Homecoming

by Antiquarian

First published

The Great War sent thousands into battle. Rarity stayed, and she can't help but feel guilty. Now Applejack has a favor to ask: help a stallion from her unit re-adjust to civilian life. Rarity intends to do just that, and maybe square the debt.

Each of Rarity's friends played a role in the Great War, serving with great honor in ending the tyranny of the Griffon Dominion. But Rarity? Rarity stayed. It wasn't her choice. Her friends insisted. And, in all fairness, they were probably right. Somepony needed to stay, and it made the most sense for it to be her.

Still, it never felt right.

Now the war is over, and scarred veterans are trickling back into their communities, surrounding Rarity with reminders of the price paid by her fellow citizens, and leaving her with a mounting guilt over the un-payable debt. So when Applejack asks Rarity to help get a member of her old unit back on his hooves after the war, the seamstress jumps at the chance to do her part. Corporal Iron 'Shoddy' Shod may be a little ... rough of manners for her tastes, it's true, but he's a hard worker, and Rarity is confident in her ability to help him. But when it becomes apparent that Shoddy has more to overcome than just his lack of decorum, Rarity will learn some deep truths about the price that some pay for freedom, and the wounds that don't stop with the flesh.

For it is often said that the hardest battle a veteran faces is the one he fights at home.


As this story contains graphic imagery of war, depression, and the struggle with suicide in certain chapters, I am placing a link to the Veteran Crisis line here, as well as links to the national suicide prevention hotline and a list of international hotlines. There is no shame in needing help. In truth, it is courageous to ask for it.


This story is set in an alternative universe that picks up after the end of Season 4. Thus, all events that follow Tirek's defeat either didn't happen or happened differently. The specifics will unfold with the story, but for now it suffices to say that the "Princess of Friendship" title became quite intertwined with international diplomacy in this world. Unless otherwise specified, it does not follow the canon of my other works.

Special thanks to MadHotaru for the use of his artwork for the cover image. https://madhotaru.deviantart.com/art/Classic-style-329958227

Declaration of War

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I remember when my little sister first introduced me to her friends. She said, “This is my big sister, Rarity. She makes pretty things, and she makes things pretty.”

A gross oversimplification of what I do, perhaps, but an accurate statement nonetheless. I do indeed try to make ‘pretty things,’ and to make the existing prettiness of things shine forth. Some may consider it shallow, but I believe that there is beauty to be found in almost anything.

But war…

War is ugly. It’s muddy, bloody, and full of tragedy, and even without ever seeing the front lines it’s possible to get the muck on you. I learned that lesson years ago. After all, I was there when the war began.

To this day, I can picture it as though it’s happening right now.

It’s a Sunday in early autumn, bright and cheerful, with barely a cloud in the sky. The air has just enough of a crisp snap in it to be invigorating without being truly cold. Under other circumstances, it might have been a good day for a pleasant walk with friends or for catching a carriage around Hoofenberg to see the sights.

Then, in an instant, it’s transformed into the worst day of my life.

It starts so well: we six Element Bearers, and Spike of course, are riding in the open-topped chariot down the avenues of Hoofenberg, waving to the crowd as the military parade takes us around the old city’s districts. The citizens of the independent city-state, both pony and griffon, are ecstatic at our coming. Well, really, they’re ecstatic at her coming. Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship, here to host the Summit that will stave off the war that threatens to consume them. I can see the hope, the joy in their eyes as they look to their savior, to the pony who will make the Dominion back down without further bloodshed. Many have tears in their eyes as they shout her name.

Twilight, benevolent, noble, radiant in her royal regalia that so carefully hides the discreet armor plating beneath, beams back down at them, showing none of the nervousness that I know she must be feeling. My friend does not show them the frantic pacing, the panicked breathing, the self-doubt that she displays so eloquently for us. No, the crowd needs to see her as the pillar of diplomacy and authority that will protect them from being gobbled up like so many other independent city-states. And so that is the only face she shows.

I feel so proud of how far she’s come; so in awe of her poise under pressure; so blessed to be one of her closest friends.

And then he comes.

An unassuming griffon, barely an adult, looking to be more student than soldier, comes to the edge of the crowd, just past the line of guards. There is nothing to distinguish him from the hundreds of other griffons among the citizenry; nothing about him to draw a second glance.

Nothing, that is, except for the look in his eyes.

I’m a businessmare. I know how to read people, even non-ponies. I’ve always had a knack for picking up on moods and intent. But what I see in his eyes, I’ve never seen in the eyes of an ordinary citizen before.

That bloodlust. That hate.

What I see in him belongs to the likes of Chrysalis and Tirek.

The comparison shocks me into silence for a heartbeat. Just one.

One heartbeat too long.

A double-barreled pistol appears in his grasp as he takes aim at the carriage, his beak twisting in a snarl. Time slows as guards swing to stop him. Twilight’s gaze meets his and her hoof stops mid-wave, a her smile freezing at the sight of his hate.

For Talon!” he shouts. Then the roar of the gun silences all else.

I have a detail-oriented mind. When properly focused on something, there is nothing that escapes my notice. Till that day it was only a blessing.

With accursed slowness I see the bullet tear into her. It penetrates her body right where the wing meets the barrel; the one place on her torso that the armor doesn’t cover. The impact sends her body sideways as her head is whiplashed in the other direction. Flecks of saliva spray from her mouth as her face twists from shock into dawning agony. Then the spray of blood paints the air in vivid crimson, a color suddenly so bright and terrible that it’s as though nothing else exists. The gunshot echoes in a rolling thunder, but it is no longer alone. The wail goes up; the sound of grief, loss, and shattered hope.

The sound of death.

We are, all of us, caught in the same horrendous slowness, scrambling from our seats as our minds attempt to grasp what they see. But they cannot. It is too horrid, too unthinkable.

The shooter lines up for the second shot as guards lunge to tackle him. Spike, the loyalist of all assistants, is the only one of us to shake off the stupor. He flings himself in front of his oldest friend, shielding her with his body, his face a mask of rage as he screams a final defiance at his foe. The gun barks again, and my eyes cannot but stare as blood erupts from his skull—

But it is only a glancing blow, as the guards tackle the shooter to the ground and the bullet flies wide.

Then the slowness ends and I am brought crashing down into the maelstrom of chaos. Spike drops with a cry, holding a claw to his bloodied head. Fluttershy is instantly at Twilight’s side, applying pressure to the wound as she cradles our princess in her wings. Pinkie Pie is wrapping a bandana that she pulled from nowhere around Spike’s scalp as a makeshift bandage. Rainbow Dash bodily flings me to the floor of the carriage and shields me with her frame. Applejack, swearing like I’ve never heard her swear, is doing her best to shield Twilight. From my place on the floor, I can see the barrel of a breech-loading rifle, held by one of the guards who tackled the insurgent, being raised and swung downwards like a club, followed by an animal squeal that echoes even over the panicked cries of the crowd. I try to look around, I have to know, I have to see, but Rainbow shoves me back down with a string of expletives. My shouts demanding to know what’s happening are cut off by an explosion that shakes the cart. Rainbow loses her footing and I scramble to my hooves.

Carnage at the front of the carriage. All four of guards who were pulling are down, either dead or likely to wish they were, their flesh rent open by the bomb. The perimeter guards are trying to keep the crowd back; unicorns throw up magic shields while rifle-ponies seek targets. But the crowd is in a panic, and the guards can’t shoot. A gunshot cracks and the carriage splinters next to me. The last thing I see before Rainbow Dash drags me back down is a halberdier reaching his weapon over the milling heads of the crowd to hook a pistol-toting griffon around the throat. The insurgent gives a warbling carrion cry as he’s hoisted bodily into the air. Even from the floor I can see him die as three rifles bark and three horns spark and he’s ripped apart.

What I’m seeing is too horrible to comprehend, so my mind doesn’t even try. I’m reacting, and not even sure what I’m reacting to. I fight to get out from under Rainbow Dash. To get out and do something. “Let me go, Rainbow! We have to help her! We have to help Twilight!”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Another bullet cracks against the wood. “Shut up and stay down! We’ve got to—"

Unicorns are sensitive to magical surges, so I feel what’s coming before Rainbow does, but it leaves us both equally shocked. The magical energy crackles through the air in a form so potent that I can taste it on the backs of my teeth. Tendrils of crimson energy flash in the sky, accompanied by the roar of stallion immersed in agonizing rage. There are several shrieks, and the air is filled with the cloying smell of immolating flesh, leaving the taste of wrath in the back of my throat.

Wrath tastes like copper, it turns out.

The sky turns crimson and there’s scraping on the sides of the carriage. Rainbow rises with a snarl, but backs down as four rifle-ponies and Shining Armor himself clamber into the carriage. The prince looks like death, though he appears untouched, and his horn sparks as he powers the dome shield that now covers us. He spares a single glance at his sister, and I see something die in his eyes, replaced with something different.

Something colder.

“Big Mac! Get us the buck out of here!” he barks.

Rainbow’s shock matches mine. Big MacIntosh?

Eeyup!” is the answering bellow, and my head cracks against the seat as we jolt forward.

Tentatively I raise my head. Hoofenberg is a blur as we plunge through the streets at speeds better suited to a pegasus than to a gilded carriage laden with ponies. All around us sprint guardponies; a dozen; a score; three score. I look to the front, somehow managing to look past the blood-soaked Fluttershy and the weeping Spike to see who is pulling. I expect to see a team of guards, along with apparently Big MacIntosh.

I see Big MacIntosh. Only Big MacIntosh. He’s pulling a carriage built for four draft ponies, with twice the intended number of passengers, by himself… and yet somehow I get the impression that if we or the guards were to offer our help we’d only slow him down.

Besides, the guards are too busy keeping the path clear. Several griffons rush to block us. Guns speak. Horns gleam. Three insurgents are chewed apart by bullets. The other three are simply incinerated.

But the guards still can’t shoot into the crowd, and shots from their ranks strike guards and shield, causing the former to fall and the latter to crack. Shining Armor grunts, sweat pouring down his face as he shunts more energy into the dome. Catching sight of me, he bellows, “Rarity, stay down!”

“I-I can help!” I protest. I want to. I need to. If I’m not helping I have to think about— “I can shunt power to you for the shield!”

He groans as another volley rips against the barrier. “Fine,” he grits, “but do it from down there.”

Gratefully, I concentrate all my power, all my will into transferring my power to him. It takes total focus to keep the transfer going, and I’m glad. If I’m doing something, then I’m not thinking. I’m not thinking about Twilight, I’m not thinking about the blood, I’m not thinking about how she’s not moving, or how Applejack and Pinkie have started sobbing, or how Fluttershy is begging—

I’M NOT THINKING ABOUT IT!

We’re storming the hospital. Guards pour into the building as though charging a gate and clear a path for us to the surgeons. We strap Twilight to a gurney and gallop along with her, calling out encouragement, assurances, anything we can say to her, but she’s not moving, she’s not breathing she’s just not—

Spike is riding on the gurney with her, stroking her mane and wetting her head with tears as he begs her to say something, rattling off every little misdeed he can think of in the hopes that her big-sister instincts will kick in and wake her up so she can reprimand him.

When the nurses remove him to take her into the operating room, he claws at them. It takes Rainbow Dash and Applejack both to restrain him, and Fluttershy to calm him.

Pinkie is pacing back and forth, chattering incoherently. She makes what sound like jokes from time to time or, at least, she laughs to herself intermittently, but the laughter isn’t real; her mane is straight.

Shining Armor is giving orders with the speed of an auctioneer as he makes the hospital the most impregnable fortress on the continent.

Big MacIntosh, who was just supposed to be a bystander in the crowd, moves into the midst of the mares and simply sits himself there. Applejack gravitates to her brother and sags against him, tears welling in her eyes as she stares sightlessly ahead. He puts a hoof around her. Soon, Pinkie Pie ceases her wandering to accept his other hoof and sags against him, still trying to make herself laugh through the sobs.

Rainbow is flying in circles, accosting every guard she sees, demanding to know what happened and swearing bloody vengeance against whoever is responsible.

Fluttershy just stands, staring at the door, her wings and torso stained red with blood. With Twilight’s blood. And that’s her in there. Our Twilight bleeding out on the table, unconscious, violated, dying. That’s our Twilight who—

I vomit until I can’t stand.

A Day at the Range

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The whistling of the tea kettle wakes me. It’s muted by a layer of blankets, earplugs, a heavy door, and two flights of stairs, and still it wakes me. I used to be such a heavy sleeper. Sighing, I pull myself out of bed, stretching the kinks out of my legs and setting the sleeping mask on my nightstand.

And it is my nightstand. That still takes some getting used to after spending a considerable part of the Great War living in a castle. Not that the castle wasn’t lovely, and having a permanent serving staff laid on certainly had its advantages. But, for all my comments over the years on the grandeur of royal living, I have come to appreciate the simple beauty of my little boutique.

Humming to myself, I head to the washroom and perform my morning ablutions. No doubt certain friends of mine would poke fun at the length of the process, especially given what our day’s activity shall be, but a lady does have standards, after all. Throughout the war I maintained my habits. Maintaining the sense that life marches onward in spite of conflict is essential to civilian morale. There’s no reason to break the habit now just because my friends spent years away from home, crawling through mud and blood in a desperate slog against a vicious foe to—

A pounding on the door elicits an unladylike yelp from me. “Rarity, did you fall asleep in there?”

Hmph. The nerve of some ponies. I cast a quick glance in the mirror to ensure that my appearance is satisfactory before snapping the door open with my magic. “Sweetie Belle, honestly, must you frighten me so?”

The young mare cocks an eyebrow, not seeming impressed by elder-sister-outburst. I must be losing my touch. The fact that she’s almost as tall as I am now probably doesn’t help. “You were taking way longer than usual,” she replies. “I didn’t want your breakfast to get cold.”

