• Published 1st Aug 2013
  • 4,041 Views, 213 Comments

Defense in Depth - Fon Shaolin



Twilight's life takes on a different tint when she fails to pass her entrance exam for Celestia's School. As it turns out, there are other ways to serve her princess and country.

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Chapter 8

“Denied.”

It wasn’t the actual rejection of her request for alternate sleeping arrangements that bothered Twilight - it was the happy, almost gleeful way that Shattershield smiled at her as he did so. “Ask me something else so I can deny it too, Sparkle.”

Twilight did not, in fact, give him the pleasure. She just saluted and marched back to her tent so perfectly that none of the cadre could find an extra reason to hassle her. Inside her carefully cultivated personal control was beginning to feel the first bit of strain, though. Old goat, Twilight groused in a mental voice that sounded a bit too much like a familiar angry ten-year-old for Twilight’s liking (although she didn’t disagree).

Naturally, Lightning Dust hadn’t begun to do anything in way of getting their shared tent ready for any kind of inspection. She was doing some stupid wing exercises, stretching and push-ups and such, that looked absolutely ridiculous.

“You could help me,” Twilight growled as she pulled their bedding out with her teeth.

“You could bite me,” Lightning Dust countered without missing a beat in her preening.

That was the end of morning’s conversation.

Half an hour later, when the cadre began inspecting the tents and throwing the personal belongings of stricken recruits out all over the field when their tents had been found lacking, Twilight and Lightning Dust both stood beside their tent flap. Shattershield himself had decided to poke his nose in, but with every minute he was in there and not tossing things about it became harder and harder to not smirk. The hours of practice Twilight had put into learning proper folding techniques without her magic were paying off.

“It’s not horrible,” he declared as he stomped out. To Twilight’s aggravation, he was clearly addressing Lighting Dust “I’m somewhat impressed that managed this despite bunking with someone who begged all morning to switch tents and leave you holding the bag.”

Lightning Dust didn’t bother trying not to smirk. “What can I say, Sir? I’m a trooper.”

“And a future leader in the platoon if you keep it up.” Shattershield looked over in Twilight’s direction with disdain. “Learn something while you’re here about being a good bunkmate. This isn’t a one-pony show, Sparkle. I better not see this tent ever falling from this performance, because if it does I know exactly which slacker will need some attitude adjustment.”

Twilight was sure the inside of her mouth was bleeding from how strongly she was biting it. If I break Lightning’s jaw, they’ll kick me out, she thought. But it was initial training; accidents happened...if Twilight had still been that type of pony. That pony had been put to pasture years ago. She was a team player now, not an angry loner.

Lightning Dust saluted. “I’ll keep a close eye on the slacker, Sir. I’ll make sure she won’t let the platoon down.”

An electrical pop came from Twilight’s horn before she could reign the involuntary surge of magic in. Lightning Dust jumped like a scared filly and Shattershield’s nose flared.

“Looks like Trainee Slacker can’t even remember the basic rules. No. Magic.” He jerked his hoof at the edge of the field. “Start running. I don’t want to see you stop until every single one of your fellow trainees are finished with their inspections.” Twilight didn’t move; she was too stunned. The stallion’s frown deepened and he got right into her face, so close his wide-brimmed hat tapped on her horn. “Didn’t you hear me, Trainee? If you don’t get running right this second I will take it as your official authorization to begin your exit paperwork from my program. Do you understand me?”

Another pop. The smell of ozone was so strong Twilight was nearly gagging - both on the horrible taste of magic with no outlet and her own boiling anger. It took everything she had to clamp down on both. “I...I understand you, Sir.”

“Then get running.”

So Twilight ran; she ran until the very last pony passed their inspection, until she didn’t feel like popping Lightning Dust’s head like a balloon, and until her body was too sore to even think about casting anything on autopilot. When Twilight finally plodded up to the formation she was soaked in sweat from horn to hooves, but she had stomped all her stoked anger and resentment back down into the dull embers she’d learned to deal with.

