• Published 26th Apr 2015
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Twilight Sparkle of the Royal Guard: The Rising - King of Beggars

Decurion Twilight Sparkle of the Canterlot Royal Guard does her best to navigate tricky professional relationships while also keeping a quirky girlfriend happy.

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Chapter 1 - Idle Hooves

The walls in the barracks were thick, made of the same hoof-carved granite and marble that made up the rest of the castle, but regardless of the thickness of the walls, the sound of a hundred snoring stallions still shook the air. Even in her room, down a hallway and through a solid wooden door, Twilight could feel the rumble of their concert against her skin.

Most visitors to the barracks during the off-hours couldn’t stand the sound. It was a deep, rumbling cacophony of tired, obstructed breathing passages. Twilight didn’t mind it, though. She’d grown up in military dormitories and had gotten used to the sound of snoring soldiers. Some nights, she liked to pretend it was the pleasant concert of frogs croaking into the night air.

To Twilight’s amusement, Cadance hadn’t seen it that way at all. The first time Cadance had tried to sleep over in Twilight’s quarters, she immediately dragged Twilight out of bed and declared that snuggle-times would only happen in her private chambers from that point on.

Twilight could deal with the snoring, but there was a sense of restlessness keeping her up these days. She'd been suffering from a verve of unspent energy for the past week. She’d even gone so far as to give up coffee, one of the few liquids more important to her wellbeing than her own blood, but it was pointless sacrifice.

Twilight stopped pacing around her room and checked the clock sitting on her nightstand. There was still a half-hour until reveille, until breakfast. She wasn’t all that hungry, but her body was aching with the urge to move, and mealtimes were at least a break from the monotony her days had become. Three weeks – nearly four, now – was how long she’d been home, and by this point she was almost longing for the days of running through itchy sands and fighting for her life.

Doctor’s orders had been to rest and relax for the month-long duration of her medical leave, but it had been over a week since she’d felt so much as a twinge from her knee, and the stitches from her injury were already pulled. Between Cadance’s mother-hen-like fussing and the great medical care she was being provided, Twilight had felt ready to return to her duties for over a week.

Despite Twilight’s personal assessment of her own health, Cadance had taken it upon herself to make sure that Twilight followed the doctor’s prescription to the letter. Orders were orders, as far as Cadance was concerned, so the only thing Twilight was allowed to do, under her girlfriend’s hawk-eyed vigil, was read.

Read, and read, and read, and read.

Not that she hated reading; far from it. The problem was that her life-long love-affair with books was starting to dull in the face of her restlessness, and she’d been looking for ways to spice it up – not unlike an old married couple trying to breathe life into a withering romance. Twilight did her best to whittle away the days reading in bed, reading in the library, reading in the gardens, reading by hornlight whilst upside down in a closet – anything to break up the monotony.

What she really wanted to do was get outside and move around, even if it was just doing laps around the castle. She’d spent years honing her body as well as her mind, and without being able to keep up with both, she was beginning to feel a sense of internal imbalance.

With a groan, she looked away from the clock and checked her reflection.

“You’re getting fat,” she chastised herself as she poked her own belly. Her tummy was a little softer than usual, and her flanks were just a little bit bigger than she was used to seeing, but she was still well within the acceptable parameters of fitness. Of course, she was never satisfied with simply falling within the median of anything when it came to her own faculties, in any respect.

She almost turned away from the mirror, but was stopped by the compulsion to once again check her own disfigurement. She felt the need to do so every time she saw the mirror, and she was beginning to worry that the morbid fixation wouldn’t dim with time as she’d originally hoped.

With a heavy sigh, Twilight turned around to look at the Cutie Mark on her left side – the side that now sported a long scar across her flank. Most of the hair that had been shorn away by medics had already returned, the follicular growth hastened by some mixture she’d been given to drink after her stitches had been removed. Sadly, the coat would never fully grow back. Her Cutie Mark on that side would forever bear a long, hairless line where her flesh had mended. The doctors assured her that as the years went on, the light-pink scar tissue would darken and blend into her naturally dark coat, but for the time being, she would have to live with it.

Cadance had been very supportive. She said that the scar made Twilight look tough, dependable. Twilight’s opinion wasn’t so favorable, but as long as Cadance was okay with it, there was no use worrying. The only other comfort she could give herself was from the knowledge that, as a professional soldier, she was bound to end up with a scar or two throughout her career. She just hadn’t expected it to be so prominent, or in so noticeable a place.

She tore her gaze away from her own reflection and unlocked her trunk, levitating her chakram and its holster out and securing it to her side with a practiced flourish of magic. She always felt a little reassured by the thing’s presence. It made her feel prepared and ready for action.

She continued pacing in a circle, wearing a furrow into the shaggy material of her rug. It was just another twenty minutes until reveille, then she could get some breakfast without waking anypony else.

Then she’d exercise, even if Cadance found out about it and yelled at her. She had to do something today or she’d go crazy.

* * *

Twilight held her spoon in the grip of her magic and speared viciously into her grapefruit. The stupid thing attempted to defend itself with a squirt of citrus that landed on her cheek. She wiped the liquid away with a hoof and scooped a helping of its guts into her mouth.

“You know that you’re my hero, right?” asked the unicorn stallion sitting across from her at the table.

“So you’ve said,” Twilight sighed, pointedly refusing to look up at Glowstone.

“No, but really, you are,” he said.

She exhaled sharply and lifted her gaze to the pestering unicorn. His shaggy, unkempt mane hung loosely over his eyes without his galea or the ridiculous hairband he normally wore while off duty, and all during breakfast he’d been blowing the hair out of his face. The Guard wasn’t too strict about mane styles – likely owing to their little-known history of being the equivalent of an extremely well-trained, militarized boy band – and the long, golden-blond tresses suited his charcoal-gray coat very nicely. It was a silly look, but she supposed that it suited the stallion’s equally silly personality.

“You’ve said that, too,” she said, jabbing her spoon in his direction.

“Because it’s true,” he said, his voice muffled by the extra-large helping of cereal he’d crammed into his mouth. He swallowed it down with a gulp and drank the last of the milk from the bowl with a loud slurp. “You gotta tell me what the secret is. How do you get a girl like Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?”

“Maybe you could try not eating your breakfast like a six year old,” Twilight said without attempting to hide the snarkiness in her voice.

