the debriefing, remember?” Chrono smirked slightly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with the old hawk already, remember? If I‘m not back in time for the debriefing, go ahead without me.”
“If you insist, Sir.”
Chrono shrugged. “If it’s necessary, then it’s necessary. Come on, the elevator’s waiting for us.
“So,” Twilight glanced over to Griffith as Chrono got off the elevator, the doors closing behind him, “who’s Lieutenant General Gais? I‘ll admit, I‘ve studied up on the Bureau‘s hierarchy, but I really can‘t claim to know everyone…”
Griffith sighed. “Lieutenant General Regius Gais is the man in charge of the CDC.”
“The Capital Defense Corps? That sounds familiar…“ Twilight rubbed her chin, then paused. “I think I recognize that name now. I remember seeing him on the news here.”
“You probably have. He’s one of the few high-ranking officers that aren’t mages. There’s also his rather overt rivalry with the Dimensional Navy and the fact that he’s a very outspoken hawk. It makes sense that the press loves him. He‘s popular, and he makes headlines.”
“But what does he have to do with Chrono?”
“The group Chrono’s putting together will be stationed here in Cranagan. As such it falls under the CDC’s oversight, even though it’s technically not affiliated with either it or the Ground Forces.” Griffith shrugged slightly. “That means the Captain has to play ball. I don’t envy him; from what I‘ve heard, Gais can be rather…” He paused as he considered his words.
“Intractable?” Twilight supplied.
“Let’s go with that.”
Twilight sighed softly. “Trust me, I know what that‘s like. I’ve had to handle more than a few stubborn ponies back in Equestria. Heck, some of them are my best friends.”
“I’m sure Captain Harlaown will welcome your sympathies then.” Griffith turned back to the door as the elevator bell chimed. “Here’s our floor. We should probably get to work, Special Instructor Sparkle.”
“Twilight, please. If nothing else, it’ll be easier to just be on a first name basis while we’re working.”
Griffith nodded. “Yes ma’am. Twilight it is, then.”
Twilight followed after Griffith, skipping merrily. “And now it’s time for my favorite part of my job; compiling a neat, precise and easily understood summery. Oh, I love putting together reports like this…”
Griffith chuckled nervously at Twilight‘s glee. “I can’t say I’m used to someone actually being enthusiastic over paperwork.”
“Nonsense. This sort of thing is important! Critique and analysis is a necessary part of examinations like these. We’d be doing a disservice to the candidates if we just slacked off. Now come on, let’s get to work! I‘ve already had Raising Heart put together the mental notes I took during the exam…”
Chrono sighed as he paused in front of the large door before him. He wasn’t looking forward to meeting the man just beyond.
Might as well get it over with, he thought to himself as he reached up, rapping his knuckles on the door.
“Enter,” a gruff voice called from within. Chrono tapped on the pad to open the door and stepped inside.
Regius Gais’ office was rather at odds with the more modern aesthetic of the building outside. High, well-packed bookshelves dominated either wall of the rectangular room, while thick carpet softened his footsteps. Regius’ large wooden-topped desk was placed in front of a large window that looked out onto the cityscape beyond, sunlight glinting off the well-polished dark wood.
The man himself rested in the high-backed chair, watching as Chrono approached him. If Chrono had to describe Gais in one word, that word would be ’bearish.’ The man was certainly built like one: broad shouldered, bulldog-necked, barrel-chested and heavy in the middle. Despite being in his fifties, his neatly trimmed dark brown hair didn‘t show a single bit of gray, nor did the thick muttonchops that merged with his equally boxy beard and mustache. His eyes were deep set and piercing behind his large, protruding nose. He was dressed in well-tailored officer’s blues; a dark blue coat with gold shoulder pads and braid over a white shirt and blue tie, the gold badge of the Capital Defense Corps emblazoned on either sleeve.
However, despite his somewhat unpleasant appearance, there was a sense of implacable solidity to the man. Regius Gais seemed to fill up the entire room with his presence, exuding the sort of confidence and force of will that could cow a weaker willed person. Chrono wouldn’t have expected anything less from a man who had clawed his way up to his position like Regius.
Then again, Regius’ intimidating presence didn’t hold a candle to some of the beings Chrono had met.
Chrono came to a halt and snapped a salute to Regius. “Captain Harlaown reporting, Sir. You wished to see me?”
“Yes. Please, have a seat.” Gais gestured to the chairs before his desk. He leaned forward as Chrono took a seat, lacing his fingers together and resting his elbows on the desk.
“I’ve called you in here to give you notification about your unit, Captain. Specifically, where you’ll be based at.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Chrono replied.
Gais reached down, opening a desk drawer out of Chrono’s sight before producing a folder, setting it down before him. “You’ll find the details in here, Captain.”
“Thank you Sir. May I?” Chrono gestured to the folder.
Chrono carefully lifted the folder and settled it into his lap, flipping it open and peering at the contents. He paused, staring at the images in disbelief. “Long Arch, Sir?”
“Something the matter with the facilities there, Captain?”
“No Sir. The base at Long Arch is… well, ideal for our purposes, Sir,” Chrono replied as he shut the folder. Not to mention I figured you’d have stuck us in the ass end of nowhere if you could‘ve gotten away with it.
Gais grunted irritably. “I’ll admit, Long Arch wasn’t my first choice. However, your backers made it quite clear that you were to be given the best we had to offer, so I had to oblige.”
And you couldn’t risk the political fallout of looking TOO contrarian in front of the higher ups, Chrono appended mentally. “Thank you for your generosity, Sir.”
“Spare me, Harlaown,” Gais growled softly. “I’m not particularly fond of this little circus you’re putting together. A kid your age has no business running a unit this… weird. I’ve already made my objections to this plan, but it seems like the guys at HQ are willing to indulge you, so I’ll play along.
“But let me make this clear, Captain Harlaown.” Gais tapped his finger on the ink-blotter on his desk as he spoke. “I don‘t trust your little pony friends. I don’t care what ranks they claim to have; this is the Bureau, not a petting zoo. As head of your unit, I expect you to remember where your loyalties really lie and not pander to a pack of pretty little ponies or their so-called goddesses.
“Now as if that wasn’t bad enough, you’ve also decided to saddle yourself with those supposedly ‘reformed’…” Regius’s lips twisted as though he were about to spit, “individuals the Saint Church has been parading around on a leash for the past few years. Heaven knows why you‘d want them, though. Between them and the ponies the security risk is enough to give anyone sane a conniption.
“The only reason I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt is that you had the decency to earn your rank the hard way.” His eyes lingered on Chrono’s arm and eye patch with begrudging respect before he continued. “That’s pretty uncommon in the Navy nowadays. That goes a long way with me, shows character. So I’m going to give you a chance to prove yourself. But if I get even the slightest whiff of something improper, even the smallest hint that you‘re abusing the trust this Bureau has put in you, I will come down on you like the Belkan Host itself. Am I clear, Captain Harlaown?”
“Perfectly, Sir.” Chrono replied promptly.
“Good. Here‘s hoping you‘ll impress me, Captain.”
“I‘ll see what I can do, Lieutenant General.”
Gais looked at him for a moment. For a second, Chrono could have sworn he saw a flicker of melancholy pass over Gais’ expression. Then he gave a grunt and turned away, his chair creaking. “I’m sure you will. You’ll want to talk to the Base Command Authority to hammer out the requisition details. Otherwise, we’re done here. Dismissed.”
Chrono rose to his feet, saluted with his good hand, and then turned on his heel and walked off with the folder tucked under his right arm.
Well, that’s one less thing to worry about, Chrono thought to himself as he stepped out of the office and headed towards the elevator. Looks like this is all coming together nicely. I guess I have a little time before the briefing. Hopefully I’ll have enough time to put together my report…
The briefing room the four examinees were in was much like the rest of Central Command: clean, white and modern. Several staggered rows of desks filled the room, arranged in a curve following the back wall. It reminded Subaru of some of the lecture halls at the Ground Forces Academy.
She lounged slightly in her chair, staring up at the ceiling. Even after the train-ride back to Central Command, she was still reeling from the events of the exam. It wasn’t every day one met one’s idol face-to-face like that, after all.
I can’t believe she still remembers me, Subaru thought to herself, her hands folded behind her head as she leaned back further. It’s been… gosh, how many years? And she remembered me. And she saw my exam too!
She paused, her eyes getting a bit wide. She saw my exam. Oh no… what if she wasn’t impressed? This is Twilight Sparkle we’re talking about here. The Alicorn Ace! She’s probably seen so much magic that nothing surprises her any more. What if she… oh Kaiser, she saw me use the Buster. What if she gets mad about me for copying one of her spells like that?! I mean, it’s not exactly a secret; her spells are on file at HQ for use in her teaching curricula, but still…
Subaru felt a finger poke her on the cheek. “Subaru? Oi, Subaru!”