It had taken the rest of the platoon until midday to properly stow their gear, which meant it was time for chow. Which meant leaving their area. Twilight didn’t even attempt to take the spot of lead pony like she had the previous day. The one the cadre appointed to get them sized was, naturally, Lightning Dust. She trotted up and down the line, pushing and shoving when she needed to to get ponies properly lined up and ready to go. She hip-checked Twilight and sent her stumbling into the ponies a line over. “Stay in line, Slacker,” she called out, already moving on to her next victim.

Marching here wasn’t much different than in ROTC. Twilight already knew how to canter and charge in formation, so slow trotting wasn’t something she had to actively pay attention to. She watched how Lightning Dust ran the platoon instead. The ponies she’d sat with on the train were now her element leaders - a tall, bulky pegasus stallion, a slightly-smaller pegasus mare, an earth pony still sporting his dyed mohawk, and, to Twilight’s surprise, a unicorn mare she’d gone through processing with. Judging how the other four ignored her, the unicorn had been a cadre pick. She was watching the earth pony for cues on how to march and her entire line was suffering.

The entire group of cadre descended like seagulls on baby turtles the moment Lightning Dust started calling cadence - this pony wasn’t trotting in time with the others, that one was looking around, this one over here didn’t seem to even realize they were marching - it was complete chaos and for once Twilight wasn’t the one getting chewed out.

Eat it, Twilight thought as Shattershield spent a solid minute watching her trot, only to wheel away in visible annoyance when he couldn’t find anything wrong. She was pin-sharp. As long as she stayed that way out in the open, it seemed like the sergeant wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take the opportunity to screw her over.

His attention didn’t stop until the platoon was at the chow tent Or, rather, chow tent complex. The platoon’s camping ground was the same size, but its emptiness was contrasted with this one’s fullness. There were three massive tents all teeming with ponies.

It was easy to spot the other fresh platoons. Their cadre were all swarming and screaming as much as Twilight’s as they fumbled through the chow line without using wings or magic. Some poor ponies had clearly never used their mouths for anything other than eating because there was spilled food everywhere. Gradually, though, Twilight adjusted to the noise and picked out the “older” trainees, which was the bulk of the crowd.

They were sizing up the new platoons, as were their cadre.

Shattershield took personal command of the platoon when they started lining up for their food. He told them how to stand (at attention), how to order (quickly and politely), and where to sit (the cramped bit of grass given to them). There was no socializing of any kind. The ponies serving were quiet and the only spoken word was when the trainees asked for certain things. Still, the scrape of knives, forks, and spoons was a welcome break of the silence.

When everyone had gotten their food, Shattershield stomped up to the front of the group. “You have fifteen minutes to down as much of that as you can.” Those poor ponies who had gotten a full plate started shoveling their food. “Today you will get those manes shaved, you’ll get properly shod, and we’ll see where you all stand on your physicals. If you manage all that without screwing up too badly, we might have some free exercise this afternoon where you can stretch your legs. Or wings. Or horns. You screw it up and I will have you all back here tonight peeling potatoes for dinner.”

He pointed to Lightning Dust, who was eating near the front. “Trainee Lightning Dust will be your platoon leader until she screws it up. If you need anything from the cadre, you ask through her. If she isn’t available and it can’t wait, you find one of her element leaders. We care about you breaking a leg or your neck, not about how you threw a horseshoe. Understood?”

Twilight nodded along with the rest of the platoon, even though she wanted to do nothing more than buck the smarmy pegasus into next week. Shining Armor had told her that being the platoon leader, or even an element leader, was a major thing when it came to being selected for the Royal Guard and now she was effectively locked out. Shattershield was clearly out to get her and Lightning Dust wouldn’t make her an element leader.

A moment before the clock on the cow tent’s central poll clicked over, Shattershield stomped his hooves. “That’s fifteen! Throw your garbage away and get lined up! On the double! Platoon Leader get your troops in order!”

There was no missing the snide laughing from the other sergeants as their group fumbled around to get back into ranks. At least this time Lightning Dust didn’t push her; Twilight didn’t think she’d be able to take the mare’s attitude right then without one of them getting bucked.

