The shrill blast of the whistle could be heard clearly over the cheering of the twenty or thirty ponies gathered around a raised padded ring in the middle of a sparsely decorated building. Inside the ring lay a dazed unicorn, gasping for breath. His sweat soaking through his short gray mane. Another unicorn stood over him, examining the results of her handiwork. Her bright purple coat and long mane stood out among the ponies who frequented the gymnasium, most of whom sported dull, earthy colors and manes trimmed short or shaved off entirely. Between her bright coloring and small stature, most ponies tended to underestimate her.
It wasn’t a mistake anypony made twice.
“The winner, by knockout, Twilight Sparkle!” declared the pony who had blown the whistle. The crowd cheered even louder than before, and the drumming of their hooves against the floor was deafening.
Twilight extended her hoof to the pony who had just regained his senses.
“Good match, Phalanx!” she proclaimed cheerfully. “That was a really cool trick, stacking up your wards like that to deflect my Dragonfire Beam.”
“Uh-huh” replied Phalanx. He studied the youngster in front of him, but wasn’t able to make out what she was saying over the ringing in his ears, a side effect of taking repeated magical blows to the head over the last few minutes. The training amulets they wore absorbed the worst of the impacts and usually prevented any permanent damage, but it still hurt. A lot.
Twilight, undeterred by her opponent’s monosyllabic reply, continued her friendly chatter as she helped Phalanx pull himself up off the mat and stumble his way to the side of the ring.
“It probably would have held up against that second shot too, but I think you had a little bit of destructive interference going on with the overlap between the third circle of the kinesis-based one and the sixth node of the thaumaturgical level of the other.”
Phalanx stepped onto the ramp leading off the raised platform. He noticed a moment too late that his legs were not quite ready to start cooperating with the rest of his body and tumbled forward. Twilight winced as he landed with a painful-sounding thud at the bottom of the ramp. The crowd burst into laughter as one of the spectators helped the unfortunate unicorn stumble over to a recovery area.
“Oh dear,” said Twilight, “I hope I didn’t hit him TOO hard.”
A tall unicorn stallion at the bottom of the ramp turned to her with a smile. His coat was the dusty orange-brown of newly fallen autumn leaves, other than a pale line arcing from the middle of his ribcage along his side, bisecting the Equestrian banner and crossed swords that made up the pony’s cutie mark. It was an old scar that he’d refused to tell Twilight how he’d gotten, insisting that "civilians don’t need to worry about such things."
“I’ve seen Phalanx bounce back from worse, Sparkle,” He said. “He’ll be fine by tomorrow morning. One of the colts here will make sure he gets home OK.”
Twilight smiled. “Thanks, Captain Reinolds, I really appreciate it.”
The captain offered her a hoof as she descended from the ring. “Now it’s about time we got you home. Celestia will have my flank tanned if I let you stay out past your curfew again.”
Twilight glanced at a clock that hung upon one of the bare concrete walls. 11:30 already?
“Yes, sir. I’m ready when you are.”
After stopping briefly to say goodnight and exchange pleasantries with a few of her other sparring partners, Twilight and Captain Reinolds stepped out of the musty and humid warehouse that served as a gymnasium for the Royal Guard into the cool dry night air.
Reinolds glanced down at his young ward as they trotted along the streets of Canterlot, more or less deserted at this late hour. She was breathlessly recounting a blow-by-blow of the night’s battles, as if he hadn’t been there himself to witness it. The Captain couldn’t help but smile.
In some ways she was still the same filly he’d met last year. He’d been patrolling one of the seedier areas of the city that night when he’d heard screams coming from a side alley and a blinding flash of magical energy momentarily illuminated the dark streets. He’d sprinted around the corner to intervene, expecting the worst.
What he hadn't expected was to see a small potted fern sitting in the middle of the alleyway, a switchblade laying at its base. A young purple unicorn stood at the far side of the alleyway, Tears flowing from her eyes as the light faded from her horn. She stared transfixed by the plant, beginning to shake and tremble as the rush of adrenaline ebbed away.
“Are you alright, miss?” asked the Captain.
She looked up at him, noticing him for the first time.
