• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,282 Views, 765 Comments

Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

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The Truth

CHAPTER TWENTY - THE TRUTH

"Everything you tried to hide will be revealed on the other side." - Squirrel Nut Zippers









The night before I first fell into the Wasteland, Roseluck had told me the tale of Ryelight Sparkle and the Summer Sandwich Celebration. I never did find out how it ended, but if the bedtime story was anything at all like the real life events that’d inspired it, a bunch of sandwiches probably would’ve become friends, discovered the Elements of Mayonnaise or something, and defeated some kinda nightmare two-decker club sandwich princess, and blasted her to crumbs using the magic of their newfound friendship.

But here's the thing. The story doesn't make any sense.

* * *

I trudged down that corridor turning it over in my mind again, and again, and again. The Elements. The brain hornets. The time travel. Everything. I had plenty of time to think about it cause that corridor was really long.

I had seen and been through a lot in that weird vortex of duckies, but I was the one who’d done it. Me. By myself.

The time. The location. I'd sensed it without any help from brain hornets, or chilly wind, or voices or any stupid crap like that.

The swirling maelstrom of Universes? I had used it to jump in and out of other worlds. Other times. Other duckies Because I could make it happen. Me!

I may have totally sucked at what I was doing, but I was still the one doing it.

It made me wonder if I was really that big of a puppet - that much of a squiggle-majig. Maybe there was more to this whole time travel thing than just getting dropped in a box against your will and being told to find your way out of it. How much of it was really me? How much could I pin on some highfalutin universe-thing?

What if all The Powers That Be ever, ever, ever did was give me a little push?

* * *

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that brain hornets, mystical crap, magic relics like the Elements of Mayonnaise really aren't anything without us ponies.

They aren’t anything at all.

Without sandwiches to live in, mayonnaise tastes awful. And without hearts to live in, the Elements of Harmony are just a bunch of rocks on an empty pedestal.

* * *

My stomach growled. I wanted mayonnaise. I wanted sandwiches. I stopped. Looked around. The inside of the wall was getting lighter. I even saw a blinking light far ahead in what passed for the horizon. I was getting closer to the end.

It looked like a cupcake - that blinky light - a cupcake that flipped in and out of existence. Or a sandwich.

Fuck, I was hungry.




I did the math. It had been over a day since I’d eaten. And then I remembered the onion. The one in my pocket. I had looked down on Sterry for ravaging one back there in that cellar, but now, it seemed like a pretty damn good idea.

I dug my face into my pocket, and fumbled with the onion in the dark. Bit into it.

"Eck."

The damn thing burned. All the way down.

My stomach could only take a little of it at a time after being empty for so long, so I had to pace myself, hungry as I was.

I put the onion away and moved on. Made for the blinky cupcake light. My Northstar.

* * *

It took forever. I walked so long, I could feel the air gradually growing thinner. Colder. Fresher. When I finally got there, it was cold enough to make me shiver. Turns out that blinking light wasn't a cupcake. It was just a tiny yellow, inedible dot.

It didn't light anything up either. Didn't show the way. All I could make out was that it was part of one of those console things that Strawberry Lemonade used to sit and fiddle with. As far as I could tell, there was nothing else remarkable there. The corridor just kept going in both directions. Darkness on either side.

I stopped. Stood in front of the yellow cupcake light. Stared. Wished it was an actual cupcake. And wondered what the hell I was supposed to do next.

A strange breeze seemed to be coming from behind the console. So I reached out with my black evil hoof and opened one of the hatches.

Bang! Crash! The whole panel came down. Just a big sheet of metal.

I leapt back. It tipped over all the way, and Boom! Echoed like crazy against the walls of the metal corridor.

When I looked up, I saw that the light was blinking brighter. And inside of the console was a great big empty space. Little metal strings dangled loosely. In the back of the great big gaping hole was a sliding metal hatch.

I stuck my head in. The cupcake light dangled over me by some kind of metal thread.

I reached out slowly and touched the sliding hatch door. It was freezing. That meant that all this time, the cold air I had felt had been coming, not from some great big "Exit This Way, Rose, and Watch Your Step on the Way Out" sort of doorway, but from a hole I might not even be able to find.

With some effort I was able to slide it open. On the other side of the hatch was another hallway. Dimly lit with purple light leaking in from somewhere. Stacks of those sheet metal panels were leaning against the wall. Next to a tool box.

"Shit," I muttered to myself. "They never finished it."

That's what was wrong. This hallway wasn't coming apart because of hundreds of years of decay. It was never finished in the first place!

I thought about it. It explained so much. Why a small town had sprung up outside of the wall rather than on the inside, where it could be protected. Why Wormwood had been able to access it. Why there even seemed to be a way out if I followed the breeze. (Because really, what is the point of a giant wall around your city to keep out enemies, if all a zebra has to do is walk right in through some hatch or another, and start messing with your fancy machinery?)

This great big structure – this marvel of technology and magic that had been mythologized by the soldiers down below - it wasn't some gift from some unknown force that had fallen from the sky. It was the work of ponies like you and me. It was imperfect.

* * *

I crawled through. Went down the second hallway until I came to a rickety staircase that looked like a Manehattan fire escape. The breeze was coming from down there. The purple glow, faint as it was, was also coming from down there.

I put one hoof on the railing. The other three hooves crept down those stairs slowly, carefully. Feeling their way around.

I felt it tremble and shake under my weight. Whispered a little prayer to Luna as I went, and made my way down seven terrifying flights of metal staircase.

‘Till suddenly - finally - my hooves were touching ground. Not just stone or metal floors. Actual ground.

When the dirt crunched under my hoof I stopped. Marveled. I had almost forgotten that that's what walking was supposed to sound like.

I lifted up my hoof and squinted - stared at that dirt under what little light I could get.

In front of me was a door. A hatch made out of the same strange onyxy material that the outside of the walls were made of. I slid it. And felt a gust of truly, remarkably, unbelievably fresh air.

* * *

And just like that, I was out. In the open. At last.

That cold air that had been creeping toward me in the hallway was way colder on the outside. That purple light that had been bleeding through the cracks - blinding.

I staggered around. Reveled the gritty feeling of more real dirt under my forehoof. Squeezed my aching eyes shut, and sucked in the coolest, most refreshingly awesome gust of air my mouth had ever tasted.

Then another one. Again. And again and again.

I was out. Out! Out! Out! Finally done with tunnels and not-knowin’sy darkness!

* * *

"Okay, Rose." I said out loud. "Get to it."

I forced my eyelids open, little by little. Then moved forward. Step by quivering step. Everything was a chore.

A gust of wind whipped through my drippity, sweatorious mane, and I got all shivery. It reminded me of the time back in kindergarten when I had gone out to play without a hat and got a bad case of icicle mane. My head got so spiky I looked like one of those punk colts from the Ra-manes, or the Buck Pistols, and when it was over, I was stuck inside for a week with the flu. I had to live off of soup, which sucked because soup is dumb.