I try to drum up some hostility against her, but find it to be a losing battle. I smile and nuzzle her side. “Yes, well, I suppose that would be a shame, especially given what a fine cook you’ve turned out to be.”

Grinning at the praise, Sweetie Belle wastes no time leading me downstairs. We pass by my Inspiration Room on the way to the dining room. It’s filled mostly with wedding dresses, and I can’t help but chuckle as I walk past. Over a year since the war ended, and still no end to the abundance of marriages. Sweetie glances back at my amusement. “What’s so funny?”

“Just reflecting on the nature of romance and business,” I reply.

The breakfast really is good. I had better tasting food at the castle, of course, but that’s because the chef, an earth pony rather bluntly named Chef, was a professional cook. Sweetie’s meal has the virtue of being a labor of love from an amateur who’s overcome, shall I say, an inauspicious beginning. To put it another way, she’s certainly come a long way from inexplicably transforming toast into bubbling tar.

“What are you and your friends up to today?” I ask.

“Well, nothing until the afternoon. I’ve still got to finish the bookkeeping.”

I give her a reproving look. “Sweetie, darling, it’s our day off. Enjoy the time out with your friends! I don’t expect you to work overtime!”

There’s that cocked eyebrow again. “You worked overtime the whole war. Managing the stores, the farm, the animals, the castle, not to mention—"

I put a hoof to her mouth, forestalling further elaboration. “Sweetie, darling, those were unique circumstances. And, now that I’m not so overworked, don’t you think I appreciate the days off?” I chortle and resume eating. “You ought to make the most of your times of levity darling.” While you’re still young enough to do so.

She picks at her food, looking guilty. “I know, I know, it’s just…I feel bad leaving you with so much to do now that I’m so busy most days with jay-rot.”

Jayot … jay-rot … for a moment I begin to be concerned that there’s an unfortunately named young stallion that my sister has become interested in without telling me before I remember that she’s probably just referring to the Junior ROTC program with the abbreviated speech so regrettably common amongst today’s youth. “You have your own life to live, darling. And while I adore how helpful you are around the shop, I can manage without you working as much as you used to. Besides, you’re practically an adult, and I shall likely have to manage without you entirely soon.” I bat my eyelashes. “Especially if you meet a fine young military stallion.”

Sweetie Belle snorts. “Fat chance of that anytime soon. Honestly, it feels like half the boys in my class have gotten denser since hitting puberty.” She wordlessly offers me the last egg. I shake my head and she happily takes it herself. JROTC is hungry work, after all.

“All the same, you should take the time to enjoy yourself. After all, I plan on spending my day off rather frivolously.”

She chuckles at that. “I wouldn’t let the others hear you call a day out shooting ‘frivolous.’ They might be offended.” She glances over at the oaken case lying on the counter. “I think they’ll like your little surprise though.”

“I should certainly hope so. It took considerable effort to procure that antique.”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll love it all the same.” She glances up at the clock and gives that mischievous little smile that I oh so hate seeing. “Maybe they’ll even love it enough to forgive you for being fifteen minutes late.”

I swear; you’d think that young mare likes seeing me dashing about in a tizzy. I deny her assertion that I “shrieked” in dismay when I saw the time. However, I would be lying if I claimed that I did not beat a rather hasty retreat from the dining room, pausing only to grab sunhat, sunglasses, and the aforementioned case, shooting a disapproving glance over my shoulder as I left. Rolling on the floor laughing at one’s sister’s misfortune is most unbecoming, Sweetie Belle.

What begins as a sprint though town swiftly slows to a brisk trot. Late or not, I’d prefer not to arrive icky with sweat. I can’t help but take in the sights and sounds of the village around me. Or perhaps it would be more proper to call it a true town, or even a small city. Having served as a muster-point for troops before sending them on to various theaters of war, Ponyville has grown from the tiny hamlet I was raised in into something more suited to the hub it has become. The town has more than doubled in size, expanding to include more shops, more stores, and more housing. Soldiers are a frequent sight on the streets these days. Most are cadets from the Ponyville Martial Academy, resplendent in their dark green dress uniforms, complete with jaunty berets. This in itself is a departure from the pre-war days, and not just because the uniforms have undergone significant changes; simply put, there was never a need to have a military presence in a little town like ours before. During the war, though, our military expanded tenfold, and it wasn’t exactly small to begin with. Between the increased need for security on the borders, the occupation force, and the grim reality that other kingdoms are modernizing their arsenals, we need warfighters in a way that we haven’t for centuries. These young cadets, most of them only a year or two older than dear Sweetie Belle, represent that need.

Of course, the actual armed soldiers represent it even more closely. That’s another thing that would have been inconceivable to pre-war minds: rifle-toting ponies in olive-drab uniforms, wearing armored chest-plates and wide-brimmed Brodie helmets. Shining Armor made the importance of such increased security for critical towns like Ponyville abundantly clear after that … tragic day seven years ago.

Two of the soldiers dip their helmets to me as they walk past, and I acknowledge their pleasantry with a smile and a nod, but I don’t slow my pace. I suppose the attention of two fit young military stallions ought to set my heart a-patter, but I have other matters on my mind at the moment.

Like worrying about my tardiness. “Oh, I do so hope the others don’t tease me terribly for being late,” I hiss to myself. “That Sweetie Belle! I sincerely hope that she simply didn’t notice the time, because if she deliberately failed to mention it then I will be having a rather stern talk with her about the value of punctuality, which she ought to already know, what with her being in Junior ROTC and all, and—"

“Hiya, Rarity!” greets Pinkie from directly beside me.

I maintain that I did not shriek at the top of my lungs in a most unladylike manner.

Once I regain my composure, and some modicum of a steady heartbeat, I address my dear friend in a calm and reserved manner. “Pinkie Pie, you scared the daylights out of me!” More or less.

Pinkie giggles and twists her neck to look at me upside-down, somehow not spilling the beret from her physics-defying mane in the process. “Sorry, Rarity! I just didn’t want you to be seen talking to yourself.” She looks around furtively, as though spies might be listening, then leans into my ear, putting a hoof up to shield her mouth as she whispers, “Ponies might think you’re crazy!”

A little over a decade ago, her behavior would have struck me as odd. As it stands now, I barely blink. “Well, thank you for your consideration, darling.”

“Anytime, Rarity!” she gushes.

We resume walking to our destination and I try to ignore all the ponies who I catch in the process of pretending they weren’t staring at my little, ahem, outburst a moment ago. We probably look to be quite the odd couple. Well, more of an odd couple than in the old days, I should clarify. It’s not just the difference of coats and manes anymore. These days Pinkie is sporting some rather impressive scars, to say nothing of her black-green beret and vest, the latter of which was once a combat engineer’s jacket before she tore the sleeves off. The case on my back is scarcely larger than a breadbox, while the rifle case slung over her back is longer than she is. There are a few other minor differences as well, like her battle-toned musculature, the combat knife she still habitually straps to her back hoof, and the fact that she’s actually walking rather than bouncing like she always used to.

Oh, and she’s pregnant. That’s different too.

Honestly, the lack of bounce in her step probably has more to do with not wanting to upset the foals she’s carrying than any lingering effects of the war, as one might have suspected.

“Well, darling, I must say that I’m relieved not to be the only pony running late today. At least I shan’t have to bear Rainbow’s and Applejack’s attempts at comedy alone.”

“Happy to help, Rarity,” she smiles. “Though I wouldn’t have been late at all if Bud wasn’t so fussy!” she adds with a scowl.

“Fussy?”

“Yeah,” grumbles Pinkie, letting her head dip. “These days it’s always, ‘let me get that for you, honey!’ ‘Don’t try to lift that by yourself, sugarplum!’ ‘Why on Celestia’s green earth would you need to take all of your guns, Pinkie, and how have the MPs not confiscated your horde of contraband weapons anyway?’” She snorts. “As if the MPs could even find my tunnel network to begin with. And today was just silly. All I wanted was to bring three of my long-guns today, and Bud was all over me about ‘not exerting myself.’ He wouldn’t even let me leave until I agreed to only take the one.” She glances at me. “Crazy, right?”

Bud must be the incarnation of the Element of Patience to keep up with Pinkie’s inability to dial back her eccentricities even when conspicuously pregnant. “Well, darling, I’m sure that he just couldn’t bear to let such a beautiful young mare out of his sight.”

Somehow, even the wicked scar across Pinkie’s muzzle, courtesy of a griffon saber, doesn’t manage to dampen the glow of her blushing smile one iota. “Aw, shucks, Rarity,” she giggles. “You always say the nicest things.”

I smile. “Tis only what friends are for, Pinkie dear.”

Our walk eventually winds its way out of town to the entrance of the Bronze Bayonet Memorial Shooting Range, a massive acreage at the edge of Ponyville surrounded by a rather unassuming white wall. Three ponies wait for us at the gate.

Rainbow Dash is flying, as usual, in part from habit and in part of avoid putting too much strain on her one remaining back leg. She’s wearing a wool-lined flight jacket blazing with an appropriate rainbow of combat ribbons and has two rifle cases leaning against the gate house.

Applejack stands next to her, wearing one of her trademark stetsons, with the absence of any sergeant’s chevrons stitched into it marking it as one of the ones she left at home for the war. Her rounded dog tags hang loose from the open front of her ‘lucky jacket.’ The rumpled green combat jacket has seen better days. Faded, pitted, weathered, and starting to fray at the edges, it’s in need of restoration. But Applejack won’t hear of it. “Not to Lucky,” she’d say if I asked. “He’s untouchable.” She has at least three rifle cases slung on her back, plus a duffel bag of ammunition and Celestia-knows-what-else at her feet.

Fluttershy is sitting to the side, watching a butterfly. She’s not wearing anything resembling a uniform, though her hair is still done up in the conservative bun that she adopted at the start of the war. At her side rests her medical kit, an olive drab bag with a red cross on a white field stamped on the side. It’s the same bag she carried in the war, but by some miracle she’s restored it to be nigh-immaculate, to the point that, if I didn’t know better, I’d think she hadn’t seen any action at all. Unlike the others, she carries no weapons.

Catching sight of us from some ways off, Rainbow throws her hooves up in the air in frustration at our sedate pace. “What are you two, a couple of snails? Get a move on! We’re burning daylight here!”

Fluttershy lets the butterfly land on her hoof. “Oh, it’s okay. I don’t really mind.”

Chuckling cheerfully, Applejack swipes at Rainbow’s tail with her hoof. “Don’t listen to the Tripod. Air Corps made ‘er even more impatient than she already was.”

I must admit, I still flinch whenever I hear anypony call Rainbow ‘Tripod.’ Not that the pegasus seems to mind.

Pfff!” snorts Rainbow. “Is that jealousy I hear, ground-pounder? Can’t handle our superior awesomeness?”

“Superior arrogance is more like it,” grins Applejack. “Ya’ll sky-jockeys wouldn’t know a proper battle plan if’n it bit ya in the flank.”

“Mindless grunt!”

“Feather-brain!”

“Jarhead!”

The two dissolve into an (apparently) good-natured bout of one-up-ponyship between their respective Branches, enabling Pinkie and I to close the distance. The five of us eventually gather at the entrance. Ignoring the bickering, I take stock of our little gathering. It’s impossible not to notice the absence of one of our closest friends. No matter how accustomed I am to it, and I still feel my heart sink just a little.

Fluttershy notices my mood and trots over. “Is something wrong, Rarity?”

“Nothing dear,” I reply with a sad sigh. “I’m just lamenting Twilight’s absence.”

Rainbow interrupts her bickering to fly over. “What do you mean?” she asks. “Twilight’s just inside.”

“Oh, she is?” I exclaim happily. “Capital! I was worried that she’d been feeling under the weather again. It’s so dreadfully often that she’s cooped up inside.”

“Naw, she’s here. Spike wheeled her in and set her up early. She’s already taken over one of the shooter’s tables to spread out all her notes on force, trajectory, an’ whatnot. You know how she is.”

I chuckle. “Yes, I do know how she is.” Quite well, in fact. Being her caretaker for so many years, I feel that in some ways I know her better than anypony, except perhaps Spike. “Well,” I say, trotting through the gates. “Best not keep her waiting any longer then.”


Three dozen pony-shaped dummies composed of straw and skinned with burlap charge across the rolling field in a staggered line, resembling a still frame reproduction of the last great charge of the Scarecrow Brigade.

At least, that’s what Pinkie Pie thinks it resembles.

There’s a sharp crack and the head of one of the rearmost dummies explodes in a haze of straw and dust, reducing the bold dummy brigade’s numbers from thirty-six to thirty-five.

Rainbow Dash ejects the spent casing from the heavy rifle with a precise flick of her forehoof. “Hot dang, AJ, that’s got a satisfying kick to it!” she exclaims, lying prone on the shooter’s table. “No wonder you dirt-suckers worship this thing!”

Applejack smiles around a chaw of tobacco. Filthy habit. “Glad ta see ya can appreciate the finer things in life, RD.” She gives her friend a playful swat across her hindquarters. “Even if yer scrawny flank couldn’t handle this puppy out there in the Slog.”

The pegasus arches an eloquent eyebrow and rolls to her side, glaring at the farmpony. “Well excuse me if the kick from a Sharps long-gun is a little much to handle while airborne, AJ, but you try firing a .45-70 round while pulling out of a 5000 foot dive at 2300 miles per hour!”

Chuckling, Applejack hefts her smaller Spader Rifle. “Yeah, well, be thankful you got issued somethin’ with a higher rate o’ fire earlier in tha war. I didn’t get ta use one o’ these puppies till we’d near put the Buzzards on the run.” She rises to her hind legs for a standing shot and takes aim at one of the closer dummies. Taking a breath to steady her aim, she opens fire, working the guns’s lever-action in a controlled frenzy to put all five shots through her victim’s center of mass. The smaller caliber rounds don’t have quite the same explosive effect of the heavier Sharps Rifle, but the precision fire still shreds the dummy’s chest. With an almost loving sigh, Applejack settles back into a sitting position, fondling the weapon. “Now ain’t that a pretty sound yer makin,’ gorgeous?” she exclaims, grinning like a filly.

