• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1



It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Reflection Twenty-Three: A Good Buck Goes to War

Reflection Twenty-Three: A Good Buck Goes to War

“The anger of a good buck is not a problem. Good bucks have too many rules.”

“Good bucks don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”

I knocked a little louder this time. At last, there was a string of muffled thuds from hurried footsteps, and she opened the door.

“Howdy, Frost,” Applejack greeted with an apologetic smile. The orange earth pony mare was still in her prime- not a single gray hair in her mane. “Muh apologies. Still packin’ up n’ all. Come on in, n’, uh… nice hat there.” She tipped hers in a token gesture of approval.

I tipped my trusty fedora in turn with a momentary ice arm in acknowledgement and smiled softly before following her into her home. “I take it you’re leaving Sweet Apple Acres in good hooves?”

“Ayup, family hooves,” she answered as she led us to the dining room, motioning for me to take a seat across from her. It had been a while since I’d been there… save for the appliances, everything was a homey wood decor in shades of green, white, red, golden yellow, and brown- colors of all the apples. “Plenty o’ aunts, uncles, n’ cousins to watch over the farm while Ah wrangle this new ministry.” As I seated myself with her, an awkward silence descended upon us. She twiddled with her forehooves on the table. “What a mess, all this… a part o’ me is glad that ol’ Granny Smith didn’t live to see it get this bad.” She sighed wistfully. “So, uh… how’ve ya been holdin’ up?”

“Well enough,” I answered. “But I didn’t come here to talk about Littlehorn. I’m here to talk business.

“Right,” Applejack said with a nod, glancing away momentarily. “So, uh, Princess Luna did send a letter to me. Somethin’ ‘bout ya helpin’ out with gettin’ businesses on the boat with, uh... my new ministry?”

“That would be correct,” I answered with a slow nod.

She eyed me. “Princess Luna was pretty... vague on the details of exactly how ya’ll were gonna do that.”

“Well I was rather vague with her myself,” I said. “But trust me- I know a thing or two about what’s what when it comes to big business.”

“N’ how’s that?” Applejack inquired, still maintaining a patient air. “While Ah have learned to suck my pride n’ allow others t’help out- Sweet Celestia that feels like so long ago, that applebuckin’ season- Ah already have Applebloom set to help me out the moment Ah reach Manehattan.”

“Yes, your sister,” I said with a slow nod. “An architect.”

“A rightly famous one,” she countered. “Y’all know as much as Ah do that she made some critically-acclaimed designs, including…”

There came that silence again.

“Littlehorn.”
“... Littlehorn, yeah.” Applejack grimaced briefly. “Muh point is- she’s a very respected mare in her field. What can ya’ll offer that she can’t?”

I inhaled softly, folding my hooves on the table. “Architecture is one thing. Wartime technology is a whole other animal. The only places where architecture has anything to do with it is during the construction of bunkers, installations, factories, railyards, ports, the like. Don’t get me wrong- those are important, but for the most part, an architect like Applebloom simply doesn’t have the specific clout to bring the industries you really need to your side. I’m talking logistics, electronics, manufacturing, automotive, commercial, even the textile industry- plus more. And those are just the broad categories. Logistics? Railroads, shipping, air cargo, management, inventory, profit recovery. Electronics? Computer terminals, information technology, data governance- you get the picture.”

“But Applebloom’s worked with those industries in her projects,” Applejack said. “She knows a lotta ponies, a lotta people in those fields.”

I inhaled again and glanced upward momentarily. “She might. But trust me on this, Applejack- when it comes to business, it’s not about who you know.” I leaned forward. “It’s about who knows you.”

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “N’ ya mean to tell me that all those ponies n’ people in all those industries know you?”

“In Manehattan, absolutely,” I answered with a stout nod and easy smile.

Applejack leaned back in her seat and crossed her forelegs. “Remind me again exactly what ya did ‘fore comin’ to Ponyville?”

“I was into business,” I replied simply. “Entertainment mostly- I owned a juvie-joint- but I dabbled into a bit of everything.” I canted my head momentarily. “More than a bit.”

Applejack took a deep breath and rubbed her face with a hoof. “Ah dunno, Frost. Ah ain’t heard anythin’ about ya other than being into history and equinpology ‘fore comin’ to Ponyville. N’ Ah don’t like the idea that ya seem to be a lot less honest than the prufessor Ah thought Ah knew. Ah’m not likin’ this. Who are ya, Frost?”

“Honesty may be the best policy, but big business is a cutthroat world,” I stood up from my seat. “We need those corporations behind your ministry, and I’m going to make sure that happens. I wasn’t always an honest person, Applejack. I can’t say in good faith that I really am even now. But look me in the eye. Alright?” And once she did: “I used to be kingpin of the largest gang you never heard of. I took the fall, realized what I’d done, and wiped the slate clean. Led a better life. But people still remember my name, and I intend to use it to bring those corporations to your side.”

The sunny-orange mare sighed softly. “So that’s the truth, then.”

I nodded stoutly.

“Ah’m an honest pony, Frost- hence muh Element,” she said. “Ah don’t like the idea that what ya plan to do is rightly dishonest.”

“But you need those corporations.”

Applejack sighed sharply and leaned back in her seat, rubbing her face. “Yeah, Ah do. Won’t lie ‘bout that.” She let out another deep sigh. “Ya plan to hurt anyone?”

“No,” I answered, “but I might have to. It’s been decades since I exercised my power. Some might believe I still don’t have it. I might have to twist some hooves, figuratively speaking.”

“Don’t,” she said firmly, standing to meet me and glaring into my very soul it seemed. “Ah’ll accept yer help on the conditions that ya hurt absolutely nopony n’ no one- and that ya do it in honest, legal fashion. Ya can’t do that, Ah can’t accept yer offer. Whatever ya do in the name of the Ministry o’ Wartime Technology is reflected on me, understand? N’ Ah’m an honest pony. So, then, are you. Ah don’t care if it loses me them corporations- Ah won’t tarnish the Apple family name n’ especially not Luna’s.”

“Believe me, I’d much rather get through this whole ordeal quietly and peacefully and then be done with it,” I said.

“Well can ya guarantee it?” Applejack asked firmly.

“... no,” I answered.

Applejack sighed, and her intense expression softened. “Least yer bein’ honest with me. Ah’m takin’ a huge risk lettin’ ya do this for me, but we need to get the ball rollin’. Don’t go ‘round hurtin’ no one, Frost”

“I’ll do my best not to,” I said with a firm nod, “but understand that people will see you as the paragon of honesty no matter what I do. I won’t try to hurt anyone. I won’t go looking for trouble, but if trouble finds me, I won’t hesitate to act accordingly.”

She let out a deep breath and nodded. “Alright. Fine, fair ‘nuff. So how long will ya need?”

I inhaled in thought. “Give me… two weeks from tomorrow, when I leave. Two weeks, and I’ll have more corporations than you know what to do with lining up on your doorstep.”

“Two weeks?” she parroted, again cocking that brow. “Ya serious?”

I grinned. “Applejack, you should see what I can do in ten days.”

* * *

Manehattan. City of Lights and Legends. Thought I would have felt some measure of relief coming home again. I found none. The larger-than-life buildings hadn’t changed, but the larger-than-life people… they did. As I sat back in the chair and looked down many stories below, I could see profound changes even from so high up. People still milled about on the streets, yes, but there were distinct patches of striped grays, whites, and blacks that were… segregated from the rest. The other people seemed to distance themselves from zebras, leering at them from a distance. The sun was shining high in the sky, the music that was so ingrained into the city’s culture was playing… and yet all this. I didn’t like it. It was like that first class nearly ten years ago at…

Littlehorn.

I inhaled deeply and strived to push those thoughts aside, instead admiring the view in front of me as I stood and entered the next room. It was a nice office- a really nice office. It had a plush leather swivel chair, a smooth desk of polished wood with plenty of cabinets, shelves of necessary reference books, and everything was neatly organized and squared away. It even had a wonderful view of downtown. It was a really nice office.

It also wasn’t mine.

Seated at the desk was a big orange buck, still with that messy blue mane. Only differences since way back when were his business attire, the glasses, and a few more gray hairs. He stood up as soon as I entered and began to bark, “Who the hell are you and how-” Then he seemed to notice my hat. And then he realized.

“Hello, Sunny Days,” I greeted with a… not quite a smile. Not to him. “I think you know the answer to both of those questions.”

His jaw hung slightly ajar for a few seconds before he closed it, flattened his lips, straightened out, and said, “Hello, Frost.” He glanced up at my trusty fedora. “Or is it Hokkaido I’m speaking to?”

“I’ll let you decide,” I answered maneuvering toward his desk.. “But this isn’t right, is it? Come on.” I motioned downward. “Let’s sit and chat.”

“I’d rather stand, thank you.”

I inhaled softly. “Alright. Fine by me. So… Sunny Days, CEO of Crosswinds, the most important logistics arm in the Equestrian Heartland. And I hear Blustery’s due for another term on city council! How have you all been?”

“Look, if you wanted something from me, just say it,” he uttered at me, frowning.

I inhaled again- a little more sharply this time. Still, I… smiled. “Sunny, I’m trying to be friendly. That’s not Hokkaido. He’s civil.

“You’re trying to be civil right now,” Sunny countered.

My smile flattened. “Well I was trying to be friendly in any case. A shame. I was hoping to catch up after all these years.”

“So what did you want from me?” he asked, still frowning.

I eyed Sunny for a few seconds before walking around the desk over to him. “Are you asking that because you know you’ll give me whatever it is I want or because you want to find out before you decide?”

He eyed me in turn. “I don’t rightly know.”

I inhaled softly and let out a deep, misty sigh, removing my fedora and setting it down on one of the visitors’ chairs. “Sunny, you and Song Spinner- in good faith- served as witnesses at that court date so many years ago to take Pick Pack down. I appreciated that. I come here knowing you’re not quite an enemy but not quite a friend either. So I come here with a request- not a demand. And you don’t even have to listen.”

Sunny maintained that frown, but the rage in his eyes seemed to subside somewhat. “So what is it?”

That’s the way. I turned to face the window, looking over the city as the sun hung high in the sky. “I work for the new administration now- namely for the Ministry of Wartime Technology. It’s meant to organize and regulate the war effort on the home front,” I turned back to Sunny, “but it can’t do that without help. So that’s why I’m here, talking to you.”

“You want me to pledge my support to the Ministry,” he surmised.

