Fallout Equestria: Shaping Shadow - Book 1

by Mindrop

First published

A prequel to Fallout Equestria, and the mission of Shadow Flare, a loyal Enclave Reconnaissance Soldier. What he does, shapes the wasteland for Little Pip and beyond.

The Enclave is running low on raw materials and the wasteland below has more than enough. Shadow Flare, a small farming pegasus from the norther reaches of the Enclave, found it his duty, his fate, to not only join, but to help the Enclave begin to first reach below the clouds. What they do below will impact the wasteland forever, good or bad. What he does, shapes the wasteland for Little Pip and beyond.

But hardship and struggle isn't just below in the wasteland, but above as well. A broken heart, and a lost love, is universal.


PART 1: Loyalty 1-6
PART 2: Duty 7-11
PART 3: Honor 12-17
PART 4: Commitment 18-28


The Series:
Book 1: Training
Book 2: The Mission
Book 3: Above
Book 4: Below
Book 5: Grand Pegasus Enclave (Writing/releasing)
Sagas of Shanyisa: (Writing/releasing)
Anthology



- Like what I do? I have a Patreon.
*Missing or forgotten information? The Fallout Equestria Wiki has Shaping Shadow and anything you might need to know.
**Cover made with permission using vectors from Brisineo and Lightning5trike

Prologue

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PROLOGUE

History of the Enclave for Wonderbolts

Opening Thoughts From The Author

I am writing to my fellow Wonderbolts. You can be trusted with information that we don't teach in our schools, for many reasons. We must protect them. We must keep the Pegasus Race unified. The Grand Pegasus Enclave is that way and you are soldiers, the elite of the elite, and you have gone beyond that sworn duty to an even higher one. You can be trusted with the truth in these pages. The good and the bad.

This is our history as Wonderbolts. It is not always grand, but it is ours. But first, you must gain a stronger understanding of the war and what happened. Because when the war started, the Wonderbolts of Equestria were disbanded. And it wasn't until after, that the Grand Pegasus Enclave Wonderbolts carry on their illustrious heritage and more from the war.

The Equestrian Wonderbolts were disbanded because they were not cut out for the new job of protecting Equestria. Yes they were apart of the Equestrian Guard thing that existed in prewar Equestria, but they did a lot of aerial shows. Sure, they could do a good job kicking a dragon hard enough to drive it out of Equestria, but they were not able to handle an army in the same way. As the premier fliers, they took in only the best and showcased what Pegasi could do all across Equestria. There isn't much more information on them other than just that. They may have been elite fliers and apart of the guard, but like everypony else, they were just as unprepared.

The fact is, the war wasn't something we saw coming. It wasn't something Equestria had ever thought could be. The Zebras never knew war either. At least not like we discovered. It was a new concept in such a form.

It was all going so well. Equestria was expanding new fields of science and engineering, combining it with the ingenuity of the Earth Ponies and the magic of the Unicorns. A brand new Era BEGAN. During it, the field known as Arcane Sciences was born.

But for that, Equestria needed coal. And the Zebras had coal. And the Zebras were turning from their tribes to a more unified group, and forming an empire to balance the new shift in power. They needed gemstones for their economy and their magical arts, which we still don't understand.

The fundamentals Of each Race's unique magic is still not understood. Why the Unicorns have their horns and magic to levitate and do much greater spells, we don't know. Or why it is really the Earth Ponies who kept us alive with their farms, doing more than any Unicorn could do to coax the land to grow in the ways it did. And their insane strength as well. Or why the Pegasus Wings allow us to manipulate the weather, walk on, and build with clouds. That too is a mystery. The Zebra's and their magic is an even greater one still.

The intertwining of two nations quickly accelerating in their own paths of discovery, linked together out of the necessity that fueled their growth, it did not end well.

Neither side new what war would actually mean. But by the time they saw the basic idea, it was too late. Swords and bows were replaced with guns and then rifles. Soon, they stopped being on monopods and then slings, tightened against the shoulder. And then the battle saddle.

I do not know who thought to create a saddle that mounted the gun on it for stability, but it was the invention of the war. And the bit system to fire, or the kick system to cycle the gun's action, it is all the greatest thing to come. And the thing that allowed for so much more blood.

The arcane sciences perfected the bullets and powder. And then the Zebras began to make their own. And the cycle began. We built better guns, so did they, Next came canons and artillery pieces, then the big automatic guns and then semiautomatic guns for Ponies and Zebras to slaughter each other distances that were tough to see with the naked eye.

The battle saddle sat as the epitome of battlefield weapons. The Battle Saddle was the weapon that brought the war to the Pegasus Race. Suddenly, Pegasi were leaping at the chance to become heroes by strapping on a battle saddle and coming in from the air.

The Blue Berets were born from them. They were the only good to come out of it. Our Aerial Combat Battalion, which technically houses the Wonderbolts, draw their tactics from them. And they served Equestria beyond well. That will be within the folds of these pages.

But all of the advancements made during the war seem like such a pointless effort when compared to the blood that quickly pooled. And the magic only made things worse.

Fluttershy was a Pegasus, not a Unicorn. But she was heading up the Ministry of Peace. She was a healer, a kind pony who meant nothing, not even the tiniest insect, any harm. But it was Fluttershy who came up with the idea of a Megaspell. A big spell that unicorns could launch and heal those on the battlefield.

Fluttershy unveiled it at the bloody battle of Stalliongrad. And it worked. But it didn't just work for ponies. Enemy Soldiers lying beside each other were healed in their spots without a medic getting close. And the first thing they saw was their enemy. And the first thing at their hooves was their gun. Years of fighting and hatred only lead to one ending. An even worse ending because of that first spell. So many more died on that battle because of it.

And the Ministry of Arcane Sciences couldn't be stopped after that. And the Zebras saw that idea for themselves as well. Megaspells designed to be reigned down on enemy cities from afar were designed and made. And storehouses and special guns to channel Unicorn magic were built.

The Zebras came up with their own brew to weaponize it; for without horns, they had to come up with a different way to deliver the spell. Their main brew, Balefire, was a nasty one rooted thick in their dark arts. The ones they kept hidden in their swamps. The dark places that normal Zebras from the planes stayed away from and told stories to scare their young and keep them from exploring where evil lurked.

But ponies were battling for their lives and winning. The Zebra empire wasn't strong enough on their own and they somehow enlisted the support of the Dragons.

The dragons would not rule the skies for long. Plans were made and soon Pegasi were flying through the sky in a mix of cloud and steel, with guns that could take on a dragon and pierce their once thought impenetrable hides. And with shielding to withstand the heat of their fire. Raptors they were called.

They created other classes, like the overlooked but most important Sky-tank, which shuttle our soldiers, and the Equestrian ones during the war, around and dropping them off. They allowed for the fast deployment of troops to, making it possible to react to the enemy movements and to make our own advancements in the blink of the eye.

The Ministry of Arcane Sciences wasn't the only Ministry at work. There were six. Each was headed by a powerful mare who was gifted the ability to wield an element of harmony. Laughter, Honesty, Kindness, Loyalty, Generosity and Magic.

Harmony had never seen war. Harmony had seen Discord and Nightmare Moon. It could stop a single agent from attacking Equestria, even as powerful as Discord. Harmony couldn't stop the hatred of races that was as plain as a Zebra's strips.

So the Leader of Equestria, Princess Luna, called upon the mares to create the ministries and to save Equestria how they knew best. Her older sister and Co-ruler, Princess Celestia, had abdicated her half of the throne after the conflict spiraled out of control and Equestria was thrust into war. She really only knew one thing, peace.

But she, like Luna, were Princesses. They ruled because the were Alcorns. They had the horn and Magic of a Unicorn. And likewise they had the wings and magic of a Pegasus. The two of them were ancient and the first wielders the Elements of Harmony. As the war progressed, many turned to see them as gods. But they were just as powerless to stop it as anypony else.

Luna, left with no others to help, turned to the young mares who were already so highly esteemed. For they had already turned her from her pain and darkness, from being Nightmare Moon, and back to being Princess Luna. And Discord's return from his defeat also was stopped by them as they once again sealed him in stone and returning Equestria back to its normal, peaceful self.

So the ministries were started. Twilight Sparkle, who in many ways, lead the group of friends, took on the role of Ministry Mare of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. For she was a Unicorn who loved to do science and was very gifted in magic. Her Element of Harmony was magic. She was the most powerful of them all.

Apple Jack was the honest Earth Pony, who wielded that element. A farm pony, she was tasked with being the mare in charge of the Ministry of Wartime Technology. Most of the military advancements were funded and fueled by that ministry.

Fluttershy wielded the element Kindness. It was her kindness that put her as the Ministry Mare of the Ministry of Peace. She caused more pain and suffering for all because of her reckless use of such power. As a Pegasus, she never understood magic to begin with. And She didn't think about magic. She could barely fly on her own. And that was always the downfall of the Ministry of Peace. It was flawed from the start.

The Ministry of Awesome was a near pointless appointment for the wielder of the Element of Loyalty. All the Ministry ever did publicly was create the Single Pegasus Project towers across Equestria. They did nothing for the war effort except take up resources and time. Stuff that should have been put to work helping our boys come back home.

She was the other Pegasus in the group. She created the Shadowbolts. But they worked differently than the military and outside of the public's knowledge. Their story, what we know of it, is also on these pages.

The other Unicorn was a fashion designer. Rarity was the holder of the Element of Generosity and it was her Ministry, the Ministry of Image, that helped keep things going as the war waged on and on. She designed uniforms and advanced how soldiers were able to better protect themselves in combat. Also, she helped keep the dreary days bright, spreading hope and such through posters and campaigns, often alongside the Ministry of Moral.

She did more for hope than the Ministry of Moral did. Pinkie Pie was the Mare in charge. Laughter is the last Element of Harmony. An Earth Pony who grew up on a rock farm, she found laughter one day and bang! She never stopped bouncing around. But she was everywhere. And the Ministry of Moral was always watching. Always looking out for spies and always peering into places and jobs to make sure information wasn't getting to the Zebras to use it against us. There were turncoats who showed that beneath their pastel coats and manes were really stripes. It was her job to keep Equestria, Equestria. And to do it with a smile.

In many ways, the ministries fueled the war, not understanding true harmony and straining their friendship in the process. They came out with an idea and implemented it. It would work, and then the Zebras would level that field back out. Both sides kept adapting as things escalated out of control.

One thing the Zebras never could adapt was our cloud farming. As the ground was torn up by battle and for factories and resource mines, the less land that could be farmed. Somehow, the Ministry of Arcane Technology figured out how to make it so the seeds would stay and we could work the clouds like the soil below, farming them instead. They kept Equestria fed for much of the late war.

But mostly things for the direct war effort were developed. We came out with power armor to protect our Earth Ponies better than anything else and also to carry heavier, bigger, more Powerful guns. And soon, the Zebras began to enchant their weapons to ignite and burn targets, even without having to pierce the armor.

They always had a counter response to our new edge soon after we deployed it. I would love to say that they always stole stuff from us and made it their own, but the limited stock of Stealth-bucks we keep in reserve say otherwise. Those were designed by Ministry Mare Rarity after she found and killed a Zebra spy in her office. He was wearing a cloak that made him Invisible. And it was powered by a gemstone they had gotten from our Mines. There were other things as well.

Likewise, They made their spells portable, in little Launchers. At least for the small stuff. The shot Balefire Eggs. That is how we mimicked their main spell. It was based in necromancy and would melt the skin off your bones. Then they had the pink cloud that fused everything together and hung in the air, making it deadly to breath, even for a second.

We must of had them backed in a corner, because both sides had bountiful time with the Megaspells to use them before that day. The Zebras launched theirs first, and Equestria retaliated. They hit us hard.

Cloudsdale was struck first, by pink cloud, destroying the ancient city in the sky. Canterlot, the seat of power for over a millennium, was struck with pink cloud as well. The Princesses died that day. It is reported the city itself still exist, but it full of the toxic air that just won't dissipate.

The necromantic Balefire spells were set off in Fillydelphia, taking out half the city. Manhattan also took a critical strike. Baltimare, Trottingham, and the ground part of Las Pegasus were hit as well to different degrees.

Equestria's main offensive Megaspells were reverse engineered from the Zebras Balefire. They left the same destruction and chemicals and radiation waste in the Zebra Lands as were left in Equestria. Few survived. Most of those survivors came from Stables.

One of the things developed not for war was the terminal. A computing system and unit that allowed for storage of thousands of papers on a desk at once in the unit, faster communication, and so much more. You know what I am talking about since we still make ample use of terminals.

The creators of that company also founded Stable-tec. They made shelters from the spells. They were dug deep underground to escape their wrath and sealed with a giant door in the shape of a gear.

But those that came out didn't find an Equestria that was easily livable. Ruins, toxins, and radiation sweep the land. Ghouls, ponies that were mutated by the necromantic spells, roam the land looking for the only food that will curb their appetite, blood.

Many find farming too difficult with the depleted soil, so they scavenge for the food that was packaged and preserved during the war. It still survives and it is still edible. The others, they turn to raiding. Preying on the weak and taking things by blood and force. There is no law in the Wasteland, only death.

We obviously survive without that. We are the only other option for survival. The Pegasus Race was never supposed to be in the war. We were not Earth Ponies or Unicorns. The Zebras were dealing with them, not us. But we were dragged into it.

You should remember learning that when the spells came, we sealed the sky up. The Single Pegasus Project towers allowed us to. We kept all the bad below, training and preparing for the fateful day when we would have to go below.

Rainbow Dash, the wielder of the Element of Loyalty turned her back on the Pegasus Race when the Grand Pegasus Enclave rose up to protect it. She left, abandoning us. Fluttershy too was gone. So the founders did what the had to do to protect our forefathers and us today. The counsel is, mostly, a great system of government.

Our resources are running low. Steel can only be recycled for so long. Trees can only grow so fast. The population checks that we have in place do their job well, but the clouds can only be farmed for so much food in a calendar year.

We sacked the Griffin Kingdom after we wiped them out. They fought against us for sealing up the sky. And they lost, poorly, and without honor.

As Wonderbolts, we will probably lead the first charges and expeditions below. You need to know our history: from before the war, to during when they were disbanded after, and to when the Grand Pegasus Enclave recognized them because of what they stood for.

As Wonderbolts, you need to understand what connection we have to the Shadowbolts, who Equestria quietly fielded and what they did. A lot of us is taken from them, because they fought with the same weapons and equipment that we either use, or developed their better advanced counterparts that we now employ.

Captain Fusion Pen

Wonderbolt Squad 8


The Enclave is broken up into districts to better regulate things and keep the peace. New cities have sprung up, most notably New Cloudsdale and Twin Clouds. Other towns have popped up, like New Heaven, El Nino, and Cherry Town.

The majority of the land is farmed, using the late war technology. It is vital for the survival of the Pegasus Race and the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Even almost two hundred years later, the outer reaches are expanding as new farms pop up.

Most of the housing was built by maintenance pegasi, at the request of the future farm owners. Farm houses were top priority in the farming districts. But Barns, barns required both wood or steel, as well as clouds. And no farmer trusted their barn to be worked on but by anypony but a fellow farmer.

Like all farms, the cloud farmers are a community. They support each other, especially when it comes to planting and harvesting, and especially in the rural, outer reaches. The maintain themselves and keep things civil, without the need for law enforcement. The are peaceful pegasi.

The only time most of them deal with the Enclave is after fall harvest, when they come to collect the taxable food. They have no qualms with the Enclave. They are perhaps the most loyal citizens in the Enclave.

They do their duty, feeding the Pegasus Race. They do it rain or shine, every day of the year, and without complaining. They love their job. Few ever find their duty elsewhere, like serving in the military.

Shadow Flare is one of those rural farmers, on the norther edge of the Enclave in an old farming community. His family has owned those clouds since before the war. But unlike them, Shadow Flare is small, making farming problematic. He struggles to find his place in the community. There is a lot more out there than he has experienced in his little corner of the Enclave.


Author's Note:

To start, this story's writing origins go back to 2013. Soon after I read the original Fallout Equestria. It has taken time to come back around and put the time into this story it needs and the changes required as I have become a excellent writer. I am glad to be finally getting back to it.

Bear with me, as I do not write with a common writing style. I write in the rare 'Third Person omniscient'. In other words the characters are viewed in third person and I tell you what they think, feel, see and hear and is all knowing. It works best with dealing with multiple main characters, like I usually do.

I hope you enjoy the way I write. Each writer has their own unique, stamp. One can mimic another author, but never be exactly that author. Style is just like a fingerprint, unique to each author.

– Μινδροπ


Special Thanks:

Kkat: The original Fallout Equestria writer.

Briseno: He encouraged me to write this story. Especially encouraged me to reboot it and finally get on writing it now. Its been a while since FOE was published. I wanted to write it earlier, but I am finally because of him.

He also has allowed me to use his vector images to create some of my book covers and helped me refine them to solid pieces of art.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is owned by Hasbro.

Fallout is owned by Bethesda Studios.

Chapter 1 - Home

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Shadow Flare's heart pounded as he jumped his way up the spider wall. He was showing off as usual for the local farming fillies and colts. Invisible knives cut into his chest as he raced along the roof of his house. He was going to jump a significant distance, without using his wings.

This was one of those moments where fear hits right at the last second but where there is no stopping the action. Time seemed to slow as he soared through the air, wings tucked in tight to his body. He made it across and rolled to keep from hurting himself. But it was more than a role. He immediately had to jump against a wall and and vault to land on the cloud platform above. These fillies and colts were really testing his skill at his acrobatics.

At times he felt that was all he was good for. That was really all he was good for. He was fast, lean and smart, but looking more like a small mare than a Stallion. Not good for work on a cloud farm. His sisters were stronger and bigger than him, and Lunar Harvest's husband Buck was in line for the farm. Even Shadow's father, Turnip Lance, had trouble keeping up with Buck.

If anyone called his father Turnip, they would see why he was also named Lance. The only one who Shadow had seen get away with it was his mother, when she got angry at him. That was a rare occurrence. Buck was second born to the Parsnip farming family a ways up the road. Shadow's Family almost exclusively grew turnips, besides the herb gardens all the farms kept.

The last leg of the acrobatic course that was made for Shadow today was a set of walls, increasing in height. Thankfully, they alternated between jumping over and sliding under. The last wall was the tallest he had ever jumped. He dug his hind legs in deep and gave it all he could. At the top, he realized that the only way he would make it was with a quick rotation of his hind quarters, while not moving his head and forelegs. It was a difficult transition mid air, but Shadow made it.

To an outsider, it looked like he just floated over the last wall. As he landed, he was swarmed by the fillies and colts watching. They hit him with a rush of indistinguishable garble of praise and amazement. Shadow smiled and soaked it all in as he caught his breath. His whole body was already beginning to ache.

Suddenly his chest was slammed in a tight embrace. He smiled at his little sister, Dream Catcher. She was three years younger than him, and growing fast. She was almost as big as he was. She had just gotten her Cutie Mark, a white cross, the same color as her mane. Like her mane, it was a perfect contrast to her bright red coat. Striking contrasts ran in the family.

Deep laughter came from behind Shadow, a laughter that was familiar to him, but one he had not heard in a long time.

“Sky Breaker!” Shadow exclaimed as he spun around. Sky Breaker had been Shadow's hero when he was a young colt. But four years ago he left the farms and went to join the Enclave.

“Hello Shadow. Looks like you have quite the following, as I did at your age. Although I seem to recall you were my biggest fan, despite your size.”

Shadow blushed, the only response he needed since it was highly visible against his white coat.

“I could never forget my biggest fan. Especially with that flamboyant contrast between your coat and that black mane of yours. I see it also has not changed.”

“Yeah. My mane still only grows straight and stays ridged. But what are you doing back here? You look stunning in your Enclave Uniform.” It was crisp and well pressed and in all it's and black and gray glory.

“I'm visiting my folks,” Sky Breaker explained. “I saw you attacking that obstacle course with ease so I stopped and watched. Besides, I had been flying since El Nino, the break was nice. Last time I saw you, you didn't have a Cutie Mark, what did you end up getting?”

Shadow turning his flank to show off the three white lightning bolts set on a black arrow head. There were three of the arrowheads set in a triangle pattern.