I looked out over the hazy purple air. Listened for Hearth's Warming carols. Hoped I wasn't too late.

"Go get the folder, Rose." A voice came at me from somewhere off to the side.

"Ahh!" I shouted.

It was Wormwood. She'd been waiting. I spun around. Tried to run. Tripped. Fell. The colonel stood still, and watched from the shadows just outside of the purple spotlight.

I scurried backward. Instinctively shielding my belly with my evil hoof.

"You have it with you!" She exclaimed.

“Damnit.”

I’d given my hiding spot away.

I dug my hooves into the dirt - tried to scramble back some more, but the colonel was coming at me now. Harried. Wild eyed.

"Give it to me." She said, and stepped into the light.

"Help!" I yelled.

But we were totally alone, and that hummy wall sound drowned everything else out.

“Help!” I called out again.

No answer came so I shrieked and yelled as high and as loud as I could.

"Aiiieeee!" I screeched, in the vain hope that somepony might hear it.




Wormwood's ear twitched. She glanced to her left - the direction she worried "help" might maybe kinda possibly be coming from.

It was only a fragment of a gesture, but it told me which way to run.

I spun around again and leapt to my hooves, stumbling, screeching like a second grader on fire.

"Help! Help!" I cried, and bolted away from the wall. Away from the purple spotlight. Off toward wherever the fuck I was going.

* * *

I didn’t have much of a head start, and I was still all discombobulated from the tunnel.

I had to whip my head around all frantic-like just to figure out where I was - what exactly I was running toward.

I could barely see. I was lost as fuck.

Until I heard it. Singing. The Twelve Days of Hearth's Warming.

The soldiers. The celebration. The pivoty-ness! I hadn't missed it! And it was close. I was standing in No Mare's Land!

“Aha!” I exclaimed.

I ran! Ran across No Mare's Land till that purple light started to fade. I leapt over abandoned rubble and craters and stuff, and made for a ridge up ahead in the distance - a little piece of earth higher than the rest - an abandoned attempt at a trench wall that had tried and failed to cut across No Mare’s Land perpendicular-ish.

There was a soft white glow coming from the other side of that ridge. And singing.

I galloped toward it with everything I had.

Crampy muscles be damned! I pushed myself harder and harder and harder! ‘Till a chomp at my tail yanked me back so hard my hooves came up off the ground. I spun like a tetherball that had come loose, and got slingshotted straight into the ground.

Thud! I hit the dirt. Wormwood fell too. We tumbled in separate directions.

I somersaulted a hundred million times like a circus clown 'till I banged my head on a rock, and that damned chilly brain wind hit me again. The one that drives messages into your head with a gust of fresh air.

"Get it to the door." A voice whispered at me from inside my skull.

I looked up. Head spinning. Overcoat open.

Wormwood’s folder was on the ground some twenty feet away. And way past it was the door. The giant fucking door to the giant fucking wall of the giant fucking Crystal fucking Empire. Back the way I had come. I hadn't even realized I'd been so close!

Behind me, Wormwood was grunting. Digging her steel-coated hooves into the frozen ground. I could hear it all.

I forced myself to get up.


“Head for the singing. Head for the potatoes. The corns. The truce!" All the screaming Rose Voices in my head cried out in unison.

And there was a good chance I could make it too. But when I picked myself up, the brain wind hit me again.

"Get it to the door." It said firmly.

No explanation. No how. No why. Not even a clue about what the hell I was supposed to do with the damn thing once I got there. Just get it to the door.

Stupid brain wind.

I dashed for the folder, no clue what the hell I was going to do. Wormwood made for it too.

I could make it. I could beat her to it. I knew I could! She may have been close, but I was closer, dammit.

But once I got the folder, what then? We were on a collision course, and Wormwood was just gonna nab me half a second later anyway.

I looked her way, saw her readying herself for the lunge as she ran. Fuck. There was no way around it! I may not have been any good at hoofball back home, but I knew damn well when someone was fixing to make a tackle.

I sprinted. Leapt. And threw myself over the folder like a blanket.

Whoosh. Wormwood slipped sideways. She'd expected me to scoop it up and keep going. Her metal hooves skidded, stumbled, and whacked right into me.

"Ahhhh!" I cried. "Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahh Owww, Celestiafuck!"

It was agony.

But Wormwood took it worse. She tumbled over, and fell hard. Bitch went down like a tossed anvil, digging a crater in the dirt.

"Ow!" I came up limping, but still came up fast.

I dashed over to her, kicked some of the frozen dirt she'd knocked loose. Right into her face. Just shrieked and stomped and blasted it into her eyes. Crying like a foal the whole time.

The fallen colonel grunted and cursed.

And then I was off. Up on a tree stump. Ready to leap, run up the hill, and make for the soldiers on the other side of that ridge. I could still hear them singing!

But something wouldn’t let me. Something more than just brain wind. When I looked over my shoulder to gauge how far behind Wormwood was, I saw it: the giant wall of the giant Crystal Empire with a gigantomoon hanging over it, getting ready to set.

"Fuck."

I hated those brain hornets. Didn't trust them. Didn't trust their reasons. But Luna did. She trusted on 'em so hard, she was ready to follow their hints and riddles straight to the grave.

I don't think I have it in me for that kind of dedication, but still, I owed Luna. If not for her, the shadows would have made rosemeat out of me before I even got here.

I only saw that massive moon for the span of a single breath, but it was enough. I knew what to do.

Like a big rubber bouncy ball pinging off of the tree stump, I sprung off. And made for the Crystal Door.

* * *

Wormwood leapt up. She was fast to recover, but she got a stumbley start in the wrong direction.

Because what idiot would go back to the wall?!

I ran. Brain wind tingling. Took my head start and galloped for the door like my tail was on fire.

"This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy." I panted out loud.

I looked up for more guidance, but that big old moon had disappeared behind the wall and the dome. All it'd left behind was a couple of glowy clouds, alive with moonlight.

“Fucking...clouds” I panted.

And hoped that, once I got to the wall, the Universe had some kinda plan that involved me not getting murdered.

The colonel gained on me fast, screaming and cursing. All of that polite cool as a cucumber social chess shit had gone straight out the window.

But it didn't matter. I was getting close. I was gonna make it. I was running so hard, my veins pumped lava, but dammit, I was gonna make it.

All I had to do was not fuck up. I plastered my eyes to the ground, which was rocky. Uneven. Poorly lit.

Don't trip. I told myself. Don't trip. Don't trip. Don't trip. For once in your life, don't fucking trip.

Then I bounded over the last crater, and the ground got level. I was bathed in that purple light again! I was close. The door was dead ahead.

I pushed myself harder and harder and harder. It made me get tingly all over. Maybe from the running. Maybe from the cold. Maybe because the brain wind was giving me one last burst of energy from sources unexpected.

But whatever it was, I felt alive. Un-fucking-stoppable. I was finally gonna find out what the big fucking deal was. The folder. The door. All that crap the brain wind had been riding me about.

