Defense in Depth

by Fon Shaolin

Chapter 2

        “You two seem close this morning.”
        Twilight nodded as she chewed the large bite of waffle she’d taken. “We’re walking to school together.”
        Without missing a beat, Galaxy Glimmer said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” She was surprised when her daughter actually clamped down and swallowed rather than saying something snippy. Glimmer glanced over to her son, who had been uncharacteristically quiet. The pair had come to the table together, actually speaking civilly for what seemed like the first time in years.
        Glimmer didn’t want to jinx it by excessively prodding. “Well, I think that’s nice.” Wasn’t it? Surely Shining Armor wouldn’t let his sister pull him into anything that could get them in trouble. Glimmer watched Twilight talk about some teacher with Shining and let her mind drift back to a time when she didn’t have to second-guess her children’s actions.
        The den clock ringed out, letting the two know they only had thirty minutes to make it to the high school. Twilight complained when Shining Armor made her leave her waffles unfinished, but remarkably the filly listened and left after a quick goodbye. She was even already wearing her dampening ring. Glimmer had been mentally preparing for that fight since she got up.
        Selenic Shine stumbled into the kitchen with the morning paper floating behind him. “Did I just see our son and daughter willingly going to school together? How did you manage that?”
        “It wasn’t me,” Glimmer said, holding up her hooves. “They came down to the table thick as thieves, Shining helped Twilight fix her breakfast, and then they headed off. Did you see the ring on her? She put it on herself with no prompting.”
        “Could be that not having her magic really worked,” Selenic offered as he sat down. He floated over the coffee pot to his wife. “Punishments are meant to correct behavior, after all. Perhaps Principal Crabapple had the right of it this time?”
        Glimmer gave her husband a look over the rim of her cup. “Look me in the eye and tell me that they’ve finally found the right punishment for our Twilight.” Selenic didn’t. The mare rolled her eyes and resumed downing her coffee. She couldn’t deny that it didn’t taste just a little bit better this morning when there was no accompanying argument about getting ready for school or fussing at the breakfast table. Glimmer didn’t believe for a second that the punishment was actually working, but she would let things play their course. It was all she could do for her daughter at this point.
        The walk to school turned out to be an awkward one for Twilight. Shining Armor had insisted on keeping an eye on his sister for as long as possible, but amidst the colt’s group of friends he picked up along the way Twilight felt out of place. Despite still being a great big closet nerd, her brother still had plenty of quote-end-quote “normal” friends from the high school’s Royal Guard ROTC program. Twilight found herself unable to keep up with the conversation as it shifted from exercise routines to the latest Monstrous Manual update. How Shining Armor managed to keep his clutch of diverse friends happy was a mystery in and of itself.
        Twilight did know one thing, though: Shining Armor’s friends seemed just as confused as she was. He hadn’t offered an explanation as to why his little sister was walking to school with him and Twilight hadn’t volunteered. For sure, the unicorns in the crowd recognized the heavy black magical dampening ring around her horn. Most were polite enough to not stare and the ones that weren’t Twilight stared back at, so their gaze didn’t linger long. In all, though, Twilight was happy when the school’s clock tower peeked out over the nearby rooftops and ecstatic when the campus itself came into view.
        A large colt was waiting for Shining Armor at the gate. “Ready for El Diablo today, Armor?” he challenged. Twilight felt dwarfed by the massive mountain of iron grey that trotted over to her brother. A single one of his hooves was nearly half as big as Twilight was! Most of Shining Armor’s friends scattered when the stallion-sized pony broke into their group.
        “You’re lucky, Traveller. I won’t be showing you up today.” Shining Armor was short in comparison next to the earth pony, but he was wearing an easy smile. “Have to look out for my little sis for a few days, but I’ll be back to kicking you around the field in no time.”
        “If wishes were ribbons you’d already be General of the Army, Armor,” Traveller grunted. He looked down at Twilight with not a little irritation and the filly shifted until she was standing behind her brother.
        Twilight gave him a nudge. “You can go to your guard thing, Shining. I can walk home by myself.”
        “Twilie, I said I’d help you out and I will. ROTC can wait.”
        Traveller brought his hoof down. Ponies that had been walking around the trio blocking the gate nearly jumped out of their horseshoes. “For Celestia’s sake, just bring her with you! It’d be great to have an audience for your day of reckoning.” Traveller leaned in, smirking. “Unless, of course, you don’t want ‘widdle sister’ telling all her friends about how you’re gonna give up half way through the course. I can understand that.”
        “It’s up to Twilight,” Shining Armor muttered.
        Twilight poked her head out from around her brother’s leg. “Fine by me! It’ll be good to watch my brother run circles around you!”
        “I’m going to feel so guilty stomping all over that great opinion your little sister has of you. See you on the field, Armor. Or beside it when you give up and join the others on the sideline watching a legend like me.” Traveller gave the smaller colt a hard poke with his giant hoof before heading back toward the school building.
        Shining Armor rubbed his chest. “Sorry about that, Twilight. Traveller’s only that bad near the physicals.” He glanced up at the giant school clock overhead; it was nearly time for homeroom. “Okay, so you’re sure you don’t mind hanging out at the field while I do my ROTC stuff? I’m going to warn you: it can get pretty boring.”
        Twilight shrugged. “I’d just go home and watch television anyway. Now I’ll get to see what you find so exciting about marching around some muddy field.” She thought for a moment. “And you better not lose to that guy! I have a reputation around here, you know—”
        “As a bully.”
        “—and I can’t have my big brother losing to everyone that comes along. You’ve got to beat him by at least fifty points,” Twilight said, closing her eyes and nodding. “No less, got that?”