“I got it on the obstacle courses, the nastiest one my dad had set up. After that, he has been too busy and it fell to my fans. But that’s about all I know.”

“Very nice,” Sky Breaker praised. “I’m going to guess Speed, Power, and Agility.”

Shadow's heart plummeted to his stomach. “Sure, Speed and Agility, but I'm kind of lacking in power.” Dream Catcher latched onto Shadow again to show her support.

“Nonsense!” Sky Breaker exclaimed. “Power is based in form, not strength. That last jump was all power. When you master the form, you would be one lean, fast and mean powerhouse that can not be stopped. You should come see me in El Nino. I am the new recruiting officer for this district. I can hopefully recruit more troops from here. This district is certainly not lacking in pegasi. It is the last districts without the Enclave keeping a tight grip on population control. Instead it is just slowly making new farms further out and the small towns that connect them all.”

“Sounds like it isn't an easy of a job,” Shadow replied.

“Nah, I was sent here because I know the people and am one of them.”

“Well we are all glad to have you back, even if it is in El Nino,” Shadow grinned.

“Thanks. I know its going to be great for the community as a whole to have me back, even if its as an Enclave Recruiter.”

Sky Breaker said farewell to all the fillies and colts and took off to his home. Few had even heard of him.

Shadow took off to the four trees that marked the corner of the farm and the other three farms around. It was his favorite place to retreat to and think. Dream Catcher was off playing with her friends. His father had tried farming with him, be he didn't have a green hoof. More like like the direct opposite. He was slow at planting and bad at keeping crops alive. He could bring in the harvest, but slowly. At least he could repair the farm equipment. Buck was a great addition to the farm, and filled Shadow's place twice over.

Still, he worked as much as he could on everything. The extra set of hooves was invaluable, even with the drawbacks.

Early Blossom and Spice Cake were Shadow's sisters in between him and Lunar Harvest. Far too often they made life worse for Shadow. Spice Cake was dating Rift, who was the only pony born on the farm. His mother had miscarried three others. Rift was hard working, and Spice Cake was a catch for him. Rift would not only keep the farm with her, but it would only strengthen. It was one of the hoofful of wheat farms around here.

Spice Cake was loud and annoying. She looked down on Shadow. She was the size of the average farming stallion, something she used to her advantage. Having her own farm would be perfect for her. Shadow never understood what the two of them had between themselves. They seemed to be using each other to get what they wanted. Which was fine with Shadow, it got Spice Cake out of his way.

His other sister, Early Blossom, was not home much. She went off with Cherry Tart and began a new cherry orchard out at the outskirts. The two of them were filly foolers, and yet they made it work. The ponies around the area just ignored the two of them. Filly foolers might be okay in the big cities, but out here, where farms struggled to survive and grow the food to support the Enclave and all of the Pegasi, the two of them were black sheep. Their farm could not produce fouls and therefore,it could not grow. Stunted for life.

The farms here all supported each other. The small “towns” that dotted the district around El Nino were little more than gathering places to trade and help each other out. When it came to harvest times, the bulk of the crops were staggered. Farms would be swarmed with willing hooves. Shadow was always sent to do menial work.

Shadow, like Early Blossom and Cherry Tart, was just another strike against his family. He was one big disappointment, and he couldn't do anything about it. His family said nothing, but they all knew. Even Dream Catcher was already making an impact in the community. She was really good at healing and had a passion for kindness and caring for those in need. She was assisting the local healer whenever possible.

Dream Catcher was the only bright thing in Shadow's life. A tear slipped out of Shadow's eye as he thought of her. She was known by Dream to everypony in the family, but when no one else was around, he called her Catcher. She loved the nickname, just like she loved him.

Shadow looked out over the fields. Cloud Farming was a late war technology. A necessary one as Earth Pony Farms were ripped to shreds in the war. And they were the only way the Pegasus Race survived the fallout. Their farm was the fifth cloud farm established. At the end of the war, Cloudsdale fell, but Las Pegasus survived because it was hidden by the Pegasi. Since the war and total destruction of the land below had happened, the Enclave was established to protect their race.

Not much was taught about the war. The all knew that the wasteland below was filled with radiation and toxic chemicals, along with mutated creatures. The Enclave was doing what they could to keep order, protect the Pegasi and, eventually, reclaim the land below. The common belief was that teams were being sent every decade or so below to keep tabs.

When it came to crimes against the Enclave, they usually resulted in Banishment below to the wastes, a worse sentence than death. You were marked with the original traitor’s Cutie Mark, branded in place over yours. A lightning bolt coming from a cloud.

The same punishment was given to any Pegasus who went below the thick cloud floor. Even just a peek was against the law. It brought toxins up through the protective clouds, and toxins that would certainly harm not only the pony, but others around them and the surrounding area. Enough perilous stories were spoken of that no one tested the Enclave's word. Why should they? The had protected them these past two hundred years. They have kept the Pegasus Race not just alive, but thriving.

Shadow wallowed in his misery for the rest of the afternoon. He was just an extra mouth to feed, with little to no purpose and use on the farm. Usually the extra set of hooves gave the farm a great boost in productivity, but not when it came to him. There really was not anything for him here. He might as well head into El Nino to see Sky Breaker.

Shadow made sure to be at the house a bit before dinner, it was a buzz with activity. Way more than usual. He could hear the chatter from a ways out. The house was normally pretty quite, despite so many in it, and others would usually be tired from work and resting up. Not much was spoken until after dinner.

Shadow stepped through the door and saw that Rift was joining them for dinner. Then he heard that distinct laugh that one could never forget. It was filled with glee and was like a cool babbling brook. It was the only thing about Early Blossom Shadow loved. Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were in the kitchen, cooking with his mother, Rain Jubilee. The sound of Buck and Lance's laughter also came from the kitchen. It seemed everypony was here enjoying themselves. No one took a second glance at him.

The table in the dinning room had to have a leaf put in it so that it could hold everypony. Shadow thankfully sat next to his mother and Dream Catcher. The dinner was good, better than usual. Early Bloom and Cherry Tart had brought several sides and a dozen pies. Everypony was happy, except for Shadow. No one but Catcher caught his sorrow. She put her rear hoof against him for comfort.

Shadow missed his name being called the first time, he had just given into the chatter about everything else but him.

“Sorry, what?” Shadow blinked.

Buck rolled his eyes. “Clear your ears. Parsnips harvest is due late next week. Could use your help. The crop is good, but the bulk of the nearby farms are helping the big barn overhauls. Can’t pull their harvests in without em.”

Buck wasn't that bad. He did his best he could with Shadow. Mostly he didn't know what to do or say to him.

“They still are not done? That is going to be big mess,” Shadow shook his head at the thought. “And I’ll give you all I got.”

“Glad to hear,” Buck nodded with relief.

Early Blossom spoke up. “Hey, we saw a soldier approaching the farm where Sky Breaker is from. I hope Sky didn't die.”

Cherry Tart cocked her head. “Do pegasi even die in the Enclave?”

“Actually,” Shadow spoke up with confidence. “It was Sky Breaker. He is the new recruiter for the area in El Nino. We spoke earlier.”

“He spoke to you?” Lunar Harvest snidely said.

“Of course he did,” Dream Catcher shot back.

“I was his biggest fan,” Shadow shrugged. “And he stopped to see me.”

“Yeah right,” Spice Cake rolled her eyes.

“Yes right,” Dream Catcher pointed her fork at Spice. “I was there. And he called Shadow his biggest fan.”

The conversation was over, and it was quiet at the table for a few seconds. Shadow saw Spice and Lunar role their eyes in spite. The table soon broke out into several conversations as is normal at a large table.

“I believe in you Flare,” Catcher whispered. “You should go see Sky in El Nino.”

“What are you saying Dream? Speak up!” Early Blossom eyes narrowed.

“Nothing that concerns you,” Dream Catcher shot back.

“Babying Shadow again,” Early Blossom asked, making a quick face at Shadow. Everything was always directed back to Shadow.

Dream Catcher would at times surprise Shadow. The kind healer would disappear when she was backed into a corner and got angry. But even her words shocked Shadow, and not just Shadow, but the whole table. It was a low blow, sharpened with anger and poisoned to kill.

“At least only his mane is black, not like the you two are.”

Early Blossom stammered enraged. She only got out random sounds.

“The community only feels sorry for Shadow because he is not a farming Pegasus, but not like you two and your farm,” Dream Catcher slashed. The emphasis on the idea that they were not a real farm was worse than a knife in the back.

Everypony just stood shocked. This time, Shadow put his rear hoof against Catcher's for comfort. Early Blossom stormed out of the house, Cherry Tart just sat there with wide eyes. It seemed like forever before Lance stood and looked at Dream Catcher.

“Dream Catcher! Barn. NOW!”

Everypony knew what that meant. Dad was dishing out punishment and instruction. No one spoke of what happened in the barn. They each figured out quickly that the punishment not only fit the crime, but it was tailored to the individual.

Dream Catcher walked out of the house, followed by Lance. Her head was held high with pride. She showed no remorse. Normally you didn't argue with Lance. When he dished out punishment, it meant you were in the wrong. But Dream Catcher was going to argue. Shadow thought his father walked differently. It seemed like he was not going to be punishing, but was rather trying to diffuse the situation.

Once they left, Shadow stood up and left the table as well. He had finished eating well before then and stepped out onto the porch. To his surprise, he found Early Blossom. He didn't expect to find her right there. She sucked in tears when he came out. Shadow went over to her and sat down besides her.

“Tough, isn't it,” Shadow asked, looking at Early Blossom with care.

She didn't speak but tears began to flow. Shadow pulled her into a side hug. She was still his sister. “I know the feeling. You, and especially Spice and Lunar have done that my entire life.”

Early Blossom sucked in tears so she could speak. “Spice and Lunar dished plenty out to me as well. I guess, I didn't know that's how you felt.”

“Well, a lot of it is just implied. I mean, you know how hard I work but get nowhere. The whole community knows.”

“The cherry harvest, in a few weeks, we have work for you. Good work. And it sounds like Buck really needs your help, any help, but it was nice of him to directly ask. He didn't ask Tart or I.”

“I didn't notice. I was just keeping my head down. Way to chaotic and it marks a time to easily hit me with no retaliation.”

“It's that bad?”

“Sometimes. Some days are worse than others. You have not been around, but my typical day starts with chores and a few comments about me as they go to work the fields. Not always bad, but like I am not there. I do what I can, especially on the big projects. The rest, I stay away as much as possible, but you know how long the work takes. A few times a week the colts and fillies design an obstacle course for me to navigate, without my wings.”

“I'm sorry,” Early Blossom sniffed. “I should not have said that. I thought we had it bad, but I guess you have it nearly as bad, maybe worse.”

“You are forgiven,” Shadow smiled. “We are family. I can not seem to really hate my family. Not long enough to refuse forgiveness.”

“I am surprised at how well we were accepted today,” Early Blossom admitted.

“No one in the community has heard anything. Rumors are starting.”

Early Blossom looked at Shadow. The fear of the rumors were written in her eyes.

“Yes, the community talks about you. Like they talk about everypony else. And anypony further away that they don't gather with.”

They sat side by side in silent thought.

“How have things been with you,” Shadow asked.

“Really good. The pies are from the best of the early crop and you will notice.”

“I can't wait,” Shadow smiled. “As long as the others don't devour all twelves of them.”

The both laughed.

“We have been quiet because the few times we went to meetings it was made clear nopony was going to help. And we have a good crop for the first year. Things are getting desperate.”

“No surprise there, but it really shouldn’t be held against you. I will certainly help.”

“Good, because the cherries need to be sorted. And your skill are like exactly what we need. You think fast and have keen eyes. We need the bad ones removed and the red and yellow cherries sorted. We sent a letter to Tart's Family in the East. Its a long ways off. The edge of the district. Hopefully they can come.”

“I didn't know they were that far away. Nopony really knows anything about you two,”

“If they make it, Dream and Tart's baby brother, Lex, can remove the stems, but we need a fast sorter. Stems are easy to deal with when the types are already sorted. Tart says her grandma will probably just sit on her rocking chair talking about the old days, when she was young and how it was and should be done.”

Shadow laughed at the image painted in his head. “Absolutely. Sounds like the perfect job for me, and for once, not demeaning at all.”

Early Blossom giggled. “Tart had you in mind to sort. The young and old can do it, but you would be the best, once I had described your skills.”

The sounds from the house were gradually getting louder.

“I bet they don't think we are talking together,” Shadow said smiling.

“Ha! I definitely know they don't,” Early Blossom responded. “I guess, we are not just siblings, but friends now, aren't we?”

“Blossom, you are definitely my friend, and I am proud to call you my sister,” Shadow smiled at her. “Outcasts together!” He exclaimed, pushing the boundaries. He held out a hoof for her to bump.

“Outcasts together,” Early Blossom said reciprocating “I like it. You should come over the night before the harvest. Spend the night. Our house has the space, Cherry Tart went over the top a bit. The builders looked at the two of us and the size of the house they were required to build with eyes like dinner plates in surprise.” Early Blossom laughed.

“I would be glad to.”

Early Blossom took a deep breath, held for a few seconds and relaxed, breathing it out. Shadow realized she was about to say something difficult. “Can you believe what Dream said?”

“No, I can't,” Shadow sighed. “She surprised me. I know she has defended me at times, and she can make some good comeback remarks, but nopony saw that coming. I don't even think Dad knew what was going to happen in the barn.”

“He took her to the barn?”

Shadow chuckled. “Honestly, he had no confidence about it. I think he did it because he had to do something. Dream held her head up high. She was going to argue with him, and probably win. Like him, she never says anything she can't back up.”

“That I can agree with. You know when she is going to come down like a hammer on a sibling. I have seen her defend herself against Lunar and Spice a few times.”

“Not easy to hold them off.”

Early Blossom sighed. “You know what is odd. I have never seen her be like that outside the family.”

“Everypony trusts and looks up to her. She is not defending herself or somepony else. As soon as she is forced to, she will.”

“And justly.”

“Always. She is not just kind, she is also just.”

A new voice chimed in, “Oh! Shadow… you are here… with Early.”

Early Blossom shot a look Shadow had never seen from her before at Cherry Tart.

“Right. Sorry.”

“If it means what I think it does, I don't want to know.” Shadow said, standing up.

“Sit down Shadow,” Early Blossom said. She directed her attention to Cherry Tart. “Yes Tart, Shadow is here. I guess, you could say we are having a long overdue make up session between siblings.”

“Is Dad or Dream back yet?” Shadow asked.

“No, they are not back yet,” Cherry Tart said. “So, make up session?”

“I will tell you the details later Hun,” Early Blossom said.

Cherry Tart's cheeks reddened against her light green coat.

Shadow chuckled. “It's funny when its not being said to you.”

“You have been called Hun?” Cherry Tart asked shocked.

“My older sisters have used everything they could to make me a girl. Filly is their favorite,” Shadow chuckled.

“Ah, now I understand the make up session better,” Cherry Tart said.

“Tart,” Early Blossom said, “Shadow is going to spend the night before the harvest with us, and he happily agreed to be our sorter.”

“Are you as good as Blossom says you are?” Cherry Tart asked.

“No, probably better,” Shadow said leaning back.

They all laughed.

“Don't tell anyone, but after your harvest, I am going to El Nino to talk to Sky Breaker.”

“You want to join up?” Early Blossom and Cherry Tart said together.

“He said to come in to talk details, but he said that my Cutie Mark meant 'Speed, Power and Agility'; and 'that Power is based in form, not strength; and commented on the power of one of my jumps; and he finished with telling me that if I mastered form, I would be unstoppable. So yeah, I am thinking of joining up. It could be exactly what I am meant to do.”

“And it probably would raise how the family is viewed,” Early Blossom added. “Highly respected for a reason, but the foals are starting splitting that reputation apart. One of those splits becoming a Enclave Soldier, protecting the Pegasus Race; well it would do wonders for you when you get leave and come home, as well as for the family.”

“And maybe for you and Tart,” Shadow said, using only part of her name.

“It very well might,” Cherry Tart said not caring. “Hey! You could say you are visiting us when you plan to sneak off. Maybe spend the night.”

“Tart, we are further from El Nino than here, by hours,” Early Blossom said.

“Oh… yeah,” Tart chuckled. “Well you should visit us before then anyway.”

“Its not that far away, only two weeks,” Early Blossom stated. “And late next week is the parsnip harvest.”

“Think we should go help them?” Cheery Tart ask, reserved.

“We were not invited,” Early Blossom sighed. “But if you want to face potential shame I am up for it.”

“If they are asking me, they need help,” Shadow said. “They sound too troubled to turn it down. And who knows, they might reciprocate. Take the chance of shame for the chance of help with the harvest.”

“I agree with Shadow,” Cherry Tart said. “We should try. It is way better than not.”

“I should probably get back in there,” Early Blossom said.

“You two go,” Shadow offered. “It's a nice night. I want to stay out for a few more minutes. Look at the stars for a bit.”

It was one of his favorite things to do. The stars offered him the time to think and give wisdom into the problem. It was a clear night and the autumn breeze was filtering in nice, fresh air. It was good to finally connect to Blossom like that. The weirdest things brought ponies together. He just hoped it didn't get Dream into to much trouble.

Shadow headed in, hungry for pie. He was in luck. Cherry Tart was still getting the pies ready. Dad and Dream were still not there. The rest were at the table waiting to be served their slice of pie.

Shadow shook his head, a plate was in front of him, the first slice. Cherry Tart had picked him first to judge their pies. He took the first bite and melted. It was amazing pie. The look on his face was better than any words could have done justice. Cherry Tart and Early Blossom began serving the others.

“No offense Cherry Tart,” Lunar Harvest said. It was never a good sign when she started like that. “But why did It get the first slice?”

“Fly off Lunar,” Cherry Tart said. “Your heart is as dark as a cloudy night, and his is as pure as his coat is white.”

Lunar Harvest sat there, shocked.

“I missed something,” Dream Catcher whispered as she sat down. They had apparently come in right as the pie was being served and heard Lunar Harvest's and Cherry Tart's words.

“Tell you later Catcher,” Shadow whispered back.

Lance hadn't sat down yet, and then it got to the uncomfortable length of time where he was standing, looking at Lunar. Everypony stopped eating and waited for him to sit.

He finally sat down and Lunar visibly breathed a sigh of relief. The next thing Lance said was how amazing the pie was.

The dinner table calmed down and became a relaxed place of quiet talk.

Early Blossom spoke up. “Shadow, you should come and visit sometime soon and spend the night.”

“That is so thoughtful,” Rain Jubilee said. “You should take your sister up on that Shadow.”

“I will,” Shadow said. “Thanks Blossom.”

“Cherry Tart, when is your Harvest?” Lance asked.

“Two weeks out. A week after Buck's Parsnip harvest. As best as we can tell since its our first harvest. But I grew up on the premier Cherry Farm in the Enclave. I got the best of the best pits and the best saplings came with me. They grew into the best cherry trees and best cherries have bloomed! Their yield is impressive for such young trees.”

“Well, I have bucked apples once before. I am assuming its a similar harvest?” Lance asked.

“Pretty much. Except the cherries grow both red and yellow on each tree, so they have to be sorted, and also destemmed.”

“Well with these pies, it looks like you definitely got the best cherry trees and will have a good, strong harvest every year,” Lance said.

“Thank you. Blossom says the Turnips are the last harvest, six weeks out?”

“I would say seven weeks currently,” Lance replied. “Wouldn't you agree Buck?”

Buck nodded. “We will need every hoof we can get. As soon as they are ready, the Turnips have to be harvested immediately or they spoil. This cloud farming messes with the turnips quite a bit. They used to be very different to grow, in soil that is.”

Everypony got quite. The mention of below was always sensitive topic.

“Well, I guess you all can keep the secret,” Lance said. “Back two hundred years, when my ancestor got the first bag of seeds for cloud farming; the farmer, Red Turnip, gave him a book on turnip growing. One he had written himself. You all know this farm has stood here for 200 years, this exact spot.”

“That is why we have so much more land than the others. It was a very isolated farm to start and we are a Homestead for that reason. This land has always grown turnips. And It always will. We grow the best turnips in the clouds, and for a good reason. The book is old and worn, but most everything is passed down by the generations by learning first hand.”