“Huhwha?!” Subaru sat up with a jerk, flailing slightly as she did so.
Teana quickly jerked her hand away. “You were making faces at the ceiling.”
Subaru blushed, letting out a nervous laugh. “Sorry Tea. I guess I must’ve zoned out there for a second.”
“You’ve been ‘zoned out’ ever since we got off the train,” a second voice commented. Subaru glanced down as Spike approached the pair. Scootaloo was a ways behind him, pacing slowly back and forth with her tail swishing. “You sure you’re alright? I mean, you didn‘t get conked on the head during the exam or anything, right?”
“No! No, it’s just I‘m… you know, worried…”
“About the exam?”
“Sort of…” Subaru glanced away slightly.
“I think Subaru’s more worried about impressing Special Instructor Sparkle,” Teana deadpanned.
“What? You’ve been all starry-eyed ever since she stepped out of that helicopter.”
“I have not!”
“Subaru,” Teana crossed her arms, “I had to drag you around by the elbow just to get you to this room.”
“Oh… heh…” Subaru scratched at the back of her neck nervously. “Sorry.”
“I swear, I never understood how someone as smart as you can be such an air-head sometimes.” Teana shook her head and let out a heavy sigh.
“Well, I don’t think she has to worry about that,” Spike smirked. “From the way she was talking to you back at the finish line, it looked like she kinda likes you, Subaru.”
“R-really!? You could tell?”
“I’ve lived around Twilight ever since I was a hatchling. Trust me, I can tell.” Spike glanced over his shoulder to peer at Scootaloo. “You’ll be fine, unlike a certain grumpy, hot-headed pegasus who will remain nameless!”
“Oh, go choke on a diamond.” Scootaloo fluffed her wings as she snorted. “You got the stink-eye too, remember?”
“Is she always like that?” Teana peered over at Scootaloo.
Spike shrugged. “Eh, she’s a little prickly and defensive, but once you get used to her she’s alright…”
“Sounds like someone else I know.” Subaru smirked as Teana glared at her. She could almost see the vein throbbing on Teana’s forehead. “Of course, Tea isn’t quite as cute as-”
“Oh, you did not just say that, Subaru! Come here you!” Teana lunged, quickly pulling Subaru into a headlock and grinding her knuckles into her scalp.
“Gah! Hehe! Tea!” Subaru squirmed, laughing as she grabbed onto Teana’s arm as the other girl noogied her. “Tea, leggo! Eek!”
“Not until you take that back, you big, dumb-”
Subaru paused, as did Teana. Scootaloo was glaring at the two of them. She quickly trotted towards them, pushing Spike out of the way as she did so. When she got close she reared up, setting her hooves on the Teana’s arm-rests before glaring at her.
“Let. Her. Go.” Her wings bristled, and her eyes were hard. “Right now.”
Dumbfounded, Teana blinked and then slowly unlooped her arm from around Subaru’s neck. “Alright, there. Happy?”
Scootaloo nodded curtly and then looked to Subaru. “You alright?”
“Uh… yeah. We get into fights like this all the time. Not like it’s a big deal or anything. Heck, it didn‘t even hurt. See?” Subaru gently tapped her knuckles on her head. “Hard head. If anything Tea probably hurt her knuckles.” Subaru tried to laugh, though it quickly trailed off as Scootaloo kept staring at her.
Scootaloo didn’t say anything. She simply drew back, putting a hoof to her eye before pointing at Teana as if to say ‘I’m watching you’ before trotting off.
“Sheesh,” Teana muttered softly under her breath as she looked at Spike, talking softly. “What the hell’s her problem? We were just rough-housing…”
“Um…” Spike ran his hand over one of his head spines. “I’m not sure if I should say. Let‘s just say she‘s a bit… sensitive about stuff like that.”
“No kidding,” Teana replied, glancing over at Scootaloo.
Subaru started to speak when the door to the briefing room hissed open. She rose to her feet along with Teana as Twilight and Griffith walked in, the former carrying a sheaf of papers in her magical grip, the latter carrying a data pad under his arm.
“Alright everyone,” Twilight began with a hint of good cheer to her voice as she ruffled her papers, “since you’re all here, it would be best if we got started. Captain Harlaown’s attending to other business right now, but he should be joining us shortly.”
“Now, we’ve tabulated your scores based on your individual performance during the exam.” Griffith tapped on his pad as he spoke. “The two of us were quite impressed. I’m happy to report that all four of you passed the exam.”
Subaru resisted the urge to fist pump.
“I’ve taken the liberty of preparing grading sheets for everyone,” Twilight said, separating the sheaf into smaller piles as she walked to the group. “These include the exam rubric, result scores, analysis, and comments from me and Warrant Officer Lowran. Digital versions will be sent to your Devices once Captain Harlaown completes his additions.”
Subaru reached up and took the sheets of paper in her hand, quickly thumbing through them.
“Now,” Griffith spoke after a few minutes of paper-rustling, “are there any questions?”
Subaru’s hand shot up.
“Yes, Private Nakajima?”
“Um… Special Instructor Sparkle, you’re not upset that I copied your spell?”
Twilight laughed softly, causing Subaru to blush. “Not at all. Actually, I was quite surprised you adapted my Divine Buster to your style of magic. You’re a Modern Belkan practitioner, correct?” She smiled as Subaru nodded. “I’d actually like to hear about how you modified it. From what I saw, you replaced the initial mana trigger with a physical impact and loosened the focus on the primary firing ring, correct?”
Subaru swallowed. “Um… yes, mostly. I had to compensate because my magic isn’t as strong as yours. My Buster’s range is only about fifty feet… sixty if I dump a full set of Cartridges…”
Subaru paused at the loud, noticeable cough. She turned, and then quickly snapped to a salute as Chrono walked into the room.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything important, Twilight.”
“Nothing that can‘t wait, Chrono. You’re just in time.”
“Excellent.” Chrono turned to the group, tucking his hand into his pants’ pocket as he smiled. “If I could have everyone’s attention, there’s something quite important I’d like to discuss with all of you…”
Chrono nodded to Spike’s query. “Correct. Its proper name is Resolution Instructional Operations Task Force. It’s a joint venture between the Equestrian government, the Saint Church, and the Bureau’s Military Instruction division, and I want all four of you to be a part of it.”
“I get that… but man, who came up with that name?”
Chrono chuckled. “I don’t pick the names out, Spike. You’ll have to take it up with the head office for that.” He glanced over at Teana as she raised her hand. “Yes, Private Lanster?”
“Pardon me for asking Sir, but why us? I mean, this sounds like an elite unit, something you’d want the best and the brightest for…”
“Normally, yes. However, RIOT Force is technically a training division. Its stated goal is to examine, nurture and teach individuals with unique skill sets, talents and backgrounds. Specifically, we’re looking for individuals who don’t necessarily fall in with the Bureau’s standard training models, which includes many Equestrians.”
“Technically, Equestria has already worked with the Bureau on a few occasions, though not to any extensive capacity,” Twilight supplied. “However, this will be the first official organization involving mages from both the Bureau and Equestria.”
“Ooh!” Subaru’s hand shot up. “Does this have to do with the JEMM Resolution?”
Chrono nodded. “Gold star to Private Nakajima. Yes, the Joint Equestrian-Mid Childa Military Resolution is one of the reasons why we’re able to officially form this unit. You can thank Princess Luna for that.
“Now don’t misunderstand, this isn’t going to be easy.” Chrono smiled slightly as he looked at the four. “We‘ll be demanding quite a lot from you. In addition to the rigorous training schedule, you’ll be assigned to low risk missions just as you would be if you were in an advanced training program like ATIC or Bureau Enforcement Training. However, you’ll be learning from and mentored by teachers like Special Instructor Sparkle,” he smirked as he saw Subaru’s eyes light up, “and upon completion, you’ll likely qualify for promotion in your respective organizations… as well as special programs like BET.” He saw Teana’s eyes get a bit wider as well.
“But that’s for you to decide,” Chrono shrugged. “Now, I’m not expecting an immediate response. Give it some thought and let me know your decision by the end of the week. That should cover things for now.” Chrono glanced over at Twilight. “I’ll send you my input later today. Right now, I need to borrow Griffith for a bit. I’m assuming the debrief is finished?”
“Well, for the most part… though I need to see Scootaloo and Spike in private for a little chat.” The unicorn glanced over to the two Equestrians. “But aside from that, I think we’re done. Do you agree, Griffith?”