I chuckle and adjust my hat to block the heat of the sun. “Take care, Applejack. If Arinze hears you talking about your firearm in such a manner, he may become jealous.”

“Yeah!” exclaims Pinkie Pie, looking up from cleaning a Needle Rifle that she’d ‘borrowed’ from a Dominion soldier. “Poor zebra! Imagine finding out his wife’s cheating on him with a banged-up lever-action!”

Even Fluttershy laughs at that. Applejack shoots Pinkie Pie a sour look before she, too, starts laughing. “Well, as far as homewreckers go, at least this’un don’t jam often.”

Rainbow Dash snorts. “If that’s how you feel about it, I think we’ll need to host an intervention and get you some marriage counselling. How about it, Twilight? You up for doing some marriage counselling?”

Twilight looks up from her research notes and gives a dry smile. “I think you or Pinkie are technically more qualified than I am for that at the moment,” she remarks. Her voice sounds stronger today, with almost none of its usual waver. Not bad for a wheelchair-bound mare with only one functioning lung, I suppose.

“Oh, I’m sure you could do something, Twilight,” encourages Fluttershy, who had appeared beside our friend with a medical satchel to help the alicorn take her various pills and potions. “After all, friendship is the foundation of a successful marriage.”

“Indeed,” I agree, taking advantage of the pause in shooting to make inquiries of my friends. “Speaking of which, Twilight,” my voice turns coy, “how are you and Big MacIntosh doing?”

Twilight turns bright red and becomes quite fascinated with the calculations on her research papers. “We’re fine,” she answers flatly. “Now, Rainbow Dash, as compared to the kick of the Spader, how would you characterize the experience of firing the Sharps…” she trails off as the snickering of the other mares (sans Fluttershy) cuts her off. Flushing even redder than before she buries her snout in her notes.

Fluttershy shoots me an arch look. I return it innocently over a sip of tea. Can’t blame a lady for wanting a little information about one of her best friend’s love lives. Especially when I helped her write most of those wartime letters.

Applejack appears to take mercy on Twilight. “Say, Twi, if’n yer so keen ta learn about the kick, ain’t no better teacher than experience.”

Twilight blinks at that. “I- I couldn’t. I shouldn’t.”

“Why not, darling?” I ask. “I know a heavier gun like the Sharps isn’t your preference, but it’s not as though you haven’t shot before.”

“No, it’s not that,” she interrupts. “I actually did fire first generation Sharps Rifles when they were introduced after Tirek, but since then I’ve only read about it.”

“Well, you only read about running marathons and you still beat the horseshoes off of AJ and Dashie!” chirps Pinkie as she slides the bolt back into place on the Needle Rifle. Both athletes glare.

Twilight bites her lip, then mumbles, “Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” She glances at our resident medical expert for confirmation, “Or… could it?”

Fluttershy shakes her head. “It won’t hurt. You can shoot it. You know… if you want to.”

“See? Even the Angel of Angriff says it’s okay,” declares Rainbow. “So get your flank over here!”

“Well… okay,” acquiesces Twilight. She wheels over to the shooters bench. Rainbow vacates the spot for her and sets the barrel of the Sharps up on a sandbag for stability, placing a box of ammunition within easy reach. Twilight’s horn lights up and she levitates five bullets out of the box, loading one into the chamber.

Rainbow, still hovering at Twilight’s right, points out at the distant targets. “Now, you’re going to want to control your breathing and—"

BANG!

The crack of the rifle cuts Dash off mid-word and the chest of a distant dummy is reduced to dust. With one hoof she ejects the shell casing, loading the next with her magic. Another shot and another dummy’s head explodes.

Eject.

Reload.

BANG!

Hit.

Repeat.

Five shots end in five clean hits, any one of which would have been fatal had it landed on an actual pony. The echo of the last shot rolls over the hills, uninterrupted by dialogue as the five of us turn to stare at the alicorn, who lets out a long breath as she sits back in her wheelchair, a satisfied smirk on her face. “You’re right. That is much better than just taking notes. Good suggestion, Applejack.”

Everypony else is quiet for a moment; then Dash says what’s doubtless on all our minds. “Hot dang, Twi. You woulda made for one heck of a sniper!”

Twilight emits a cackle. “Yes, because hauling a wheelchair-bound sniper around a battlefield wouldn’t have caused any logistical problems. I can’t even begin to count the number of ways that could have gone wrong.”

“Startin’ with the fact that Shining Armor would kill us for letting ya,” chuckles Applejack.

“If Spike didn’t get to us first,” adds Pinkie.

“All the same, that was really good shooting, Twilight,” smiles Fluttershy. “You looked like you were having so much fun, I was almost a little bit jealous.”

Rainbow Dash opens her mouth as if to invite Fluttershy to experience it herself, but closes it so fast that I almost don’t notice. A few years ago, she would have suggested it without hesitation (and likely without tact), but we all know better than to ask Fluttershy to fire a gun. Better to just be thankful that she enjoys the range with us and leave it at that.

“How about you, Rares?” asks Applejack, turning her attention to me. “You gonna shoot or what?”

I smirk and set aside my tea. “In due time, I assure you. First I have to show you what I brought.” With a spark of magic I draw my case over. Five mares direct their attention to me. Rather than simply open the case, I decide to play it up a little. To simply reveal the surprise with no panache would simply not be proper. “Now, all of you have your own prized and exotic weapons to bring, often procured from,” I glance at Pinkie, “…less than willing sources, but I believe that I have found an article of war which shall put them all to shame.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” exclaims Pinkie. “What is it? What is it? Is it a raygun? A laserbeam? A magic projector—"

This,” I cut her off, “is among the most difficult military articles to procure without a king’s ransom and is, fittingly enough, something of a rarity.” I giggle at my own joke. I’m not above that. “It is,” I click open the case and twirl it around with a flourish to display the contents, “an original, mint condition Gilded Peacemaker.”

Oooooh,” chorus the girls. Even Fluttershy is impressed. I don’t blame her. The Peacemakers were the first black powder pistol ever issued to officers of the Equestrian military, and the Gilded variety were issued only to officers of the highest caliber. Few were ever made, and fewer still remain.

“H-how?!” stammers Dash. “I thought all the Gildies were either owned by some rich guy or destroyed!”

“All but one!” I sing as I levitate the venerable sidearm out of it’s velvet case. “And, let me tell you, tracking this little beauty down was not easy. You wouldn’t believe the lengths to which I had to go to procure it.”

Applejack approaches, holding out a hoof to touch it, and then pulls back as though afraid to sully it. “May Ah?

“Of course, darling.”

One by one they take the firearm and pass it around, oohing and awing appropriately at the inlay, the scrollwork, and, yes, the rarity of the item. Fluttershy is the last to look at it. “It really is beautiful,” she admits. “Almost seems odd that it’s something to shoot creatures with.”

Well, when you put it like that…

“But we’re still gonna shoot it, right?” demands Rainbow anxiously.

I roll my eyes. “Well, I didn’t just bring it to look at.”

“Well, if’n we’re shootin’ the granddaddy o’ service pistols,” Applejack gives a wolfish grin and produces her Colt .45 Revolver from beneath her jacket. “Ah think we should have a comparison with his heir.”

Twilight moves one of the targets closer with her magic under Fluttershy’s watchful eye while I load the Peacemaker. It’s a rather laborious process, and one which makes me thankful for my magic. Black powder and a white coat don’t mix. Applejack goes first. Having cast off her jacket in the heat of the day, she moves up to the firing line and sights up on the dummy. “We doin’ one shot or the whole shebang?”

“Just one shot should suffice,” I reply, setting aside my sunglasses and bonnet. “Unless you want to wait five minutes while I reload each time.”

“Fair.” Her tongue sticks out as she steadies her breathing. I can’t suppress a twitch at the loud bark of the Colt. Rifles don’t bother me, but, every once in a while, the sound of a pistol reminds me of Hoofenberg. I glance at Twilight. She seems unfazed. But then, she doesn’t remember most of that day. A fortunate turn of events, to be sure.

Applejack waves her hoof in front of my eyes. “Hm?” I ask.

“Ah said yer up, Rares,” she repeats.

“Oh. My apologies.”

She cocks an eyebrow. “You okay?”

“Why of course I am, darling,” I chuckle, hoping it doesn’t sound forced. “I was just…” I look to the target for inspiration, “intimidated by the precision of your shot.”

“Uh huh,” she replies, not sounding convinced. All the same, she doesn’t press me about it. “Well, ya’d best start shootin’ before Rainbow up and yanks it from ya.”

“Oh, like you don’t want to shoot it too, AJ!”

Tuning them out, I sight up on the target. I must admit, shooting is more enjoyable than I thought it would be and I’ve turned out to be a fair hoof at it, but I’m under no illusions that I’ll beat Applejack with anything short of a miracle. All the same, I shan’t give it anything less than my best. I take aim, steady my breathing, squeeze the trigger with the inside of my joint…

…and gag on the smoke while shaking my head to clear the ringing from my ears. “My word!” I wheeze, my eyes watering as I release the grip and levitate the offending weapon over to Applejack. “That makes quite a racket, doesn’t it?”

“Hehe! She sure does,” grins Applejack, who seems unaffected by the noise. “Bit of a smoker too, looks like.”

“Maybe it’s a navy pistol,” suggests Rainbow.

“No, silly! That’s smoking and drinking,” corrects Pinkie Pie.

Fluttershy offers me a glass of water, which I take with gusto. “Wherever it came from,” I manage after the coughing stops, “I would be willing to bet they were happy to see it go. Honestly, Applejack, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I prefer your plain old revolver to that gilded thing. It may look pretty, but choking on smoke from a single volley hardly brings any refinement to war.”

The comment gets a chuckle, but it dies out pretty quickly at the sound of Pinkie’s more… bitter laughter. I turn slowly to see her polishing the Needle Rifle with a humorless grin on her face. “Oh, Rarity. It’s cute that you think there’s refinement in war.” She says it sweetly, but there’s a bite to her words that makes the sweetness sickening. “No matter how fancy the weapons, how efficient the tech, how brilliant the ways we conceive for keeping the enemy at a distance, war always comes down to two critters fighting in a muddy ditch over a bucking knife.”

A cold silence settles on the range, broken only by the soft rasp of Twilight’s breath.

Then Pinkie looks up with her trademark smile and exclaims, “But, hey, I got my hubby out of it, and now I’ve got four little buns in the oven! So I’d say it worked out pretty well!” She brandishes the rifled. “Now enough chit-chat! More shooting! Here, Twilight, try this Needle Rifle! It’s super-duper!”

And with that she carries on as though nothing else happened.

The other veterans slide back into the routine of the range without much bother. Even Fluttershy doesn’t seem that fazed. As for Twilight, she’s two busy having the modified Needle Rifle planted in her hooves to show shock.

Which leaves me alone to look on and see how much has changed.

Prospects

View Online

It’s a few hours before the other girls eventually tire of all the shooting and decide to call it a day. I say ‘tire of the shooting,’ but for the three actual combatants in our merry band it’s more a case of ‘ran out of ammunition.’ I suspect that if somepony had materialized with a truckload of bullets they would have merrily plugged away until the cows came home.

‘Until the cows came home.’ My oh my, it seems I’ve picked up some of dear Applejack’s countryisms. How long the years have been.

At any rate, as Celestia begins to set the sun we make our way to the gate. There we find three stallions waiting for us. Or, more specifically, waiting for three of us. They greet their mares more or less simultaneously, but I pride myself on being detail-oriented, especially where romance is concerned, so I don’t miss a thing.

Bud is a rather unassuming stallion, with a pale cream coat, short brown mane and tail, and black-rimmed glasses. He’s clean-shaven, a little shorter than Pinkie Pie, and a little thick about the middle. Glancing at him, one could be forgiven for assuming that he’s a clerk or perhaps a supervisor for a construction site and not a highly-decorated Marine lieutenant with two Bronze Stars and the Imperial Bloodstripe.

“Hiya, hubby!” exclaims Pinkie, crossing the distance between them in what would be a short sprint for most ponies but is really quite sedate where Pinkie is concerned. She gives him a nuzzle. “Miss me?”

“Always, sugarplum,” he says warmly. “The house is just eerily quiet without you around.”

That I readily believe.

He reaches for her rifle case. “Why don’t you let me get—”

She smacks his hoof away. “No! Bad hubby! I’m perfectly capable of carrying Gretchen myself!” Bud looks hurt and she plants a kiss on his snout to show him it’s no hard feelings. “If I make your favorite casserole tonight, will you promise to hover a little less?”

Bud smiles. “Only if you let me help you make it.”

“It’s a deal. Seeya, girls!” After acknowledging the others’ goodbyes, the two of them trot off.

Thunderlane, hovering a few feet off the ground, looks much the same as he always has, though his mohawk is just a touch shorter than it used to be and his physique is that of a soldier recently back from active duty rather than a pre-war reservist. He’s maintained that physique despite the many moons that have passed since the war’s end, and I suspect that being married to Rainbow Dash might have something to do with that.

Before he can even get a greeting off, she zips up to plant an energetic kiss on his lips. When she releases him, he’s just dazed enough to yield the first word to her. “Race you home, Thunder?”

The stallion smirks knowingly. “Oh, yes, and we all know that will be a fair race.” He flaps around to her flank and swats at her stump leg with his tail. “I couldn’t beat you even before you lost a few pounds.”

She swipes at him with one hoof and he only barely manages to dodge. “Jerk!” she laughs. “Howsabout I carry all my guns as a handicap?”

“Or we could just fly back like normal ponies,” he replies mildly.