“I’ll have you know that I had my first fillyfriend when I was six,” Glowstone replied smugly. He blew his hair out of his face and flicked his mane over his shoulder in a dramatically-vain way, like a snooty dame in a play. “Little Sunshine Teacup from down the lane. She was the cutest little filly. We used to play doctor, but not the kind that I ever wanted to play – she wanted to be a podiatrist, so she was always trying to examine my hooves.”

“Was Sunshine Teacup a princess?” Twilight asked.

Glowstone’s smugness waned just a bit. “No…”

“And was she also six years old at the time?”

“She was seven…”

“Then go ahead and assume that she was more easily impressed by how loudly you slurp your milk than an adult princess would be,” Twilight explained, wagging her spoon to punctuate her point.

Honestly, Cadance might actually be impressed by such a thing, but Twilight wasn’t about to tell him that. It was nopony’s business but hers and Cadance’s how childish the princess could be in private.

A few titters and subdued chuckles broke out from the surrounding tables, drawing her attention to the other guards trying to eat before they had to dress for inspection and the beginning of their shifts. Nopony else had opted to join them at their table, but the other guards were still apparently eager to eavesdrop on her conversation. The amount of attention she’d been getting over the past few weeks had been more than a bit unnerving. The respect that she was getting was nice, but the amount of gossiping was starting to take a toll on her nerves.

“You came back from the desert mean,” Glowstone said with a frown as he pushed his bowl aside and began digging into his own half of a grapefruit.

Twilight paused at this assessment of her attitude. It almost startled her to realize that she actually was being a little mean to Glowstone. His constant questions about how her relationship with Cadance was going may have been a little prying, but he probably didn’t mean to be. He, by his own admission, was just one of those hopeless romantic types that thought a knight-wins-princess fairytale was endlessly fascinating. And unlike other guards she was less acquainted with, he hadn’t tried to pry the details of her mission from her in an attempt to confirm which of the many stories floating around were true.

In short, he really didn’t deserve the attitude she was giving him.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said as she scooped out the last of the pulp in her grapefruit. “You’re right, I am being mean – downright grumpy, even. I’m just kind of… tired of everypony talking about me. It seems like every time I walk around a corner I’m hearing somepony whispering my name. Plus, I think all this downtime is getting to me. The lack of stress is really, really stressing me out, if that makes any sense.”

Glowstone stopped eating – a sure sign that he was deep in thought – as he considered her words. “I can see that… sorry if I’ve been insensitive,” he muttered apologetically. He let the moment hang in the air for a bit before digging back into the last remnants of his breakfast. “You do know that nopony’s saying anything negative, right?”

Twilight just shrugged.

“No, no shrug, I mean it,” he insisted. He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, upsetting his mane and dropping his bangs back into his face. “I think maybe you don’t understand what it means to the rest of us, what you did in Zebrica.”

“Nopony knows what I did in Zebrica,” Twilight grumbled as she sipped her orange juice.

“We all know you got injured protecting Princess Mi Amore Cadenza from something mean enough that the brass refuses to talk about it,” Glowstone insisted. “When Nightmare Moon snatched up Princess Celestia… dude, we were all just standing around holding our collective junk, not really knowing what to do. All we could do was send out search parties and try to keep up a brave face for the civvies. Shining Armor and the other Elements of Harmony really stepped up, so everything worked out in the end, but I can’t even tell you how useless we all felt... And then you come back from your mission with a win for the team? Girl, you don’t even know how bad we needed that.”

Twilight stared down at the remains of her meal in quiet contemplation. Now this gossip situation was making a little more sense. Her personal victory wasn’t just her own, it was a vindication for her brothers-in-arms – proof that the Guard had worth. She’d never thought of it that way before, and the realization was all at once a point of pride and a weight that she only just now knew she’d been carrying.

“So then I’m everypony’s hero or something?” she asked, feeling a little embarrassed even as she voiced the question.

Glowstone snickered. “Well nopony wants to say it out loud, because nopony wants to be that guy, but yeah, a little bit.”

“You’re already that guy,” she said with a laugh. “You’ve told me that I was your hero at least four times this week. One of those times was in the last five minutes of this meal.”

“That was for purely romance-related accomplishments, though,” he said with a boyish little huff. “Anyway, forget about that stuff. How about we get some drinks tonight? We can celebrate you getting back on the job.”

“I’m not off med leave for another week,” Twilight pointed out.

“And if we drink hard enough it’ll take that long to shake off your hangover,” he said with a wry grin.

“Well I don’t know about drinking that much,” Twilight said with a chuckle. “I did really like that cider I had last time we went, though, and it would be nice to get out of the castle for a while for something other than dinner with my parents.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll get into another fight,” Glowstone said, his voice bright with excitement.

Twilight merely groaned in the face of her friend’s child-like enthusiasm for something as seedy as a barroom brawl. “That’s just what I need, to get yelled at by Cadance for getting into a hoof-fight before I’m even cleared for full duty.”

Whatever teasing comment Glowstone had prepared was lost as his smile withered. He leaned over in his chair, craning his neck to look at something behind Twilight.

All at once she realized that he wasn’t the only pony looking up from his meal. The polite murmur that usually filled the room had died so suddenly that she hadn’t even noticed, and every set of eyes was looking towards the entryway. She turned and found what everypony was looking at.

A pegasus mare stood in the door, her coat a bright yellow and her mane and tail a coltishly cut, two-toned affair in shades of orange, like the color of flames. She wore a pair of pitch-black sunglasses, pushed up on her forehead so everypony could see her eyes scanning the room slowly. The mare’s sight settled on Twilight, her eyes narrowing slightly as she fixed Twilight with a hard, disapproving glare.

Twilight stared back, confused as to why she was getting the stink-eye from a mare she’d never met, but not willing to show that it bothered her. She stared back coolly, answering in kind whatever silent challenge was being levied at her. She could sense that others were looking at her now, the entire room having realized what the newcomer was staring at. Twilight refused to be the first to break eye contact, but she could imagine the looks on the faces of her fellow guards as they looked between the only two mares in the room.

Was this some kind of intimidation game? Surely this other mare wouldn’t be stupid enough to start a fight against a guard inside the castle, inside a crowded mess hall filled with half the Royal Guard’s day watch, no less.

Suddenly, the other mare tsked with a sharp little suck at her teeth that curled her upper-lip, and pulled her sunglasses back down. She turned and walked away without a word.

