• 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 2 - The Storyteller

Twilight awoke to find herself tangled up in the limbs of her marefriend. Cadance, who was an alicorn and therefore a head taller than she was, always seemed to end up pulling Twilight close to snuggle her in the middle of the night. It may have been a bit undignified, but Twilight wasn’t about to complain about it. Waking up to feel the warmth of her girlfriend’s body pressed against her more than made up for whatever dignity she traded in the exchange.

The blackout curtains covering the glass doors leading to the balcony were shut, keeping out any ambient clues as to the time of day. Her magic yanked on the chain of a lamp on the table across the chambers, near the sitting area with plush pink couches and floor cushions where Cadance entertained guests to her room. The small lamp cast just enough light to drive back the shadows without waking her bedmate. Twilight checked the clock and found that sunrise had already come – barring any unexpected foalnappings, that is. The combination of alcohol, physical exertion, and staying up late reading dirty romance books, had kept her asleep long past when she normally awoke.

With the measured, gentle touch of a safe-cracker, Twilight extricated herself from Cadance’s surprisingly firm grasp and wiggled herself off the bed. Cadance groaned in displeasure, her hooves languidly searching for the missing source of body heat. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief as she managed to get up without rousing the other mare, Cadance could get a little grumpy in the morning, and considering she was probably on thin ice after the events of the previous day, Twilight just didn’t want to take any chances.

Twilight took a moment to be silently thankful that she at least wasn’t hungover. Knowing that she would be going to the bar later in the night, she had made sure to drink plenty of water at dinner. She’d also had the presence of mind to request a protein and carbohydrate rich menu when her mom had asked what she wanted for dinner. As such, she was spared the worst of the alcohol’s deleterious effects.

Her jaw was a bit sore, though, from where Spitfire had gotten the last word in during their altercation. It had been a pretty good shot, but the sting to her pride for letting herself get shaken in the middle of a fight hurt much worse than the actual punch.

She set the matter aside for the moment and put Spitfire out of mind. There’d be time to settle that score later, as the more pressing matter at hoof was the hunger pangs she was feeling.

Twilight tapped her chin as she considered the time. Even if she woke Cadance now, it would be too late for them to meet up with Celestia and Luna for the morning repast. Going to eat alone in the mess hall was out of the question, and definitely wouldn’t do anything towards winning her points with her lady.

She looked back to her girlfriend’s sleeping form. In the absence of anything to cuddle, Cadance had bunched the blankets up and clutched them tightly to her chest. A thin trickle of drool puddled on her pillow, which explained the slightly damp sensation against Twilight’s cheek. She smiled and wiped at her face with a corner of the sheets until she felt dry.

Breakfast in bed – that’s what the situation called for.

Twilight walked to the door and stepped out into the hallway. There was never any need to lock the doors, not with two burly earth pony guards posted outside the bedroom at all hours of the day.

“Morning, boys,” Twilight said with a yawn. “Quiet night?”

“All clear since we’ve been on, ma’am,” one of the guards replied.

“Good, keep an eye on the princess, I’m going to go get her some breakfast,” Twilight said as she began walking away.

“Wait, Decurion.”

Twilight paused and turned to see what they wanted. “Yeah?”

“There was a messenger here this morning looking for you,” the other guard informed her. “You were still asleep, but he said it could wait until you woke up and left the message with us.”

“A message?” she asked. “Who’s it from?”

“Princess Luna. She requests your presence in her study at your earliest convenience.”

“Guess that means no breakfast for me,” Twilight sighed. “Could one of you head down to the kitchens and request room service for Princess Cadance?”

The first guard saluted crisply, clicking the shoes of his back hooves together smartly. “Ma’am!”

He cantered down the hallway in the direction of the kitchens and disappeared around a corner.

Twilight ignored the grumble of her belly and trotted off in the opposite direction from the kitchens. The guard still standing sentry at the door cleared his throat in a none-too-subtle way.

“Yes?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?” the Legionary asked. The corners of his mouth turned up into a small grin at her nod of consent. “Your mane is very cute like that.”

Twilight blinked. She reached up and felt her mane to find that it was still tied in a braid from the night before, though a few strands had come loose as she slept. She cleared her throat.

“She… uh… likes to braid my mane…” Twilight explained sheepishly.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” the stallion assured her. “My husband likes to braid my mane, too. That’s why I started cutting it short.”

Twilight smiled. “Don’t think that’d work for me,” she quipped, “I don’t have the cheekbones to pull off a shorter look.”

She tugged the braid loose, pulling away the ribbon and pins with her magic and teleporting them back into Cadance’s room with a small flare of magic. Twilight took a moment to be proud of herself for performing the spell so flawlessly. Summoning objects to oneself was the simplest form of teleportation, but sending them back was several orders of difficulty above simple summoning. Teleporting herself or other living things would be even more difficult, but she was mastering the steps one at a time, and it showed that she was making progress in her self-studies.

Twilight shook her head, freeing her mane of the single, long plait Cadance had woven it into. She fluffed her hair out a little to erase the last vestiges of the braid before turning to the other guard.

“How’s it look?” she asked.

“Like you just got out of bed, ma’am.”

She considered going back into the bedroom and taking the time to properly sort out her mane situation. It wouldn’t do to answer a summons from one of her princesses with a shabby mane. Although, keeping Luna waiting any longer than necessary would also be rude.

In the end, Twilight settled for what she felt was the lesser of two transgressions.

“Well, hopefully the Princess of Dreams will be inclined to excuse a minor case of bed-head,” she said with a nervous chuckle.

