• Published 4th Jan 2014
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The Definition of Strength - Viking ZX



Sabra has been searching for his answer for three long years, and at long last he may have found it. It just might not be the answer he expects.

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Part 3

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as true strength.”

—Bright Socks

Sabra could feel his breath leaving his body in a slow, steady current as he relaxed. His chest began to deflate, every muscle tightening and then releasing in perfect synchronization as he closed his eyes. Around him, his quarters began to fade from his consciousness, the bright colors of the few hanging cloths and the bare, emptiness of the room vanishing from his mind as he once again sought the void.

It was harder than usual to find the void this time, but he wasn’t perturbed by the fact. Meditation could often be difficult after a day in which events beyond the ordinary had occurred, and the day’s events had indeed been, for lack of a better term, far beyond the expected. Master Taalib had once taught him that meditation was like a river, always flowing with the currents of life.

The river can be many things, Master Taalib had told him on repeated occasions. Mighty, weak. Fast, slow. Turbulent, or calm. Your life will be much the same way. But the water will always be there, waiting for those who wish so to drink it.

And so it is, Sabra thought as the void approached. Turbulence does not always imply illness. He let out another breath, easing his body into its meditative stance, his legs folded gently beneath him. Turbulence is often a sign that there is much to see under the water.

And after the events of today, the water would be turbulent indeed, he knew. The void began to form, endless and infinite yet contained all at once. With it came the lake, its surface splintered and cracked, ripples of thoughts spinning across its surface like dragonflies on a hot summer day. His body let out another, slow, even breath, and then that too was simply … no longer relevant. He could feel the grain of the floor beneath his flank, feel every burst of life with each beat of his heart, but such things were beyond his conscious mind. All that mattered was the void.

Once again he dropped into the lake, sinking below the surface. Ripples spread from his passing, and he had to force himself to focus, to still the lake, to calm raging thoughts until the lake was flat once more. Some were easy to resolve, but some were not, and it took longer than normal in this timeless expanse for the lake to calm. But calm it did, until once again it was a flat mirror stretching on forever with no end.

Sabra smiled, not knowing if his body in the physical world responded in kind. All that mattered now was the spiritual. Now, now that the lake was flat. Now he could begin. He could expose the turbulence underneath the river.

The surface of the lake began to roil, currents and eddies erupting from beneath the surface and making themselves known as memories began to surface. Recent memories, active ones, ones with great import. The surface of the lake began to boil, as if he’d set fire to its base, water roiling up in great, foaming gouts.

He felt every movement, knew every cause. His mind was still in a sense of elation after the events of that afternoon. His experiments with the armor. The effortless way he’d been able to propel his body up into the air. The ease with which he’d been able to lift weights no pony should have been able to lift, even toss them.

It hadn’t been a perfect test. More than once his focus had slipped, his understanding of how and why the enchantment worked slipping from his grasp, although luckily not in any way that could have caused him any harm. Now, looking back on when and where it had failed, the times and places where his mind had not been able to grasp the magic it was calling, now he understood.

It was not the desire to use his strength to help. He had realized this the second time the enchantment had slipped from his grasp. His strength, his emotion, it hadn’t arisen from his focusing on using his strength as a boon. It was not what he, subconsciously, held his strength to be.

But now … Now he had immersed himself in the events of the day, running them over from every angle, his mental state laid bare before him. And now, now he could see the true cause. Now, he knew without a doubt, how he could call upon the enchantment his armor held at any time, access its strength at a moments notice. It wasn’t out of a desire to help. No, that thought, although good and worthy of holding at all times, was not what his strength truly was. He knew that now. That desire was only a part, only a piece.

It had been loyalty. Loyalty to Sky Bolt. Loyalty to the team. It wasn’t just a desire to help. It was a desire to defend, assist, protect, encourage. Not because he could, although that was the reason he had joined them in the first place. And not because he should, although he knew that was a reason as well.

But because he wanted to. The surface of the lake began to calm, the billows of foam and heaving waves coming together, smoothing into a single, perfect ripple across the surface of the lake. A single, unified thought in pure form.

My strength is my loyalty. The thought swelled within him, the ripple rising, changing, spreading. Then all at once it split, five new ripples forming and spreading across the lake.