Rainbow appears to give this due consideration, then says, “Naw! See ya all later!” and zips off. Thunderlane sighs, waves to the others, then follows the blue dot rapidly disappearing into the distance.

Big Mac… Big Mac stands out. He always has, really. Polite, deferential, square-jawed, honest, and with a body many stallions would kill for, he’s always made quite an impression on the mares of Ponyville. Applejack used to joke, not without merit, that if a group of mares was around she could always tell when Big Mac came to town because the conversation petered out and the ambient temperature rose.

In a lot of ways, it’s only gotten worse since the war. His already impressive musculature is now so sculped that he looks like the subject of a Roanan statue. He’s grown his coat out a little to cover the web of scars crisscrossing his body (burns, bullet holes, the cuts of talons and blades), which gives him a sort of ‘rugged adventurer’ look. It’s menacing, but in a reassuring ‘if anyone insults my marefriend I’ll break him in half’ sort of way. And, as if that weren’t all enough to make him a heartthrob, he had the absolute gall to grow out a perfectly masculine beard.

Honestly, if I were the sort of base, pathetic, classless mare who couldn’t control her affections and went after other mares’ special someponies, the only thing that would keep Big Mac safe from my advances would be the fear of reprisal from our friends. Fortunately, I’m a big girl who learned long ago how to be able to admire beauty without lusting after it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of certain other mares in Ponyville, and I don’t envy the stick that Big Mac must need to lug around to fend them all off.

Then again, I suspect he just ignores them. After all, he only has eyes for one mare.

“Big Mac!” cries Twilight in delight as she rolls towards him. She approaches him eagerly, but there is the barest hint of hesitation, and the wheels of her chair drag just a touch. Her eyes dance in excitement at his presence, but I know her well enough to detect a lingering fear in them; a disbelief that haunts her happiness, questioning how he could truly love her when, in her mind, he’s so perfect and she’s so broken.

But Big Mac doesn’t see a broken mare in a wheelchair. He sees Twilight, the mare he loves, who just happens to be differently-abled than the rest of us. When he looks at her, he sees the most beautiful thing in the world. “Hiya, sweetheart,” he says, his basso rumbling with warmth as he crosses the distance to kiss her gently on the forehead. “Ya have fun?”

“I did! I really do enjoy these outings. I’m surprised to see you, though. I thought Spike was going to pick me up.”

His smile turns teasing. “Ah told him Ah’d walk ya home. Not disappointed Ah hope.”

She nuzzles him. “Not at all.” The two of them depart together, the big warhorse walking at a gentle pace for her sake. Both forget to bid farewell, but I don’t mind. Truthfully, it almost brings a tear to my eye to see our precious little Twilight with the stallion she deserves.

“You did a good job helping them along,” whispers Fluttershy to me with a smile.

Once upon a time, I would have replied with false modesty. To Tartarus with that. Helping a stallion who’s not known for talking and a mare who didn’t know the first thing about romance to build a relationship via letter during a war was bloody difficult. “Yes, I did, didn’t I?” I reply, preening just a little.

Don’t look at me like that. I earned this!

I hear Applejack snort and I turn to see the farm mare staring up at the sky in mock accusation. “Okay, so where’s mah stallion?” she demands of the heavens.

Fluttershy and I giggle. “I’m sure Arinze is just caught up in his work, Applejack,” Fluttershy assures her.

I can’t resist. “That or he’s out drinking because he heard you were cheating on him with a rifle.”

The remark earns me a censorious glance from Fluttershy and a laugh from Applejack. “Heh! Yeah, Ah’ve brought this on mahself, Ah reckon.”

“Indeed. Such a tragedy.”

Not seeming impressed by the joke, Fluttershy checks her watch. “Well, I’d better get back to my animals. I’ll see you girls later.”

“Bye, Fluttershy.”

“Ta ta, darling!”

After she leaves, I cast a glance at Applejack. “Well, I’m hardly a dashing zebra stallion, but I’d be happy to walk back with you.”

“Mighty kind o’ ya.”

We amble in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres, not in any particular hurry. “Arinze really has taken well to the farm life, hasn’t he,” I observe.

“He sure as sugar has,” admits Applejack. “Honestly, Ah think he’s happier here than he ever was back in the palace.”

I elbow her. “I’m sure that has more to do with you than anything.”

She blushes. It’s a good shade on her. “Well, yer right about that, but Ah think he’d enjoy the farm life anyway. He loves his family and his country, but he never was much fer courtly living.”

“And what about Nkea?” I ask, referring to Arinze’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp. “Is he still frosty about the entire affair?”

Applejack chuckles. “Oh, he makes all sorts of hooded scathing remarks about the rustic life, but he’s secretly warmed up to it. Doesn’t hurt that he and Grannie get on like a house on fire. Not that you’d guess from all the insults.”

I can’t help but laugh at that. The thought of Nkea (dry, patrician, coldly refined) and Grannie Smith (boisterous, rustic, unrepentantly irreverent) verbally jousting with barbs and slights always brings a smile to my face.

In spite of my laughter, though, I feel an unwelcome pang of jealousy. It’s not right of me, and I know that, but I can’t help but think of Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and even Rainbow Dash having special someponies while I—

No! That’s enough of that! My friends all deserve their happiness and, besides, I’m still a young mare. Plenty of time for me to find somepony. Fluttershy is single and she seems perfectly happy that way. I don’t need a stallion in my life.

It’s just… I would like a stallion in my life.

“Gunneh!” calls out a voice behind us. “Gunneh!”

We turn to see a lanky mail-carrier stallion flapping towards us. Applejack pulls a wry face and glances up at the sky. “Okay, one, yer too late, an’ two, that’s the wrong stallion.”

I pat her on the withers. “It’s a step in the right direction, darling.”

The stallion lands in front of us, dipping his cap to me and throwing Applejack a salute. “Glad Ah caught ya, Gunneh,” he says in a Atlantail drawl so thick that I can barely make out that he’s calling her ‘Gunny.’ He reaches into his mailbag and pulls out an envelope. “Got a lettah for yah, Gunneh. A telegrahm ta be precise.”

“Thanks, Buckeye,” she replies, returning his salute before taking the telegram. “How’s the ole thumper treatin’ ya?”

“Oh, Ah get bah, Gunneh, thanks fah askin’,” he replies with a laconic smile. “Naw if you fine mares will excuse me, Ah gotta finish mah rounds if Ah wanna be home fah suppah.” Saluting and doffing his cap once more, he flaps off.

Once he’s out of earshot, I turn to Applejack, one eyebrow raised. “The ‘ole thumper?’” I ask.

“His heart,” replies Applejack with a deliberate shrug, her voice a touch forced. “War souvenir.”

She doesn’t elaborate, and I get the impression there’s more to it than that, but I don’t feel inclined to pry in case it’s a sensitive topic. Instead I ask, “He called you ‘Gunny.’ Was he a member of your old unit?”

“Naw, he just happened ta settle in Ponyville,” answers the farm mare, ripping open the envelope with her teeth. “He ain’t even a Marine, though he’s a nice enough feller for an Army puke.”

I roll my eyes. Her tone is good-natured, but it would appear that the inter-branch ‘slagging’ persists even when the other party isn’t present. “How do you know him then?”

Applejack starts to skim the letter. “A group Ah run down at the Ponyville Veterans…” she trails off with a frown, her eyes becoming more intent as the skim of the letter turns into a thorough read. The longer she spends on it, the deeper her frown becomes. My concern mounts when a curse escapes her lips. Applejack may have picked up some uncouth habits in the Service, but swearing has never been one of them. By the time she’s done reading, she’s muttering half-formed expletives to herself and stomping one hoof to the ground repeatedly. I’m about to ask what’s gotten her so angry, but then I see the pain and frustration in her eyes and I realize that she’s not angry.

She’s upset.

“Darling,” I interject gently, “what’s wrong?”

“It’s Shoddy!” she half-shouts, half-cries, almost crushing the letter in the crook of her hoof. “It’s always Shoddy!

What’s shoddy, darling?” What could possibly have been so shoddily made as to make Applejack of all ponies visibly upset?

“Not what, Rares, who,” she explains, stuffing the letter in her jacket before she can damage it any further. “Corporal Iron Shod. ‘Shoddy.’ He’s a stallion from my old unit.”

Immediately I fear the worst. “Oh dear, has something happened to him?”

“You could say that!” snaps Applejack. “He got fired. Again.” She sits with a heavy sigh, running a hoof back over her head and half-pushing her hat off. More quietly, she adds, “An’ Ah really thought this job was gonna take, too.”

Ordinarily I’d enjoy sussing out what exactly she meant clue by clue in the style of Shadow Spade, but, given the obviously serious nature of the matter at hoof, I elect to take the more direct approach. Sitting next to her I lay a hoof across her back. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, darling,” I suggest in a calming tone.

My Marine friend hesitates, never being one for gossip. But this is different. Really, it is. Whatever has transpired with the unfortunately nicknamed Shoddy is no small matter, else she’d never get so worked up, and, as her friend, I want to help her. “Applejack, you know I’ll get the truth out of you eventually,” I remark, a touch stern. “And, besides, I only want to help, even if it’s simply to provide a shoulder to cry on.” She hesitates, then gives a reluctant nod. “Come, then. What’s the matter?”

Heaving a deep sigh, Applejack begins. “War changes ponies, Rares. You know that. Course, life changes ponies in general, so change don’t mean ya can’t come home and pick yer life back up. It won’t ever be the same as when you left, but then that ain’t always a bad thing.” She digs one hoof into the soil of the acreage. “Most ponies are like me or Dash or Pinkie. We come home and get on with our lives. We get married, raise kids, have jobs, yap with our neighbors… normal stuff, ya know?” She’s not looking at me when she talks; more just looking past me. “Ah ain’t gonna act like it ain’t an adjustment comin’ home. It is.” She chuckles. “It sure as sugar is. Goin’ from gettin’ shot at day-in and day-out an’ having ta trust yer life to the ponies around you every second o’ the day, ta comin’ home an’ just,” she gestures down the road, “walkin’ down the street without a care in the world?” She shakes her head. “Ain’t no good way to describe what that feels like to ponies what ain’t experienced it. They can never understand.”

I know she doesn’t mean to, but the statement still hurts. I want to understand, I want to share this with my friends, but… I keep a straight face and hide it, because I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself right now. Fortunately, she’s too intent on her story to notice.

“But, for all that, it’s possible ta get back into the civilian swing of things. It’s hard, sure, but for most it ain’t so bad, and, like Ah said, fer some it’s an improvement. They’ve grown up thanks to the war; gotten a confidence and maturity and gratitude they ain’t never had before.”

I nod, feeling that I at least partially understand. Observing my friends these many moons they’ve been back… things are different to be sure, but it’s still… them. Applejack is still a farmer at heart, Dash is still an exuberant hotshot, Fluttershy is still gentle and quiet, and Pinkie Pie is still, well, Pinkie Pie. Even if she does have a much darker sense of humor than she used to.

What differences there are would mostly fall under the heading of ‘positive changes,’ I should think. Pinkie matured in ways I never would have expected, and Fluttershy no longer has any trace of her old timidity; she’s still shy with other ponies, yes, but no longer frightened of little things. They’ve all grown in some way; all have this sort of sober wisdom that must come from seeing death laid bare before you daily.

It’s easy upon reflection to see how they were able to adjust to civilian life once more. But, given the nature of the telegram, it sounds as though this is not the case with Shoddy. “And the other soldiers?” I prompt. “The ones for whom it is not an easy adjustment?”

Applejack sighs deeply and takes off her stetson, holding it to her barrel with one hoof. “Some guys… some guys can’t leave the battle behind, and if they don’t stay in the Service it eats ‘em up inside. Some guys, they come back with the battle still stuck in their heads, and they’re scared o’ the world, or angry at it, or just… confused. Shattered. Cracked. They got this look in their eyes, this thousand-yard stare, where they ain’t lookin’ at the world in front of ‘em; they’re lookin’ at the war.” She glances off into the trees. “Easy to see why, after what we saw over there,” she adds quietly.

Shaking her head, she resumes. “Others well, they come home to an Equestria they don’t recognize and that don’t recognize them. Nothin’ makes sense anymore, nopony understands them, and nopony’s giving ‘em directions what to do anymore. They go off as colts and fillies ta fight fer their country, an’ when they get back as stallions and mares they find their country’s got nothin’ waiting for ‘em. They’ve got a stack of combat ribbons, a few scars, a lifetime o’ killin’ under their belts, and no jobs.”

I feel a chill go down my spine. In hindsight, it’s obvious that returning home would be a trying experience for many, but it never occurred to me just how difficult it must be for thousands of young soldiers. I can’t help but give a guilty wince as I realize how blind to their struggles I’ve been. “And I take it this Shoddy is one such stallion?”

“Sure shootin’,” nods Applejack, who now looks more tired than upset. “His home town’s tinier even than Appaloosa; he had no job prospects there, so he went to Manehatten. Ah had a vague idea he was tryin’ for factory work, but it wasn’t till a few months ago when Ah got a letter from one o’ my other devil dogs that Ah found out he was couch-surfing on account o’ bein’ homeless.”

“My word!”

Ah had some words ta say at the time, Ah’ll tell you what,” she says with a bitter chuckle. “Arinze got an ejication in old-fashioned Apple cussin’ that day.” Standing, she stretches, her hindlegs popping in a way that always makes me gag. “Sorry, Ah need to be walking; get stiff bein’ one place too long these days.” Once I’ve risen, we resume our journey to the Acres. “Anyway, Ah looked into it an’ found out Shoddy’d taken and lost a string of jobs. Couldn’t seem to hold anything, and that don’t look good on no fancy résumé. So, Ah called in some favors, even got a hold o’ the Manehatten Oranges to see if they could find anythin’ for him.”

I blink in shock. “And with all that you couldn’t find anything?”