        Her brother rolled his eyes. “They don’t even use points, Twilie.” Shining Armor looked around for a moment, making sure no other pony was nearby, before putting a front leg around Twilight’s neck and pulling her into a huddle. “Don’t forget what we talked about yesterday. I’m here for you. If you get in trouble, or someone starts messing with you, come and get me. Don’t blast them, don’t throw them up into a tree, and don’t turn them into frogs or anything else. Get a teacher or get me.”
        “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” she said, slipping out of her brother’s grasp. “No more getting into trouble. I promised you, didn’t I?”
        “You did. If that’s still not enough, remember that this is your last chance at still getting into the castle when you’re older. The princess won’t ever want to meet a filly with a mark on her permanent record.” The colt smiled at Twilight’s suspicious look. “Not joking. It’s even listed in the super-secret guard handbook all of us get.”
        That was all the silliness Twilight could take. “Get to class, goofball,” she said, slipping out of her brother’s grasp. “I’ll see you after school on the field.”
        “You’ll see me before then if you have any trouble,” Shining corrected, but Twilight was already trotting off toward the schoolhouse. She threw a “sure thing” over her shoulder right before the door closed behind her.
        Canterlot High, though only one of many high schools in the capital, was the primary school for the district closest to the capital. As one of the smaller districts, the school had the younger grades on the same campus. For the most part it was no trouble. The kinds of families these ponies came from didn’t lend themselves to troublemakers. Mostly.
Twilight spotted Curly Cumulous hanging outside her classroom door. They locked eyes for a brief moment as Twilight walked by and Cumulous seemed to have learned her lesson. She went stiff when the smaller unicorn passed, quiet and eyes full of distrust. Twilight didn’t say anything and Cumulous didn’t either. It was one of their better exchanges.
She made it to her desk with five whole minutes to spare. For any other pony that would be cutting it too close, but Twilight didn’t like spending more time in school than she had to – barring magic class. Only unicorns got to go to magic class and they were even taught by a different teacher. That wasn’t until the end of the day, though. To get to that one bright spot Twilight had to suffer through Math, Science, Modern Equestrian, and History. She wasn’t good at things like that and her teacher, Miss May Showers, liked to call on her a lot.
There were whispers, too. Twilight and the rest of her class didn’t really get along. She’d gotten into fights in grades past with foals of similar temperament to herself and any new students were quickly pulled aside and given the what’s-what about Twilight. It didn’t bother her, though. She didn’t share any interests with the other kids. None of them, not even the unicorns, cared about magic or the castle or books.
Twilight wondered if that would change when she graduated Elementary. Junior High was supposed to be different, what with the shifting class schedule and stuff. Before her talk with Shining Armor it’d been the only thing left to look forward to. Caught up as she was in ideas of working at the castle one day, it seemed like such a silly thing to be looking forward to.
It was that happy future thought that got Twilight through the periods before lunch. She couldn’t answer three questions the teacher asked her, got back a D+ on a math worksheet, and probably made much the same on a pop Equestrian History quiz, but Twilight was happy when she trotted out of the classroom at the lunch bell. Miss May Showers hadn’t needed to give her even a single demerit all morning and the day was already half up.
The lunchroom of the school was sprawling. There was enough floor space to comfortably seat half a thousand students at time with chairs and tables to match. Twilight’s class ate with a dozen more during the second of the lunch periods and one could barely hear one’s self think over the clatter of the crowd.
Twilight was one of the first in her group to reach the lunch line. Without thinking, she tried to magic a tray and cup over to her before the inhibitor ring put a stop to that. Slowly, she gathered the items by hoof and began to push her tray along the metal tray track with her snout. That was significantly less fun, as was the snickering from the other students behind her. Twilight clenched her teeth and pushed the tray along and the mare working behind the counter slapped down a paper plate of greens. The unicorn pried her mouth open to clumsily carry the tray, plate, and glass with her to the nearest possible table as smoothly as possible. Now a great many ponies had stopped to stare and each step was a slowly-stretching rubber band of dread that could snap at any moment and make a complete idiot of her.
A free table was in sight. Twilight’s jaw was starting to tremble from the effort of keeping everything balanced and she made a beeline toward it. Five steps, four steps, three steps; Twilight was already shifting to slide the chair out when there was a flash of beige on the lower edge of her vision. Something soft and downy hit her front legs hard and tangled them just enough for Twilight to stumble. She let out a grunt and with it came her tray, her food, and her glass of orange juice. The beginnings of gasps and giggles were coming from all around as her lunch sailed through the air.
Suddenly, the tray caught midair, surrounded by a light blue magic. The glass, though, was still falling. Twilight clenched her teeth and pushed with all her might. An incredibly sharp pain blossomed from her horn, but the juice did not hit the ground; it floated just a few inches from shattering in Twilight’s wispy, familiar purple magical grasp. She let out a ragged sigh as it came to rest on the cafeteria floor with a soft clink rather than a crash.
Hearing that clink, though, made Twilight realize how silent her part of the room had gotten. She looked up, fully expecting to see disappointment on the faces of the students who had wanted something new to talk about, but instead came face-to-chest with a tall pink unicorn. Twilight’s food, all back on the plate and looking like it hadn’t just been flying through the air, floated beside her.
The older unicorn helped Twilight stand all the way up. “Nice save,” she said, magically picking the glass up and setting it back on the tray as well. “Are you alright? Did you hurt anything?”
“I’m fine.” Twilight wasn’t fine. The pain behind her horn was only just starting to fade and it still throbbed in waves of pain that rolled all the way down to her hooves. Twilight wouldn’t show it, though. The students were all staring at the tall unicorn now – all but one: a very familiar pegasus that had turned back to her food.