I didn't even care if Wormwood killed me once I got there if my last breath could be a giant fuck you to the not-knowin's.

I was gonna find out. I was unfuckingstoppable. That's right. Unfuckingstoppable. I felt like I could take on the whole damn world.

'Till Wham! I hit the door.

Literally hit it. Face first.

* * *

I reeled around. Wormwood was charging toward me, fire in her eyes.

I pressed my back against the door. Knocked. Banged. Smacked it with the folder. Like that was somehow gonna make an ancient door that the future's leading experts couldn't even crack suddenly come the fuck open just for me.

"Help!" I shouted my lungs out. "Help me, you stupid door. Help!!"

Nothing. Useless. I huddled down and shielded myself. Protected the folder. For what good it would do.

Hunched over the damn thing, and screeched at the top of my lungs like a kindergartener with snails in her hair, and braced myself for Wormwood's wrath.

And then, just when I thought she was gonna whip out a giant gun that spat fire and cannonballs and nails and splinters and stuff, It happened. A terrible sound. Like thunder had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that morning.

There was a rumbling coming from deep within the mechanisms of the wall. It felt like an earthquake. Gears that had slept for three centuries screeched suddenly and violently to life. With a great big old whoosh, and a click, the canons above me whirred into action.

"Ahh! Ahh! Aahh! Aahhh!" I shrieked.




But the wall wasn't concerned with me.

Those guns took aim and fixed their sights on Colonel Wormwood, who had been charging towards me (and incidentally, charging toward the door), aggressive-like.

All hundred-million-billion-infinity-thousand cannons.

Colonel Wormwood skidded to a halt, fell flat on her flank. Even from where I stood, I could see the green color run from her complexion.

Her eyes opened up wide. I thought they were trying to swallow the rest of her face they got so damn big. She scrambled backwards - tried to get the fuck away, but the wall just moaned and creaked in reply. No matter where she went, the guns followed her.

Wormwood scurried to the edge of the purple light. Gasped for breath. Stared down the barrels of more ancient weaponry than an army of walking, talking abacuses could count in a lifetime.

And a silence followed.

Even the caroling had stopped.

It was just Wormwood and the wall. Facing off. Locked in a showdown so tense that it seemed to freeze time.

I wouldn't've been surprised if a tumbleweed had blown between them.




I was left huddling there in shock. The listening to the voices and running toward the wall for no apparent reason trick had actually worked.

Wormwood watched the guns intently. Took long hesitant breaths. Determined not to make any sudden movements, or do anything that could be interpreted as aggressive.

Then she turned to me. Straightened her lapels and rose to her hooves. Slowly.

She stared at the folder at my side.

"Rose Petal," she said with as much dignity as she could muster. "The folder, please."

She showed neither fear nor rage.

I hugged it closer. Looked around. Let my brain catch up with everything that had happened. The colonel. The guns. The light on the other end of the ridge.

That whistling wind whipped around all the little trenches and pockets of earth. It made unearthly sounds. And I stood there, too stunned even to breathe

Slowly, I rose up. Stood tall. Took the folder in my mouth. And mumbled at her.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me."

Now she was the one shaking in place with anger. Just like I had done back in her office, when she'd played her colonel-y power games, and I had been powerless to stop her.

"Rose!" She snapped at me in bitter rage.

But one look at the wall's arsenal, and she clapped her hooves to her mouth. Afraid of pissing it off, she held back - growled at me through gritted teeth. It didn't matter. I could still feel her hatred from all the way over there like a whipcrack.

"Fuck you," I mumbled back at her, mouth still full of folder.

It felt good to finally say It out loud.

She shook her head and fixed her eyes on the guns above me. And took a step into the purple light. Risking it. Moving slowly. Cautiously. Eyes on me. Then another step. And another. The wall creaked and grinded, and followed her attentively, but did not fire.

"Oh for fucks sake, come on!" I cried.




A figure fluttered in the shadows beyond the purple light. It was big. It was dark. It flew in real low, landed just outside the wall's spotlight, and emerged on hoof from the darkness.

"Luna?" I said to myself.

Before I knew it, she was blocking the colonel's path, standing over her.

"Leave Blanket Girl alone." Said the alicorn in a thick Bucklyn accent.

I spat the folder into my hooves.

"Big Blue!" I called out.

"You okay, kid?" Blue shouted over her shoulder without turning to face me proper.

"I guess so." I wasn't sure what else to say. "Um...How are you?"

"Stand down, soldier." Wormwood shouted, ignoring me completely.

Blue didn't budge.

"That's an order."

The alicorn stood at attention. Saluted respectfully - formally - but refused to let Wormwood pass.

"Ma'am, you can send me to the gates-a-Tartarus naked and unarmed. Order me ta charge, and I'd folla ya, and fight fa ya wit my dyin' breat'. But dat is a child, ma'am, and I ain't gonna letcha hurt her. Ma'am."

Wormwood pressed up to Big Blue - stared her down eyeball-to-eyeball.

The sound of murmuring and commotion and hoofsteps carried from somewhere beyond the purple spotlight. The other soldiers were coming.




The colonel looked Blue over very carefully. Weighed her - measured her in that special way that only Wormwood could.

The commotion grew louder. The crowd was drawing near. I could make out a couple of silhouettes on that ridge I had run toward, backlit by some weird soft-white glow coming from the other side.

It wouldn't be long before a whole bunch of potatoes and corns made it down, and saw Wormwood and the alicorn standing off.

That sounds great and all on the surface, but there was no way the Colonel was gonna let her authority get questioned in front of everypony. She would have to act. And Blue would have to act back. It was gonna get ugly.

And they both knew it.

But Big Blue didn't back down. Her tail fought a nervous twitch that only I was close enough to see. Wormwood didn't either. She didn't so much as blink.

The two of them just locked in this tense bout of eyeball wrestling

"Very well." Wormwood said at last.

Held her head high.

"At ease, soldier." She added through gritted teeth.

Blue lowered her saluting hoof and slouched in relief. Wormwood sucked in a deep breath, and swallowed her rage. By the time the frosty air left her mouth, she appeared calm and relaxed again. Her frustration hidden behind a mask that may as well have been made of actual stone.

The whistling wind blew some more. The colonel peeked around Big Blue's gigantic sides. She glowered at me coldly, awaiting my next move.

Blue called to me over her shoulder without taking her eyes off of Wormwood. "What's goin' on back 'dere, Rosie? You sure, you's alright?"

I examined the folder in my hooves. There was nothing left to do but open it.

"Yeah." I said.

I bit down, and untied the ribbon that had held it shut through all of my leaps and bounds and tumbles.

Wormwood gasped as my teeth lifted the flap. Sucked in a ragged breath. I glanced up. Saw in her face the first ever traces of real defeat. Sadness. The kind of despair I had seen in Pumpkin Scone's eyes when he'd realized how fucked he was.

Good. I thought.

Finally, I flipped it open. Inside was a small wooden box, and bundles of crumbling old construction paper. Colorful ribbons too. I took one of the sheets out and held it up to the light. Glitter shed all the fuck over me just from touching the stuff..