“Oh, we found plenty of gigs,” she clarifies, “just nothin’ he could hold down. He always says or does something that gets ‘im fired, an’ then we’re back to square one.” She pats her breast pocket where the letter is stowed. “This last job was the last lead we found for ‘im.” Letting out a long breath, she shakes her head. “Ah don’t know what else ta do, if Ah’m honest,” she admits. “Ah don’t believe in lost causes, but Ah don’t see a way out of this.”

It’s frankly disturbing to see Applejack so dejected and fatalistic. She’s never been one to back down from a fight, not on any of the adventures we used to share in, not with any professional hardship, and not in any personal crisis. For her to feel this way, even unwillingly is just… unnatural.

Fortunately for her, I happen to have a knack for business, so perhaps I can see something that she and her family have missed.

First, though, I need a little more context. “Well, what’s he good at?”

Applejack gives a snide laugh. “Well, he’s darn good at knockin’ heads together, at doin’ fancy mathematics in ‘is head ta pull off a running shot on a flying target at three hundred yards with ironsights, at clearin’ pillboxes and snapping necks and crushin’ skulls.” Her voice rises in volume and bitter intensity. “He’s good at bein’ a brave son of a mule, and at picking out enemy patrols in dense fog by their wingbeats alone, and at dragging wounded kids through the mud ta safety under heavy fire, and generally at being a scary bucking Marine, but unfortunately, that ain’t exactly a skillset that lends itself to reputable work in the civilian bucking workforce, is it?!

“Applejack!” I exclaim, horrified at the fire in her eyes.

The fire cools and she rubs her eyes with one hoof. “Sorry, Rares. Ah’m just a mite sick o’ seein’ all these good soldiers getting’ screwed because they’re good at soldiering and nothin’ else. There’s no shame in flippin’ hayburgers, but a guy with two Wound Badges and a Bronze Star shouldn’t have to flip burgers because he’s got no other options, an’ he darn well shouldn’t be unable ta do even that.”

“Well,” I prod, “surely he must have some marketable skill.”

She shakes her head. “Not as near as Ah’ve found. He ain’t got no ejication like Big Mac, so any job takin’ book learnin’ is out. He ain’t got any trainin’ fer somethin’ like sales, and Manehatten’s too cutthroat for him to have time to learn. He’s not even a skilled laborer.” The farmer glances sidelong at me. “Turn me loose on a farm, ranch, construction site, plumbin’ job, anythin’ that involves working with my hooves, an’ Ah can git ’er done. Shoddy can’t do none of that.”

I’m beginning to see how the situation has become so apparently hopeless. “Well there must be something. What of his special talent?”

Applejack shrugs. “No idea. His mark’s an iron horseshoe, but he swears up an’ down he ain’t no cobbler or blacksmith. He never told me what his talent is, and if he told any of his buddies it never got back to me.”

Why she can’t simply ask them now is a mystery to me, but Applejack is a smart mare, so I assume there’s a valid reason. I must say, though, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the length of the walk from the shooting range to Sweet Apple Acres more than this very moment. It gives me time to try and put a positive spin on the whole debacle. “So, essentially, we have a stout young stallion who’s devoted, knows how to follow orders well, and is willing to put his nose to the grindstone, making him ideal for being—”

“—a blunt instrument,” finishes Applejack. I stammer in shock at the harsh pronouncement, but the retired Marine is unfazed. “That ain’t an insult, Rarity, it’s a fact. In fact, in our line of work it’s a compliment. He’s an uncomplicated and reliable stallion who gets the job done. We needed good blunt instruments, and he’s a darn fine blunt instrument.”

“Well,” I reply, trying to banish my annoyance at the blunt terminology, “surely there are civilian professions where such virtues are equally valued.”

“Oh, there are,” agrees Applejack. “Only problem is, Shoddy has a tendency ta say the wrong thing in front of the wrong pony. That and he… fergets himself sometimes, and, well,” she bites her lip and shoots me a sidelong glance, back to her ‘not-wanting-to-gossip-but-needing-to-talk’ stage. I patiently wait for her to resume. “Remember how I said that some guys don’t really understand civilian life when they get back?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, Shoddy’s one o’ those. He just…” she waves a hoof in the air, as though trying to grab the right words from the ether. “He just says stuff, does stuff that wouldn’t be that weird in the Service, but makes him look crazy anywhere else. Makes ponies uncomfortable. And, when ponies see something that makes ‘em uncomfortable, they tend to…” she trails off meaningfully.

“I see,” I say soberly.

“Look, it’s not that he’s a bad guy. He ain’t. He’s even kind of a sweetheart once you get to know him.”

I nod. “But nopony gets to know him because they push him away before they can get used to his…quirks.”

Applejack smirks. “Got it in one.”

“Well,” I sigh, “that is quite a pickle, isn’t it?”

In a remarkable impersonation of her brother, she gives a rumbling “Eeyup.”

Our walk lapses into silence after that as we both turn over the problem in our heads. I now understand why Applejack was so upset by the letter. It’s enough to move a pony to tears to consider the plight of such a brave servicepony. I feel my guilt afresh as I consider all the privations he endured for my country, for me and my family, while I sat safe at home, miles from bloodshed and death. I ran shops and lived in a castle and helped a princess write love letters while he got shot at, wounded, and starved, saw the most horrific things and doubtless lost friends, and when he returned he was treated as so much surplus—

That’s it!” I exclaim, seizing Applejack with excitement and shaking her as inspiration strikes me with the force of a lightning bolt. “That’s it that’s it that’s it!

Wha~a~aa~a~aat’s~i~i~it?” she manages, her voice distorted by the vigorous shaking.

Too caught up in the moment to stop myself, I cease shaking her only to grasp the sides of her head, pulling her snout-to-snout so that I can see the reflection of my sparkling eyes in hers. “He can work for me!”

Applejack extricates herself from my grip, seeming much less taken with the idea than me. “Rarity, aincha been listenin’ to what Ah been saying? The boy ain’t got no talent fer the finer things. Ah think if you had him makin’ dresses for you he’d manage ta burn down the shop.”

“Oh, pshaw, darling! I don’t mean dresses!” As though I’d trust an untrained stallion with that! What a laugh! “I mean with the Quill and Sofa!

“The Quill and Sofa?” she asks, raising one eyebrow in confusion. “Ah thought you were done closin’ that place out.”

My smile is prim. “Not quite. There’s still a lot of surplus inventory left from repairs and returns, and I’ve been opening the store two days a week to sell it off.”

Davenport, the original proprietor of the Quill and Sofa, joined the Army the first year of the war, one of scores of Ponyville residents to do so after what happened to dear Twilight. I agreed to help his wife run the shop while he was gone; it seemed to be the least I could do. Tragically, Davenport was killed in action four months before the war ended. His widow elected to sell the place off, and I, in my assumed role as the surrogate proprietress, have been managing the entire affair.

Applejack scratches her head. “Ah don’t think he’d exactly help ya sell furniture, Rares. He ain’t the salespony type.”

“Oh, pish tosh, darling. I don’t mean as a salespony, I mean as a movingpony. I have plenty of clients who aren’t quite strong enough to move furniture on their own, and I can’t do it and run the store at the same time. On top of which, I have to rearrange inventory every time something sells.” Strictly speaking I don’t need to, but an artist has her principles, and a good floor plan helps shift merchandise. “True, I can move things with levitation but,” I tap my horn, “my magic is not infinite.”

“Ain’t Sweetie Belle helping?”

“Well of course, she is, darling, but the dear girl will be leaving for the Academy in a few months and then what shall I do?” Since Applejack doesn’t seem keen on the idea, I leave off mentioning that the Quill and Sofa will probably be sold out by the time Sweetie Belle leaves and, even if I did need movers after she left, Ponyville has no shortage of strapping young stallions looking to earn a few bits. I’ll have other options, but Applejack doesn’t need to know that. “Besides, I don’t want to take advantage of her, and she and Scootaloo and Applebloom need all the free time they can get before they ship off to OCS.” Yes. I brought up Applebloom to win my stubborn friend over. I’m not ashamed. It’s a legitimate tactic.

Applejack shakes her head. “Ah don’t know… it still sounds an awful lot like busy work to me.”

I roll my eyes. “It’s a job, Applejack. And it will give me ample time help him work on his interpersonal skills, as that seems to be his biggest problem anyway.”

We round the last bend of the path and see the homestead lying before us, nestled amidst the Acres. A long walk to ponder matters, and Applejack is still skeptical. “Ah don’t think you quite understand what a mess he is,” she protests. “It’s not just that his filter comes off when he’s drunk or something. He don’t have a filter to begin with! On top o’ which,” she taps the side of her head with a hoof, “Ah ain’t sure he’s got his head on straight after the war if’n ya take my meaning.”

“Well, all the more reason I should help him,” I declare, undeterred.

“Rarity, ya don’t know what yer gettin’ into!”

Oh that is it. I stop abruptly and turn, startling her with a glare. Applejack can be a stubborn nag, if you’ll pardon my Prench, but so can I! “Applejack, I am your friend, I am a loyal citizen of Equestria, I am a darned fine businessmare, and I am the blinking Element of Generosity!” I exclaim, jabbing a hoof against her chest. “When I tell you I can handle this, I can handle this.” While she stands blinking in shock, I put my usual charming smile back on and put a hoof to her shoulder. “You just have to trust me, darling. And, to be blunt,” I add with a half-hearted laugh, “what other prospects do you have?”

Applejack shuts her eyes and sucks in a double-lungful of air, holding it for several heartbeats before letting it out slowly. When she opens her eyes again, her expression is a mixture of resignation and gratitude. “Yer right. Ah trust ya. I’ve gotta.”

“Applejack!” calls out an accented voice from the homestead. We turn to see a muscular zebra stallion standing in the doorway waiting, a toothy grin on his lips. “Your supper is going to go into the dog if you do not come quickly!” He takes great care to enunciate each consonant and syllable, with ‘i’s becoming like ‘ee’s in the fashion of Zebras from his kingdom.

My friend glances up at the heavens. “So he don’t show up at the range, you send the wrong guy late, and now he’s threatenin’ to give my supper to ole Winona? Ain’t that a kick in the teeth!” Addressing the stallion she calls out something in his own tongue that I wouldn’t know how to transcribe into Ponish if I wanted to. He replies in the same manner and ducks inside, the sound of his merry laughter drifting across the open air.

Tilting my head in curiosity, I ask, “What did you two just say to each other, if I may ask?”

She shrugs. “Basically means ‘beloved’ or ‘dearest.’ Ah can’t manage anythin’ fancier.”

“So, you can’t learn Zwahili and you’re cheating on him with a rifle?” I tease. “My, you are a terrible wife.”

Applejack gives me a frosty look. “It ain’t my fault! Ah get all tongue-tied whenever Ah try to speak it, an’ then he just laughs and laughs and laughs—”

“—which you find quite attractive, as I recall.” I interject.

“Which makes it all that much more insufferable!” she retorts. I titter and she huffs. “Look, we were plannin’ on Big Mac eatin’ with us, so we got plenty o’ food, but he’ll probably have dinner at Twi’s tonight. You hungry?”

“If you’re still offering after all the teasing,” I joke.

Applejack gives me a solemn look. “Rarity, if you can really help Shoddy, Ah’ll make you dinner till we’re both greyer than Grannie Smith.”

“Deal!” I reply, starting down the path to the house. “Though only if your husband cooks.”

She sputters in outrage and hastens after me. “What for? Ah’m a great cook!”

“Of course you are, darling,” I assure her. Then I give a sly wink. “He’s just better.”

Shoddy

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Have you ever had that experience where you only come to realize the gravitas of the decision you’ve made once it’s much too late to change your mind? Where you have that horrifying moment of dawning comprehension and finally appreciate, ‘You know, I thought I knew what I was doing, but I really didn’t!’

I recall one incident a year or two before the Great War wherein Rainbow Dash and Applejack invited me to go on a Summer backpacking trip with them to Zenith Heights. For their part, it was simply another step in their ongoing efforts to push me out of my comfort zone and become more comfortable ‘roughing it.’ For my part, it was an opportunity to see the legendary Zenith Heights for myself and hopefully be inspired for a new line of dresses (my Fall line proved to be stellar that year, for the record). Our sisters wanted to come along, of course, but we elected not to bring them because, unlike our regular camping spots, Zenith Heights is deep in timberwolf country.

Now, they told me about the timberwolves up front. They said, “Rarity, you know that’s timberwolf country, right?”

Well, yes, darlings. I am aware. I trust we shall be packing appropriate defensive measures.

When the others heard about our planned trip, they asked the same question.

“Rarity, you know that’s timberwolf country, right?”

Certainly. Rest assured we are taking adequate precautions.

Soon the word spread to the town.

“Rarity, you know that’s timberwolf country, right?”

I am quite aware, and it’s not as though we haven’t faced down horrid monsters before; and those were generally without time to prepare. We shall be fine.

When we’d buy supplies, the outfitters would ask.

“Rarity, you know that’s timberwolf country, right?”

By this point I had become rather irritated with the repeated questioning. After all, I am an intellectually capable and reasonably fit mare with some martial ability and a longer-than-average list of run-ins with monsters. I was certain we would be quite safe.

It wasn’t until we’d packed our way into the mountains, set up camp, bedded down for the night, and I had gotten up to use the little filly’s room (by which I mean crouched over an undignified hole in the ground out in the open like some animal) that I finally realized, “Rarity, we’re in timberwolf country.”

Nothing untoward happened, and, as I said, my Fall line was smashing that year (not to mention the excursion being enjoyable overall), but it was still a sobering insight. Until then, I hadn’t realized how easy it was to think oneself to be wholly prepared, only to discover in the moment that the magnitude of the situation hadn’t truly sunk in.

Why do I bring this up? Well, because as Applejack and I wait down at the train station for Mr. Iron Shod to arrive, I can’t quite shake the sensation that I am once more crouched over that blasted hole on Zenith.