“The hay did you do to piss off Spitfire?” Glowstone asked as soon as the other mare was out of sight.

“Spitfire?” she repeated, frowning at the familiarity of the name as she turned back to her companion. “Wait, Spitfire as in the Captain of the Wonderbolts? That was her?”

“You’ve never seen her before?” Glowstone asked, his eyebrows shooting up a little in surprise.

Twilight shook her head. “I’ve seen her on posters and at shows, but never up close or out of uniform.”

“If you’ve never met her before, why was she mad-dogging you so hard?” he wondered aloud.

The mess hall filled with a light buzz as the rumor-mill quietly spun up. Twilight did her best to ignore the sound of fuel being thrown onto the fire.

“What was she even doing here?” Twilight wondered aloud.

“She comes down from time to time to eat with us when she has business in the castle,” Glowstone explained. “It doesn’t happen often, but I met her a couple of times. She’s never been one to be… like that, as far as I’ve seen. She’s usually really laidback unless she’s barking orders at recruits. You must’ve pissed in her oatmeal or something.”

“I think I’d remember crossing a Wonderbolt,” Twilight said with a snort.

“Maybe she thought you were somepony else?” he suggested.

“Yeah, she confused me with the other female Royal Guards on active duty in the castle,” Twilight said with a roll of her eyes.

Glowstone tapped his spoon sharply on his plate. “Mean,” he chastised her, though the smile on his face and the cheer in his voice indicated that he wasn’t actually offended.

“Either way,” Twilight continued with a chuckle, “I don’t want any trouble, so I think I’m just going to do my best to avoid her.”

“You don’t want to find out what got in her bonnet?”

Twilight tugged a napkin from a dispenser and began distractedly wiping down the table around them. “I don’t exactly relish the idea that a pony like that might have a grudge or something with me, but I don’t see how it affects me much. We’re different branches of the service. You said she comes down to eat sometimes, but other than that, how often am I going to bump into her?”

“You might see her at functions and such,” Glowstone pointed out. “She’s a celeb, and you’re dating a princess. You’re bound to bump into one another some time down the line.”

Twilight paused in her frantic scrubbing at a bit of graffiti some jokester had penciled into the table. He was right. There was a good chance of Twilight and Spitfire bumping into one another at a fancy ball or some such thing. That meant that eventually, she’d have to find out what that look was about and deal with it.

But that could wait for another day.

* * *

Twilight walked the short distance from her parents’ house back to the castle. It wasn’t a long walk, as her father’s prominence in Equestria’s intelligencia afforded him the opportunity to buy property in one of the nicer areas of Canterlot. Cadance had been invited to dinner, but her duties as a princess had to come first, and some big-wig from Griffoundland was in town to discuss the fishing rights for a lake that Twilight had never heard of. Being the daughter of proud fisherponies, Cadance had felt it was her duty to take the reins on the negotiations. Princess Celestia, in keeping with her recent policy of letting Cadance take a bigger role in governing, gladly left the matter in her niece’s capable hooves.

Of course, that didn’t stop Twilight’s mother from getting all pouty about it. Apparently she’d gone into the basement and dug up some old slides of Twilight as a baby that she wanted to show off. Twilight had never been more thankful for griffon obstinance in all her life, and she was already trying to think of a way to bribe her dad into hiding the box of slides before the next time they were supposed to have dinner together.

Twilight was supposed to meet Glowstone for drinks after his shift, once he’d had a shower and a quick dinner, but she was in no hurry. The sun had already set, and despite the fact that the changing of the guard took place over an hour before officially appointed sunset, owing to the long summer days, she had plenty of time. Glowstone would no doubt primp and gussy himself up for their little night out. Although this would only be her second time actually accompanying him, Twilight had borne witness to his pre-drinks primping several times over the past few weeks.

What if I meet somepony I like?” he’d whine as he spritzed himself with a subtle cologne that would be drowned out by the ambient funk of sweat and booze as soon as he stepped into the bar.

You won’t,” she’d tease, rolling her eyes. The kind of soft, frilly mares that he professed to favor – and he was quite verbose on the subject – wouldn’t be caught dead in the kind of bars he frequented. At best, he’d just try to find the prettiest girl in the bar and hit on her as a matter of sport.

But what if I do?” he’d counter hopefully.

The streetlights lit her path as she walked along, smiling at ponies dressed for their own nights on the town. A pair of guards on city-patrol caught her eye and nodded to her. While the Guard’s primary concern – especially in Canterlot – was protecting the princesses and the interests of the crown, the Royal Guard did take an important role in helping law enforcement across Equestria by assisting in police work. Canterlot’s regiment was one of the largest in the nation, and so a few units were always dedicated to patrolling the city, day and night.

Twilight returned the nod to the guards as they passed, with added interest in the form of a smile and a wave. She was in a good mood and was willing to spread a little of the cheer around.

Aside from the still-mysterious visitation from the Captain of the Wonderbolts, it had turned out to be a fairly good day. Cadance had been busy all morning, giving Twilight a large window in which her self-appointed overseer was preoccupied.

Twilight had spent the morning going through training drills, running the small obstacle course on the training grounds, and getting a little hoof-to-hoof sparring with some of the other guards on physical-training schedules. She’d had two glorious hours of physical exertion before she had to cut it short due to a prior engagement.

The evidence of her little rebellion was quickly washed away with a hot shower and a thorough scrubbing before she had to meet Cadance for brunch. Or at least she’d thought she’d scrubbed it all away.

You smell like sweat,” Cadance had commented as she dunked a biscotti into her mid-morning tea.

Twilight had almost nervously confessed the whole charade on the spot, thinking she’d been caught red-hoofed, but Cadance didn’t pursue the matter beyond a slight narrowing of her eyes and a clearing of her throat. Twilight had spent the rest of the snack – she still refused to call brunch a meal, no matter what Cadance insisted – surreptitiously trying to sniff herself.

After that, she’d gone back to her room to kill some time until dinner and to stow her weapon away. Despite the fact that nopony else in Equestria could use her chakram the way she could, her mother insisted that the weapon not be brought to the dinner table. It wasn’t a big deal to obey her mother’s wishes on the matter, especially since she was planning on going straight to the bar from dinner and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to carry the weapon into the establishment.

