• Published 11th Dec 2014
  • 2,587 Views, 31 Comments

Remembrance - Viking ZX



Most would use their day off for fun and games, seeing family, or just enjoying some well deserved R&R. But not First Lieutenant Hunter of the Dusk Guard. He's going to visit someone special he sees every year.

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An Arvo About Canterlot

A bell above the door let out a sharp ring as Hunter pushed it open, a cheery, almost gleeful jingle that brought a smile to his face. Ahead of him, a row of almost a dozen carefully designed wooden chairs lined one wall of the barbershop, each in front of a large set of mirrors that allowed patrons to examine themselves while their manes were cut. A small, striped barbershop’s pole, a smaller twin to the one outside the shop’s entrance, sat just to his right, near a series of empty chairs set aside for those ponies or sapients who were waiting for a cut or a style, though at the moment only two of them were occupied.

Not waiting for a cut, he guessed, his eyes picking out the three empty seats on the row of barbers chairs. He ran his eyes over the assorted patrons, trying to match the pair loitering in the waiting area with whoever they’d come in with. He paused, waiting as both of them looked up at him, and then their eyes darted in the direction of whoever they were waiting on. The first stallion, a beige unicorn with a puffy, warm coat thrown over his shoulders, glanced in the direction of a unicorn mare who appeared to be getting her coat enchanted. Probably for a party or some other social function.

The second however, a light blue earth pony mare, surprised him by glancing at a lone griffon who was having his talons sharpened. For a moment Hunter was curious, but then he caught the small crest of the Equestrian Diplomatic Corp on her saddlebags, and he made a mental nod. Of course. She was probably his attache.

“Welcome to Canterlot Cuts, can I help you?” a cheerful voice asked from behind the front desk. A brightly colored wing waved, and Hunter stepped forward.

“Yes, I’d like—whoa.”

The young pegasus colt grinned proudly, puffing out his chest. “You like it?”

“It’s … unique,” Hunter said, cocking his head to one side. “That’s not a natural look, is it?” The colt’s mane was a bright, almost tropical green, two-toned with a vivid purple spike that cut right down one side. It was clashing violently—no, he corrected himself—waging active war against the colt’s bright orange coat, a war that promised to blind everyone nearby. Worse yet, the colt’s undersized wings were multicolored, a spread of shades of orange that started light near his body and then changed as the color traveled out towards the tips, becoming a truly noxious shade of orange by the final feathers.

The colt laughed and shook his head. “Nope, thankfully not. It’s a glamour.” He tapped his hoof against the side of his head. “Here, watch. Hey Flare, can I get a purple mane?”

A unicorn stallion tending to the mare that was getting her coat enchanted looked up, his horn flashing a bright blue. The colt’s mane lit up in time, the strands changing from the almost noxious green to a darker purple.

“See?” the colt asked, tilting his head from one side to the other to show off the finished product. “It only lasts a few hours, and doesn’t mix well with other spells, but if you’re looking for a quick, easy coat or mane change, it’s only a dozen bits.”

“No thanks,” Hunter said with a quick shake of his head. “Not my thing.” Plus, I’d rather not have everypony glancing at me like I’m starkers. “Just a basic cut for me. I need a few inches taken off of my mane and my tail needs a trim. Oh, and a shave.”

“Wings too?” the colt asked, grabbing a pencil and making a series of quick notations. Hunter eyed the colt’s cutie mark, a small amplifier with a music note coming out of it.

“Yeah, wings too,” he said, wondering what the mark stood for. Something musical, clearly, but past that there wasn’t anything about the colt that could give him any clues.

“Cool,” came the response. There was a buzz as the colt’s wings fluttered, and then he was standing on the floor, the paper he’d jotted down held in his teeth. “This way.”

“Right,” Hunter said, following the colt down the line of chairs toward the end. He could have just pointed and told me, he thought. But I guess when you’re looking to get to your hooves ... He glanced at the griffon as they passed, his eyes checking the coloration of the plumage. The feathers were a spotted mix of grey and golden brown, and the attendant unicorn working on the plumage seemed to be doing her best to bring out the golden sheen in the feathers—though not entirely naturally, if the damp preening brush she was using was any indication.