Fortunately, I am quite adept at hiding my worries, and give no outward sign of tension. Applejack, on the other hoof, is pacing and muttering like a madpony.

“Applejack, darling, are you trying to wear a groove in the platform?” I chide with a smile. “With all that pacing, one might mistake you for Twilight.”

It’s an instinctive joke, but my grin turns sour as soon as it leaves my mouth. Twilight certainly can’t pace anymore, which is more bitter a pill to swallow than one might think. Imagine this: from the time you were a filly, your primary physical outlet to relieve stress has been to pace… and now you are invalid. Watching Twilight unable to burn stress in her preferred manner those first few years was unexpectedly painful.

Applejack gives me a dry smirk and I wince, expecting a rebuke. “Well, Ah guess somepony’s gotta pick up the slack now that she can’t no more.”

Ah. So not a rebuke, but a Marine’s dark humor. I suppose she knows I didn’t mean anything by it. Or perhaps to her it’s no different than calling Dash ‘Tripod.’ At least she stops pacing.

Sighing, Applejack turns to look down the tracks. “It’s a heck of a thing yer doin’, Rares,” she says. “Ah just hope his uncouth behavior don’t drive ya batty.”

I snort. “Oh please, Applejack. If I’ve endured you and Rainbow Dash and a host of difficult customers all these years, I think I can manage one rough stallion.”

She opens her mouth as though to contradict me, then clamps her jaw shut and grunts noncommittally. I try not to take offense. The fact that my own nerves are playing up helps.

By some unspoken agreement we limit ourselves to smalltalk after that. We maintain that tacitly enforced ban on serious conversation even when the distant whistle of the train announces the coming of my new project. Hopefully Applejack doesn’t see the emerging tremor in my hooves.

I’d like to tell you what we talked about until the train pulled in but, honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea. We could have fallen silent for all I remember. All I recall is the train pulling into the station and disgorging its passengers. I scan the faces for a time, looking for Iron Shod, until I remember that I don’t know what he looks like.

That question is soon answered for me when Applejack perks up and barks, “Yo! Shoddy!” Commuters cast her censorious glances for her outburst, but she ignores them, trotting down the platform towards the back of the train. “Over here, devil dog!”

Her pace forces me to cut in behind her to avoid getting swallowed in the crowd. At first, I can’t tell who she’s addressing, but once I get a clear line of sight through the press of bodies, I spot a likely candidate.

He’s an earth pony. Grey, scruffy, slightly bigger than Applejack, with a crew-cut blonde mane, short tail, blue eyes, and battered features. He wears a green field jacket even more tattered than Applejack’s ‘Lucky,’ and looks to be carrying all his worldly possessions in two worn duffel bags that appear ready to burst at the seams.

It gives me pause to realize that he probably is carrying all his worldly possessions in those duffel bags.

He wears a sort of bemused smile on his face that brightens into a full grin when he finally catches site of Applejack. “Gunny!” he greets her, hastening forward while dragging his belongings behind him. “Wait one, I’ll come ta you.” His accent is a drawl similar Applejack’s, though much fainter.

Applejack doesn’t bother waiting and the two meet in the middle with a fierce hug involving a considerable amount of hearty backslapping. I’d probably get a bruise if Applejack ever greeted me like that. They pull back, laughing, and Applejack ruffles his short mane. “Criminy, Shoddy, it’s great ta see ya again.”

“Good ta see you too, boss. I’ll tell ya, it ain’t been the same without you around ta chew my stupid ass out.” I wince at the rather low-brow reference to donkeys and thank the heavens that Cranky isn’t in earshot. “Still, ya can’t seem to help takin’ care of yer dumb grunts from afar, else you wouldn’ta gotten me this here job. Mighty kind o’ ya, Gunny.”

She slugs him in the foreleg. “You know Momma AJ’s gonna take care o’ her boys. Didn’t Ah teach ya that?”

“Ya sure did, Gunny,” he smiles.

Whenever Applejack is blessed with foals, I have no doubt she’ll be an outstanding mother.

“Speaking o’ teaching ya,” says Applejack, turning her attention to me. “This here’s yer new boss. Say hi to my good friend, Rarity.”

Despite his scruffy appearance, Shoddy seems to keep himself clean, or at least he cleaned himself up before the train ride. He trots up and politely holds his hoof out for shaking, his smile broad as he makes eye contact with me. All of these are promising signs. “How d’ya do, Miss Rarity,” he says as he takes my hoof. “It’s a right pleasure ta meet you.”

His grip is a little too tight, but we’ll work on that. Perhaps he’s just nervous. “The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Iron Shod. Applejack speaks very highly of you.”

Chuckling, he replies, “Oh, you can call me ‘Shoddy,’ Miss Rarity. Everypony else does.” Glancing at Applejack, he adds, “If Gunnery Sergeant Honesty here had much nice ta say about me, she’s breakin’ with her Element.” Applejack rolls her eyes.

“Oh, not at all, Shoddy,” I insist. “She told me you were one of the finest Marines she ever had the pleasure of serving with.”

Rather than being moved by the complement, Shoddy becomes uncomfortable, rubbing the back of his neck with one hoof and avoiding eye contact. “Yeah, well, I guess I was good at one thing.”

An awkward silence follows. Clearing my throat, I change the subject. “Why don’t we head into town and I’ll show you the ‘lay of the land’ as Applejack says.”

He nods smartly and almost salutes before he remembers himself. “Yes, ma’am.”

Applejack tries to take one of his bags, but he flatly refuses, citing that he “don’t wanna be a bother.” With that, we head take the road for Ponyville proper. On the way I point out some of the features of the town: preferred shops, favored restaurants, and pleasant areas to relax.

Shoddy takes in his new surroundings… I’d say eagerly, and that would be an accurate statement, but there’s an undercurrent of something else in his awareness that I can’t quite put my hoof on.

Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Stranger things have happened.

As we pass the town hall, Shoddy stops and stares at the structure for a moment, seeming to mull something over. His face brightens with realization after a moment. “Aha! That’s what it reminds me of! Say, Gunny, don’t this place look like that observatory in that little town northwest Viennhoof? What was it called… Griffzing? Somethin’ like that?” He chuckles and turns to me. “Kinda a small town, but I remember the tower on account o’ it’s weird shape. Plus we shot the place to Tartarus and it lit up like a bucking Hearthswarmin’ Tree on account o’ the gunpowder the Buzzards had inside. Pitched one bird clear across the road and landed splat in front o’ me. Had a heckuva time cleanin’ my coat out after that.” He shakes his head, still smiling. “Boy, that was a crazy day. Anyway, sorry for the delay. Where to next, boss?”

He says it so blithely that I just end up staring at him in shock, unable to form a coherent response. The other girls have talked some about the war, but usually in a more private place and often after a few hard ciders or the like. They don’t just drop some graphic story out on a busy street with no leadup because they saw a building.

Applejack catches my eye and gives me a long look as though to say ‘Ah told’ja so,’ before clearing her throat. “Just a few more blocks left o’ here and we’ll be at the shop. You’ll even get a decent view o’ Twilight’s castle from there.”

“That’s swell. Shall we?”

Still in shock, it takes me longer than it should to realize that he’s waiting politely for me. “Er, quite,” I say, regaining some measure of composure. “This way.”







Mercifully, we manage to make it to the Quill and Sofa without Shoddy making some other graphic remark about war, though he does make several disparaging remarks about the Army soldiers we pass, a rather loud question about why a stallion would wear perfume directly after passing a Canterlot noble, and, after seeing the Castle of Friendship, something about architecture and the dangers of ‘Good Idea Fairies’. Whatever that means. The last one made Applejack snort with laughter, but that’s hardly a clue as to the quality of the joke; the mare’s taste in humor is not exactly refined.

Whatever the case, by the time we reach our destination I have a pretty clear picture of the things we’ll need to work on for customer service. There’s no trouble with being a largely filterless chatterbox while off the clock, but a certain degree of tact is required for steady employment with most client-facing professions.

The Quill and Sofa is closed today by design so that I’ll have time to acquaint Shoddy with his duties before putting him to work.

“Wow. That mare is wearing so much eye shadow she looks like she’s got two black eyes. I just about asked her if she needed me to clobber some prick of a stallion for her. That or see where the underground fights are.”

I mentally tack an extra three days onto the interpersonal skills training regimen while I pull out my keys. Applejack chuckles and leans against the door frame next to me. “See what Ah mean?” she says softly.

Her ‘I told you so’ tone isn’t exactly welcome. “What is it you military types say?” I ask curtly. “I’m working the problem.”

The farmer smiles. “Well, Ah’m proud o’ ya for—”

“Applejack,” interrupts a new voice. We turn to see Nurse Redheart standing nearby, harnessed to a supply cart for the hospital.

“Well howdy, Red,” says Applejack, tilting her hat back to see the mare better. “Ah see the hip must be better if’n they’re lettin’ ya make the supply runs yerself.”

Redheart flexes a scarred foreleg. “Physical therapy helps.”

“Uh huh. And bein’ married to a stallion who knows how ta massage the joints probably don’t hurt either, does it,” says Applejack with a wink.

“True enough,” smiles the nurse. She glances at Shoddy and I with one eye while the other remains immobile. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” her gaze flicks back to Applejack, “but I wanted to tell you we had a cancellation. We can actually get you in this afternoon.”

Applejack blinks in surprise, glancing nervously in my direction for some reason. “Oh! Well that’s great! What time?”

“Now. One of the orderlies called your house, but Arinze said you’d be here. Since I had to make a supply run anyway, I thought I’d swing by and grab you.” She winks with her good eye. “Sorry for the short notice, but I figured it beat waiting another few days.”

I glance at Applejack, raising one eyebrow. I haven’t heard anything about this, and after certain events I’m rather… invested in knowing why one of my closest friends will be heading to the hospital, even for a scheduled appointment.

Applejack licks her lips, her face anxious. “Uh… well…”

How best to ask, however? She plainly does not want to speak about it, and tact must be maintained out of respect—

“Hospital?” cuts in Shoddy. “You ain’t sick, are ya, boss?”

—or I could just let Shoddy brazenly go where I hesitate to wander.

“Well,” says Applejack, looking bashful, “The thing is, it’s well, Ah…” she perks up with inspiration. “Mare problems!” she blurts out, probably louder than strictly necessary. “Hehe. Yeah, that’s it. Mare stuff. But if’n ya really wanna know—”

“I don’t,” says Shoddy quickly. “Have fun, Gunny. Miss Rarity and I got work to do.”

Applejack gives a triumphant smirk. I say nothing, but mentally note that she won’t be escaping me that easily. Judging by the fact that she gulps when she meets my gaze, I think she knows that we’ll be having a serious mare-to-mare chat later. In the present, however, all she says is, “Ya’ll gonna be okay if Ah go?”

Much as I would love to have Applejack’s help, I’m not going to keep her from an obviously important doctor’s appointment, whatever it is. “We’ll manage without you, darling.”

After bidding us farewell and admonishing Shoddy to behave, Applejack and Redheart depart, leaving me alone with my new employee. I unlock the door and push into the shop, ready to give a little prepared introduction to the establishment before Shoddy cuts me off with an abrupt question. “Am I goin’ crazy, or was one o’ that mare’s eyes not moving?”

I suppose that’s a fair question. “You were not imagining things,” I reply. “Nurse Redheart has a glass eye. She was a combat medic during the war. While treating an injured stallion the blood bottle she was holding was hit by a stray bullet, sending shards of glass into her eye.” Even telling the story makes me shudder. “She finished treating the soldier and got him back to friendly lines before having her own wound seen to. I understand she earned the Distinguished Service Medal.”

Shoddy shakes his head. “Shoulda been the Star of Valor. Soldiering on through glass in the eye?” He shudders. “I don’t mind tellin’ ya, getting my eyes jacked up is one o’ my recurring fears.”

For some reason the fact that an eye injury gives him the chills makes me feel a little bit more comfortable about this entire affair. I suppose it’s reassuring to know that even hardened veterans have some things which make them squeamish.

I’m about to begin my introduction to the shop when he asks, “What about her leg?”

Hard to fault him for being curious about the injuries of a fellow veteran. “I’m not sure of the story there. Only that she received a Wound Badge for it. Now, if you’ll turn your attention to the inventory,” I continue before he can get a word in edgewise, “I’m not sure how much Applejack told you in her letter, but the situation is as follows…”

I fill him in on the story behind the Quill and Sofa and what the work will look like going forward. He pays excellent attention, to the point that I have the eerie sense of what it must feel like to be an officer… right up until I mention Davenport’s death. Then he gets off-track asking about the widow, what unit the deceased was with, what rotten luck it was that he got killed so close to the end of the war, and so forth. When I point out how far afield we’ve gone, he’s immediately apologetic and goes back to paying very close attention.

I’ve just started walking him through some of the cataloguing and furniture maintenance in the back when Sweetie Belle walks in, resplendent in JROTC uniform. “Hey, sis,” she says, waving jauntily to me before trotting up to Shoddy. “You must be Iron Shod. Rarity told me you’d be coming by today. My name’s Sweetie Belle.”

“Pleasure ta meet you, Miss,” says Shoddy, giving her hoof a hearty shake that makes me fear for Sweetie’s shoulder. “And like I told yer sister, ya can just call this old devil dog ‘Shoddy’.”

“Well, good to meet you, Shoddy. I know Rarity’s been excited to have you come onboard. She’s been talking about it for days.”

Shoddy blushes at that. I just smile. Sweetie might be better at sweet-talking ponies than me.

…which now that I think about it makes a lot of sense given her name…

“I’m a little surprised to see you, Sweetie,” I say. “I thought you were in class all day.”