Twilight heard somepony call her name just as she turned the corner and stepped onto the Main Street promenade that led up to the gates of Canterlot Castle.

“Hey, Twilight!”

Twilight squinted into the distance to find Glowstone standing beneath a streetlamp, reared onto his back legs and waving enthusiastically. He trotted up to meet her and held a hoof out. She had to suppress the urge to laugh as she caught a whiff of his subtle, musky cologne.

“I thought I’d be the one waiting for you,” she said as she returned the gesture and bumped his hoof with her own.

He reached up to check if any of his long mane had escaped from the wide cloth hairband keeping it at bay. He fussed with the strip of bright red cloth, tugging at the knot with his magic – which was a bright emerald green that matched his eyes – until he was satisfied with some imperceptible adjustment he’d made.

“I decided to skip seconds,” he said as he led the way down the street. “I’m going to fill up on bar pretzels.”

“The really salty ones?” she asked. “It’s my understanding that those are on all the tables as a way to get you to drink more. The saltiness makes you thirsty, so you order more drinks, but the alcohol doesn’t hydrate you either, so it’s just an endless cycle of dehydration meant to trick you into buying more rounds.”

Glowstone frowned, shooting a confused look to his friend as they turned a corner and headed down a less-crowded street. “What? What do you mean alcohol doesn’t hydrate you? Isn’t beer made with water?”

“Well, yes, the primary ingredient in beer is water, but we’re talking about the alcohol in that water, aren’t we? Alcohol disrupts the pituitary gland’s ability to secrete anti-diuretic hormones, which regulate your body’s ability to retain and absorb water. Plus, your body is just flushing water out of your system trying to break down the poisons you’re ingesting – alcohol is a mild poison, if you didn’t know. Combined with the salty snacks, you get tricked into drinking more and more without ever slaking your thirst. This is also why sporting events and concerts offer cheap, salty comfort foods and expensive beer if they’ve got the license for it – so you’ll buy more drinks from the concession to go with your snacks.”

Glowstone’s silence was enough to turn Twilight’s head. The stallion had a pained look on his face as he chewed his lip and stared ahead blankly. She could almost hear the screeching, metallic whine of gears turning in his head.

After a long period of silence that lasted two more streets and a turn down a long alleyway, Glowstone finally managed to think of a reply. “You really take the magic out of getting drunk,” he sighed.

“My brother is the Element of Magic,” she quipped. “I’m just the mare that reads too many books.”

Their shortcut through the alley brought them to a small, poorly lit street. They were on the very outskirts of the shopping district now, and the streets here were small enough that the streetlamps were placed further apart than on the more traveled boulevards. Much of the light came from the moon shining directly overhead, and from the windows of ponies milling about in the upper floors of shops where they most likely lived.

There was a saying about Canterlot that went something like: “You can find anything in Canterlot, as long as you’re willing to look for it,” and it was true for the most part. Backstreets such as this one were often the type of place you only went if you were ‘in the know’ about some topic or other. The shops and kiosks in this district were mostly specialty stores selling very specific things to very specific clienteles – there weren’t very many ponies that had need for foreign alchemy ingredients, or a store that only sold hoof-crafted figurines of puppy dogs with humorous captions written on the base.

Ambling their way down the street ahead of Twilight and Glowstone was a small knot of stallions and mares, laughing and bumping into each as they made their way to the bar. The group’s voices were a politely low murmur echoing off the walls of the narrow street as Twilight and Glowstone walked behind them. The group was a half-a-block ahead and increasing the distance with every second in their haste to get to the watering hole.

It wasn’t long before the raucous group reached the alleyway leading to the bar and turned the corner with excited hoots and cheers. A few moments later, Twilight and Glowstone also turned the corner.

The Rough House was, quite literally, a hole-in-the-wall type of establishment. The doorway still bore the signs of when the entrance was a just a hole knocked into a brick building, leading to a backroom speakeasy. A hundred years ago or so, Canterlot had had a brief flirtation with prohibition as a result of some busybody noble deciding that she didn’t like alcohol after waking up to find a drunken sailor sleeping on her lawn. A number of small speakeasies like the original Rough House had opened up around the city as a result. Thankfully for the booze-loving populace of the city, public sentiment quickly led to pardons for the bootleggers and a repeal of the prohibition ordinance.

The owner of the Rough House, a retired soldier named Dirty Dancer, whom Twilight’d had the pleasure of meeting on her last visit, came along a few decades later to reopen the place as a legitimate bar. He’d turned the pub into a watering hole for military personnel of all branches in Canterlot, and as such the name was well earned. The romance of the bootlegger’s lifestyle had no doubt led to the stallion’s decision to permanently board up the front door, and make the old ‘secret’ entrance in the alley into the main entrance.

Twilight snickered when Glowstone held out a hoof and stepped forward to politely open the door for her. He’d done the same the last time they’d come, and she gave the same exaggerated curtsy as before.

The bar was just like she remembered – hot, and the air was thick with the smell of spilled drinks and secondhoof smoke. The ceiling fans did precious little to counteract the heat of dozens of ponies huddled together around the crowded tables, effectively doing nothing more than churning the accumulated tobacco smoke that hung overhead. There was a pinball machine and a pool table at the far end of the bar, with a few ponies hovering around the area awaiting their turns. The clack of pool balls and the chiming of the pinball’s bells were only faintly audible over the noise of ponies trying to be heard over the volume of the surrounding conversations. A beat-up old jukebox sat next to the bar, valiantly trying to add some atmosphere to the room in the form of a Sapphire Shores cover of an old love ballad.

Glowstone stepped inside behind her, taking a moment to breathe in the heady aroma, before making a beeline straight for the bar. Twilight followed, vaguely aware that some of the ponies in the room had stopped their conversations to watch her and Glowstone. She recognized a few of them as being fellow guards, but a disturbing number of the ponies that seemed to recognize her weren’t familiar faces. Here and there she was picking up her name popping up in the ambient noise of the room, and more and more ponies were looking up from their drinks.

“Hey, Dirty,” Glowstone called as he swaggered up to the bar and pounded a hoof against the wood. “Happy to see me?”

“I been happier,” the old earth pony replied as he slapped Glowstone’s hoof away and wiped at the spot on the bar. He shot a look at Twilight and nodded. “Good to see you again, though, Twilight Sparkle.”