"Happy Mother's Day," it said in crayon. The card was faded. It was older than me. But it was stained with moisture that was still brand-new. Teardrops.

I tucked it back into the folder.

This can't be right.

I dug out another piece. "Happy Birtday Mommy," it read. Spelt wrong. It came complete with a crayon drawing of a green military pony, a small colt, a happy cross-eyed sun, some flowers, and for some reason, an aardvark playing the ukulele.

I hoofed through them all. Page after page. Sentimental mementos. Every last one. I even opened the box. It was empty. The imprint of a medal was there against the felt.

My heart skipped a beat. That was a service medal. Her son's service medal! What if I had lost it? I dug through the folder with my face. Shook it around. Felt for anything heavy.

It couldn't have gone anywhere! I couldn't have lost it! That stupid folder had been tied shut in my jacket the whole time!

I closed my eyes. Hoped that she had it with her or something. Tried to remember the clutter on her desk. Searched my memory for a shadow of a clue.

Nothing.

I tucked the construction paper back in neatly, along with the box. There, at the very end of the pile, was one actual document. Not a kid's drawing. It was a fresh white slip with a bunch of gibberish printed on it. It looked like it had come out of one of those automatic printing presses the clerk had had back in his office.

The transmission.

Wormwood had decoded it in pencil and written the message from high command in the margins. Paper documents. The Wave of the Future.

"Initiate Attack Plan R." It read.

"Time: 1600

Date: Hearth's Warming Day

Enlisted Infantry Dispatched to Frontline (excluding officers): 2,000

Infantry Held in Reserves: 0

Security Level: Red

3,000 Reinforcements to be Dispatched. ETA: 120 hours.

Confirm."

There was no treaty getting signed back in Rangertown. No peace agreement. No plans to draw the war to a close. Wormwood's bosses were pushing for total annihilation. And all day she had been hiding it, "acting strange" as her fellow iron ponies had put it, pretending she hadn't seen the order.

"What does it say?" Big Blue asked.

I slammed the folder shut. Looked up. A cluster of potato soldiers was coming all the way down from the ridge. Some corns trickled in too. Then still more potatoes. They gathered and they watched. From a safe distance, of course. Blue had been the only one fool enough to rush toward the wall.

"Nothing." I said as loud as I could.

"Nuttin'?"

"Nothing!" I hollered nervously.

Blue lowered his voice. She was getting real cross.

"I am riskin' court-mah-shall for...Nothin'?"

"Uh..."

The crowd had already doubled in size, but they were still far enough away that we could talk normal-like and not be heard.

I looked to Wormwood.

And my Desolation Bingo basket exploded.

N-14. Embarrassment.

I-61. Terror.

B-16. Confusion.

G-11. Regret.

O-27. A whole lot of leftover distrust.

Bitch had tried to kill me, after all.

"A word in private?" I laughed nervously.

Wormwood just tapped her hoof, rolled her eyes and gestured at the giant guns above me.

"Oh yeah." I had to go to her.

I took the folder in my mouth, and hurried across the purple-lit patch of land that surrounded the door.

I was desperate for answers so I stole a glance at those moony, glowy clouds. But there was no brain wind anymore. No hornets. No voices. This truce - this gathering - it was pivoty. So pivoty that there actually was no Way It's Supposed to Happen.

I'd gotten the folder-thing to the door like I was told. Gotten my flank saved. Made a jackass of myself by opening it (no offense to any jackasses who might be reading).

I had done exactly what I was supposed to. Whatever went down next was out of the claws of the shadows and The Powers That Be. I don't know how to explain it. I sorta knew somehow. The same way that I'd known that the shadows and the hornets hadn’t been watching me in that weird desert I’d found myself in.

This one was just us ponies.




The purple light faded and I found myself standing between Wormwood and Big Blue.

I opened my mouth, set the folder down at the colonel's hooves. She looked down her nose at me and took it without saying a word.

"I'm sorry." I whispered.

Wormwood ignored me. Rummaged through the folder. She didn't care what I had to say. Didn't even care about the crowd anymore. Just dug through those papers with the delicacy of an archivist handling ancient documents, and the urgency of a little kid tearing her room apart looking for a lost toy.

When, at last, she was satisfied, Wormwood sighed a gentle breath of relief.

I couldn't rest quite so easy. She had never opened the box. Merely ascertained that it was still there. I fought the urge to panic. All those Rose Voices in my head were ranting and screaming and bumping into one another.

But we didn't have time for that. I focused on the transmission. The war. Figuring out Colonel Wormwood. I couldn’t even pin down exactly where she stood.

"What the hell are we going to do?" I whispered to her through my teeth.

"Keep our mouths shut and save who we can." She said under her breath.

The colonel closed the folder gently. Tied it shut with her teeth, bringing her right at eye level with me.

"Not a word." She picked up the folder and clutched it to her chest like it was a foal.

She was referring to the crayon art. Dead fucking seriously too. Like she would kill me harder if I told anyone about the drawings than if I shot my mouth about Attack Plan R.

"Geez, alright," I said,

And shrunk back from her stareitty eyes. I swear those things were as as deadly as the wall cannons.

"There's nothing to be ashamed--;"

"He died a soldier." She said briskly. Coldly. "He will. Be. Remembered. As one."

I looked to the crowd. The ridge in the distance was lined with soldiers. Silhouettes against that strange glow. They had gotten brave enough to trickle over a little and start oozing their way towards us.

"What about the war?" I said through smiling teeth. "The transmission?"

She looked away. Just held her head high and pretended I wasn't there.

"You're gonna go through with it aren't you?"

The colonel slipped the folder into her saddle bag. Sucked in a great big deep breath, knocked her hooves together. And click! Snapped to attention like a toy soldier.

"No Mare’s Land is no place for a child. Even during a truce.” She changed the subject. “I'd order you back to the camp, but I know you won't listen."

I shook my head at her. She was damn right about that.

"So, what are you gonna do...arrest...me?"

My words faded to a whisper before I could even finish saying them.

Sterry.

Wormwood wasn't out to get him. He hadn't stumbled on any secrets. Wormwood was trying to save him. From having to go over the top. From the coming storm. From the horrors of No Mare's Land. I looked up at Wormwood, totally fucking speechless. But she was inscrutable again. It was that damn look of hers.

She turned away from me and approached the crowd. Walking casually toward the ridge.

I was dismissed as far as she was concerned.

"Sterry?" I darted after her.

No reply.

"Pumpkin Scone?" I said softly, trotting at her side.

"Private Scone needed a good scare. The treason charge will get pled down to insubordination. He'll be so grateful to only end up scrubbing latrines, he won't step out of line ever again."

"And the war?"

She trotted on. Again with the silent treatment.

"The war?"

No reply.

She was going to proceed as planned. Give out pardons by night, and annihilate everyone come morning.

But she hated it. I could tell. That confidence of hers was shaken. She couldn't bear to look me in the eye.