“Except for me,” Shadow said glumly.

“Not your fault Shadow. I taught you everything you need to know to farm the clouds. There have been plenty of other ancestors who went other places because growing turnips is not easy, or there are too many ponies under one roof. And there have been plenty of times that the linage is only passed down through mares. That is why I am so thankful for Buck. He understands turnip growing like my dad, and my father's father. New blood into the lineage is never a bad thing. Buck gets it more than Lunar Harvest. But enough history for the night. It is getting late. We should head to bed.”

“AFTER DISHES ARE WASHED!” Rain Jubilee ordered.

“Yes dear, after the dishes of course. Come on, with everypony drying they will be done in record time.”

Despite differences between siblings, these were the moments where they were set aside and it was all family. They laughed together and had fun, as a family.

It was late so Rift spent the night, something he had never done before. Shadow happily elected to sleep in Dream Catcher's room to free up the extra bed. The community law was no sharing beds unless married. It was a hard rule that you did not cross. It was worse than being a filly fooler, but not even fillies foolers would dare to cross that line.

Cherry Tart had never spent a night here either. She was the weirdest one, even for Early Blossom. The two of them sharing a bed meant the family recognized them as married. Nopony objected, but it hung over the last minutes getting ready for bed and hushed things. Nopony was used to it in the house, not even Early Blossom.

When lights were out, Shadow slipped two doors over to Early Blossom's room and softly knocked on the door. A softly whispered “come in” invited him to slip into the bedroom.

Shadow approached the bed. It was not built for two. It was one of the old filly beds. Others were stored in the attic, but Early Blossom had moved out suddenly, so nothing had changed.

“I just wanted to say,” Shadow began in a whisper. “Thanks. To both of you. I am glad we connected for the first real time Blossom.”

“Me too Shadow. Thanks for comforting me. Who knew so much would be revealed about this family, both to everypony and between you and I.”

“I know Blossom. I am surprised as well, especially what Dad said.”

“I think Dream gave him a new perspective.”

“Probably. Goodnight you two.”

“Shadow, before you go, I want to thank you for comforting Early.” Shadow heard the air go out of Cherry Tart's lungs as Blossom elbowed her in the ribs.

“Not in this house or around family,” Blossom said annoyed. Neither of them could see Shadow smiling.

“As I was saying Shadow, thanks. I didn't expect you to comfort her, but I am glad you did. The relief I had when I saw the two of you, with your arm around Blossom, it warmed my heart. And I instantly did not regret staying inside. I didn't want to let anypony win by making both of us run, but-”

“It was a tough call,” Shadow finished. “Out of love on your part. You are welcome. And thanks for the first piece of the pie.”

“You earned it,” Cherry Tart said.

“Have fun,” Shadow said and slipped back out of the room before either of them could say anything.

Shadow laid down on the blankets on the floor of Catcher's room for him.

“There you are” Catcher whispered. Over the years, Shadow would slip out of his window and go into Catcher's room and they would stay up talking. It was just like old times, except he was sleeping on the floor instead of going back to his room.

“Sorry. After you made Blossom bolt, I left in shame as well. I found her on the porch, sobbing, and we made up.

“Wow.” Catcher said. “That is unexpected.”

“Yeah, but I am much more interested in you and Dad.”

“He paced back and forth for the first five minutes, unable to speak. He then looked at me, and sighed. Whatever he had worked up to tell me left him. We just talked from then on out. About all us. Lunar has always been a problem. You would not believe how much he had to punish her. She was a rebel at heart, but a passive aggressive one.”

“Then when Spice was born, it was not long before she passed it onto Spice. Spice bore the brunt of her rebellion. It was difficult to catch Lunar in the act. And then Blossom got a double dose from both of them. He did his best to keep her shielded, but Lunar was in control.”

“We talked a lot about you. He is proud of you. You are his son. He just does not know what to do with you. What guidance to give. He sees your speed and agility. If you remember, he started you on the courses.”

Shadow's heart was beating fast. Shadow was stunned, but not. This was rewriting everything he believed about himself. “Yeah, I remember Dad setting them up for me when I was younger. How could I forget? It was almost every day for years. And I got my Cutie Mark on the last one he made.”

His father had always encourage him with the acrobatics. He saw the potential in him. And they were wingless, that was something his dad definitely did encourage him. He had started them before Shadow could fly. Shadow was more familiar with heights than most pegasi his age early on because his dad had a lot of the obstacles going vertical.

Dream Catcher smiled at Shadow in the moonlight. “He still makes adjustments to them, like today's. That final wall segment of the up and down was all him. And the height of the final wall was all him. He was watching. He watches you perform a lot. The Farm is not yours but you are still his son.”

Shadow just sighed. His Dad did care. He still watched and interacted, even though he didn't directly show it. He always thought his Dad had stopped with the courses.

“Buck is amazing. He actually keeps Lunar in check more than you know. He does not take her passive aggressiveness. He does what Dad could never do, and he also has the perfect hoof for turnips. Dad opened up about the family heritage because he knew it would bring us together. It was my idea to find a way to bring us all together, a story or something. He surprised even me. He knew immediately what to tell and would not let me in on it.”

Dream Catcher switched topics. “We missed the first piece of the pie sadly. What did we miss? Who got it?”

“Cherry Tart gave it to me. She stayed at the table for a while to show that they were not backing down.”

“It's only weird because every one of us farms. In the cities its not a problem, especially with the population limits. How is a farm passed down? That is the big question, and nopony wants to ask.”

“Well, all three of us had a good talk. And she showed special treatment to me over our sisters.”

“Wise choice on her part.”

“Yeah, that is one of the things I just thanked them for.”

The two of them settled under their blankets more. The moonlight coming in through the window illuminating the room.

“Hey Flare?”

“Yeah Catcher?”

“Think Rift or Spice will try anything?”

“Definitely Spice. But my window trap was set from the night before, and I double checked it, and I also set the door trap. If either of them tries anything. It will trip the alarm in Mom and Dad's room. Spice used to mess with me at night. I figured out how to let dad know when it would happen.”

Dream Catcher laughed. “You never told me about the alarm. And Mom and Dad know about it?”

“Absolutely. Dad was impressed I rigged it up. It's a simple buzz alarm in their room, but it works. Spice stopped after two failed attempts. I think she just thought Dad waited up for her to make a move. You were not even born then.”

Suddenly they heard a door slam open. “SPICE!” It was the unmistakable voice of a very angry Lance. “BARN! NOW!”

Shadow Flare and Dream Catcher chuckled.

“Poor Rift must be spooked,” Catcher said.

A knock came on the door a few minutes later.

“Come in,” Shadow said.

Rift poked his head in.

“Come in Rift, all the way,” Dream Catcher said.

Rift slipped inside.

“Shadow, I didn't try to do anything. I was following the laws. I never said anything, never expected Spice to try anything. How did your Dad know?

Shadow sat up. “Spice used to pick on me, a lot worse than anything you have see. She used to mess with my room and me when I was asleep. My Dad got good knowing when she left her room and went to mine. She should have known not to try it, even though its been years.”

“Your family,” Rift started.

“Is very complicated,” Dream Catcher yawned. “Just like any family. I can tell you all about it in the morning. I know this family very well. I watch and listen. I know when one of them has it out for Shadow. I might be the kind healer, but you do not mess with the one I am being kind to. Go back to bed Rift. I will tell you tomorrow after breakfast, and while Spice is receiving her punishment.”

“It tends to take all day, but I am sure you have a lot to do back home,” Shadow yawned.

“Yeah, I do need to go home, but I can listen to you Dream Catcher after breakfast. If I want to join this family, I really should get to know it more. Goodnight you two.”

They both said goodnight. As sleep overcame them, they never heard Lance walk past their room and the shuffle of Spice's hooves.

Chapter 2 - Harvest

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Shadow did all he could to help pull in the parsnip harvest. It was actual work in the fields, pulling the parsnips up. He was way behind. They took it row by row, each pegasus pulling their own cart and each had their own row. Most of them were moving four times faster than Shadow, but they left him alone to complete his row.

Shadow was not backing down. They most certainly needed him. It was just his family helping. Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were welcomed with open wings. Shadow worked through the lunch break. He had set his will to do all he could. He may not have raw strength, but he had endurance, and plenty of it from the acrobatics.

Cherry Tart brought him water and a apple tart at lunch time when it became apparent he wasn't stopping.

“Thanks,” Shadow said smiling.

“Don't mention it,” She said. “You know, your resolve has made an impression on all of them. Slow, but not a quitter. You taking it all in stride just like them. Speed doesn't matter. An extra set of hooves working as hard as possible does. It means a lot to them due to the lack of available hooves. They can see you. You are not getting lost in the crowd.”

Shadow finished the apple tart before she had finished speaking. He also drank the water before responding.

“Thanks Cherry Tart. And thanks for letting me know what they think.”

“No problem Shadow,” Cherry Tart smiled. “And please, call me Tart, like the other night. You have earned that right. Only you and Blossom can call me Tart, my family calls me Cherry. Though it seems like everyone calls you Shadow.”

“Yeah, it has always been Shadow. I was always introduced as just Shadow. The Flare is befitting, especially with my contrasting mane, but its just not-”

“It's flamboyant, not something you can pull off. Shadow just fits more,” Cherry Tart finished.

“Exactly,” Shadow responded. “Lunar, Spice and Dream are all family shortenings, but stay in the family. Blossom makes more sense than Early for all sorts of reason.”

Cherry Tart blushed. “Yeah, no one is supposed to know.”

“Your secret is safe with me Tart,” Shadow said.

“For the record,” Cherry Tart began. “Nothing happened at your house.”

“I figured,” Shadow responded. “The mood was tense for the most part. Sleep was the only option.”

“It was funny to hear your Dad yell at Spice. How did he know?”

Shadow explained what he had gone through and rigged up.

“You are smart,” Cherry Tart said.

“Yeah, well, you have to be with my sisters, except for Dream. And now Blossom.”

“Funny how a little kindness can go a long way,” Cherry Tart stated.

Shadow dropped a parsnip into his cart. “It is.”

Cherry Tart laughed. “I should stop distracting you.”

“Thanks again Tart,” Shadow said.

It was a nice break, as short as it was. And it was even better talking with Cherry Tart. She was family, but outside and saw things differently.

He set his mind to work again. Sky Breaker said power came from form, not strength. He had not had time to go and see him, but if he was right, then Shadow was going to work his hardest. Training would not be easy. Any advantage he could gain was an advantage.

It wasn't long before the others went back to work. They were much further along than he was, but Shadow trudged on. By the end of the day, he had not only finished the row he had started, but he had gotten a third of his second row done.

Dinner was served there at the farm as it always was. It didn't matter how many ponies came to help with the harvest, the farm always provided a light lunch and a good, solid dinner. It was the proper, considerate thing to do for their helpers. Reciprocity was the rule out here.

What would have normally taken a day or two to harvest took six days. There were seventeen barns being overhauled, and several farms were left without anypony to help. By the end, Shadow was keeping up with the others. He even was breaking for lunch. The others were tired, but Shadow, as tired and sore as he was, still had the endurance to keep going.

It left them two days before the cherry harvest. Shadow decided to spend it with Early Blossom and Cherry Tart. There was plenty of work needed to be done to prepare for their harvest. They could not have done it without Shadow's help.

I am finally becoming of some worth to the community,” Shadow thought with pride. “Even if it starts with small ways. It can grow bigger.”

At dinner the night before harvest he spoke out, seeking advice. “I am finally beginning to be of worth in the community, and showing I am a capable, hard worker. Slow, but hard. I am reconsidering staying around.”

“Why,” Early Blossom raised her eyebrow. “Finally beginning to make a place in the community doesn't meant you should not at least pursue the idea of joining.”

“I think its a wonderful idea Shadow,” Cherry Tart smiled. “You should at least talk to Sky Breaker. I may not have known him, but from what Blossom has told me, I think it is a good idea to talk to someone so influential in your life.”

“I guess you are right,” Shadow sighed. “Just because things are up right now, doesn't mean they will stay that way.”

“If you don't get accepted you can always join us here,” Early Blossom offered. “This farm is a hoofful. Besides, we could name it 'Outcast Farm.'”

They all openly laughed.

“Well, if I do not find the Enclave to be for me, or if I don't get accepted, I would love to move in with you.”

He was grateful for Blossom and Tart's generosity. Blossom's laugh finally fit how Shadow saw her.

“It is going to be another long harvest,” Tart said worried. “I hopefully have three days of lunch tarts made. And even with my family and your's, it will take a while. I am afraid three days won't be enough.”

“When is your family coming in?” Shadow asked.

“Any moment now. It is a miracle they are coming. I don't think anypony else joined them. We all know how harvests are. In fact, they might have had to leave with the harvest unfinished. The community would finish it, but still...”

“It's tough when you have to abandon your farm and have the others harvest it,” Blossom said putting her hoof on Cherry Tart’s.

“I didn't realize they were coming in tonight,” Shadow stated shocked. “If you need the bedroom, I can sleep anywhere.”

“Nonsense!” Cherry Tart said. “The bed is yours. It is a slim chance, but you might have to share the room. But we bought the bed for you and you will not give it up.”

“Thanks,” Shadow blushed.

“No need to thank us,” Early Blossom chirped. “You are my brother. Besides, you have more than earned it, if we were keeping track.”

Early Blossom laughed. Shadow just smiled.

“Buck up Shadow,” Cherry Tart said. “Don't look down. Keep that head held high. You need to have more confidence in yourself. You may not fit in like others, but you are worth more than you think.”

She was kind, yet firm.” Shadow thought. “A good teacher. That was something nopony had been to me once Dad stopped teaching me acrobatics.

“Tart is right Shadow. You are the reason we are ready for the harvest. And you are more valuable and loved than your realize. Dream loves you. Dad is proud of you as a son, and mom loves you as well.”

“Mom and Dad may not know what you are going to do, but neither do you. Your world is open. Lunar and Spice, you can't let them get to you. I know how they got to me. You are destined for more than farming in my opinion. And I am learning to forgive them and move past their control of me because of you.”

Shadow never had time to respond because of the knock at the door. Cherry Tart's family was here. Cherry Tart went to open the door and Early Blossom smiled at Shadow.

“Now is the time you can get a new, fresh start. A rare chance,” Early Blossom encouraged him.

The house got loud as everypony came in. Cherry Tart's family never had never met Early Blossom and had never even made it this far over since they were leagues to the East. They were a complete contrast to Shadow's family. There were ponies of all ages and sizes coming into the house.

Cherry Tart stood next to Early Blossom to do the introductions.

“Everyone, this is Early Blossom and her brother, Shadow Flare.”

There was her father, Red, her mother, Yellow and Grandma Cherry Tart, who Cherry Tart obviously got her name from. Her sister was Diamond Dawn. Her brother Stump Crusher was newly married to Silver Sun, something Cherry Tart didn't know about. Her brother Big Red was alone. His wife, Sweet Cherry, had to help her family Harvest. Cherry Tart's little brother Lex was there as well.

Bronze Bell, Parsley Green, and their Son, Lightning Storm were a big surprise. Bronze Bell was from the Farm across the way. The two farms were old family. He and Stump Crusher grew up together and were like brothers. His family was all Stallions. Bronze would not be missed in the harvest between everypony helping there.

“How was the harvest?” Cherry Tart immediately asked after the introductions.

“Wonderful dear,” Yellow said.

“We finished,” Red said. “Well ahead of schedule. The community helped more than usual so we could leave to help you.”

“In the old days,” Grandma Cherry Tart began. “We didn't cross the district to help ponies. We lived close by.”

“Grandma, you were the one who suggested we send someone west to start a new farm,” Cherry Tart said. “That is why Early Blossom and I are so thankful you all could make it for our first harvest. We definitely need the help. Nopony in town accepts this farm yet. And even if they did, nopony knows how to deal with fruit trees, or fruit of any kind.”

“Hmmm, well we still didn’t back then. Prove your commitment and approval will come!” Grandma Cherry Tart exclaimed.

“We brought all the carts, barrels and equipment we could carry,” Red said. “Flying it all the way took longer than expected.”

“I know,” Cherry Tart responded. “It is a trip. It is very appreciated.”

“Most of them we will leave for you. You need a proper stock and you know how many we have. We also brought cots,” Red said.

“Thanks Dad. We could use the equipment. And cots will be a very welcome help It is just out bed and Shadow’s,” Cherry Tart began.

She had a lot to say. Shadow just got to stand there and look good. Looking like Shadow Flare.

“Lex, you have grow a lot this year! And Bronze, it is wonderful to see you and Parsley again. And Lighting Storm has grown big.”

“BIG ENOUGH TO HELP!” Lighting storm yelled jumping up.

They all laughed.

Bronze made sure he started before anypony else got in the way. “Cherry, your family is mine. You are like a sister. Of course we came. It is an honor to travel so far to help you. Ponies may not approve or understand, but they recognize the dedication to go so far to help.”

The family broke into conversation centered around Early Blossom and meeting her. Except for Diamond Dawn. She came over to Shadow Flare.

“Shadow Flare,” She said sized him up. They were the same size and she would most likely have a good growth spurt or two.

“Your name is that of a Stallion, but you look like a mare,” Diamond Dawn stated.

“Well, what I lack in strength, I make up for in speed and agility,” Shadow responded.

“Either way, you are cute. Tiny things are cute.”

Shadow was taken aback. Nopony had said that to him before.

He stammered out a “Thanks.”

With his tongue untwisted he continued. “I have never had anyone call me cute before.”

“Their loss,” Diamond Dawn said.

Stump Crusher and Silver Sun greeted Shadow, ending Diamond's flirting for now.

“Early Blossom says you are the only stallion from your farm,” Stump Crusher started.

“Yeah, I am. Three older sisters and then one younger. Early Blossom is just a year older than me.”

“What do you farm over here?” Silver Sun asked.

“Most of them are parsnips farms, but a lot of hay, and a handful of wheat farmers are within a day's flight. My family grows the only turnips in the area. The first in the area a long time ago, a Homestead.” Shadow answered.

“Homestead carries great weight. Means larger land too,” Stump Crusher said.

“Four times larger,” Shadow said with pride for once. “My oldest sister, Lunar Harvest, married a strong stallion Buck. He is a huge help with the farm.”

“A long time ago, there was the original cherry farm in our area. But between brothers, it was split up to make things easier for harvesting and inheritance. Ours is one of them, same with Red's. All four of them are still considered Homesteads.”

“Buck has the inheritance of the farm, and he certainly has a knack for turnip growing. You will meet them all tomorrow.”

“We look forward to meeting the rest of Early Blossom's and your family,” Silver Sun said.

“I know they are looking forward to meeting all of you as well,” Shadow smiled. “Well, most of them.”

“Oh?” Silver Sun asked.

Shadow regretted the comment immediately. “Nothing big. Just Lunar Harvest and Spice Cake are not the most social. Some grumbling will probably happen, when you can't see it. Lunar especially is not, how to put it, approving of Early Blossom and Cherry Tart. She will never show it to their face in front of others.”

“Don't worry Shadow Flare,” Stump Crusher hesitated. “Its not all that approving in our family. We don't all, know what to say or think about it. Especially since none of us had any idea. But Cherry is family.”

“Yeah, she is family,” Shadow nodded. “And I have the feeling both of our families have the same feelings about the two of them. We were just as shocked as you were.”

The all smiled in understanding.

“It sounds crowded at your family's farm, are you living here?” Silver Sun said.

“Sort of,” Shadow said before he explained the going ons in the community.

“Wow,” Stump Crusher said. “Unfortunate, but the harvest is in.”

“That is what matters,” Shadow said. “Cherry Tart and Early Blossom were not expressly invited, but they were welcomed with open hooves on the first day. We hope that Buck's family will join us in the harvest. Buck's family is old friends. Our dad's go a long way back. They say before they were born.”

“I hope so too,” Stump Crusher sighed exhausted. “It is what is best for the community.”

Shadow was elated. He was actually respected here, despite his size. Ponies were actually talking to him and cared what he had to say.

Diamond Dawn was flirting with him all evening. They were the same age. Shadow did his best to be kind, but he never had never flirted before. Anypony listening would find it a very awkward conversation on his end.