Griffith nodded, turning back to the four candidates. “Privates Lanster and Nakajima, you’re free to go. Scootaloo and Spike, you’re to stay here with Special Instructor Sparkle.”
Chrono could almost hear Spike’s grumbling as he and Griffith walked out of the room. The two made their way down the hall towards the elevator blocks in relative silence, at least until they got into the elevator and the doors closed.
“What do you think, Griffith? Think they’ll bite?”
“Privates Lanster and Nakajima are likely to say yes,” Griffith replied, removing his glasses and cleaning them on his tunic sleeve. “I’m not sure about the other two, but if Twilight believes they’re going to join, then I trust her opinion.”
“Good. By the way, you’re not going to believe this. Gais is giving us Long Arch.”
Griffith blinked, quickly replacing his glasses. “Long Arch? You’re certain?”
Chrono nodded with a smirk.
“I must say, that’s quite a coup. The facilities there just got updated too… I imagine that must irk the Lieutenant General to no end.”
“Griffith,” Chrono said with mock surprise, “I’m shocked you’d think so poorly of your superior officer like that.”
Griffith rolled his eyes, causing Chrono to chuckle, just before he straightened his tie. “I’m going to need you to draft a short-list of personnel for the base. Support staff, communications, transport, the works. Think you can manage that?”
“I’d be a poor executive officer if I couldn’t. I’ll have a starting pool ready and on your desk by tomorrow.”
“Good. I need to head down and take care of some business, so I‘ll leave you to it.”
“Can you believe this, Tea? This is the sort of opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime! Oh my gosh, I…”
The drink machine let out a series of clunks as the cans fell into the receptacle. Teana reached in, absent-mindedly pulling out a can of apple juice and a can of iced coffee as she listened to Subaru chatter away.
And as usual, she’s going a mile a minute, Teana thought to herself as she turned. A bit of wind whistled over the elevated courtyard they were in, the scent of the freshly-trimmed grass Subaru was sitting on stirring slightly. Though I admit, I’m surprised she managed to keep her excitement contained until we were alone.
“Hey Subaru, catch.” Teana gently tossed the can of coffee to her.
Subaru reached up, catching it easily. “Thanks Tea. I’ll pay you back later, alright?”
“Don‘t bother.” Teana took a seat beside Subaru, popping the tab on her drink and taking a sip. “I think I can handle being a little short… hey!” She frowned as she watched Subaru chug her drink. “At least try to enjoy it… ”
“Ahh…” Subaru exhaled loudly as she lowered the can. “Sorry, just thirsty. So come on Tea, aren’t you excited?”
“About this whole RIOT Force thing?” Teana glanced at her own can, pulling her knees against her chest as she swirled the can’s contents. “I dunno. I mean, it does sound like a great opportunity, but…”
“But?” Subaru tilted her head slightly, looking almost like a confused puppy.
“You heard what Captain Harlaown said. They’re looking for people who are special…” She took a swallow of her juice and grimaced. “You know, the unique and gifted. I really don’t think that applies to someone like me. I mean, my scores are good, and I‘m skilled at shooting and illusion magic, but…”
Teana blinked, glancing over to Subaru. The other girl had an almost cat-like smirk on her face. “What? Don’t smile like that at me, it’s creepy.”
“I know what this is,” Subaru grinned as she spoke in a playful, sing-song like voice.
“You’re thinking about joining, aren’t you?”
Teana snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I know you Tea. You always try to talk yourself out of stuff like this. I keep telling you not to be so cautious.”
“And as usual, you try to drag me along, kicking and screaming.” Tea emptied her can and sighed. “You’re always like this. I swear, sometimes I feel like I‘m leashed to a giant puppy. A giant, rollerblade-wearing puppy.”
Subaru giggled. “Yup! But come on Tea, this is a golden opportunity!”
Teana sighed, resting her chin against her knees. She has a point… this would be a great opportunity for me. If I could get Captain Chrono Harlaown of all people to mentor me, I’d be a shoo-in to be an Enforcer. Even if he’s not active in the field anymore, he’d be a godsend to my career.
But… her fingers clenched slightly around her can of juice, I’d be training under ponies…I guess I could stomach it, but after what happened with my brother…
“Hrm?” Teana glanced up at Subaru.
“You… are planning on joining, right?” Subaru seemed a bit more serious now, a small frown on her lips. “Remember, you promised…”
“…that we’d look out for each other, no matter what.” Tea finished Subaru’s sentence, shaking her head. “Like I’d forget something like that.” She paused, frowning as Subaru gave her an almost puppy-dog like stare. “Ugh! Fine. As usual, I’ll let you pull me along. Someone‘s got to keep an eye on you after all, so it might as well be me.”
Subaru’s frown melted away as she hugged Teana tightly. “Yay! I knew you’d come around!”
“Just imagine!” Subaru pressed her cheek against hers, sweeping an arm before Teana. “Imagine the two of us: you an elite Enforcer, me an Ace like Twilight Sparkle, just like we planned!”
“Subaru, I can’t breathe!”
“Eep! Sorry!” Subaru let go quickly, allowing Teana to gasp for breath.
“Ugh… I’m glad that’s over,” Spike groaned, rubbing his temples as he walked alongside Scootaloo. The pair garnered more than a few curious stares as they made their way through the hall.
“You and me both,” Scootaloo huffed as she trotted along. “I never thought she’d finish. I mean, I get it… I screwed up. I‘d like to move on.”
“You didn’t exactly help much when you rolled your eyes at her.” Spike shook his head as Scootaloo flicked her tail at him.
“I already apologized to you, what more did she want?”
“What?” Scootaloo glanced back at Spike as the dragon frowned at her.
“Look,” he said calmly, “I get that things haven’t exactly been good for you recently. From what I heard from Twilight, it sounded pretty rough. I’m sorry for the stuff you went through, but taking it out on the people trying to help you really isn’t going to work. It‘s definitely not going to win you any points with Chrono, that‘s for sure.”
Scootaloo looked at him for a moment before letting out a huff, puffing out her cheeks as she did so. “Yeah, I guess you‘re right…”
“Have you, you know… talked to anypony about it?” Spike tilted his head.
“Yeah. Fate,” Scootaloo paused, then corrected herself, “er, I mean Captain Testarossa-Sparkle sent me to a counselor. Didn’t help much though. Look, if I promise to work on it, will you leave me alone?”
Spike shrugged. “If you’ll actually work on it, yeah.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. This is a fresh start Scootaloo, just like Twilight said. Make the best of it. Who knows, you might actually end up making some friends.”
“Yeah, friends.” Scootaloo glanced away with a sigh.
Spike sighed, scratching at one ear-frill. “I’m assuming you’re still joining the unit.”
“I don’t have much choice in the matter,” Scootaloo replied as they approached the elevator. She reached up, pressing the call button with one hoof. “It’s either this or back to the Guard, and I don’t plan on going back there right now. What about you?”
Spike shrugged. “I talked it over with Zafira before we came here. He agreed this was the best way for me to get stronger. If I’m going to be a proper Knight for her, I’m going to have to expose myself to a lot of new stuff.”
“For her?” Scootaloo blinked as Spike stepped into the elevator ahead of her.
“Yeah,” Spike said softly. “You’re not the only one who’s had problems, Scootaloo…”
Scootaloo didn’t reply as she stepped inside, the elevator doors chiming before they shut.
There was a chime as the elevator doors opened for Chrono, allowing him to step out and into the Central lobby. He stepped out onto the floor, his shoes clicking on the polished white tiles as he walked. Bureau personnel went about their business around him, paying little mind to him as he paused for a moment, looking around.
Now, where the blazes are they? If they’re late, I‘m going to….
Chrono paused as a familiar voice called out to him, quickly turning towards the source. The speaker was a young man only a few years his junior. He was about his height, with thick, sandy-blonde hair that was tied back in a slim, waist-length pony tail. His eyes behind his round glasses were bright and green, and his skin was slightly tanned. He was wearing a dark olive suit with a cream colored shirt underneath it. A coin-sized, oval-shaped emerald rested against his chest atop his bolero tie.
“Yuuno! Good to see you.” Chrono extended his good hand, which Yuuno quickly clasped.
“Good to see you too,” Yuuno replied, pulling Chrono into a quick hug before letting go. “It’s been a while.”
“Six months, give or take,” Chrono replied, glancing over Yuuno’s shoulder. “Where’s Fate? I thought she’d be with you.”
“She’s waiting outside. We just got here, so I figured I’d come get you.”
“Well, you got me. I see you’re still letting your hair grow out, ferret boy,” Chrono teased, reaching over and flicking Yuuno’s pony-tail as they walked. “If you let it get any longer, someone might mistake it for a leash.”