She left the guard to his post and continued on. Along the way she passed the chambers that Prince Blueblood used when he was visiting. He wasn’t in residence currently, so his room was unguarded and only periodically checked by patrolling guards. The prince was a descendant of another of Princess Celestia’s adopted family members, and luckily he spent very little time in Canterlot. He preferred to stay at his villa in the countryside, making the trip to Canterlot only to attend lavish functions and wallow in the excesses of high society.

Twilight had only met him once since she’d lived in the castle, but it was enough time spent in his presence to make her agree with Cadance’s assessment of him. Blueblood was harmless, but foppish – amusing in small doses, but downright obnoxious in large. It was actually a bit fascinating that such a good looking stallion could be so effete and delicate. All the same, he was generally sociable, and good company so long as there were other distractions so his attention wasn’t wholly focused on one pony.

Further down the hall and around a corner were Princess Celestia’s private chambers. Celestia’s room was guarded at all times, regardless of whether or not she was in residence, as her room also contained her personal study. There was no end to the sensitive correspondence and paperwork contained within, and Celestia was very selective about who she allowed into those chambers.

The unicorn and pegasus pair standing outside Celestia’s room stood at attention as she passed, showing no sign of recognizing her other than a quick “Good morning, Decurion,” from each of them. She returned the greeting and continued down the long hallway in the direction of the stairwell leading to Luna’s chambers and study, which were on the floor above.

Once at the top of the stairs, it was a straight shot to Luna’s room. The two unicorn guards on sentry duty at the double-doors of the princess’ room stood a little straighter as she approached.

“Decurion Twilight Sparkle here to see Princess Luna at her behest,” Twilight informed them. The last time she’d been summoned by a princess came to mind, and she added, “Sorry about not being in uniform, I’m still on medical and they haven’t issued me a new set of armor yet.”

“We know who you are, Decurion, ma’am,” the guard on the left said. “She said to send you right in when you got here.”

The guard on the right turned and banged his hoof twice on the heavy wooden door. They waited a moment, then each guard opened one of the doors with a tug of magic, allowing Twilight entry.

The room that Luna had claimed for herself had once been the quarters of the Royal Astronomer – a post that was currently held by her father, Night Light. Only a few decades before, Canterlot had been changed by the introduction of an electrical grid, which had led to something that her father’s predecessor had coined as ‘light-pollution’. The old Royal Astronomer made such a squawk about the difficulty that electric lights made of his work, that a fancy new observatory was built on the other side of Canterlot Mountain. After that, the room had gone unused until the return of Princess Luna.

Princess Luna had only been free of the affliction of Nightmare Moon for less than a month, but it was clearly a month well-spent. What had once been a storage room filled with crates and antique furniture shrouded in dust-covers, was now a lavishly decorated room done in gentle blues that stood out beautifully against the white marble walls. Luna’s chambers were a polar opposite to the bright, girlishly frilly décor of Cadance’s room.

Already the room was showing signs of the occupant’s personality. Scattered about the study were piles of books, magazines, half-chewed quills, and a veritable sea of paperwork.

“Twilight Sparkle!” Luna greeted as she stepped through a curtain that no doubt led to her sleeping area. “It is good that you could finally join Us.”

Twilight dipped her head into a low bow, as decorum dictated when she was out of uniform. “I’m very sorry to have kept you waiting, Your Highness, I slept in a little later than I usually do. I was up late.”

Luna smiled impishly – far more impishly than somepony as old and powerful as she was had any right to – at Twilight’s explanation. “Enjoying the pleasures of Our night with Niece Cadance, were you?”

Twilight maintained her genuflection, if only so Luna couldn’t see the blush on her face. “We were just reading, honest!” she explained, her voice louder than she intended, as seemed to be customary when addressing one of her princesses.

Luna laughed at Twilight’s embarrassment, her humor expressing itself as a quiet, dignified little titter that would have seemed disingenuous from anypony else.

“Be calm, Twilight Sparkle, We speak only in jest,” Luna assured her. “And please, rise already. The top of your head is very cute, but We wish to speak face-to-face.”

Twilight rose, a nervous smile playing across her lips. Cadance had brought her along to several meals with the other two princesses, but this was the first time she had been alone with Luna outside of their first meeting, and that had been in the realm of dreams. That meeting had also turned more flirtatious than she might have anticipated, and hearing the princess comment on the cuteness of her head put her just a little on edge.

“I was told you wanted to speak with me,” Twilight said, hoping to change the subject.

“Indeed, there are several things that We wish to discuss with you.” Luna’s horn came to life, glowing with a beautiful icy-blue light. A low table materialized near the glass doors leading to the balcony, where the heavy blue curtains had been half-drawn to allow just enough of the morning light to fill the room without being intrusive. “Please, join Us for a drink, if you would be so kind,” she invited with a wave of her hoof towards the table.

As they approached the table, Luna summoned a pair of cushions from somewhere in the clutter of papers and books. Twilight waited for the princess to be seated before taking the cushion opposite her.

Two large porcelain cups were on the table between them, as well as a huge coffee pot, and a few trays with biscuits and pieces of fruit. The sight of the food made her stomach constrict again, but it thankfully remained silent.

“We hope iced coffee is agreeable to you,” Luna said as she served the drinks. “We have taken quite a liking to it since Our return.”

“Coffee is my favorite thing, Your Highness,” Twilight said. “I’ve never had it chilled before, but I’m sure I’ll love it.”

Luna’s happy smile fell just a bit at something Twilight had said, but she spoke again before Twilight could ask what was wrong.

