A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court

by Antiquarian

First Lessons (Part 3)

“Pinkie Pie, slow down, darling!” chided Rarity as she hastened down the road after her friend. “Not all of us are so lightly encumbered as you!”

The pink mare halted her forward motion, though she simply continued her trademark bounce in place. Somehow, her springing failed to dislodge the pastry box from her back, a fact which Rarity would have found remarkable had she not seen it hundreds of times before. “Sorry, Rarity!” chirped the party planner. “I’m just really really excited is all!”

“You? Excited?” replied Rarity with mock incredulity. “Perish the thought.” The fashionista took advantage of the pause to adjust her saddlebags with a quick tug of magic. She had barely had time to cram everything into the pouches before being dragged along to Celestia-knew-where by the pink mare. If I’d known I’d be going for a jog I would have worn my adventuring saddlebags so the blasted strap wouldn’t keep slipping every few yards! “And why the rush, darling? It’s not as though the hospital is going anywhere, and I’d rather not be all sweaty and icky when we arrive.”

“Oh, I know that,” Pinkie assured her, dropping to the ground and, shockingly, staying there. “I just want to make the Lunar Guards feel super-duper welcomed since they’re here to protect us from the nasty Shades and all!”

Shh!” hissed Rarity, glancing around furtively. “Pinkie, we’re not supposed to talk about that in public!”

Pssh! I know that,” scoffed Pinkie. “But it’s the middle of the afternoon and we’re two blocks out of town. Nopony’s around.”

The fashionista was forced to agree. Ponyville wasn’t exactly bustling at that precise moment, and most of the citizens who were out and about were downtown at the market. Certainly, none were in their vicinity. “True enough I suppose,” admitted Rarity. “All the same, you really ought to be more careful. What was that you said about how losing a princess’s trust was the quickest way to lose your head?” Rarity thought it was highly improbable that Celestia would execute anypony, much less a Bearer, over a slip of the tongue, but Pinkie seemed to take the hint.

After a fashion. “Wouldn’t that be a sight,” chortled the pink mare. “My head on a spear on the bridge leading into town with a sign that says ‘Loose lips sink friendships.’ Doesn’t really scream ‘Welcome to Ponyville!’ does it?”

Rarity felt slightly queasy at the thought. “Not so much, no.”

“Ready to go?”

“Yes, please.”

They resumed their trot to the hospital, though Pinkie was kind enough to slow the pace to a brisk walk. When they entered the building, the party pony led the way, apparently not needing to ask the receptionist where the two Lunar Guards were staying. Rather than ponder how the pink mare knew the way, Rarity chose to wonder why Pinkie Pie had selected her for this particular jaunt.

A short while before, Rarity had simply been enjoying the afternoon sun on a solitary bench near the pond. The weather team had crafted such a nice day that she’d decided to move her ‘inspiration room’ outside, taking along her sketch pad, pencils, and other odds and ends to work on next season’s line in the fresh air. That had been exactly what she’d been doing when Pinkie had appeared behind her and loudly invited her to come and greet the two Lunar Guards that Celestia had sent to town. After regaining her composure (and after Pinkie helped her pick up the papers that she’d flung everywhere in her shock), she’d agreed to come along.

She’d assumed that Pinkie would be collecting their other friends along the way, or at least those who weren’t otherwise occupied, but, no. They’d simply gone directly to the hospital after a quick stop at the bakery to collect the pastry box.

Rarity would have been lying if she’d said she wasn’t curious why it was just the two of them. “Pinkie Pie, darling,” she began, “not that I’m not thrilled by the opportunity to welcome new ponies, but why, if I may ask, did you recruit me to the task and not our other friends?” And why didn’t you give me time to actually bring something for them like a good hostess? she didn’t add aloud. Honestly, the Element of Generosity showing up without a gift! What will ponies think?

“Well,” said Pinkie, taking a deep breath, “Applejack is farming, though she’s probably also fretting over the friar and all the soldiers for reasons ranging from hospitality to safety, Twilight is teaching Jacques magic and that’s probably gonna take awhile because she’s super-duper smart and knows a lot about magic and he’s also super-duper smart but doesn’t know anything about magic which is weird and confusing for him since he has magic now but Twilight’s a good teacher so I’m sure she’ll make it work, and I would have asked Spike but he looked like he was having fun working on the next Ogres and Oubliettes campaign that he and Big Mac secretly do but we all know about so it’s not really a secret, and Rainbow Dash looked like she was busy stalking Marble Slab, and Fluttershy is busy treating a beaver with a broken paw so that’s probably gonna be a while and judging by the sound of things he was saying some pretty naughty words, and the Cakes are busy in the bakery and I thought about staying to help them out but they gave me the afternoon off so that I could—”

Rarity interrupted her before she could get into listing every pony in Ponyville, her brain trying, and failing, to process all the data that had just been provided. “Yes, well, if everypony else was busy, I’m certainly glad to be of service. I would have appreciated a little more warning next time,” she added in a lower voice, “but I’m glad nonetheless.”

“Well you just had to come along, Rarity,” declared Pinkie as she passed a closed room from whence emanated the sound of glasses tinking together. “My Pinkie Sense said so.”

“Oh?” asked Rarity as she passed the same room; whistling had now joined the sound of clinking glass to create a sort of melody. “And what did your Pinkie Sense—”

At that moment, Pinkie Pie halted, her ears flopping madly, her eyes fluttering, and her knees twitching. Rarity had just enough time to remember that she should ‘look out for opening doors’ before the door to her left swung open a smacked her in the snout. She yelped in pain and surprise.

Nurse Redheart peered around the door, wincing in sympathy and guilt. “Oh, horseapples, I’m sorry Rarity!” she exclaimed. “I got caught up in my work and didn’t hear you out here.”

Rarity rubbed her smarting snout and did her best not to snap. “That’s quite all right, darling,” she managed through clenched teeth. “Accidents happen. May I ask what you were working on?” The question was as much a matter of distracting herself from the pain as polite curiosity.