Things calmed down as the night grew late. Red was the one who called for the night to end, even though there was so much more they had to say and talk about. For now, they had more than enough rooms. Cherry Tart had gone over the top when it came to the number of bedrooms.

Grandma Cherry Tart was adamant about not leaving the comfy chair that she had occupied all evening. She had tested it out with some napping throughout the evening.


Rain Jubilee was loud when it came to gathering the family together. Loud and commanding. And everypony knew Lance backed her, even if he was just as tired and annoyed as everypony else. As they were eating breakfast, a knock came on the door. It was Rift. He had slipped out early to join them in helping Early Blossom and Cherry Tart.

Lance smiled and nodded his head in silent approval as Rift walked through the door. Unfortunately that meant neither of them caught Lunar's scowl. Buck caught it and called her out.

“Your family welcomed me with open arm's Lunar. Show Rift the same respect. Especially since he isn’t here to appease anypony. He genuinely wants to.”

Lunar silently dropped her head in shape.

Spice was excited to see Rift. She hadn't seen him since Early Blossom and Cherry Tart had spent the night.

Not too long later, a knock came again. It was Buck's family. All of them ready to join them in helping bring in the cherry harvest. They were warmly welcomed. Buck's father was Black Sky, but Black was all he ever needed to go by since a young colt. His mother was Golden Harvest. Buck's brother and sister in law had to stay and take care of a few things on the farm. They were going to check up on Lance's farm as well.

The road to the cherry farm passed the local schoolhouse which doubled as the community meeting house when those time arose. It was also considered the 'town.'

“Hey Lance, Black and Buck,” Maple Tree greeted them as they reached the it. “Glad you are joining us today. We were not sure if you had heard or not. It is a last minute meeting after all.”

Lanced raised and eyebrow. “We didn't know about the meeting. We are off to help my daughter, Early Blossom, and Cherry Tart bring in their first cherry harvest.”

“Oh,” was the only response he got.

“Are you joining them too Black?” Black just nodded sternly. His mind had been made up the week before.

Buck's father was a big, strong pegasus. He was well respected in the community and needed to speak little words. Buck was a spitting image of his father. It was Buck who sternly spoke up.

“Helping them is what is right for the community. They helped bring in our parsnip harvest, and deserve our respect and help. We are a community. Enough said.”

With that, Buck moved on and the rest followed him. Buck's words would definitely be brought up at the meeting. He proved to Maple Tree that he had his father’s backbone and mind. And that he should be respected as such.

When they finally reached the cherry farm, most of Cherry Tart's family was already in the fields, not working, but looking over the harvest and checking out the trees. They all came back when the bell was rung and then began the mass and chaotic introductions among themselves.

Diamond Dawn stayed out of the fray and instead joined Shadow on the side. “Your family is certainly something. All your older sisters are definitely better built than you, but no where are good looking as you.” She said that as she circled behind him, her hoof gliding across his shoulders. Shadow blushed, he had no idea what else to say.

Diamond's hoof was put to his lips. She was in front of him now. She leaned in and whispered, “We should slip out and have some fun in between the cherry trees later.” She didn't wait for a response. Instead she walked away as seductively as she could.

It took all of Shadow's might to not let his mind wander to where she wanted it to go. He took his mind back to acrobatics, keeping the wings tucked in close to his body. Nothing lose. Concentration and reaction to the next, highly variable terrain. He just wanted to help.

A little while later Cherry Tart came over to Shadow. “Don't pay her any attention. She is a big flirt. I don't think there is a colt or young stallion back home who she hasn't flirted with.”

“Just one big tease then,” Shadow said.

“I wish. This time she means it. Probably just to spite Blossom and I. Please don't entertain her.”

“I won't Tart. Community law be damned! I wont do it for you,” Shadow said.

The city might be different, but out here, swearing was something done very rarely, and generally frowned upon. It was unbecoming.

Cherry Tart smiled and was immediately called away to take charge of the harvest. It didn't take long. Cherry Tart had it well planned out. Grandma Cherry Tart just sat in a cloud rocking chair, making her comments like Cherry Tart had expected.

The fillies and colts were excited to make new friends, and excited to remove the cherry stems. It would not last long, but their early enthusiasm was infectious.

“What about Shadow Flare?” Red asked.

“Shadow Flare is going to be our sorter so the little ones can focus on just removing the stems. His agility and mental speed is unmatched,” Cherry Tart said.

Shadow smiled as the attention was put on him. Cherry Tart's family embraced it easily. It really was an important task. A fast sorter for such a mundane task was rare and respected. Shadow thought his Dad stood a bit taller with the acceptance that Cherry Tart's family had for Shadow's role.

Cherry Tart's family was teaching the others to buck properly. They had a lot to learn about cherry harvesting. They were getting better and the harvest was moving steadily. Shadow was only behind by a few baskets. And even then, his heart was only half in it.

By lunch time, the learning curve was over. Cherry Tart had only enough tarts for the day. She had underestimated the amount of ponies helping and how hungry they would be. The three families were getting along well and everything was going off without a hitch.

After lunch, Chery Tart, Yellow, Rain Jubilee and Golden Harvest retired to the kitchen to begin dinner, and prepare lunch for tomorrow.

Shadow had to pick up his speed now that the harvest was moving a lot faster. But it was fun work. And it was nice to be doing something of special value with the harvest. The young ones were bored and moving slowly at removing the stems. Shadow smiled at their lack of enthusiasm. It was completely different than in the morning. Even Dream Catcher was bored.

As the day ended and everypony dragged in from the trees, Grandma Cherry Tart woke up and was overjoyed at how fast Shadow had worked. “Just like the best sorters in the good old days!” She exclaimed.

The decision was made to spend the night. It took them three hours to fly there this morning and would only set them behind for tomorrow. Besides, everypony found it more fun.

Despite four families staying at the farm, they had enough rooms since Grandma Cherry Tart was sleeping in the chair. The only change was Lex and Lightning having to pair up to free the room up for rift. They found it more fun.

Dream Catcher caught Diamond Dawn unaware in her room.

“Don't even think that I am going to let you get anywhere near my brother,” Dream Catcher said coldly to a stunned Diamond Dawn.

Diamond Dawn tried to play it off but Dream Catcher was better than her.

Her tone was spot on to make her point. A very sharp point. “No excuse, I have seen you make moves on my brother all day. I have also seen his reaction. I know my brother way better than you think. You are just out to tick your sister off by doing things 'right.'”

Shadow had come at just the right moment to hear it all. He smiled to himself. She really was a sweet, kind pony. She really did love him. Any mare Shadow wanted to marry would have to pass Dream Catcher's scrutiny. It would be tougher than their dad's.


The next day brought a surprise. They were beginning to start harvesting again when five of the older Stallions and their oldest sons approached, with their own carts. They were lead by Maple Leaf.

“None of us are used to cherry harvesting. We are simple ground cloud farmers. But we decided as a community, that we should at least send a few ponies your way to help.”

Cherry Tart smiled and greeted them by name. “My Father and brothers will show you the ropes. It is not hard at all.”

She ran the brief introductions, including what they each farmed. Cherry Tart had not joked around when it came to learning the community.

“Yep,” Red said. “It is not hard at all on our end. The young ones have the boring job of removing the stems, at least until we join them at the end. Shadow Flare is the most critical point. A good sorter is needed, especially when there are a lot of ponies bringing the harvest in. Usually you have to put several on the task.”

“He is just like the best sorters in the good old days!” Grandma Cherry Tart exclaimed for all to hear.

Shadow was beaming. For the first time, ponies were building him up, with real meaning behind every word they said.

By mid morning, Shadow was beginning to be really backed up with the sorting so Diamond Dawn was sent to him as reinforcements. Diamond tried flirting with Shadow, but got hit in the head by a bad cherry flung by Dream Catcher. Early Blossom, who was dropping off a filled basket, laughed. It only annoyed Diamond Dawn even more.

“Oh take it easy Diamond Dawn,” Early Blossom said. “We all have seen you flirting with him. I am guessing that Dream Catcher cut you off and made sure where you two stood. She looks up to Shadow as a hero and loves him. Gaining her approval is going to take a lot more than that.”

“Oh, Dream, what do you think of me moving in and helping out here with Early Blossom and Cherry Tart?” Shadow asked.

Shadow got hit right between his eyes with a bad cherry. Dream Catcher was a perfect shot. Early Blossom's laugh was like sweet honey.

“What do I think?” Dream Catcher said sarcastically.

“Umm… That is why I asked you?” Shadow shot back.

Dream Catcher took a second to actually think. “It would be a good move. I would still love you, despite you abandoning me, no matter where you are or what you are doing. Setting up with Early Blossom would remove you from under Lunar's and Spice's hooves. And since you two made up, it is a wonderful idea.”

Dream Catcher's voice relaxed to that lazy, friendly tone they all loved. “Find that special somepony, not Diamond Dawn next to you.” She pegged Diamond Dawn right between the eyes with another bad cherry as she said her name.

Diamond was getting irritated.

“Relax Diamond,” Shadow said nudging her with his elbow. “It's no big deal. After all, we are brother and sister in laws. Family. And family likes to peg each other with the bad cherries every so often.”

With that Shadow swiftly used his wing to roll a bad cherry from his stash up his wing and launched it from his wing. It slammed into Dream Catcher's head, right above her left eye. It didn't bounce off like the ones Dream Catcher had thrown. It splattered all over her head, leaving cherry juice to drip down her face which was set in a frown.

“Not only a good sorter, but a great shot!” Grandma Cherry Tart exclaimed. They all laughed except a still sore Diamond Dawn. Grandma Cherry Tart actually got out of her cloud rocking chair and came over.

She tapped Diamond dawn on the shoulder. “Now Diamond, turn that frown upside down. It's harvest time. A time of friendship, family and care. We all know your game. When I was a filly, there was a colt I flirted with, just to annoy my parents. Buck up, take it in stride and laugh. Its supposed to be a fun time.”

Diamond Dawn smiled at her grandmother. “Yes Grandma. I will.”

“Good, now back to sorting and stemming, all of you!” Grandma Cherry Tart said, moving back to her chair.

Shadow continued to sort, but he hesitated to ask a question. He finally worked up the nerve. “Grandma Cherry Tart, obviously Cherry Tart was named after you, but is it a family name?”

“Just call me Grandma deary. And yes, it goes all the way back to before the great war. The old cloud farming families keep records of their offspring and who inherits the Homestead. All of us older families, like yours, could probably map out a good half of the farming ponies and their relations to each other over the years.”

“I checked the records before we came. This is not the first time our two Homesteads have married. Seven times over the 200 years they have married. They did them to strength both Homesteads and their worth in the Enclave. Each marriage was strong and loving despite being arranged. Like friends, a marriage fails when one side wants it to. Otherwise, they can be fought through anything.

“Now that is cool,” Shadow said. “Our father has hinted about keeping family records a few times. But not in that detail.”

They continued to sort and destem the cherries. The conversation was more light hearted, and everypony was enjoying a good time. Lunch came and went and so did dinner. Plenty to eat, and the stallions were making quite a discussion about farming across the district. Shadow was even part of their conversation.

They sent their guest's along their way, each with two cherry pies. The harvest was almost done, so they told them not to return. Their help was extremely appreciated. It was a ways out and things needed to be done at their farms and other harvests closer. The last of the barns had been finished during the day.

It was a wonderful day. More importantly, Cherry Tart was officially a part of the community, and her relationship with Early Blossom was fully accepted, as was their farm. Not understood, but accepted.

Bedtime was earlier than the day before. They wanted to finish with the trees early and then knock out sorting and destemming by the end of the day. After that, most of the cherries would be canned to preserve them for the coming year and the rest turned to jam. Shadow's family looked forward to learning that step in the harvest process. They were the closest family and would do the bulk of helping out Early Blossom and Cherry Tart. Next harvest Cherry Tart's family could be held up on their own farms.

Right before bed, Lance spoke up and with a joy that Shadow had never heard before. “Once the harvest is brought in, we ought to show you just how good Shadow Flare is at acrobatics.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Red said.

“I have heard about them, but never seen them myself,” Cherry Tart added.

“Well then,” Shadow smiled. “I better get to bed. I know you are not going to go easy on me Dad.”

“Nope. I'm going to test your limits every step of the way. You will hate me when I am done.”

The all laughed and began to get ready for bed.

“Its a good thing they have that spare bed for him, and only him,” Diamond Dawn said.

“Diamond, that isn't fare,” Red said. “Shadow was here helping before we arrived.

Grandma Cherry Tart pulled her blankets up tighter so she could sleep warmly. “Besides, the stallion is going to need it once he moves in here after we all leave.”

Everyone was silent and Lance turned his head to look at Shadow, a acquisitive look on his face.

“Really Shadow?” Rain Jubilee asked.

Cherry Tart hesitated. “We have discussed it, before family came. Grandma Tart is a bit ahead of things. Somehow”

“You know I am not!” Grandma Tart exclaimed.

“But it is a strong possibility,” Cherry Tart finished.

Shadow just smiled and shrugged. “I am off to bed. If Dad is going to throw me through an obstacle course tomorrow, I need all the rest I can get. I got my Cutie Mark from the last one he fully set up.”

Shadow ended things by getting up and heading upstairs. Everypony else followed suit.

In the hallway Spice Cake and Shadow crossed paths. “Shadow,” She said quietly stopping him. “I never... You are much better a stallion than you are given credit for. You really can do things. I am sorry I didn't see it sooner.”

Shadow smiled at Spice Cake. “Family. It happens. You are forgiven. You are my sister, how could I not?”

“Well, for one I would terrorize your room at night.”

“Ha, and then I rigged my room so Dad knew when you had made a move.”

“So that is how dad knew!”

“You have not been the nicest over the years, but I learned a lot from you early on. And besides, I have been learning more and more what family means, as well as forgiveness. Now only Lunar is left to make up with.”

“That one would be interesting.”

“I know. Goodnight Spice.”

They went their separate ways to bed.

The soft glow of a single candle was all Shadow had to get into bed.

A soft knock came at his door.

“Come in,” Shadow whispered.

Cherry Tart came, followed by Early Blossom.

“Grandma really has taken a liking to you Shadow,” Cherry Tart stated.

“Grandma also had fun today, didn't she Blossom,” Shadow said. A quick recap of their time sorting was given and all three snickered.

“She seems to have no care about you two,” Shadow said. “The others…”

“Its still foreign to them,” Cherry Tart chuckled. “We may be accepted, by both of our families, and now the community, but the bedroom is still something they won't get. But Grandma may be the most outspoken about supporting us, but she will be the last to ever talk about the bedroom.”

“I still can't believe Grandma is so frank,” Shadow said. “It's one thing to talk about the good old days and compare them to now, but to tell everyone I was moving here, before we had even officially settled on it. Or without us telling anypony... I never knew either our grandparents.”

“That is Grandma Tart,” Cherry Tart said laughing quietly. “Oh, Shadow, I heard your full name mostly all day, from your family as well. Even the others from town refereed to you by your full name.”

“Yeah, I noticed my dad add Flair when he brought up an obstacle course. And I don't think anypony in the surrounding area has ever called me anything but Shadow.”

“That is a nice and good for you Shadow. Its like you are growing up,” Early Blossom said.

“Only three years late,” Shadow stated. Nopony could see the smile on his face, but the smile still held old pain. That would take time to let go. Each change would slowly remove more and more.

“Well, better now then never,” Early Blossom said.

“I agree sis.”

“Now that is a new one,” Early blossom giggled. “I have never even heard you call Dream that. But it sounds right.”

“Well…” Shadow began, unsure what to say. “Sis just feels right. You are only a year older than me, and I am three years older than Dream. Besides, we have our own secret nicknames for each other.”

“Yeah, Spice is two years older than me, and Lunar four. They never have been… anything but older siblings. I did used to go to Spice when I was afraid in the night, but only for a short time. Mean older siblings for most of it sadly.”

“You broke that streak though,” Early Blossom said.

“And it is time for me to break the talking streak tonight,” Shadow said finding that perfect spot in the bed

The door softly closed and Shadow blew out the candle.

Chapter 3 - Canning and Jamming

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Shadow rolled out of the bed. It was early, but later than the two days before. Shadow stepped out of his room to a quiet house. He moved down the hall to Early Blossom's and Cherry Tart's room. He knocked softly on the door.

“Come,” Cherry Tart groaned.

Shadow slipped inside.

“Shadow...” Early Blossom said.

“Its getting late. Sun has been up an hour.”

Early Blossom was the first to sit up. “Well… I guess we need to join it.”

Cherry tart finally sat up. Early Blossom gave her a quick peck on the cheek, in front of Shadow. None of them batted an eye at the gesture.

“Come on, lets get the others up,” Shadow said.

The smell of breakfast being made greeted them as they left the room. That was not there when Shadow had walked down the hall. It turned out it was all of the parents. And they were enjoying their morning, talking quietly about their young ones and not so young ones.

“How long have you been up?” Cherry Tart yawned.

“For a while now,” Lance said.

“We got up on time, the rest of you are late,” Red smiled.

None of the stallions were actually cooking. They were just staying out of the way of their wives and drinking tea.

“Well we are up now,” Early Blossom said as she rubbed her eye.

“I don't feel like waking the others quite yet,” Cherry Tart groaned.

“By lunch the rest of the cherries will be in. With all of us working on sorting and stemming, it will be a relaxing evening before we begin canning and jamming tomorrow,” Red stated.

Shadow, Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were served breakfast. The others had already eaten. Cherry Tart went to wake up everypony else when Grandma Cherry Tart came into the kitchen.

“Those boys are fast asleep still. Stallions rise first,” She said with disapproval. Her mood immediately improved with breakfast in front of her. “Now you were raised right. Up early and making breakfast.”

The upstairs became noisy as the others were getting in the way of each other.

“It is nice to have a large house and hear it filled with ponies and laughter,” Grandma Cherry Tart sighed. “An awfully big house for you two, let alone anypony.”

She was silenced as the others came in to get breakfast.

The harvest was in sooner than expected and lunch was a ways off; so they all relaxed a bit. Lance began setting up the obstacle course for Shadow. He was silently chuckling to himself as he walked away. It was a rather mean obstacle course he had planned. It would test Shadow beyond his limits.

“Dad isn't going to be nice,” Dream Catcher warned

“I know,” Shadow said, obviously a bit worried. “Even when he first started, he pushed my limits. I failed a lot early on.”

“But you haven't failed in a while,” Dream Catcher shot back.

“But dad hasn't fully set up a course for me in a long time,” Shadow bounced back.

“Well, we all are looking forward to it, even if you fail. I know I am,” Red said.

“Back in the good old days,” Grandma Cherry Tart began, “Anypony with talent would put on a show. It was a fun way to finish the harvest before canning and jamming. You will do fine youngin.”

Shadow smiled. Their enthusiasm and support made a huge difference in his outlook.

It didn't take to long before Lance came back. “Ready Shadow?”

“Now or never,” Shadow said, his face set in concentration.

They all went over to the course. Lance had even set up a siting area with perfect view of the course. Shadow's jaw dropped. This was not going to be fun. It would require such precision to navigate the course, and only had three definitive break points.

He thought back to what Sky Breaker had said. “Speed, Power and Agility,” and that “Power is based in form, not strength.”

There were long jumps, vaults, side walls and every platform was short. He would have to always be moving, leaping, rolling and flipping to complete this course. There would be little time to plan anything, he would have to react and only stay one step ahead of himself. There was little to see ahead of him.

“Ready Shadow Flare?” Lanced asked him again.

“Never better than now,” Shadow smiled.

“I want to remind everyone,” Lance announced. “This is a no wings obstacle course.”

Shadow took his spot on the starting cloud. The bottom level was all clouds with only a few small hurdles before the wall came where he would have to vault off to the next level. He took off, gaining speed but conserving his energy. The hurdles were so low his stride was more than enough to clear them without a second thought.

He vaulted off the wall, just barely seeing that the next thing was a duck. He pulled his rear into his chest and pushed off the wall with his forelegs. He slid backwards on his stomach under the obstacle and immediately back flipped over the next hurdle. As he landed he twisted so he could do a front flip over the next hurdle and roll under the next low hang.