I wonder if Blade used to come here, he thought as the colt stopped by the furthest back chair, motioning for Hunter to sit. If they serviced griffons regularly—which they likely did, judging from the manedresser’s skill and speed—than there was a chance she had.

Come to think of it, I wonder what she’s doing now? he thought as he took the seat, settling his chest against the well-polished wood and welcoming the distraction to his thoughts. There had been her initial disappearance, then his subsequent chewing out from Princess Luna and Steel when he’d told them what he’d done, which had only compounded when there had been that whole fiasco with the train to Northgait. Reports past the border were hard to come by, but what little he’d been able to pick up from the Guard stationed at the edge said that the already unstable Ocean had taken a swift turn for the worse in the last few weeks.

I’d bet my next two month’s paychecks she’s involved in it somehow, he thought. Hopefully she comes out on top. He’d never been to the Ocean of Endless Ice, but Steel had, and the stories he’d painted of the place had been a stark contrast to the more romanticized tales that tended to fill dime novels or circulate among the popular crowd.

There’s nothing I can do but wait until she contacts

“Hunter?” A loud voice interrupted his thoughts and he turned in surprise.

Is thatit is! “Clipper?” he said, his eyes widening. “I’ll be gobsmacked!”

“Tartarus, boy, that is you!” The dark-blue unicorn said in his loud, boisterous tone, stepping forward and clapping one hoof on Hunter’s shoulder as he gave him a hoofshake with the other. “I’d know that ridiculous accent anywhere!”

“You’re one to talk, you old blue,” Hunter said. “You still trying to convince everyone that that beat up of an accent of yours is how everyone talks out in Horseshoe Bay?”

“It is how everyone talks out there, and don’t ye’ forget it!” the old unicorn said, tossing his dark red mane. “Anypony who says otherwise ‘s just trying to be polite.” He let out a loud laugh that echoed through the shop. “You can go now, lad,” he said, looking down at the pegasus colt. “Hunter ‘n I are old friends. I’ll keep him out of trouble.”

“Any place that’d give you access to razors isn’t worried much about trouble,” Hunter said, grinning. “But a barber? You?”

“Aye,” the unicorn said, tapping his chest with one hoof as his horn lit up with a dark, old-growth green. “I’m forty-two now, so I had no choice. Forced retirement. Too old for you young whelps in the Rangers. That’s your game now.”

“Actually, it isn’t,” Hunter said, pulling his stetson off and shaking his head as he passed it to Clipper. The unicorn hung it nearby and then picked up a pair of scissors and a comb with his magic. “I quit a few months ago.”

“You did?” The various cutting implements that Clipper had been picking up came to a sudden stop. “Tartarus, lad. I’d have thought you’d ended a forced retiree like myself. What happened?” He twisted, his eyes going to Hunter’s wings and then his legs. “Accident?”

“No, no, no,” Hunter said, shaking his head. “I got a better offer.”

Clipper’s eyes narrowed. “A better offer? What kind of offer?”

“You heard of the Dusk Guard?”

There was a pause as the unicorn fixed him with one piercing eye. “By Celestia’s beard,” he said after a moment, his rough, gravelly voice lifting in pitch for a moment. “You joined the Guard?”

“Special division,” Hunter said, grinning a little. “I’d tell you more, but some of it’s on the low-and-low, you know?”

“Well, if that doesn’t beat all,” Clipper said with a shake of his head. “By the way, how short do you want this cut?”

“Just take a few inches off,” Hunter said. Then he nodded at Clipper’s flank and the stylized falcon sitting on it. “You still falconing?”

“Of course!” Clipper said, grinning and then motioning for Hunter to look forward. “Of course, it’s a bit different now. Not as much of a focus on using her to look for missing ponies or track migrations. More just for fun and sport now, and maybe the odd bit of private work.”

“Private work?”