“Yes,” I answered. Wait for it…

“And why would I do that?” he asked.

There it is. “Skeptical?”

“Very,” Sunny replied.

“Because of the potential losses?” I inquired.

“No,” he answered with a straight face. “The gains would far outweigh them in the long run. I taught you business, Frost- I should know. It’s because you’re the one asking. I haven’t been keeping tabs on you, but I know enough. You became a history and equinpology professor, something that doesn’t bring much in the realm of a salary but… I would assume some peace of mind. Am I correct?”

And now he was studying me. I nodded.

“Historian and equinpologist- the kind of pony who loves his fellow equine being,” Sunny said, stepping closer. Despite his bulk, we were roughly at eye level due to my lankiness. “That much I knew of you. And right after Littlehorn, you come to me with your old look, your old behavior, and ask me to support the war effort. I know you tried to wash your hooves clean. So have I. But here you are, a good buck going to war. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

“A Wall Street buck with a conscience?” I huffed, cracking a thin smile.

He didn’t mirror it. “Because when I didn’t have one, it almost got a pony killed.”

My smile slipped. I straightened out and fully looked at Sunny Days. All those early wrinkles, that steady frown… and those analytical eyes.

“Tell me why you’re suddenly supporting the war effort,” the big orange buck spoke. “Tell me why you changed.”

I inhaled deeply. “Because, Sunny, I intend to repay my debt to Equestria like so many Northerners, and because the mare I love needs my help. This war is about to escalate very, very soon… and my wife’s right in the thick of it. So I’m helping in the way I know best.”

“So vengeance has nothing to do with this?” he asked.

“I don’t hate the people or the nation that killed everyone at Littlehorn,” I answered. “I hate the war- that we started- that led them to do so.”

He raised both brows. “And you’re supporting it.”

“We’ve reached the point of no return now,” I said with a soft, misty sigh that made him visibly grimace in response to the cold. “At this point, the war’s only going to end in victory or defeat. This is my way of helping to end it in our favor.”

Sunny took a deep breath. “Does your wife know you’re doing this?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“In this fashion?”

“No.” I stepped closer to him. “I’d prefer to keep this skeleton hidden. I’m only bringing it out of the closet one more time. And I hope it’s the last.”

He took another deep breath. “I expect I’m not the only one you’ll want on board for this?”

“No,” I answered. “I intend to get everyone else in Manehattan that can help.”

“Everyone else who used to be in the Mumei you mean.”

“Yes.”

Sunny closed his eyes and rubbed his face, falling silent.

“Will you help Equestria, Sunny Days?” I asked.

He let out a deep sigh and let his hoof fall. “Tomorrow, two-o’clock in the conference room downstairs. Janice Sylphfeather of J.S. Corp, Kory Wylder of Cardinal Freight Carriers, Rollout of Cromwell Cartage, Staunch Wall of Staunch Shipping, and Triple Twist of Tri-Mac Transportation. They’ll all be there. There’s also Duct Tape of Lancer Inway. You don’t know him, and he doesn’t know you.” He stepped toward me. “I’m going to help you with this but only after you answer one more question.”

I looked to him, posture firm, gaze resolute.

“Are you planning to be friendly or civil with them?”

“Do you consider them to be friends, business partners, or something less?” I asked in turn.

“Something less.”

“Civil, then,” I answered. “We can accept some casualties.”

Sunny Days huffed softly, “Alright.”

We shook hooves.

* * *

Song Spinner, the beautiful black pegasus mare with the flowing blue mane- with only a few stripes of gray in it like mine- was waiting for me just on the other side of the door. As I headed for the elevator, she fell in step with me while I tucked my fedora back down. “How did it go?”

“Better than expected,” I answered as we moved at a brisk pace. “And on your end?”

“Well I’m here, aren’t I?” she asked in turn.

“That you are. Thank you.” I inhaled softly. “We’ll be needing them on the floor. You’ve done a lot for me already, and I appreciate that. But before you head home- because I do need you rested for tomorrow-” We turned toward the elevator, and I called it up, “we need to make one last stop.”

“And where would that be?” she asked with a bit of uncertainty.

I sighed mistily, glancing downward.

* * *

Zoleks answered the door initially with a warm, comforting smile, opening his mouth to greet me. Then he saw my fedora. Then he saw Song. His smile slipped, and his shoulders slumped.

“No…” he called quietly, slowly and then quickly shaking his head. “No no no no no no no no… Frost, this better be some sort of trick! You haven’t worn that hat in-”
“Zoleks,” I called softly.
“-ages, and you’re with Song and… oh jeez, please just tell me this is a-”
“Zoleks.”

He bit back his words, expression fluctuating between fury and worry.

I used my hoof to remove my hat and hold it to my chest. I didn’t adopt a pleading look. That was Hokkaido. And I wasn’t. “I need your help. And yes, it involves the Mumei.” I saw him open his mouth. “Hear me out.” It closed. Now, Frost. Right words, right way. But this time… your way. “I’m only doing this because I work for Luna’s new administration. I’m trying to bring businesses over to the new Ministry of Wartime Technology headed by Applejack. Nothing more. And once the deed is done, I hope and pray that it’ll be the last time I have to do anything like this.”

The big zebra buck sighed softly and opened his mouth to reply-

“Zoleks?” Namira’s voice called from inside. “Who is it?”

He sighed deeply and turned his head back inside. “It’s Frost and Song!”

“Is it?” There was a rapid clip-clopping of hooves as she galloped over. The zebra mare smiled broadly at the sight of me, something I tried to return. “Hi, Frost, Song, uh… didn’t expect either of you over, but do come in! Jorund will be happy to see you!”

She was never a part of the Mumei. She couldn’t recognize the signs. And her obliviousness crushed my heart- and my attempted reply.

“Actually, I think we’re just having a quick chat right now,” Song spoke up with an apologetic smile. “We’ve actually got business to attend to.”

Thank you...

“Are you sure?” Namira asked. “You’re both always welcome here, you know.”

“It’s only a quick visit, yeah,” Zoleks said, smiling softly to Namira. “Shop’s still busy, so why don’t you help Bo and the others out? I’ll be right back with you, okay?”

Namira nodded slowly. “Ah… okay, but if you’re back in town, we’ve got to get together again properly, you hear?”

Now I chanced a soft smile of my own. “I hear. We’ll work the scheduling out later.”

The zebra mare nodded, gave a quick wave, and then she was gone.

Zoleks and I met eyes again. Our smiles had all slipped by now. “You need my help, don’t you?” he asked.

“I don’t need it,” I said quietly, carefully. “You’re my best friend, Zoleks- the best I could have ever asked for. I’ve said it to Song. I’ve said it to Sunny. And I say it to you- this is a request, not a demand. I want your help, yes. But you don’t have to give it to me.”

Zoleks inhaled deeply. “Will it come back to hurt my family?”

“No,” I answered firmly. “And if it even gives the slightest hint that it will, I will slam my hoof down so hard they won’t know what hit them. I won’t let them touch you.” I looked to Song. “The same goes for you. And I suppose Sunny.”

Song took a long, hard look at me at that. “And if they come for you?”

I sprouted an ice arm to whip Silver Skean out and danced her between my fingers as I replied, “More than capable of handling myself.”

Zoleks inhaled deeply. “Yeah, as if I’d let it ever come close to going that way. Urgh… alright. I’ll help. Namira’s not going to like hearing about gang-related work again, but I’ll handle it. Frost, you know I’ve got your back. Always have.”

I nodded slowly, slipping my fedora back on and resting my hoof on his shoulder. “Thank you. Just don’t call me ‘boss.’”

* * *

“Hello?”

“Hello, Mother.”

“Frost? Frost, how are you? Is everything okay?”

“As okay as they can be. How are you?”

“Your father and I are doing fine. It’s you we’re both worried about.”

Soft sigh. “I… appreciate that. Listen, Mother… lay low for the next two weeks alright? Stay away from any old centers of Mumei activity. I’ll be renting out a motel.”

“Frost… why are you getting involved in gang activity again?” Sterner voice this time.

“I’m garnering support for the new Ministry of Wartime Technology, and I’m going to use my influence to get it. I promise you that’s all I’m doing, and it’s why I’m warning both you and Father in advance to keep a low profile while I handle it. I just need you both to take public transit to and from home. Take a cab if you need to. You both have access to the account if you need the money. Keep the shutters drawn at night, and keep the alarm system on whenever you’re both at home. It shouldn’t come down to that, but I’m not taking any chances. And if I catch any funny business coming toward you, I’ll put it down hard.”

Deep sigh. “So you’re working for the government now.”

“Yeah.”

“It sounds like you’re putting us in danger.”

“I’m afraid it might put us in danger, yes.”

“Does Zoleks know about this?”

“He does, yes.”

“... Frost, I’m placing my trust in you for this. We’ve talked about this long, long ago. I know how you feel about the Mumei. I’ll tell your father, and we’ll do what we can to stay out of the way. But I will be asking Zoleks about what you’re doing. I don’t want to hear any shady business from you. Understand?”

“I understand, Mother.”

“Then do what you must. Tell us when it’s all over.”

“I will. Take it easy, alright, Mother?”

“You too. Stay safe.”

Click.

* * *

The next day. One-fifty-five. Just a floor below Sunny’s office at Crosswinds. Looked out the large, glass windows to the city far below. My seat was right up against the pane. It was comfy, one of those leather swivel chairs with full support. Very comfortable. I felt far less comfortable watching those segregated pastel shades and blacks, whites, and grays far down below. Rubbed my face and stilled as I realized I could vaguely see something in the glass.

The storyteller lifted his next memento up to his face and looked long and hard at it.

My reflection.

Leaned closer in my seat and looked at myself. High cheekbones, slanted eyes, sharp muzzle. Greasy black mane with flecks of gray. And those eyes. Fierce eyes. There was an intensity in them I hadn’t seen since… since ever.

I didn’t like what I saw.

There was muffled chatter and the sound of grouped footsteps. No time to think. No time to ponder. It was time. I pulled away from the ghost in the glass and tucked the fedora lower.

The door opened.

“Excuse me?” a female voice called. Janice. “We actually need this room for a conference right now.” I could already hear them start to file in and set down their folders, files, and portable terminals.

I cracked my neck. Show time.

“And I’m so glad you could all make it,” I spoke up. The noises quieted. I kicked at the floor to swivel the chair around so I could face them all with a… smile.