Loyalty to Hunter, Sabra thought, one of the ripples fading. Loyalty to Dawn Triage. Another ripple slowed, and then vanished. Loyalty to Captain Song. Even loyalty to Nova Beam. Two more ripples faded, leaving one, final ripple, strong and tall.

Loyalty to Sky Bolt, Sabra thought, and the last ripple slowed, then stopped, then faded. The surface of the lake was again smooth, featureless.

Loyalty to them all, he thought, and a single, shining ring exploded across the surface of the lake, a shimmering wave of water that seemed to glow with a golden, inner light as it rolled on into infinity. And from them all, strength. The lake began to smooth again as the ripple faded into the infinite, its surface once again still, but he could feel a difference in it, an inner glow that seemed to infuse the whole of its presence.

He was tempted to leave the lake now, in its serene, enlightened state. Such would be good for his meditation, an ideal end. But he could not. Would not. There was still one more cause of turbulence. One more rock hidden beneath the surface.

Perhaps the largest of all, he thought. Once again, as before, a single, solitary leaf began to drift from above. It wasn’t like he last memory he’d examined, native to Equestria. This was from his homeland. The leaf of a bamboo shaft, twirling and spinning as it drifted from the void towards the surface of the lake.

It touched, and once again memory began to ripple out…

“You may enter.” Sabra rose from his seat outside the doors to the monastery council chambers as Elder Fahim’s calm, cool voice resonated within. He paused for a moment, resting his hoof against the heavy wood as his mind raced.

This is it, he thought as he took a calming breath. This is the beginning of your journey. He took another deep breath, let it out, and pushed the door open.

The council chambers lay before him, a simple, rounded room with plain wooden furnishings. The elders of the monastery sat before him, arrayed by seniority around a wooden bench that ran the circumference of the room. Colorful tapestries of silk hung from the walls behind them, broad swathes of bright color that did nothing to disturb the friendly solemnity of the inhabitants.

At the apex of the room sat Master Taalib, a wide smile on his face as he looked across the room at him. To his left sat Master Jahi, a smile on his face as well, and to Tallib’s right, Shaman Dawa regarded Sabra with cool, collected eyes. None of them sat above the other, the whole bench being at the same level as the zebra standing at the floor. The window behind the the trio was open, the paper covering pulled to one side to let the afternoon sunlight in.

“Welcome, Sabra,” Master Taalib said, the words flowing from his mouth with a smoothness Sabra wished he held. Master Taalib was a sage of great talent as well as a noted orator, with the ability to make his words dance at his every intent as he spoke.

“Greetings, Master Taalib,” Sabra said, bowing his head and almost catching himself in fear that he had used the wrong greeting. “Greetings to you, Master Jahi,” he said, bowing to the aged master, who nodded in return, his long, grey mane bobbing.

“And greetings to you,” he said, bowing towards Shaman Dawa with his hooves spread wide and taking care not to use her name until allowed.

“Welcome, Sabra,” she said, returning his greeting in the proper method and using his name, giving him leave to use hers. “It is a pleasure to see you again, young one.” She chuckled as the words left her mouth, the beads in her mane clicking as she shook her head at her own joke. She was only two years older than Sabra, barely an adult save her revered position as Shaman. Some had suspected that she was interested in pursuing him with a marriage proposition someday, although he’d chosen to ignore dwelling on the theory.

“I thank you, Dawa” he said, rising from his bow. “Likewise.” He turned one by one to each of the elders, greeting them by name, with the proper greetings and with a respectful bow to each of them. Then, the stylized greeting that the occasion called for complete, he turned and faced Master Taalib, the one who had been elected to lead the council of Elders in their acceptance or denial of his pilgrimage.

He could barely believe it. A pilgrimage. To set hoof outside the province—no, outside the Plainslands in search of knowledge unheld by that of the monastery!

“Master Sabra,” Master Taalib began, and Sabra nodded in recognition of his full title, although he hardly ever used it. “We, the Elders, Shamans, and Masters of this monastery have gathered here today in order to discuss an event of great importance: your pilgrimage.”