“How kind of you to keep an eye on my appearance, Captain Harlaown,” Yuuno shot back with a smirk. “It’s rather handy to have someone like you around.”
“Oh sure, make fun of the cripple. Real smart. I could have you arrested, you know.”
“For what, taunting with intent to annoy? Good luck getting the charges to stick.”
Chrono chuckled softly. “You know, you weren’t always this snappy on the comebacks.”
Yuuno shrugged in reply. “Comes with the territory. Sarcasm runs in Twilight‘s family, and I learn fast. Speaking of which, I thought Twilight would be down here by now.”
“She’s probably just running behind. She had to have a chat with Scootaloo and Spike.”
“Did they pass?”
“Hrm. One second, I’ll check in on her.” Yuuno glanced downward quickly. “Oculus? Could you contact Twilight Sparkle?”
“YES, SIR,” the emerald on Yuuno’s tie chimed as it replied.
“Well, that’s new.” Chrono replied. “When’d you get a Device?”
“It was Twilight’s Hearth’s Warming gift to me. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s got a basic AI and a pretty good amount of processing power to it.”
“Mhmm. Even the gem’s native. Twilight built it herself.”
“Might want to keep an eye on it then,” Chrono replied. “Someone might try to walk off with it and dissect it…”
Yuuno nodded as a small holographic window popped up in front of him, Twilight’s face filling it. “Yuuno! Oh my gosh, I completely forgot that you two were coming here!”
“Hey, it’s alright Twilight,” Yuuno smiled. “We weren’t here long. Where are you?”
“I was just dropping some things off real quick. I’ll be right down! Don‘t go anywhere! Seriously, don‘t even move!”
“Hey, don’t-” Yuuno began as the window winked out, then let out a sigh, “rush…”
“Heh, looks like she’s eager to see you. Are you two still living together?”
“Ooh, scandal,” Chrono smirked, causing Yuuno to roll his eyes and sigh in exasperation.
“It’s just for convenience, since we both work at RETA. Heck, we have separate bedrooms. And yes, I’m fully aware of the rumors, thank you. Our relationship is strictly platonic.”
Chrono shrugged and glanced back as the elevator doors opened, Twilight quickly rushing out, glancing around quickly before galloping over to them. “Sorry I’m late. I would have teleported down here, but with all the wards this place has it wouldn’t be safe.”
“Wise decision,” Yuuno replied as he crouched down. Twilight reared up to meet him, the two sharing a quick hug before Yuuno let go. “So, who’s up for lunch?”
“There’s this place a few miles south of here that does really nice vegetarian cuisine,” Twilight suggested as she began to trot off towards the doors. “Chrono and I ate there last night…”
“Well, we’ll have to ask Fate,” Chrono noted, following Twilight and Yuuno out of the doors.
Just down the steps leading up to the entrance stood another pony. She was tall and slender, almost model-like in proportions with a smooth, slim muzzle. Her coat was a pale pastel yellow, and a long, fluted horn protruded from her brow between her brilliant ruby red eyes. She was wearing an Equestrian military uniform: a black uniform jacket with violet and gold patches on the shoulders buttoned over a white shirt and a black tie. A Captain’s rank badge decorated the collar, the golden double vertical bars glinting in the light. Her thick, flowing mane was mostly tucked under a black beret, though the tips of her bangs poked out from under the brim. The hat bore a patch shaped like a heraldic badge; a shield bearing a golden waxing crescent moon with a single wing on a field of purple. Her tail was braided and so long it brushed the ground, the thick hair glittering like spun gold in the sunlight. Her flanks, as was normal for a pony, bore a symbol; three thin white-yellow lightning bolts joined together at the tip like an upward-pointing arrow
“Fate!” Twilight shouted as she galloped over to her younger sister. Fate smiled, quickly embracing the purple mare. Despite being younger than Twilight, Fate was taller than her by a few inches.
“It’s good to see you Twilight,” Fate nuzzled her mane gently before breaking the hug. “How did the exam go?”
“It went fine. I’ll tell you more about it over lunch. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving…”
“Captain Testarossa-Sparkle,” Chrono nodded politely as he approached.
“Captain Harlaown,” Fate replied, inclining her head in return.
“Now, now,” Twilight chuckled. “There’s no need to be formal. We’re all friends, after all.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Fate replied with a small smile, looking up at Chrono.
“Then as a friend, let me say that the uniform looks good on you, Fate.” Chrono chuckled as Fate blushed. “You know, I think this is the first time I‘ve seen you in a proper uniform. I’m used to seeing you in your Barrier Jacket. Let me guess, it‘s mostly based off the Wonderbolts outfit?”
Fate nodded. “Princess Luna wanted it to be similar, yes. Since I’m the leader of the Shadowbolts, it’s fitting that I be in proper uniform while visiting.”
“That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” Chrono replied. “How’s that been working out?”
“Rough. But we can discuss it at length over lunch.” Fate turned to Yuuno. “Yuuno, could you go get the van?”
Chrono blinked. “You know how to drive, Yuuno?”
Yuuno smirked. “I am a man of many talents, Chrono.”
“You’d have to be. Tell me, can your little paws reach the pedals?”
“About as well as you can see through a pair of binoculars.”
“Boys,” Twilight groaned, “please, contain yourselves.”
“…and that’s the situation so far,“ Chrono concluded. “Once we’ve got the staff arranged, everything else should be just paperwork and waiting. At most, we‘ll have to wait a month or two before RIOT Force is officially in business at Long Arch.”
“I see,” Fate replied, the mare‘s legs tucked beneath her as she sat in the seat across from him and Twilight. “That’s good to hear.”
Chrono nodded politely to the waiter as he brought out the salads, unfolding the napkin one-handed before settling it into his lap. “How about you, Fate? It’s been six months since I visited Equestria. How’re things with the Royal Guard?”
Fate sighed as she poked a bit of carrot. “Unpleasant. There‘s been a good deal of push-back in the ranks against Princess Luna‘s reforms.”
“Really? I’d have thought that the Guard wouldn’t be so resistant to change after what happened in Manehattan six years ago. Last time I was there, things seemed to be going well.“
“Oh, don’t misunderstand, there have been changes,” Fate replied. “There’s been a slow integration of Devices into Guard training thanks to Twilight’s research…“
“Oh!” Twilight’s eyes lit up. “Don’t forget the new Device Meistership program we’ve been working on. There’s this Earth Pony named Agate that’s showing real promise at…” Twilight paused as Fate frowned at her. “Eh-heh… sorry. Please, continue.”
“Thank you. There’s also some bright young officers that are taking a few cues from Bureau tactical doctrines. However, this trouble’s more recent.”
“Yes. Princess Luna’s been working to include mares in the Guard, not to mention revamping the physical requirements for qualification.”
“Seriously? They‘re making a scene over something like that?”
“The Royal Guard’s been seen as a ‘stallion-only’ institution for a long time” Twilight muttered around a bit of lettuce. “Back before the Princesses, the military wasn’t gender segregated. Everypony took the field in conflicts between tribes or nobility. It wasn’t until much later that the ideal of the ’martial stallion’ became particularly romanticized. You know, the big strapping destrier clad in shining armor that saves the noblemare, the proud pegasus general that defeats the superior army, the clever unicorn knight that single-hoofedly slays the dragon and all that other Classical era nonsense. All of that got revived during the Interregnum and the Early Solar Monarchy when Celestia formally reestablished the Royal Guard. You know, recruitment propaganda.”
“And because of it, there’s a lot of entrenched prejudice in the Guard’s culture, both towards mares and towards those who don‘t meet the physical ideal.” Fate sighed. “The older officers don’t seem to have issues with Princess Luna‘s changes… or if they do, they’re keeping their opinions to themselves. The bigger problem is the… what‘s the term Princess Luna used? Oh yes, ‘ground-dragging young imbeciles’ in the lower ranks.”
“Ground-dragging?” Chrono arched an eyebrow.
“It’s an archaic derogatory term,” Twilight explained, “referring to stallions that are overly-expressive of their machismo. Because… you know…”
“Ah. Right. Got it.”
Fate shook her head before continuing. “When Princess Luna first made the announcement, there were… some in the ranks that took issue with it. They actually came before the Night Court to present their grievances.”
“Wait, they actually pitched a fit about it in front of Princess Luna? And they thought that was a good idea?”
“It probably seemed so at the time.” Fate sipped her drink. “Then Teacher put her hoof down. The polite ones were allowed to resign. The others, well…”
“You could hear the dismissals from across Canterlot,” Yuuno smirked, gesturing with his fork.