It turned out that there were other ways for either the cadre or Lightning Dust to get at her than outright bullying; Lightning Dust was great a passing off busywork to her at the drop of a hat. At the barber, Twilight had to ‘manage the line’, which ensured she was the last to get a (rushed) cut on both her mane and fetlocks which made her seem like a knife attack survivor. At the blacksmith, Shattershield made her carry nails and horseshoes from the sweltering area around the forge. At one point her tail caught fire and she had to dunk it in the water barrel and even the screaming cadre couldn’t scare the platoon off its snickering at Twilight’s expense.

After all of that, though, there were still the physicals before dinner. All guards, no matter their jobs, had to pass a basic equestrian physical of barrel weaving, weight pulling, and a flat mile sprint in under two minutes. Of all the trainees, it was the dozen or so unicorns that had the worst of it; only Twilight could achieve a passing grade, but even she only really stood out on the mile sprint where she placed in the middle of a pack of startled pegasi.

Shattershield berated the failures and reminded them they had eight weeks to shape up or they’d get the boot. Despite all his fire and fury, though, he still let them have their hour of free exercise time - “Because,” he spat, “you sacks of fat need it.” Rather, he and the other cadre mostly disappeared into their bunkhouse for a break themselves. Managing fifty fresh recruits was a bit much for only a half-dozen trainers.

While they did whatever it was they needed to do to unwind before sleep, the platoon was left largely to its own devices. Many of the pegasi simply fluttered about like fillies. They didn’t go too high or too far, but they seemed to enjoy it well enough as they zipped through the little tent city like an obstacle course. Even Lightning Dust seemed a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of simply flying for a few minutes; she completely ignored Twilight as she darted by with her friends.

Some ponies just sat and watched the air show, but Twilight had eyes for only one thing - the iron plow weights that sat at the edge of the field. They were for earth ponies to pull and tug, and Twilight could pull the smaller hundred and two hundred pounds herself, but she only wanted them for one thing.

She trotted past a pair of earth ponies suiting up for a team pull, ignoring their confused looks, and stopped in front of the main stack of weights.

Magic flowed, unbound, for the first time in two days. Her pale orchid-colored magic grabbed the stack like a massive clawed fist and Twilight feels the weight throughout her body like it was sitting on her shoulders.

“You’re going to strain something,” someone called out. Twilight tuned out the noise and gripped tighter with her telekinesis. Her hooves sank down into the cracked soil of the camp as she bears the entire weight on the tip of her horn, pulling and lifting with a strain that pops all the muscles in her body.

Slowly, impossibly, the tremendous weights shift.

Ponies danced back as pops of lightning lashed out from the expanding cloud of magic surrounding the weights, but the small risk didn't stop them from gawking at the show. Twilight clenched her teeth and lifted her neck to magically tug the entire stack up into the air.

Some ponies clapped their hooves and Twilight opened her eyes. A crowd had formed and stared up at the dozen large lead bars hovering above their heads. Twilight tightens her grip; some of the non-unicorns stood under them, gawking, not knowing how tenuous her hold was.

“All of you, get out from under there!” a chestnut-coated unicorn called out, preempting Twilight. “She’s exercising! Would you all like someone to bother you while you’re pulling weights?” The unicorn, a mare, then stepped up to Twilight. “Do you need spotting?”

Twilight’s eyes flick up to the weights. She’s holding firm, but there was a thick sheen of sweat building up all over her body.

It was manageable.

“I’m good.” The mare nods and steps back, watching with the rest - from a respectable distance.

She pulls the weights higher and sets them spinning. It’s slow, but the added strain is enough to make Twilight’s knees shake. The bars do three full turns and then Twilight lets them drop the twenty or so feet back down to earth.

The unicorn mare was the first pony to trot up to her. “I don’t need to tell you that was incredible,” she said. “That was one of the heaviest lifts I’ve seen outside of strong unicorn competitions.”