Twilight took a step toward the table. “You should thank my big brother, Curly. If I didn’t promise him I wouldn’t, I’d put you someplace that would take the janitor a whole day to find!” She saw the beige pegasus shiver at that and the pain behind her eyes was replaced by a righteous indignation. Curly had started this. She was the reason everyone was probably laughing at her right now.
A pink wing flapped out to bar her way. Twilight’s gaze followed the appendage all the way back up to the pink unicorn’s back. Somehow she’d missed them before; probably because of the horn.
“You’re a…a…”
“I’m Cadence. Want to sit with me?”
Numbly, Twilight nodded. Now she understood what everyone was looking at. Twilight had heard that there was an alicorn at the school, but this was the first time she’d ever seen her. Cadence was even talking to her! A real princess wanted to eat lunch with her!
Cadence led the way to her table and put Twilight’s tray down right next to her. There were a few other ponies around them, but they were already getting up. Twilight opened her mouth to stop them, to somehow tell them that they didn’t need to leave, but Cadence was already waving them goodbye. She caught Twilight’s eye back and winked. “I’m sorry about Curly. She’s honestly nice and sweet, but sometimes some of her friends can get her into trouble.”
“She started it,” Twilight instantly snapped. “She took my books and wouldn’t give them back and—!”
“Whoa, whoa! I wasn’t blaming you! I’m apologizing for her.”
Twilight made a sour face. “She should say it herself. And she tripped me!”
“She did. I’m sorry about that, too.”
“Well, you don’t need to be sorry. You don’t need to be anything,” Twilight said, shifting in her seat. She wondered what the alicorn wanted with her. Cadence said that she was trying to apologize for Curly Cumulous, but no one had ever apologized before so why would they start now? “What do you want from me?”
Twilight’s bluntness put the princess on the back foot for a moment. “I…well, that is…” She sighed. “I noticed your inhibitor ring.” Cadence received a blank look from the small unicorn. “I noticed you do magic while wearing it,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I didn’t want Curly to get hurt.”
So that was it – Cadence thought she was just a bully. In a way, that made more sense to Twilight than all the fake niceness. “I wasn’t really going to do anything,” Twilight muttered.
“A promise to your big brother, right?” Twilight shrugged, looking back to her food. “That’s sweet of him to look out for you like that. He must be a special pony.”
“He’s just my brother. I guess he is kinda special, but I don’t want to get a mark on my record either.”
“That’s awfully mature of you. It’s good to try and get along with others: it’s how you make friends.”
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t care about friends. I just can’t ever work at the castle if I get a mark on my record. It’s all I ever…” She looked back to Cadence. The alicorn was not-so-subtly leaning back from the table to get a glance behind Twilight. “There’s nothing back there. I’m a blank flank.”
Cadence snapped back upright, but it was clear she’d been caught. “Sorry,” she said.
“Whatever. Everyone else stares at a pony my age not having a cutie mark, so go ahead and get a good look.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. You just sounded like a different pony when you talked about working at the castle. I wanted to get an idea of what you wanted to do there.”
Twilight flinched and went back to pretending to be interested in her food. She felt bad for snapping at Cadence. “I tried to get into Princess Celestia’s school,” she admitted, deciding to try and carry the conversation to make up for it. “The entrance exam was hatching a dragon egg, but I didn’t pass. They said I wasn’t talented enough.”
Not talented enough? Really?” Twilight glumly nodded. “Well, I think you’re a very skilled young unicorn. I’m sure that, if you reapply in a year or two, you’ll definitely get into my aunt’s school.”
“Princess Celestia is your aunt?” Twilight couldn’t believe that. Well, the horn and the wings made it a possibility, but to be eating lunch with the niece of the princess! It was more than Twilight could take. “Oh, what’s she like? Have you ever seen her raise the sun? Is it like it is at the Summer Sun Celebration? That was the most wonderful, most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”
Cadence, caught sleeping by Twilight’s sudden transformation, could only mutter half-answers while she was bombarded by more and more questions about Celestia. She had met many, many ponies that wanted to know more about their ruler, but none had been quite so exuberant about it before. The little purple unicorn was like an entirely different pony when she talked about her princess, though – not at all the crazed terror that Curly had warned her about. A sudden spark of inspiration hit Cadence then and she put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder, stopping the flow of questions for a moment.  
“Where will you be after school today,” she interrupted. “Are you going straight home or are you part of a club?”
“What? Oh, I’m, uh, going to be out on the athletics field with my big brother. He’s in the school ROTC program.”
The pink alicorn whisked her tray off the table. “Great! I’ll see you then – don’t go home until I get a chance to talk, alright?” She didn’t give Twilight a chance to agree or disagree because she was already trotting to the door, leaving Twilight bewildered, confused, and the target of many of lunch’s remaining conversations.
Ten minutes later when the bell rang, Twilight went back to class with the rest of the students. Twilight knew that they were probably just as confused about the school’s most famous student taking such an interest in her as she was, so she didn’t let the stares bother her. Instead, she put it out of her mind. Cadence had said she’d catch up after school, so whatever it was the pink alicorn wanted would probably come out then. Right now, though, it was time for something much, much better: Magic Class!
Twilight’s teacher, May Showers, dismissed all the students to their special classes after they’d gotten back to their desks: pegasi got to go to flight class, earth ponies went outside for PE, and the unicorns gathered their Basics of Magic books and went down the hall to Mr. Clearwater’s classroom at the end of the hall.