“Just whipping up a few treatments,” replied Redheart, pushing the door fully open to admit the cart she’d been pulling. Rarity’s eyes widened at the cart’s contents. Redheart had certainly been ‘whipping up treatments,’ but ‘few’ was not the word that Rarity would have used to describe the twenty-plus multicolored liquids that danced about in flasks on the cart-top.

“Wowie!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie. “You opening a potion shop or something? Because if you and Zecora want to open a franchise I know a good marketing guy!”

Redheart chuckled. “Nothing like that. This is for Private Oaken. Whatever monster hit him was using some seriously nasty dark magic, so there are a number of different treatments, both old and new, that we’re trying.”

Rarity and Pinkie exchanged a glance. They both knew that Oaken hadn’t been fighting some wild beast but another pony; one consumed by dark magic. What was unclear was whether or not Redheart knew as well. The fact that she’d said ‘monster’ suggested either that she didn’t know or that she was simply using a euphemism while in public. Either way, Rarity elected not to suggest otherwise. “Well it just so happens that we’re here to visit our brave soldiers. Might we come along?”

“I don’t see any harm in it,” replied the nurse, who turned to lead them down the hall. “Fair warning, though, the insults are flying pretty thick in there.”

“Insults?” asked Rarity, cocking her head to one side.

“Yeah,” chuckled Redheart. “Remember how Med’s a Marine? Well, it turns out that different branches of the Armed Forces have a pretty fierce rivalry.” She glanced back. “And I’m talking a worse-than-hoofball-rivalries rivalry.”

"Goodness," exclaimed Rarity, recalling her father's rather spirited game-day denouncements of the Seaddle Bayhawks. "Is such a thing even possible?"


“Oooh,” cooed Pinkie, “can I bring popcorn and sell tickets?”

“Only if you clean up afterwards and give me a cut of the proceeds,” answered Redheart. “To make matters worse, there’s a certain measure of ‘it’s a guy thing’ at play as well. Before she vamoosed, Morning Song said they might go for hours at this rate.”

Rarity snorted and rolled her eyes. “Stallions! Honestly! Foals, the lot of them!”

“Preach, sister.”

They came to a large double-door. A sign that proclaimed ‘Physical Therapy’ in bold letters hung over the top. From within could be heard the sounds of male voices raised in good-natured argument. “Here we are,” said Redheart. “As Medevac would say, ‘once more unto the breach.’” She pushed the door open and Rarity took in the scene.

Off to her right a unicorn stallion leaned against the table. He was tall, muscular, with such handsome features and appropriately grey-silver coloration that he looked to have stepped straight out of a recruiting poster for the Lunar Guard. Rarity felt her heart give a flutter. If ponies like him are the posterchildren, it’s a wonder more mares don’t join the Service.

The grey unicorn was watching the scene unfolding at the center of the room. A large brown earth pony stallion, smaller than Big Macintosh but still an impressive sight, was attempting to walk between two grip bars. He was even more well-muscled than the unicorn, but that didn’t seem to be helping him walk. The reason was fairly obvious – he was covered in bandages which concealed no-doubt impressive injuries. Based on what Redheart said, that’s probably Oaken, meaning the other pony is Ironhide.

Medevac, for his part, was flying over the earth pony’s head. The medic had dispensed with his lab coat and run straps around his barrel to reach down and around Oaken. Rarity realized that he must be taking some of the weight to help the wounded warrior walk. The fashionista also noticed that Medevac wasn’t wearing his prosthetic leg, and she did her best not to stare at the stump where it had been.

As the three mares entered, they caught the tail end of whatever Medevac had been saying. “…now that we’ve got you walking it’s just a short step to helping you learn the names of things.” He glanced up at the newcomers. “See, these are ‘mares,’ Oaken,” he prompted in a voice that sounded like he was coaching a foal. “Can you say ‘mares?’”

“I could say a lot of things to you, jarhead, just not in polite company,” replied Oaken. He and Ironhide straightened and nodded in greeting, first to the nurse and then to the two of them. “Miss Redheart. Welcome, ladies,” Oaken said, speaking for both of them. “Please forgive the indignity of all this. I’m Private Oaken and this is Private Ironhide, Lunar Guard. And who might you lovely ladies be?”

Refreshingly polite. He must come from good stock. “Greetings, my good sirs,” she said with a slight curtsey. “I am Rarity. This is my friend, Pinkie Pie.”

The two Guardponies exchanged a shocked glance. “The Bearers?” asked Ironhide.

“That’s us!” grinned Pinkie Pie.

Both stallions shot to attention. “It’s an honor to meet you both.”

Rarity flushed and allowed herself to bask in the respect for a moment. She seldom traded on her status, and whenever she did it was typically for a worthy cause, but she did appreciate being honored for her role in saving Equestria. “Well, that’s good of the both of you to say, but this is just a friendly visit. No need to be so formal.”

At that the stallions relaxed obediently. “It’s just as well; I wouldn’t want to mussy my dress blacks with bandages,” quipped Oaken.

Pinkie nodded sagely. “Rarity can relate to that. Remember when we got back from fighting the Quillboar? She was so covered in bandages she looked like a mummy!” she giggled. “Which was kind of bad timing because that week she got a visit from Photo Fin—”

Rarity shoved a hoof in Pinkie’s mouth. “Oh, I’m sure they don’t want to hear that story, Pinkie Pie,” she interrupted, laughing casually to distract from the rather pointed look she shot her friend. “Honestly, I don’t know why you bring it up so often,” she half-snarled through a smile.

Redheart politely turned away to hide a smile while Medevac openly smirked, but if Oaken and Ironhide were amused, they did a good job hiding it. For that, Rarity was immensely grateful. The nurses were already familiar with the story (in fact, they’d been the nurses on call when she came in), but if the newcomers had laughed she would have been mortified. No doubt serving in a palace teaches them to hide their opinions well.