“Master Sabra,” he continued, “in the short number of years that you have been here, you have proven both wise and knowledgeable, thoughtful yet insightful, skilled yet humble. Your thirst for knowledge as well as your love for it and higher thought has been an inspiration to all of us, myself included.” He leaned forward, resting his forehooves on the bench as he spoke. “It has been with utmost satisfaction and pride to have been witness to your remarkable growth from the young, complentative colt you came to us as just seven years ago to the young stallion you are today. In fact,” he said, giving him a gentle nod of his head, “I believe that the only ones who could be more proud of you at this moment are your parents.”

“You have learned during your time here, Sabra.” It was Master Jahi who spoke now, his ancient voice gravely and worn, but warm. “You have grown, surprising us with your talent and initiative. You are the youngest Master of the staff that we have record of in almost a thousand years. And now, unsurprising to many of us—well,” he admitted with a brief chuckle, “at least unsurprising to me—you wish to undergo a pilgrimage, to push yourself even further and achieve one of the highest and most renowned positions among our people.”

“You were first an Elder, and then a Master.” It was Dawa who spoke now, her calm voice cutting clearly across the room. “Now you wish to be more than a sage. You wish to go beyond the borders of our nation, to travel in search of new knowledge to bring back to us, to forever help the cause of our people. We give great reverence to those who undergo such a journey, who willingly walk away from that which they find familiarity in to search the unknown, far from home for our sake. To those who return from the journey, we grant the highest rank possible, that of Great Sage,” she smiled as she spoke, her braids clicking against one another as she cocked her head. “We call them legends.”

Sabra took in the words without much fanfare. He’d already known what was going to be said to him before he’d come in. The words that would be spoken, just as they had to every stallion or mare that had left the monastery before him, words that most elders heard every few years. He’d been on the other side of those benches numerous times despite his age, each time as an elder in council over another’s request to leave for a pilgrimage. Twice, the individuals had not left, for reasons that were not his own to hold in judgement. One had, traveling to the east in search of an answer to his own question of how the sun stayed alight. He had not returned.

Now it was his turn before the council, his request surprising no small number of them. They knew he had been asking questions, speaking with students and elders of all ranks, and despite that most were not supposed to question a student’s desire of pilgrimage, he knew many had. He was the youngest master in centuries, barely raised within the last year. And already, he was preparing to leave.

He looked at the circle of elders around him, taking in the expressions on many of their faces. Yes, they had expected this. Each and every one of them. But at the same time, many of them still looked somewhat stunned, their normally serene expressions still surprised by Sabra’s dedication of pilgrimage. The discussion the night before after he had left their counsel must have truly been spectacular.

“Master Sabra,” Master Taalib said, his voice pulling Sabra’s attention back towards the front of the room. “Last night you gathered us here, each of us, and asked of us permission to take up the path of pilgrimage.”

Sabra felt his heart begin to pound. No amount of breathing would calm it now. This was the culmination, the defining moment.

“We have counseled,” Master Taalib continued. Sabra could feel his legs beginning to shake as he leaned forward, every fiber of his being focused on the zebra’s words. “Now, we must ask you, do you have a question?”

“I do,” Sabra said, his voice sounding raspy to his ears. The moment had almost arrived.

“What is it?” Taalib asked. Sabra took a breath. This was to make certain that he had been thorough in his search, that each elder had been asked the exact same question.

“My question is: what is life?” His body felt as if it was going to melt around him. If turned away, he would have to begin all over, but his chances of ever departing on a pilgrimage were slim. If you did not go the first time, it was much harder to ever do so.

“An interesting question,” Dama mused, rubbing a hoof against her chin as she gave him a coy look. “And you have not found an acceptable answer in all the recordings of the monastery?” He shook his head, although he knew she already knew that. The question was rote.

“And among each and every one of us?” Master Jahi asked, leaning his ancient frame forward, his eyes narrowing as they focused on Sabra. “You have asked us all, and still yet feel there is knowledge unknown by us that you may seek?”

“Yes,” Sabra replied, nodding his head. Master Jahi leaned back, a wide smile cutting through the lines on his face. He had been the first one Sabra had asked, and he knew it.

“Elder Pasua?” Master Taalib asked, looking to the elder sitting closest by the door, “has Master Sabra inquired of you concerning his question?”

“He has,” she said.

“And did you answer him?”

“To the best I could,” she admitted, shaking her head. “And no, my answer was not to his satisfaction. I must admit, I was out of my element before he ever asked.” Her response drew a small circle of laughter from the other elders. “But no,” she finished, smiling as the laughter subsided, “I could not.”