And there they were… Janice Sylphwing and Kory Wylder, both griffins. Rollout, Staunch Wall, and Triple Twist- all ponies, the latter a mare. All of them were dressed in business attire. All of them were staring at me with eyes wide and mouths ajar. Because all of them used to belong to me.

Then, following behind them, a younger, gray unicorn stepped inside to see what the commotion was. Ah. Duct Tape. Appropriate name. He glanced from the others to me. “The hay’s going on?” he asked nobody in particular.

He was never a part of the Mumei. He couldn’t recognize me. And his obliviousness only made me chuckle huskily on the inside.

(No. Easy now. It only made a part of you chuckle. Easy now.)

“Could somebody explain to me what the hay is going on?” Duct Tape demanded, turning as Sunny Days stepped in, and soon all eyes were on him.

Then Duct Tape was flanked by Song Spinner, entering from behind. And Zoleks.

The other five slowly turned their eyes toward me. At first, they were wide with surprise and perhaps a bit of fear. Now? Wider still from the crushing realization of what was going on.

Now I was cackling inside. (Easy.)

“Just sit down,” the big, orange buck commanded.

“What-” Duct tried again.

“Sit. Down.”

Duct frowned, glaring from him, to Song, to Zoleks- bad, bad move- and then finally to me before he and the other slowly took their seats. Zoleks and Song closed the door behind them and hovered just past it.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gents,” I greeted, leaning back in my seat and using a hindleg to pivot myself left and right, left and right. “We interrupt this program to bring you... me. Hello again. It’s been a looooong time.”

“The hell are you here for?” Janice said, deciding to stop being so chicken and frowning intensely at me.

“And could someone fill me in who the hell these guys are?” Duct added.

Oh how I was waiting for that.

I… smiled wider and stood from my chair, singing out:

Please allow me to introduce myself-
I’m a chimera of wealth and taste.

“I’ve been around for a long, long year,
stole many a pony’s soul and faith.

“I was ‘round when-”

“Oh please don’t turn this into a musical,” Sunny groaned. “I am not joining in.”

I frowned- but only jokingly. “Well fine,” I snorted. “I suppose we need to get down to business in any case.” I remained standing as I looked to Duct Tape and… smiled. “My name is Frost Windchill. Pleased to meet you. Your, ah, associates? They know me by a different name- Hokkaido.”

The storyteller couldn’t help but grin.

Hohhh… boy did that send shivers around the room.

Duct Tape turned to Janice. “So… who exactly is he? Like a former business partner?”

“Something like that,” I answered for her.

“So… you’re in shipping or logistics?” he inquired.

“No,” I said with an ever-growing grin. “Management. But I believe you all, like Janice, deserve to know what I expect from all of you.” I pulled away from the seat and started to pace around the room, starting toward the windows and watching my ghost in the glass. Straight shoulders. Slow, methodical pace- like a wildcat circling its prey. Poised my head on my neck like a snake ready to strike. Narrow those eyes just a little- make them cackle darkly. Maintain that… smile. There. Textbook Hokkaido.

I continued to stalk around the room as I spoke, “See, I’ve moved up the food chain quite a ways. I work for the new administration now, namely for the Ministry of Wartime Technology. Its purpose is to oversee and manage the war effort on the home front- research and development, manufacturing and mass production, quality assurance and quantity delivered, supply and sustain. It’s still a fledgeling, yes, but it has plenty of room to grow.” I stopped as I passed by the head of the table, right by Sunny Days. “And that’s where you all come in. The hell I’m here for, Janice, is that I expect you- all of you- to pledge your support to the Ministry of Wartime Technology, and I expect all of you to deliver on the pledge.”

“Why should we join you?” Janice inquired, crossing her forelegs.

“And would we get from it?” Triple Twist added.

“Frankly, I’m wondering why I can’t just walk out of this room right now,” Duct Tape snorted.

“I’ll gladly answer those questions,” I said to them, turning briefly to Duct Tape. “Yours first, and frankly it’s because I’m a very dangerous pony, and your partners know this.”

“You’re just going to force us,” Kyle said with a grimace. “I don’t see why you’re bothering.”

“Nah,” I chuckled huskily. “That’s no fun. Sunny, if you would be so kind?”

The big orange buck reached over to the middle of the table to pull a cord from its socket and connect it to his own portable terminal. A projector above our heads put his screen up on the far wall, displaying graphs of all their companies’ stock share prices over time straight from the Manehattan Stock Exchange. He tabbed over to-

Multiple hooves went up.

… you’re all wondering what stock shares are, aren’t you?

Murmurs of affirmative droned through the crowd, and the storyteller sighed.

And you were doing so well. Hell, I was on a roll, too! Anyway, stock shares are a form of investment into a business, simply put. You’d invest money into a company, which would appreciate or depreciate in value depending on whether the company flourishes or stagnates respectively. If you play your cards right and buy shares low and sell them high, you could walk away a richer pony. So, with that…

“I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now that nobody’s doing particularly well,” Sunny said, changing the display to fit the last week. The graphs showed a very steep dive a few days ago. “Nobody came out of Littlehorn a winner- including us. Not you, not me, and especially not Duct Tape here.” The gray unicorn nickered softly at that. “I don’t expect any of us to make a profit this quarter, so the way I see it, we don’t have much to lose by throwing our support to the Ministry. Short-term losses will be largely masked by the recent dive, and if enough businesses show support, we might just see some bulls out of this if the public likes what it sees.”

“Key word is ‘if,’” Rollout snorted.

“You doubt me?” I challenged, cocking a brow. I hoped that for his sake my eyes looked ready to fire those shots off.

“It’s been thirty years, practically.”

I straightened my gaze. “And yet here you are. You’re still listening aren’t you?”

He and Kory shared a look across the table, and he momentarily nodded to me as if intoning ‘He’s got a point.’

“Still, could mean even sharper losses to the point of no recovery,” Janice spoke up. “Particularly for newer businesses.”

“Like mine,” Duct Tape said, crossing his forelegs.

Saw that one coming. I glanced at Song Spinner.

The black-furred mare gave me a subtle nod and said, “Given Frost’s track record, I don’t see that happening. Logistics firms won’t be the only corporations we plan to get on the boat. Anything that can drive the war effort has been considered. Logistics is often an unsung hero in the business world, but combined with, say, automotives and electronics- and far more industries- the public is more likely to see this new collective as something worth investing in. Just need one industry to pull the hook, and then it’s the unspoken business law of the lemmings.”

“Sorry, what business are you in?” Duct Tape challenged.

“Orchestral music,” she answered, “but… I used to work with management.”

I grinned at that.

“What kind of management are we talking anyway?” the gray buck inquired, looking from her to me.

“Business, political, public, private,” I answered with a… smile. “Everything, really.”

“This is starting to sound a little shady,” he remarked with a grimace.

I rolled my eyes and looked at Zoleks.

“Oh colt,” he groaned. “Right, can everyone who hasn’t engaged in shady business strategies please raise their hoof or hand?” None went up, and glances went about the room as if to confirm this. “I notice you didn’t, Duct Tape. Do we still have a problem?”

The gray unicorn grunted in response.

“As further argument for supporting the Ministry of Wartime Technology,” I said, “just take a look across the pond.” I clasped my hooves together and eyed Janice and Kory especially. “Anyone been keeping tabs on the Dartmouth Group? Sunny, if you would be so kind…” I waited as Sunny brought up a different set of graphs- these ones from the Avalon Stock Exchange. “While not government-sponsored, you can tell that the individual firms belonging to Dartmouth were in a similar situation. The start of the war caused stocks to take a dive. And sure- after Littlehorn, they took another hit. But comparatively speaking? Dartmouth’s companies are faring much better than its peers. There’s strength in numbers. You know this. You were planning to have a meeting here after all like good little business partners. So! With that, I have a message- and a question. A message from me- and a question from Ministry Mare Applejack: will you pledge your support to the Ministry of Wartime Technology and to the Principality of Equestria?”

“And your message?” Janice inquired.

“You don’t want to know.” I looked about the table. “So what’re your answers?”

“I pledge my support,” Sunny spoke first. “And I strongly suggest you do the same.”

Kory took a deep breath. “I pledge my support.”

Triple Twist worked her jaw for a few seconds. “I too pledge support."

Staunch Wall looked from her to me and nodded. “I as well.”

Rollout looked at all the others, frowning for a few seconds. “Count me in,” he muttered.

Janice grimaced, and I trained my gaze on her. She broke eye contact. “I pledge my support.”

Last one. I looked to Duct Tape expectantly. He leaned back in his seat. “I can’t.”

I cocked my head ever so slightly like a hammer primed to shoot. I could feel the others tense. Good. “And why not?”

“Lancer Inway is still a fresh face on the block,” he responded. “We’re barely scraping by as is, and any further short-term loss might jeopardize my company’s survival. And frankly, I don’t like how you’re coming out of nowhere as this guy who apparently everyone is scared of. Even if this isn’t the first time I’ve done fishy business, I don’t like where this is headed. Besides, I’m not too crazy about supporting a war just because Princess Luna took a personal hit.”

I blinked.

Oh no he didn’t. Oh no he did not go there.

“Sorry, what was that last part?” I asked in a dangerously low tone.

“I’m not supporting a war just because a personal blow to Princess Luna caused her to change positions on it,” Duct Tape said. “I mean it’s horrible that Littlehorn had to happen- don’t get me wrong- but I can’t help but feel this is leading to worse and worse things. She wanted an end to hostilities before, and now she’s pursuing them? That doesn’t sit well with me. So I’m not helping her.”

Not helping her.

Not… helping… her.

I inhaled deeply as I righted my head. “Well that’s just too bad. Here comes the message then.” I glanced at Song Spinner.

The mare grimaced momentarily, then whipped out her phone with her wing and speed-dialed a number. “It’s Song. Do it. Lancer only.”

And with that, I leaned against Sunny’s chair and… smiled.

Duct Tape narrowed his eyes. “They hay you smiling about?”

I glanced at him momentarily, then away.

“I said, the hay you smiling about?”

Eyes back on him. “Oh don’t mind me. I’m just enjoying the show.” Then I went right back to looking past them.

Now they started to get the idea. Janice was the first to look at the projector screen. “Oh… sweet Alda…”

The rest were quick to follow suit. Duct Tape turned at last to the projector screen and watched in shock as his company’s stock began taking a very steep, very sudden dive. “What the hay?!”