Oaken spoke up in the silence, though whether it was to tactfully move the conversation along or simply to satisfy his curiosity she could not tell. “To what do we owe the privilege of your visit?” he asked.

Cupcakes!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie, bouncing up and down in place. “We brought you ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ cupcakes because you’re new in town and I wanted to throw you a ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party but Redheart would be super grumpy with me if I threw another one in the hospital so we brought you cupcakes as a placeholder!” In a flash she zipped over in front of Ironhide, causing the stallion to jolt back in shock as she deposited six cupcakes on the table next to him. “Germane Chocolate with just a hint of maple for you…” she darted past Oaken, grabbed a cart, wheeled it up next to the support bars, and set the remainder of the cupcakes down on it, “…and Pumpkin-Cocoa-Cinna-Surprise for you! Dig in! Dig in!” She stood beaming in front of Oaken, her animated eyes flicking back and forth between the two Lunar Guards as she waited for them to take their first bites.

Rarity suspected they might need a moment first. Ironhide flatly gaped at Pinkie, his eyes wide. Oaken reached a timid hoof out to poke the pink mare’s snout as though he wasn’t positive she was real. When Pinkie’s snout didn’t produce a *honk* noise when pressed, Rarity was almost disappointed.

Medevac looked on with unadulterated glee. “Yeah, I remember my first Pinkie-ing. You’ll get used to it.”

Somewhat,” corrected Redheart. “You’ll get somewhat used to it.”

Ironhide, perhaps emboldened by the fact that none of the locals seemed fazed, picked up a cupcake in his magic aura as gingerly as he would a box of dynamite. He sniffed it to determine its authenticity. “How did…?” he began, his mind struggling to find the right words, “… I mean… it’s not as though my favorite cupcake flavor is in my personnel file…”

“Eh,” shrugged Pinkie as she bounced back over to Rarity. “Details.” More quietly she added, “Details which are in my files.

“You’d best dig in before Medevac and I swoop in on them,” advised Redheart. “Public medicine makes for crippling sugar addictions, and Pinkie’s cupcakes are to die for.”

Oaken picked up one of his cupcakes, glanced at the dubious Ironhide, shrugged, and uttered the toast, “Sláinte mhaith,” before tossing the pastry into his mouth.

Sláinte mhaith,” sighed Ironhide as he followed suit.

The two stallions chewed thoughtfully and Pinkie’s bouncing intensitified with barely suppressed anticipatory glee. “Well, what’dya think!? What’dya think?!

Rarity had encountered enough Royal Guardsponies over the years to form the opinion that they were so used to muting their reactions that, even in their private lives, they seldom displayed emotional extremes. This did not mean they didn’t have such extremes, however; simply that understated reactions could speak volumes.

And when they did react, well… the wide-eyed and disbelieving looks they shot each other suggested that Pinkie’s cupcakes had verged on ‘life-changing.’

“That was… incredible,” breathed Ironhide. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a cupcake that delicious.”

“Stupendous,” agreed Oaken. “I’m filled with such an odd mixture of intense culinary pleasure and…” he gestured to the remaining treats, “moderate concern that you knew to make this recipe specifically.”

His uneasy qualifier at the end did nothing to quell Pinkie’s mood. “YAY!” exclaimed the party planner, doing a backflip in place. “That makes me so happy to hear!”

Oaken shot a glance at Medevac. “Is she always like this?”

“Were you not briefed on her?” chuckled the Marine.

“We were. I just thought Captain Sabre was exaggerating.”

Rarity chortled. “Take it from me, darling. Whatever Argent Sabre told you, she was underselling it.”

“I believe you,” replied Oaken. “I believe you, and I think that terrifies me.”

“It should,” chorused Redheart and Medevac.

Despite their fears, the two Guards were quite happy for the cupcakes now that the initial shock had passed. They politely offered to share the sweets with the other ponies in the room. Pinkie declined, as she had thoughtfully brought along a box for herself so as not to gorge herself on other ponies’ sweets. Medevac helped Oaken over to a chair before unhitching himself and wolfing down one of the Germane Chocolate cakes. Redheart picked up one of Oaken’s, stared at it ruefully, then glared at Pinkie. “You and the Cakes are the reason I can never lose those extra five pounds, you know that?”

Rarity, concerned about the same thing, cut one in half with her magic. “You could always split one with me, Redheart.”

The nurse looked down at her full pastry, sighed, and began eating the whole thing. “I need the sugar more than I need to lose five pounds.”

“You look great, Red,” Medevac assured her. “And you don’t need to lose a couple pounds to be beautiful.”

Redheart blushed and muttered a ‘thank you’ over her cake. Rarity looked back and forth between the two nurses and a smile formed on her lips. She was surprised she hadn’t noticed it earlier. It bore investigation, but she’d wait until there were fewer ponies about before she engaged Redheart in any mare-talk.

“Miss Rarity, you can take off your saddlebags if you like,” said Oaken.

“Pardon?” she asked, startled from her thoughts by the sudden statement. “Oh, my, I’d forgotten I had them on.” She levitated the bags off to tuck into a corner.

Oaken raised an eyebrow. “I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity, but was that a sketch pad poking out the top?”

“Trained to be observant, I see,” she said, smiling approvingly. “Yes, it was. I happened to be out under the sun working on designs for the upcoming season when Pinkie told me she was coming to greet you both.”

“Well, it’s a beautiful day for it, and, I imagine, quite the source of inspiration for you. I saw a few of your dresses in lasts season’s Canterlot Couturier, and I was impressed by how you manage to weave your surroundings into your work; very reminiscent of Color Palette’s Seasons of Epona line.”

The room fell dead silent. Rarity almost dropped her cupcake. “Y-you know Color Palette’s work? You know my work?!”

Ironhide sighed. “Here we go. You just couldn’t resist showing off, could you?”