Sweetie shakes her head. “The speaker they had lined up today came down with the feather flu, so Master Sergeant Thrasher let us go early.” She shrugs. “He usually isn’t that lenient, but I’m not complaining. Next week looks like it’ll be heavier, so maybe he just figures he’ll get us then.”

Shoddy chuckles. “Only a fool complains when the sergeant decides to ease up.” His eyes narrow and he gives Sweetie a searching look. “You goin’ off ta OCS soon?” Sweetie nods. “Uh huh. And what sort o’ officer you fixin’ ta be?”

Sweetie smiles. “Don’t worry, Corporal. I’ll be the kind of officer who listens to her senior enlisted ponies, because they know what they’re doing and do all the hard work for green second lieutenants anyway.”

The retired Marine breaks into a broad smile and he touches a hoof to his brow. “Now that’s an officer worth saluting! Glad ta see you got a brain between those ears. Nothing’s more dangerous than a fresh young officer with a good idea he didn’t run by his sergeants first.”

His statement gets a musical chortle out of Sweetie. “Corporal, five of my sister’s best friends, all of whom might as well be family, are military, and all of them but Dash are senior NCOs. I’m not dumb enough to become a Cake Eater with them around.”

Her answer sends Shoddy into a fit of laughter and leaves me thoroughly mystified. Before I can ask what ‘Cake Eaters’ are and why they are to be deplored, the Marine says, “Dumbest Cake Eater we ever had was this little snot from Manehatten. Most Manehattenites I know are tough, loyal, and devious fighters, but this pissant couldn’ta found his dock with both forehooves and a map. So naturally he thought he was Celestia’s personal gift to the Marine Corps. If he had been a gift I woulda returned him, I can tell ya that!. Why I thought Gunny was gonna blow as gasket the day he…”

The war stories last for some time after that. It doesn’t help that Sweetie is so interested in them, or that I find myself fascinated in spite of the delay. If it weren’t for the fact that we’re ‘on the clock,’ so to speak, I would have happily listened to him for the insights into my friends’ six years of bloodshed.

Unfortunately, we are on the clock, so I have to rein him in, which is easier said than done. It takes half an hour to really get him out of the stories and focused on the next task, mostly because each new topic or sight seems to trigger a different story. Each time I point this out, he bashfully apologizes and gets back to work, seeming more irritated with himself each time it happens. For my part, my irritation actually lessens, as it quickly becomes clear that he’s genuinely unaware of his distraction when it’s happening.

Sweetie, ever quick to pick up on such things, manages to tactfully use the conversations to steer him back to work more than once. Between the two of us, we manage to give him the basics of what’s required at the store. One of the first tasks that needs to be done is repairing merchandise that was returned or traded in so that it can be resold. Conveniently, there’s a couch in need of basic repairs up on the work bench right now. Once he’s found something of a groove, I leave him working on the couch while I head into the office with Sweetie, ostensibly to review the books. In actuality, we need to compare notes.

“The two of you hit it off rather well,” I remark. “What’s your initial impression of him?”

“He seems like a nice guy,” says Sweetie. “Hard worker; clearly wants to do a good job and pay attention but…” she nibbles he lip, “… his mind is elsewhere. He has a hard time keeping himself in the moment.”

“That was my thinking,” I agree. “He doesn’t appear aware of his distractions, either, which is good in the sense that he’s not deliberately slacking off, but bad in that it will require an adjustment of his awareness.”

Nodding, Sweetie adds, “No matter the branch, soldiers are trained to be present in the moment. Problem is, he seems to be present in a different moment. The trick will be to get him to be present in this one.”

I hadn’t considered it in quite those terms, but it seems quite reasonable. The other girls have certainly seemed a lot more focused since coming home. Shoddy must have the same skill; he just needs to learn to apply it in his civilian life. “Well, it sounds like it will simply be a matter of mental exercises to maintain organization and attentiveness to the present. Between that and some lessons on tact, I don’t see this being too complicated.”

Sweetie cocks an eyebrow. “When has life ever been that easy?”

“Let me enjoy my delusion for a moment, darling.”

She chuckles. “Well, while you’re enjoying your delusion, I need to go meet Applebloom and Scootaloo for a study session. I wasn’t kidding when I said Thrasher’s gonna hit us hard to make up for letting us go early today.”

I give her a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks for dropping by, my dear. I appreciate the help.”

Sweetie departs while I head to the back room. “Well, Shoddy, how are things coming in…?” I trail off as I see that Shoddy is still hard at work on the couch…

… which he has now shifted from the bench onto the floor.

“Erm, Shoddy,” I say delicately. Shoddy’s head pops up from behind the sofa. “Why, pray tell, have you seen fit to shift the couch off the bench, where it was conveniently situated at a comfortable height for work, and onto the floor, where you have to lie down and strain to get into the right position to work?”

Shoddy blinks, not seeming to understand the question. Craning his neck around, he looks at the storage room’s exterior doors, large loading-dock-style fixtures which also happen to provide the room’s only natural illumination through high-set windows. He points to those windows, then turns back to me and says, “To be out of view.”

I wait for him to explain why that’s relevant. He doesn’t. “And that’s important because…?”

Once more, he blinks, this time looking at me as though I’ve grown a second head. “Snipers,” comes the matter-of-fact reply.

A chill settles on my spine. Oh, sweet Celestia, does he really think there are snipers? What the hay am I supposed to do if—

“Um, Shoddy,” I say gently, “You do know there are no snipers in Ponyville, right?”

Shoddy snorts. “Of course I do, Miss Rarity. I’m not crazy.” With that, he goes back to working on the couch.

“I… I see,” I reply, biting my lip. “Well… carry on then.”

I leave the room at a brisk trot, heading for the back office. Opening up the safe, I pull out a bottle of Red Tail Whiskey and pour myself a dram. Being that we picked Shoddy up from the train station in the mid-afternoon, it’s now technically after ‘Miller Time,’ and so not inappropriate to drink. Even if it had been earlier, though, I’m not certain I would much care. I’m not typically one to need a little libation to steady my nerves, but that

… I’m not sure what that was. He knows there are no snipers, he knows he’s safe, so why—?

An inner voice interrupts my thoughts, this nagging little thing that takes root in my head, giving words to the fear that has been growing since the train station. It speaks insistently; gloatingly. It says to me, “Rarity, we’re in timberwolf country.”

Snipers.

Of course, Miss Rarity. I’m not crazy.

Bloody Tartarus.

“Yes, Rarity” I say aloud as I sip my whisky. “We’re in timberwolf country indeed.”

Normal

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I decide it’ll be a few days before Shoddy is ready to face actual customer service. During that time, I receive a crash course in Retired Marine 101: An Introduction to Iron Shod.

To start with, Shoddy appears to have a nigh pathological fear of putting anypony out. Several little moments throughout that first day hinted at the depth of his fear, but what really drove it home was when Applejack returned at around six to take him back to the Apple homestead and put him up in the guest room… and he flatly refused.

“Oh no, Gunny! I ain’t gonna take no charity from ya. Besides, a bed’s too good for the likes of me.”

And what was his plan in lieu of a bed? Well, as it happens, he was fully prepared to sleep in the back room of the Quill and Sofa on the hardwood floor or else set up camp in the woods near town. He assumed this.

Which leads into the second lesson: Shoddy is perhaps even more stubborn than Applejack. Hard to believe, I know. Their disparate ideas on his housing situation led to a rather frank exchange of opinions (by which I mean they balled each other out). When I became fearful that the situation would devolve into blows being exchanged, I announced rather spur-of-the-moment that I would be putting him up at my residence.

That at least stopped them arguing with each other so they could argue with me instead. I won that fight by pointing out that employees of small shop owners often live under the same roof as their employers, and that I had leased the basement of my house out as a single-resident flat throughout much of the war. (I made some modifications to the interior: doors between the upstairs, main floor, and basement; adding a bathroom and shower to the basement flat; putting in a back stairwell to give said flat access to the kitchen and rear exit, thus allowing the resident to come and go without passing through the shop floor. I now own a miniature apartment complex which just happens to include my residence and boutique).

As soon as Applejack realized what I was doing, she threw her weight behind me and we sold him on the idea as a matter of ‘business propriety.’ He works for me, so I house him. I even managed to convince him that I was taking his room and board out of his salary, which is technically true. I just left out the fact that I’d mentally increased his salary to the point that subtracting his room and board would bring him back down to what I’d been planning on paying him in the first place. Deceptive? Perhaps, but in a rather benign way, and it satisfied his sense of honor.

This, in turn, sparked the third lesson, which is that Shoddy is always up well before I am. Not exactly a surprise, given his martial background, but it was a surprise on the first morning to come downstairs to the common area and find somepony other than Sweetie Belle cooking. Apparently, Shoddy is the sort to thank people with actions, and he took it upon himself to prepare breakfast for Sweetie and I. It was a wonderful gesture, marred somewhat by the fact that Shoddy is a terrible cook. To spare Sweetie and I the results of his rather stubborn generosity in the future, I once again played the landlady card and convinced him that it is my responsibility to cook (again, technically true according to the terms I arbitrarily set) and thus is included in his ‘rent.’ I even apologized for not making that clear the night before and letting him do all the work. Then I put on a brave face and did my best to choke down the breakfast without hurling.

The lessons continued to come fast and thick after that. From a practical standpoint the results are… mixed.

On one hoof, Shoddy is polite, eager to please, and deferential to a fault. For all his uncouth mannerisms, he is extremely friendly and truly seems to desire to benefit other ponies. Many of his questions have been to the effect of ‘would the customer like it if we did X’ or ‘maybe I could help out by doing Y’ or ‘I could take care of Z for you if you wanted to leave early.’ In another stallion, such behavior might be mistaken for ingratiating, but I don’t think Shoddy is capable of the subtlety that would require. He’s possessed of a sort of face-value frankness which almost guarantees that, whether you like what he’s saying or not, he’s being genuine. Thus, I find his suggestions, even the impractical ones, to be an encouraging sign.

He also gets on famously with Sweetie Belle, which bodes rather well. My sister is possessed of sound judgment when it comes to the character of ponies. If she thinks he’s a good pony beneath the rough exterior, then I see no reason to disbelieve her.

Shoddy’s desire to be a good worker is apparent to anypony who interacts with him for more than two minutes. He’s desperate to make himself useful and listens intently to instructions. His demeanor makes it plain that he wants to get the job right, and he is very careful and deliberate about his actions… when he’s not distracted.

Which brings us to the dreaded ‘on the other hoof’ portion of this description, because ‘when he’s not distracted’ is a rather significant caveat. Shoddy’s attention issues, so apparent from the start, persist throughout the week. It doesn’t take much to get him going on some anecdote or another. Now, in fairness, the anecdotes are not all gritty war stories or crass observations as I had originally feared. But there are still a lot of them, and even his most innocent ones get him off topic and waste both his time and mine. Now, I’ve certainly been guilty of being ‘that one pony’ who will talk your leg off if I get going, but I take care to not allow my verbosity to impact work, whether mine or another’s. Shoddy, however, is distracting – to me, to Sweetie Belle when she’s around, and, above all, to himself. This problem is exacerbated by his forgetfulness; he may pay close attention when hearing instructions, but he has a tendency to forget basic things when performing his tasks. Thus, even when he is being productive, he’s still underperforming.

In his defense, these shortcomings do not appear to be the result of any deliberate laxity on his part. Quite the opposite, in fact. Whenever I point out that he’s let something slip or gotten off topic, he is… rather hard on himself. Too hard. His self-deprecating humor is the sort displayed by many children who are victims of bullying. He calls himself ‘stupid’ before anypony else can, more viciously than anypony else can, because he seems to expect to be called stupid; or perhaps he truly believes that he is. Either way, it’s worrying on both a professional and a personal level (the latter far more than the former). I’ll have to ask Applejack if she knows where this detrimental behavior came from.

Speaking of Applejack, she’s been noticeably difficult to pin down the last few days. I had rather anticipated her haunting my every step, fearful that I might ‘put my hoof in it’, so to speak, and I looked forward to her interference with resignation, annoyance, and (if I’m being truly honest) gratitude. I confess I’d come to count on her input, even as I dreaded it. With her failing to put in more than the occasional experience, I’m not sure if I’m more relieved or disappointed.

Actually, given the still-mysterious nature of her doctor’s visit, ‘worried’ might be the appropriate emotion. That mare is definitely hiding something – evasive when asked directly, careful to avoid any topic remotely relating to heath, and generally too ‘busy’ to be around for any period of time. And it’s not just me she’s giving the runaround either, it’s—

“Yeah, Rarity, I get it,” sighs Rainbow, her wings fidgeting as I use her like a mannequin to mark patterns. With a number of amputees asking for dresses, it’s helpful to have one around I can call on to model for me; makes it easier to get the cut of the fabric right. “AJ’s being cagey and you want the scoop. You’ve been going on about this for three days.

I huff. “Well, I’ll stop going on about it just as soon as I get some answers!”

Rainbow chuckles. “Same old Rarity.”

“Wh-whatever do you mean by that darling?” I sputter.

“Seriously?” she asks, cocking an eyebrow. “Come on, Rarity, you’ve always been kinda nosey about this sort of thing.”

Frowning, I tug my measuring tape just a little too tight around her middle, eliciting a grunt of discomfort from my model. “And you’ve always lacked any sort of tact. Is it a crime to be curious about your friends’ lives? To care for their wellbeing?”

She rolls her eyes. “Calm down, Rarity. You know that’s not what I meant. It’s just… you know… you can be kinda gossipy.”

“Yes, well,” I sigh, “while I recognize that I struggle with that particular vice, you needn’t rub it in my face.”

“Hey,” she shoots me a lopsided grin, “you know we still love you. Gossip or not.” I blush a little at the genuine sentiment, but it’s quickly replaced by irritation when she keeps speaking. “All I’m saying is that that you overreact to this kind of thing so often that I’m kinda numb to it.”