“Of course, that only got rid of the loudest objectors. There‘s still a bunch of ponies that aren‘t happy about it. A lot of them are from families who‘ve had generations of ancestors in the Guard, or joined because they bought into the cultural mythology. After all, what stallion wouldn‘t want to be in the service of the Princesses?”
“And let me guess,” Chrono grumbled, “since Luna’s been messing with their boys-only club, they’re taking it out on those lower on the ladder?”
Fate nodded. “There‘s been problems with hazing and bullying in the ranks. Most of it is in the Guard proper; I‘m capable of cracking down on anypony in the Shadowbolts and the Wonderbolts, being an aerobatics team, are already integrated.”
“Plus I don’t see anyone trying to mess with you or Rainbow Dash.”
“Oh no. I still catch flak from time to time, mostly from outside my unit. It’s nothing serious or direct: rumors, innuendo, unpleasant and distasteful comments that I hear about second-hoof, things like that. Nothing strictly against the regulations, and nothing that can be traced back to a single pony.” Fate shook her head. “I can only imagine what it’s like for the new recruits… particularly ones brought in because of the reforms.”
“I don’t,” Twilight sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve heard about it first-hoof. It’s not pretty.”
Fate nodded. “We do what we can to keep an eye on things, but we can’t be everywhere all at once. Sometimes, incidents slip between the cracks.”
Yuuno coughed softly. “Maybe we should move on to something a bit lighter?”
“Yeah,” Twilight replied, then perked up. “Oh! Yuuno! I completely forgot to ask you, but how’re my nieces?”
“That’s right.” Chrono grinned, “I forgot you were playing babysitter. How does it feel to be a chew-toy to the Crystal Empire‘s baby goddesses?”
Yuuno blushed. “I’m not a baby-sitter, I’m a tutor. Arf ‘s the baby-sitter most of the time.”
“Fine. Now spill. How are the little fillies?”
“Exhausting.” Yuuno chuckled before he took a large bite of his salad, chewing for a few moments and swallowing before continuing. “Fiora is a sweet little filly, but a little clingy. Letta, however, takes after her father a bit too much. I swear, that filly has less fear in her than Pinkie Pie does. By the way,” Yuuno pointed his fork at Twilight accusatorially, “they keep wondering when Auntie Twiley’s going to visit.”
Twilight blushed. “Don‘t remind me… I keep meaning to go up and see them, but between my work at the Academy and my research it’s tough to get away. I’m lucky I can make time to hang out with the girls every so often. At least they have their ‘Uncle Ferret’ to keep an eye on them.”
“Uncle Ferret?” Chrono broke out into a broad grin as Fate giggled softly.
“You just had to hand that to him, didn’t you Twilight?” Yuuno muttered darkly.
Chrono‘s grin got wider. “No, no, I think it’s adorable. Amy’s going to love this. You’ve been officially adopted into the Sparkle Family, ‘Uncle Ferret.’”
Chrono let out a grunt as Twilight poked him in the ribs with a hoof. “Okay, okay, no more teasing, I promise.”
“Good,” Twilight snorted.
“At least they won‘t want for anything,” Fate noted as Chrono gently rubbed his ribs where Twilight prodded him. “Do you know how much revenue the Empire makes off the crystal trade between itself and Mid‘?”
“Trust me, I know,” Chrono sighed. “There’s been a lot of uproar amongst some of the crystal manufacturers the Bureau has contracts with. Given how mana-rich Equestria is, it’s no surprise that the gems we import are highly suited for Device cores. And that goes double for Imperial Crystals. I don’t know what it is about the Crystal Empire, but the fact they can produce completely flawless, mana-infused jewels has a lot of very rich people pissed off.”
“I’m pretty sure Princess Celestia realizes that,” Twilight replied. “That’s why there’s such a tight control on the crystal trade. Of course, that comes with its own set of problems…”
Twilight blinked as she heard a soft chime. Chrono sighed, reaching into his pocket and withdrew a smooth black metal card. “Sorry, let me check this. S4U, show message.”
“YES, BOSS.” The Device’s core glowed as a small hologram filled with text popped up before him.
“What is it?” Yuuno peeked at the message.
“Just a notification. The two other candidates for the unit will be coming in by train in about an hour.”
“That’s six in total, right?” Fate glanced over to Chrono as he nodded.
“Funny, you told me a lot about Teana and Subaru,” Twilight frowned, “but I don’t know anything about these other two…”
“You’ll meet them soon enough Twilight.” Chrono tucked S4U back into his pocket as the waiter quickly approached with a laden tray. “And there’s our lunch. Dig in everyone.”
“Hrm…they should be here by now.”
Twilight glanced up at Chrono as the two of them walked towards the train station. There was a soft susurrus of background chatter that complemented the soft rumble of trains arriving and departing and the noise of electronics and the PA system. A few people glanced and stared in her direction, but she really didn’t pay them much mind. She was used to it by now. Yuuno and Fate hung back behind them slightly, the two of them quietly chatting amongst themselves.
“So,” Twilight said idly, “what’s so special about these two candidates that you have to meet with them personally?”
Twilight grimaced. “Chrono, I don’t want to seem rude, but all this enigmatic behavior isn’t really inspiring a lot of confidence in me. What’re you hiding?”
“Like I said, you’ll see.” Chrono paused, then pointed. “Ah! Here they come now.”
Twilight’s eyes followed Chrono’s finger to the escalators as a young man made his way down. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, though he was a bit tall for his age. His messy hair was a bright cherry red, and his eyes were a dark blue-gray color. He was dressed in a bright blue shirt, khakis and tennis shoes, and was carrying a large duffle bag across one shoulder.
“Erio!” Chrono raised his arm and waved. “Over here!”
The boy blinked, then smiled as he jogged over towards Chrono. He quickly came to a halt, setting his bag down and saluting sharply. “Private Third Class Erio Mondial reporting for duty, Sir.”
Chrono returned the salute quickly, then smiled and reached over and fluffed Erio’s hair. “At ease Erio. I‘m off the clock right now.”
“S-sorry, Sir.” Erio paused, then quickly saluted Twilight. “Special Instructor Sparkle, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I’ve heard a lot about you, ma’am.”
“Um… thank you. At ease,” she replied, feeling a little dumbstruck.
“Erio,” Chrono looked back towards the escalator, “where’s Caro? Shouldn’t she be with you?”
“What?” Erio quickly turned, looking around quickly. “Oh no…she was right behind me just a second ago. Caro! CARO! Where are you?!”
“Sorry! Sorry! I‘m here!”
Twilight frowned as a hurried looking figure began stumbling down the escalator. Unlike Erio, her appearance was a bit odd. She was wearing an oversized white hooded cloak decorated with an alternating red and yellow triangle pattern along the hems. The dress she wore underneath was dark brown, with wide pink sleeves and an ankle-length skirt, all of which bore the same triangular pattern along the hems. Though she wasn’t the best judge of clothes, Twilight was almost certain they were hand-made. The hood of her cloak flipped back as she struggled with the large duffle she was carrying, revealing her light tan skin and a thick head of bright, almost florescent pink hair, the large bangs framing her big blue eyes.
Erio rushed over to her as she stumbled at the end of the escalator, quickly catching her and steadying her. Compared to Erio, Caro was quite small; Twilight was easily taller than her by a few inches. Caro blushed, then quickly waddled over to Chrono and Twilight before slowly setting her bag down. “I’m so sorry,” Caro panted out. “There was a big crowd, and I got pulled along.”
“It’s okay,” Erio replied. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry Caro.”
Caro nodded, then looked up to Chrono and quickly stepped over, hugging his waist gently. Chrono smiled, patting her on the head with an almost fatherly touch.
“So, I see you two made it alright,” Chrono said, ignoring Twilight’s look of shock. “Did you have any problems?”
“No, Sir,” Erio replied. “Everything went according to schedule.”
“Good. I’m guessing Amy was glad to see you two head off safely.”
“Yes, Sir. She sends her regards.”
“Good.” Chrono glanced down. “Caro, maybe you should introduce yourself to Twilight Sparkle?”
Caro let out a squeak, then quickly pulled back and saluted. “S-sorry. Private Third Class Caro Ru Lushe, reporting, ma’am!”
“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Twilight replied absent-mindedly before looking over to Chrono, her eyes narrowing. Chrono caught her look.
Chrono, she snapped telepathically, a word in private. Now.
Chrono sighed softly, looking down to the two ten-year-olds. “Erio, Caro,” he said gently, “why don’t you introduce yourselves to Captain Testarossa-Sparkle and Mr. Scrya? I have to speak to Special Instructor Sparkle for a moment alone.”