Oaken shrugged, unperturbed. “Listen, Iron, when you go months without talking to anypony that knows the first thing about fashion, you make the most of the opportunity. It’s not like I get any culture from you.

“Y-y-you know my work…” stammered Rarity.

“Hey, this is perfect!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie. “You like fashion; he likes fashion; you can be fashion buddies!”

Before Rarity could ask several rather obvious questions, a mischievous chuckle cut through the air. Medevac sat rubbing his hooves together like a manic toddler. “Oh,” he breathed, his voice a silken sigh of happiness, “I am going to get a lot of material out of this.”

“Cool your wings, Marine,” Oaken chided, “I picked it up from my sister.”

“Your sister?” asked Rarity, her voice a touch shaky from the shock. She gave her head a shake and cleared her throat, forcing herself to reclaim her poise. “Is she a couturier as well?”

“Not exactly,” replied Oaken. “My sister, Bobby Pin, has pretty severe autism. Diagnosed when she was little. Among other difficulties, she’s barely a step above mute most of the time.”

“Oh, my,” murmured Rarity. “That sounds…” she stopped herself before saying ‘dreadful,’ as she did not want to speak ill of his sister, even by accident, “… like it would be quite challenging.”

“It is,” agreed Oaken who, to her relief, did not seem to have noticed the pause. “One of the only things she’ll engage with other ponies about is fashion. For whatever reason she’s been fixated on it since she was a little filly. She started designing her own clothes at five. When we figured out she’d actually talk when clothes were involved, I decided to learn as much of it as I could.” He shrugged. “It just started as a way to spend time with Bobby, but ended up taking a genuine interest in it for my own sake. I’m not a designer by any stretch, but I know the lingo and I appreciate the artistry of it.”

He stated it all so casually, as though he was talking about getting over his dislike of mud to play outside with a more rambunctious sibling. But he committed to learning an art that’s not exactly highly regarded by most stallions just to talk to his sister! I can’t even imagine! “That’s… quite an inspirational story,” she said, wiping some moisture from her eyes that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“Thank you,” said Oaken mildly. With a more challenging tone he turned to Medevac and asked, “Still wanna crack jokes about that, jarhead?”

Medevac held up a placating hoof. “Hey, I can respect a no-fly zone. Besides, that’s super cool that you’d be a good brother like that. Carry on.”

Pinkie gave a rather loud, weepy *sniff* as she sat with her forelimbs hugged around her own barrel, her tear-stained face a mixture of a beaming grin and a grim glare. “It’s not fair!” she protested. “That’s so precious and I really want to hug you, but you’re too hurt for it!”

A wicked grin spread across Oaken’s features. “Well, Ironhide’s my best bud, so you could always hug him.”

The stallion in question blanched. “Um…”

Pinkie sucked in a double-lungful of excited air. “The Hug Transferency Principle! Of course! HUG TIME!

Ironhide’s eyes widened in horror. “No, no nononono—hurgk!

Oaken and Medevac laughed like madponies, and even Rarity couldn’t suppress a dainty titter. Redheart just rolled her eyes, a resigned half-smile on her lips. “Pinkie Pie, make sure to let the poor stallion breath.”

“Oh, he’s fine!” Pinkie assured her. “Right, Ironhide?”

~~gaa~ahah~aagh~~~asagaah~~” replied Ironhide.

“See? Fine!”

While Redheart negotiated the release of her patient, Rarity turned her attention back to Oaken. “Well, I’d love the chance to ‘talk shop’ as they say with somepony who appreciates the finer things in life. And, if she were ever interested, I’d be honored to do so with your sister as well.”

Oaken smiled. “That’s very generous of you. It would be good for her to talk to more ponies outside the family. And, for my part, I’d love the chance to ‘talk shop’ with an artist like yourself.” He cast a glance at Ironhide, who was currently writhing in Pinkie’s grip in a manner most animated. Dropping his voice, he added, “Seriously, I’m desperate. Do you know Iron once wore a green-and-red plaid suit… with a salmon-colored pleated tux shirt?”

It took all of Rarity’s self-control to not hurl on the spot. Her knees buckled and her back muscles arched, plunging her neck forward in preparation for retching. Through sheer iron will she held the floodgates closed, but it was a close thing.

Medevac winced. “Hot dang, Oaken, even I know that’s wrong.”

The earth pony shot him a look of long suffering. “The darndest thing is, Iron honestly doesn’t.”

Rarity staggered over to Oaken’s side, her eyes swimming and her gait wobbling as though she’d been matching ciders with Rainbow Dash. She managed to lay a gentle hoof on Oaken’s shoulder. “Darling,” she said softly, taking care to gulp down her lunch, “I want you to know that I will be personally outfitting you and this poor, deranged fellow with entirely new wardrobes.”

“Aw, Miss Rarity, you’d don’t need to—”

“I’m starting today,” she said, pulling out her sketchpad.

“But you don’t need to—”

He quailed under the look she gave him. “I’m. Starting. Today.”

It took him a moment to blink. “You’re starting today.”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile, then turned to see that the disreputable, fashion-illiterate, abomination of personal appearance known as ‘Ironhide’ had been released from Pinkie’s iron grip and was currently engaged in sucking down oxygen. “Private Ironhide,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument. He looked up at her with bleary fear as a measuring tape levitated out of her bag. “I shall require your measurements post-haste.” Wisely, he did not resist her.

Oaken chuckled as he watched the display, but his amusement swiftly gave way to interest as she began sketching. “I hope you don’t mind if I take notes, Miss Rarity.”

The fashionista spared him a moment to smile even as she set to work. “My dear stallion, I’d be offended if you didn’t.”

It was some hours later that Rarity and Pinkie departed, having bid their goodbyes to the soldiers. The fashionista was in high spirits. Good humor had abounded, pleasant conversation had flowed freely, and she had a brand-new project to relish in. And a sharp new mind to match wits with as well, she thought with a smile. In all, it was not surprising that there was a spring in her step as they trotted back to town. “Well, Pinkie, I must say that I’m rather glad your inscrutable Pinkie Sense picked me for this little outing.”