“I am not overreacting,” I practically snarl through clenched teeth. “Frankly, I’m a little horrified that you don’t seem to care that Applejack is keeping secrets about her health.”

Rainbow shrugs. “Mare likes her privacy. You know how she is. But,” her voice turns sober and she looks me in the eye, “one thing you gotta keep in mind is it could be something from the war. If she got banged up over there some way that isn’t showing up ’til now, it could be she doesn’t want anypony to worry.”

Which will only make us worry more. Honestly, if Applejack wants to spare our feelings, she should start by not sparing them!

Still, the idea that it’s a souvenir from the war striking her now…

“It would be typical of her to keep quiet about that,” I admit as I lay out additional layers of pattern and pin them into place. “Though I’m surprised she wouldn’t say anything to you. After all, you two share all sorts of athletic hobbies; an injury would affect those.”

That gets a hearty laugh from Rainbow. “Are you kidding? Those hobbies make us rivals! Sure, AJ might open up to me about a lot of things she doesn’t tell the rest of you, but I’m the last pony she’d talk to about something that messed up her body! She can’t stand to show weakness to anypony, least of all me!

“I suppose that makes sense,” I say with a sigh. Though it does make me curious what secrets she keeps with Dash and not the rest of us. Trying not to dwell on it, I continue, “I just wish I knew… something, anything about it!”

My marker pen runs dry and I look over to my desk to summon a fresh one with my magic. When I turn back, Rainbow is staring at me with a thoughtful expression on her face. “You’re really worried about her, aren’t you?”

“Whatever gave you that impression?” I ask dryly.

Rather than retorting with some smart remark, she holds my gaze. “Rarity,” she says with uncharacteristic gentleness, “not everything that takes a friend to the hospital is gonna be some near-death thing.”

The abrupt statement makes me go week-kneed. “I-I- I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Raising an eyebrow, she keeps staring. “Rarity, I read your letters for the whole war, remember? All the ones talking about how often Twi was in the hospital that first year? How you stayed with her? How scared you were each time something went wrong that maybe this time she’d finally…”

She trails off, and I’m grateful, because I’ve started trembling and, dear Celestia am I sweating? I don’t know where this emotion is coming from! It’s been years, and I’ve come to grips with it! Twilight is healthy now, or at least healthy enough! Surely after all this time—

“Hey,” she interrupts my train of thought by stretching out a wing and brushing a tear from my eye, all without disturbing the patterns on her barrel. So very considerate of her.

Good heavens, I didn’t even realize I was crying…

“Rarity, look at me,” she orders. I meet her gaze obediently. Her crimson eyes say just as much as her words. “Applejack is fine. Twilight is fine. We’re all fine. You’re a good friend for caring, but you can relax. Okay?”

With a shuddering sigh I swallow my worry, letting her words wash over me like a cleansing rain. “Okay,” I reply, allowing a shaky smile to come to my lips. “You’re right. Applejack is fine. I’m just getting worried for nothing.”

“Yup,” she smiles. “We’ll probably have a good laugh when we hear how piddling it ends up being.”

I snort as I get back to work. “I don’t know that I’d go quite that far. If it’s so piddling, why is her family guarding the secret like they’re under oath not to reveal classified information.”

“Why don’t you just see if Twi get it out of Big Mac or something? That sort of gumshoe-spy-mystery thing is right up your alley.”

“Yes, well,” I jot down some notes about the hemline on the side where her back leg used to be, “I actually did try that. I suggested Twilight use her ‘feminine wiles’ to tease it out of him.”

“Oh yeah? How’d that go?”

My chuckle is equal parts amused and pained. “Terrible,” I reply. “Watching that mare attempt to flirt the story out of her coltfriend over dinner was like watching a somepony make a dress using a sword for a sewing needle. It resulted in nothing but a good laugh for Big Mac and a migraine for me.” I glance up. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

Rainbow struggles to hold still while she’s laughing so hard. “D-don’t worry! Your s-secret’s sa-ha-hafe with me-he!”

“The other Apples are just as tight-lipped,” I continue in answer to the question she didn’t ask. “Grannie Smith is playing up her senility to avoid answering the question, which might be a convincing smoke screen if I didn’t know darn well she’s sharper than most ponies a quarter her age!” You don’t fool me, Grannie Smith. I’ve heard you debate Nkea about obscure Equestrian MPs over Appaloosan Hold’em and win both the argument and the game!

“Maybe you should just ask Arinze. You know, her husband.”

“Get it straight from the zebra’s mouth, as it were?” I reply. “Thought of that. No luck. Arinze just gets a funny look on his face and something cryptic like ‘Springtime is beautiful, yes?’ or ‘Applejack’s mane gives her a sort of glow, does it not?’ as though that’s supposed to answer my question!” Rainbow snickers. “Meanwhile, Nkea acts even more aloof than usual, and I’m convinced he’s exaggerating his accent to avoid conversation.”

Rainbow rolls her eyes. “That actually might be more insulting than Grannie playing senile. He speaks plenty good Ponish.”

“Indeed. Better than many teenagers.” And you, some days, I don’t add.

“Well, what about Applebloom? Maybe you can have Sweetie ask her.”

I scoff. “I’m a little offended you think I didn’t try that immediately. Again, no luck. She won’t tell Sweetie Belle or Scootaloo a thing!

Rainbow’s eyebrows shoot up at that. “Okay, I admit, that’s a little weird.”

“Indeed,” I sigh as I finish my markings and begin removing the pattern. “But do you know what the strangest thing is?”

“No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. Neither of them seem to know what’s going on, but I think they both suspect something specific. When I asked Pinkie about it, she muttered some gibberish about Pinkie Sense, timing, surprise parties, and not ruining things, then scurried off to go buy pickles and honey.”

Rainbow smirks. “So, typical Pinkie Pie stuff?”

“That’s what I would have assumed, except that when I went to ask Fluttershy about it, she just narrowed her eyes in thought, like she’d figured out the puzzle.”

“Did she say anything?”

My lips make a sour smile. “‘We’ll just have to wait and see,’” I quote.

“Yeah, that figures,” chuckles Dash. “Well, maybe she’s got a point; don’t wanna get worked up over something you can’t control.”

“I suppose,” I grumble as I remove the last of the pattern.

Now free to move around, Rainbow, unsurprisingly, flaps into a low hover. “Let’s talk about something you can control. How’re things with Shoddy?”

Checking to make sure the door is firmly shut, I update her on the situation. Perhaps, in lieu of Applejack, Rainbow will be able to provide a soldier’s perspective. She listens to my description of the last few days, along with a few examples, before giving her opinion.

“Sounds pretty normal to me.”

“‘Pretty normal?’” I repeat, raising one eyebrow “His inability to hold focus in a simple job hardly seems ‘normal.’”

Rainbow shakes her head. “Not that part. I mean the fixation on the war.”

I tilt my head. “I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate.”

“Well, it’s like…” she trails off, looking around the room for inspiration, then flaps over to land by my record-book. “It’s like you running a business, right?” She taps the book. “You have different things you have to do each day, some of which hold priority over others. You’re pretty organized – I mean, not Twilight organized, but who is?” I can’t help but chuckle at that. “I’ll bet you wake up in the morning, check your to-do list, figure out what’s most important, and put things in order. You end up with a sort of ‘hierarchy of tasks,’ right?”

“Yes, I suppose,” I reply, more than a little surprised by her analysis. And her knowledge of the word ‘hierarchy.’

“That hierarchy determines what’s important, what’s critical, and what can be ignored,” she continues. “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess you probably had a much heavier hierarchy of tasks during the war, yeah?”

Let’s see here, taking care of Twilight, coordinating her appointments with everypony from doctors to diplomats, running my own business, managing Sweet Apple Acres’ finances and hired workers with Grannie Smith, jointly managing the Quill and Sofa

“You could say that, darling.”

“And I bet it was quite an adjustment when you no longer had all those responsibilities, right? You felt like you were missing something? Like if you didn’t take care of it right away something would go seriously wrong and it’d be your fault?”

Ah. “I think I see what you’re driving at.”

“Good,” smiles Rainbow. “Saves me some time. Point is, combat is like that, but a million times worse. Coming back off that adrenalin high is a serious adjustment, and some ponies handle it better than others. You might not remember this, but I was pretty jumpy that first month or so back before things quieted down. Thunderlane was the same way.” She shrugs. “Shoddy’s just stuck doing threat assessment, that’s all.”

I nod, understanding. For the record, I actually do remember Rainbow being ‘jumpy’ as she puts it, but I think it was partially cabin fever from being hospitalized with an amputation so close to the end of the war. “Right,” I agree. “That makes sense. One slight problem though.” I tilt my head. “What do I do about it?”

“Search me,” she says with a crooked smile. “I’m an aviator, not a shrink.” I give her a sour look, and she adds, “But, based on what I’ve seen with other vets, I think doing what you’re doing is probably the way to go. Soldiers live on routine – if you establish a peacetime job as his new routine, a lot of the problems will probably fix themselves.”

It sounds like good advice, and I’ll certainly be taking it, but even as I nod in satisfaction that I’m apparently already doing what I should be doing, I can’t help but marvel at the mare standing before me. “You’ve certainly grown up, Rainbow Dash,” I tease. “When did you get to be so wise?”

My question was lighthearted, but Rainbow’s eyes turn to some distant place and her face falls. “Probably when I had to clean Fleetfoot’s blood off a rookie when she took a bullet for him.”

My blood runs cold. “I- I’m so sorry, Rainbow Dash, I didn’t mean to—”

She waves me off, blushing. “Nah, that wasn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have dropped that on you.” Chuckling humorlessly, she adds, “See? Shoddy’s not the only one who lets slip sometimes.”

“You’re confiding in a friend, Rainbow,” I retort. “That’s hardly the same thing as blurting that out to a random civilian.”

Rainbow opens her mouth as though to say something, then glances away. “Yeah. I guess.”

What was she going to… oh my… does she feel that she can’t tell me? Is she embarrassed or afraid to… or is it because… because I wouldn’t understand… because I’m just a civilian who can never understand what one of her oldest friends—

“What’s Shoddy up to, anyway?” she asks, unaware of the effect her words had on me.

I swallow my emotion and turn away so she doesn’t see the dampness in my eyes. “Last I saw, he was reading a comic book in the kitchen. Applejack told me he’s sort of a comic junkie, and Spike was kind enough to donate his duplicate copies to the cause. I’m hoping the two of them will bond over the shared interest.”

“Can’t hurt to have a few friends, right?” replies Rainbow. Then, chuckling, “Maybe Spike can teach him to cook.”

I can’t help but chortle at that. “Having tasted Shoddy’s attempt at cooking, I can’t say I’m optimistic. But then, Sweetie Belle managed to learn the art, so I suppose anything is possible.” My eyes now properly clear, I turn to face her once more. “I just wish he didn’t try so stubbornly to be helpful. True, his generosity is admirable, but when his ‘help’ isn’t helpful, I find myself preferring that he just—"

The doorbell jingles downstairs. There’s a thunder of hooves and a shout of “I’ll get it!” from Shoddy. I freeze, my eyes widening in horror. Downstairs, the door swings open, and I hear the muted sound of voices below.

Rainbow gives me a quizzical look. “Um, Rarity? He’s answering the door for you.”

I stare blankly at the wall. Internally, I scream.

Externally, I calmly reply, “Yes, I know, darling.”

More muted talking.

My internal screaming jumps up an octave.

“And… you’re okay with a stallion not known for tact talking to clients?”

The internal screaming becomes more of a ‘shriek.’

“No, not in the slightest.”

“Uh huh,” says Rainbow. “And you aren’t doing anything about it because…”

More talking, followed by the sound of hoofsteps ascending the stairs.

My internal shrieking reaches fever pitch.

“Well you see, darling, it seems my brain has fused into an inert blob of useless flesh from the horror of it all.”

“Ah,” she replies. “Fair enough.”

A cavalcade of fears charge through my psyche in the eon it takes for fifteen seconds to pass before there’s a knock at the door. “Miss Rarity?” asks Shoddy.

Rainbow glances at me. “Want me to get a thundercloud and jumpstart you?”

Finally shaking off my stupor, I trot to the door. “Thank you, darling. Perhaps later.” After I find out he’s scared off a wealthy client or some such catastrophe. I open the door and wince at the sight of the stallion. It’s not that he’s unkempt or anything (actually, he keeps himself quite clean and shaven). No, it’s the fact that the door to a couturier’s shop was answered by a stallion wearing a loose collection of green rags laughingly called a ‘jacket.’ I force a sweet smile and ask, “What is it, Iron Shod?”

I was hoping that maybe he’d pick up on the fact that using his full name signaled that I was displeased about something. Judging by the guileless look on his face, it went right over his head. “There’s a couple zebs at the door askin’ for ya,” he replies.

‘Zebs’? Seriously? Sighing, I shut my eyes. “Shoddy, you can’t just call zebras ‘zebs.’ It’s not polite.”

He seems genuinely mystified by this. “But we called ‘em that all the time during the war. An’ they called us feather-brains, cone-heads, grounders, pones—"

“Yes, well,” I cut him off, my grin tight, “what creatures call each other within a close circle of trusted intimates is different than what you call a complete stranger, particularly in a professional setting. You wouldn’t use the same familiar tone you take with Applejack to address a mare you don’t know, would you?” The blank look I get in response tells me everything I need to know. I cover my eyes with one hoof. “We’ll talk about it later. What do they want?”

You as a matter of fact. Well,” he amends, “all three of us, actually.”

All three of us? But why— “Why all three of us?” I say aloud, abandoning speculation for speed.

He rubs the back of his head sheepishly. “I forgot ta mention, but these boys are kitted out like King’s Own. As in the Zebra King’s Own.”

My eyes widen as the implication sinks in. There’s only one zebra of royal blood in Ponyville, which means—

Shoddy shrugs. “Seems they want us out at Sweet Apple Acres.”