Coming out of the roll he had two strides before he had to vault over three hurdles that were over a drop. As he got to the end of the jump, he rolled to set himself up to vault off the wall. He landed the vault on his forelegs in a hoofstand. He took a second to set up for the next step. It was a low hurdle right against a very short ledge.

Shadow gingerly rolled his stomach over the low hurdle. His hind hooves were barely on the hoof wide edge, and a long jump was behind him. The jump also had a ceiling, forcing him to go low and long. A very difficult maneuver. He dung his hind hooves into the side of the edge as he turned to face the jump. With all the power and determination he had in him, Shadow sent himself flying across the jump. He spun sideways in the middle so his rear hooves would connected with the next platform.

He landed the jump and immediately did a back twist so he landed in the same spot, but facing the rest of the level of the course. That was the second rest of the three he would get. It wasn't a difficult ending to the level, just a few narrow clouds across a wide chasm. It just took the right rhythm.

The vault off the next wall was the toughest he had ever faced. He had to jump high enough to grab monkey bars. They were also set up with rungs extremely far apart. He landed, griping the first one with his front hooves. This was the third and final rest, and it was not much of one. Hanging took its toll.

He began to swing back and fourth, using his abs to drive each swing. Form, meant power. From there he let go, almost floating between the bars. His rear hooves caught and curled around the next bar. Shadow let the momentum take him as he continued to swing in the flips across the six bars.

From the last swig he was immediately at the next wall to vault up to the final level of the course. There was no platform to land on, rather he had to land on an angled cloud. The center was a long gap that ran almost all the way to the end. Alternating on either side of the gap were platforms.

Shadow didn't miss a beat as he skipped back and fourth. Each platform had a stepper angle until the last six were perfectly straight. He drove his hind hooves into the sixty degree angled platform under him and he bounded back and fourth along the tops of each of the perpendicular walls. Each time he lost height. The last one he almost didn't make the platform.

His strong abdominal muscles pulled him into a handstand so he could bend over in a bridge spanning the last hurdle before he had to jump over a hurdle higher that he had ever jumped. His legs were aching and he was out of breath. But there was no stopping. He wasn't even thinking, just reacting to the next obstacle.

Like so many other milestones, the last jump felt like the world slowed as he reached for the stars. He slid his forelegs over the hurdle, then bent his head over and brought his hind quarters straight up into a mid air hoofstand. And mid air it was. He had failed to catch the ending of the course. He had to drop the entire height before handling the final two obstacles: A small hurdle and then a small duck to jump a few feet up to the ending platform.

It was entirely possible his father had adjusted the course's end once he started. Shadow adjusted himself in mid fall so his back was to the finish. He was falling fast. He rolled on the landing to dissipate the energy from the fall and slipped right over the hurdle and fell into a sideways roll under last duck. Out of the sideways role he transitioned to jump up to the finish platform. Shadow didn't just jump. He jumped high and lazily did a front flipped to land on all four hooves.

Shadow's heart was beating so fast and loud, he couldn't hear the cheers from the others. His whole body was on fire from the great feats he had just accomplished. There wasn't a moment to stop and think the entire time. Just reaction after reaction.

Of course, he was actually thinking and planning his next move, but it was at such a fast paced, subconscious level it almost wasn't a real thought. Thinking stopped you as you evaluated the next move. What he had just done was so second natured to him. It was something few could do in history. And probably none in the entire Enclave could do.

It was his father who brought him back to reality as he hugged Shadow. “Well done son. Well done. I gave it my all, and there is no way to top what you just did. Purely second nature. You learned well. I am happy I fostered the obstacle courses with you from the beginning.”

“Thanks Dad. I am glad you did too. I can't even believe what I just did,” Shadow smiled back. “I know you changed the end of the course. You had to. I wouldn't have missed that.”

“Good catch, but like I expected, you responded perfectly,” Lance said beaming.

“I hurt, all of me,” Shadow said. Both of them just grinned at each other for a few seconds until the others pulled Shadow away to answer questions and praise him.

“Not even in the good old days did we have anypony as talented as you!” Grandma Cherry Tart said when the noise had quieted down. “And no wings! Just perfect!”

Dream Catcher had been attached to him in an eternal hug as soon as Shadow had gotten off the finish platform. And she was not letting go anytime soon.

Even Lunar softened and said, “I have to admit, you impressed me Shadow. I never knew my little brother had that talent.”

Lunch was served early, and it never had felt as good as it did today. Shadow drank tons of water. He needed it all. His body ached and would for the next few days.

Grandma Cherry Tart mixed up some herbs and spices from the garden to ease Shadow's sore muscles. “There deary. That always helped me after an extra long and hard day's work.”

“Shadow Flare looks stronger, more like a good farming Stallion,” Red stated during lunch.

“Thanks, Father Red,” Shadow smiled.

“Father Red was my Father, just Red,” Red replied.

“His name was actually Father Red,” Yellow chuckled. “No joke.”

Shadow sighed and fell on his back. “I hurt all over. I am not going to be a fast sorter today.”

Everypony laughed.

“Don't worry Shadow,” Cherry Tart said. “Lots of hooves means it gets done faster than you would think.”

Sorting did move faster than Shadow expected. It was relaxing and fun. They talked about all sorts of things. Diamond Dawn was actually fun to talk to, since she was no longer aggressively flirting with Shadow. She was very impressed with his feats today and actually was interested in him, for him. The first filly to be interested in Shadow. Dream Catcher didn't say a word. It was all good in her eyes, for now and only because Diamond Dawn's priorities were straight.

About mid afternoon, Dream Catcher, over at the foal bucket where they were still destemming the cherries, shot a bad cherry at Shadow. He caught it out of the corner of his eye and leaned to the side. His wing was curved and ready. The cherry rolled intact from the top to the bottom where he launched it right back her with a flip of a single feather.

Unfortunately, Dream Catcher was prepared and dodged it. The cherry slammed into the back of the head of Lunar Harvest. She just sat there in shock, cherry juice soaking into her mane and back of her neck, with her mouth opened slightly. It was Buck who began to laugh first.

“It's NOT funny Buck!” She yelled.

“Actually it is,” He laughed back. “You didn't see all that happened behind you before it came flying at your head.”

“Relax Lunar,” Spice Cake said.

It was Spice Cake, Buck, Lunar Harvest and Rift at the bucket sorting. “It was an accident.”

A cherry slammed into Buck and Spice Cake's head.

“Darn it Shadow!” Dream Catcher said, cherry dripping down her face. “No fair. You can fire off multiple cherries with your agile wings.”

“Ha!” Shadow gloated. “Sorry Spice and Buck. Had to make sure she got hit. Dream can dodge.”

Buck began to laugh as he wiped the cherry from his face. “I saw.” He said. “I guess I better begin my own stash of bad cherries.”

“I'm actually surprised that its been this calm,” Cherry Tart said. “Sorting Cherries...” She never finished. Red had hit her square in the face.

“Been waiting all day to do that,” Red grinned. “Nothing better to do with bad cherries than strategically pelt each other with them. Its usually basket against basket.”

“Ah, now I get who you guys are sitting like you are,” Shadow said. “Your bucket has tactical advantage over everypony else's.”

“Just don't get out of hand and make me get up and break it up!” Grandma Cherry Tart said.

They all laughed heartedly. It was a fun relaxing afternoon of sorting, stemming and strategically flinging. No one was spared by the end of the day, and everything was ready for the next day.

They all had to quickly shower to clean up. The married couples doubled up to conserve water. Shadow had taken the brunt of the assaults. He was the best at dodging and returning fire, so they made sure he was hit as many times as possible.

Dinner was the most relaxed it had been. Shadow really began to see Cherry Tart as a sister, like Early Blossom. He would really enjoy living here. It would mean hard work taking care of the new farm. He had never shied away from hard labor. That was life on a farm. No matter who you were and what you could do, you worked hard. It was finding your place that was not always easy.

At bed time, Shadow met them at their room, before Early Blossom and Cherry Tart came in. When they closed the door, Shadow spoke up. “If I don't join up, I would enjoy living here. And if I do, then I will enjoy my time here.”

“Yeah, you will be a great edition to the farm, no matter how long you are here,” Early Blossom said.

“After that show today, I think the Enclave would be much better off having you than us,” Cherry Tart smiled in the candlelight.

“Thanks you two.”

They split for bed before a day of canning.

“Shadow,” Cherry Tart called as Shadow entered the kitchen. “I heard you pop and crack inside your room as I walked by. Are you okay?”

Shadow turned his head side to side, the cracking was extremely loud. It accentuated everything perfectly.

“Yeah. I just need to loosen up a bit.”

Shadow sat down with the others to eat.

“This is the first year we will have cherries in the Market,” Lance said. “The Market will be in seven weeks, if you want to join us all.”

“Wish we could, but our Market is the same time,” Red said.

“Makes sense,” Lance replied.

“I can't wait for the Market,” Rain Jubilee said. “Rumor has it that several apple farms are coming to El Nino to trade. Apples in the pantry is an amazing treat!”

Market day was also a day to get supplies and sell their pantry food to the city folks, who also wanted to diversify their food supplies. Enclave redistribution system ensured that nopony went hungry by evenly distributing the food ponies would need to survive, but plenty did what they could to bring in fresh choices.

“I wonder how much the other farming districts are taxed?” Red said. “Sixty percent leaves more than enough for us, but I always wonder.”

“I never thought about it,” Lance said. “Turnips are not the most popular around here. Its mostly the travelers who come to buy less farmed items, like turnips.”

“Next year, we should exchange stocks. Turnips would sell fast.”

“It would flood your daughter's cherry monopoly, and water down her prices,” Lance stated. “Obviously a bad idea. However, I think bringing turnips to your Market is a profitable idea. You said there are a lot of carrot farmers near you. We could use fresher carrots.”

“Much better idea,” Red nodded.

“Alright! Everypony assemble!” Grandma Cherry Tart ordered.

The canning and jamming processes was her specialty. She led it as if they were soldiers in her army attacking the enemy cherry forces. And she was having fun.

“For the newcomers,” She started. “All the cherries have to be washed, pitted and then dried outside. Wings will be used for drying. We will rotate out dryers. Then we will take three quarters of the cherries, of each color, and can them to preserve them. The last quarter we will mash up and make jam. You know, with plenty left over fresh because nothing beats fresh cherries. We brought plenty of supplies to can and jam, and Cherry Tart and Early Blossom have a remarkable stock already.”

“Taxation is split. Fifty percent of the cans will go to taxation, ten percent of the jams will go to taxation. Jam is more valuable than Cherries. You have to work the system. Jam takes three times the cherries than what goes in the cans. The Enclave only counts total number of cans. We get to select what we give them, so long as it totals sixty percent, ish.”

With that, they began to work. It was a lot more work than the day before. Shadow made an excellent dryer. He had the wing endurance and blew the widest pattern, far beyond the others.

Grandma Cherry Tart, Cherry Tart, and Yellow selected what cherries were to be jammed. Jam was only as good as the worst cherry in it. They taught Rain Jubilee and Golden Harvest the ropes as well. Of course, they chose the best of the lot for the cans they were keeping. The less desirable cherries went to be taxed. Less desirable was relative with such a high quality harvest.

They had a unique and quiet system to distinguish what was taxed and what was saved. The jars were sealed with red wax for the tax, and black for the cans they were keeping. They also put a wax stamp on the jars to identify the farm it came from. Cherry Tart's family had brought a special sealed for the new farm. It was the Homestead's seal, but slightly different to show it came from their western farm.

“Jams look good to the Enclave,” Yellow said. “They are smart enough recognize their value. It makes it easier to put the taxation in our favor. It means they do not have to have ponies work to make cherry jam for their shelves. Cherry Tart knows how to work the system. They are otherwise dumb when it comes to cherries.”

“We do something similar with the turnips,” Rain Jubilee said. “There are no differences, except size. We tag them in groups of fives, and five to a sack. The smaller ones to the tax, we keep the larger ones, with just enough large ones spread out so nopony questions anything.”

“I think all farms do what they can to work the tax in their favor,” Rift said as he was on break from drying. “We do the same on our farm. We leave a little of the chafe on our wheat that we give to the tax. It gets weighed in our favor.”

“My family bags the parsnips like the turnips,” Buck said. “I agree with Rift. All farms do what they can to survive better and keep the best food in their Pantries. But none of us would hurt the Pegasus Race by keeping food from them.” With that, Buck switched places with Shadow.

Grandma Cherry Tart had to force Shadow out of rotation because he was just trucking without realizing it. And at a better pace than the others could keep up.

“You worked too hard yesterday, and your bones sound like mine! Time to quit before it gets worse and you look like me at your age! Although I do look remarkably well for my age.”

The others were all outside drying the last of the cherries when Grandma Cherry Tart spoke up to Yellow, Rain Jubilee, Golden Harvest and Cherry Tart.

“That Shadow, he has grown up a lot these few days. I reckon also the last few weeks. He looks weak, but he is stronger than any stallion I have known. He reminds me of my father. Small, hard working and stubborn. When he set his mind to something, it was set in stone. No matter how long it took. They don't make em like Shadow there often. He is going to make a big difference in the world.”

“I know my son is special,” Rain Jubilee sighed. “But Lance and I have no idea what or where he should go. He doesn't belong at the farm, even with Cherry and Blossom.”

“He will find his way Rain,” Yellow assured her.

“Agreed. Shadow is like a brother to me,” Cherry Tart added. “But he is going to go places other than the farm. As much as Blossom and I would love him to be here.”

“You always need a stallion at a farm,” Grandma Cherry Tart bluntly stated.

“Grandma!” Cherry Tart had rosy cheeks.

“Oh hush,” Grandma Cherry Tart waved her off. “You made your choice. So long as you two stick together, that is all that matters to me. Same as your parents. Heck, I said the same thing to both of your brothers at the alter. Before they said their vows and tied the knot.”

“You two have tied the knot right?” Yellow questioned.

“Yes mom,” Cherry Tart groaned. “We did, in El Nino.”

“You know,” Rain Jubilee ventured. “Early Blossom has always been elusive to how you two met. I gave up trying to get it out of her.”

“Well, there is not much to tell. I had left the farm, at everypony’s approval, with the best cherry pits and headed west. Just trying to find somepony to settle down with. Or at least start a farm on my own. Early Blossom just happened to be in the right place and right time to show me to El Nino. I was close to your farm, so obviously, way off my mark.”

“I remember that night she didn't come home,” Rain Jubilee replied. “She zipped in said she was going to show a traveler to town. When she got back later the next day, all she said was she got them to El Nino, and they paid for her dinner and room for the night.”

“Well, I paid for her dinner. As for the room, she stayed with me. We had already hit it off on the way to El Nino and at dinner.”

“And then a few days later we had to send somepony to El Nino for a supplies run,” Rain Jubilee said connecting the dots.

“We knew somepony was coming back and was going to be spending the night. One thing led to another and we decided to start a farm out on the outskirts together. Your farm is crowded as it is. It all happened really fast. But those few days apart were not lacking in that special spark for both of us.”

“That is really fast,” Yellow agreed.

They were all hearing this for the first time.

“We actually got married after she got the supplies for you. Shopping first. Then I began to get the farm in order while she went home,” Cherry Tart explained. “It took a few days for paperwork and then the building team was a whole other ordeal. I was only at the farm a little over a week before she came. The barn was built by the surrounding families, who welcomed me as a new farmer. Before Early Blossom came and then they had no idea what to do.”

“So mom, you finally got a straight answer,” Early Blossom said coming in. “Well?”

Rain Jubilee took a second to answer. “It was fast and sudden for everypony, but you two look to be doing fine together. And I think Grandma Cherry Tart is right. So long as you stick together, you have our approval. Same approval as we have for Buck, and probably Rift here. He asked Lance a few days back. We are just waiting for him to ask Spice.”

The conversation immediately switched to Rift proposing to Spice. Especially details about the ceremony. Things were done quite differently between families.

“Shadow! Take a break!” Grandma Cherry Tart suddenly yelled out. Shadow transitioned out with Lance. “That stallion. I don't know a single mare who deserves him. Whoever he will find, it will be a very special mare.”

The canning and jamming was done, but Cherry Tart's family was not leaving until the morning. Everypony else decided to spend the night as well. It was a rare chance to have the families together and they decided it was not just for the best, but the most fun. A tough harvest always meant they deserved some fun.

They were all lounging in the family room, chatting back and forth.

“Shadow,” Buck called. “You really out did us all today drying. No hoof for farming, but you are way more useful than you look and the community gives you credit for.”

Shadow smiled sheepishly. “Thanks Buck. That means a lot.”

“Head up, chest out,” Cherry Tart ordered. “I told you to buck up and be more confident. You look bigger and make a more handsome stallion that way too.”

The room erupted in agreement. “We may not have always recognized it as best as we should have,” Lance admitted. “But you really have a special place in our family and on the farm. The community is missing out on how helpful you can be.”

Red followed up. “Make sure the community adds Flare to your name. You deserve to take your name back, and reserve Shadow for only those close to you.”

“Well, in that case,” Shadow began, “I definitely want all of you to call me Shadow. Family gets that right.”

Lex, Lighting Storm and Dream Catcher was asleep on the floor. Diamond Dawn was almost asleep and leaning her head on his shoulder. Shadow had no problem with her leaning against him, he had sat next to her.

“Now Red,” Grandma Cherry Tart as she began to reiterate some of her earlier talk with the mares.

Shadow drifted off to sleep, his head on Diamond Dawn's, for a while. The candles were low when they finally went to bed. Most single ponies had fallen asleep.

“Oh, sorry,” Diamond Dawn blushed when they were woken up.

“Ha, my head was on your's Diamond Dawn,” Shadow yawned. “No worries.”

“Just call me Diamond,” Diamond Dawn yawned back.

“Thanks Diamond,” Shadow murmured.

They all headed their respective ways to bed.

“Tart, I can't believe my mom got you to tell her how we happened,” Early Blossom sniffed.

“Bad time,” Shadow said from right behind them. “Now I need to know.”

Early Blossom put her head in her hooves out of frustration.

“I'm sorry,” Cherry Tart whispered. “Grandma started it all. Talking about Shadow, and then about commitment, and then I was backed into a corner by all of them.”

Cherry Tart grabbed Shadow and pulled him into their room before continuing.

“I kept it short and without much detail,” Cherry Tart grinned. “But I think Shadow deserves to know it all, don't you Early?”

Early Blossom also smiled and nodded her head. “Definitely. After all, he calls you Tart, and he knows you call me Early. He gets all the special details.”

“Not what I was going for,” Shadow gulped. “Besides, I thought the idea was to not terrorize siblings.”

“This isn't terrorizing you, yet.” Cherry Tart asserted. “We could really terrorize you if we wanted to.”

“Yeah,” Blossom teased. “We could start having fun.”

Shadow plopped onto their bed on his back. “Lets get this started.”

They blew the candles out and began. At the end, all Shadow had to say was, “Wow.”

“When you know, you know,” Early Blossom giggled.

“Its not like we were looking for each other. It just, happens sometimes,” Cherry Tart said. “Grandma always told me that. She never told anypony else that. She also said that its a commitment. Approval is made by the commitment. If that fails, it all falls to disapproval, every moment. Nothing is spared.”

“I think you fell asleep Shadow,” Early Blossom yawned. “But I know she said it tonight about you.”

“She did in the kitchen,” Cherry Tart confirmed. “Its how this all got started.”

“And this is how I get started to going to sleep,” Shadow said quietly leaving their room.

In the morning, while all of them were getting ready to leave, Grandma Cheery Tart pulled Shadow aside. They stepped out of the house away from all the noise. “You are a special stallion Shadow Flare.”

She faced him and put her old front hooves on Shadow's shoulders. “I know you have heard me say it a few times, but listen to your heart. You will know her when you meet her. She will be a mare you don't have to work to understand, and one who feels exactly like you. I bet neither of you will have dated anypony else. I have seen it few times over my life. You are more special than every other pony I have met.”

“When you meet, it will move fast. Approval is earned by commitment. Commit and hold and the approval will come. Never let that commitment leave your mind. And make sure it never leaves her mind. You are going to do well. You are going to make a huge difference in the world. I have no idea what, but your type doesn't come alone often. Whoever you will find, she will be a very special mare.”