“Me too!” grinned Pinkie. “Especially since all our other friends were busy.”

“Yes indeed,” smiled Rarity, thinking back to the list that Pinkie had so casually rattled off earlier. It never ceases to amaze me how she keeps track of everypony. “Everypony else seems so swamped, it’s almost a wonder I was available! What with Applejack working, and Twilight studying, and Spike playing his games, and Rainbow…” Rarity stopped dead, her eyes snapping open as the full contents of Pinkie’s earlier expository dialogue finally made their way to the forefront of her consciousness. “I’m sorry, Pinkie, but am I right in recalling your claim that Rainbow Dash is stalking Marble Slab?”


Rarity blinked. “Would you… perhaps care to expound on that?”

Pinkie tilted her head in confusion. “How would I get any bigger? Do you want me to eat more cupcakes or something?”

Her response prompted a deep sigh. “No, Pinkie Pie, expound, not expand, I want to know what you meant by...” Rolling her eyes, Rarity resumed walking. “Oh, never mind. I’m sure I’ll find out later.”

Marble Slab hummed softly to himself as he glided over the Apples’ vast acreage. A gentle breeze tickled his coat and sent ripples through the leaves below. From the sky, the trees almost resembled a great green ocean, with treetops like the crests of waves rolling with the currents. He smiled at the sight. No matter how many years passed, he would never fail to appreciate the grand views that were the birthright of the pegasi.

Nor would he fail to notice the pony that ducked behind the cloud in his wake. Whoever was following him had obviously been trained, or else he would have noticed sooner. He, or she, was hopping from cloud to cloud with carefully controlled flights that did nothing to disturb the breeze. But, unfortunately for his pursuer, Marble was using the combat air patrol technique that his Cossack friend Mishka had always called the ‘Crazy Ivan’ for reasons that remained shrouded in mystery, naval jargon, and unflattering remarks about Equestrian interference in foreign affairs. The ‘Crazy Ivan’ involved making abrupt and violent turns on an unpredictable timetable to give him a rear-facing view. On the last ‘Crazy Ivan,’ he’d caught sight of the darting figure.

But he or she may not know that, he thought, continuing to fly as if nothing had changed. He carried on his path for another twenty seconds, then began a gradual descent into the orchard. As he flew, he could feel the eyes of his stalker boring into him.

He landed in a part of the orchard where the trees had grown especially thick, giving him temporary cover from surveillance. A quick glance at his surroundings revealed that this part of the acreage was apparently less trafficked, leading to a thick canopy overhead and some dense shrubbery on the ground. Slipping off his helmet, he tucked it behind one set of bushes in such a way that the crest stuck up. It would have been noticeably too low to the ground for the average stallion, but, Marble thought with a smirk, I’m conveniently below average. With the distraction in place, he slipped into the undergrowth and waited.

It didn’t take long. His pursuer glided down behind a nearby tree, landing without a sound. The shadows cast by the orchard canopy made it impossible to make out the pony’s color, but, judging by the build, it was a mare. She spotted the helmet without too much difficulty and crept towards it. The mare did a decent job of moving from tree to tree, but, while he could tell that she was no amateur, he could also tell that she wasn’t a specialist; at least not on the ground. She approached the helm without seeming any wiser to the trap, her movements taking her past Marble’s position and allowing him to make out her mane—

Rainbow Dash?! he thought in astonishment. Why the heck is Rainbow Dash following me? Rather than put the question to her directly, however, he decided to watch and see what she would do.

The mare drew within a few feet of the bush, moving quietly but still more brazenly than she should have with the helmet being suspiciously stationary. Then she stopped. He saw her eyes narrow in suspicion, then dart around the surrounding greenery. When she failed to spot him, her wings flared open and she took a tentative step back. Guessing that she’d fly away if he didn’t say something, he decided to break the silence. “Out for a fly, Miss Dash?” he asked.


She shot straight up through the canopy, sending a shower of twigs and leaves down as she tore heavenward. Marble chuckled to himself as he stepped out of cover. “Smooth, Slab. Smooth.”

A moment later a rainbow-maned head poked back through the hole, looking around suspiciously until she saw him. “Um… hiya, Marble.”

“Hello, Miss Dash.”

“I… uh… I wasn’t scared or anything, just so you know. I was just… demonstrating my awesome takeoff speed. Yeah. That.”

He pretended not to notice her blush, or that she looked everywhere except him. “Of course, Miss Dash. That’s what I was just about to suggest.”

She fluttered back down through the hole and landed in front of him, eyes still wandering around the trees instead of focusing on him. Marble wasn’t a psychologist like Song, but he was a personable stallion, and he’d picked up a lot from his boss in the last few years. As such, he had a fair idea that Dash would become defensive if he opened with asking why she had been following him. Instead he remarked, “You did a pretty good job hanging in my blind spot. I almost didn’t spot you.”

“Heh! Yeah, I’m pretty awesome,” she preened.

Not even going to bother denying it, eh? Alright then. “Training?” he asked. Or an ill-spent youth?

She snapped a salute that would have made any drill sergeant proud. “Flight Officer Rainbow Danger Dash, 129th Reserve Squadron, Equestrian Air Corps.”

Ah. A Wonderbolts Reservist. Shoulda guessed. Though there’s no way her middle name is really ‘Danger.’ He returned the salute. “Well, technically I should be saluting you, what with a flight officer outranking a lowly staff sergeant like me and all.”

The mare shrugged. “Naw. You didn’t know and I’m not in uniform. Besides, Master Sergeants Whiplash and Fast Clip always made it real clear that ‘Veteran NCO’ trumps ‘Green, Wet-Behind-Ears Officer’ every day of the week.”