“We also apologize for the mess,” Luna said with a sigh. “The maids are quite well-meaning, and lovely girls, but We have much studying to do in order to acclimate with modernity, and they have not yet learned to respect Our system of organization. It is preferable to forego their services, than to have them cause disruptions in Our efforts of self-betterment. Once We are not so woefully unlettered in this new era, We shall endeavor to see to their edification, but that shall have to come later.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Twilight said as she picked up her cup. “Cadance ‘surprised’ me by organizing the books in my room a couple of weeks ago. I know she means well, but she tried to sort them by alphabetical order according to the titles. Can you believe that?”

Twilight sipped the coffee, letting the cold bitterness fill her mouth. It was bracing, and delicious, and coaxed a contented hum from her as she drank. She set the cup down and wiped her mouth politely with a napkin.

“It pleases you?” Luna asked. She smiled widely at Twilight’s nod. “Wonderful. Please, do not hesitate to partake of the victuals We have provided. We are quite certain you have not yet broken your fast.”

Twilight didn’t need any more invitation than that. She levitated one of the big, buttery biscuits up to her mouth and took a bite. She washed it down with some coffee, and chased the coffee down with some of the fruit.

Luna sat quietly, sipping from her iced coffee and looking out onto the balcony while Twilight had a quick snack. She opened the balcony doors, allowing in a soft breeze that billowed the curtains and filled the room with the fresh scent of flowers from the gardens below.

“Much has changed,” Luna commented quietly as she poured another cup. “Sometimes We can scarcely believe that this land is still called Equestria. The discovery of coffee, the invention of radios and electricity, and the myriad of other advancements Our ponies have made in Our absence… it’s all so strange.”

Twilight dabbed the napkin at her mouth, pushing away the plate of fruit she’d been picking at as she considered the princess’ words. “I can imagine. But those are mostly good things, yes?”

“Oh, indeed,” Luna said with a laugh. “Coffee is ambrosia fit for royalty and commoner alike, radios are endlessly entertaining, and electricity gives light that has allowed Our ponies to enjoy the night in a way they never could have in the days before it.”

Luna reached up, brushing back her ephemerally drifting mane unnecessarily. Twilight had once asked Cadance why her own mane and tail hair didn’t have the same properties as the other two alicorns. Cadance had explained that Luna and Celestia’s manes were a reflection of their powers, and at one time didn’t have that strange, undulating form. Twilight wondered if maybe the small act of brushing away hair that wasn’t there was a thoughtful tic of some sort – a hold over from a time when her hair didn’t dance and shimmer with spectral beauty.

“Things are so different in so many ways, but thankfully the same in the few that matter most,” she continued. “That is not to say that We do not love these new wonders, or think them unimportant. We simply mean that the differences between now and a thousand years past are humbling to perceive all at once… We can’t help but envy Sister for being present to take it all in with sips as they came.”

Luna lifted her cup and took a slow, purposeful sip.

“Forgiveness, please, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna sighed. “Our age is showing.”

“It’s alright,” Twilight assured her with a smile. “I’m always happy to lend an ear to one of my princesses, Your Highness.”

Luna’s face scrunched up cutely, as though she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to smile or frown.

“You have listened to Us speak of Our troubles before,” Luna said slowly, as though she was beginning a line of reasoning. “You have proven yourself loyal, kind, courageous, and skilled… Even Sister speaks of you in the highest regards. Not to mention, you have also proven yourself of worth enough to woo one who is of Our noble house.”

Twilight couldn’t refute any of what Luna was saying, but every compliment and assessment of her character deepened the discomfiture she was feeling. “Once again, you’re being very kind, Your Highness.”

“We speak true, as We do in all things,” Luna said, punctuating her point with a thump of her hoof. “There are several matters We wished to speak of this morning, but there is one of importance above others, as it is something of a… personal nature.”

Luna stared for a moment, struggle clear in her eyes as she considered her next words.

“We… We were freed from the Nightmare’s thrall by the Elements of Harmony,” she explained, her voice slow and cautious, as if it were a hoof she was dipping it into a bath to test the temperature. “Friendship was Our deliverance, and Shining Armor has been tasked with plumbing the depths of its power… We, too, wish to…” She looked away abashedly, chewing her lip like a nervous filly. “We… I… was wondering, if perhaps you would grant me the boon of your friendship.”

Twilight’s jaw hung slack at the request. A moment later she realized she was staring, mouth agape, and she closed it with a snap. Princess Luna wanted to be her friend? It was quite a surprise, but on further thought, it wasn’t even remotely as surprising as the revelation that Princess Cadance had wanted a more personal relationship with her – and Princess Luna wasn’t asking for anything nearly as intimate as Cadance had.

She almost laughed at Luna’s fidgeting. The silence and the wait for a response was clearly wearing on her, and she kept casting furtive, nervous glances at Twilight out the corner of her eye.

Finally, Twilight found the will to speak again. “I’d be incredibly honored to be your friend, Luna.”

Luna let out a long, deflating sigh, the tension visibly leaving her body. “Thank the stars. I knew you were the right pony to ask. You even anticipated my wish to call me by my name before I even had a chance to request it.”

“Cadance is the same way,” Twilight said, finally unable to hold in a small laugh. “Out in public, it’s business as usual – a princess and her guard – but if it’s just us behind closed doors? She yanks my ear if I make a slipup and call her Princess Cadance.” Twilight leaned forward, grinning as she dropped her voice to a conspiratory whisper. “Just between you and me, though, I do it on purpose sometimes, because I kind of like when she pulls my ears.”

Luna laughed. It wasn’t the small, aristocratically restrained laughter she’d allowed herself before, but a loud, sharp peal followed by a throaty chuckle.