“I am Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill,” I spoke, making a slow pace toward him. “I was the kingpin of the largest gang in Manehattan you never heard of. I had my hoof in nearly everything in the city, and I had over twelve-thousand people backing me up. You’re looking at just a few of them.” And now I loomed over the gray buck. “Even thirty years later, you’d be surprised how many debts I’m still owed. And when I call to collect, they answer. Tens of thousands, Duct Tape, and those were just official members. There are so many more. Can you guess how many have shares in Lancer? Rather, had? Can you guess how many work at the stock exchange?”

“That’s illegal,” Duct Tape muttered, pulling out and then dialing into his phone. “That’s so fucking illegal.”

“Welcome to big business,” I whispered with a… smile.

“You’re going to fucking jail for this,” he seethed. “You’ve got a whole lotta witnesses…” His expression twisted in surprise. “They hung up on me?! Police don’t do that!”

I inhaled softly and added, “Can you guess how many work at MPD? Maybe Kory could tell you.”

The griffin swallowed hard.

“Still feeling so… hotheaded?” I asked with a smug grin, letting my expression darken afterward. For his sake, I hoped I looked terrifying. “So. Would you like me to repeat the question?”

Duct Tape feebly lowered his phone and murmured, “I pledge my support.”

“What’s that?” I held a hoof to my ear. “Speak up. Time is money, and you’re burning daylight.”

“I pledge my support!”

I let my hoof fall and nodded to Song Spinner. “Cease trading,” she uttered into her mouthpiece.

“Aaaaaand flatlined,”I said as his stock price stabilized, clasping and rubbing my hooves together. “Now, Sunny has the necessary paperwork with him. I do expect you all to follow up by contacting Ministry Mare Applejack herself. Only after that, Duct Tape,” I looked at him as he slumped back hard in his seat, “will I consider telling your former investors to start buying stock again.” I started on my way out toward Zoleks and Song. “Oh, and I do expect to see you all tomorrow. We’re cracking management next…”

* * *

And so the cycle continued. After management came computers. After computers came automotives. After automotives came manufacturing, power, gem mining, construction, research, and so many others. And each and every time, I had Zoleks and Song by my side. Sunny, too- and Duct Tape, in case anyone needed some extra “convincing” to remember who really owned Manehattan. And with each industry conquered, faces old and new stood by my side. I faced little opposition, and I made sure those who opposed me learned their lesson.

“You’re going to call Rider and her boys tomorrow,” I instructed over my phone, pacing back and forth in my room. “We need FN Horsetal on board with this to support Ironshod, and Rider’s going to be our stepping stone to them. She’ll listen once you mention my name. Now if there are no more questions, I have a meeting crash to prepare for.” I ended the call with a beep.

It was quickly followed by the sound of rippling cloth.

I removed my hat, and I greeted without turning around, “Good evening, Lord Dawn Treader.”

“Good evening,” came that familiar Trottish accent. Perhaps a bit more Glascow, now that I think about it. “I would have used your title, but Captain Obsidian informed me you wouldn’t appreciate that.”

I turned to face the Lunar Guard, standing firm before me. I met those fierce, hungry eyes of his, no longer afraid. “She’d be right.” Paused. “How’s Daze?”

He drew in a deep breath through his nostrils. “She’ll live. She’ll just be… keeping her illusions up. As usual.” He cast his eyes downward for a few seconds before flashing them right back up. “I didn’t come here to make small talk, you understand.” He motioned to my phone. “So this is how you intend to help Luna?”

“Short of enlisting,” I replied as I set it down on the nightstand, “and I already tried that route with your captain. So this is the way I know best.”

“You lied to her,” he stated simply.

“I told her I would help get companies on board with the Ministry of Wartime Technology,” I stated simply, “and I am.”

“Then you withheld the truth,” Dawn said, “and while the rest of the Lunar Guard and myself have also withheld information regarding the Mumei, it’s why I’m here. You’re stepping on many hooves, Frost. Combined with continuing to withholding information from Luna, I don’t appreciate that. But that doesn’t change the situation. I don’t need to tell you that you’re placing yourself in danger.”

“I know,” I said coolly, drawing Silver Skean with an ice arm. “Then again, who isn’t during wartime? One more reason to carry these.”

“Can you- in good faith- claim that you would be able to act quickly and decisively to defend your life, and would you take lives to do so?” he asked.

“Quickly, yes,” I replied, “Decisively, no. Take lives, yes. I’ve done that before during the changeling wedding crash twenty-five-odd years ago.”

“... fair enough,” Dawn said. “Then that is why I’m here.”

I furrowed my brow in question.

“I am Lord Protector Dawn Treader,” the unicorn dracopony declared. “I am here as your bodyguard- Lord Protector Stagger Storm as well when my specific skills are required or when I require rest. Again, I don’t particularly enjoy that you created this situation, but what must be done- must be done.”

Now I raised both brows. “Protecting me? Isn’t that a bit overkill?”

He huffed softly, “For a moment, I was afraid you’d ask ‘Just you?’ Perhaps, but you are very important to Luna- and to Equestria by extension. Honestly, I’d prefer if Anvil took the job since he’s much more amicable, but he and Hammer are inseparable. Having two of the Lunar Guard serve as bodyguards simultaneously tends to be such ‘overkill,’ even for Luna.”

“‘Even for Luna?’” I parroted in disbelief.

“I assure you that just one Lunar Guard is enough to protect her,” Dawn said. “Similarly, one Lunar Guard is more than enough to protect you. Sometimes, though, it is a case of image or inseparability. Or her preference.”

“Are you sure that’s a wise allocation of resources?” I inquired. “I have at least a glimpse of what you can do.”

“Frost, you are married to now the sole ruler of Equestria,” he answered, slowly moving closer.

“Parliament,” I noted.

“Semantics,” he snorted derisively. “Parliament may have started this war, but now Luna has to get us out one way or another. I can’t tell you how worried she is after you started taking a more active role like this. I don’t need to tell you how devastated she would be if something happened to you. And remember- she’s the one who has to get us out of this war. You already know how heavily Littlehorn weighs on her heart. Let’s not add another burden that might tip it toward surrender.”

I inhaled slowly but nodded stoutly. “So what do you need me to do?”

“Same thing as back in Roam,” Dawn answered. “Do what you have to do. Just try not to make my job too difficult. Don’t go looking for trouble. At the very least, don’t go looking for more trouble than you already got yourself into.” He eyed my blade. “Do you even have the slightest idea how to fight with that?”

“... no.”

He let out a soft sigh. “Then we’d better fix that.” Chrome Cleaver floated out of my pouch and over to him without the slightest hint of an aura- or any from his horn. There was a shimmer in the air before a scraggly, griffin-like ice arm of his own grasped the blade.

I arced a brow at him. “Illusion magic?”

“Something like that,” he replied while placing the blade on a finger to find the center of balance. He pursed his lips as he found it to be the exact center, impressed. Turnstile Model Forty-Two’s, folks. He switched from a forehand to a backhand grip. “Very well balanced… in this day and age, just brandishing a weapon may be enough to deter a fight before it starts, but these may be gang members we have to deal with. You have weehawk-style blades, suitable for both stabbing and slashing. I would recommend the latter for you at this moment. A stab has the potential to cause crippling internal damage, but landing a slash is inherently easier. Drawing blood or flaying flesh can still be effective for a society so unused to violence and so squeamish to simply the sight of blood…”

* * *

One week later.

“Hello. Frost Windchill speaking.”

“Tarnation, pardner! Ah didn’t think ya could sweep up Manehattan in two weeks, but Ah’ll be darned- ya did just that!”

“Heh… told you I knew my way around a conference room. I’m not done yet, though. Three more hours and I’m meeting with some suppliers that can help boost Ironshod’s production output. Then my work with you is done.”

“Ya sure? Ah could use somepony like ya fer management. Lorn knows Ah ain’t great at it.”

“I’m sure. This is but one way I’m helping Luna out. And besides, you should ask Sunny Days for that. You can trust him.”

“Wayell… if ya’ll insist. Hey, uh, Frost? Why exactly are ya so keen on helpin’ the princess out anyway?”

Inhale. “Littlehorn was extremely important to the both of us, Applejack. For me, it was my livelihood. For her, it was one way to have meaning in a world she’s constantly playing catch-up with. It was an anchor for both of us. Just in different ways.”

“Frost… Ah’m the Element of Honesty. Ah already pushed my values by lettin’ ya wrangle Manehattan yer own way. Be straight with me here. Ah can tell yer keepin’ somethin’.”

“... if you really think it matters that much, then ask Pinkie Pie. I have a meeting to crash.”

Click.

* * *

Let out a deep, misty sigh as I left the building. Done. Barring any hissy fits from the companies after they started their work with the Ministry- and I didn’t expect any- I was done. It was early evening, and there was fresh snow beneath my hooves, shining bright from all the lights that made the city famous. I felt at ease. I felt… liberated. Just like almost thirty years ago in the park after I erased the Mumei from public memory.

I turned around to face Zoleks and Song Spinner. “I want to thank you both personally for helping me out with this even though you didn’t have to- or want to. So please, if there’s anything I can do for either of you, please tell me. Don’t even hesitate.”

Zoleks looked… unhappy. Song… wary. The big zebra buck spoke first. “Just don’t put me through anything like that ever again, okay? I can’t speak for Song, but I hated every moment of that.” The black-furred pegasus winced at that.

I nodded. “I sincerely apologize for-”

“Don’t you ‘I sincerely apologize’ to me,” Zoleks interrupted with an anger I’d only seen a few times before- none of them directed to me. “You bucking enjoyed all of that! I could see it!”

“It was an act, Zoleks!” I said to him, shoulders slumping and ears tucking back. “It was all an act! Who do you think those guys would have listened to? Me, or Hothead Hokkaido? Frost Windchill is a historian, equinpologist, and the chairpony of the Manehattan Northerner Culture Committee! Hokkaido was a goddessdamn, scum-of-the-slum, puppet master hedonist!”

“Well you’re not a historian or equinpologist right now,” Zoleks said coolly. “So who are you?”

I started at him, at them. Zoleks, brimming with fury, and Song Spinner, looking… almost afraid. I realized… I had no answer.

And that scared me.