Marble smirked. “Glad to see that Squadron Command hasn’t let the side down. Is Lieutenant Landing still in charge of the obstacle course?”

“It’s Commander Landing now. He finished up his time on the course while I was there and got an XO’s billet with the EAS Endeavor.”

“Should’ve kept his lieutenant’s bars. The alliteration worked better.”

Rainbow gave a snort of laughter. “Yeah, he said as much at the time. Spitfire started putting his commander’s bars back in the envelope before he stopped her.”

“That sounds like her.”

Suddenly, his face was full of Rainbow. “You know Spitfire?!” she demanded.

“Um… yeah,” he replied slowly. “So do you.”

“Not important! How do you know Spitfire? Do you go way back? Did you fight alongside the Wonderbolts? Were you a Wonderbolt?!

Marble had given up on the idea of personal space during his first week at basic. That being said, he preferred to have it when given the option, and he gently pushed Rainbow back out of his. “Slow down, Flight Officer.”

“Dash,” she corrected. “Not Flight Officer, just Dash. And I’ll make it an order if that helps, Staff Sergeant.”

“Dash, then. And I’ll tell you how I know Spitfire on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

His grin was sly. “You tell me why you were following me earlier.”

Rainbow recoiled, her face twisting in outrage. “That’s—” he anticipated that the next word would be ‘blackmail,’ but she clamped her jaw shut and denied him the satisfaction of knowing. Her eyes narrowed and he felt as though he was being judged very carefully. “Fine,” she said at length, her voice clipped and quiet. “I suppose you have a right to know anyway. Follow me.” Without another word she took off.

Somewhat bemused by her abrupt change in demeanor, Marble followed. They flew in silence for several minutes, with Dash watching the ground below, obviously seeking something specific. At length she found what she was looking for near the bank of a stream that cut through the orchard. Slowing her flight, she beckoned Marble to a nearby cloud. Once they’d both landed, Dash pointed groundward. “See that?” she asked with uncharacteristic softness.

Marble had already seen what she was pointing to while on approach, but he dutifully looked anyway. A demure, butter-colored pegasus was tending to a beaver in the lee of a tree by the stream. “I’m guessing that you’re referring to Miss Fluttershy and not the beaver,” he remarked.

Rainbow shot him a ‘no duh’ look. “Yes. I mean Fluttershy. And you see what she’s doing?” Correctly guessing that it was a rhetorical question, he silently waited. “She’s taking care of some random critter that got busted up just because she’s kind. And I don’t mean ‘Element of Kindness,’ I mean her.” Dash’s magenta eyes shifted groundward to watch the yellow pegasus work. “She’s always been like this, ever since we were kids. Always trying to mend broken wings and patch up torn hides, whether it was a bird or her stupid kid brother or…” she swallowed, “or a dumb fool filly who wasn’t lucky enough to have a sister until she met her.”

Dash gave a slight chuckle. “And she’s such a scaredy-pony most of the time, that’s the funny thing. She’s literally jumped at her own shadow before, but when somepony or some critter needs her she just dives right in without a thought. Because that’s who she is. And no matter how crazy the adventure, how dangerous the journey, she’s always been there for us. Scared, flighty, wanting to run and hide, sure. But she’s done it. Every time.”

She shot him a sidelong glance. “We’ve faced down plenty of bad guys in the last couple years. Lot more than what you read about in the papers. And we’ve always come back. All of us.” Her red eyes glinted. “I make sure we all come back. But this…” her gaze dropped, “this stuff about the Shades…” she shuddered. “Celestia said two thirds of her army didn’t come back. And I… I got to thinking…” Dash bit her lip. “I just want to make sure she does make it back, so I thought I’d check and…”

Marble nodded in understanding. “You were checking to see how good I am, because you want to know if I’m good enough to protect her.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” admitted Rainbow. “I mean… not that I don’t think you REF guys are good, I just…”

“No, I get it,” he assured her. “I would have done the same thing if it were my sister. Rest-assured, Rainbow Dash, I’ll protect her life with even greater care than my own.”

She looked up and gave him a grateful smile. “Thanks, Marble.”

“You’re welcome.”

Dash cleared her throat, seeming uncomfortable with the solemn moment, and her smile turned teasing. “Though I’d like you to make it back too.”

“Believe me, I’d prefer that as well.”

Chuckling, she slugged him lightly in the foreleg. “You’re alright, Staff.” With a nod of her head she indicated that they should head back the way they came. As they flew, she asked, “So how do you know Spitfire?”

He flicked his ears to indicate a shrug without breaking his flying rhythm. “It’s not that interesting of a story, really. Before joining the REF, I was with the 73rd Strafing Squadron. We did some joint training exercises with the Bolts.”

Dash nodded in understanding. Interceptor squadrons like the Wonderbolts (formally the 1st Interceptor Squadron) were concerned with air-to-air combat first and air-to-ground second. Strafing squadrons were the opposite. “How’d you do?”

“About what you’d expect. The exercises where we were on the same team went great. The exercises where we were pitted against each other were split. They took us for six out of ten mock engagements, but we made ‘em work for it. Woulda been five and five if their speed wasn’t just leagues above what most of us could hit.”

Rainbow’s eyebrows raised. “Dang, you guys must be pretty tough to take on the Bolts four times and win!

Marble smiled. It was a nice feeling having one of the foremost fliers in Equestria and a national hero praise his old squadron. “Well, if I’m being honest, we had one major advantage over the Wonderbolts.” She raised an eyebrow in mute query. “Combat experience. Less than half the current members of the Bolts actually have any, since a lot of the ones that do have it wound up in other squadrons; that and there isn’t as much call for interceptors as strafers on the borders. The Bolts are just plain better fliers than us, and we were outclassed in weather control and speed, but,” he bared his teeth, “we knew all kinds of dirty little fighting tricks that you only learn the hard way.”