Wormwood hadn't spent the day simply sifting through paperwork looking for loopholes. She'd stared at those drawings. Cried on them. Wondered how many other mothers’ sons were going to die at her command in less than 24 hours time. Wormwood wanted another way. Desperately.

* * *

We came up to the crowd at long last. Potatoes and corns. Mingling all informal-like. My empty stomach turned and blurbled. I was feeling pretty weak, but it was not the time for complaining. Sam the Gryphon was the first to come down.

"What's going on?” He called to us. “Are you okay?"

Some of the others snapped to attention, but Wormwood waved her hoof at them.

"It's Hearth's Warming. Nopony's in trouble." She said dryly.

But they all kept staring. Confused. Concernitty.

"Everypony here gets a pardon." She waved her hoof at them again.

The potatoes broke out into cheers. Jubilation. The corns hollered right along with them. The pardons didn’t affect them, but cheering clearly seemed like the thing to do.

They erupted into songs too - chaotic revelry - like when the bell rings at school, and everyone rushes out to the playground at the same time, laughing and screaming.

None of them knowing they were all gonna fucking die tomorrow.



My heart sank. I couldn't breathe. I felt like the whole world was one of those film strips at school that's stuck in slow motion with warbly sound. But before I could even gather a moment to stew in my own piratetry, Whomp! I got tackled to the ground.

"Ahhh!" I threw up my forehooves and shielded my face.

Dug my hindquarters into the ground, ready to spring back.

"Wha?!" I squirmed.

"Hey!" Said the pony on top of me.

I looked up. It was Sprinkles.

"There you are!" She laughed. "Are you okay? I thought you were gonna miss the rest of the party."

"I'm a little, uh." I laughed nervously. "Out of it."

"Here, have some chocolate. I stole it from the supply shed." She giggled.

Shoved a piece of chocolate bar in my mouth. It was amazing. Better than sandwiches. My whole mouth snapped back to life. My head quit its swimming. My stomach finally chilled the fuck out.

The corn girl helped me up. Then there we were. The two of us. Standing right in front of Wormwood. She looked like she'd seen a ghost. Her eyes were fixed on Sprinkles.

For the first time in ever, she seemed at a loss for words.

"I...I..." The colonel stuttered.

Sprinkles stiffened in response. She may have been a bit bubbly, but even she knew an officer when she saw one. She hopped up off of me in a hurry, digging her knee into my gut on the way.

"Oof." I oofed.

The girl looked to Wormwood. Held her chin way up in the air. She didn't salute, of course. That wouldn't have been proper. But still, she showed her version of respect.




Wormwood stared. Celestia only knows how long it was before she actually remembered to inhale. For a moment, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but then it hit me.

Sprinkles wasn't a potato.

Wormwood couldn't arrest her – couldn't whisk her way. There were no loopholes or forms or letters the colonel could sign to save her.

"No Mare’s Land is no place for a child," she'd said just a few moments ago. But if the battle plan moved forward, Sprinkles was as good as dead.

Sam the Gryphon, not the type to stand around doing nothing, saluted, and broke the silence.

"Ma'am, welcome to the front, ma'am. We sort of Hearth's Warming'd it up, you see, and well..."

Wormwood muttered to herself and furrowed her brow. Sam stopped mid-babble. Leaned in to make sure she was all right.

"Oh, uh, at ease," said the colonel when at last she realized that he was there.

Big Blue came up next to me. What the fuck, he mouthed. It was not like the colonel to be so uncolonel-y.

I just shrugged. I wasn't about to try explaining it.

Then, in the middle of all that confusion, this corn stumbled up to us out of nowhere. Tripped all over himself. A regular Berry Punch.

"Heyyyyy!" He glarbled.

He sounded like he had a clothespin on his tongue.

Sam stepped up in a hurry and tried to lead him away.

"No!" The corn shouted. "Everypony gets a candle. And she don't have no candle!"

The stumbler pointed an accusatory hoof at Wormwood.

"Here!" He spat, and waved his hoof all around 'till some sticks fell out of his sleeve.

"Thanks," Big Blue said nervously, hurrying to levitate them all up. "Why don't you go uh...Over there now.”

There was shuffling. And stumbling. Everypony involved tried to wrangle this guy away from the colonel as undramatically as possible. But it got awkwarder and awkwarder. A big chunk of the crowd was starting to trickle in.

Wormwood stood there all inscrutableish as usual. To everyone else, she must've looked like a statue, but I could feel her shock.

"Here ya go," Sprinkles mumbled, mouth totally full.

She pressed her face into Wormwood's chest. And tucked a stick in the colonel's pocket.

Wormwood examined it. Pulled it out with her teeth.

Sam and Blue just watched on, horrified.

"It's a stick." Wormwood raised an eyebrow.

"It's a candle," said Sprinkles somberly. "To honor the fallen."

Silence swept over the potatoes in the crowd. Like a great big tidal wave that plowed over everyone in No Mare's Land.

Even the corns froze.

"What?" Said Sprinkles.

She looked back over her shoulder at the crowd of stunned onlookers - both potatoes and corns.

"I'm sorry, I--;"

Wormwood spat the stick out into her hoof. Sprinkles zipped her lip.

The colonel examined it for a good long while. Gave it the old what the fuck it's just a stick look-over. Then shifted those hard stareitty eyes of hers to Sprinkles.

"How does it work?" She asked at last.

Sprinkles was good and terrified now. She wasn't quite sure what she had done wrong, and had no idea how to proceed

"Um..."

Sprinkles looked to me. But I didn't know what to say either.

“It’s a gryphon tradition, actually,” Sam butted in. “You see--;”

“I asked the girl.” Colonel Wormwood snorted.

She turned to Sprinkles.

"It's okay," said Wormwood gently. “Tell me. How does it work?”

"Well, um , you light it. Like a candle, you know? And you look at the fire and sort of talk to...your friend. You know, someone who..."

"Fell."

Sprinkles bit her lip and nodded.

"But it's a stick." Colonel Wormwood replied.

Sprinkles facehoofed.

"Can I show you something?"

* * *

We headed back across No Mare’s Land away from the wall, back towards that ridge. That's where the rest of the holiday party was. The place where the truce had started.

Sprinkles lead the colonel. Sam, Big Blue, Dazzle Shine and I followed close behind, whispering to one another.

"She's not explaining it right," said Blue.

"Shut up!" Said Dazzle Shine, the guy with the Pip Buck and little drummer brother back home. “Shh.”

We listened for clues to help us figure out how the talk was going. We were all sorta amazed that Sprinkles had made it this far without setting Wormwood off.

"...And I lit mine for Butterscotch. She was the only Twilight Sparkle Society infantrymare who was close to my age. We kiiiiiiinda snuck on a train to get out here together and join the effort."

The effort. Wormwood's tail swished around in agitation. I could hear it thwacking and scraping against the inside of her armor.