“I don’t know,” I answered quietly, looking them both in the eye. “I’m Frost, plain and simple. I left Hokkaido behind in the dumpster. But sometimes good bucks have to do bad things to make the world right. I didn’t enjoy doing what I did- believe me- and I hope I never have to do it again (Lies.). Zoleks, Song, I owe you both my thanks and my apologies for all this.”

Zoleks let out a sigh, grimacing and looking away as if wanting to believe me. “I don’t know. It was different back then, back when you destroyed it. I knew it was acting, and I was with you all the time. I mean, I still did it because I wanted to be there for you, but… I don’t know if this is the Frost I want to remember.” He let out another sigh. “Well we’ll have to see. I best be making myself scarce. I don’t like the looks all those other ponies are giving me for being with you two. So bye.” And then he walked away across the street, swallowed up in the stripes.

I looked to Song Spinner. “... what about you?” I asked softly. She flinched nonetheless. “You’ve been awful quiet.”

She sighed deeply. “All I know is I don’t like the old you. It’s why I did all this.” She bit her lip and turned away, spreading her wings. “I’m sorry.” And then she took off.

Even as the crowd milled past me, I felt all alone.

* * *

Was back at that park, back at that bench. Was late at night when most people were partying away at the juvie-joints and nightclubs. Not me. Was sitting down, looking into the snow. Melted some of it to look into my reflection. Looked hard into that gaunt face with those intense, fierce eyes.

I wasn’t Hokkaido. He wore a near-perpetual… smile, and his eyes always seemed to be laughing. Nor was I Frost. He wore no mask to hide his emotion, and his eyes were wholesome and radiated with warmth. One, the Master. Two, the Doctor.

So who was this stranger in the snow, this gaunt-faced buck with both fire and coldness in his eyes?

I let the pool freeze over with the familiar feeling of being watched. “Something the matter, Lord Protector?”

Cloth rippled next to me, and the feeling disappeared. “You.”

I glanced around and still found myself to be alone- visually at least.

“I’m still here,” Dawn spoke from beside me on the bench. "Nobody else is around, and as far as any potential passersby are concerned, you’re just a crazy buck talking to himself.”

I snorted, “Thanks.”

“Sarcasm,” he noted. “So not all hope is lost.”

I huffed at that. “I suppose not.” I drew in a deep breath. “Did I do the right thing, Lord Dawn Treader?”

“You’re talking to a buck out of his time here.”

“The question stands.”

He let out a soft sigh. “Giving advice isn’t in my job description. Not this kind at least.” He inhaled deeply. “‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are such ambiguous terms. It’s all a matter of perspective. Actually, isn’t that something inherent in The Way you Hokkaidans follow?”

Every word came crisp and clear now. Father spoke with a gravity I have never heard from him before, weighted with the utmost importance. “And so we must learn. We must learn to see the good in that which is evil, and we must learn to see the evil in that which is good. Pledge allegiance to neither side but instead strive to strike your own balance between the two. That is the meaning of Yukute. That is the meaning of The Way.”

“... yes it is,” I said in a whisper.

“So there you go,” Dawn said. “Your methods were questionable, yes, but hardly so in the grand scheme of things. You gave the Ministry a valuable head-start. I just wish you’d done it in a way that didn’t place you in danger.” He sighed softly. “I suppose you should do what you must, Frost. Forgive me for being cliché, but those who care don’t matter, and those who matter don’t care."

I narrowed my eyes at the source of his voice. “You say that as if Zoleks was just an ordinary buck. He was my best friend for nearly forty-two years, Dawn. He’s always been there for me. Even when he didn’t have to be.”

“And that’s why I shouldn’t give advice,” Dawn sighed. “My apologies, Frost.”

My gaze softened gradually. “I get what you mean, though. Guess now it’s time to head to Canterlot to see how to help next.”

“Very well.” A pregnant pause. “Trouble coming from behind the bench. Two earth ponies, one unicorn, one griffin. Eighty meters and closing. Definitely coming for you.”

“Let them come,” I muttered. “If they try anything, do me a favor and don’t kill them.”

“Are you assuming to be my superior?”

“I’d rather avoid a mess. I’m thinking you’d want the same.”

“Fair enough.”

I cracked my neck and took a deep breath as my heart rate spiked. I could hear the snow crunching as they approached. Four of them as described. They all wore masks improvised from Nightmare Night costumes, and that only made my blood boil.

They stopped only a few meters away. “You’ve got some nerve trying something like this in my own city,” I snorted.

“This ain’t your city, Hokkaido,” one of the earth ponies- a mare- retorted. “Not anymore. Don’t keep acting like you still own the place. You leave tomorrow. We see your sorry mug in town again, you’re dying in a dumpster for sure this time.”

I grimaced at that, but my rage brought me an eerie calm. “It took you this long to stage this? I’m already finished here and headed out.”

“So Hokkaido’s running scared?” the mare laughed.

Unimpressed, I sprouted a pair of ice arms and brandished my balisongs in a twin aerial into a backhand grip, then cycled them shut before independently rolling them around my ‘thumbs’ into a foregrip. Then I slid their spring latches across to lock them open. “Do I look scared to you?” I said lowly, lowering my gaze to show them the cold fire in those eyes.

A couple of them took a step back, but the griffin stretched his hand, displaying his sharpened talons. “That’s cute.”

“Well, looks like he’s going down fighting,” the earth mare huffed, then nodded to the unicorn. “Disarm him. Then we’re teaching him a lesson.”

Rule one of any engagement- never let the enemy know your game plan. Anticipating the unicorn to go for my blades, I thickened my arms to strengthen my grip.

I didn’t have to. The moment I saw the unicorn lighting up his horn, Dawn made his move.

The world turned black- but not because I was knocked out. All light just disappeared. There was a sickening crack, quickly followed by a rapid string of thumps and the heavy thuds of bodies hitting the snow. When the darkness gave way to the cold, snowy night, all four of them had been downed without a single shout. The unicorn’s horn had a jagged crack running along its entire length, and I couldn’t help but wince and reach up to rub my own.

“Good Lorn,” I remarked quietly, twirling my blades closed, stowing them, and sublimating my arms. “I told you not to kill them.”

“I didn’t,” the invisible unicorn said. “They’re still alive, I assure you.”

“Explain the unicorn,” I nickered.

“Extra precautions. Spellcasters can be unpredictable. His horn will be fine in a few months. Or six.”

Overkill indeed… I loomed over the limp form of the earth pony mare, now lying flat on her back, and removed her mask. Hm. Didn’t recognize her. Same for the rest of them. Random hired thugs, then. “Lord Protector, any chance you could wake this one up?” I asked as I froze her hooves to the ground in a way very similar to a certain griffin one-hundred-seventy years later.

“Tail,” Dawn spoke up.

I looked down and parted the fibers to reveal a hidden switchblade. Arcing a brow, I made a mental note to secure the tail in the future as I picked it up in an ice arm. “And now?”

“As requested.”

The mare jerked, and her eyes bulged wide open as she let out a sharp gasp for breath. I maintained a dead-serious expression. “Hi there.” She jerked her tail, craning her neck downward as she realized she was missing something. “Looking for this?” I held up her switchblade and flicked the blade out, dancing it around my fingers. No… just wasn’t the same as mine. “Let’s get started. Do not shout. Do not call for help. You won’t get any. What’s your name and affiliation?”

The mare watched as I tossed the blade up and effortlessly caught it in a backhand grip, looking ready to stab. “... Tableturner, South Bucklyn Boys” she muttered as she struggled against her restraints. Fruitlessly, I might add.

“Subservient,” I remarked. “I like that. Now who hired you?”

The storyteller cocked his head for a moment. He did not smile.

Had to start somewhere, folks.

* * *

Click. He picked up. Loud music in the background.“Hello? Who is this? How’d you get this number?”

“You know who. And you know how.”

“... oh.” Music faded. “Well, what exactly did you need? Did you need me to join you for another meeting crash or-”

“Stop talking, Duct Tape. You think you can play dumb after sending four gang goons after me? No, I’m going to give you a choice. Leave your company, or I’ll destroy it and ruin you..”

There was a momentary silence, then a soft, disbelieving chuckle. “What? You can’t be-”

“I’m dead serious. I didn’t just found the largest gang you never heard of- I destroyed it. In ten days. With yours, I won’t even need ten hours. You saw what I did to your company with a single unspoken command. If I don’t see you stepping down in tomorrow’s business section, you’ll have a good few thousand employees wanting your head on a plate. Get moving.”

Click.

* * *

He did. And I was glad. Could have turned out a lot uglier if he hadn’t stepped down. But he did.

Was back home in Ponyville. Just a quick stop while the train was there. Just had only one thing left to do.

Wanted to just… just get rid of it. Wanted to be done with it for good this time. But I’d remember. I’d always remember. So maybe I’d keep it. Just in the corner of my vision. To remind me.

And so I took off my trusty fedora.

Hung it just behind the closet door.

Closed it.

Moved on.

* * *

Canterlot. Not even the City of Hopes and Dreams could escape the war. Along with the usual posters, there was now increased presence in the air and in the streets for the Day and Night Guard. And the conversation was everywhere.

“Did you hear they started a draft? That’s horrible, forcing people to fight! And I heard the chef of Taste of the World down in Tail Aviv was conscripted! Can you believe it?”

“Horrible as it is, we need the ponypower. The Legion is escalating the conflict, and so must we. Good goddesses, they’re using dragons now! Dragons! How the hay do you kill one, let alone dozens on a single battlefield?”

“I just don’t know… good Lorn, I want to strangle those idiots who committed us to the War!”

“If you want to blame somepony, blame the princesses.”

Those words. They made my blood boil. I turned to the two nobleponies seated at an outdoor café- namely the stallion- and strode right up to them. “And why would you blame them?”

“Ah… sir, we’re just enjoying conversation over brunch here,” the buck spoke first. “We’d much rather continue in private.”

I exaggerated my look around the outdoor café. “You could have chosen a better place for privacy.”

“Essence, I’ll just call a waiter over to shoo him out,” the mare sighed.

“Oh, like a stray cat?” I huffed softly. “What, afraid to be proven wrong?”

That gave them pause. One thing aristocrats don’t take lightly- a challenge to their honor. “Excuse me?” the buck snorted. “Well if it’s a debate you want, it’s a debate you’ll get.”

“Excellent,” I said with a nod, lighting up my horn to form a chair beneath me as I sat.

The mare eyed me as I did so. “Aren’t you… Doctor Windchill? From Littlehorn?”

“I am,” I replied.