“Thank you Grandma,” Shadow hugged her. “And you can rest assured it will be a mare.”

“I always share the approval and commitment talk to all new couples, but I don't tell just anypony about finding the one, mind you. Only those who are above the norm, like Cherry Tart. She proved that early on and it is why she was the one we sent out to found this farm.”

They joined the others finish getting everything together.

“Thank you all, for coming and helping with our first harvest!” Cherry Tart said bringing out a round of applause. “I know you all have farms to get back to. Some are definitely closer than others, but either way, thank you for your sacrifice. And safe travels, from our farm, to yours.”

Goodbyes were said on all sides. Family was discovered these past few days. And lasting relationships were made.

“Before everyone heads their way,” Rift spoke up. “We combined two families, around Early Blossom and Cherry Tart's farm. Well, I want to make that even more.” He turned to Spice Cake, “Spice Cake, would you give me the honor of marrying me?”

“YES!” Spice Cake exclaimed, throwing herself at him

“Now you two,” Grandma Cherry Tart said beginning her lesson about approval and commitment. It was only after Grandma Cherry Tart had finished and asked them both a lot of questions that she nodded her head and they were all off.

Shadow turn to his sister. “Blossom, Tart, I am going to head home and gather my things. I will be back soon to help you two straighten up.”

“Alright Shadow,” Early Blossom replied. “See you soon.”

As Shadow was leaving his family, his mother kissed him on the cheek and his father wished him well. Dream Catcher was hugging him the entire time.

“I will miss you. But go live your life, like you should be,” Dream Catcher sniffed.

Shadow kissed Dream Catcher goodbye. Lunar Harvest said goodbye, an unexpected surprise, and Buck wished him well also. Spice was off at Rift's home, breaking the news to his parents.

“We all are going out separate ways,” Shadow stated. He was unsure as to what else to say.

“Its good and natural,” Lance encouraged. “But we are still family.”

“And that is why I will be back for the Harvest in four weeks.”

By the time Shadow got back to Cherry Tart and Early Blossom, they had everything in order and were just lounging in the family room. Dinner was the left over tarts from lunch.

“Wow, it seems so empty,” Shadow marveled.

They agreed with Shadow.

Early Blossom kissed Cherry Tart on the cheek. “Has to be worse for you Tart. I have Shadow and my family close by.”

“Early, I walked away from my family. In a good way. I left to take our legacy to a new place. Besides, they are not all gone. Grandma gave me a copy of the Homestead book to leave with this farm.”

“Wow,” Early Blossom blinked. “That is special.”

“Well,” Cherry Tart hesitated, “Technically this is a Homestead, not a farm. When I acquired this place, my seeds and the copy of my heritage made it classified as a Homestead. We have four times as much land as the other farms. I have not had time to show most of it to you.”

“Awesome,” Shadow piped up. “I don't know of a Homestead being established anywhere in this district since the great war. And that is what Grandma Tart meant by you being special.”

“I am shocked,” Early Blossom stammered. “Why didn't you tell me before?”

“Well, I decided to wait until after the first harvest, because it was already a daunting task getting this all started with what we had. Four times bigger? You and I can't sustain that yet. Our trees are only a year old. They grew fast and yielded well, but its stretching it right now.”

“And it's okay to grow into the land. I didn't know how the community would be about it. Tomorrow I will show both of you the land. I need to survey it all again and make sure the tree markers are growing strong.”

“So,” Shadow suggested. “Outcast Homestead, not Outcast Farm.”

They all laughed. Shadow enjoyed the different feeling. It was nice to be away from his parents. Living with his sister wasn't weird. It was a piece of home. Besides, it would probably not be long before he headed out. It was a lot to take in and he had not had the time over the past week to process all the changes.

“Not tomorrow since we will be surveying, but the next day, I will head into El Nino to talk to Sky Breaker,” Shadow declared. “Need anything?”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Early Blossom affirmed.

“Thanks Shadow, but I think we are good,” Cherry Tart thought. “Besides, Market is only a few more weeks away.”

“Well then, I am heading to bed,” Shadow yawned.

“You know you are set up close to our room,” Cherry Tart insinuated, a mischievous look on her face.

“And you don't know how loud she can get,” Early Blossom joined in, the same look on her face.

Shadow rolled his eyes. “And you are called Early by Tart for a reason. I know.”

They smiled and Shadow went off to bed.

Early Blossom laid her head onto Cherry Tart's head. “I like the house with somepony else in it.”

“I know Early. It is nice. Shadow is wonderful and fun.”

“I am going to miss him.”

“Yeah. There is no way he won't be accepted by the Enclave.”

“He is the piece that was missing from this house since we started here. He will always have a place here.”

“Absolutely. Always.”

“Now lets go to bed. I am too tired to do anything but sleep.”

“You are not the only one. I can’t believe I am not cracking and popping like Shadow.”

Chapter 4 - Options

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Shadow finally touched hooves in El Nino. He left at dawn and it was almost mid day. It was a long flight and would be a long day. He had no idea how much time the talk with Sky Breaker would be. He had enough bits for lunch, dinner and a stay at the local hostel, but he didn't want to use it. He may not be meant for the farms, but he was a farming pony. Bits were rare and used sparingly.

Shadow also had no idea where the recruiting office was. He had only been in town for Market days. He looked for the closest shop and entered it. It was a boutique.

“Hello Dear!” A friendly voice called. A mare stepped out from behind a rack of dresses. “Welcome to Rarity's Gems. How can I help you.”

“Sorry to bother you,” Shadow said.

“Oh, but it is no bother at all. I am always happy to help anypony. I think I have the perfect dress for you for the upcoming ball.”

“Ball?” Shadow asked, ignoring her mistaking him for a mare.

The mare took a second look at Shadow. “Oh, you must be from out of town. How silly of me. What can I do for you.”

“Yes, I am from the farms Ma'am. Took me all morning to get here,” Shadow said.

“My my, you must be tired.”

Shadow shrugged. “Not really. But I am hoping you can direct me to the Enclave Recruiting office.”

“Have you been here for Market before?”

“Several times,” Shadow nodded.

“Good. It is on the corner of Main street and 1st Street West. Mark sure you go to the West, not 1st Street East. The park where the Market happens is the dividing line for this block style city.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said.

“Oh it is no bother,” She smiled. “Just remember 'Rarity's Gems' if you ever are looking for that special gown.”

“I certainly will,” Shadow said smiling.

It was not hard to find the recruiting office with the directions given. He knew enough of the city to easily make it to the Market place. And from there, it was east to spot the Enclave Recruiting Office. Flags were waving, the entire corner of the building was painted with their colors and symbols.

Shadow stepped into the cozy office. It had three desks, but only one was being used. Sky Breaker was sitting at it, with a young colt across from him filling out paperwork.

Sky Breaker stopped what he was doing and looked up. “Hey Shadow! I was wondering when you would finally be able to slip into town.”

“Had to pull in a parsnip harvest basically alone, and then my sister, Early Blossom, cherry harvest right after that.”

“I heard about them.” Sky Breaker replied.

He had to stop talking and go back to work with the colt. Shadow took a seat while they finished up. The paperwork was finished up rather quickly.

“Alright Flash, I will send this off. Either way I will personally deliver their response. It will come in a sealed envelope. I won't know their decision and only you can receive it from me. It will take about two weeks.”

Flash left and Shadow walked over to Sky Breaker.

“Glad to see you Shadow,” Sky Breaker said smiling. “It's time for my lunch break, come on, my treat.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said following Sky Breaker out. Sky Breaker locked the door. The sign on the door listed the hours. 9am-12pm & 1pm-6pm, M-F. Unless otherwise posted.

“Plenty of time to yourself,” Shadow marveled.

“Definitely. And if we had another recruiter, we would have somepony here everyday.”

They walked the streets. Sky Breaker obviously knew where he was going, Shadow followed him, lagging a bit behind.

“It is all so foreign,” Shadow said.

Sky Breaker laughed. “I know. Market doesn't prepare you for actually being in the city, and El Nino is really small. No buildings over three stories tall. Wait until you see a real city like Los Pegasus. Farming to Enclave is a huge transition.”

“I figured,” Shadow replied.

They stopped at a deli and sat down outside. It was a nice day. It didn't take long before the server came over. “Hey Sky Breaker,” She chirped. It was a sweet voice. “Who is with you today?”

“Crepuscule, meet Shadow Flare. He is an old friend, from before I joined the Enclave.”

“Hello,” Shadow smiled. “Nice to meet you.”

“You as well,” Crepuscule smiled back.

“I am assuming its the usual for you Sky?”

“Of course. But wait to put it in until Shadow orders.”

“Alright, I will be back shortly. Just water for you Shadow, or something else?”

“Water please. It was a long flight in.”

In the end, Shadow chose the Shaved Melody. A bunch of vegetables and fruits shaved up and put into a sandwich. It was the same as Sky Breaker.

“You come here often?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah, at least twice a week,” Sky Breaker said. He took a sip of water before continuing. “Crepuscule is something isn't she?”

“Sky Breaking, are you saying what I think you are saying?” Shadow whispered as he leaned in.

“Nothing official, but I just happened to have the definitive game changer handed to me last night. And just call me Sky.”

“Well, I hope it goes well for you,” Shadow grinned.

“You will get to see shortly,” Sky said beaming. “But let's get back to business. When I saw you the other day. You looked like some of our Aerial Combat Units. Some were stationed at my base and I would watch them practice.

I know Scout and Recon teams are rumored to be around and in their numbers. Recon with your size and agility would be a natural fit. However, we are talking highly competitive slots, but I think you have what it take to not only get one, but be top ten percent. I assume you are as good with your wings as you are without them?”

“I can fly for hours,” Shadow answered. “It isn't as easy to be acrobatic in the air. Ground, you have stops, walls and can turn faster. I have amazing abs. They are the strongest muscles on me. But I can sustain myself well enough in the air.”

“Well, you will probably have no problem with ground combat. In fact you probably will excel in it after the years of farming.”

“Besides, I don't know when to stop once I put my mind to something.”

“Good. I actually already have your papers all filled out, except for your signatures. That is how much confidence I have in you. I have a decent reputation in the Enclave. Nopegasus wants to head here because its kind of a dead spot to recruit from. So I am known for the risky move this early in my career. My name backing you will get you in for sure. From there, it really is all up to you.”

“What about leadership, or mechanical?”

“Honestly, I doubt you would make it as a mechanic. Most mechanics go to a school as the grow up that teach them the cutting edge techniques. Our farm equipment is very different and very basic. But leadership… you are small but as long as you can back yourself, they will respect you. How far that will go I can not say. We have little charm out here compared to the big city pegasi. Respect is better than charm.”

“I rigged my room so my sister spice would stop terrorizing me at night. Set off an alarm in my parent's bedroom.”

“Now that is something the recon teams would find great use for. Or I assume.”

Shadow thought for a second. “What is the difference between them all?”

“Quite a bit. You get picked. You don't actually chose one over the other. Lets start at the beginning. Basic Training. Everypegasus goes. It is 16 weeks long, you learn all you need to. Then it is to specialized school. Most head to Combat School. A more in depth and specialized school for soldiering, weapons qualifications and policing. Soldiers, Light Troopers and Law Enforcement go there. Law Enforcement continue on to another school after.”

“Aerial Combat School is for aerial units that focus all their training on tactics from the air. The Aerial Combat Battalion. They do dogfighting, strafing, bombing and other close air support roles for soldiers. It is kept very quiet and limited spots. That school isn’t done often, only when they need to increase their numbers. Mostly because of retirements. The Wonderbolts fall into the ACBs..”

“Technical School is for mechanics, engineers and scientist. Field Medics go to a separate training and work with Enclave Doctors and hospitals if they are not in the field. Officer School is another training that can be done if you prove you can be trusted with command.”

“Scout and Recon have existed. Rumors say they were not disbanded as the official record says. I do not know of an actual school either went to. The may very well send you to Aerial Combat School to start.”

“The difference between them though, I hear that Recon actually lands on the ground and work within the designated area, whatever the specific job is. Scouts don't touch down. They fly high and pay attention over a larger area, or play aerial support for recon when necessary. But that’s rumor, not fact.”

“When they were official a few years ago, recon was hard to make, but very few want it. Both are hard jobs and not desired by many, despite the prestige. Recon is more prestigious and significantly more dangerous.”

“We have lost quite a few recon teams shortly before I joined, and there were not many to start. That is why they were officially disbanded. Unless the rumors are true.”

“We never hear about that,” Shadow said puzzled.

“Of course not. The Enclave keeps it quiet. Besides, most of them are from the cities. Us farming pegasi don't join. The cities have schools that parents send their fillies and colts to that train them for Enclave roles.”

“And they afford that how?”

“The cities are driven more in commerce and luxury. I use luxury loosely because us farming pegasi live very simple, quiet lives. I miss being on the farm. The bits our families keep, those precious bits, they would be laughed at. A Hundred bits is not that much. An Enclave officer makes four thousand bits a year. I am only a sergeant so I do not make anywhere near that, but I don't pay for food or boarding as a recruiter. I have a budget for that and my boarding is above the office.”

Crepuscule came with their food. “Here you two go,” she said sweetly.

“Crepuscule, fell free to decline answering,” Sky Breaker hesitated. “But how much do you make a year?”

“Oh, a bit over two thousand bits a year. Just enough to get by and live quietly.”

Shadow shook his head. “I have never seen more than two hundred bits. On a good Market day, my family will make upwards of that. That covers all the expenses for the year. Bags and ties are the normal expenses. But if a cart breaks, or other farming equipment, it can be disastrous financially.”

“That is why I convinced them to increase the sign on bonus for the farming pegasi in this district. It used to be two hundred bits, I got it raised to eight hundred. Just for this district sadly.”

Shadow sat there in shock.

Sky Breaker continued, “It is just for the farmers. Losing a set of hooves impacts the whole community. The money typically goes to family farm anyway.”

“I have no idea what to do with that many bits, other than give it to my family,” Shadow stuttered.

“Isn't your farm a Homestead?” Sky Breaker asked.

“Yes, why?” Shadow answered.

“There is a Homestead bonus. I could not get it raised, but its an automatic one thousand bits. You are giving up great linage for service. It is not treated lightly. That linage is a huge duty to the Enclave and Pegasus Race.”

“You leaving, it was pride, but a big loss,” Shadow admitted. “Bits can really never come close to compensating for the loss of a set of hooves to the community.”

Sky Breaker laughed. “I know. In a few days I am heading out to my parents to help them bring in their harvest. Family first.”

“Family first,” Shadow confirmed.

Crepuscule came back to th table. “It's ten till one Sky.”

“Thank you Crepuscule.” He gave her the bits owed and left her a tip.

“Before you go,” Sky Breaker spoke up. “Crepuscule, I have been given tickets to the upcoming ball. Would you be my date?”

Crepuscule smiled, “I would love that.” She blushed. “But what do you mean 'given tickets'? They are always bought.”

“The Mayor came by and handed them to me. I am their guest of honor and they want me to speak at the ball.”

“Wow,” Crepuscule sputtered.

“I know,” Sky Breaker said. “I was shocked too. But coming from right here, El Nino being my closest city, they find it an honor. I was able to get tickets for my family as well, so we won't exactly be alone.”

“That is more than fine,” She blushed. “Besides, I want to meet them. You have already meet mine.”

Sky Breaker laughed. “Well they own this place. It wasn't hard to meet them.”

“I will have to get a special dress for the night,” Crepuscule noted. “But you need to get back to the office. You will be late.”

“Rarity's Gems pointed me to the recruiting office when I got to town,” Shadow pitched. “I may not be from here, but it looks like a wonderful place for that special dress. Even though I was mistaken for a mare.”

Sky laughed along with Shadow.

“It is a marvelous boutique,” Crepuscule stated, unsure what else to say from the sales pitch.

“Alright Shadow, I may be the only recruiter, and in a small area with nopegasus coming to join up, but I do need to get back to my post,” Sky Breaker stood up.

Shadow followed suit. “It was wonderful to meet you Crepuscule.”

“The same to you Shadow Flare,” She smiled back.

Back at the office they sat at Sky Breaker's desk. Shadow was nervous. A different nervous than what he experience before an obstacle course, or anything else before. This was a big choice. On one hoof, the community was beginning to find a place for his unique talents, but he still didn't fit in and was not sure he wanted to spend his whole life farming.

“Now, you won't get any sign up bonus until you are excepted. And of course there is no actual guarantee you will be accepted. And I have to hoof deliver the sealed envelope with their choice personally to you, and your hooves alone. I will not know if you are accepted or not.”

“What about harvest?” Shadow asked.

“In this season, recruits do not go to training until three weeks after Market day.”

“What are the other seasons?”

“Just winter and summer. Summer happens a few weeks after all the planting is done. They did model things to fit in with the farms. Unless they open up more training times.”

“Okay,” Shadow nodded.

“I had that same nervous look that you have. The pit in your stomach at making such a huge transition in your life. You are only signing on for five years. Many stay on longer, but it is only five years. They do want your loyalty in ways you wont find out here. Out here we are the exception, they are the rule.”

Shadow took a deep breath in. “Let's do this. It has to be better than my current situation. I am going no where back home. This has to be what I was meant to do.”

“I think it is a wise choice,” Sky Breaker affirmed. “And I say that as an older stallion to a younger one. As a friend and as your hero. I do not say that as a recruiter.”

“Thanks Sky,” Shadow said shaking a bit from the nerves.

Sky Breaker stepped him through all the paperwork, took his picture and prepared it all to go out through their computer system.

“It is getting late,” Sky Breaker said. “I have plenty of room upstairs if you want to spend the night. Two unused flats actually.”

“Thank you Sky,” Shadow said. “But I think the fly back will be good for me. Help me clear my head and process all you said.”

“Have a safe flight,” Sky Breaker said, bidding him farewell.

Shadow stepped out of the recruiting office and breathed deeply. He had just made a big change in his life. And he knew there was no way of understanding all that he was getting into. It was all to foreign to him.

It was very late when he got back to Early Blossom and Cherry Tart's Homestead. There was no candles on when he got there. He slipped into house quietly and went to his room. As he got to his room he stopped. There was plenty of low noises coming from his sister's room at the end of the hall. They were obviously having fun. It probably had been over two weeks since they had been intimate with each other because of the harvests.

Shadow just quietly closed his door and laid down in bed. He was asleep almost instantly. They couldn't be heard from his room. The walls made a huge difference. This was a well build cloud house.

Some days it felt like dawn came too early, and on the days you needed more sleep, you woke up too early. Shadow was up first, so he began to make breakfast. He didn't hear the girls come down.

“Shadow,” Cherry Tart yawned. “You must have gotten back late. Why didn't you spend the night?”

“I needed the flight back to clear my head,” Shadow explained. “Besides, it wasn't that late. You two were still up.”

Both Early Blossom and Cherry Tart blushed.

Shadow smiled. “Relax you two. I live here now. That doesn't mean you should stop or hide it. Or be ashamed of it. And once you are in the bedrooms, nothing can be heard. Only in the hall.”

They both smiled back at Shadow.

“So, did you join up?” Early Blossom asked.

“I put in my application,” Shadow stated. “I wont know for a few weeks if I get accepted. Besides, the next training doesn't start until three weeks after Market.”

“Then you can work all the harvests,” Cherry Tart said happily.

“Yep,” Shadow beamed. “But harvest talks can come later. What needs doing around here?”

“Just the dishes now,” Early Blossom said. “It is really relaxed. Not much upkeep. The major issue is harvest.”

“After Market Day, I will step Early through surveying the land. The full deal. And there should be a meeting tonight,” Cherry Tart added. “That should give us a place to help in the harvest.”

“Not much left to harvest out this far,” Shadow said. “Good intentions do not change the fact that we are just so far away.

“I know,” Cherry Tart admitted. “At least it will show that we want to help. That will make things easier for next year.”

“So what did you two do yesterday if there is nothing to do?” Shadow asked.

“Had lots of sex,” Early Blossom blurted.

“Everywhere but your bed,” Cherry Tart teased.

It probably was more true than actually teasing.