“Oh, excuse me, please,” Luna said, holding a hoof to her mouth. “I had thought you too shy for such lusty humor. I was caught unawares, which is something that happens infrequently when you grow to my age.”

“Sometimes the mood strikes me,” Twilight admitted as she had another drink. “I’m nothing like my friend Glowstone, but I’ve been told that I can be very puckish.”

“I shall keep it in mind, my friend.” Luna’s smile faded away, her face dimming to something more neutral. “Sadly, I am afraid that, with that out of the way, we should probably speak of the other matters at hoof. I have need of your services in an official capacity, but as my… friend, I wish to ask it of you as a favor, rather than an order.”

“Anything, Luna,” Twilight said immediately. Twilight was always willing to help a friend in any way she could, and the way Luna had phrased it, she needed something done that required Royal Guard work. If anything, the chance to return to full duty in any capacity only served to grow her fondness for her new friend.

“I had hoped you would say that,” Luna said, her smile returning. “First I should ask what you know of bat ponies.”

Twilight blinked. “Bat ponies? I know a little, but admittedly not much. They’re a type of pegasus, aren’t they?”

Luna nodded. “They are indeed pegasi, however, they are – as their name suggests – nocturnal, and differ from other pegasi in several ways. For instance, their wings are more likened to bats than the avian appendages of other pegasi, and they also have highly developed night vision, adorable little tufts of hair on their ears, and the cutest little fangs.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at Luna’s gushing praise over the qualities of bat ponies.

Luna noticed the look and realized that she was on the verge of acting quite silly, so cleared her throat and took a sip of her coffee. “Yes, well, from what I understand, these days they do not associate much with the larger populace of Equestria – not even other members of the pegasus tribe. Their nocturnal nature makes them ill-suited for daylight society, which is a pain that I know all too well.”

“Yeah, you hear stories about bat ponies sometimes visiting big cities like Manehattan to check out night clubs and restaurants,” Twilight said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. A filly I knew back at the military academy said she met a bat pony once. Said he was nice. I think they ended up as pen pals.”

“They are very nice,” Luna said with a nod. “A thousand years ago, they were among my most fervent supporters. Many of my suitors, those who made up my Night Guard, were bat ponies. They have always held a special place in my heart, and apparently they have not forgotten their Princess of the Night.”

Luna summoned a scroll from a pile of paperwork that appeared to have a desk under it. She pushed the half-empty dishes and coffee pot aside and unfurled the scroll to reveal a map. Luna pointed to a wooded area to the West, tapping it lightly.

“This Is the location of the largest settlement of bat ponies still in Equestria’s borders,” she explained. “The forest canopy is thick enough to block out the sunlight during the day, and the trees provide the fruits and insects that make up the majority of their diet.”

“They eat bugs?” Twilight asked. Twilight was no stranger to the concept of entomophagy. Some of her survival manuals suggested insects as a way to sustain life in an emergency situation, as they were excellent sources of protein. Regardless of the practicality of the act, however, the very idea of eating insects made her feel a bit green.

Luna shrugged. “It is more appetizing than you might think. Chocolate-covered grasshoppers are quite delicious. And keep in mind that they have much the same reaction to the eating of salted fish.”

“Noted,” Twilight said, though she still felt a little queasy.

“The leader of the village has sent correspondence welcoming me back from my exile,” Luna explained happily. “He also says that several of their youngsters have spoken to him about their desire to come to Canterlot in order to serve me. To that end, I will be reforming the Night Guard as my private security detail.”

“That’s good,” Twilight said. “The scuttlebutt down in the mess is that the Tesserarius in charge of night watch has been scrambling to put together a new schedule to accommodate you. Apparently they’re worried about being short-hoofed once you open the Court of the Night to visitors again.”

“Yes, I have already spoken to Tesserarius Ironclad, as well as Centurion Steel Century and Optio Whippoorwill. They were worried about displacing any of the current night watch from their duties, but I have assured them that the Night Guard is only in supplement to the Royal Guard.”

“What’s my part in this then?”

“Your duty will be to visit the village and find those best suited for an accelerated course of Royal Guard training,” Luna explained.

“Sounds easy enough,” Twilight said. “I won’t let you down.”

“I would never have asked if I thought you were anything less than trustworthy, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said fondly. “However, I would not be so cruel as to send you alone. These are pegasi of a sort, after all. You will be accompanied by a specialist from the Air Force, who will be able to judge the flying ability of any candidates in a way you cannot, just as you can offer insight into the Guard training that she cannot. Between the two of you, I know you shall choose well.”

Twilight’s ears flattened against her head. An Air Force specialist? It couldn’t be. There was absolutely no way, in a thousand, million, billion years, that it could be who she thought it was.

A pair of hard knocks sounded from the door.

“Ah, this must be she,” Luna said.

The door opened and Spitfire swaggered in.

* * *

Twilight sat on a bench at the Canterlot train station, a small duffel bag filled with necessities next to her. She shivered a little in the chill of the pre-dawn morning and regretted her decision to not bring a scarf or coat. The metal of her chakram was freezing cold against her shoulder, even through the stiff canvas of its holster.

It was four o’clock in the morning, and the platform was surprisingly deserted. The only company she had was a few early risers on their way to work outside the city, and an elderly couple that seemed to be tourists. Whether they were coming to or leaving from Canterlot, she couldn’t be sure. They were quietly bickering over something on a brochure the stallion was holding.