As always, Twilight was the first through the door. Mr. Clearwater had an entire lecture hall for his class since, like lunch, several other classes sent their students in during the same period. The old unicorn teacher was rummaging around by his desk, but his ear flicked when he heard the door open. Twilight gave a happy, “Good afternoon, Professor Clearwater!” before taking her usual seat at the front.
“Still not a professor, Miss Sparkle,” Clearwater said, just the same as he did every day.
Twilight smiled. Some things would never change and calling Clearwater “Professor Clearwater” was one of those things. With the big lecture hall and his insistence on wearing suits to class, it seemed natural for a nervous young unicorn to call her very first magic teacher that.
        When the wizened teacher did finally emerge from his hunt – a fresh piece of chalk was triumphantly floating beside him – his eyes quickly sought out Twilight’s horn. He frowned at the sight of the ring there. “Miss Sparkle,” he said, shifting his gaze down to the filly’s eyes, “what is the purpose of magic?”
        Twilight sighed and stared down at the top of her desk. It was hard to get the words out. “Magic is a helpful tool,” she mumbled.
        “And was welding someone into a locker using magic being helpful?”
        Twilight couldn’t help herself. “Well, I didn’t have a blowtorch handy,” she quipped.
        Clearwater grunted and Twilight couldn’t tell if he was choking down a laugh or not. Regardless, his answer was forestalled by the arrival of the other students who chose to loiter about until the bell. Giving Twilight one last stern look, the teacher broke their conversation to write the lesson plan on the chalkboard. That last look, though, ruined whatever good mood Twilight had. Disappointing the principal or even her parents somehow didn’t compare to her magic teacher.
Magic was the one talent she had and her teacher thought she’d misused it.
Guiltily, Twilight fished her note-taking supplies out of her saddlebags and started transcribing. The experience in writing with her mouth throughout the day helped keep up with the notes Clearwater was putting up. Practices were impossible to follow, though. Twilight had to sit quietly while the rest of the class got to practice levitating eggs to fine-tune their magical control. Twilight could already juggle a whole carton of eggs without breaking a single one, so she didn’t feel too bad about being left out. It was still galling to be so excluded from her favorite class, but Twilight didn’t want to risk trying anymore magic so long as the ring was on.
Clearwater stayed after class for a bit to help Twilight get her books and things packed away. He didn’t comment on her punishment or offer anymore reminders on the proper use of magic. Twilight nearly wished that he would, though. The silence was a sharp break from their usual banter about magic and spells.
“It’s not nearly so bad,” he suddenly said as Twilight’s quill magically flew into her saddlebag. “Being without magic, that is. Some of the greatest unicorns I know are the most helpless without their magic. Learning how to go without something that you take for granted each day can be an interesting experience. It makes you appreciate having it in the first place.”
“Well, I guess. I can still do magic, though – it just hurts with the ring on.”
The teacher stopped his sorting of Twilight’s saddlebag. He craned his head, not looking at Twilight but at the ring snuggly resting around the base of her horn. “That’s a Habersham. It’s rated for adult unicorns that have trouble controlling their magic when they sleep,” Clearwater muttered to himself. “What magical range do you have with it on?”
Twilight gave him a small shrug. “I caught a glass of orange juice earlier with my magic,” she said. Thinking about it, Twilight realized that perhaps she’d made a mistake mentioning it at all. The ring was supposed to be a punishment; would she get into trouble for still casting magic? Clearwater seemed more curious than anything, but would he tell the principal?
He was quiet for a long moment. “As a teacher at this school, I should report this,” he said, making Twilight’s blood turn to ice water for a moment, “but as your teacher I should probably commend you.” A deep sigh came from the unicorn as he walked over to his desk and fell into his chair. “You have talent, Twilight, but you are not using it. Where is your direction? Putting other students in lockers, not doing your best in other classes, getting into trouble constantly – you need to think about what someone with your skills should be aiming toward in life.”
The conversation was wandering unnervingly close to the one Twilight had with Cadence. “You know that the Princess’s School didn’t want me,” she shot back. Twilight glared at the old unicorn, but she wasn’t seeing him. She was seeing those examiners that had told her she wasn’t good enough; wasn’t talented enough. “Everyone keeps saying I’m talented, but they didn’t want me! Why should I believe any of you?”
“I have been teaching for twenty years. Don’t question my evaluation of your skills.” Clearwater returned the look he was getting with one of his own – he won handily and Twilight pretended to look at a poster on the wall. It was the same look her mother could deliver when Twilight would say something monumentally exasperating, only three-fold. “If I say you’re talented then by Celestia you are talented. I can’t imagine the particulars of your personal entrance examination, but I tell you now that they were fools for not begging you to attend.”
“That’s even worse!” Twilight spat. “It was better when I thought I wasn’t good enough, but now you want me to think I didn’t get in because of some mix-up! Why me? Why didn’t they mess up with some other pony!? Why is it always me that has to go through things like this?”
Being a veteran of dealing with cranky and petulant fillies and colts, Clearwater gave an unrepentantly mundane shrug, sinking even farther back into his chair. “Because they decided to change the test for a day and you were the lucky test subject? Or perhaps you looked at one of them wrong while they were explaining the test?” The stallion snorted. “Getting angry at life for being unfair is the same as getting angry at the sun for shining.”
That was helpful. Twilight considered telling her teacher just what she thought of that, but only for the fleetest of moments. She would have enough trouble getting through the rest of the school year with just the staff that already disliked her; no need to add to it. “I’ll keep that in mind, Professor.”