“And you, Elder Ufanisi?” Master Taalib asked, repeating the question to the next elder in line. And so it went, each elder, master and even shaman being asked in turn, and each one replying that they had not been able to answer his question to his satisfaction. Then, at last, it was done, and Sabra held his breath as Master Taalib turned back towards him.

“Master Sabra,” he said, his words tight with either joy or pride, Sabra wasn’t sure, “it gives me great honor to inform you that this meeting of the council finds your pilgrimage of knowledge acceptable.”

Sabra legs went weak, almost giving out underneath him, but somehow they held. His breath was gone, it was all he could do to nod.

“You may leave as soon as you are ready,” Taalib said, his face falling somewhat, a sad tone coming into his voice as he spoke. “I would assume then, that you are already prepared to depart?”

“I am,” Sabra said, finding his voice. “I packed last night.”

“Then let our records show that Sabra, Master of the staff and Elder sage, did depart from our monastery on this date in search of knowledge, cast to the winds of the lands beyond our own. May the sun shine brightly always on his path.” He brought his hoof down on the bench with a heavy stomp that echoed around the room. “And on a more personal note, Sabra,” he said as the council began to rise, each making for the end of the bench so that they could congratulate him or otherwise speak with him, “Know that we will all miss you. I hope that one day, when you find your answer, you will return to us all.” He bowed, deep and low, a bow second only to the highest form of nonverbal respect. “Good luck, and safe journeys until you come home.”

“Return to us all…” The waters of the lake once again smoothed as the memory faded, and Sabra began to pull himself from the void, back to the physical realm. He remembered the last words of Master Taalib, the long walk out the doors of the monastery, past the fields of roots around what had been his home as he had headed down the road towards his family, and then on past that towards the Griffon Empire.

...when you find your answer, you will return to us all,” Taalib had said. “...until you come home.

Sabra opened his eyes and let out a sigh as he looked around the colorful room. The wall hangings were small and light, easy to put up and to take down. His bed was simple, unadorned. The drawers of his dresser were all, save one, empty. He was still traveling. Searching.

Or was he?

He sighed as he rose from his position, unfolding his legs. It was a simple matter to cross the space across the floor to his dresser, to open the top drawer. A few moments more to find what he was looking for, to pull the twin halves of the bamboo staff from the his drawer and set them, ever so gently, on the top of the dresser.

Then he pushed the drawer shut and turned for the door. He needed to speak with Captain Song.

* * *

“Enter.” Sabra stepped into the captain’s office at the command, his head held up straight. Captain Song was sitting behind his desk, his blue eyes staring down at a stack of papers that had been spread before him.

“Good evening, Sabra,” he said without looking up. He shook his head as if he’d seen something he didn’t like and shoved a paper towards one edge of the desk. “Take a seat.”

“You knew it was me, captain,” Sabra said as he trotted forward. Two, plain wooden chairs sat in front of the captain’s desk, each with a small bit of padding on the seat. He took the left one. “How?”

“Easy,” the olive-green stallion said with a faint grin. “You knock, then you wait for me to tell you to enter, and then you wait for me to tell you to sit.” Another sheet of paper slid across the desk with a faint rasp, a shimmer of sound that rang in Sabra’s ears, and at last the captain looked up, his eyes locking with Sabra’s. “Next to Dawn, you’re the most precise pony on this team.”

A glimmer of curiosity entered his mind, and Sabra spoke, letting a faint thread of his amusement enter his voice. “As compared to?”

“As compared to a toss-up between Sky Bolt and Nova,” the Captain said, a rare grin sliding onto his face. “Hunter usually waits for me to tell him to enter before coming in, but Sky Bolt usually can’t wait. She’s getting better,” he admitted with a shrug, the grin still on his face. “Usually she’ll catch herself, turn around and knock, but…” He spread his hooves in front of him. “With everything new she’s getting used to, I don’t hold it against her.”

“And Nova?” Sabra asked. The captain shook his head, letting out a sound that was halfway between a chuckle of amusement and groan of annoyance.

“Nova,” the aged stallion said, his close-cropped grey mane bouncing as he shook his head. “Nova, on the other hoof, knocks, walks in without waiting for my command, and then drops to the floor and gives me fifty push-ups.”