“You remember my name?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

He grunted. “I remember the name of every pony that gets into a fight in this bar.” He ignored the embarrassed flush in her cheeks as he pulled a couple of mugs from the racks behind him. “No worries. I ain’t mad, nothing got broken except that poor boy’s pride, so you don’t got nothing to settle up.”

“I’ll have a beer,” Glowstone said, cutting straight to the chase. “Twilight wants a cider.” He turned to confirm and smiled at Twilight’s nod. “Yeah, cider for her.”

Dirty Dancer poured their drinks with the consummate skill of a professional, and within seconds their drinks were on the bar before them.

“Hey, Dirty!” called a voice from across the bar, drawing the attention of half the patrons along with the bartender. A middle-aged pegasus stallion sat on a bar stool next to the pool table, waving a wing to catch the bartender’s eye. “That one’s on me!”

“Thanks!” Glowstone shouted as he waved at the stallion.

“Not you, Glowstone!” the stallion shouted. “I meant for the Decurion!”

The room erupted into laughter at Glowstone’s expense, but Twilight felt that she was the more embarrassed of the two. She waved back timidly and the stallion lifted his mug off the edge of the pool table and tilted it in salutation.

Twilight and Glowstone grabbed their drinks and headed for a recently vacated table at the far end of the bar. As they wound their way through the tables, more stallions, and even a few mares, nodded and lifted their mugs to Twilight as she passed.

“Good to see you back on your hooves and out of your quarters, Decurion,” one of them said.

“Better watch yourself tonight, Glowstone,” another stallion warned loudly enough to be heard by the surrounding tables. Twilight recognized him as another Decurion named Trailblazer. “You keep your hooves to yourself or Princess Mi Amore might have you tossed in the dungeon.”

“I’m a perfect gentlestallion!” Glowstone protested.

A mare sitting on a stool, leaning sideways against the bar, held her hoof to her mouth and shouted: “And it better stay that way or the princess is gonna wear your balls for earrings!”

A fresh wave of laughter rolled across the bar, accompanied by the clanking of mugs and hooves being beaten against the tables. Even Glowstone managed a laugh as he and Twilight took their seats. As soon as they were seated, Glowstone wasted no time in snatching a few crunchy pretzels from the bowl in the middle of the table.

Twilight was glad to be in a corner of the room. She’d always hated being the center of attention. It reminded her of her days giving presentations in classrooms back at the academy. Her mind drifted back to the day she’d gotten her Cutie Mark, to the memory she’d been shown by Anubis’ curse, and she squashed it flat. Those memories were mortifying enough without the added baggage of magical death curses.

“Does everypony know about me and Princess Cadance?” Twilight asked, slouching a little in her seat to try and hide self-consciously behind the large mug of cider. She cast a glance at the mare who’d taunted Glowstone from her barstool. “I’m pretty sure a lot of these ponies that recognized me aren’t Royal Guard.”

Glowstone chugged from his own drink, letting the mug fall with a drawn out sigh of satisfaction as he wiped the foamy mustache from his lip. “Word’s getting around, especially here, where the other guards mingle with friends of theirs from other branches. And it’s not like you were keeping it a secret.” He leaned forward, his head tilted curiously to the side. “You weren’t keeping it a secret, right? Because, I mean, you did a really poor job of it if you were.”

Twilight had to admit, he wasn’t wrong. The one time that Cadance had tried to sleep in Twilight’s quarters came to mind. Twilight had been settling in to spend the night reading when she’d gotten an unexpected knock at the door. What she had thought would be Glowstone with a report about some cute mare that he’d been this close to getting into the sack, had turned out to be Cadance looking to surprise her girlfriend with sleepy cuddling. There had been no way that the other guards would’ve missed one of their princesses sashaying through the barracks to have a late night rendezvous.

After that, they hadn't even bothered trying to hide their relationship from the staff and guards in the castle. Twilight had become a regular guest in Cadance's bedchambers, and the guards perpetually stationed outside her door didn't even bother asking her business anymore. At most they'd exchange a curt nod or a quiet salutation of "Good morning," or "Good night," depending on the time of day. However, all that was inside the castle, which was essentially their home. Somehow, seeing it being discussed openly and outside the confines of the castle gates, had taken her aback, if only momentarily.

“I know we weren’t really keeping it a secret…” Twilight sighed. She took a sip of her cider, letting the crisp, sweet taste smooth out her frazzled nerves. She really did like this hard cider, maybe even more than the regular stuff she’d been drinking since she was a filly. “Guess it’s just weird that this is another thing that’s gotten around so quickly, and outside the walls of the castle, no less.”

Glowstone banged his mug on the table excitedly, some of his drink sloshing over the lip and spilling on the table. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Of course it’s getting around! Do you even realize how flippin’ jealous you’ve made every single enlisted pony – mare or stallion?”

Twilight blinked owlishly. “Jealous?” she repeated.

“Yeah, girl! You couldn’t swing a dead cat in here without hitting a pony that had at least had a crush on Princess Celestia growing up. And you’re actually dating one of the princesses? You’re literally living every enlisted pony’s pubescent dream!”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably at mention of ‘pubescent dreams’. She’d only ever admitted to the military shrink doing her psych eval – and to Princess Celestia that one time, kind of – that she’d had the sort of dreams that Glowstone was implying, but that was all in the past, thankfully. Things would get a little awkward at the dinner table if she was still having those sorts of dreams about her marefriend’s aunt, considering one of her other aunts had the power to enter the dreams of others mostly undetected. Though something told her that Princess Luna wouldn't mind if she starred in a few of Twilight's adult dreams.

“Watch it, Glowstone,” Twilight warned as she sipped at her cider. “That’s your princess you’re talking about.”

“I’m just saying,” Glowstone replied, raising his hooves up defensively, “that it’s incredibly unfair that you’re hogging all the princesses to yourself.”

“If you’re so interested, I could always put in a good word for you with Princess Celestia next time Princess Cadance has me eating dinner with her family,” Twilight offered. She cracked a smile at the mild panic that started in his eyes and spilled over until it took over his entire face.

“Not everypony’s got the kind of mythic courage you do, Sparkle,” he muttered into his mug.

Twilight snickered and let the issue go, feeling that her small victory was win enough.