“Private camping retreats, things like that,” Clipper said with a laugh. “The ponies around here’ll pay a good pile of bits to see a falcon dive out of the sky and grab an apple out of somepony’s hoof.” There was a pause, followed by a tug at Hunter’s mane. “So, you quit a few months ago. Were you still part of team Fox?”

“Fox?” Hunter said, ruffling his feathers. “Crikey, it has been a while since I’ve seen you. I split ways with Fox almost eight years ago. Transferred over to the Foal Mountain branch near Hollow Shades.”

“Ah. Team Bear,” Clipper said, nodding.

“Yeah, flew with them for a year or two, but started being a free agent after a while, hopping all over, working with whoever needed me. And then …” He paused. Again the day had brought that up.

“Then the accident,” Clipper said, the steady rhythm of his scissors slowing. “I was out in San Palomino at the time, but I heard about that.”

“Yeah.” He let the word hang in the air, hoping Clipper would catch the hint. His throat swelled a little as his chest began to heat up.

“So what about after that?” the unicorn asked, the rhythm of the scissors picking up once more. “You said you quit a few months ago, but there’s a big gap in there. Tartarus, I retired a little over a year after that happened.”

“Not much, actually,” Hunter admitted. “I transferred to one of the small outposts. Everfree.” Clipper nodded but didn’t say anything. “I just wanted to get away from things for a while.”

“Did it work?”

Hunter started to reply but then reconsidered. “It did … to a certain extent.” If not for one determined, kind-hearted mailmare, it would have. “It wasn’t boring all the time, true dinkum. Sometimes it was downright starkers.” His wings flared out slightly as he thought about it, and Clipper stepped to one side.

“I’ve heard that town draws crazy like a seapony draws sailors,” Clipper said.

“Well, it’s true. If it isn’t Nightmare Moon herself messing with the forest—”

There was a brief but noticeable pause in the clipping scissors.

“—it’s two kids cracking a fruity and waking up an Ursa Minor or the local vet rolling a cart of tasty-looking frogs past a hibernating hydra. I tell you, Clipper, it had its perks, but when that town decides to go nutty it doesn’t go halfway.” He let out an exasperated sigh. “That job was equal parts calm relaxation and nightmarish terror.”

“What, and working for the Guard isn’t?”

“Fair point,” he admitted as another lock of his mane bounced off of his shoulder and landed on the floor. “But at least there I’m with a team again.” And facing down a rampaging golem is pretty different from a rampaging chimera. “Plus, I got a pay raise.”

“Not bad. Seen anyone from the old team since you jumped ship?”

“No, not since then. I swung by the HQ here earlier this morning, but it was full of newbies and a few old administrators I never talked much with anyway. Everfree’s actually pretty much a bush job. You’ve probably got a better idea than I have.”

“There, all done,” Clipper said, nodding and giving the chair a gentle push with his magic so that Hunter could get a better look at the new cut. His mane was dangling just a few inches above his shoulders, but still covering the back of his neck, and Clipper had even kept the same, ragged, uneven look to the ends. “Are any of them stationed nearby?”

“Looks good,” Hunter said, giving his head a quick shake and watching as the mane settled in an even more natural position. “And no, none of them are. I think a few members from Bear transferred to Ferret. They’re south of Cloudsdale this time of year.”

“Aye, keeping all the wrong varmints out o’ the fields,” Clipper said, pushing the chair the rest of the way around and going to work on Hunter’s tail.

“Yeah, and I really don’t feel like flying all the way out there just to say ‘hi,’” Hunter said, nodding as he looked over the barbershop once more. A few of the patrons had changed, and the griffon was up by the counter, busily counting out bits with the help of his aide.

Actually, no, Hunter thought as he took a closer look at the way the pair was standing, the mare leaning ever so slightly into the griffon’s shoulder, the warm grateful smile the griffon gave her in return as she helped him count out the proper change, and the way he thanked her as the colt behind the desk took his payment.

Huh, he thought as the pair moved towards the door, the griffon giving her a playful bump with his shoulder, one she returned with a laugh as they walked out. I wonder if she met him in the Empire or if he met her over here? Griffon and pony relationships were rare, though more common than they would have been centuries ago when the two nations were staring at one another over crossed blades. Still, the sight of a hippogriff—a pony and griffon mixture—was so rare he’d only ever seen one in his entire life.