“I was going to inspect the cherry pits in a bit and pick out the best ones,” Cherry Tart informed Shadow. “And teach Early more about farming cherries. Especially tree care. Come with us.”

“We could prepare the clouds to double our crop...” Early Blossom began. “… But we don't think its wise yet. Not until he have more hooves to help.”

“Any plans for that?” Shadow asked.

“Adoption?” Early Blossom said unsure. “But for starters we don't have anypony to adopt.”

“We explored that option over the summer,” Cherry Tart began. “But there really are not many orphans in the Enclave. If something does happen, family and friends immediately step in and take care of them. It is just not an opportunity.”

“We could get a donor. Either randomly or chosen by us, to cover the other half. It is an option. Expensive and we would have to go to a Las Pegasus, but an option. One I am partial to except the price which will run thousands of bits to even start.”

“And we doubt anypony would join us as farm hooves except under dire circumstances. Too many other good farms available, and who has money to pay for help?” Early Blossom added.

“Which is why you are always welcome,” Cherry Tart smiled.

“Yeah, life without you here… well you complete this house,” Early Blossom blushed.

“Thanks you two,” Shadow said. “Minimum sign up time is five years. I know I am not really built for farming, but I will end up back here someday and relax, doing the good, hard labor that is in my blood.”

“You said relax and hard labor in the same sentence,” Cherry Tart giggled. “The sign of a real farming pony. No matter how old or what size.”

Chapter 5 - Obligations

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Sky Breaker touched down on the road and approached the house. Lance came around the side. He had seen Sky Breaker descend to land. It was mid afternoon.

“What brings you here?” Lance asked Sky Breaker as he walked up to him.

“Shadow Flare,” Sky Breaker said flatly. “Is he here?”

Sky Breaker was dressed in his uniform. It had been cleaned and pressed the night before so he could look his sharpest.

“No, he is with his sister, at the Homestead up the way.”

“Homestead?” Sky Breaker said confused. “You are the only Homestead in the area.”

“Yes. Our own Early Blossom married Cherry Tart,” Lance explained. “The two of them started a Homestead. Apparently, when Cherry Tart acquired the land, her family heritage and the seeds given to her automatically made it a Homestead.”

“Two filly foolers starting a Homestead?”

“Well, the community is still getting used to it, but yes,” Lance said. “Now you said you were here for Shadow Flare?”

“Yes, but its for his hooves only,” Sky Breaker replied.

“I see. He applied, didn't he?”

“I can not confirm or deny that sir,” Sky Breaker curtly said. “Even if he is your son.”

Lance nodded in understanding. “He is three hours out along the road. It is where the road ends. I am sure it slipped his mind to notify you of the change in his home address.”

“The edge farms are always where the road ends,” Sky Breaker laughed. “And his change in address is nothing new out here. Ponies marry and move between the land. It is only natural. The lack of structure out here makes it difficult for the Enclave to grasp.”

“Except for the taxes,” Lance chuckled.

“I have nothing to do with those. But yes, for the good of the Enclave, we can at least keep the number of farms counted, so that the grand Pegasus Race continues on in its glory.”

“I can send Dream Catcher to fetch him and send him to you in El Nino,” Lance offered.

“No, I think I will head on,” Sky Breaker said, looking off in the direction to the Homestead. “I want to see this for myself. Besides, my training in the Enclave wasn't easy. I am not about to get soft at a desk job. It's late, but I will still be able to make the round trip journey.”

“I know they will put you up for the night. They have plenty of room. Cherry Tart went a bit over the top,” Lance said. “Or you could spend the night here.”

“No,” Sky Breaker said distracted. “I need the workout. And besides, I will be taking enough time off to help my family with the harvest. Thank you sir.”

With that, Sky Breaker took off towards his new destination.

Cherry Tart, Early Blossom and Shadow Flare were making dinner when the knock came on the door. It was late for somepony to be making a social visit. Cherry Tart headed off to get the door.

“Is Shadow Flare here?”

“You must be Sky Breaker,” Cherry Tart said.

She turned to call Shadow. “Shadow, Sky Breaker is here, he needs you. And he is in full dress uniform. Don't make him wait. Blossom take over for Shadow.”

“I am too busy Tart. We both have our hooves full here.”

Cherry Tart sighed. “Come on in. Sounds like teaching Shadow to cook has backfired tonight.”

Sky Breaker nodded and stepped into the house and Cherry Tart trotted back to the kitchen.

“Shadow, you… Blossom stop, let Shadow...” Sky Breaker could hear her trying to fix things in what sounded like a vein attempt at taking control.

After a few minutes, a very messy Shadow came around the corner to where Sky Breaker was standing.

“Sorry,” Shadow said cleaning his hooves. “And I guess I forgot to tell you about the change in address. You went to my family's house first didn't you.”

“No worries,” Sky Breaker said. “Besides, you know as well as I do that address do not exist out here. Anyway, here is your response.” Sky Breaker lifted his wing up and grabbed the envelope from out of the mail sling he was wearing.

Shadow took and opened the envelope. It was hoof written, with lots of big words, but it was an acceptance letter.

Shadow reread it and said the final assignment out loud. “Accepted for basic training and evaluation of skills required for recon duty.”

“Congratulations. You are now a member of the Enclave, the protectors of the Pegasus Race.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said slowly.

“One of the papers in the back will be the bank note for your signing bonus. The local bank in El Nino will be able to cash it.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said again. It was all he knew what to say.

“Don't worry about it. Also, in there will be report orders, as well as a list of approved items to be taken to training, though I doubt you have little, if any of them. I certainly didn't. You can pick up the duffel bag on market day.”

Shadow glanced at the specific orders. “Report to the El Nino office at 7am, where Cherry Town recruits will be waiting. From there we go to Mountain Ridge to join recruits and spend the night. After that it is on to the Enclave training camp, Fort Wind.”

Shadow stood there rereading it. It was a lot of flying. He looked at Sky Breaker. “I am going to be way out of my league.”

“In ways you will be, but you have a tougher hide than the city pegasus I met in training, even those in the military schools. It's the farming blood in you. You will do fine. Especially once training begins. Just put all your focus to that. I know the flight to Fort Wind is going to be all new and difficult.”

“You will pick your “sergeant” who leads things from here. I doubt there will be anypony from Cherry Town. I have heard nothing from them. Right now there are only two recruits coming from El Nino. In the past ten years, this district has only seen three pegasi join the Enclave, including you, that pegasus Flash you saw, and me.”

Shadow smiled at Sky Breaker. “Your commanding officers must be happy. You basically doubled the recruits prior to your assignment as recruiter in El Nino.”

Sky Breaker leaned in to whisper. “Shadow, this district is almost completely ignored by the Enclave. Except for the tax. There are only two soldiers in the district. Me and whoever is at Cherry Town. If there even is a recruiter there. Not even Enclave Law Enforcement is here.”

“The recruiter I took over for was an old pegasus, who had spent his life in the Enclave. A highly respected pegasus, but they needed new blood to move up, so they transferred him to El Nino. When I put in my application, I had to go up to his flat on the second floor and knock on the door. He didn't even have office hours.”

“The rumor is that I am the only recruiter in the district. I was offered this job because they thought I could get better results. They wont get them until there is a stronger Enclave presence. And the Enclave has more important things to do than be present here right now. They only care about the food.”

“Mind you, I will begin campaigning in the surrounding areas, and soon I will be officially checking in with the Cherry Town Office. I was sent here with high hopes, and the more I am here, the more I learn that there is no hope. I sent myself to my doom here. I only began to unravel how bad it is because of official communications that were sent to me. Yes, I look good, this year. But it is probably going to be the only good year.”

“You know I am right here and can here you,” Cherry Tart chimed in, surprising both of them. “And you are right. The recruitment office in Cherry Town in closed. I came from near there. Reported our taxes to Cherry Town. The recruitment office was well known for its tattered flags and its sign posted directing everypony to El Nino. Only problem is, we don't have decent maps. That is how Blossom and I met when I completely missed El Nino.”

“So then, It is as bad as I feared,” Sky Breaker said, downtrodden.

“Probably not. But you should make your presence known in the summer there. That is when you can get recruits, or at least peak interest. It is a bit overcrowded there compared to the rest of the district. Which is why I came West.”

“Thank you for you help,” Sky Breaker said nodding his head in thanks. “I must be off now.”

“Nonsense!” Cherry Tart exclaimed. “Screw tomorrow's office hours. Nopony is going to go there anyway. You are eating dinner with us, sleeping here, and then going on your way tomorrow morning. AFTER breakfast.”

Shadow was already heading to the dinning room. “Come on Sky, there is no point in arguing with her. Tart does not take no lightly, especially when it comes to hospitality.”

Sky Breaker stood there, Shadow walking off. He saw Early Blossom poke her head out of the kitchen to take a look.

Cherry Tart was staring him down, waiting for him to give up and come on in. He caved and followed her to the dinning room. He was on an official Enclave business trip after all, so lodging might be needed.

They talked over dinner. Cherry Tart gave Sky Breaker a much needed picture of the other half of the district. The half he wasn't officially responsible for. It was nice having Sky Breaker over.

“I can already state as this is an official business trip. But I will also put spending the night here in my official report. Part of information gathering from the outer reaches of the district and surrounding farms, as well as to verify the new farms for taxation purposes,” Sky Breaker announced. “I have to make some report on my journey. Might as well do it right.”

“Perhaps I should set up a recruiting booth at the Market in Cherry Town?”

“That would be a wonderful idea,” Cherry Tart said. “It would be the talk of the Market. I am sure you could figure out a way to work both recruiting offices.”

“This just became a lot more than I was ever led on to believe,” Sky Breaker sighed.

“Which was probably what they wanted,” Cherry Tart cooed. “You got more than you bargained for, but you also are a farming pony who won't back down.”

Sky Breaker slammed his hoof on the table. “Damn It! You are right. I will figure this out. And I will make sure that when the proper time comes, the Enclave knows all the hard work I have been doing and either sends reinforcements or removes me from my position.”

“Good!” Early Blossom said. “Now, lets all go to bed. Sky Breaker has an early morning and a long flight back to El Nino.”


“Alright everypony,” Lance began. “Thank you for all coming out to pull in this year's harvest. This year we will do something a little different. This year we will not be putting the turnips into carts. This year we will bag. Once the bag is full, leave it where it is. We will have a runner or two bringing the bags in.”

Everypony began to talk back and fourth about the change.

“You have a lot of turnips to harvest,” Maple Tree said confused. “So we just leave them in the field, to be picked up later?”

Shadow walked over to his father, a specially built carrier on his back with saddlebags as well. It had plenty of room for his wings to be used and maneuver.

“Try and keep me busy,” Shadow smiled.

Everypony just stood there. Unsure as to what to say. Shadow hadn't helped at all since the cherry harvest. They were too far out to be useful. But the community had heard about him and his feats. Now was the time to prove it.

“He is serious,” Lance stated. “Just bag and move on. Shadow will keep up.”

Shadow hadn't told anypony that he had joined the Enclave yet. The only ponies who knew were Cherry Tart and Early Blossom and there was no way to avoid keeping that secret from them.

“Besides. It will be good endurance training for me before I head off to training.”

Lance look at Shadow. “Training?”

“I am officially a recruit of the Enclave,” Shadow declared. “I will be bucking for a hard earned place as a recon team member. If not that, scout. I should have no problem with either. I fit their entrance qualifications to a T.”

It was a half lie. He fit their entrance qualifications for basic training to T, but the recon was still well past unknown.

“Well then,” Lance said still shocked. “I wish you the best of luck on your pursuit to protect the community. Although we will be talking about this is detail as soon as the harvest is in.”

Shadow nodded in understanding.

“Shadow,” Black said stepping forward. “You will be a great asset to the Enclave. The community will miss you.” Other Stallions and Mares stepped forward giving their approval.

“Now, lets not dwell on it any longer,” Shadow said putting his hoof down and standing proud. “We have harvest to bring in!”

Even with the best farmers working their hardest to bring in the harvest, Shadow wasn't having a problem keeping up with them. They certainly were impressed with his speed and endurance. The entire harvest moved faster without them having to haul their carts and go back to drop the turnips off.

Back at the house, they were unbagging the turnips, cleaning them and tying them off for the tax.

“Well isn't that something,” Maple Tree said to Lance. “Shadow, after all this time, is going to be in the Enclave. And apparently he is exactly what they need.”

“I don't doubt he is what they need,” Lance agreed. “I do wish he had informed me sooner.”

“I am surprised you didn't know.”

“Well, there was one hint,” Lance replied. “Sky Breaker stopped by last week with something for Shadow. And he had to hoof deliver it Shadow. He couldn't officially say anything.”

“Well, he certainly has proven his worth today, and this harvest,” Maple Tree marveled.

“That he has,” Lance confirmed. “I only wish, for his sake, that we had figured it out a few years back.”

“It's not your fault,” Shadow said stunning both of them.

“Shadow!” Lance jumped.

“Sky Breaker was the one who figured out my Cutie Mark in a way that made more sense than farming could make of it,” Shadow began to explain. “I got it on an obstacle course you made me after all. Each lighting bolt stands for something just like each sword they cross and each arrow head they are on do. The three fundamental of work and life. ‘Speed, Agility and Power.’ With that, you can go anywhere.”

“I just do not understand why you kept it a secret?” Lance asked.

“Because if I did not get accepted, it would only be another strike against me. Something that would not be forgotten in the community, even though it would not be one of ill will or low repute. It was better to keep it quiet until everything was official.”

“When do you leave?” Maple Tree asked.

“Three weeks after Market. The training is typically centered around the farming schedule too keep the farms working better.”

“Well, you should be quite proud of yourself Shadow,” Maple Leaf stated. “The community would love to hear from you as soon as you get the chance. We never got much word from Sky Breaker sadly.”

“Of course,” Shadow said grabbing the bag and then continuing on.

The night was spent discussing all the details with his family. Shadow had brought his orders and the official acceptance letter. He kept the signing bonus secret, for now. The family was understanding. Less so for Cherry Tart and Early Blossom knowing Shadow's plans and not informing them.

“It was not our place to speak about Shadow's future,” Early Blossom explained. “Yes, he confided in us. Yes, we knew he went to talk to Sky Breaker and we knew he applied. But it was his place to speak up about it. He spoke truth today. If he had not been accepted, how would he be viewed?”

“Well then,” Lance decided. “When we are in town for Market, we will need to get a family photo taken, so you will always be with us, and us with you. And you will also take a small bag of turnip seeds, so the farm is always with you.”

“I agree,” Cherry Tart added. “You have and are living with us, and always accepted as a member of our house. Some cherry pits will also be sent with you.”

“Thank you, all of you,” Shadow said warmly. “Those are not on the 'do not bring' list and will be carried always.

“I will truly miss you,” Dream Cather said. She hadn't stopped hugging him since they had finished for the evening. “I know it is right for you to go, but I love you and will always love you. Nothing you could do will ever change that. ”

“Thanks Catcher,” Shadow said openly using her nickname for the first time. “You will always be in my heart. I love you more than I can express.” He hugged her back.

Shadow, Early Blossom and Cherry Tart spent the night. There was sorting and cleaning work to be done in the morning, but the harvest was in. The community was always there to help bring in the last harvest. It didn't even take a full day to bring all of the turnips. A big feat since they were a Homestead.


Market day was always fun, except this year. This year would be their last as a whole family, at least for a while. They got to town a day early to get the family pictures taken. They took one of the nuclear family, another with Cherry Tart, Rift and Buck. Dream Catcher had her photo taken alone with Shadow and Cherry Tart and Early Blossom also took a picture together with Shadow. The pictures would be ready the next day. Shadow would have copies of all of them.

Shadow didn't know how many bits they cost. He also had no idea how many bits his father had. It suddenly seemed like the farm had a lot more bits than anypony was ever led on to believe. Lance was probably the only one who knew the exact amount, maybe Buck since the farm would be his.

Shadow also stepped away later that day. He had some business to take care of. First he cashed his signing bonus. Then he went to Rarity's Gems. Her name wasn't actually Rarity. It was a name from prewar which had stuck around. Her name was Opal Waters, and her Cutie Mark was that of a sewing needle and thread.

“Hello Shadow,” Opal Waters said coming out of the back. “I have your orders all ready. I must say, I am quite proud of them since they were such simple orders.”

Shadow followed her over to one of the racks, filled with his order. The first noticeable ones were the three aprons. One for Cherry Tart, one for Early Blossom and one for his mother. Their names were embroidered on the front and flanked by their Cutie Marks and they would match their coats perfectly.

The next thing was three heavy, black, waterproof coats. One for his father, one for Buck and one for Lunar. The clasp in the front was their Cutie Mark. Alongside the clasp was each pony's name embroidered in white. The next two coats were the same, except brown. One for Rift and one for Spice Cake. Other than the color, they were made like the others, embroidering and all.

The final item was a saddle bag. Made of tough cotton weave, it was embossed with a white Cross and every stitch was red. The brass clasps that held the flaps in place were crosses as well. At the bottom of each side of the saddle bag was Dream Catcher, expertly embroidered into the material. The bag had an inner lining to keep the contents waterproof, while the outside could look as stunning as it was.

“These are just perfect!” Shadow exclaimed. Two days after he was accepted, he flew the long flight to El Nino to make his order. He had traced out all of their Cutie Marks and matched their coat and mane colors as best as he could. He was not much of an artist, but it did its job.

“What is my final total,” Shadow asked.

“Five hundred and thirty four bits,” Opal Waters replied. “16 bits less than I estimated. But the quality is outstanding. Although they may not look like much, I actually photographed them for my albums. They may not be gowns, dresses and suits, but they turned out to be more than simple garments.”

“They will mean a lot to my family as well,” Shadow said as he counted the bits. “It was well worth the time and price of coming here to make a special order than just going to a normal shop.”

“Function meets fashion,” Opal Water said flamboyantly. “And that is the title of that section of the album. You wont find a better made item in El Nino, if not the entire Enclave. I also embroidered my name and shop discreetly on the inside of everypony's gift. It is standard on all of my goods.”

Even though I am the only boutique in the city, It is good marketing. For one can never forget it's origins. I am proud of my work and everypony does deserve to know where they can get fine, yet affordable, fashion.”

“You certainly do your job well,” Shadow praised her. “Too bad you do not live in a larger city.”

“Oh, El Nino suits me just fine. I actually send pieces out to other boutiques in the larger cities. Some of them love to feature small, exotic pieces from other parts of the Enclave. It is the bulk of my business actually and it sustains the real passion and pieces I can hoof design here for special orders. Besides, someponies have come from other other side of the Enclave just to order from me because of those shops.”

“Your orders were inspiring,” Opal Water sighed contently. “I was afraid they might be a bit dull, but they came out so well I have already begun to manufacture a Homestead Line, to target at the farming ponies outside of El Nino. After all, they deserve quality items that are as hard working as they are. Cost effective too.”

“I would love to see them,” Shadow said intrigued. Opal Waters showed him the cloaks she had begun to make in several sizes. Each one was expertly crafted and of extremely durable, waterproof fabric. Better than the normal cloaks the farms wore on the tough days. And well worth the extra expense. She also had an apron half made.

“You might want to close down shop tomorrow and get a booth to show off your new line to the farmers,” Shadow Flare suggested.

“Wonderful idea Shadow Flare,” Opal Waters said. “I will go get a booth. Your farming brethren should know there are now other options available.”

“They certainly do need to know. And be prepared to barter with food. Bits are rare,” Shadow said.

“Oh I usually close down shop in the morning to get shopping done at Market. I know the drill,” Opal Waters said.

“I should get back to them,” Shadow stated. “The family is probably wondering where I wondered off to.”

“I wish I could see their faces, but your presents are special and should be done in privet.”

“Thank you again Opal Waters.”

Shadow left the boutique and put his hood up. His coat also hid his saddlebags and how full they were. It was nearing the end of fall and the wind was really picking up, making the already cool weather colder. Soon the winds would be dancing with snow and ice. The northern mountain's icy teeth were closing in fast.

“There you are Shadow,” Rain Jubilee declared. “We turned around and you were missing.”

“Sorry, I wandered off to meet an acquaintance.”

“Well, it is almost dinner time. Your father and Buck headed out to find a good place to eat. That fits in the budget.”