“That does sound like … like what he would do,” Sabra admitted with a slight smile. For all of Nova’s roughness, the stallion certainly had a charm about him, a system of dealing with things.

“Yeah, well, sometimes I get the last laugh,” the captain said, grinning. “I wait until he’s finished, and then I tell him that I wanted sit-ups instead. He chuckled and shook his head. “Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What can I do for you, spec? Is the testing going well?”

“It is,” Sabra said, nodding and glad for the brief distraction. He was glad he was sitting. His legs felt weak, shaky. Like they had when he had been before the council. “It’s been a bit of a…” he paused, searching his mind for the correct word.

“A trial,” he said. “It’s been … different, getting used to how the armor works with the modifications.”

“But you’ve been able to make it work?” Captain Song asked. Sabra nodded.

“Of course,” he said, managing to keep his smile from erupting into a grin.

“And?” Captain Song prompted.

“It is incredible,” Sabra admitted, his grin breaking free as he leaned forward. A bit of strength seemed to come back into his limbs. “Nothing I have ever experienced. Like nothing,” he corrected, shaking his head. “Like nothing I have ever experienced.”

“Well that’s good to hear, especially coming from you,” the captain said, nodding as he leaned back. “Is it easy to use? Will it be useful in the field?”

“It takes a bit of getting used to,” he admitted. “Although Dawn apparently believes that I would have had the most difficulty in having it—making it work, due to the nature of the activation. However, with practice, any member of our team should be able to make great use of these enhancements.”

“You’re not one to exaggerate, Sabra,” the captain said, leaning forward once more and placing both hooves on the desk. “Is it really that marked an improvement?”

“It is … less an improvement, and more a burst,” he said, shaking his head at his inability to vocalize his description. “Haijalishi, the armor is excellent.”

“Well, that’s good to hear.” The captain nodded, but didn’t ask any further questions, and for a moment silence reigned in the office.

“There is … something else that I wish to discuss, captain,” Sabra said as the green stallion began to look at him expectantly.

“I thought there was.” Sabra nodded as Captain Song’s face grew serious once more. “Is this about your pilgrimage?”

“It is, sir,” Sabra said, giving him a quick nod. He was still nervous, more than he would ever admit out loud, but at the same time there was a comforting feel to his decision, a finality to it that he hadn’t expected.

“And?” Captain Song prompted.

“Good luck, and safe journeys,” Master Taalib had said. “...until you return home.”

“I haven’t found my answer yet,” he said, shaking his head. “I do not honestly know if I ever will. But until then, captain, I’d like to remain here, as a member of the Dusk Guard.” A warmth began to burn inside his chest as the captain began to smile, and he smiled back as Captain Song stood, extending one of his hooves.

“Sabra,” the old, olive-green stallion said as they shook hooves, “you have no idea how glad I am to hear that. Not that I don’t hope you’ll find that answer you’re looking for, but—”

Naelawa, captain. I understand,” Sabra said, giving him another nod. “I may yet find that answer, but for now…” He straightened his shoulders as he looked the captain in the eyes.

“For now, this is where I’ll be.”

* * *

The workshop was much the same as it had been the day before, although it didn’t seem quite so chaotic to his senses anymore. The music was still pounding and loud, the lyrics all but indecipherable to him without focus, but he was starting to see the patterns in the way the workbenches were laid out, the positioning of the various projects that covered them. There was a pattern to it, one that eluded him still, but he could sense its presence all the same.

“Sky Bolt?” he called out as he trotted further into the workshop, heading straight for the vast curve of The Hummingbird, “Jambo? Wewe ni hapa?”

Maybe she is not here, he thought as the envelope of The Hummingbird began to swell overhead, all but blocking his view of the roof. Then again, it is very possible that she merely could not hear me. The music was pounding from the workshop's speakers, far louder than it normally was.

“Sky Bolt?” he called again, raising his voice slightly. Again, nothing. No response. Then his ears twitched as he heard something. A faint clicking sound, like the noise of a bird but not quite. It was almost metallic. He closed his eyes, shutting out the workshop and focusing his attention on the single, repeated noise. Then he smiled. Of course.

“Sky Bolt?” he called again as he pulled open the airship hatch. “Jambo?