Seeing the older couple made her think of her own relationship. Cadance had offered to see her off at the train station, but Twilight had insisted that Cadance stay in the castle, as she didn’t want her girlfriend to miss any sleep just for something so silly. Now, she was beginning to wish she had let Cadance come along.

She sighed, suddenly feeling very lonely. For the first time since they’d started dating, she and Cadance would be more than a short walk through the castle apart from one another. This early on in their relationship, a week seemed like a lifetime to not see each other. Cadance had tried to put a positive spin on it, with cutesy little platitudes like ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, and such, but that didn’t change the fact that she’d still miss her mare.

At first, Cadance had not been happy with Twilight for accepting an assignment. They’d had a small argument – though Cadance had insisted it was a discussion, despite the volume of her voice – and it had taken a bit of cajoling on Twilight’s part to get her to simmer down. Twilight had known the fight was over when she’d convinced Cadance to lay down with her. Some gentle petting and promises to be safe, as well as assurances that she would return with souvenirs, had finally won Cadance over.

Twilight couldn’t find it in herself to be upset over having to defend her decision. Cadance was just worried that something bad might happen. The trip to meet with the bat ponies was a simple mission, with little or no danger expected – but that’s what they had thought about their trip to Saddle Arabia.

It had all worked out in the end, though. Cadance had even been in enough good cheer to help Twilight pack her bag for the five-day trip.

Still, while Cadance would be worrying about her, she’d be worrying about Cadance. There was no telling what sort of mischief that girl could get up to, left to her own devices. Hopefully, the rest of the Guard would be able to pick up the slack while she was gone.

Twilight set aside thoughts of worry for her marefriend, who would probably be fine... probably. She glanced around, searching for the other source of her current ill-ease.

Spitfire still hadn’t shown up.

It was an understatement of the grossest proportions to say that the tension was merely ‘thick’ during the briefing with Spitfire and Luna. Spitfire and Twilight had said very little to one another during the meeting, but neither did they protest working together. To Twilight, this was a favor for a friend, and to Spitfire, this was a mission from her princess – as such, neither soldier would turn down the assignment, regardless of who they had to work with.

That didn’t mean either of them liked it.

Luna had sensed the tension, of course. She was too observant not to. After Spitfire had been dismissed, Luna had asked Twilight to stay behind so she could ask what was going on. Rather than lie, Twilight said that they’d met recently and had an argument, leaving out just how physical the disagreement had gotten. Before Luna could ask for more detail, Twilight had promised that she wouldn’t allow it to interfere with their assignment, and that she would take care of it. Luna simply said that she trusted Twilight’s word on the matter and let the issue drop.

Her moment of reflection and the quiet of the pre-dawn were broken by the sound of a steam whistle as the train chugged its way up the mountain. The few ponies on the platform with her gathered what possessions they had and rose from their seats. Twilight joined them and climbed off the bench, pulling the duffel onto her back.

A few minutes later the train pulled to a stop and a small knot of ponies began to filter out of the cars. The group on the platform politely waited for the others to disembark before climbing aboard to find their seats.

Twilight walked away from the group, towards the caboose of the train. Luna had arranged for her to use one of the royal train cars for as far as the line would take them. The bat pony village didn’t have a train station of its own, but it was close enough to a city that did that it wouldn’t be too far of a trek.

The conductor was waiting at the door to the rear of the car and held out a hoof to halt her as she approached. A clipboard hung from his neck by a length of chain, and he lifted it to look over some form before addressing her.

“Name?” he asked.

“Decurion Twilight Sparkle, Canterlot Royal Guard,” she informed him. “I’m on special assignment from Princess Luna.”

Her ears perked at the sound of hooves gently hitting the platform behind her.

“Captain Spitfire, Air Force Wonderbolt. Ditto on the assignment from the princess.”

Twilight turned to find Spitfire standing behind her, a large saddlebag hanging over her back. She had those sunglasses perched uselessly atop her head, and she was wearing a heavy flight jacket lined with fleece. Twilight felt a surge of jealousy at the thought of how warm that coat looked.

The conductor checked his clipboard again, then looked up and craned his neck to get a look at their Cutie Marks. He was no doubt looking over a description of them, and being extra thorough in making sure they were who they said they were.

“When’d you get here?” Twilight asked Spitfire while they waited. It was like pulling her own teeth, trying to be genial with a pony she had the powerful urge to throw under the train, but she’d give it her damndest.

“Since before you got here,” Spitfire said. “Been up on the roof of the station. Perks of being able to fly.”

Twilight didn’t like the thought that Spitfire had been sitting up there watching her this whole time – not one little bit – but she’d promised that her dislike of the rude mare wouldn’t interfere with the mission, and she’d meant it.

The rest of the passengers had already boarded and settled into their seats by the time conductor was finally satisfied with his security check. He stepped aside with a tip of his cap and a wave of his arm. “Watch your step, ladies,” he warned cheerfully.

Spitfire shouldered her way past Twilight and towards the door.

They stepped into the car and took a moment to soak in the ambiance. The car was roughly twice the length of a normal passenger car, with a lavish lounge area, a fully stocked bar, and – thankfully – two sleeping compartments.

The whistle blew and a moment later the train jerked as the engine started them rolling.

“Freakin’ posh,” Spitfire said with a low whistle. “Never been in anything better than First Class. Guess dating a princess comes with a few perks, too.”

Twilight wasn’t sure if it was her imagination or not, but everything Spitfire said seemed to ring with barely hidden contempt – and she was going to have to put up with it for five whole days. Even worse, It was a day-long trip getting to the village, and another day back, so two of those days would be spent trapped in a train car together.