“My condolences,” she said- sincerely at least, “but… don’t you think that would make you just the slightest bit biased?”

“Doctor of Equinpology, Doctor of World History,” I countered. “Or at least I used to be. Try me.”

“Mm. Fair point…”

“After you,” I said, sweeping a hoof toward the buck. “State your arguments for placing blame primarily on the princesses.”

The gentlecolt cleared his throat. “Some may argue that the princesses did all they could to prevent the onset of the War, going so far as to unanimously veto Parliament’s war declaration. But what about after their veto was overturned? For something as horrible as they made war out to be- and indeed it became just as horrible- why didn’t they enact some emergency power to counter it? In fact, why have none of them done anything to stop the War since the early ceasefire? Princess Cadance has little political power outside of settling ties in Parliament and acting as a dignitary, but I find it telling that neither Princess Luna nor then-Princess Celestia did anything else.”

I allowed some time to ensure he was done. Then: “Fair points. That said, I argue that the princesses could not have stopped the War even if they wanted to. Just look at Aldorna. The government has been vehemently neutral and non-belligerent in the War, but its citizens are practically split evenly into remaining neutral, supporting Equestria, and supporting Zebrica. Those belligerent groups have been forming and continue to form paramilitary companies to fight for the side they support even as their government tries to control them. They just keep finding loopholes to keep fighting. That’s the direction I believe Equestria was- and still largely is- headed. Coal pirates and bandits largely did as they pleased because law enforcement agencies supported them, and many Equestrians- not just ponies- heavily antagonized Zebrican gem pirates and later the country for supplying them. It’s only now that a significant portion of the population is having second thoughts.

“Believe me- the princesses aren’t supporting this war- either openly or in some sort of secret conspiracy. They were pulled with the tide of the masses. It was only after a personal blow- Littlehorn- was dealt to Princess Luna that she began to support it. And now the same for me. And the same for so many millions of Equestrians. And that’s why we’ve passed the point of no return. So yes, perhaps you can blame Princess Luna. I can allow that. But you ignore everything else if you place blame primarily on her, her sister, and her daughter-by-title.”

The buck pursed his lip momentarily, mulling these new ideas over. “I see… then where does the blame belong in your opinion, then?”

I felt… something bubbling up, welling up inside me. Not rage. Not sadness. Something else. “Everyone. We all contributed to allowing this war to happen and to let it go on long enough to reach the point of no return.” I stood to leave and sublimated the chair. “And you can blame me as well. Because I have a war effort to support.”

* * *

It had only been fifteen days since I was last in Canterlot. A lot can change in fifteen days. The way to the castle was almost unrecognizable. What was once a wide, open plaza was now filled with a rectangular reflecting pool- currently without water- flanked by six new buildings, each with their own distinct designs even half-built. The first, spartan, The second, warm and friendly with the beginnings of a spacious lawn. The third, way, way too pink. The fourth, subtle yet stylish. The fifth, just… outrageous. The sixth, borderline futuristic. Ministry Walk. And at the far end of the pool was the frame and base of the Celestian Monument. Tall, thin, the frame of the obelisk was on its way to rise even higher than Castle Canterlot to honor her millenium-long rule and the peace she strived to uphold. Everypony was scrambling to get the construction done. It was loud, it was messy- and it was closed.

“Sir, this area is restricted from the general public,” the leftmost of the pair of Day Guards barring passage declared. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I don’t fall into that category,” I said simply, unfazed as I sprouted an ice arm to flash my new government-issued ID card at them. Honestly, my arm alone would have been enough.

“Doctor Windchill,” the same guard acknowledged, and they both bowed their heads momentarily and stood aside. “Apologies.”

“I’m not a doctor anymore,” I muttered in reflex as I strode past them. It both irritated and unsettled me that so many people knew what I was- sole survivor of the Littlehorn Massacre. Even if they didn’t know me by face, the moment they heard my name, they knew. Manehattan had always been a shelter for celebrities due to its treatment of them as normal people outside of tourists’ view. I was going to dread my new line of work.

But I had to do it (No you didn’t.).

I passed by several more Day Guards in near-identical fashion on my way into the marbled halls of Castle Canterlot. Upon passing through the grand doorway, the subtle feeling of being watched crawled up my mane. To think that years ago, I actually didn’t welcome it...

On the way to her office, I passed by a hallway with a high, vaulted ceiling supported by many columns. I took pause and took a detour through the hallway, and my pace slowed I looked up at the stained-glass windows that were spaced at regular intervals down its length. They depicted scenes from the founding of Equestria and the bickering of the leaders and then their union under the Covenant of Equestria, then scenes from the Age of Exploration and the rule of Discord. Then came his end at the hooves of Luna and Celestia, followed by their coronation and the beginnings of the Age of Empires. The historian in me noted the wars between the three superpowers for colonial spoils were left out, skipping right to scenes from the Age of Industry and the triumphs of the Bearers.

The historian in me…

The storyteller sighed deeply, mistily.

The thought just made me take pause after stopping by the last window- a depiction of Captain-in-Prince Shining Armor and Princess Cadance unleashing a powerful pulse of pure love. Then I turned around. I took one last look down the hallway, down those rows of windows into our heritage, our equinity- and to the doors to the throne room at the end, unattended, unguarded.

And I turned my back on it and resumed my pace toward her office.

The entrance to her office was flanked by a pair of Lunar Guards I didn’t recognize. Both were pegasi dracoponies, and one of them had a helm with an engraved extension that completely covered his left eye. Both snapped their stances narrower as I approached.

I looked from one to the other. “Shine and Meadow, I presume,” I said simply.

Both gave a stout, near-simultaneous nod, and though I could not tell who was who at the moment, the dracopony with the normal helm spoke in a soft, almost melodic tone, “Luna will see you now. She’s been waiting.” I nodded in thanks, and they reached outward with their leathery wings to part the double doors for me.

Luna’s office was little more than just that. Just a white, wooden desk with a pair of plush seating cushions opposite of it and a terminal up top- and plenty of paperwork and spent inkwells. The ovular room itself was nothing special, but over half of the room and a good portion of the ceiling was dominated by a multi-paned window that gave a panoramic view of Canterlot and the valley and river below.

The storyteller took a deep breath and cast his gaze downward for a few seconds.

It wouldn’t be the last time I’d see that view.

She looked at me with dark pouches under her eyes and seemed to swell with joy, flashing me this wide, tired smile. The mote of magic surrounding her quill winked out, and she fluttered up and around her desk. We met just around the other side, hugging tight. Shut my eyes tight and just hugged her for all I was worth, touching my forehead to hers. Just held each other close like that for a good while. I hardly noticed Shine and Meadow closing the doors to grant us privacy.

When I finally pulled away, I let out a deep sigh. “Nightingale, love, you’ve been skipping sleep...”

“Three hours a night is all the equine body needs,” she said in reply, guiding us down with her wing to sit down on the pair of seat cushions together. “My guards endure it. So can I.”

Then came the rippling of cloth, and we looked up to find Dawn Treader close by. “Personally, Luna, I believe your line of work is much more mentally fatiguing than ours.”

Luna let out a sigh, magically pinching the bridge of her nose as we pulled away from one another. “Dawn, really? Now?”

“The opportunity presented itself,” he answered simply. “Hours upon hours of paperwork put more strain on the mind and spirit than you might believe. Have you gotten any other exercise or stimulation other than walking to and from your quarters to your washroom to the dining hall and back here?”

“... no,” she muttered.

“Then do try to get more rest, Luna?” the unicorn dracopony sighed softly. “You do no good for anyone pushing yourself to languor- not you, not him, not us, and certainly not Equestria.”

Luna eyed him for several long seconds before letting out a sigh of resignation. “Alright. I’ll grant myself a bit more time to rest. But I shall not sleep myself spoiled.”

I arced a brow between the two of them. “Oh, so you listen to him but not your husband?”

Luna flattened her lips, then glanced at Dawn Treader. Then came that alibi you’ve gotten so familiar with from… Her: “It’s complicated.” She turned to the Lord Protector. “You made your point. I’d like to discuss things in private from here.”

He bowed. “I serve.” And then he was gone in the blink of an eye and the rippling of cloth.

I kept that brow cocked. “‘Complicated’ how?”

She grimaced momentarily, clicked her tongue, and answered with that subtle touch of irritation. “‘Complicated’ in that it’s a thousand-year-old regret I’d rather not dredge up, Frost.”

I eyed her for just a second, checked myself, and then broke eye contact in concession and sighed mistily. “Sorry.”

I heard her sigh in turn. “Sorry.” Then I heard her shift and reach around me with her wing, tugging at me. I couldn’t resist and fell into her embrace once more, hugging her tight and revelling in those soft feathers. “Applejack contacted me earlier. Thank you for helping her.”

I snorted softly and nuzzled up her neck, looking up into those eyes, so tired yet still so full of everything. “You should be thanking me for helping you, Nightingale.”

She chuckled softly, saying in a tone reminiscent of a reluctant, admonished foal, “Thank you for helping me.”

I gave my own husky chuckle as I pulled away. “That’s better. Now, you’ve been a busy mare too if the news have anything to say about it. NETO, eh? North Equestrian Treaty Organization. Your answer to the Legion.”

She nodded, standing and starting to pace about the room. “Khotek’s pulling out all the stops- oh, look at me, using modern figures of speech- and called to arms all peoples of the Empire. That includes Zebrican ponies. You’ve seen the increased security no doubt. All in preparation for infiltration attempts. And even then, we’re still playing catch-up with the Legion.” The dark-blue alicorn paused. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to learn about modern military tactics when there are no books written about it? You’d have to experience it first to employ it, and even then, what good is that if you can’t outpace your enemy and can only learn new tactics reactively?”

I stood up to move to her side, resting a hoof on her shoulder. “I think we need to dial back a bit, love. NETO. Other than the tabloids undoubtedly posing it as a ‘neato’ idea, why the name?”

She snorted, “Simply put, we don’t exactly have that many allies in the southern hemisphere. That is to say- given the majority of the dragons and minotaurs are imperial allies- we have none. Other than Almarinia, none of our territories or protectorates have pledged support to the Equestrian war effort. We didn’t force, and we didn’t request them to. After… the incident, they were more than willing to do so. Neighpon, Caledonia, Texass, and Tallahorsee all pledged their support, and at this point we’re going to need it. I’ve also asked to meet with representatives from Cloudbank, Berrillios. and the Buffalo Nation. The former two accepted.”