“No you won’t,” Clearwater said, scoffing. “At your age you think that every little roadblock is some raging river that cannot be forded. We’ve known each other for some time now, Twilight Sparkle. I know precisely what you’ll do: you’ll continue to let your doubts and fears fester until someone comes along and lances all that unpleasantness out.” He slapped his hoof down the table, making Twilight jump. The stallion seemed almost amused, now, coming out of whatever dark mood had originally gripped him. “You’re doing better, though. The little unicorn I knew only a week ago would still be spitting fire and brimstone at having to wear that ineffective little bauble.”
“I’m still mad about it,” she muttered.
“I’m sensing there is a ‘but’ somewhere after that.”
Twilight shifted. “I just want to work at the castle, with the princess and all the other important ponies. Princess Celestia wouldn’t hire troublemakers.”
Clearwater clicked his teeth. “So, you want to be an ‘important pony’ working in the government. That certainly is a vague goal, but it is a goal nonetheless. I dare say you are on the right track. Certainly, they would look over your school records.” The old teacher let his murmurs trail off and his eyes once again began studying Twilight. She didn’t like the renewed attention; nothing good ever came from teachers paying too much attention to you. “I still have a few friends that went on to better and brighter things than I,” he suddenly piped. “Ponies who did achieve their dreams instead of just settling. If you can keep up this newfound conviction, I could be persuaded to speak with them about opportunities. Some of them are quite highly placed in the castle.”
An image flashed through Twilight’s mind: one of her, older, trotting alongside the princess with a daily schedule grasped firmly in her magic. The filly indulged for a moment before forcing the daydream away, letting suspicion fill the gap it’d left. “Why would you do that for me?”
“Why not? If you get your act together it’s less of a burden for the school, you get a good chance in life, and the castle gets a good prospective employee. Everyone wins.”
Everyone wins. Twilight dared to take that at face value. “I’ll try my best,” she said, thinking back to how Curly Cumulous had tripped her in the lunchroom. She’d very nearly gotten herself back in trouble for that one; it wasn’t going to be easy to get through the school year without getting into another fight.
Clearwater nodded. “All one can do is try, Twilight Sparkle. Take the rest of the semester, while you will be busy not getting into trouble, and think about what it is you want to do at the castle.” He waved his hoof in the general direction of Twilight’s blank flank. “I know that will be difficult given your particular circumstance—”
Before the teacher could get further into that embarrassing topic school bells shrilly rang out and the hallways suddenly filled with the voices of fillies and colts happy to be free for the day. “Lost track of time,” Clearwater admitted. “Well, we can finish this talk some other time I suppose. Don’t worry about missing your final homeroom of the day – I’ll go apologize to your teacher for keeping you so long.”
Twilight didn’t argue. She haphazardly dumped her remaining books into her saddlebag and struggled to get it over her bag without using her magic. A few book edges poked her in the ribs, but she managed well enough to escape the “blank flank” lecture she was sure Clearwater wanted to give. The old unicorn had good advice, and Twilight had to admit that his offer to talk to some of his castle friends made her heart skip a beat, but hearing other ponies talk about her lack of a cutie mark always soured her mood.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Professor!” Twilight shouted over her shoulder as she galloped out of the room. Clearwater’s return call of, “Still not a Professor,” was nearly lost in the din of afterschool conversation out in the halls. Unlike lunch, everyone was dismissed at the same time so navigating the crowds could be tricky, doubly-so since she was going the way opposite of the main doors. She got a few nasty comments from ponies who weren’t watching where they were going and ended up getting knocked by her unruly saddlebag and with it as her battering ram she soon reached the large double doors that led to the other buildings.
There were crowds of students milling around outside, but no one took notice of the little unicorn as she broke from the pack. It was a nice day out: only a few great puffy clouds broke the unending sea of blue overhead. Twilight usually didn’t have much to do with the outdoors, but she could appreciate a nice day like today. Not too hot, not too windy; perfect summer weather.
The rest of the school’s athletic clubs seemed to be of the same opinion because they were out in force. Twilight passed the soccer team heading out for afterschool practice and she could see the hoofball team in their field, running back and forth between the goalposts like they’d had too much sugar at lunch. Dressed in their humongous mountains of padding and stark colors, the galloping could be heard even above the various bells still ringing in the schoolhouse and the buzz of conversations under the sun.
She skirted the edge of the field, not entirely trusting that she wouldn’t be run over by some errant hoofball player. The school ROTC met on one of the smaller fields past the ones used for the sports teams. Even at this distance it was easy to see why – most of the chalked-off space was taken up with an enormous obstacle course complete with artificial hills, sheer walls, and what looked like a swamp filled with muddy water.
“There’s our audience, Armor, and just in time for the show!” Twilight instantly recognized the voice, but even if she hadn’t the earth pony that thundered just a hair’s length past her at that moment would have jogged her memory. Standing next to Traveller when he’d been still was intimidating; having the massive horse dash past her in a flat run was terrifying. She leapt back far, far too late to avoid the shower of grass bits and dirt clods that followed in his wake.
A few breaths behind Traveler came Shining Armor. He was breathing hard as he galloped up to her and his coat was gleaming with sweat. He favored her with a look of abashed sympathy as Twilight shook out her mane.
“I can talk in a few minutes,” he said, only slowing a bit. “Sorry, but Commander Coalmane is smoking us. You can wait wherever you want, but just keep an eye out and don’t get hurt.”
It was a short explanation which left more questions than answers, but before she could ask them a new voice thundered out over all the noise. “Are you having trouble staying focused, Armor?”
Shining Armor broke out in a run again. “Sir, no Sir! Completely focused, Sir!”
Standing in the middle of the field, in the space between the obstacle course circle, was the largest unicorn Twilight had ever seen. Compared to him, Traveler seemed like a lanky teenager who still had a growth spurt or five to look forward to. Coat as black as his namesake, the only spot of contrasting color on the commander was his age-grayed mane and beard.