He realized that Clipper had asked him a question, and he scrambled to catch up. “Um, yeah,” he said, nodding as he glanced back at the dark-blue stallion. “In case of emergency or something. I can’t go too far.”

“So when do you have to be back on duty?”

“Around seven tonight,” he said. “It’s actually eight, but I’ve got some things I need to take care of first, so I’m just going to bite the bit and get it done.”

“What about plans for before then?”

Hunter shrugged. “Lunch, an errand or two. Maybe some flying, just to stretch my wings a little. And then a visit before I go back to the station.” His throat tightened up a little more as he thought about it.

“A visit to … the memorial?” Clipper said, haltingly as he guessed what he’d meant.

“Yeah,” Hunter said, his chest feeling hot and hollow. “The memorial.”

“To see—”

“Yeah.”

“How long’s it been?”

“Four years ago today,” Hunter said, nodding.

“Oh,” Clipper said, pausing. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s …” He swallowed, forcing the lump in his throat down. “It’s fine.” The scissors started up again.

“Still,” Clipper said, “It wasn’t fair, Hunter. I know it wasn’t anypony’s fault, but it wasn’t fair.”

“I’d—” Hunter’s voice caught and he swallowed. His chest was burning now, hot and hollow, the void growing inside of him, but he could feel a faint ocean waiting just past it, waiting to rush in. Not here, not now. “If—” He coughed, clearing his throat. “If you don’t mind, let’s talk about something else.”He pushed the void back, closed his eyes for a moment and forced it to hold itself back inside. “Like how your team’s been since you retired. Last I saw you, you were still stationed out near Horseshoe. Team Crab, right? Why’d you switch?”

“That’s fine,” Clipper said quickly. “And yeah, I think I switched away from Crab when I decided I wanted to take advantage o’ the fact that I could travel a lot more as a Ranger.” Hunter nodded. It was one of the reasons a lot of ponies in the service switched, to get the experience of moving from place to place.

“After fifteen years o’ living in the bay, I figured I’d try something different for a change.”

Hunter nodded, the burning sensation in his chest fading. “Can’t get much different than going from the Bay to San Palomino.”

“No,” Clipper said with a chuckle, tugging at Hunter’s tail. “You can’t.”

“How’d Pierce like it?” Hunter asked. “That was your falcon’s name, right? Pierce?”

“Loved it,” came the response. “Took a few days for her to adjust, but she loved it in the end, right to the end. Aye,” he said, nodding, “I think it was one of the best choices I made for her when she was getting on in years. Lots of warm air, easy for her to fly in, plenty to hunt.”

“You meet anypony from our old group out there?” Hunter asked, moving his mind over to happier things and feeling the lump lessen with each passing moment. “I thought Dust Storm went down there.”

“She did!” Clipper said, his voice picking up. “Still lives there too.”

“Lives there?” Hunter asked, glancing back. “Did she quit?”

“Ha! As if!” Clipper said with a laugh. “That mare got married. Hooked up with one of the native colts and took over team administration.”

“She still got that temper?” Hunter asked, grinning as he remembered the red mare’s fiery personality.

“Hah!” Clipper said. “She’s only tempered with age. She’s calm enough as long as everypony does what she says, but you put one hoof out of line and she’ll live up to her name quick enough.”

Hunter laughed along with him as he settled his body into the seat, already digging up other names from twenty years of shared Ranger experience. He still had the shave and the wing-treatment to go through, and it was his day off.

He could reminisce. He’d earned it.

* * *

“Right now, be sure to swing by again, you hear?”

Hunter flexed his wings as he stepped out the door, glancing back one last time at the old unicorn. “Don’t worry, I will.”

“And next time, I want to hear a bit more about what you’re up to, woodspony,” Clipper said. “After all the talking I did this time.”

“We’ll see,” Hunter said, chuckling as the bell gave one one final ring, cut off half-way by the closing door. He gave his head one last shake, the freshly-cut mane hanging just short of his shoulders. “Well, now what?”