“I’ll take the one at the far end,” Spitfire announced, nodding towards the sleeper compartment at the other end of the train, across the lounge area. “You can take the one on this side.”

Twilight frowned as she watched Spitfire make her way through the car. She couldn’t do this. Not for five whole days. They had to clear the air.

“Spitfire, wait,” she called as she shrugged her bag off her back and trotted to the middle of the car, kicking cushions aside as she went.

Spitfire hesitated for only a moment, but continued on her way.

“I mean it, stop,” Twilight said, her voice gaining just enough edge to communicate that she was serious. “We can’t work together like this. We have to clear the air or one of us is going to smother the other in her sleep.”

That caught Spitfire’s attention. “Sounds like the kind of thing you’d do,” Spitfire muttered.

“What’s your problem with me?” Twilight asked plainly.

Spitfire turned and set her bag down on a couch built into the wall. She reached up and pulled off her sunglasses, folding the arms slowly and placing them in the breast pocket of her jacket.

“Are you going to tell me what I want to know?” she asked. “We’re all alone here, so nopony else has to know that you spilled the beans.”

“You know the answer to that,” Twilight replied.

“Then it’s none of your business why I need to know what I need to know. Drop the subject so maybe we can both be professionals and get this job done without killing one another.”

“You do know what you’re asking right?” Twilight pressed. “You’re asking me to defy an order to not speak about something – something sealed as a matter of national security.”

Nopony had said it yet, but they both knew what was being discussed: treason. Divulging state secrets was one of the very legal definitions of the act. Anything with a seal from the brass that high up was not to be discussed, and it didn’t matter if that secret was a spell to snuff out the sun or Celestia’s favorite color of cupcake icing.

Anubis may have been returned to his realm, but the fact remained that something had manipulated Dingo and a small pack’s worth of dogs into summoning and binding him to mortal flesh. Whether or not the Centurion and Optio agreed with her assessment that the true culprit was still at large, they had decided that the whole thing was need-to-know information, and she couldn’t have agreed more. As far as Twilight was concerned, it was for the best to keep it a secret that an entity of such eldritch might could even be summoned at all. All she needed was for some egghead academic to screw around with magic he barely understood, just to see what it did – some ponies just had more power than sense, after all.

“Isn’t that so convenient for you?” the pegasus spat contemptuously. “You get to be the big fancy hero, with ponies talking you up and making up outlandish stories about how amazing you are, and as soon as somepony asks you for the truth, you get to hide behind ‘Sorry, that’s classified’.”

“I don’t want anypony ‘talking me up’,” Twilight insisted. “Why are you being like this? You’re a Captain in the Air Force, you know what this is.”

“Tell me why, at least,” Spitfire snapped. “Tell me why this is so heavily classified. From what I heard, it was supposed to be a routine foalsitting assignment. You take the veep on a diplomatic mission, you make sure she doesn’t choke on a pretzel or vomit on a dignitary, and then you bring her home. How far south does an operation like that have to go to turn it into a freakin’ black-ops mission?”

Twilight chewed the inside of her cheek in frustration. Spitfire wasn’t letting up, and she wasn’t willing to even meet halfway and explain why she wanted this information so badly. If she was going to get Spitfire to open up a little, she’d have to make the first offering.

“I saw something in the desert, Spitfire,” Twilight explained, her eyes downcast and her voice darkening, “something awful. And meanwhile, Nightmare Moon was back here in Equestria, abducting Princess Celestia and trying to throw our half of the world into eternal night. The higher-ups decided that the world at large didn’t need to know that it had been getting squeezed from two fronts. That file, if it’s sealed as heavily as you say, is sealed because the princesses and the Captain of the Guard want to protect their citizens from it. You’re a soldier, so you should understand as well as I do that the public doesn’t need to know about every single boogey-mare lurking under their beds.”

Twilight wasn’t sure what type of response she’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been silence. She’d given just enough information to clue Spitfire into what happened, without actually saying anything about it, so she waited. Twilight continued to stare at the floor of car, listening to the steady chug of the train as it ambled its way the track. The train whistled, signaling that it was coming to a railroad crossing that interconnected with one of the walking paths leading to the city.

“You’re lying,” Spitfire said, her voice limp, without the bite of contempt it had held since the first time Twilight had heard it. “You’re just… talking it up big. For attention.”

Twilight shook her head sadly. She didn’t like being called a liar, and if it weren’t for the listlessness in Spitfire’s voice, she might’ve taken it as a challenge. Spitfire was just on the edge of believing her. Twilight just had to give it one more little push.

“Princess Celestia trusts me, and so does Princess Luna,” Twilight explained. “And most of all, Princess Cadance trusts me with her affections. You think I could have won their trust if I was the kind of pony who would lie about something like this? They’re better judges of character than that.”

Twilight knew it was a dirty trick to use the trust of the princesses like that, but it was clear that Spitfire would take anything she said with immediate distrust. If Twilight was going to get anywhere in this conversation, she needed to borrow a little of their credibility.

Twilight lifted her head at the sound of Spitfire climbing atop the couch to sit next to her bag. Spitfire let a hoof rest atop her saddlebags.

“So, then… it was something big?” Spitfire asked cautiously.

“The Centurion wouldn’t have classified it if it wasn’t, Spitfire.”

Spitfire sucked at her teeth and looked away. “I know that,” she snapped. “…I know that…”

“Then why the hostility?” Twilight asked. She got up on the couch and sat at the other end, giving Spitfire a respectful distance.