Twilight crossed the track as quickly as she could as a crowd of stragglers galloped past. She’d been joking earlier about her brother having to win, but she was surprised to see that he was only a couple of lengths behind Traveller and a good deal ahead of the odd-dozen or so other colts. Bewildered by the evidence that perhaps Shining Armor wasn’t quite so goofy at everything, and watching him try and scamper over an earthen wall, she unthinkingly stepped right up beside Coalmane, shrugged off her heavy saddlebag, and plopped down on her flank.
“I didn’t say you could sit. On your feet,” he snapped, stomping one of his hooves down close to Twilight. She was jumpy from nearly getting tramped by Traveller, so she was up on her feet in an instant.
“Legs straight. You’re not a camel, are you? Lock those knees. Square your shoulders. Eyes front, snout out.” Twilight felt foolish as she struggled with the directions, but she was far too addled to give any serious thought to not doing them. “Hooves are too wide in the front and your neck isn’t right, but it’s passable,” Coalmane said. “Permission granted to sit on my field.”
She felt her cheeks burn as her rump went back to the grass. “That was so stupid,” she murmured.
“That was proper discipline.” He looked up from his clipboard and floated a stopwatch out from his vest pocket. “That’s enough of a rest for you, Sparkle. If you sit on my field you have to work on my field. Get ready to tell me some times.”
The watch hovered between her eyes for a moment. “But I’m not here for ROTC,” she stammered, “and I just sat down!”
“But you’re waiting on my field. You wait, you work.” He didn’t wait for another comment and dropped the stopwatch. Reflexively, Twilight caught its string in her mouth before it could hit the ground. Coalmane took that as the end of the argument and walked off at a brisk trot toward the line that marked the beginning of the course.
“How did you know my name?” Twilight asked when she caught up.
“Armor may have mentioned his sister visiting my fine obstacle course today. Said you were a real troublemaker and that I should keep my eye on you.” Twilight could only just see the faintest hint of a smile pulling at the huge stallion’s lips as she plodded along behind him. “I told him that I’d bust you into shape.”
Twilight looked across the field. Her brother was just coming around the bend, nostrils flared and chest heaving. The crowd of ponies that had been so far behind him when she’d first arrived was hot on his hooves; Traveller had also widened his lead.
“Call out the time as they come across the line,” Coalmane ordered, pencil at the ready.
Twilight struggled with all the numbers so close together as ponies spilled past the splotchy white chalk on the ground. Traveller was a good two seconds ahead of everyone else and, to her disappointment, Shining Armor was neatly in the middle of the pack. The white unicorn made a kind of half-grunt in greeting when he shambled up to Twilight. He wobbled for a second and she felt bad for him, especially since Traveller was walking over.
She sucked in a breath. “You leave my brother alone, you—”
        Over all the heavy breathing and chatter Traveller hadn’t heard her. “You beat me coming out of the first corner! How did you manage that?”
        Shining shrugged, grinning. “Good breakfast, lots of sleep, and not being so ugly that the wind fights back when I run into it.”
        The huge colt grinned. “They aren’t lookin’ at my face when it matters, Armor, and next time you won’t even get that jump on me. You’ll have to think up some better insults.” Amazingly, to Twilight, that was the end of the conversation. Traveller was called over by some of the others and he plodded away.
        Twilight shook her head. “Are you two actually friends? Even after this morning?”
        “That? I told you that it was just finals' jitters getting to him. He needs an outlet to get it out of his system and I’m his friend.” Someone called out Shining Armor’s name and his ear flicked. “Can you give me a minute, Twilie? I’ll be right back.”
        She was just starting to mutter a “sure” when her brother walked off. Just as well - Twilight was having trouble registering the words that had come out of Shining’s mouth. Friend? Jitters? If anyone had taunted her like Traveller had taunted Shining Armor then they’d have gotten a one-way trip to a locker. She watched, though, as her brother spoke with the other ponies, talking to them about their times and their runs. Each one was just as friendly as Traveller had been. Had her brother always been so social?
        A heavy hoof fell beside her. “He’s a natural leader,” Coalmane said, looking across the shapeless unit at Shining Armor. “He wasn’t at first, but I dragged it out of him kicking and screaming. I’m sure he hated me at first.”
        Her brother a natural leader? She tried to remember back to when he was the awkward, introverted big brother she so often labeled him. That colt didn’t measure up to the one going from one conversation to the next, bringing smiles, laughs, and encouragement with him.
        “If he didn’t like it, why did he keep doing it?”
        Coalmane looked down at her. His gaze was flat, but there was a hint of something behind those brown eyes – something that almost physically grabbed her. “He wanted to change. He begged me for the chance to change the type of horse he was.” The stallion’s head swiveled back to the crowd of tired colts and Twilight was free. “I can’t change what isn’t already there. No one can. The leader was just always inside your brother; he just had to want to break out hard enough. All I did was make a few cracks in the shell.”
        Twilight opened her mouth to say…something. She didn’t know what, but it was there, dancing on the tip of her tongue, but before it could take that leap it was interrupted.
        “There you are, Twilight! I almost didn’t see you!”
        Even Coalmane jumped in surprise. He spun around like a top that’d just had its string pulled, looking quite foolish when all he came face-to-face with was a young, pink, alicorn princess. Cadence, smiling serenely, gave a nod to the flustered ROTC commander. “Sorry about the scare, Sergeant. I thought you heard me walk up.”
        Twilight was sure she heard the stallion’s jaw grind as his mouth shut and his face went back to neutral. She hadn’t thought that Coalmane was capable of a shocked expression, but it had been burned onto his face for a good three-count when Cadence had announced herself. “Always a pleasure, Princess,” he muttered, bowing his head.