He vividly recalled how significant a difference it had made in the fighting. The only Bolts at the time with any combat experience had been the ‘Big Five’ – Soarin, Fleetfoot, Fire Streak, Lightning Streak, and Spitfire herself. The rest of the Bolts, with the exception of the notably unpredictable Surprise, had ended most of the matches as ‘casualties,’ even the bouts that the Wonderbolts had won. Granted, we still got it worse, but, hey. It was the Bolts.

“Dirty little fighting tricks, eh?” asked Dash rubbing her chin with one hoof. “I bet you’ve picked up a lot of those in the REF too.”

“One or two,” he admitted coyly.

An eager grin spread across her face. “I don’t suppose… you could teach me?”

Marble couldn’t say ‘no’ to such an eager face. “I guess I could do that. Lesson one is called the ‘Crazy Ivan.’ Now there’s a bit of a story behind this involving Fritters, a Cossack named Mishke, three bottles of vodka, and a plainclothes op in Budaprance that went sideways in just the worst way. So we were tracking a griffon who was trading in stolen artifacts, right? But we had no idea that the Tsarina had anypony looking for the same guy. Imagine our surprise when…”

As it happened, there was another pony learning more of the art of war a short train ride away in Canterlot. He, like Rainbow Dash, saw violence on the horizon and sought to be prepared.

Unlike Rainbow Dash, however, this stallion had no background in the military, brawling, adventuring, or general world-saving to give him a basis for fighting. Thus it was that he found himself being introduced to the floor of the warehouse for the eleventh time that day.

Sandstone had heard the phrase ‘getting the wind knocked out of you’ plenty of times over the years but, having spent his youth in a school that seemed to be of the opinion that rambunctiousness amongst stallions was to be discouraged, he’d never actually experienced it before today.

He quickly formed the opinion that it was quite unpleasant.

“You missed your block again, numbnuts,” growled his sparring partner, a stoutly built earth pony stallion who’d probably have made a good career in hoofball.

The lower level of the warehouse where Brother Thornberry had introduced the Vox to Quartermaster had been converted into a training center for the revolutionaries. Approximately sixty young Vox who were not otherwise occupied had spent the better part of the day being instructed in combat by a dozen trainers. Since the Vox had few soldiers or professional fighters to speak of (and most of those they did have were elsewhere on assignments that Sandstone didn’t have the clearance to know about), most of the training was handled by the ponies that Quartermaster had left with the weapons. Sandstone still felt uneasy around these unknown ponies, but they seemed quite competent, and they didn’t provoke the same feeling of wrongness in him that Quartermaster had. So, with time, he’d been able to relax.

At least, as much as it was possible to relax when sparring. After being instructed in the basics of spear fighting, they’d been paired off and told to practice on each other. Sandstone had been paired with several prospective revolutionaries… and been sorely thumped each time.

This most recent sparring partner of his had been especially efficient in beating the stuffing out of him, and Sandstone’s patience had worn thin.

“No horsepucky, Sherclop,” was the acid reply that he attempted to give. But, due to the recent experience of having the air forcibly driven from his lungs by the impact of a spearhaft, it came out more like, “Nah harpahckah, Sherlah.”

From his position on the ground, Sandstone could see the other stallion roll his eyes and shoulder the practice spear which had so recently pummeled him. “You’re all left hooves, Sandstone,” sneered the stallion, “and your unicorn marefriend hits harder than you do.”

Sandstone let his head drop to the floor, not wanting to meet the other stallion’s eyes. His tormenter hadn’t quite asked if he was really an earth pony (that would have been impolitic, after all), but he might as well have. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it; the males of most sapient species have always had an unfortunate tendency to base masculinity in strength for its own sake rather than in how that strength was used. Over the years he’d learned to live with it. But he still hated how impotent it made him feel. At that moment, if the ground had chosen to swallow him, he probably wouldn’t have put up much of a fight.

“Hey!” snarled Sea Breeze, breaking off her own bout to shout at Sandstone’s tormenter. “Back off, creep!”

And now I’d welcome it swallowing me.

The big stallion did not seem impressed by Sea Breeze’s ire. “You realize you’re not helping his case, right?” he asked blandly.

“What’s your problem, buddy?” she demanded. “We’re all on the same side here!”

“Yeah? Well, if that’s the case, your boy toy here is gonna get a lot of Vox killed,” glowered the stallion, jabbing his spear at Sandstone. “He couldn’t beat up a barista, much less a Royal Guard. And that’s not a joke; he literally lost a fight to Latte of all ponies. No offense, Latte.”

The Starrybucks employee shrugged. “Eh. None taken.”

Before Sea Breeze could shoot back, the pegasus she’d been sparring with spoke up. “And you’re not doing much better, Breeze. Sorry. You may shoot better than the rest of us, but you’re not doing well up close.”

“So I’ll hang back and shoot!” shouted Breeze. “We both will!”

“And what will you do if the Guard reaches you in the back?” challenged the stallion. “Are you really willing to risk the Revolution just because you can’t swing a stick properly?” Sea Breeze brandished her spear threateningly, but he batted it aside with contemptuous ease. “You may be Quartermaster’s golden girl, but that doesn’t mean a blasted thing when the Guard is shooting at us!”

Breeze’s lip trembled. “I- I—"

Sandstone scrambled to his hooves and put himself between the two. “Piss off, pal!” he commanded with as much force as he could muster. “I didn’t exactly see you beating the instructors earlier!”

“At least I’ve improved. You, on the other hoof, just seem to get worse.”

“So, what, you want me out of the Revolution or something? That’s not your call to make!”

“I shouldn’t have to make it! You should have enough respect for your brothers and sisters to do it yourself!”

Silence followed the stallion’s declaration. All at once, Sandstone realized that the eyes of every other stallion and mare in the room were upon him. Some were sympathetic to him, some seemed to agree with his opponent, and some seemed to fear that they’d receive a similar ultimatum if they spoke up. Sandstone’s face flushed red and he opened his mouth to protest, to declare that he didn’t need to bow out because he was fit to fight, because he had to be, for Sea Breeze and for Equestria, but he couldn’t find the words to break the silence.