He ran over his mental checklist, a faint tremor rolling through his chest despite the light-hearted feeling he was currently holding. Right, only one other stop to make, and then…

As he moved down the street, his hooves ringing off of the paved stones, he glanced up at the sun, trying to make a rough gauge of the time and decide whether or not he should just fly to his next stop. I spent longer getting my mane cut than I thought. The sun was well past the noon position, almost deep into the afternoon. Much later, he thought, glancing up and down the street to make sure no one was nearby and then spreading his wings.

A few wingbeats later and he was up in the sky, climbing past the rooftops and rising over the section of the city he was in. His stomach let out a low growl as he swung past a purple and gold tower, a faint reminder that he hadn’t had a lunch yet.

Should I get lunch now? he thought, glancing in the direction of one of the cities many restaurant districts. His stomach let out another little growl and he slowed his forward momentum, tilting his wings slightly. It’s a little late to be lunch, but definitely early to be dinner.

On the other hoof, if I get everything done now, I can get in before the dinner rush and maybe get some nice grub. Not that the food in the Guard cafeteria was bad, but even so…

Why not do both? He almost stopped in the air, shocked. It wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, that’s a pretty good idea. He’d probably save a little composure that way anyway. So then who nearby does takeout? He’d picked out the right store for his gift, now he just needed—

“Hello, Hunter,”

He let out a yelp as he spun around in the air, snapping his wings backward to put some distance between him and the unexpected voice.

“Wow,” Thistle said, her pink eyes wide as she came to a stop in the air. “Sorry, I thought I’d surprise you, but … Are you all right?”

“I, uh—yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “I am, I was just a little distracted, and you surprised me.”

“I guess I did,” she said, moving a little closer with a quick tip of her wings. “What were you doing?”

“Just … Just running over my schedule in my head and trying to figure a few things out,” he said. “I spent a little too long getting my mane cut, and now I’m behind schedule.”

“I thought you had a day off?” she said, drifting a little to one side.

“I do,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out where to stick everything in before I have to go back on duty. Weren’t you working today?”

“I called in a favor, got somepony else to take it,” she said, smiling. “I figured I’d see what you were up to. Someone at the barracks said you were downtown, so I figured if I ran into you …” she let the words trail off, a faint smile on her lips. “Maybe I could help out with whatever it is you’re doing?”

“I …” He paused. Crikey, this is a mess. Now what do I tell her? I don’t want to push her away, but this is something … this is something I need to be alone for. Plus, she looks so much like her...

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling a little more of the joyous feeling he’d had leaking away. “But I’m already late and—” Her face turned downward a little, the quick beat in her wings slowing. “I’m sorry, Thistle, but I’ve already got these plans laid out and …” It was a shonky excuse.

“Okay,” she said, her periwinkle coat seeming to almost dim as she drooped a little in the air. “That’s all right, I’ve got other things I can do.”

“I’m really sorry,” he said. Come on, think, think! Give her a better explanation than that! “It’s just, I have an appointment set up, and—”

“It’s fine,” she said, nodding, although he could see the disappointment in her face. “You’re on duty later tonight, right?”

He nodded.

“Well, since I’m in town, maybe I’ll stop by and say ‘hi’ then. But I won’t keep you.”

“Again, I’m really sorry—” he began. She cut him off with a wave of her hoof.

“No, it’s my fault really,” she said with a shrug. “That’s what I get for dropping on you all unexpected. And I can tell I was!” She grinned, and he couldn’t help but give her a smile back. “And before I let you go, I really do like the new mane cut. It looks good on you.”

“Really?” he said, changing his angle slightly in the air.

“True dinkum,” she said in a passable imitation of his own accent. She winked at him as he let out a genuine laugh of surprise. “See you later!” Then the periwinkle mare was gone, her sea-green mane whipping through the air as her broad wings carried her across the city skyline.

For a moment he watched her go, just long enough that he was sure she saw him looking when she glanced back, and then he turned and started south, cutting over the buildings as he headed for a shop a few blocks over. Part of him had wanted to ask her to come, but logic had won out. This was for him, and him alone.