        “None of that, Sergeant. You know you’re retired.” She stepped up to Twilight and frowned at the thin layer of dirt and dust covering the tiny unicorn. Abashed, Twilight started brushing herself off. “Did you have her running with the boys?” Cadence wondered, her wing stretching out to help. The pink pinions didn’t do very much but tickle, though.
        Twilight shuffled away from the feathery appendage. “It’s just a little dirt,” she said. “Not like it’ll kill me. It’s actually pretty fun out here.”
        Cadence shot a glance at the sergeant. “Is that right? Well, as long as you’re having a good time.” The princess flicked her head, motioning. “I see you’re not having any trouble with your magic anymore.”
Twilight turned and looked. The clipboard and watch Coalmane had wanted her to carry were floating a few inches away. She’d dropped them from her mouth when Cadence had made her appearance and she didn’t remember picking them back up. “I didn’t notice,” she said, voice full of wonder. Slowly, so very slowly, she magically shook them – no headache! If she focused, the effects of the inhibitor ring were still noticeable, but it was muted like the way a bruise would throb after a day or so of healing.
“I thought you’d slipped it off,” Coalmane admitted, looking at Cadence. “Aren’t those rings designed for unicorns that have trouble controlling their magic when they’re asleep? Shouldn’t it be more difficult for her to get past it?”
“She’s a very talented girl. Especially now since,” Cadence gave Twilight a wink, “she’s not making so much trouble.”
Twilight felt herself blush. She’d never gotten so much attention before, at least not without other ponies laughing at her first. “It’s all thanks to Shining Armor,” she murmured. She looked for the stallion and found him a few dozen feet away, still talking with his friends. When he laughed at some unheard joke, Twilight had to smile with him.
Cadence’s wings came up and cupped around her muzzle. “Shi~ning Ar~mor!” The call was loud enough to rattle Twilight’s teeth; even Coalmane flinched. The pink alicorn was smiling, though, and waved her hooves when Shining uncovered his ears. “Come over here for a second!” 
        “What was that for?” Twilight asked. She flapped her ears a few times and the ringing was still there.
        “Well, I just want to meet this brother of yours. I think he’ll also be interested in the gift I want to give you.”
        Twilight’s attention caught on gift like a fish on a hook. “What gift?” she asked, but Cadence only gave her a coy smile and stepped up to introduce herself to a very star-struck Shining Armor. The colt was trying, and failing, to get his whole name out and she rolled her eyes. Shining Armor could be so silly sometimes.
        “She already knows your name, Shining. Just say ‘hello’ to her.”
        A loud pop saved the stallion from further embarrassment. Cadence let out a happy coo when the sealed scroll landed softly on the grass by her hooves. “There it is! I was worried she wouldn’t be able to get to it today.” She looked to Twilight with a bright smile. “Well? Go on! Open it!”
        A scroll was a gift? Twilight felt her lips purse as she floated the letter over. It was bad manners to show any kind of disappointment with a gift, and she was trying to be a nicer pony, but she’d really wanted a new spell book. Maybe something with super alicorn spells, or some kind of princess-only mystic ceremonies, or even…even…something…
        The letter quivered in her grip. There, on the red wax seal holding it shut, was a tiny picture of an alicorn circling the sun. It was the same image displayed so proudly over the castle battlements that Twilight had seen so often through her brother’s telescope; the same image that had been hanging in her room ever since the first time she’d gone to the Summer Sun Celebration.
        Reverently Twilight broke that seal. As the words revealed themselves to her, there was little she could do but read and be swept away in a current there was no hope to control. By the third paragraph, her legs had given out; by the fifth, her composure. When she finally carefully rolled the letter back up, she was crying.
        Cadence dropped a wing over her back and settled down beside her on the grass. “Was it a good gift?” she asked, soft as silk.        
        “The best,” Twilight sniffed.
        Shining Armor walked over and flopped down as well. He gave her a bump with his shoulder. “Must have been one heck of a letter to get my tough sister mushy.” Twilight shoved him back and he smiled. “You can’t leave us in suspense, Twilie. Can you read it for me?”
        Twilight looked at the letter. She’d been clutching onto it like one of her stuffed animals and there was dirt and grass stains on the ends. Reluctantly, she loosed her grip and floated it up so that both Cadence and Shining Armor could see it. “It’s from the Princess,” she said, still sniffing a bit, but she cleared her throat and began to read.
        Dear Twilight Sparkle,
        One can imagine my surprise at receiving a hastily-written letter from my niece, informing me that my most devoted and talented subject is a unicorn named Twilight Sparkle, a fourth grade student at Canterlot High. While I do not doubt Cadence’s judgment in these matters, perhaps she is being a bit overly enthusiastic? I would think the thing most ten year olds would be devoted to would be radio adventure dramas or hoofball; somehow I doubt that a simple letter from me would brighten your day as Cadence says it would. On the off chance that Cadence is not exaggerating, allow me to say that I am both flattered and humbled. From what she says, you are a talented young filly that is full of life and vim and vigor – just the traits that I admire in ponies.
        Cadence also writes that you are set upon working at the castle. I cannot tell you what a joy it is that young ponies wish to take up the mantle of public service. Not a single day goes by that I do not hear Sol Shard, my prime minister, lament about “the do-nothing generation” of ponies. Now I can show him Cadence’s letter and say that there is some hope for the future.