“I’m sorry! I... I don’t know what happened!” She shook even harder now, the tears flowing freely down the side of her cheeks. “I didn’t see him! And then he came out and told me I had to give him my money or he’d... he’d do terrible things... and he had a knife. I just wanted to use enough magic to push him away but... but I think I used too much and... and...” she broke down completely, unable to do anything but sob as the reality of what had happened finally overcame her.
Captain Reinolds walked over to her, glancing around the alleyway for any other attackers. If there had been any others, watching their accomplice get turned into a plant had clearly dissuaded them. He gingerly stepped around the fern, taking care not to disturb it or the knife. He placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder. “What’s your name, Miss?”
“Twilight. Twilight Sparkle.” She looked up at him and sniffled, trying to blink away her tears.
“You’re going to be just fine, Ms. Sparkle. You didn’t do anything wrong,” said Captain Reinolds.
“I know, but, I didn’t want any of this to happen. I just... I just wanted to go home...”
“Oh, I’m staying at the palace.”
Reinold’s eyebrow twitched upward in surprise for just a moment. Who was this pony, exactly? Even if she had specialized training of some kind, transformation magic wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off. To just do it by reflex in a moment of panic? And she was staying at the palace? The Captain studied her for a long moment, unsure of how to proceed.
It was clear that the poor filly was upset, and in the end that overcame all of his reservations. Whatever power she might have she obviously wasn't accustomed to using it under these sorts of conditions.
“Well that’s quite a coincidence, Ms. Sparkle. I need to bring this evidence back to my office over there anyway. Why don’t I walk you back?” asked Reinolds.
Twilight smiled through her tears for the first time. “I’d like that, Captain. Thank you.”
Carefully placing the knife in an evidence bag and gathering up the fern to be dealt with later, Reinolds and Twilight began the walk back in the direction of the royal palace. Despite the earlier trauma, Twilight brightened up considerably as they walked and began chatting away in earnest. It wasn’t long before she’d told Reinolds all about her recent move back to Canterlot from the rural town of Ponyville. It was obvious that this pony was homesick and dearly missed the friends she’d left behind. They reached the station just as Twilight finished recounting the time she had watched one of her pegasus friends single-hoofedly wrestle a bear ten times her size to the ground and snap its neck. Reinolds tried to conceal his skeptical smile. She seemed a little too old to let her imagination run away with her like that, but after what she'd just suffered Reinolds was more than willing to indulge her. He was glad to see her happy again after the incident in the alley so he kept his thoughts to himself. As they approached the station, he noticed the golden chariot parked immediately beside the front door, and became aware of the commotion coming from inside the reception area.
“I don’t CARE how many off-duty guards you need to call up, I want you to FIND HER!”
Reinolds heard the voice of the desk sergeant on duty, the normally unflappable Rapid Dispatch, who now sounded like she was on the verge of complete panic. “Of course ma’am! It’s just that given the hour, and without any idea of where to start looking it may take a little time to...”
“Then stop wasting time and DO IT!” ordered the commanding voice of the other pony. Reinolds burst through the front door, only to stop dead in his tracks.
The white alicorn spun around, her mane billowing furiously outward despite the lack of any appreciable breeze in the building. Her eyes were narrowed with frustrated rage. Reinolds’ life began to flash before his eyes, but before he had even gotten to the memories of his first day on the guard he was shoved aside as Twilight ran past him towards the enraged alicorn.
“Princess!” She ran up to Celestia and nuzzled their ruler’s neck, much to Reinolds’ shock. Great, Twilight had survived a mugging unharmed, and now she was probably about to end up spending a century or two on the moon for treating the Princess so casually. Not that he’d ever figured out what the Princess actually did to anypony who didn't show her the proper reverence. In his mind, that only made the prospect that much more terrifying.
If he had been surprised before, it was nothing compared to the shock of seeing the Princess wrap her leg around the filly and return the gesture of affection. “Oh, my faithful student. Where have you been? I expected you back at the castle hours ago. I was about to send out a search party!” The pieces rapidly began to fall into place for the Captain. Why Twilight was living at the palace and why she had been hesitant to tell him who she was studying under suddenly made much more sense.