“Sabra?” came a distant call from inside the airship. “Is that you?”

Ndiyo,” he said, his eyes widening as he stepped inside the ship. The last time he had been inside The Hummingbird, the access door had opened into a single, large, solitary room, empty save for a few hastily assembled couches and bare lights overhead.

Now however, the hatch opened into a hallway that headed both towards the front and back of the airship. Sabra stepped inside, looking down in surprise as he felt the deck under his hooves give slightly. Instead of hardened metal, the floor was covered in some sort of spongy material that looked and felt quite a bit like the undersuit from the team's armor, but stiffer and with circular holes cut through it to the metal deck beneath. He took a few experimental steps towards the front of the ship, feeling the give in the strange material.

“Oh, there you are,” Sky Bolt said, her head poking around the end of the hallway, the rest of her body following moments later. “What do you think?”

“When did you do this?” he asked, running his eyes along the new wall and up towards the now covered rows of what he assumed were magilights.

“Over the last week,” Sky Bolt said, shrugging. “Like I said, I work when I think, and this was supposed to be done a while ago.” She turned and waved him forwards with a wing. “Come take a look. It’s not done yet, but I’ve gotten most of the easy stuff done. Another week, and the inside will finally be finished.”

Sabra followed her as she stepped out of the hallway and into a room that looked somewhat familiar. He stared at it for a moment before recognizing it as the front half of the space that had once made up the whole interior of the ship. The couches had been moved as well as reinforced with straps, and the walls had been padded, but it was still recognizable.

“This is the most complete room so far,” Sky Bolt said, waving her hoof as she walked into the center. “I’ve still got to get the padding underhoof secured so that I can finish the deployment doors, and the lockers that will sit along the back wall aren’t here yet, but the rest of it’s pretty good.

“What about the back rooms?” Sabra asked as his eye caught the two open doorways leading towards the back of the ship.

“One’s a bathroom, the other just a room,” Sky Bolt said with a shrug. “I’ll probably just fill it with lockers and make it some sort of storage.” She turned towards him, an expectant smile on her face. “Well, what do you think?”

“I think it is impressive how much you accomplish when you work,” Sabra said, running his eyes over the room once more. “Truthfully, I do.”

“Yeah, well once I’m done training for the day, I tend to spend most of my time back here,” Sky Bolt said, her wings spreading slightly. She brought her hoof up, pulling another strand of dirty sky-blue mane back into place. “It’s my job after all, and lately—”

“Are you open to doing anything else this evening?” Sabra said, surprising himself with his own forwardness. Sky Bolt’s ears stood straight up, her wings freezing for a moment.

“Well,” she said, one ear twitching as she gave him a curious look, “I was planning on trying to finish up some of the modifications to the back room, but I’ve put in my time for the day and already written up my report for Steel. Why?”

“I was wondering if you wished to accompany me to the market district,” he said, his voice level. “I was just speaking with Captain Song, and we—I mean, I—have decided that I will be staying with the team for a time still—”

“Wait,” Sky Bolt said, cutting him off as she stepped up close. “You were going to leave?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I simply did not know how long I was going to stay, and had permission to continue my pilgrimage when I wished.” Sky Bolt’s wings were sticking straight out, and he could hear her breath coming through clenched teeth, faster and faster. “I did not wish to leave,” he said, shaking his head, “nor do I plan to anytime soon. The captain gave me the option. I told him that I would not need it.”

“Oh,” the grey pegasus said, her wings slowly settling against her sides and her breathing slowing. “Ok, I thought for a moment…” she shook her head, her mane rolling around her shoulders like an angry sky. “Never mind.”

“It’s fine,” he said, shaking his head. That was foolish, Sabra, he thought. She’s already under enough pressure, and you make her worry that you’re going to leave. “I should have chosen my words more careful—” he frowned, “—carefully?”

“Carefully,” Sky Bolt said, her face softening somewhat as she corrected his Equestrian. “Sorry about getting a little tense there, I—”

“The fault was mine,” Sabra said, shaking his head. “I should have composed my words more carefully. I should not have given cause for you to be alarmed. It was not my intent. Samahani.

“It’s alright, Sabra,” she said, shaking her head again. He felt a chill in his stomach as she said his name. “I just jumped to conclusions, that’s all. I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine?” she held out her hoof and cocked her head to one side, waiting.