        I find, now, that I must ask for your forgiveness on behalf of my niece. She included in her letter a passing mention of your recent troubles at school. It is not her place – nor mine – to involve ourselves in your life. We are not aware of the particular circumstances of your life, thus we cannot judge. She has most likely pushed her way into the middle of it and for that I apologize to you; I can only promise that what was included in her letter will be seen by none other than myself (between us, though, coalescing metals is quite impressive, even if you did not use it for the purest of endeavors).
        Regardless of all that, perhaps it is my place to say that what a pony does in their adolescence is not usually held against them when they apply to the castle. Certainly it helps to have a good record, but a few youthful indiscretions will not be cause for too much alarm. In fact, Cadence tells me that your brother is part of the local ROTC at your school: ask Sergeant Coalmane if he still remembers spray painting the east wall of the castle gardens. I am sure that behind some bush or another one of his colorful illustrations survives on to this very day! He was nearly a more talented artist than a guard; I encouraged him time and time again when he was a royal guard to take back up his talent, but he seemed to regard it as a frivolous dalliance. Imagine that!
        That is an oddity to us, is it not? So many of my little ponies concentrate so diligently on their special talent that they can act like blinders. Imagine, Twilight, a pony with a pottery cutie mark. He spends his life in front of the potter’s wheel and the kiln and finally he makes the perfect pot. Naturally, he should feel fulfilled, yes? But for all his work, he never put time into creating friendships or finding a family of his own to celebrate his accomplishment. Would not having anyone to celebrate his work dull his sense of fulfillment? Often we become so fixated on one single door of opportunity that, when it closes on us, that we miss the hundreds of other doors in the hallway. A pony could spend a lifetime sitting outside of that door, staring at it, kicking at it, cursing it, and let their life pass them by.
        Perhaps that is saying too much, prying too much, but I find myself not wanting to strike it out. Do not allow yourself to sit in front of that door, Twilight Sparkle. It has closed, but there are dozens upon dozens more waiting for you to open them. With your talent and drive, how could they remain closed?
        I look forward to one day seeing you outside one of those doors; you can tell me then if my advice had any merit.
        Princess Celestia
        Twilight let out a sigh as she finished reading, her breath fogging the glass frame of her most treasured possession. The words had been engraved into her heart years ago and now she found joy in picking out each and every grass stain on the old letter, remembering with vivid clarity that day Cadence, Shining Armor, and Coalmane had sat on the ROTC field and read a hastily-penned letter from Princess Celestia herself.
        “It saved my life,” she said. Behind her, standing in her bedroom’s doorway, Shining Armor simply grinned. “I still can’t believe that Cadence got Princess Celestia to write me a personal letter; I’ll never pay her back for that.”
        “You don’t need to, Twilie. Friends don’t have to do gift reimbursements. Besides, you gave her the greatest gift of all, right? You introduced her to yours truly.”
        The unicorn rolled her eyes. “I’ve got to pay her back for that, too. I’m so in debt with Cadence that I’ll never get out of the red.”
        Shining Armor gave an exaggerated chuckle and stomped into the room. “A million comedians in Equestria and I’m stuck with you. Too bad that razor wit didn’t help you with El Diablo. I heard you almost drowned in the mud pit.”
        “Following your lead, Shining. Well, until it came time to actually break a record. I had to improvise from there – you understand, right?” She turned and held a hoof up to her chin. “Or not. I remember your time.”
        “Funny. Records are one thing, Twilight, but there’s something you can’t take from me.” His horn lit and Twilight’s full mirror rolled over to the pair. “I still cut a better figure in uniform than you do.”
        Twilight clicked her tongue. She hated to admit it, but her brother’s guard outfit did seem to really suit him. Her ROTC graduation uniform looked too clean and pressed – not impressive at all. Still, the two little bars on her chest filled her with a pride that was hard to put into words. They represented years of hard work, dedication, and Coalmane’s lectures on what a good soldier should be.
        “I still can’t believe it sometimes,” she said. “Graduating, that is. I never thought I’d make it.”
        Shining Armor put his arm around Twilight’s neck. “Come on, none of that! You know you deserve it. You’re the best unicorn recruit to come out of the school in years. They would have been crazy not to offer you second lieutenant when you graduated.”
        “I wonder how much of that was me and how much of that was you. And don’t even try to deny that you, Coalmane, Cadence, or Mr. Clearwater didn’t have anything to do with it. I know you all like the back of my hoof.”
        Wisely, the stallion didn’t try and deny anything. Instead he just reached out and tilted the mirror so that Twilight’s cutie mark reflected back at them. “Who in their right mind is going to say that a pony with that shouldn’t be a royal guard? If we helped any, we just made sure that the right ponies saw your record at ROTC.”
        Twilight stared at it for a moment and gave her brother a flat look. “Nothing is set in stone, Shining. Princess Celestia taught me that. My cutie mark could have been a bottle of glue and I’d still be here.”
        “Yeah, but if it was a bottle of glue you’d have a hell of a worse time at boot. Think of all the nicknames they could give you! Glueboots. Twilight Glopple. Elmer Sparkle!”
        “Really? Twilight Glopple?”
        Shining Armor laughed. “Twilight Glopple would be your new name. Trust me on that.” He yanked Twilight’s neck around until she was facing the door and gave her a push. “Come on. Mom and Dad are waiting for the big, bad Second Lieutenant Sparkle to take them out for dinner before she ships off. Cadence can’t keep them busy forever.”
        Twilight let herself be hustled. She let Princess Celestia’s framed letter land softly on her bed and took one last look at the purple and yellow cutie mark she could only just see at the edge of her mirror before Shining pushed her out the door. Silently she thought, Some things, Shining, you just have to repay even if it takes your whole life.  

Opening Maneuvers, Part II: Concluded