Twilight bowed her head and her face flushed with embarrassment. “Well you see Princess, there was, um, a minor incident as I was coming back from the apothecary down by the airship docks. I didn't mean to worry you like this.”
“She was mugged,” interjected the Captain. Having recovered from his initial bout of shock he was determined to take charge of the situation and reassure Princess Celestia that everything was under control. “Luckily, nopony was hurt and Twilight managed to subdue her attacker. As well as turning him into some sort of house plant.”
“Twilight! Are you OK?” Twilight looked up at her mentor and nodded. Celestia turned to glare at the fern Reinolds had carried into the station. Maybe it was the Captain’s imagination but he could have sworn that the plant actually wilted a little.
“Yes, just a little shaken up. I’ll be fine, you don’t have to worry about me. My magic will always keep me safe.” Twilight assured Celestia.
Captain Reinolds winced inwardly, knowing he should probably keep his mouth shut and let the two of them return home. But he couldn't help himself. “Respectfully, Ms. Sparkle, I disagree. I’m glad you’re alright, of course, but frankly you got lucky. If that mugger had known what he was doing you could have ended up seriously hurt, or worse.” Reinolds could tell he had upset Twilight, and only had a few more seconds before she burst into tears again. He also felt the weight of Celestia’s full attention focused upon him. He chanced a peek up at her face. She wore an unreadable neutral expression. Reinolds was sure he could sense the gears of her mind turning as she seemed to be weighing his words and, the Captain noticed with some anxiety, sizing him up as well. “You have a lot of raw power, no question, but there’s more to winning a fight than just who the stronger pony is. If you’re going to wander around the city late at night, there are several techniques and magical arts that can be used for self-defense. I suggest you study a few of them and make sure that, heavens forbid something like this were to happen again, you would be prepared to deal with it.”
The two mares stared at him for a long while, more than long enough for Reinolds to consider just how far out of line he had stepped by implying that the Princess hadn't taught Twilight to protect herself properly and had put her in danger. He was in the process of wondering what it would be like to be reassigned to a frigid guard post to monitor some mountaintop on the border of the griffin kingdom when a mischievous smile formed on Celestia’s face.
“I believe that the Captain is correct, Twilight. While your studies on friendship have enabled you to accomplish amazing things, it couldn’t hurt to supplement them with a little combat training just to be on the safe side. After all, your friends might not always be around and there may come a time when you must be able to rely on your own strength to protect you. In fact, I know just the pony you can train with.”
Twilight furrowed her brow “What pony would that be, princess?”
“Why, I believe Captain Reinolds has just volunteered his services as an instructor.”
Whoops. That wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he’d made the suggestion. “Er, Princess, I’m honored of course but surely there must be some other pony more qualified than myself for this sort of thing?”
Twilight sat back from the princess and stared at the floor. “I wouldn’t want to be a burden on the Captain. I’m sure he has more important things to do than teach me. He doesn’t need me getting in his way all the time.”
Celestia was undeterred. “Captain, I would consider it a personal favor if you would consider my proposal. After all, you’ve trained dozens of guard ponies have you not? I think you’d find Twilight to be an excellent student. I know I always have.”
Reinolds knew when he was beaten. He had to admit, he’d taken a liking to Twilight. And the political pony in him pointed out that having a royal protegee training under him would probably come in handy during budget negotiation season. “It would be no burden at all Twilight. I’d consider it a privilege to train you.”
“Really? I’d like that very much, sir.”
“I have to warn you, though, I’m not one to go easy on my new recruits. Learning magical combat is a lot of work, physically and mentally. You sure you’re up for it?”
“I won’t let you down, Captain!” Twilight was eager to prove to Captain Reinolds and Celestia that she could take care of herself, and the prospect of learning something new was always exciting. “Thank you very much!”
“Wonderful, then we’re all in agreement. Twilight will report to the training barracks first thing tomorrow morning,” declared the Princess. “Now you had better get ready for bed, it’s been a long evening and you have a big day tomorrow. Thank you again for looking out for her, Captain Reinolds.”
“Just doing my job, Princess.” He watched Celestia escort the bouncing unicorn out the door and into her chariot for the return trip to the palace, wondering what exactly he had managed to get himself into.