“I’m sorry about all that,” Spitfire said with genuine regret in her voice. “Maybe I was being a little unreasonable, but I did have a reason for my unreasonableness…”

Spitfire began rubbing her hooves together nervously, wearing unsurety over her face like a veil. “I don’t even know where to start explaining… The uh, Air Force, is required to investigate all incidents involving airships with Equestrian registration papers, especially if they happen over foreign skies. The same day you got back and reported your airship had gone down, an investigative team was dispatched to the site to ascertain the cause and condition of the vessel.”

“You investigated the crash site of the Old Mistress?”

“Of course not,” Spitfire scoffed, “I’m a Wonderbolt. Airship regulation isn’t my business. No, some guy from the Equestrian Airship Administration went out to the desert to check it out and pick over… over the wreckage.”

Spitfire’s voice hitched as she spoke. Twilight was starting to get the feeling that she knew where this was going, so she decided to help the conversation along.

“You knew Sky Chaser, didn’t you?” she asked. “That’s what you were talking about in the bar when you said… that thing you said to me.”

Spitfire’s eyes shut painfully at Sky Chaser’s name. “One day I was just hanging out in my quarters,” she began. “I was relaxing after a hard day of practice for a show we had coming up. I’m just reading a book, thinking about what I wanted for dinner, and I get a knock at my door. I thought it was my squadmate, Soarin, wanting to go get pie or something stupid.”

Spitfire stopped her story to take a deep, slow breath, releasing it with a ragged sigh. She reached into her bags and pulled out a small wooden box, about the size of a music box, covered in scratches and greasy black scorch marks. The little brass latch that held the lid on looked like it had fused together from heat, and it had been pried free from the bottom half of the container, so that it hung loosely from the lid.

“I open the door and there’s some jackoff from the E.A.A. standing there holding this box and a letter written on the General’s stationary.” She held the box against her chest, cradling it gently. “It was surreal, like winning one of those magazine subscription contests. Only instead of a big fat check for a million bits, it’s a letter saying your dad is dead.”

The bottom fell out of Twilight’s stomach. Twilight had already made the intuitive leap that Sky Chaser and Spitfire were related in some way, but she hadn’t even considered the possibility that they might’ve been actually related. She’d just assumed that they had met while in the service, or maybe had a fling or something. Sky Chaser had professed, several times, to have a silver tongue with mares when he wanted to, and it must have been true, at least once, seeing as he did apparently have a daughter.

“He never mentioned…” Twilight began to say. Her mouth was very dry, she noted incidentally. “He talked a lot about himself – a lot. Never mentioned having a daughter, though…”

Spitfire laughed humorlessly, setting the box down on the couch between them. “That makes sense,” she said. “He and mom split up before I was born. He was never around when I was growing up. To me he was just some guy that sent a birthday card and a sack of bits every year… Not that I blame or resent him or anything like that, not with my mom being… well, my mom. I took the first shot I had to move out of house myself, so I can understand how he must’ve felt.”

Twilight stared at the box, wondering at what could be inside. The polite distance she’d placed between them might as well have been a chasm, and Twilight felt the need to give Spitfire a hug, for Sky Chaser’s sake, as much as her own. She held back, though, not wanting to test the limits of how open Spitfire was feeling, lest she risk upsetting her again.

“Guess I’m not going to get a card this year,” Spitfire said with another laugh. A tear rolled down her cheek and she hurriedly wiped it away. “I don’t know why that bothers me so much. Hay, I didn’t even know anything about him other than that him and my mom met back in the service. She was a Captain, like me. Not Wonderbolts, though. She always wanted to be in the Bolts, but some ponies just don’t got the juice. She was a real strong flyer, but slow. Way too slow for some of the tricks in the standard routine.”

“Have you talked to your mom about it?” Twilight asked. “Maybe she could tell you some more about him. She could at least tell you more about how they met.”

Spitfire shook her head. “Ship’s sailed on that. Mom passed last year. Her heart gave out on her while shouting at somepony for cutting the line at the post office… Doctors kept telling her that she needed to relax. I dunno what was wrong with her, but sometimes she’d get this really fevered indignation about stuff. She’d get all red-faced and start grinding her teeth. Just get herself real worked up about almost anything…”

Spitfire turned her head quickly, giving Twilight a guilty look like she’d just been caught doing something embarrassing. “I’m not saying she was bad, or a bully or anything. She did a lot of volunteer work, helped her neighbors, loved foals… she just had a temper like a wildfire when she thought somepony was wrong.”

“I could believe that,” Twilight said, smiling as she reached up to tap at her jaw. “I think that some of her might still be living on inside you, at least a little bit.”

Spitfire winced. “Oof. You sure know how to cut a girl to the bone. Guess I deserve it, though. That was a cheapshot, and I’m real sorry about it.”

“It’s fine, I understand.”

“You know, you are actually kind of tough,” Spitfire said with a grin. She scratched idly at her belly, her left eye twitching a little as she touched a sore spot. “Still a little tender from where you kicked me. I’ve been kicked in the gut by a mule, by a zebra, by a griffon, and now by a unicorn, and I gotta say… the mule kicked me harder, but it’s a damn close call.”

Twilight laughed. It wasn’t the polite, sympathetic laugh you shared with somepony putting on a brave face, but a genuine laugh. The kind shared with a friend.

“To be fair, I have been pretty much confined to a bed for the last month,” Twilight pointed out. “Give me a few weeks back on a regular P.T. schedule to get back in shape, and let me kick you again. I bet I can break that mule’s record.”

“Pass. I’ll tell everypony you broke the record, just don’t kick me again.”