I nodded slowly as she spoke then watched her closely. “And the Buffalo Nation did not,” I said.

“They declined, yes,” Luna said with a nod, inhaling softly through her nostrils. “So I must ask a favor from you, Frost. You know Chief Thunderhooves personally. So do I, but I feel he knows me more as a ruler than a friend. That is not an image that would sit well with him in this situation. Frost, could you please meet with him and ask him to join NETO?”

“I’ll do it,” I answered with a stout nod and without hesitation.

“Thank you,” she said with a soft sigh and smile. “And Frost, if he continues to decline, please ask why. It’s all I ask. If it’s because of his or his people’s perception of me especially, I do wish to know. I may be ruler of Equestria, but I don’t place myself on a pedestal. I’m past that now. I ask for his aid. I do not demand it. Alright?” She reached out with a wonderful wing to caress my cheek, and I could only nod in reply as I closed my eyes and tilted my head into it. Fatigue momentarily overwhelmed me, but I snapped wide awake as soon as I felt myself teetering to the side, heart racing. Luna let out another soft sigh, looking at me with loving eyes. “Oh, Frost… you’ve been neglecting your sleep too…”

I let out a quick, quiet chuckle. “Too used to staying up late trying to wait for you.” Both of us looked back at the desk as a green fireball blossomed upon her desk and yielded… still more paperwork. Meeting gazes once again, as one we let out heavy sighs with bitterness in our eyes.

“... five more minutes?” I asked quietly.

Luna let out a soft breath and wrapped her wings around me. “Ten.”

The storyteller took in a deep breath through his nostrils and lowered his gaze. He was quiet for several seconds. Then he let out a soft, quick, puffy breath through his mouth.

We just held one another. Can’t put it any other way. Just… held one another tight and let the feelings flow free. All the love. All the tears. Just let it all out.

Quiet again with bitterness in his eyes.

Sorry, I… I just…

Quiet again. “Caught up in the moment?” one of them asked.

.... yeah.

He inhaled deeply and raised his gaze once more.

We didn’t even get seven. There was a subtle knock at the door, and we both turned, the moment lost. Sunshine, Meadow… one of them called from the other side, “The ambassador from Cloudbank is here, your Highness.”

We met eyes. She steeled herself. “... I guess it’s time, isn’t it?” Luna whispered as she brushed my cheek with a wing.

I reached back up with my hoof to cup her cheek, mirroring her. “I don’t want to go..,” I croaked.

She tugged me closer with her wing, and I with my hoof. Our foreheads touched once more, eyes closed. She inhaled strongly. “I’m sorry. I have to do this.”

“I know,” I whispered back, hugging tightly. “See you soon… and please, love… get some sleep. Alright?”

“You too,” she chuckled softly in a way that made me crack a smile. “... guess we can at least say good night while we’re at it.” I could hear and feel her magic sparkle to life, and I knew what was coming. “Sleep well, fresh Frost on the ground.“

I kissed her on the brow tenderly. “Sleep well, my little Nightingale.”

She kissed me in turn.

Then the world whited out and I slipped into space. For a moment I felt free and… hopeful.

Then I was back home in Ponyville. And reality came rushing back.

Deep breath. Straight posture. Level gaze. Somehow I could feel her doing the same, miles and miles away.

Because we both had work to do. For better or for worse...

We had a war to fight.

* * *

Was glad there was no reception waiting for the new arrivals at Appleloosa. Certainly didn’t miss it. At least Braeburn seemed to know a thing or two about designing firearms at Ironshod, even with a slow start.

Brushed my way past the others on the platform and cooled myself from the searing midday sun with a thin veil of mist, making haste toward the apple orchard. But as I did my best to ignore the town itself, I couldn’t help but find my eyes drifting. Appleloosa hadn’t changed much since I was last there. Still had the blaring pop music, still had the casino and theme park, still had the crowds. Some of them were even smiling. But take a closer look, and you could see the smiles were forced, trying to avoid and ignore the warring world around them in this little slice of paradise on the way to Las Pegasus. It felt empty, hollow- even more than how it was when I came here twenty-three years prior. Of course I’d visited more times than that since then- recurring field work is a part of equinpology after all- but… that first visit left the most profound impact on me.

Little had changed about the reservation as well. The cluster of teepees had grown in number since I was last there, but the image of the gigantic buffalo lumbering about and performing their daily tasks before heading to the town for nightly work remained untouched. Just like the years prior, they turned their heads toward me in unison as I approached- herd mentality- but this time I paid them no mind. I was a familiar face, and they soon returned to their duties.

Similarly, another familiar face trotted forth to greet me. I offered a thin smile and a respectful bow to the full-grown buffalo heifer. “Ya'at eeh, asdzání.”

Ya'at eeh, diyaáhastiin.” Little Strongheart greeted in turn, and we shook hooves. “Some things never change.” Her smile withered. “Holding up alright?”

And so did mine. I knew what she was alluding to. “Mostly, It’s been over three weeks, Strongheart. And I have work to do.”

“Oh?” And that smile returned. “What kind of research this time?”

Mine didn’t. “I’m not here for research.” No. Don’t be cross with her. This isn’t Manehattan, and she isn’t a Mumei. Calm down. Gentler tone. “I’m actually here just to have a chat with Chief Thunderhooves. That’s all. Just a quick visit.”

“Ah, alright,” Little Strongheart said with a nod. “Well, I’ve got a calf who needs help with college applications. He’ll be in the same tent.”

I nodded in turn. “Take care, alright?” We shared a bow, and I strode toward the familiar, worn teepee near the center of town.

He was seated on a simple cushion, watching a television set connected to a portable generator. He looked old. So old. Yet he was neither thin nor fat, and he still had that powerful presence that seemed to reach across the room and surround me. He still wore that feathered headdress, and his eyes still twinkled with aged wisdom. His nose, lips, and the areas around his eyes were wrinkled, and his fur was streaked with gray. But his eyes lit up and a smile stretched those lips as he saw me enter.

He shifted his bulk to fully face me, showing not a hint of weakness. He greeted, voice as deep and thick as ever, “I welcome you again to the Clan of the Thunderhooves, Frost.”

“I am welcomed,” I said in turn, bowing my head and sitting down before him before raising my gaze to his.

We sat in silence for… I don’t know how long. I think we both saw it in each others’ eyes, the weariness. Our smiles disappeared as one, and soon the noise from the rest of the camp seemed to drown out. Only sounds from the television set filled the air around us.

“-cinct reports another equicide in the Western Quarter of Manehattan. Eyewitness accounts describe a drive-by shooting of a stallion later linked to the South Bucklyn Boys. It has been suggested that this may be a revenge shooting linked to the drive-by last Monday. Police are looking for the gunner, a purple earth pony mare with a short, dark-blue mane; and the driver, a lime-green unicorn mare with a long, beige mane. Both have been identified as members of Trinitario. Authorities are looking for any information and can be reached by the number on your-”

At some point, I’d turned my head to watch. A reporter was showing highlight reel footage of police investigating the crime scene with plenty of bystanders looking on in a mix of confusion- and perhaps a bit of apathy.

“I remember back when gang disputes were handled with pies,” Chief Thunderhooves murmured. I glanced at him and saw him watching with me. “Hay… I remember back when Appleloosa did that to us. Oh, ancestors, has it really been that long?”

I continued to watch him. “It has,” I whispered.

He let out a deep sigh through his nostrils and flattened his lips. “Look what all the Great War’s given us… it’s given us a taste of death, and now it’s as if we’re starting to become addicted to it.” He sighed again and then switched the set off by remote, facing me once more. “Sometimes I feel I should stop watching the news. All it’s doing is depressing me.”

Blue scales glittered before my eyes, and I closed them for a few seconds. Look at what the Great War’s given us indeed…

The storyteller inhaled deeply.

I don’t rightly know when The War became The Great War. It just crept into the tabloids, into reporters’ scripts, into everyday conversation. Fitting, really. The War itself crept onto us. And was great enough for it to change the course of history.

He inhaled deeply again.

“... not exactly the best way to greet an old friend,” Chief Thunderhooves muttered. “Sorry. Let’s push that aside. It’s been a while since your last visit, Frost. What research are you here for this time?”

And it just had to start off like that. I exhaled a cool, misty breath. May as well drop the bomb early. “I’m not here for research. I’m here on behalf of the Equestrian government.” Immediately, his attempt at an easy smile disappeared. “First and foremost, what I have to discuss with you today is neither a demand nor a warning. The buffalo people already paid enough during the Age of Empires. I’m not compounding interest.”

He seemed to relax at that, at least somewhat. “When did you start working for the government?”

“Roughly three weeks ago,” I replied.

“After Littlehorn, then,” he surmised.

I gave a tiny nod. “Yes.”

Chief Thunderhooves frowned slightly. “Does this involve the War? Does it involve NETO?”

Again I nodded. “Yes. Chief.” I inhaled softly, glancing downward, then meeting his eyes once more. “I am no supporter of the War. Let me make that clear. Ever since it started, I haven’t seen any merit that hasn’t been outweighed by its horrors. And I can’t say I fully understand those horrors either. All I know is that far too many still clamor for war, and that we’ve passed the point of no return. What little hope we had for peace died with Littlehorn. So now the way I seek to end the War is through defeat of the Empire. To that end, Luna created the North-Equestrian Treaty Organization to unite the Principality and all her territories and protectorates under that cause. I don’t like that in order to end the War, we have to fight it. But it’s the best we can do right now.

“Chief Thunderhooves, you are seen- rightly so- as the leader of the Buffalo Nation. Your support of the Equestrian cause would go a long way to forging more alliances. Last week, Luna invited the Buffalo Nation to join NETO. I understand that the invitation was declined. I’m not here to demand you to join. I’m not even here to request that from you. I’m not here to warn you about any repercussions- because there aren’t any. I’m here because I want to understand your decision and the rationale behind that decision. Will you grant me that?”

He was studying me with his eyes the entire time, patiently silent until I was finished. When I was, he said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were born a politician. You certainly speak like one.”

I didn’t reply to that. Because honestly, he had no idea.