"I'll introduce you if you want. If that's okay? I mean," Sprinkles suddenly noticed the crowd that was parting for her and the colonel. Remembered her military discipline.

She straightened up, dipped her voice down low, and said firmly, "We are not very far."




They walked together like that for a while. Sprinkles blah-blah-blah'ing all over the place while Wormwood kept quiet and got all thinky. It was out of nowhere when Wormwood finally said what was on her mind.

"I'm sorry about Butterscotch," she looked straight at Sprinkles. Waited for her to notice.

At first Sprinkles didn't notice, just rambled a bunch as they made their way up the slope, but Wormwood waited her out. When Sprinkles realized she was being looked at, she stopped and turned to face the colonel.

"I'm sorry." Wormwood repeated solemnly.

Sprinkles closed her eyes and nodded.

* * *

I looked back at the big wall. I mean, What the fuck, Wall?! I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. We were running out of time. Out of pivotyness. I had to think of something to say. To help me to warn everyone about the coming battle. To help Sprinkles not set off the colonel. To...I don't know, save Hearth's Warming. Again.

But I was as speechless as the others.

"So you talk to the candle. And you look really hard at the fire till you feel like your friend is next to you, right? And then you just ...tell her what's on your mind. And sometimes it feels like she's talking right back at you."

"Really?" Wormwood was amused.

"Yeah. You know what Butterscotch said to me?"

"No."

"Make friends." Sprinkles snorted a nervous little laugh.

"You should have no trouble." Wormwood said dryly.

Sprinkles smiled so brightly it made a squeaky noise.

"Yeah." She rambled. "Butterscotch tells me to make friends, and what's the very next thing I do? Make friends with a Applejackoff...I mean uh...Applejack officer. A Ranger officer. A, um...a steel pony."

Wormwood looked away.

"What?”

The colonel stiffened. Hid herself behind military formality. Didn't say a word.

“I'm sorry. Please don't be mad."

But Wormwood didn’t reply. She didn't even look Sprinkles in the eye anymore.

The corn girl sighed. Hung her head low, thinking she had fucked up. She'd called the colonel an Applejackoff, and the very next thing she knew, there was sulking.

But that wasn't the problem.

Sprinkles was going to die tomorrow. Because of Attack Plan R. And that sweet doomed girl had just called Colonel Wormwood friend.

* * *

They headed up the hill in silence, at least for a while. The rest of us whispered. Questions and rumors. The usual.

"This friend of yours, Butterscotch, she's over that ledge?" Said Wormwood at last, breaking the ice. "Her candle, I mean."

"Yeah," said Sprinkles with a raised eyebrow.

They neared the top of the ledge. And we came up not far behind.

“Butterscotch is there." Sprinkles continued. "They all are."

Wormwood nodded. Even from fifteen feet behind, I could tell that she was confused. Until they made it to the top.

Wormwood stopped dead in her tracks the second she looked over that ledge. Dug her hooves into the ground so fast, she almost skidded forward. Her knees were wobbling inside that steel exoskeleton of hers. I ran up the hill. Straight to Wormwood right as she dropped to her flank. I put my hoof on her shoulder. But she just looked at me, jaw trembling. Her face had gone white. Bleach fucking white. She was shaking so hard her medals jingled. When the colonel turned to Sprinkles, I finally got a look at the valley down below. No Mare's Land as the trucing soldiers had left it.

There were Hearth's Warming trees. Everywhere. As far as the eye could see. Each decorated for the season with "candles." Little magic fires. There must have been thousands of lights down there scattering their glow across the trenches.

The sight of them was breathtaking. The knowledge that each of those flames was a friend lost? A family broken? That every little flicker belonged to somebody else's Twinkle Eyes? Somebody's Tulip? It was so overwhelming, I could hardly breathe.

Wormwood grabbed the folder she'd tucked in to her saddlebag. Whipped it out, and hugged it close.

I stepped back and gave her some space, but Sprinkles pressed in closer.

"Are you okay?"

The colonel reached for Sprinkles’ lapels with trembling hooves. Looked back at the broken, uneven valley that glowed from the bottom up with candle light.

She had this stunned expression on her face that I'll never forget. Her irises shrunk to little tiny pin-sized dots as the full weight of what she saw came crashing down on her. Tears ran down her cheeks, but the rest of her face didn’t twitch. For us, the candles were a chance to reconnect with the departed. For Colonel Wormwood, it was Sub Mine F




She tried to grab a hold of that stick that Sprinkles had given her. To wrangle it with her teeth, but she was shaking like crazy and it fell.

"I'm sorry," said Sprinkles.

She looked straight at Wormwood. Waited for the colonel to turn and notice. It took a good long while. Eventually, Wormwood stopped. Snapped out of it, and looked the girl in the eye.

"I'm sorry." Sprinkles repeated.

Wormwood threw open her forelegs, drew Sprinkles closer, and hugged her tight.

I thought the kid was gonna get crushed.

But she just rolled with it. Craned her neck to rest against Wormwood's chest as the colonel hugged her tighter and tighter and tighter and stared out over that ocean of glow.

* * *

Then, suddenly, thwip-a-crumple whoosh-a-whoosh. The colonel's folder hit the floor. Construction paper spilled out everywhere.

Wormwood snapped out of it, bent down hurriedly to gather her "papers" before they got away, or were seen by another living soul. But Sprinkles was right there. And she saw.

She stooped down to help. And got all hurry-ish about it just like Wormwood. 'Till she actually held one of those pages. She lingered on it. I couldn't make out the drawing from where I stood, but like so many others, it was on construction paper.

"Oh my Celestia," Sprinkles figured it out.

She levitated the page and passed it to the colonel discretely. The two of them locked eyes. Wormwood was stiff as a statue again. Sprinkles just looked like she was gonna cry.

"I'm so sorry." She whispered meekly.

"Not a word." Wormwood replied sternly.

The girl nodded in reply.

* * *

A ruckus suddenly arose from down below. Out of nowhere. It startled us all. Then came another holiday carol.

Wormwood rose to her hooves and looked down into the valley. Stared real hard.

It was tough to tell through all that candle light, but most of the potatoes and corns were actually still down there.

There were thousands of them. The loud cheer had been for another one of those soccer games.

Wormwood stuck her neck out and leaned forward as far as she could.

"No." She said after a long and careful examination.

It was under her breath. Had I not been so close, I would never have heard it.

She turned to Sprinkles. Held her at legs' distance.

"I need you to do something very important for me. As a friend. Okay?"

Sprinkles nodded.

"Go find us a good spot in that valley. A nice tree. I'll be down in twenty minutes or so. Take this." She pressed the folder against Sprinkle's chest, and used her stareitty eyes to drive the message home. "Don't. Let. Anything. Happen to it." Sprinkles nodded solemnly.

"See ya, Rose!" She smiled at me, waved, and was off.

I waved back nervously. Thought of the missing medal. The wooden box. Sprinkles had the folder now. Whatever else happened, I couldn't let her take the heat for losing it.