Twilight smiled through gasping breaths. It was the heaviest lift she’d ever done, but she’d needed to burn off her anger and give her magic an outlet. And maybe show off, just a little, to remind ponies that she was here even if not as an element or platoon leader.

With that in mind, she stood straight and locked her legs to stop the shaking as other ponies came up to her to either congratulate or gawk. The mare, a slightly smaller, svelte unicorn, didn’t go far. After things had settled, she approached again.

“Would you like to join me? I’m starting a bit of a club with some friends, and I think you’d be a perfect fit.”

Twilight nodded and let herself be led back to the tents. The unicorn, Bay Orchid, as she introduced herself, was an element leader appointed by Shattershield - the only unicorn element leader.

“You’re a daughter of the Canterlot Sparkles, yes?” Bay Orchid asked as they came upon her tent. Twilight saw several ponies lounging about, talking in clutches in and around the nearby tents.

“The only daughter,” Twilight answered. Bay Orchid nodded and motioned to a small campaign chair sitting outside of her tent.

“Please, sit. That must have been exhausting, even for a pony such as yourself. I have a canteen there, by the chair leg.”

Twilight didn’t turn down the water or the rest. She chugged the entire canteen while other ponies goggled or spoke behind their hooves.

The attention didn’t bother Twilight and she still drank her fill. “So,” she said, “you’re putting together a noble cadre?”

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘cadre’, exactly. Just a social group of ponies I feel like it should be my business to know.” Bay Orchid levitated out another chair from her tent and set it close to Twilight. “Officer candidates, ponies from good families, and Celestia School graduates.”

Twilight snorted. “I’m two out of three.” Bay Orchid raised an eyebrow. “I never got into Celestia’s school. They didn’t accept me.”

“Truly?” Twilight turned and sized up the unicorn stallion now walking up to them. He looked a bit older, and a bit posher, than Bay Orchid. “I thought I recognized you for a moment, only with a different color mane and glasses.” He shook the thought away and held his hoof out. “You said your name was Twilight Sparkle, correct? I am Noble Cause.”

“I didn’t see either of you at in-processing,” Twilight said. She looked around the dozen or so ponies, all either unicorns or pegasi. “I don’t see anyone I came in with, actually.”

Bay Orchid waved it away. “We were direct entrants from the officer training course offered at the School. We’ve already been tested and judged. We still had to go through the rings, mind. Where you impressed so many.”

“It was a display,” Noble Cause agreed, and Twilight found herself blushing just a bit at his controlled enthusiasm. “That magister presiding over the test was almost salivating over you at the end. I expect you will be an incredible magister!”

Twilight’s ears flattened. “Right. A magister.”

Another pony called out, “They did extend an offer to you, did they not? I cannot imagine that they would let you slip through their hooves!” Several other eavesdroppers nodded along.

When Twilight hadn’t been watching, she’d become the group’s center of attention. “I...uh, the magister did ask me to join...”

Twilight’s eyes met Bay Orchid’s and the mare pulled back. “You declined, didn’t you? My goodness! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a unicorn turning down the Magisterium!”

Ponies looked at her like she was insane. That Twilight knew how to deal with. She was used to being the pariah. “Well, I did. I joined to be a Royal Guard or nothing at all.” She smiled at all the scandalized faces.

Scandalized, except for Bay Orchid. In her eyes she saw calculation; the same Twilight had leveled at other ponies throughout her life. How can this pony help me get to where I want to go? How much trouble will they be? How much will their help cost?

Twilight’s lip quirked, and Bay Orchid smiled back. “I think that’s a wonderful goal, Twilight,” she announced, and instantly brought the gossiping of her clique to an end. “The Royal Guard is at the very center of Canterlot, after all,” she said, airily. “You will rub shoulders with the brightest and grandest of the nobility, the real movers and shakers of our country. I believe your brother is already a member, yes? You are practically carving out a dynasty at this point!”

Other ponies were nodding now, whether because they believed it or because the explanation was coming Bay Orchid. Noble Cause was softly stomping his hooves in approval as if the idea had been his all along. “In a few generations,” he said, “I am willing to wager that it will be tradition for a Sparkle to be the head of the Royal Guard!”