As the night wore on, Twilight found herself with several empty tankards on the table between her and Glowstone. She hadn’t planned on having more than a mug or two, but other ponies kept having drinks sent to her. Dirty Dancer had assured her that the running count was enough that she could drink the whole night and not have to pay for a drop out of her own purse.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of free rounds, none of the other patrons had come by the table. Aside from occasionally meeting the eyes of a pony across the room and exchanging a nod of thanks, it had been just her and Glowstone sitting together, joking around and having a good time. She was even starting to feel a little better about randomly picking her name up out of the constant buzz of barroom conversation.

After a while, Twilight found herself nursing her fifth cider, while Glowstone had gotten distracted on his way back from the bathroom by a very shapely earth pony mare at the pinball machine. The last time she’d been out drinking – which had been her first time out drinking – she hadn’t had the chance to make it this far into the night, and she was pleasantly surprised to find that her tolerance was actually pretty high. She was definitely feeling a slight, tingly warmth in her extremities, but she wasn’t suffering from any of the textbook indicators that she was inebriated beyond the legal blood-alcohol content levels.

She lifted the empty mug and placed it, upside down, next to the others as she raised a hoof to signal she was ready for another. Before she could even call out, a fresh mug was slapped onto the table in front of her. She turned to thank the bartender for his prompt delivery, but to her surprise, the pony serving her wasn’t Dirty Dancer.

“Mind if I join you?” Spitfire asked in an even tone. She pulled out a chair and took a seat without waiting for the invitation. “You look like you could use some company, what with your buddy over there chatting up that chick at the pinball machine.”

It took a moment for Twilight to register what was happening through the slight filter of the alcohol. Spitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts, had sit down at her table and started drinking with her, when only that morning she’d been glaring silently at Twilight from across a crowded room. There had been no mistaking the animosity or challenge in the other mare’s eyes that morning, but there was none of that in her face now. Spitfire was avoiding eye contact, staring at something on the wall directly in front of her, but definitely watching Twilight out the corner of her eye as she sipped from her tankard.

At the very edge of her senses, Twilight could recognize a tension filling the room, and a note of urgency in the surrounding chatter. Over the course of the night the room’s occupancy had changed, but there were still enough ponies that had been present for breakfast in the guard’s mess that word was getting around.

Twilight’s eyes immediately went towards where she’d last seen her friend. Glowstone was still trying to sweet talk the girl on the pinball machine, but he was shooting little glances back at the table, keeping an eye on the situation and trying not to show it.

“Drinking cider, huh?” Spitfire asked. Her tone was conversational, but there was a cold edge to it, like she was biting back what she really wanted to say. “Never liked the stuff myself. It’s a wuss-drink.”

“Everything C.G., Decurion?” asked a stallion at the next table. He was a Legionary from Trailblazer’s unit who had taken his C.O.’s seat when the other Decurion had gone home to his family.

Twilight may not have recognized every Legionary by name, but she did know all the other Decurions and the ponies above them. A quick glance around the room told her that once Trailblazer had left, she had become the highest ranking Royal Guard in the room.

“We’re just having a drink,” Spitfire said without looking back. Her voice was soft, but carried across the room with the authority of somepony who was used to being heard. It was clear that she was addressing the crowd as much as the stallion that had spoken up.

The guard at the next table ignored her. “Ma’am?” he asked as he met Twilight’s eyes. He tilted his head subtly in Spitfire’s direction.

“We’re Condition Green,” Twilight replied, trying to affect a little of Spitfire’s authority into her own voice. “The Captain and I are just chatting. No need to disrupt anypony’s good time.”

He grunted. “Just whistle,” he added as he turned back to his drink and whatever conversation he’d been having. His ears twitched in a way that indicated that he was keeping alert without trying to eavesdrop, and the ponies sitting with him were a little stiffer as well.

“Your boys are looking out for you,” Spitfire chuckled humorlessly. “That’s good. Usually don’t see that kind of loyalty towards a C.O. that’s only been on the job a month.”

There was a hint of something like accusation in Spitfire’s voice, and Twilight didn’t like it, but she didn’t rise to the bait. This was as good a time as any to find out what Spitfire's issue with her was, and she wasn't about to waste the opportunity.

“Do they need to look out for me?” Twilight asked as she took a hard chug from her drink. “I thought we were just sharing a drink.”

“Of course they don’t, and we are,” Spitfire said with a dismissive fluffing of her wings. “We’re just a pair of officers commiserating over a couple mugs of something stiff. I just wish we had some cigars so we could complete the stereotype.”

Twilight looked into her mug and watched the frothy cider swirl around. “And what would we be commiserating about?”

“This and that,” Spitfire answered, sloshing her tankard from side to side. Her eyes went hard for just a moment as she turned to Twilight, but the edge was gone as quickly as it came. She raised her drink and held it out. “How about responsibility? As a fellow officer, I’m sure you understand the meaning of that word.”

Twilight frowned, again unhappy with the attitude that Spitfire was taking with her. She lifted her mug and clinked it against Spitfire’s. “To responsibility, then,” she toasted diplomatically.

They each took a shallow drink and set their mugs down.

The moment of silence after the toast was long and uncomfortable, and Twilight almost yearned for the discomfort of tense discussion. Even Spitfire’s venom-laced conversation would have been better than itchy feel of silence that had gone up around them like a veil.

She glanced over towards where she’d last seen Glowstone. He’d managed to talk the pinball girl into playing a round of pool with him, and he was standing behind her, half checking out her rear and half keeping an eye on the situation back at the table. He caught Twilight’s eye and tapped his nose with his hoof, silently signaling that he was still watching.

“Hay of a thing that happened to you,” Spitfire said, breaking the tension.

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked, already not liking where she thought this conversation was heading.

“That thing that happened to you in Zebrica,” Spitfire said with a thump of her hoof against the table. “All kinds of crazy stories popping up about it.”

“I’ve heard a few,” Twilight admitted.

“So which one is it, then?” Spitfire asked. “The one with the hydra? The story about the sewing contest? The griffons? Which one’s the truth?”

A few of the ponies sitting nearby perked their ears at the question.

Twilight inhaled deeply and took a hard swig of her cider. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that, sorry. But you’re an Air Force Captain, I’m sure you could get your hooves on the action report if you requested it.”

Spitfire’s mouth pulled into a tight little line. “You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” she spat. “But the funny thing is, the action report’s got the Seal of the First Spear on it. A file sealed by the Captain of the Guard is above my pay-grade, so the only way I’m going to hear the story is if I hear it from you.”