The two kids nodded, quickly stepping around Chrono and walking over to the other two. Chrono gestured and began walking, Twilight quickly trotting after him. They stopped a few dozen feet away, ducking behind one of the lobby’s pillars.
“Chrono, what in Celestia‘s name are you thinking?!” Twilight’s voice came out in an angry hiss, though she did her best to keep the volume down.
“And now you know why I didn’t tell you right away,” Chrono replied just as quietly. “I knew you’d make a big deal out of it.”
“Of course I’d make a big deal about this, you idiot! They’re kids! They’re barely older than Yuuno was when I first met him! And they’re going to be in RIOT Force?!”
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe you. This isn’t like the others Chrono; they’re all of age. Even Spike’s old enough to be considered an adult by Equestrian standards. But those two? They should be with their parents right now, not in the military!”
Chrono‘s lips pulled back into a neutral frown. “Twilight, there‘s a good reason why they‘re here.”
“Oh really? Then let‘s hear it.” Twilight glared up at him, her ears pulled back and tail swishing.
Chrono exhaled slowly. “They’re Special Care cases. They don‘t have anywhere else to go.”
Twilight paused. Special Care was the Bureau’s last resort option for young mages with nowhere else to go. In addition to serving as a place for kids without family or a safe place to live, it served a sort of ‘protective custody’ for those with dangerous or uncontrolled powers. And given their presence, Twilight guessed Erio and Caro fell into the latter category.
Still, throwing them into a military unit?
“And you’re… fine with that?” Twilight took a seat on the ground, looking up at him.
“I am. They asked to join, Twilight.”
“They asked you? Why? It’s not…” Twilight paused mid-sentence, her eyes widening as realization bloomed like a flower in her head. “You’re their guardian, aren’t you?”
Chrono nodded solemnly. “Someone had to take them in and keep them safe. They’re part of the reason why RIOT Force’s stated goal is to foster unique talents. And if anyone needs that, they do.”
“Are you sure this is the best option, though? Do you really want to throw children into something like this?”
“What do you want me to do, Twilight?” Chrono’s voice came out in a low growl. “Have them locked up? Have their magic sealed away? Because we‘ve already tried every other option. They need this sort of training. I’d think you, of all ponies, should understand what it’s like to be at the mercy of powers you can’t control.”
“What?! How did you-”
“Your parents told me about what happened during your exam when you were a filly.”
Twilight glared up at him. “That‘s a low blow, Chrono…” She shook her head and took a seat on the ground. “But you’re right, I do understand. I just don’t like the idea of children being used as weapons.” She glanced around the pillar, looking in Fate’s direction. “Children that young shouldn’t be fighting.”
“I know, but this is the life they‘ve chosen.” Chrono exhaled. “This isn’t Equestria, Twilight. It doesn’t matter how old they are; in the eyes of the Bureau, they’re not children. They’re mages, with all the baggage that comes with it.”
Twilight shook her head. In Equestria, magic was commonplace; everypony was magical in one way or another. But for humans magic was a comparatively rare talent, alternately prized and feared for its power. The Bureau had to take steps to keep the peace and safeguard its citizens. And yet, despite knowing this, she still found it hard to accept.
“Alright,” Twilight conceded. “I don’t really like it Chrono, but I understand. I just wish…“ She paused, letting out a soft sigh. “I just wish this wasn’t the case.”
“I‘m not particularly happy about it myself, Twilight,” Chrono replied. “For what it’s worth, though, I wouldn’t trust just anyone to teach these kids. It’s why I picked you.”
“Way to take the pressure off me,” Twilight deadpanned.
“Hey, you knew the job was going to be tough when you took it. Besides, it‘s not like it won‘t be rewarding in its own way.”
Twilight began to respond as something landed on her head, causing her neck to tilt downward as her eyes went wide.
“What the hay?!” She rolled her eyes upward, only to have… something stare her right in the eyes and hiss.
“GAAAH!” Twilight flailed as the creature flew off her head, causing her to land on her back. The creature hovered above her, looking at her curiously.
It was about the size of a large rooster, but that was where the comparison fell apart. Its head was wedge-shaped and saurian, with solid red eyes, back-swept horns over a pair of earholes and a large, ring-pierced rhinoceros horn that protruded upwards from the tip of its snout. Its mouth was wide, its lips having odd, square serrations like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle. Its body was mostly silvery white, with light blue scales covering its back and crest. Its front limbs were a pair of large wings that looked almost artificial, like someone had sculpted a pair of stylized bird wings but hadn’t smoothed out the blunt serrations. Meanwhile, its rear limbs were slender and delicate looking, ending in blunt claws with a digitigrade stance. A short, stubby tail extended out behind its chubby body, flicking slowly as it hovered.
“Wha…wha… wha…” Twilight stammered, pointing a hoof at the creature.
“Niid Friedrich! Folaas!”
Twilight blinked as Caro came running up past her and came to a stop. The girl put her hands on her hips as she looked up at the creature, huffing softly. The creature ducked its head slightly and let out a trill before fluttering over and landing on her shoulder.
Caro turned to Twilight and blushed. “I’m so sorry about that. Friedrich isn’t usually like this. Tinvaak hio krosis, Fried.”
Friedrich let out a chirp and bowed its head.
“He says he’s sorry he scared you,” Caro supplied, pausing as Twilight rose to her feet.
“What… is he?” Twilight whispered in awe, her eyes focused on Friedrich
“Friedrich is… well, he’s my summon, Miss Sparkle.” Caro shifted nervously, hiding her hands in the sleeves of her dress. “He is the Soaring Silver Dragon, Friedrich.”
“You’re a summoner? Oh my gosh!” Twilight leaned in, grinning as Caro took a step back in surprise. “I’ve always wanted to meet a proper summoner! It’s one of the rarer branches of magic in the Mid-Childan system, so I haven’t really had a chance to study it in practice. And you can summon dragons? That’s amazing! Oh, this is so…” Twilight pulled back and coughed softly, regaining her composure with a sheepish grin. “Sorry. I guess I overwhelmed you there.”
“You’re… you’re not frightened?” Caro seemed a little shocked by her eagerness.
“Frightened? No, no, no. Okay, I was a little surprised when your friend landed on my head, but that’s because I didn’t expect a dragon to land on my head. I’ve never seen a dragon like him before! This is fascinating! Amazing!” She paused as Caro blushed and pulled up her hood to hide her face. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to embarrass you…”
And this is the OTHER reason I didn’t give you the details until now. Chrono’s telepathic voice was amused.
Hush, you, Twilight replied.
Fate shook her head slightly as she watched her sister’s reaction to Caro.
“Is she always like that?”
Fate glanced over at Erio with a small smile. “Twilight? Yes, she is. My sister is always fascinated by new forms of magic, so I’d imagine she considers Caro to be quite a find.”
Erio frowned slightly, tucking his hands into his pockets. “I just hope she’s nice to her. Caro deserves to be treated well.”
“Well, you won’t have to worry about that,” Yuuno replied. “Twilight may be a bit excitable, but she’s probably one of the nicest ponies you’ll meet.”
Erio nodded. Fate turned to look at him, smiling gently. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, Erio.”
“Yes it has, ma‘am,” Erio replied.
“I was wondering about that,” Yuuno rubbed his chin curiously. “I haven’t met either you or Caro, but you seem to know Fate…”
“Captain Fate was present when Captain Harlaown took me as his ward, Sir,” Erio replied promptly.
“Oh?” Yuuno looked to Fate, eliciting a blush from the mare.
“Chrono requested my assistance because Erio and I share similar… backgrounds, so to speak,” Fate explained before turning to Erio. “It seems you have your magic under better control now.”
Erio nodded. “M-mostly, ma‘am. I’ve been doing my best to work on it now that I live with Captain Harlaown and his family.”
Yuuno frowned “It’s odd. Why do you keep referring to Chrono by his title? I mean, he’s your guardian, right?”
Erio nodded mutely.
“So…shouldn’t you call him-”
Fate reached up and tapped Yuuno on the thigh to get his attention. She quickly shook her head when he glanced at her. Don’t ask Erio about that, she stated telepathically.
Oh… sensitive subject? Yuuno swallowed.
Right. I’ll keep that in mind.
“Call him what, Sir?” Erio’s arms tensed slightly. Fate saw his pockets bulge slightly as the boy’s fingers tightened into fists.
“…by… his first name?” Yuuno smiled weakly.
Erio seemed to relax a little. “No, Sir. Not unless he asks me to do so.”
“Well, I’m looking forward to working with you, Erio.” Fate said with a smile. “Hopefully we’ll be in the same unit together, not to mention I’ll be training you in RIOT Force. Won’t that be nice?”