I scanned Wormwood's insanely decorated jacket for any medals that looked like the right shape and size, but came up with zilch. I just couldn't tell.

* * *

That was when Wormwood turned to me. She knew I was wigging out. Knew I was confused. But she held up a hoof as if to say I'll get to you in a minute.

I nodded.

The colonel spun away from me and faced the crowd that had gathered behind us. It was a sea of faces - all of them almost as confused as I was. These were the guys who'd heard the Crystal Empire canons take aim and had rushed toward it. That, or they had just happened to be on the other side of the hill.

They were officers, infantry mares. Potatoes. Corns.

They looked to the colonel with desperate hopeful terrified eyes, waiting to find out what was going to happen next.

"Twilight Society soldiers!" Wormwood called out. "I need you to find me your highest ranking officer."

The corns in the crowd looked at one another, timid-like. The corn nearest me tilted his hat down over his face, as if to try to hide. Nopony budged.

I guess there's something inherently unappealing about the prospect of running back to your boss, admitting that you had been cavorting with the enemy behind her back, and dragging her into what's supposed to be a danger zone, all cause the leader of the Applejackoffs told you to.

Wormwood looked out patiently over the crowd as they whispered amongst themselves. Just stood there and waited for them all to get it out of their systems.

"I'm looking to call a truce." She said at last. "A lasting truce."

Sam turned to me, "Did she say--;"

"Shh!" Snapped Dazzle Shin as he started to punch a bunch of buttons on his Pip Buck.

There were murmurs. Whispers. Everywhere. In an instant, the whole hill was talking.

The excitement was so palpable, I could almost taste it in the air. But the second Wormwood cleared her throat, the crowd got

quiet. Only a few Pip Bucks scattered throughout the masses were left making any noise at all. It sounded like crumpling wrapping paper.

The colonel looked down across those faces, her old inscrutable self once again. She stood like a fancy society pony in one of those fancy society portraits.

Every last one of those soldiers - potatoes, corns - they were eating right out of her hoof. And she knew it.

"Send word to General Sun Sparkle. I'll be waiting down in the valley in one hour." The colonel pointed to the candle lit trees below. "Happy Hearth's Warming, everypony."

At last, she dismissed us all with a firm salute.

The potatoes snapped to attention and saluted back. The corns stood respectfully quiet. Then there were the Berry Punches - too messed up in the horse brain to remember that they had ever belonged to either side. The Punches erupted into jubilant chaos. Laughing and hugging and singing that put our former celebrations to shame. The whole thing was a clusterfuck - a mishmash of unbridled joy and solemn reverence.

Underneath it all was this feeling of urgency. An unspoken truth. Whatever else happened, that place – that moment in time – it was pivoty.

It was up to all of us to make it count.




The folks lucky enough to have Pip Bucks fidgeted with them frantically. Those with business to attend to carried it out. Hustled back-and-forth. Everyone else just kept their spirits up, and occupied their time celebrating. There was a lot to be hopeful for.

Wormwood stood there watching it all. Observing it all. 'Till finally, she put her hoof down, and turned to me.

"A moment alone," she said.

The colonel stared down her muzzle at me, eyes like granite.

"Uh..."

"Come on."

She put a hoof on my shoulder and escorted me down the hill.

I wasn't sure what she wanted from me exactly, but I was pretty sure it'd have something to do with the whole stolen folder, lying-to-everypony-about-the-Rangers'-attack-plan thing.

We made our way down a little path. Together in awkward silence.

It was a small strip of earth that ran along the side of the hill, devoid of pointy wire, and steep declines, and all that stuff.

* * *

"This'll do." Said Wormwood at last.

She led me to the charred remains of an old tree stump. A little oasis of relative privacy.

I nodded.

Everything about her - the tightness in her lips, the tension in her gait - radiated cold disapproval. It hit me so hard my knees wobbled. Literally wobbled.

"Listen, um...I'm sorry, I uh..." Before I could get a proper ramble going, Wormwood cut me off.

"Not a word about the transmission." She said without deigning to look at me.

She was studying the valley.

"Oh, uh. I wasn't going to say anything, I swear. Really. I wasn't! But, uh...I don't get it. How are you going to --;"

"Rose Petal, do you know why I arranged to have you put in protective custody rather than simply throwing you in the brig with Private Sterile Field?"

"What?"

Wormwood just looked at me. Waited for my reply.

I thought about it. I had originally presumed she had done it because I wasn't a potato, or maybe just because she felt like being a bitch. Then, after I'd found out about the transmission and her plan, I'd just sort of presumed that Wormwood had been "saving who she could," like she said.

I had a lot of theories, but looking up at that stareitty stare, they all turned to dust in my throat. My courage failed me. "Uh...um..."

"Because you're a pain in the fucking ass," said the colonel.

I held my hoof up and opened my mouth to protest, but no words came out. There really was no refuting it. I was, in fact, a colossal pain in the ass.

"I need you to do something." She said. "They need you to do something."

She gestured at the thousands of ponies singing below. At the trees they hovered around. At the candles.

"Okay."

"I need you to trust me."

The request took me by surprise. My heart quickened. My throat dried up some more. It was a lot like finding out you have a pop quiz, only deadly.

I didn't know if I could trust her. I didn't know how I felt about anything. The past half hour or so had thrown all of my feelings into a great big sloppy old egg beater, and where Wormwood was concerned, I couldn't even tell up from down anymore.

"What's the plan?" I said.

"I can't tell you, which is why I need you to trust me."

"Oh."

I watched the lights below. Thought about it long and hard. Looked up at the night sky, as though it would have an answer.

I wanted to promise her. Tried to promise her.

But I couldn't.

It wasn't that I thought she was up to no good – wasn't that I distrusted her. But the need to know was stronger.

I turned away in shame. I couldn't promise anything. I just didn't have that soldiers' blood in my veins. That part of you that can follow orders and not be a giant pain in everypony's ass.

The thing is: I really, really, really, really, really did believe that her heart was in the right place, but something in me couldn't just follow her blindly.

"Well, what's the basic outline of the plan?" I laughed nervously. "Can you at least tell me that?"

Wormwood sighed. Sat down, leaned against that tree stump, and started messing with her Pip Buck.

"Hold that thought." She said.

"Um...okay."

"Paper Pusher, this is Colonel Wormwood, do you read me? Over."

There was no response at first. We both sorta hung around waiting.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Do you remember when I had you courier those papers to the clerks' office down the hall from my office? Well, by now, he's gotten word of our truce down here. Several of my officers were in that crowd." Wormwood gestured at the top of the hill. "Some of them I'm sure have paged headquarters by now, either for a sit rep, or to rat me out to the brass, and lay down the groundwork for staging a coup."

"Cockwaffles!"

I hadn't even thought of that.

"This is a conversation I'd prefer you stick around for." The colonel added unexpectedly.

I raised an eyebrow at her. Why would she want me around? I thought. It didn't make any sense. Wormwood didn't even like me. Is this some kind of stunt to try to get me to trust her? Show off her best side? What? Why? What the hell is going on?