That little pronouncement got all the ponies gossiping again and they didn’t seem to notice when Bay Orchid nudged Twilight aside, around to the front of the tent.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, the smile Orchid had been holding back finally sprang free. “We can help each other,” she said without preamble. “I want a friend in the castle and you want to join the Royal Guard. We can both get what we want when we get out of here.”

Twilight’s eyes tightened. “I can join the Royal Guard on my own. I haven’t needed any help getting to where I am now.”

The chestnut mare waved her off with a dainty flip of her hoof. “Of course. I won’t deny your talent, not if you were turning down offers from the magisterium, but I’ve seen how the cadre here have it out for you. I can help with that.”

“…how?”

“You don’t know your noble houses,” Orchid teased. After only a little more preening, she answered, “The Bay family has many officers in it, including right here on this base. Shattershield might have it out for you, but one trainer can’t ignore it if all of a sudden he’s getting questions from his higher leadership. Completely legitimate questions, I might add, about why an ROTC graduate with the highest magical aptitude of her class isn’t at least an Element Leader in the platoon.”

Twilight mulled that over like a gourmet would a new dish set before them. Element Leader Sparkle had a unique flavor and one that she certainly found appealing. Shining Armor’s advice to go for leadership positions still rang in her head.

And it would probably piss Lightning Dust and Shattershield off something fierce.

“Could you actually deliver on that?” Twilight asked. She wasn’t going to blindly jump at any offer and she had only just met Bay Orchid. The Bay family rang a tiny, distant bell in her mind, some passage in some book she’d scanned at some point, but Twilight didn’t have any way of verifying the mare’s claims here.

Bay Orchid certainly looked the part of an affronted noble, though. Muzzle tilted up almost as high as Twilight’s horn, she scoffed, “Of course! My word is my bond, but I won’t do it for free. Partnerships are born out of what each friend can do for each other, after all.”

“The Royal Guard doesn’t influence the court,” Twilight countered. “I can’t get you perks or anything like that.”

“And I wouldn’t want them! Just information about some of the comings and goings of who visits the castle and maybe what they talk about.” Twilight made a face. “Not what they talk about to the Princess! Just maybe what they say when they think no one is listening. And our partnership doesn’t have to end here; the higher up I can get in the Office of Army Administration, that’s where I’m contracted to go, the more I can help you in your career down the line. It’s good to have friends in high places.”

I’ve turned down friends in higher places than you will ever be, Twilight thought to herself, but she wasn’t feeling the same anger and shame that Cadance had brought out. Bay Orchid wanted to cut a deal with Twilight Sparkle, future Royal Guardspony - not Twilight Sparkle, best friend to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.

And the Office of Army Administration was a big deal. It was filled with nobility who played pivotal roles in the military of Equestria. It would be a connection, if a minor one, to some real levers of power that could get Twilight to where she wanted to go.

And they would be mine. I’ve have turned down friends higher than Orchid out of principle. Shouldn’t I try and make my own connections, then?

“Alright you lumps of fat! Playtime’s over!” Shattershield bellowed from across the yard. He was storming toward the tents with the rest of the cadre fanned out behind him. “Everyone line up for a good, old-fashioned pre-bed smoke session!”

That one sergeant could keep her out of the Royal Guard. One angry, bitter, disgruntled sergeant could undo all she’d been working toward because he hadn’t liked her brother.

If she let him. “Deal,” Twilight hissed to Bay Orchid, “but you'd better deliver.”

Bay Orchid smiled, but it wasn’t warm. It was the kind of smile Twilight would have worn years ago. “We’re going to go a long way together,” she insisted, grasping Twilight’s hoof. “Partner.”

And as the mare trotted away to answer Shattershield’s summons, Twilight discovered that her own smile was almost a mirror.

And that she didn’t mind it nearly as much as she should have.

Author's Note:

Still not dead!

Also, basic military training is basically high school with guns and a few more people screaming at you.

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