Fate nodded, looking up to Yuuno. “Yuuno, would you mind collecting the others? We should probably be on our way by now.”
“Oh… uh, sure.”
Fate nodded as Yuuno walked away, turning back to Erio. “You know,” she said softly, “you don’t have to refer to me as ma’am while we’re off duty, Erio.”
Erio nodded and blushed. “Sorry. Would you prefer I call you by name, ma’am?”
“Alright… Fate.” Erio blushed. “I hope I live up to your expectations in training. I’ve been practicing those spells you showed me ever since you left. I think I’ve got them down, for the most part.”
“Well, we’ll have to see then, won’t we? Ah, here they come.”
Steam slowly drifted off the surface of the water as the tub filled up, a layer of soapy foam beginning to form as Twilight added the bubble bath mix. The sun had already set on Cranagan, and Twilight and Fate had returned to their hotel, leaving the boys to their own devices.
The hotel in question wasn’t the fanciest place Twilight had stayed at before. However, it easily ranked up in the top ten. The bill for this suite was enough to make Twilight wince, even though she knew she could easily afford it.
Of course, given the size of this bathtub, it’s almost worth it. She smirked at the thought. Almost.
Twilight exhaled, levitating Raising Heart off her neck and setting her carefully atop a folded washcloth on the rim of the tub. She shook her mane out, running a hoof through it before carefully stepping into the tub. Her breath came out in a loud hiss at the heat, before she groaned and slowly sank down into the water.
Scratch that. It is worth it…
A gentle knock at the door broke Twilight out of her reverie. “Come in,” she called over to the door.
The door slid open as Fate walked in. The mare had removed her uniform and her beret. Her thick mane flowed down the side of her neck, the tips gently brushing the floor as she walked. Her unbraided tail pooled behind her as she walked. “Hey Twilight… mind if I join you?”
“No, come on in. There’s plenty of room in the tub, Fate.” Twilight gestured, splashing the water gently as she did so.
Fate nodded and gingerly stepped into the tub, carefully placing her own Device beside Raising Heart as she did so. The golden mare let out a contented sigh as she settled into the water. Her mane and tail spread out around her across the top of the water, tickling gently against Twilight’s side.
“Looks like somepony needs her mane and tail trimmed,” Twilight teased as she turned off the water, eliciting a blush from Fate.
“I like keeping them long,” Fate protested before she dipped her head below the surface of the water. She let out a breath when she re-surfaced, wiping the water from her eyes as she drew her wet mane back with a tug of her telekinesis. “I usually braid them up when I’m on duty, so it’s not a problem.”
“Mmm… true. And it looks good on you. Besides, I’m pretty sure Rarity would have a fit if she found out somepony cut your mane.”
Fate blushed a bit brighter, ducking her head into the suds with a soft ‘mmf.’
“Is she still pestering you about getting a special somepony?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, she does it to me too.”
“I know,” Fate said softly, shifting in the water so that she leaned against Twilight, “and it’s not like I don’t appreciate her concern. It’s just, well…”
“Hey, if you find somepony, you’ll find somepony. Don’t let it worry you Fate.” Twilight nuzzled her mane, slipping a foreleg around her neck. “At least you don’t get the whole ‘you’re not getting any younger’ lecture from her. Not everypony‘s looking for a soul-mate like she is.”
“What about you and Yuuno, Twilight?” Fate glanced over at her.
“Eh, no…” Twilight shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong, I adore Yuuno, but he’s a bit young for my tastes. Besides, we talked it over, and we decided that we’re both comfortable with our relationship staying where it is. What about you, Fate? Any stallions catch your eye?”
Fate’s cheeks turned cherry red. “I-I don’t want to talk about it.”
Fate nodded quickly.
“Hey, it’s alright. I’m your big sister, remember? You can tell me anything.”
“Promise not to tell anypony?”
“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye,” Twilight recited, miming the actions as best she could.
Fate started to speak when Raising Heart chimed softly. “MASTER,” the Device said calmly, “INCOMING TRANSMISSION FROM TRANSDIMENSIONAL LINE SIX.”
“And that would be the girls,” Twilight smirked. “I swear, it’s like they plan this. Raising Heart, what’s the transmission lag right now?”
“WITHIN TOLERABLE LIMITS, MASTER. SHALL I OPEN CHANNEL?”
Twilight glanced at Fate. The golden mare shrugged. “Go ahead Raising Heart. Open the channel.”
The spherical gem chimed as a semicircle of five glowing windows popped into existence before Twilight. She nodded, quickly scanning over the holographic panes. “Can everypony hear me?”
“I read you loud and clear, Twilight.” Rainbow Dash’s face appeared on the far right window, the Daring Do poster visible above her bed’s headboard as she laid back.
“Um… yes, I’m here.” Fluttershy popped up next to Rainbow. She glanced off to the side quickly. “Oops! Just a second. Oh Angel, not again…”
“Right here, darling.” Rarity appeared in the center pane, Carousel Boutique’s walls in the backdrop. “Oh my! Hello Fate!”
“Ooh! Fate’s there!” Pinkie Pie peered through the fourth window, grinning widely as she glanced away. “Pumpkin! Pound! Say hi to Twilight and Fate!”
“Hi,” came a pair of younger voices from off-screen.
“Hi you two!” Twilight smiled, then glanced over to the far left pane. “Uh, looks like AJ’s having problems. Applejack, can you hear me?”
“Consarn it… yeah, ah can hear ya, but I cain’t see ya! How’re you supposed to turn the visualizer thingy on… Applebloom, mind givin’ me some help here?”
“Oh for tha love of… hold on.” There was a soft beeping noise, right before Applebloom and Applejack’s faces appeared in view. “There, yah see? Yah just need to hit the button that looks like ah camera, then hit the green button.”
“Ah thought ah did. Thanks ‘Bloom.”
“No problem. Hey Fate. Hey Twi’! Nice seein’ ya’ll!”
“Nice seeing you too, Applebloom,” Twilight replied as Applebloom stepped away from view.
“Ah’m headin’ out sis. Ah’ll be back later, ‘kay?”
“Don’t stay out too long missy,” Applejack called, shaking her head.
Twilight smiled as she heard Applebloom respond with a grumpy ‘yeah, yeah.’ Even when she wasn’t on Equestria, she always made sure to make time for their weekly talks. With Twilight constantly travelling and Rainbow Dash in Cloudsdale, it was easier to talk over a video chat than face-to-face. Of course, it also helped that the six of them now had Devices; simple, Mid-Childan manufactured ones, but Devices nonetheless.
“Alright girls,” Twilight said, “now that everypony’s here, let’s get started.”
“I know I said this already,” Yuuno remarked as he leaned back against the chair in Chrono’s living room, “but this is a pretty nice apartment for a bachelor pad, Chrono.”
“I wouldn’t call it a bachelor pad, Yuuno.“ Chrono replied from the small kitchen. He stepped around the island and walked towards Yuuno, two cups of coffee carefully hanging from the fingers of his good hand. He took a seat across from Yuuno, sliding one of the cups to him before blowing into his own. “It’s just a place to sleep when I have to spend a lot of time in Cranagan, which I seem to be doing more and more these days.”
Yuuno nodded, sipping his coffee. “Well, at least Amy understands. She wouldn’t have married you otherwise. Still, must be a pain to have to work so far apart from her.”
Chrono shrugged. “It’s not like we didn’t talk about it before we got married. She’s got her career, I got mine. Thankfully mom’s stationed at the Core Defense Fleet now, so we’re not always completely scattered across space and time…”
Yuuno nodded, then set his cup down. “So…”
“The kids are asleep,” Yuuno continued. “I assumed you wanted to talk about something important in private. And since we’re doing this face-to-face, I‘m guessing you didn‘t feel like discussing it over transmission or telepathy.”
Chrono nodded. “You catch on quick.” Chrono set his own cup down before he slipped his hand into his pocket. He produced his Device and closed his eyes. “Just a second. Let‘s make sure this is private.”
Yuuno blinked as a faint blue light spread outwards from Chrono, quickly encompassing the both of them and turning opaque. There was a soft thrumming noise as Chrono set his Device on the table.
“Privacy Screen,” Chrono explained. “Keeps anyone from listening in. I picked the spell up from a colleague. S4U, display private file JS-009.”
There was a soft hum as the Device’s core lit up, the small jewel set into the black metal card pulsing gently. Several holographic screens popped up, quickly filling with text and images.
“JS?” Yuuno frowned as he glanced at the screens, his eyes flicking over the text rapidly. “You’re still on that case? I thought you weren’t active in field work anymore.”