“Then I don’t know what to tell you,” Twilight replied.

Was that what this was all about? She was angry that she couldn’t get clearance to read an action report? She couldn't just be one of the rumormongers trying to get more of the story out of her. It didn’t make any sense.

“You can tell me what I want to know,” Spitfire growled through clenched teeth.

Twilight shook her head. “You of all ponies in here should know that I can’t talk about something I was ordered not to talk about.”

“Don’t give me that line! I’m not asking you to print it in the paper, I just want you to tell me what the hay happened over there!”

“And I’m telling you that I can’t!” Twilight shouted back, her temper finally getting the better of her. “And I am not defying orders just to acquiesce to the request of somepony who’s talking to me the way you are!”

“Don’t you brush me off like I’m some pimply-faced Private!” Spitfire shouted as she pointed a hoof in Twilight’s face. “I’m the Captain of the sun-damned Wonderbolts! I’m not going to sit here sucking up to you just because you came back from overseas with a princess on your arm and a big, badass scar on your flank!”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed at the accusation that she was talking down to anypony, or expecting for anypony to suck up to her. Spitfire had been nothing but hostile before they’d even met, and the mare had finally tread on Twilight’s last good nerve.

Twilight lifted her mug and chugged what was left in it, flipping it upside-down and setting it on the table with the other empties. “Thanks for the drink,” she said in a measured tone as she climbed off her seat. “I think I’ve had enough for the night.”

Spitfire, it seemed, wasn’t so willing to let things go.

“Yeah? You sure you don’t want one for the road?”

Twilight saw the mug being lifted, but the alcohol had dulled enough of her reflexes that she couldn’t do anything to stop it. The warm ale in Spitfire’s half-empty pint hit her in the face, stinging her eyes and plastering her mane against her head. Some of the ale had gotten into her mouth, and she spit it onto the floor as she wiped the brew from her eyes.

All around her she heard the sound of scraping chairs as ponies leapt to their hooves. She wiped at her eyes, clearing away the last of the blurriness, and found that the entire bar had risen as one. Everypony was glaring at everypony else, having chosen sides in the conflict and divided themselves accordingly.

“No fighting! Everypony stand down!” she demanded. She shot a glance towards Glowstone, who had already crossed half the distance between the game-area and their table, his horn alight with some spell he was in the midst of casting. Without another word she stepped towards the door, giving Spitfire a wide berth as she passed.

“Don’t you turn your back on me!” Spitfire barked as she leapt from her seat and placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder with the lightning-quick reflexes of one of Equestria’s fastest pegasi.

Spitfire was fast, but even with the booze slowing her down Twilight was pretty quick herself. She shook off Spitfire’s grip and turned, bringing up one of her rear legs and kicking the pegasus in the barrel hard enough to send her skidding across the floor. Twilight made for the door again, only to be tackled from behind by a golden blur.

Twilight and Spitfire tumbled across the bar, knocking over chairs and tables as they wrestled, punching and kicking one another in close-quarters combat. Neither wing nor magic came into play in the melee, just hooves and headbutts as they tossed each other around the room and rearranged the furniture.

The assembled crowd tried to jump in and pull them apart, but anypony that got too close was shoved away with a push of magic, a counterspell, or a slap of a muscular wing. Neither combatant wanted to use their advantages against one another, but they had no problems using them to keep others out of the fight.

Spitfire put on a burst of speed, lunging forward as Twilight reared up to assume an upright fighting posture that better utilized forehoof strikes. They tumbled again, with Twilight slamming onto her back with a hard slap against the stone floors and Spitfire looming over her.

With a grunt of effort Twilight pulled in her back legs and kicked up, hitting Spitfire in the gut and pushing her against a wall. She quickly climbed to her hooves and rushed up to the other mare, who was leaning upright against the wall, holding her stomach with a pained expression. Twilight reared up and put her arm across Spitfire’s throat, her fetlock applying just enough pressure to discourage resistance.

“Stop. Fighting. Me.”

“Think you’re so damned tough, do you?” Spitfire laughed, her voice reduced to a wheeze as Twilight constricted her windpipe. “If you’re so hard, how come you couldn’t even keep one old stallion safe?”

Twilight’s eyes went wide, the words hitting her harder than any of the punches she’d taken in the fight. One old stallion? Was she talking about Sky Chaser? What did she know about Sky Chaser?

The moment of distraction was all it took for Spitfire to lift her leg and return the favor regarding the kick Twilight had given her. Twilight stumbled back and fell to her haunches, clutching her belly and squeezing her eyes shut to try and overcome the urge to vomit the full payload of cider she’d consumed.

Spitfire didn’t let up. She gave one last punch, dropping Twilight to the ground. Before Twilight could get up, Spitfire cantered towards the door with a slight limp.

“Put whatever we broke on my tab,” she said to Dirty Dancer as she shoved her way past the crowd and into the alley. A few of the Air Force pegasi followed her out.

Twilight shook herself off, clearing the stars from her vision and rising to her hooves just as Spitfire disappeared out the door. She felt somepony step close to her and tensed up, her fight-instincts still leaving her twitchy. She relaxed as she realized it was only Glowstone.

“Dude, you had her,” Glowstone whispered as he pressed against her side to steady her. “What’d she say that shook you so hard? You looked like you saw a ghost.”

Twilight waved off his concern and pushed him away. There was a warm, wet feeling running down her muzzle, and she reached up to find that her nose was bleeding from the cheapshot that Spitfire had taken after the fight. She wiped it tenderly and spit a glob of blood and saliva onto the floor. Unsurprisingly, she saw there was more than a few red stains splattered on the ground that she hadn’t noticed before.

“Nothing I can talk about,” she explained as she headed for the door.

* * *

A cloud of steam followed Twilight out of the private bath in Cadance’s chambers. She pulled off the towel she’d wrapped her mane in and gave herself a final buff to shake off the last of the moisture from her shower.

“That feels much better,” she sighed.

Finally dry, she flung the wet towel over the back of a small settee in front of Cadance's makeup dresser. Like most everything else in the room, the chair was a soft pink color, and was covered in white, frilly lace doilies that served no purpose other than decoration. The light-blue shimmer of Cadance's magic gripped the towel and carried it back into the bathroom, dropping it into a linen basket for the maids to wash.