"It's not a stunt." Wormwood rolled her eyes. "I was going to make this call anyway. If I tried to do it in private, you would have only assumed the worst, and become an even bigger pain in my ass."

Wow. I thought to myself. Am I really that predictable?

"Yes, Rose." Wormwood said dryly. "You really are that predictable."

A few crackles later, a tinny voice came out of her Pip Buck. "Sergeant Paper Pusher here. I read you, colonel. This channel is secure. Over."

It was the old stallion, alright. The clerk.

"No doubt you've heard by now about my truce." Said Wormwood. "Over."

The wrist-a-majig fizzed into silence for a few moments, as we awaited the old guy's reply.

"Oh, yeah. I got a whole slew of messages from some of the steelfolks down there. Over."

Wormwood waited a moment before replying. She gazed at the Hearth's Warming trees below.

"You know what I plan to do then. Over."

"Reckon you'll be evoking the Steelhooves Clause of Conscience. Been decades since anypony has needed to. Over."

"Yes." Wormwood replied. "I reckon you'll be siding with high command. Over."

"It's been my pleasure and honor to serve you, ma'am, but, yes, I reckon I will. Over."

I recalled the old stallion's speech about the ways of the world. About everyone wanting to be their own Littlepip. About the disaster of the notion.

"I have a favor to ask regarding the prisoners." Said Wormwood. "Private Sterile Field and Private Pumpkin Scone. Have their charges been filed? With the Rangers splitting down the middle, as I imagine they might, and the headquarters being of strategic value to both factions, their fates remain somewhat precarious, and I would like my last order as your commanding officer to be their release. Over."

I would like. Wormwood was a commander of thousands - Paper Pusher's boss - and still she addressed the old stallion with humility and respect.




For a good long while, the colonel's Pip Buck was silent. I reckoned Paper Pusher was thinking out his reply. Wormwood breathed deeply and waited, but didn't let so much as an eyelash twitch 'till her Pip Buck crackled to life once again.

"I am deeply sorry, ma'am, but you know that, under the current circumstances, to recognize your authority would be an act of treason, and a betrayal of my duty. I hope you understand. Over."

Wormwood hung her head. Squeezed her eyes shut. Hard. It was not for show.

"However," the clerk continued. "It just so happens that before you called, their arrest records were misplaced."

Wormwood picked her head up.

"Private Pumpkin Scone and Private Sterile Field were released a short while ago on a technicality. They should be on their way to the trenches right now. Over."

Wormwood squinted at the Pip Buck in disbelief. As though she could somehow stare the device down until it told her the truth.

"How?"

"It's these paper records, ma'am. Haven't quite gotten the hang of them yet. Just one doc' ends up in the wrong folder. And they could take weeks to find...Months even."

Wormwood clasped a hoof over her mouth to hide a smile.

"You're a good pony." She said.

"Me? Nah. I'm just getting too old to remember where I put things. Over."

"Happy Hearth's Warming." Said Wormwood. "It is been a privilege and an honor. Over and out."

She grinned wide. A real smile. Closed her eyes and sighed in relief.

I noticed her folder was clutched against her chest again. She hugged it tight without even realizing she was doing it.

And then, just like that, the moment was gone and it was back to business again.

"It's going to get ugly, Rose." She said. "Every mare and stallion in the corps is going to have to choose. And they deserve to know, but not tonight. Let them have tonight."

I nodded. “So you need me to keep my mouth shut 'till tomorrow.”

“I’ve got a plan. And you, regrettably, have a part to play in it. But they have to find out at just the right moment. In just the right way.” She pointed down at the revelry of the revelers. “Or it all falls apart, you understand? You have to trust me, and follow my lead. Or it all falls apart.”

“I do trust you.” I said. “It’s just--;”

“No,” Wormwood said sternly. “You’re a terrible liar, and you’ll fuck it up if you try.”

“Hay!” I snapped at her even though I knew she was right. “You gotta lotta nerve!"

“That may be so, Rose,” said Wormwood, cool as a cucumber. “But take a look down there. Take a good hard look.”

She pointed to a couple of corns roughhousing with the potatoes. And a bunch of Berry Punches next to them, caterwauling all up and down the valley.

“You’ve done a beautiful thing here. But do you really think you have the know-how to turn that into a lasting peace?”

I had no smart answers.

* * *

Her Pip Buck made another buzz sound. Totally out of nowhere. The colonel hit a button on it.

"Wormwood here. Secure channel. Over."

"Me again, colonel. Over but not out," said Paper Pusher. "One more thing needs discussing. Over."

"Yes, sergeant, what is it? Over."

"While I would never dream of interfering with the prerogative of the high command, and of course, no longer recognize you as my commanding officer, there are certain initiatives I fulfilled before I was made officially aware of your insubordination, and those actions are technically a matter of public record for any member of the corps, which, treason or no, you still happen to be. Over."

Wormwood wrinkled her nose and cocked an eyebrow.

"Go on."

"Well, colonel, I recalled you were having difficulties with the transmitters. Getting messages to or from high command. And when I got wind that you were having trouble down there in No Mare's Land, I took it upon myself to rush a work order down to maintenance. Ordered all the transmitters taken apart, and reassembled with whatever spare parts we had over down in supply."

Wormwood's face lit up like a child on Hearth's Warming morning. With the transmitters down, whatever loyalists remained behind in the Applejack Ranger Corps would be unable to reach high command.

"I apologize sincerely, ma'am. In my youthful haste to communicate our predicament, I ordered them all taken down at once. Damn foolish of me. It'll be 72 hours at least before we can establish communication. Last they heard from us was a confirmation of receipt of their transmission that I sent on your behalf this morning."

A wicked smile stretched across Wormwood's face. I almost thought she was going to start hopping up and down like a foal at a Sapphire Shores concert.

"Thank you." She squeed. "It's been an honor, old friend."

"Only doing my duty, ma'am. Over and out."

The colonel's Pip Buck fizzled for a second longer before going totally silent.

* * *

Wormwood leapt to her hooves. Examined the valley of decorated trees. The top of the hill. Looked up at the sky. Punched something or other into her Pip Buck by mashing buttons with her face.

"Colonel," I said.

She stopped. That actually caught her attention. I had never called her that before.

"It'd be an honor."

I stood upright. Tried to give her the respect I felt she deserved. But it came out weird. I wasn't used to that sort of thing.

I lifted my front hoof halfway off the ground. I kind of wanted to salute, but didn't because It made me feel like a dork.

"You know, to...trust you. Um, ma'am."

"Don't be shy." She said. "I knew you'd come around once you saw the truth."

"Hmmph!" I stomped. "What the hell truth is that?"

I may have trusted her, but I still didn't like being condescended to.

"That I am an even bigger pain in the ass than you are." She said, totally deadpan. "Come on."

She led the way down that path. Down into the valley with all the trees and candles. The pivoty-est place in all of Equestria.

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Seraphem and Michael for your valuable feedback!

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