“Officially, the case is being handled by other Enforcers,” Chrono replied as he set S4U onto the table. “But I have friends who are keeping me in the loop. For example, all of this was put together by a certain loud-mouthed blue mare and her assistants.”
“Does the Bureau know that you’re involving the Saint Church’s Altenritter squad in Enforcer business?”
“Those who need to know, do,” Chrono replied cryptically, causing Yuuno to arch an eyebrow. “Trixie and her assistants were already investigating the matter themselves. My involvement’s completely coincidental, you understand.”
“Right.” Yuuno reached over and began to scroll down one of the screens. “Another smuggling ring? What does this have to do with ‘JS‘?”
“It was a group trafficking in stolen artifacts, mostly early Belkan stuff. The criminals aren’t important in the long run. What’s more important,” Chrono flicked his fingers over one image and brought it up, “is that they had this.”
Yuuno’s eyes widened as he looked at the picture. It was a three-dimensional model of a red jewel. It was spindle-shaped, broader at the top and tapering downwards slowly, the facets large and broad. It resembled a ruby, but rubies didn’t glow with an ominous inner light like this one. “Is that…”
Chrono nodded. “A Relic, just like the one found at Coastal Airport 8 after the fire. And I think we both know who it was meant for.”
“Does Twilight know about this?”
“Both her and Fate know the situation, yes, but not about this new Relic. It’s currently in the custody of the Saint Church, and I was hoping…”
“You were hoping I could take a look at it? Doesn’t the Saint Church have its own experts?”
“They do, but I don’t think they know what it is. All we know is that they’re very old and very dangerous. You’re currently one of the best experts available on Lost Logia of this type, so…”
Yuuno nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. But Chrono…”
“Hmm?” Chrono glanced at him as he sipped his coffee.
“Does this have to do with RIOT Force’s other purpose?”
Chrono nodded solemnly. “Partly, yes. If Carim’s right, then things are starting to come together…”
“-can you just imagine the scandal Twilight? I couldn’t! I mean, I knew that Mayor Mare was interested in younger stallions, but not that young! And at her age?”
“Rarity, you make it sound like she’s dating a colt out of Cheerilee‘s class.” Twilight’s horn lit up as she heated up the water a bit. Fate rolled her eyes quietly as she rubbed a washcloth over her horn. “As long as both partners are over the age of consent, then there shouldn’t really be a problem. Besides, Mayor Mare‘s not that much older than us!”
“Ferget it Twi,” Applejack groaned, “she just won’t listen. She jus’ keeps goin’ on an’ on like a broke record. It‘s all ‘scandal‘ this an‘ ‘tha horror‘ that.”
Rarity pouted. “But… but why should Mayor Mare of all ponies get him? I saw him first!”
“And there’s tha heart of tha matter,” Applejack nodded sagely as Rarity’s cheeks turned bright pink under her pale coat. “An’ she calls me ol’ fashioned.”
“Now see here Applejack! If I recall, you had a little something to say when Big Macintosh-”
“Now don’t ya’ll start bringin’ mah brother into this Rar. He already promised that he‘d make an honest mare outta-”
“Hold on Twilight,” Pinkie rolled her eyes, “let me handle the shouty-mc-shouter ponies.”
Twilight nodded, turning down the volume on Pinkie Pie’s, Applejack’s and Rarity’s windows as they began yelling, “So, how are you doing Rainbow Dash? Still recovering from that stunt of yours?”
“The Skyhook Slingshot Switch-over? Yeah.” Rainbow winced as she shifted slightly. “The docs said I almost tore the tendons on my fur-thingy.”
“It’s called a ‘furcula,’ Rainbow.”
“Yeah, that. I’m under strict orders from the doc. No flying. Which makes sense, since I can’t move my wings without, you know, stupid amounts of pain. Kinda hurts when I breathe, too.” Rainbow winced visibly as she shifted, the camera moving as she rolled onto her side. “Anyway, Skychaser’s swapped out as lead for the next few shows while I recover. Shouldn’t be much longer than a week or two, though. Imagine that. Me, the Captain of the Wonderbolts, having to sit out my own team’s shows.”
“Maybe next time, you won’t try a trick designed for a pony with twice your muscle mass,” Twilight replied.
“Hey, I’ve gotta do something to keep the shows fresh. I figured pulling out some of the older Wonderbolt stunts might work. Won‘t know until you try, right?”
“So you’re doing alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Being a Captain’s pretty swanky, even if you’re grounded. Besides, Fluttershy stops by whenever she gets a chance to.”
“Just to check up on her,” Fluttershy blushed. “I mean, I’d feel terrible if I left her up in Cloudsdale all alone like that…”
“Aside from all the adoring fans and her fellow stunt-ponies, right Rainbow?”
“Uh… yeah.” Rainbow frowned. “Um… speaking of fans, how’s the squirt doing? Did she pass?”
“Scootaloo? Yes, she passed the exam, but she’s still got an attitude problem. Reminds me of a certain somepony when I first met her.”
Rainbow smiled wanly. “That’s good to hear. I wish I could tell her I’m proud of her, but…”
“Rainbow,” Fluttershy said softly as she touched her screen with a hoof, “you don’t need to keep blaming yourself for what happened.”
“I kinda do. I mean, I shoulda done more for her,” Rainbow sighed, her multi-colored mane flopping into her eyes as she ducked her head.
“You did all you could, Rainbow,” Twilight sighed.
“No, I didn’t, and you know it.”
“Rainbow,” Fate interrupted as she pushed her mane back out of her eyes. “you almost got court-martialed for what you did do. I doubt Scootaloo would have been happy if you’d thrown your career away just for her.”
“Maybe I should’ve, instead of handing her off to Twilight like I did…”
Twilight sighed. “Look, Rainbow, we already talked about this. We both agreed this was for the best, remember? You can’t keep beating yourself up like this.”
“Element of Loyalty, remember? I know I shouldn’t feel bad, but it just eats at me, ya know? I feel like I failed her when she needed me. No wonder she hates my guts.”
“She doesn‘t hate you, Rainbow.” Fate said gently. “She‘s just…”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, just… keep an eye on her, alright? Make sure she doesn’t get in too much trouble. Can you two promise me that?”
“Of course, Rainbow,” Twilight nodded along with Fate.
“Thanks, you two… hey, looks like Rarity and Applejack have stopped fighting.”
“Oh!” Twilight’s horn ignited, raising the volume on the other three windows. “You girls done?”
“Yeah,” Applejack sighed, ruffling her blonde mane. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Indeed,” Rarity replied. “I’m terribly sorry about that, Twilight.”
“See? Everypony’s happy again!” Pinkie grinned, leaning in on her window. “So, Twilight, when’re you coming back to Ponyville? You do know the wedding‘s in a few weeks, right?”
“I should be back in a week or so. Like I’d miss something like that.”
“Are you coming too, Fate? You don’t wanna miss the big ‘Big Mac’s Getting Married’ party, do you?”
“I’ve already got leave scheduled,” Fate replied.
“Good! Because I’ve got a big super-duper awesome spectacular planned! You don’t wanna miss it for anything!”
Twilight yawned softly. “And on that note, I think it’d be best if I dropped off girls. Besides, I don’t want my hooves to shrivel up after staying in this bath too long. Good night everypony.”
There was a chorus of various ‘good nights’ as Raising Heart shut off the connection. Twilight groaned and dipped her head beneath the surface of the water for a moment. She just as quickly resurfaced, blowing out through her nose as she wiped the water from her eyes.
“Tired, Twilight?” Fate carefully stepped out of the tub, levitating Bardiche over to her as she began toweling off.
“A little. Ugh… guess I’m not as spry as I used to be.” Twilight climbed out of the tub, shaking herself quickly as she did so. She pulled the stopper on the drain, exhaling as she began drying off as well.
“Well, you are getting a bit soft around the middle. Not getting as much exercise, I suppose.” Fate ran a comb through her mane, her horn sparking as steam drifted off the golden locks. “Get some rest. We’ve got work to do tomorrow, remember?”
“Yeah, I know. Believe me, we’re going to have a lot of work to do…” Twilight paused. “Hey, Fate?”
“You never did tell me if you had a special somepony…”
Fate paused for a second, her face partially hidden by her towel before she continued drying her mane. “Maybe later, Twilight…”
“Okay. No rush, Fate.” Twilight yawned as she walked over to the vanity to brush her teeth.
Meanwhile, many miles away, Teana was leaning against Subaru’s shoulder as the train hummed along. The lights of the city flashed by outside, faint blurs of white and neon color.
Subaru leaned her head back against the window, staring quietly up at the ceiling.
RIOT Force, huh?