“I’ll bet it does,” Cadance remarked from where she laid on the bed.

Twilight gave her mane a flick and cantered over to the bed to climb on. Her attempt was halted by hoof from Cadance.

“Nuh-uh,” Cadance said with shake of her head. At Twilight’s confused expression she leaned forward and sniffed at her girlfriend. “Okay, you don’t smell like a brewery anymore, so I guess you can come into my bed.”

“You’re so very kind,” Twilight huffed as she leapt onto the bed.

“You know,” Cadance began with a grin, “when I decided to get involved with another girl I thought to myself, ‘Well at least this way I won’t have to worry about my partner stumbling home late at night, reeking of booze and bloody from streetfighting’. Guess you showed me.”

“She started it,” Twilight grumbled. She used her magic to pull a large book from the nightstand drawer that Cadance had said she could have, and laid across a pillow for support as she began reading.

“And that, my dear, is why you get to sleep in bed with me instead of down in the barracks,” Cadance said with a cluck of her tongue.

“I couldn’t just walk away after she put her hooves on me,” Twilight grumbled as she flipped through the book to find her place. She still felt the need to justify herself, even though Cadance wasn't giving her the grilling she'd been expecting the whole walk back to the castle.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, your knightly spirit was set ablaze by the affront to your honor,” Cadance teased. “Just in the future, please wait until you’re not recovering from a near-death experience before going out and getting into a fracas with other professional soldiers.”

“I’ve been trying to tell you that I’m better already, but your concern is noted all the same,” Twilight sighed.

Twilight smiled as she felt the familiar weight of Cadance draping herself over her back, using her like a pillow. There was a quick bout of wiggling on both sides as they worked to fit their bodies together, but it was a familiar position for them both by this point and they managed it without much trouble. Once they were settled in, Twilight felt a sudden tug at her damp, messy mane as Cadance bunched it up with her magic and began to run a brush through it.

“Do you at least feel better now that you’ve gotten a little exercise?” Cadance asked.

“A lot better, actually,” Twilight admitted, chuckling in embarrassment. “I still don’t know what the hay her problem was, but it did feel good to just… cut loose a little bit.”

Twilight stared blankly at the open pages of her book. She still hadn’t told Cadance about what Spitfire had said to her in the final moments of the fight. Even despite the reassurances Twilight had passed on from her meeting with Sky Chaser in the realm of dreams, Cadance still fostered some guilt over the death of the old stallion. There was no reason to bring Cadance into the loop on that particular part of the altercation until Twilight had more information about what – if anything – Spitfire knew.

Had Spitfire known Sky Chaser? Was that the source of the animosity she’d shown Twilight? Spitfire at least seemed to know something about the airship captain’s death, or at least enough to blame Twilight for it.

She winced, sucking air through her teeth as Cadance’s brush found a knot in her mane.

“Sorry,” Cadance apologized as she used her magic to gently work out the knot. “I just get worried, okay?”

“You don’t have to worry about me, I’m a big, tough girl,” Twilight assured her. She felt another tug at her mane that was just firm enough that there was no mistaking that it was intentional.

“You’re not that big,” Cadance pointed out. She set the brush aside and began plaiting Twilight’s mane into a loose Prench-braid. “I know you’re a guard and I’m your princess, and it’s your job to throw yourself face-first into danger for me – but I’m also your girlfriend, and it’s my job to worry about my cuddly little silly-filly.”

“Sometimes you act more like a foalsitter than a girlfriend…” Twilight grumbled.

“Stop acting like a foal and I’ll stop treating you like one.” Cadance leaned forward and gave Twilight a soft peck atop her head. “What have you been reading, anyway?”

Twilight levitated the book off the bed, turning it to show the cover. “A book on teleportation spells.”

“Teleportation? That’d certainly be useful if you ever decide to break both your legs again.”

“I didn’t break them,” Twilight protested. “I just… banged them up a little… And yeah, that was my thinking as well. It’s a super useful spell for combat if I can get it down. I never really had the confidence to give it a try before, but after what we went through, I think I can handle pretty much anything if I put my mind to it.”

Cadance reached a wing forward, gently caressing Twilight’s cheek with the tips of her feathers. “I think so, too, hon,” she said fondly.

Twilight flushed at the gentle touch. By this point she was no stranger to Cadance’s feathers, as her princess had proven herself to be extremely touch-oriented when it came to communication. Even still, the thrill of every affectionate act was still as fresh as their first, and Cadance could still color Twilight’s cheeks at the drop of a hat.

Cadance tied the braid off with a ribbon and some pins. “There, all done,” she declared as she set the brush on the table and summoned a small mirror from her dresser.

Twilight looked up from her book and checked her reflection with a coo of appreciation. Cadance seemed to really like braiding her hair, and frankly, Twilight liked getting her hair braided. She’d never been one for hanging out with the girls or going to sleepovers, and it was nice to lay in bed with Cadance and do froofy things with such a froofy girl.

Cadance put the mirror away and pulled a book from the nightstand on her side of the bed.

“What’re you reading?” Twilight asked. She craned her neck around to get a good look at the book.

“Trashy romance,” she said simply as she held up the dog-eared paperback. On the cover was a stylish portrait of a mare in an enormously poofy dress, swooning atop a cliff with crashing waves and a sunset in the background. The wilting dame on the cover would have fallen over the edge of the cliff were it not for the sturdy grip of the muscular stallion holding her in his arms, his long mane billowing in the breeze. He was wearing a loose, vaguely pirate-ish blouse that was torn to scraps and appeared to be held on by good intentions alone.

“Is it good?” Twilight asked with a raise of her eyebrow.

“Good? No. But it is pretty sexy.” She wagged the book and flashed a hopeful smile. “Ya wanna read it with me?” she sang.

Twilight smiled and put her own book away. She patted the spot on the bed next to her and put down a pillow for Cadance to lay on.

“That sounds like the perfect way to end the day.”

* * *

Author's Note:

Back by popular demand, TwiGuard 2, Electric Scootaloo! What challenges will Twilight face this arc? What friends will she make? You'll have to tune in to find out!

So you can probably guess where this arc will be heading judging by the coverart. It might take us a while to get there, but we will, and hopefully Twilight's ready for it.

I hope you enjoyed the read, and that you'll all join me next time!

Please be excited!