“Ah,” he said, reaching for her own. “Deal, as Nova says.” Their hooves met with a soft tap, and then Sky Bolt pulled hers away.

“So,” she said, smiling as she landed on the deck once more. “The market district?”

“I … Yes, the market district,” Sabra said, switching his mind back.

“Just to look?” Sky Bolt asked. “Or was there something that you wanted to do?”

“Well,” he said, “it has come to my attention that I am being paid quite well, by Equestrian standards. And my room here is very basic. I would like to spend some of my … earnings?” He paused, waiting for Sky Bolt’s nod before he continued. “Earnings … on some things to make my room more welcome.” He smiled. “For instance, I need a stand to display what’s left of my old fimbo. Something to … to remind me of the Plainslands.”

“Sounds like fun to me,” Sky Bolt said, flicking her tail as she turned towards the back room and giving him a perhaps purposeful view of her cutie mark. “Give me a second to put away my stuff back here and turn the lights out.” There was a clatter from the room that she’d identified as the bathroom, followed by a soft groan.

“Are you alright?” There was another clatter from the bathroom and then Sky Bolt poked her head out, an annoyed look on her face.

“I’m fine,” she said, her eyes almost crossing as she glared at the tuft of mane hanging in front of her face. “I just didn’t realize how dirty my mane had gotten while I was in here. Do you mind if I clean it?”

“You can,” Sabra said, and the grey pegasus began to duck back. “But you don’t have to.”

Sky Bolt came to a stop and then turned back towards him, a curious look on her face. “You’d be fine with my going out with a dirty mane?”

“I actually like it,” he said. “Your mane, it is blue like the sky. And when it gets dirty, I am reminded of clouds in the sky over the Plainslands. Or smoke above the fires that are your eyes. You can clean it, but if you do not wish to, I will not mind. Anyone who does simply does not see what I see.” His words seemed to have stunned Sky Bolt into silence, and for a moment she stared at him. Then she smiled, giving her head a soft shake.

“Sabra,” she said, stepping out of the bathroom, a pair of toolbags slung over her back. “That’s both the cutest and the oddest compliment I’ve ever received. But,” she said, stepping up to him and bumping her shoulder against his own, “I liked it. So,” she said with a small bounce in her step as she headed for the hatch, “let’s go get some stuff to make your quarters more like home!”

“Right,” he said as he followed her out of the hatch. Home…

“...until you return home,” Master Taalib had said. At the time, those words had been lost in the shuffle of events, part of the rhetoric of well-meaning phrases that had swept him away. Now? Now they felt sincere, but misplaced.

Sabra watched as Sky Bolt took wing across the workshop, dropping her toolbags on one of the benches and shutting off the music. She did a corkscrew as she flew, twisting back into a loop and soaring over the open interior of shop. He smiled.

He didn’t have his answer yet. No, not yet, for some strange reason he couldn’t quite put his hoof on. Perhaps it was experience. A year ago, either of the Diarch’s answers would have been more than enough to send him back, to return him from the world to the Plainslands he had left behind, to the monastery he had known as home.

But now? Now, their answers felt like all of the others. Incomplete. Brilliant, yes. True, even.

But something was missing all the same, he thought as Sky Bolt looped in front of him and landed with all four hooves on the ground.

“Well,” she said, eyeing him with a smile on her face, “are you ready to get out of here or what?”

“Of course,” he answered with a smile, but it wasn’t the answer in his mind.

A year ago I would have been, he thought as they walked towards the barracks entrance, stopping only to grab his saddlebags from his room. But now? He smiled as he turned out of his room, and Sky Bolt laughed. He thought about the armor he’d tested earlier, about the strength he’d brought to bear, inspired only by the ponies he’d spent the last few months working with.

He hadn’t found his answer. Not yet. One day, if he found it, he would return to Master Taalib, Jahi, and the other masters of the monastery. And, if he did, he would make his report.

But when I do, I will not stay, he thought as he and Sky Bolt walked out onto the grass of the Guard field, the late afternoon sun just beginning to cool. I cannot.

Because here, he thought as they walked side by side towards the city of Canterlot. Here I am something stronger than I ever was.

Here, I am home.