The tension between them had broken, and they sat on the couch, swaying slightly with the motion of the train. At some point during their conversation, the sun had risen. The curtains covering the windows were already opened, and warm sunlight had begun to fill the cabin. The feeling of relief was like a soothing bath, washing away the last vestiges of their resentment towards one another.

“Can I ask something else?” Spitfire asked. “I know you might not be able to say, but… how did he die? Was it when the airship went down?”

Twilight had been waiting for that question. It was inevitable that she’d want particulars on her father’s death. It was, after all, the entire reason for her wanting the full story of what had happened on the mission. There wasn’t much Twilight could tell, and even less that she wanted to say. Sky Chaser had died in a horrible, painful way. Twilight couldn’t fathom somepony trying to tell her that one of her own parents had died in something even half as horrific.

Even still, Twilight couldn’t keep something like that from Spitfire. She owed it to the girl to tell her how her father died, but she also owed it to her to shelter her from the grisly truth of his demise. What’s more, Sky Chaser was her friend, and Twilight felt beholden to the memory of him to put his daughter at ease – to protect her from the full truth of the thing in his stead.

There was also the matter of what she was legally allowed to say to consider. After some thought, Twilight settled on the smallest portion of the truth she could slice away.

“He died in his sleep,” she said. “He was already dead by the time I had to blow up the Mistress.”

“You’re the one that blew it up?” Spitfire asked, her eyes wide with surprise.

“It had to be done,” Twilight added hurriedly. “The engagement intensified and required a commensurate escalation of force.”

“Right,” Spitfire said, nodding slowly. “Shit went downhill so you blew up the hill.”

Twilight blushed. “That’s… the long and short of it, yes.”

“I been there,” Spitfire admitted as she leaned back. She reached out and gently tapped the lid of the box sitting between them. “I should probably sue you, though. The old stallion had a will. Left me everything he owned, but everything he owned was on that ship you blew up. The E.A.A. investigator said this was the only thing that survived.”

Spitfire pushed the box across the couch, and Twilight took it as permission to look inside. She reached for the box slowly and lifted the lid with tender care. The thing may have survived three explosions, plummeting from the sky, and getting roasted in the burning wreckage of an airship, but reverence and the memory of her friend made it feel as fragile as glass between her hooves. The half-melted hinges squeaked loudly as the lid came off, revealing the contents.

Inside was Sky Chaser’s pipe, nestled into a small compartment alongside his other smoking implements. It was nothing special – just a small bit of wood, with a large, round-bottomed bowl extending from a curved mouthpiece about as long as half her hoof’s width – but the sight of it nearly made her tear up. The last time she’d seen this pipe it had been in the dream world, dangling from Sky Chaser’s smiling lips. The scent of orange-flavored tobacco wafted up from the small pouch next to the pipe, and the smell of it was so familiar she almost sobbed.

“Apparently the box is made from some kind of enchanted super wood from overseas,” Spitfire commented. “The thing’s indestructible or something. Guess the old guy really loved that pipe to keep it in a smoke box like that…”

“He used to tap it against his lip when he was thinking,” Twilight said. “Even if it wasn’t lit, he’d just sit there, sucking on it and tapping it on things.”

Twilight looked up from the pipe that Spitfire was staring at her. There was something in her eyes that Twilight couldn’t quite wrap her head around.

“I didn’t know that…” Spitfire admitted as she climbed off the couch. She walked to the center of the car and began kicking cushions into a pile before throwing herself down atop them to stare up at the ceiling. “Guess you knew him better than I did…”

Spitfire was probably right. It was entirely possible that Twilight knew Sky Chaser better than his own daughter did, and the thought of that filled her with a powerful sense of guilt.

“I could tell you a little bit about him, if you want...” Twilight offered.

Spitfire sat up with a start. “What?”

“I didn’t know him long – not long enough to know he had a daughter, anyway – but the old guy loved telling stories. And there wasn’t much else to do aboard the ship aside from listening to him tell tall tales about himself. I don’t have his… flair for yarn-spinning, but I’ve got a pretty good memory, so if you’d like me to try I’m fairly certain I can do his stories justice.”

“You’d do that for me…?” Spitfire asked.

“Of course,” Twilight said with a smile. “If the stories he shared with me belong to anypony, they belong to you. His will said he left you everything he had, right?”

Spitfire nodded mutely.

Twilight cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “Okay, so, this one time, he was on leave with some of his buddies in the tropics…”

To Twilight’s surprise, the stories came to her easily. She could practically hear Sky Chaser’s voice in her head as she spoke, telling her what to say so she could relay it to Spitfire. Spitfire sat on her little throne of cushions, grinning like a filly getting a Hearth’s Warming present as she listened.

Twilight thought of the other friend she’d made on her journey. What would Basenji think of this? She’d like to think he’d be proud of her. As a diamond dog drummer, he kept his people in touch with their ancestors through oral traditions. He connected generations together through song and music and stories.

As she shared what knowledge she had of Sky Chaser with his estranged daughter, Twilight felt as though she understood a little of what made Basenji tick. Her heart surged with glee as Spitfire laughed heartily at the story, and more and more she felt herself falling into the role of storyteller as she added little flourishes and wild gesticulations to her presentation.

Twilight wasn’t a storyteller like her friends. She didn’t have Basenji’s skill and training, or Sky Chaser’s passion and flair, but she would do her best to do them proud, even if only for a day.

* * *

Author's Note:

Chapter 2 down. This was a hard one to write, mainly because I had originally planned a whole other scene to be in this, but it opened a plot thread that I disliked, so I ended up scrapping it. Now it's gone into my scraps folder with my old treatments, so that I may one day cannibalize it.

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

Please be excited!