In his place, somepony else did. “Well, let’s not be hasty now,” called out a cheerful voice.

All eyes turned to see two unfamiliar stallions standing in the doorway. The first was a fit young pegasus with russet-red coat, silver-grey mane and tail, and a cocky smile. Standing slightly behind him was a cloaked pony of indeterminate race, his only visible features being a lean silver-grey muzzle and thin legs.

The assembled Vox froze, eyeing both the nearby racks of real weapons and the rear door as they wavered between fight and flight. However, Sandstone noticed that the instructors seemed nonplussed by the new arrivals. More trainers? he wondered. Or have we been sold out? Instinctively, he interposed himself between Breeze and the newcomers.

“Who the buck are you?” demanded Sandstone’s sparring partner.

“Fear not, my spear-toting friend, we are associates of Quartermaster,” announced the pegasus, bowing with a flourish. “I am Dagger, and this is my brother, Cloak. We are here to educate you.”

“Enlighten you,” added Cloak.

“Teach a class.”

“Put on a clinic.”

“Cloak and Daggers’ ‘How to be the Scariest Pony in the Room 101’.”

“Patent-pending. All rights reserved.”

“And for your first lesson,” Dagger swept into the room, winking to a couple pretty mares as he walked past, “we’ll teach you what you need to be dangerous.” He strode right up to Sandstone. The earth pony swallowed as Dagger’s silver eyes bored into him. The pegasus didn’t look much older than Sandstone, but his eyes weren’t those of a youth, whatever his cheery tone. “You there! Are you fully committed to overthrowing the tyranny of the Diarchy at any cost?”

Sandstone blinked. “Um… y-yes?”

“Perfect!” exclaimed Dagger, seizing his hoof and shaking it vigorously. “Welcome to the Revolution. And that’s the first lesson, kids: mindset is more important than physicality. With the right mindset, anypony can be dangerous.” A loud snort cut him off. Dagger turned to see that it had come from Sandstone’s partner. “What’s this? A naysayer?”

“You’ve done an awful lot of talking since you walked in, but not a lot of proving.”

Dagger blinked. “I was simply under the impression that you Vox liked talking. Right in the name, you know. ‘Voice of the Ponies’ and all that. But, if it’s a demonstration you seek…” he waved his brother over. “Now, take a look at my cadaverous brother. What you can see of him, at any rate. Poor chap. In science class he was commonly mistaken for the prop skeleton and used for demonstrations. Whenever he comes to town ponies think they’ve spotted the Grim Reaper. Why, he’s so thin that he has to watch out for sewer grates for fear that he’ll slip through.”

“Laying it on a little thick, aren’t we, bro?” sighed Cloak.

“Hush, Grim. I’m using you for a demonstration. At any rate, I’ll bet that scrawny Cloak here could beat the snot out of you without wielding a weapon.”

The big stallion snorted and hefted his training spear. “He’s welcome to try.”

Dagger glanced at Cloak and dipped his head towards the challenger. Cloak shrugged as though it was no business of his and stepped forward. The big stallion didn’t bother with subtlety; he just charged forward. Just as his spear was about to strike, Cloak swept to the side, catching the haft with both forehooves and swinging it like a bat. His swing, combined with the momentum of the charge, flung the big stallion head first into the ground, where he landed on his jaw. Before he could recover, Cloak once more swung the spear like a bat, causing the big stallion to leap into the air with a yelp as a stinging welt was laid across his nether regions.

Several of the Vox burst out laughing at the sight and a few even applauded, but Dagger was none too happy. “Quiet!” he ordered, silencing the crowd. “Cloak!” he shouted. “What the hay was that?”

“A humiliating defeat?” his brother volunteered helpfully.

“No, you idiot, you broke the rules!”

“I didn’t use my weapons.”

“You weren’t supposed to use any!

“Oooooooh,” replied Cloak. “My bad. Sorry buddy.” He tossed his spear to the groaning stallion, who was in the process of rubbing his posterior. “Round two. Whenever you’re ready.”

No doubt the stallion would have preferred to have longer to recover, and probably some ice as well, but his blood was up. Retrieving the spear, he began circling Cloak, looking for an opening. Cloak didn’t bother to turn with him.

Once the stallion was fully behind him, he attacked and, just like before, Cloak waited until the blow had almost landed to twist out of the way and seize the spear with his forehooves. This time, however, the stallion had learned, and he used his superior strength to hang onto the spear, wrenching on it to pull Cloak towards him. Unfortunately, that proved to be exactly what Cloak wanted, as the small pony dropped his forehooves to the ground, pivoted, and bucked the stallion clean in the snout. The defeated pony slumped to the ground with blood running from his nose.

Ponies stood in silence, listening to the groans of the downed stallion while they looked at Dagger for direction. After a moment, he gave it. “Now you may applaud.”

And applaud they did, Sandstone and Sea Breeze included. It was not so much that they were applauding the defeat of a brother Vox. Rather, they applauded the newcomers who had shown them that any of them could be a fighter.

Dagger acknowledged the praise with a wave of his wing, then turned to Sandstone and Breeze, calling out to his brother over one shoulder. “Cloak, see to the wounded warrior. I’ve got to meet my first two students.”

He bumped hooves with each of them in turn. “I’m Sandstone. This is Sea Breeze. We’re…” Really happy you showed that guy up? Really happy to have instructors that don’t give me the creeps?

“We’re happy to have you on our side,” supplied Sea Breeze.

The pegasus winked and clicked his teeth. “Aw, that? That was nothing. Physical strength is all well and good, but the scariest fighters ain’t always the strongest ones. Well,” he amended, “except maybe Quartermaster.” Sandstone and Breeze chuckled. He patted them each with a wing. “Stick with me, kids, and by the time I’m done with you, you’ll know what real strength is.”