Chief Thunderhooves sat up straighter and let out a puff of hot breath through his nostrils. “Close to thirty years ago, not long after Appleloosa was built, my people had a dispute with them. You’ve walked through the apple orchard to reach this place countless times. That orchard actually runs right through our traditional stomping grounds. Those wide pathways and trails didn’t exist before, though. Those were complete aisles of trees. We tried at first to negotiate with the Appleloosans peacefully to try to get them to move their orchard elsewhere, but they refused. It was the only patch of good soil around. When negotiations broke down and with our ancestors still calling to us, we took the matter into our own hooves. We trampled through the orchard with abandon and sabotaged seed shipments and ‘transplant trains’ as they called them. And I endorsed all of it.

“Then the Bearers came. Once again, negotiations were on the table, but… we both only reluctantly went through the motions. Neither of us saw a point to them.” He paused, glancing downward. “Pinkie Pie, in her own unique way, tried to teach us something. I’m sure you’ve heard her say it from time to time- ‘you’ve got to share, you’ve got to care.’ I don’t believe trying to get the message across through song was the most effective way, and nobody listened. I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until after a direct confrontation- and getting a pie to the face-” He cracked a smile at that, one I couldn’t help but share one through the image alone, “that we were able to reach a compromise. Appleloosa was able to keep the land and keep planting trees so long as they built a wide road through it and shared their food with us. This agreement later changed with the times. Soon we were offered employment and education in town in exchange for expanding the orchard by helping with rain dances and arability contracts with our ancestors. We’ve come through the agreement better for it in my opinion. I don’t agree with all of the town’s choices in its industrialization and commercialization, but I do my best to understand them.”

His eyes met mine once more. “Those words are words I’ve lived by since. You’ve got to share- nobody has everything. By learning to share and trade, we can all live comfortably and be better off from it. You’ve got to care- by understanding the motivations and cultural influences of other people, you can learn not to antagonize differences but appreciate similarities. In doing so, you can overcome those differences to forge friendships. There is no need for violence- only the need to listen and learn.

“And the Great War goes against all of this. It goes against everything I stand for.” He pointed a hoof at me to punctuate his statements. “Equestria and Zebrica failed to learn how to share. Their greed only drove them to further their own interests and their own interests alone. They failed to learn how to care. Nobody tried to understand the other. Nobody tried to resolve it without violence. And look where it’s gotten us. Ten years of warfare- ten years. Was all of this meant to prove a point? Has Equestria gotten any more coal or oil, and has Zebrica gotten any more gems than they would have if they simply would have adjusted their trade agreement or their needs to the new demands? It has only gotten you all nothing but a taste for death and nothing but the spoils of war- rotten spoils.”

The old buffalo sighed sharply through his nose. “There. That’s why I do not support this war and why I will not join NETO.”

I watched him the whole time, and as he finished, I nodded slowly. “Alright. I understand.”

“So now I have questions for you, Frost,” Chief Thunderhooves spoke. “Are you going to try to convince me to pledge support nonetheless?”

I looked long and hard into those eyes. They did not antagonize me. They did not belittle me. They only sought to understand. And I yielded and closed mine. “No.”

“You hesitated.” It wasn’t a challenge or objection. It was just an observation. And yet I didn’t reply. The old buffalo sighed softly. “What happened to you, Frost? What happened to that searching stallion I met twenty-three years ago? Your eyes, they were so full of hope and wonder, brimming with them even in your time of loss! Now they’re… they’re so sad and so angry! What happened that an equinpologist and historian such as you- a lover of culture and all cultures- should suddenly support this Great War?” He stooped over slightly to level his head with mind. “What did Littlehorn do to you?”

Deep breath. Closed my eyes. Opened them slowly, hoping my gaze had softened. How to answer this...? Another deep breath. “The mare I love was… deeply affected by what happened at Littlehorn. I was too. But it was nothing compared to the pain and anguish she went through.”

“You found somepony else,” he remarked softly.

“Yes, and she was at the center of it all,” I replied. “She is the reason why I decided to stop being a bystander and stop standing by. I know it’s twisted logic that in order to end this war, I choose to fight it in my own way, but haven’t you seen what happened when we tried to stem the tide and bring peace?” I motioned to the television set. “Luna and Celestia both tried to stop us from going down the warpath, and they failed. And now Luna has to pick up all the pieces. Ministry Mare Fluttershy? She protested long and hard, and now that she’s head of Ministry of Peace, even she realized that the War is past the point of no return. She’s now working to reduce casualties, and I can see the hurt inside her too. That’s just what this has become, Chief Thunderhooves. Too many people still clamor for war, especially now after Littlehorn with vengeance on everyone’s mind. The fire’s been stoked too high, and now all we can do is save what we can from being consumed by the flames before it burns out. I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. But the sooner this War’s over, the better.”

Now it was Chief Thunderhooves’ turn to take that all in. He fell quiet for a while, his wise eyes musing. He crossed his forehooves for a few seconds, and then reached up to rub his muzzle. “Is she still alive?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“... is she Princess Luna?”

“... yes.” I flattened my lips. He deduced it. There was no point in hiding it any longer. “How did you know?”

“I might be old, but I’m not senile,” he huffed softly, showing a ghost of a smile. “At least, I don’t like to think so. I found it strange how you referred to her without her title when you first spoke of her. It was a pattern you held, and you did the same for Princess Celestia. And I know you, Frost. Nopony, nobody else could bear being close enough to you for an extended period of time except for somepony so used to the cold. And Princess Luna is such a pony.”

I broke eye contact, a slight frown creasing my muzzle. Could I have really been that careless?

“What is your relation with her, the princess?” Chief Thunderhooves inquired further. “Is it love from afar, or…?”

“We’re married,” I said without looking at him. “We’d just celebrated our tenth anniversary the night before Littlehorn.”

He was quiet for a while. And I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t know what he was doing or how he was feeling. “I’m sorry that it all had to happen like this.”

“So am I.” Now I could look back at him, voice cut and cold. “And I’ve heard that far too many times. It’s been three weeks, and yet when people recognize me, I hear that everywhere I go. I’ve shed enough tears. Now’s the time for action, not rolling around in the muck of the past.”

Chief Thunderhooves watched me, looked at me, looked into me. “I see.” He inhaled softly. “Do you… have children?”

“No,” I answered. “Not while the War’s still going on. We don’t want to raise a foal in this time when so many are already growing up to hate an entire culture.”

The old buffalo nodded slowly, sadly. He let his forelegs slack. “I’m afraid, Frost. I’m afraid of what the future has in store for all of us. The world may never be the same. And I’m afraid for you.”

I craned my head up higher at that.

“I’m afraid because I now remember that look in your eye. I see anger, ferocity, and such determination. I recognize it because so many years ago I had that same look in my own eyes. But that was a much kinder, much more innocent world back then.” He inhaled softly. “That is a warrior’s look in your eyes.”

I didn’t reply to that. I didn’t have anything to say. And for a long time, neither did he. So that was what I kept on seeing, that ghost in the glass, the stranger in the snow- not Hokkaido, not Frost… a soldier.

And that made me feel so cold deep inside.

After what seemed like an eternity, Chief Thunderhooves sighed softly, “But I still see some of the Frost I know in there. You remembered and respected my people’s past with Equestria and its government, and you did not force my hoof. You still share- your secret love. And you still care- you came to understand my motivations behind declining the invitation to NETO. The least I can do in turn is share a word of caution and reach an understanding of you. And yes, I will speak not a word”

I glanced away, mist sifting from my nostrils, and nodded slowly.

“I sense that your time to leave approaches,” he said. “I have but one favor to ask of you. Perhaps it is a gift to you, in a way. Maybe it can end all this pain and suffering.” The old bull rose slightly in his seated position. “Go to her. Tell her what I told you. Tell her to remember what she stood for. Believe me, I know how she feels. So many of my people feel a strong connection to Equestria, and so many already fight against the Empire. She must be steadfast. She must continue to offer a path to peace and recon...recon
“-ciliation.”
“-reconciliation, yes.” He nodded. “Leaders still have power in this time where the people have run rampant with bloodlust. I know, and I believe she can and will find a way. Tell her.”

I looked him straight in the eye, head level, posture straight. “No.”

He sat up a little straighter, eyes narrowing. “What?”

“The answer is still no,” I said coolly, curtly.

“Frost, I insist!”

“I will not.”

“Frost… please,” he said quietly. “We must stand strong in these dark times. Please… what reason would you have?”

“... I accept your offer, Chief Thunderhooves.”

He was stock still for several seconds. Then he slowly smiled, eyes alight. “You remembered.”

It was a smile I returned. “I always do.” I stood and bowed my head. “Thank you for welcoming me to your clan, Chief.”

He bowed in turn. “You will always be welcome. Farewell.”

I rose up and turned to leave. I stood there for a few seconds, reflecting on all that he told me. And then I started out.

As I reached up to push aside the flap: “Frost.”

I stopped.

“Be well. And don’t fall.”

Turned my head back toward him. Gave a stout nod.

Then I left.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Level Up! Level 23 Reached!
Perk added: The Way of the Warrior- The journey down the warpath starts with but a single step, and once you take it, there’s no turning back. Skill points allocated toward combat skills, Sneak, and Survival count as double the amount. This occurs after other perks and traits are taken into account. (Note: Any “The Way” perk taken afterward will replace the previous “The Way” perk.)

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- The Plan

Soundtrack- No Place Like Home

Soundtrack- Tell Me Why (Special Thanks to Lazer726)

Soundtrack- He Returns

Soundtrack- Dawn Treader Encounter

Soundtrack- Growing Distance

Soundtrack- The Ghost in the Glass

Soundtrack- I Have to Do This, I Hate to Do This

Soundtrack- Empty Underneath

Soundtrack- What Happened to You?

Soundtrack- Theme of the Weary Warrior, Frost

Author's Note:

At long last. Oy... finally. Really sorry about the wait, everyone. In the end, I decided to split this chapter up with how much content is already in and was originally planned to be in it. Hopefully it was worth the wait, and I hope it was worth its weight in references.

Happy Birthday, TLS. My baby's three years old. I do still plan to keep writing- don't you worry. I plan to see this one through to the end.

Special thanks to Lazer726 for the quick pre-read. You're the best, bro.

Also, here's something worth considering- Fallout Equestria: Outlaw by Tofu. He's been a good friend of mine for years now, and it's rare for me to recommend another FoE side story. He's in the process of rewriting, and if it's anything like his later chapters of the original, they're gonna be good. This guy really needs some publicity, I feel. Do me a favor- give him a go.

Thank you for reading. As always, I encourage and enjoy feedback, especially constructive criticism.

Until next time, hopefully soon,
Adder1

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