He spotted a food cart that occupied the same street as the shop he was looking for and he banked towards it, searching for the clearest part of the street to land in. It wasn’t exactly a hard search, the street was mostly clear, but he didn’t want to ruffle anypony’s feathers by landing too close.

A minute later he was trotting down the street with a large, hot meal packed carefully into his saddlebags—a much larger portion than he’d planned on getting when he’d walked up. But the smell had been so appealing, and the salesmare so upbeat, that he’d found himself ordering enough for several ponies in addition to himself.

Or maybe it’s just the appeal of hot soup on a cold autumn day,he thought as he pushed the boutique door open and stepped in, the scent of the warm meal on his back getting swept away by the plethora of smells inside the shop. His stomach let out an even hungrier growl.

“Hey now,” a cream-colored unicorn mare cautioned from behind the counter with a chuckle. “My wares will taste good, but these are for showing, then eating. If you’re looking for a full meal, you’d get more bang for your buck at a salad bar.” She grinned as he stepped past the colorful rows of carefully positioned floral arrangements and up to the counter. “Although I think that might be some of Yung’s soup,” she said with a quick sniff. “Unless I’m mistaken.”

“The soup cart up the street?” Hunter asked. The mare nodded. “Yeah, it’s from there. It smells good.”

“Tastes good, too,” the mare said, smiling and flicking her auburn mane back. “I know, I sell him some of the petals he uses to bring the flavor out in his egg soup. So, what can I get for you?”

“Name’s Hunter,” he said, tipping his hat slightly. “I placed an order by messenger a day or so ago.”

The mare tilted her head back for a moment, thinking, and then clapped one hoof down on the counter. “Right, Hunter!” She dropped down slightly from whatever she was sitting on and stepped around the edge of the counter. “That was a big order. Must be for somepony really special.”

Hunter nodded. “She is.”

She must have caught the slight catch in his tone because she nodded. “I see. That kind of situation, huh? Well hold on.” She trotted down one of the aisles, her horn lighting up a bright, cheery green as she began to pick up flower after flower. “I’ve got a few extras here I don’t need that might spice up what you ordered. This’ll be one of the best bouquets you could give her.”

“Well, actually—”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said as she trotted back past him, a dozen or so flowers caught in her telekinetic grip. “I won’t charge you any extra. I was going to have to throw these out tonight anyway, probably. Just take them, and I hope she likes them.”

“Thanks,” he said, nodding as she stepped through a doorway into what was probably some kind of workshop. No sense trying to square the circle and talk her out of a little generosity. She walked out of the back a moment later, a massive, orange bouquet held in her magic. The flowers she’d plucked from the store shelves darted around it like hummingbirds, finding their way into small patches of green.

“Well, here you are,” she said, smiling at him as she set the bouquet on the counter. “Orange roses, carnations, daisies and lilies. With a few extra. Very seasonal. I’m sure she’ll like it.”

Hunter looked at the lush, orange shades, his throat feeling thick once again. “Her favorite color.”

“Then it’s a win,” the mare said, tapping the register with one hoof. “That’ll be sixty-seven bits, please.”

Hunter smiled as he pulled his bit bag out of his saddlebag and handed over a hundred-bit bar. The mare let out a whistle as she took the bar and passed back his change. “Big spender.”

“Not really,” Hunter said, shrugging as the register closed with a happy ring. “Just enough, actually.” He’d only left with a hundred and fifty bits that morning. Then again, he’d been planning on splurging on the bouquet. He eyed the colorful wash of orange, smiled, and then carefully slid it onto his back.

“Well, either way, I’m sure she’ll love it,” the salesmare said, giving him a wave as he left the shop. “Good luck.”

The door closed behind him and he trotted off down the street, not wanting to risk wind damage to the parcel on his back. She will, he thought as he picked up speed, the heavy feeling in his throat growing. Just like every year.

He was so caught up in his thoughts didn’t notice the faint, shadowy figure watching him from across the street, a concerned look on her face.