“I am not sure we really have a budget,” Shadow replied. “We are not staying in a hostel, in fact we have six very nice rooms. We couldn't even talk him down to five rooms. We are perfectly fine doubling up. And the pictures had to have cost a pretty bit as as well.”

“I know,” Rain Jubilee said. She gathered her strength. “Your father knows what he is doing. This is a special year. We won't see you for another five years, at least, and I know he wants to make it special before the Market tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is definitely a business day and not one we can really enjoy. Besides, getting here a day early got us the best booths. Cherry and Blossom are right on the main corner, and we are right next to them. Rift's family will be besides us as well. We will not be short hoofed, even with Spice primarily helping Rift's family.”

“Well then,” Cherry Tart added. “We are all set then.”

Cherry Tart and Early Blossom had taken a stroll through the city that had brought them together. They had missed the booth buying and Shadow had seen them arrive right just before he did.

Lance and Buck came trotting up a little bit later. “We found a nice place up the ways. Good food, good prices. We got them to set up some tables for us all.”

Shadow was surprised when he saw what place they were going to. It was the only restaurant around. It was the same one Sky Breaker had taken Shadow. They had sat outside, so Shadow didn't catch how nice the inside was. The deli was a lot more fancy then he realized and it was really only a deli at lunch. The place was above than he expected his father to want to pay for.

Crepuscule trotted over to their table, which was set up in the private party room. There already was water at each spot as well.

“Well hello Shadow,” Crepuscule said. “I didn't know you were in town. That must have been how Lance found us.”

“Actually,” Shadow smiled. “I wasn't around when they left to find a place to eat dinner. And I had not told them about Sky Breaker taking me here. I also didn't know it was so nice inside.”

“I know, the tables outside are much more relaxing, and our lunch menu is very different than our dinner menu,” Crepuscule chirped.

“How was the ball? It was the other evening right?” Shadow asked.

“Oh it was wonderful. And the treatment they gave Sky and I was amazing. I had never been to the ball before, and it was certainly a real honor. He spoke about reaching out, and being the only Enclave recruiter in the district. He promised to do much more for the community than had ever been done before. He is actually in Cherry Town for their Market. He set up a booth there to bring the Enclave presence back to Cherry Town.”

“That sounds wonderful. Him being away will be tough wont it?” Shadow asked.

“Oh I will manage,” She said nonchalantly. “Besides, he wants to get much more serious in our relationship. Which can only mean good things.”

“Well I wish you two happiness and joy to come,” Shadow said toasting her with his water glass.

“Thank you. Now, for the rest of you, my name is Crepuscule. I will be taking care of you this fine evening. We have other drink choices as well if you desire to see that menu and I shall be back in a bit to take your orders.”

“Lance,” Rain Jubilee said concerned, “I know you have the finances in control, and want this to be special, but this is getting to be a bit over the top, don't you think?”

“We have lived sparingly on our farm since the beginning,” Lance began. “But over the years it has paid off. Not only have we been able to help others in need in our community, but we have saved a lot more than you would think. And not just in the farm.”

Lance got situated a bit more before continuing. “There is a sizable amount in the bank here. The founder of our Homestead came from a well off family. Most of his family died in the attack on Cloudsdale. He and his brother became the beneficiary of a sizable enterprise based in Las Pegasus. I do not know which one or if it is still around. That was stricken from the family's main records.”

“His older brother was in Las Pegasus at the time, learning to manage a business. He decided to stay a farmer. He gave his share of the business to his brother for a percentage of the profits each year. Together they made sure that our farm would always be financially stable. I am barely touching the funds we have.”

“We threw Lunar and Buck a nicer than normal, but still appropriate wedding. Spice Cake's wedding will be the same and so will Dream Catcher's. Shadow too if he gets married around here. But I don't want this farm to lose its ideology that has stood for two hundred years. Honesty, hard work and living within your means.”

“And actually, we have more than enough bits from the farm to cover all of this. I still will go to the bank replenish what we had at the farm, but that is besides the point. Our farm alone has saved a lot of bits because of these ideals.”

“This is a special day. One of the last days we will get to spend as a whole family in a long time. Things will change. Change is good in many ways. But I want to make sure that we have a very special time together. One we can remember for years to come and all of you can tell your grand fillies and colts about, except the secret stash of bits of course.”

Everypony was shocked, except Buck who already knew.

“Thank you dad,” Shadow gasped. “It means a lot to me. But we should turn our focus to dinner.”

“And no holding back. Order what you want,” Lance insisted.

Everypony made their selections for food, and Lance ordered a round of mead for everypony, including young Dream Catcher. Alcohol was rare on the farms. Only at weddings was any brought out, and that was usually a glass per pony for the toast. Some farms did make their own meads or wine. But fruit was rare and honey had better uses.

In the lull after everypony had finished eating, Shadow decided that was never a more appropriate time to give out his gifts. Although, the shock of their actual financial situation made him second guess the importance and the cost he had actually spent.

It took him picturing his family working on other farms to bring a harvest or planting, in their embroidered coats, that were made special, for them, by their son, out of the bonus he was given, to remember that these gifts were outside the means of the family, despite how much they actually had.

His family truly lived like the others in the community. As honest, hard working cloud farmers. They lived off the land and what little bits they made. They were just like the others, even if they actually had a lot more than anypony realized.

“Everypony,” Shadow said. His heart began to beat faster as everypony's attention focused on him. “As part of joining the Enclave, I was given a signing bonus. Dad is right. It is a special time. And for that reason, I had special gifts designed for you all, to keep me close to you while I am away.”

Shadow moved his cloak off his saddlebags. He pulled out his father's coat first. “Father, you have done everything you could for me. If it was not for you instruction and training when I was barely able to walk, I would not be where I am today.” Shadow handed the coat over to his father. “A specially designed coat that is waterproof and will keep you warm. The clasp is your Cutie Mark and your name is embroidered beside it.”

Shadow's father might have a lot more money than they realized, but he really did believe in living within your means. And the tears in his eyes at the special gift were more than words could say.

“Buck. You are as strong as my father, hard working and a great pegasus. The farm is yours, and you are out with my father everyday, no matter what the weather. I am proud to call you my brother. To you, I also give a waterproof coat. Like my father's it has your Cutie Mark as your clasp and your name embroidered alongside it.”

Shadow had never seen Buck shed a tear. But he accepted the gift with great reverence and with a tear sliding down his cheek. “Shadow, this is a perfect gift. You could not have chosen better for me.”

“Lunar, we may not have seen eye to eye over the years, but you are still my sister. And like my Father and Buck, you work for the farm and it's legacy. I give you the same cloak as your husband and our Father. Like their's, it is a hard working and durable as you are.”

Lunar Harvest was stunned. “I really have not been a good sister to you over the years. I certainly do not deserve this.”

“I chose it because you do. You are my sister. Family is what matters. In your heart you know that.”

Lunar had nothing more to say but tears. Both of sorrow for the past and the touching and perfect gift.

“Spice, you are leaving us to start you life with Rift. You will have to work hard to keep their farm going, and already you have made such a a wonderful impact on their lives. Same coats as theirs, except in brown. Personalized with your name and your Cutie Mark clasp like all the others.”

“Wow, Shadow,” Spice Cake sputtered. “It is, amazing and thoughtful gift. One that will be well used and is already well loved. I just ripped my field cloak, and the material of this, it is going to withstand even the toughest of conditions for years to come. Heirloom quality.” Like the others, her eyes were watery.

Shadow didn't know what else to do but continue.

“Rift, I chose for you the same as Spice Cake's. As their designer, Opal Waters put it ' Function meets fashion.' She actually is creating an affordable and functional farm ware line that can withstand the pressure of all of our hard work. Of course, they are not as nice as your cloaks, and they will be definitely lacking the special embroidering and Cutie Mark clasps that were specially designed for your cloaks.”

“Shadow, you have just welcomed me into this family in a way that, that, is indescribable. I have not had much to do with you, but you are looking out for the greater good of the family, including those of us who have just joined. 'Function meets fashion' is truly what you have given us. This cloak will certainly not wear out for years, if it ever does. It is absolutely amazing. It is certainly above what my farm can afford, as well as most farms. It will shine out among the community as a special gift and the love you have for us, and the community as well.”

“Thank you Rift,” Shadow said. “It was exactly what I wanted to treat all of you too. Something special and functional. Something that would fit in the community, but stand out as well.

“Mother, what can a son say to his Mother? You gave me everything you could. You loved me in a way no pony could. You have sustained this farm from the beginning. You have worked the fields, but now you leave that to your foals, so you can keep all of our belly's full and the house together. I have for you a specially made apron. It has your name embroidered on the front, flanked by your Cutie Mark. It is strong like you and will not be easily worn out.”

“A mother could not ask for a better son,” Rain Jubilee said chocking back tears. “And this design is colorful, fun and perfect.”

“Early Blossom and Cherry Bloom. You two have been absolutely amazing to me. You offered me a chance beyond everything. And you supported me as well. You even taught me cook. You two spend most of your time in the kitchen and I am convinced it is you favorite room in your house.”

Both of them blushed. Shadow pulled out their aprons. “Like the one made for my mother, this is a stronger apron than most aprons and I know they will be well loved and used.”

“You need to get one yourself,” Early Blossom said making them all laugh. “And even more frilly than ours.”

“When I come back,” Shadow chuckled.

“Even if you bring your special somepony. Promise me that my brother.”

“Of course I promise you Blossom,” Shadow smiled. “I will make my word good.”

Shadow breathed in deeply and let the air out to compose himself.

“Catcher,” he began. “You know I love you more than I can express. You are kind, just, and will make an impact on this world. Your passion is caring for anypony who needs it. And so I got you something that will only help you do that more.”

Shadow picked up the saddlebags and handed them to her. “Waterproofed, durable saddlebags. The details on it is exquisite. You should never need another one. It is embroidered with your name, accented with your coat color, and embossed with your Cutie Mark.”

Shadow couldn't say anything else. Dream Catcher was hugging him to tight.

Lance ordered another round of mead for everypony, except for Dream Catcher who was only half done with hers and who had enough for a filly her age.

“Shadow, I don't know where to begin,” Lance said. “You epitomized exactly what the Homestead is about. Living within your means and giving it your all. You have made an amazing choice joining the Enclave. It will be a wonderful thing and I know you will be the best you can be.”

“I have watched you grow up and become a very special pony. And now you will take that to all of Equestria. Your gifts are, well I have no words to explain how you thought of more than yourself with the bonus.”

“These obviously cost a good bit. But cost didn't matter, what mattered to you was getting the best you could for your family. The best that they needed. Never forget that. Never forget where you came from. Never forget who your family is. Never forget the life lessons your Mother and I have taught you. And never forget the lessons you have learned about yourself up until this time. The Enclave is tough. They have their ideals. But remember your ideals and your identity.”

“Thanks Dad,” Shadow smiled.

Lance came over to Shadow and hugged him. They left the restaurant when it was near closing. The stallions each had a few more drinks. And they all had desert added on as well. It was an extremely special night for all.

Chapter 6 - Breaking Point

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Shadow and Flash landed and stood in one of the two lines. They had their orders out and ready, with their gear bags on their backs. The only things Shadow had brought was a mini version of his heritage to the Homestead, the cherry pits, turnip seeds and the photos. His gear bag was marked with his name and district origin, but he left “City” blank.

As to the rest of the signing bonus, Shadow had left four hundred of it with Cherry Tart and Early Blossom. They would have more need of it than his parents. He kept 200 on hoof in case he needed it.

The other half Shadow had given to Spice Cake and Rift as an early wedding present. It was only a week early. She really appreciated it, and her eyes said it all. Six hundred bits being brought into the farm meant that Rift's farm would be a lot better off and able to get better and much needed equipment immediately.

But all that was in the past. Still a part of him, but past. Shadow stepped up to the sergeant.

“Are you the acting sergeant?” The sergeant asked. 'Terror Space' was the name on his uniform.

“Yes Sir. Shadow Flare reporting with everypony from Northern Farming District, all two of us,” Shadow responded.

“Excuse me?” The sergeant asked.

Shadow was puzzled but repeated himself.

“You think that is funny?” The sergeant said, stepping closer to Shadow in order to intimate him. Shadow had know far bigger and more intimidating pegasus back home, and armed with his new confidence, he didn't move or flinch. Shadow decided to drop the ending.

“Shadow Flare reporting with everypony from Northern Farming District.”

The sergeant was now was up in his face. Despite being smaller, Shadow let him bump his chest, but didn't budge and inch. “You realize your words are treason?”

“No Sir,” Shadow replied confused. “Shadow Flare reporting with everypony from Northern Farming District”

“Back down Sergeant Terror Space,” A new voice said, with command almost as strong as Black.

“General Red River,” The sergeant said backing down.

“Report in recruit,” The General said.

Shadow repeated it all again. “Shadow Flare reporting with everypony from Northern Farming District, all two of us.”

“Two of you from Northern Farming District. Interesting. Last time we had somepegasus from there, lets see...”

“Four years ago Sir. Sky Breaker. He now is the only recruiter in our entire districted,” Shadow stated. “It is the largest district sir and very spread out.”

“I take it you know him?” The General asked.

“Yes Sir. He lived about thirty minutes from us. Our community was impressed to have somepony go to join the Enclave.”

The sergeant spoke up, “Sir, are you going to ignore the blatant treason?”

“Relax sergeant,” Then General said. He turning back to Shadow. “What city are you from?”

“No city is my home. I work the cloud fields.”

“What city were you recruited at?”

“El Nino sir.”

“Where do you live based on that?”

“Depends on if I am staying at my sister's farm or my parents. Enclave flight time is marked six hours flight north to my parents. My sister's farm just brought in its first harvest. It takes me another three hours flight to their house, but I do not know if the Enclave have a marked flight time for them yet. They are registered and were surprisingly able to get a good enough cherry harvest in to be taxed. I have been at my sister's farm long enough now to call it my new home, though home will never be anything but my parent's Homestead.”

“You grew up in a Homestead?” The General asked.

“Yes Sir. The Turnip Homestead.”

“You grow the best damn turnips I have ever tasted!” The General exclaimed elated.

“That isn't news,” Shadow responded puzzled. “But how do you know about our turnips?”

“Recruit, your turnips are so sought after by the upper class, that the distribution system has to draw lots for them. The upper class has a lot of social gatherings...”

Shadow cut off the General. “Just because they are the best does not mean they should be withheld for only certain ponies. I just know that over everypony else who grows turnips, ours are the best by a long shot. All of the others come from our seeds, but none of them grown are bad, assuming they were grown and harvested correctly.”

The General laughed deeply. “Last weekend was my first taste of your turnips. It was put on by the main contractor for the Enclave armor. I was invited this year. It was a creamy leek and turnip soup.”

Shadow just shook his head in disgust. “Turnips with their greens is the best way to get the full flavor out of them. Covering up the flavor in a leek soup, blech.”

“Well, this pegasus personally went all the way to El Nino to buy your turnips.”

“OH,” Shadow stammered. “He was the first and only customer of the day. He bought every turnip we were selling. And a large amount of cherries from my sister.”

“That must have been where he got the cherries for the desert tarts. They were exceptionally good.”

“They better be good, Sir. We worked ourselves to the bone to bring in their first harvest, and they are a Homestead, an extension of the Northern Cherry Family Homesteads. Sir.”

“A new Homestead in Northern Farming District. Impressive,” The General marveled.

“Sir, treason?” The sergeant softly said.

“Sergeant, you are about to learn an interesting and valuable lesson,” The General stated. “Shadow Flare, what are the laws of the Enclave?”

“Do not steal. Do not go beneath the clouds. Be Honest. Work Hard. Family First, but consider the Community. The community is family, only larger. Extramarital sex is forbidden. Premarital Sex is forbidden. If spending the night at your special somepony's house, the rule is always to sleep in a separate place, and never to have premarital sex.

“Most of those are not even laws!” The sergeant protested.

The General called to the other Sergeant on his other side. “Sergeant, did I hear right that she is from Apple district?”

“Yes sir.”

“Recruit, come here,” The General ordered.

“Recruit Cardinal Spitfire, of the Spitfire Legacy sir,” She reported.

She was the same size and build as Shadow. Small for a grown mare. Her red coat and yellow mane certainly accentuated the name 'Spitfire.'

“You look like a strong mare, stronger than Shadow Flare here. What did you do?

“I was raised on an apple farm sir, despite my heritage.”

“Shadow Flare, repeat your introduction, and Cardinal Spitfire, tell Shadow Flare what is wrong.”

“Yes Sir. Shadow Flare reporting with everypony from Northern Farming District, all two of us,” Shadow restated.

“Everypony implies greater than the Enclave exists, and the acknowledgement and belief in that is punishable by death by Banishment. The proper form is everypegasus,” Cardinal Spitfire reported.

“Shadow Flare,” The General began. “I will give you lenience on this matter. The Enclave does everything it can to leave the foundation of our great existence alone. We collect the tax, maybe recruit the odd pegasus or two.”

“But we only really care about you not going beneath that clouds. That would destroy the entire Enclave. The foundation of your community is set, so we do not want to disrupt it. Your community laws are yours to keep. Of those we only care that you don't steal and don't go beneath the clouds. And I am sure you have no problem with violent crimes in your area.”

“Sir, you should redirect aid to Recruiter Sky Breaker with those orders. Currently he is attempting to be reachable to the entire district,” Shadow reported. “Results will be slow, but obtainable if the effort is put in. Like farming.

“Noted recruit and I will follow through with it,” The General said thinking. It took him a moment before continuing. “Shadow Flare, what is your education?”

“Well, we had school at the community meeting house. We learned basic math, history, biology, weather, flora and a few others. What we needed to make it. Most of our training came from hooves on teaching, on the family farm.”

“I am not built like they are, I mostly kept farm equipment functioning. I did rig my room so my sister would stop terrorizing me. It set off an alarm in my parent's bedroom. But really, no formal schooling like I have heard about in the cities.”

The General nodded. “Cardinal Spitfire, what was your education?”

“All grades according to Enclave specifications. Top ten in my class, ranked third Sir. And over the summer I received some military training,” She answered.

“Both of you are farmers,” the General stated. “One is formal, the other practical. That is all I care about.” The General turned back to the sergeant. “Sergeant Terror Space, break both of them. Farm pegasus against farm pegasus. One side of the Enclave against the others.”

“My pleasure,” Sergeant Terror Space stated. He had a crooked smile on his face that said he would enjoy his power over him.

Shadow took a strong step into the sergeant. The sergeant pulled back and flipped his wings out.

Shadow chuckled back. “Weak. Cowardly.”

“Excuse me?” The sergeant said angrily.

“You first reaction is to move to the sky. To run,” Shadow began. “And I have lived with ponies with more command and strength than you.” Shadow took another step forward. The sergeant reared back slightly more. “I might be the weakest in my community, but I certainly do not fear you.”

“That is why we break you in,” The sergeant snarled. “One big Enclave family.”

Shadow almost fell over laughing. The General was still looking on, amused at the breakdown of command and order as well as the Sergeant's failures. Cardinal Spitfire had and angry look on her face for being pulled into what Shadow had accidentally started.

“The Enclave can never be family,” Shadow said as he finished laughing. He turned serious, with an edge to his voice. “The Enclave is a structure. It can bring comrades, friends, but it can never, not ever, be family or community. The Enclave serves the Pegasus Race and protects them. That is their duty. But it is not family or community.”

The General turned to the sergeant. “This pegasus has a point. He knows what he is getting into. Partially. Break both of them in and make sure they become comrades in arms. For the pegasus behind Shadow, let him be with the normal group, but I want you personally to pay attention and push both Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire.”

“Sir,” Cardinal Spitfire asked, getting desperate. “Why am I pulled into this? Sir.”

“Because I said so. Farm upbringing against farm upbringing. Everypony against everypegasus.” The General smiled. Cardinal Spitfire was shocked beyond words. And extremely angry at Shadow. “Cardinal Spitfire, what are you inductions orders?”

“To be inspected for skills regarding Aerial Combat Unit, and I am personally bucking for a spot as a Wonderbolt sir,” Cardinal Spitfire reported.

“Shadow Flare?”

“Evaluation of skills for a Recon Team sir. Scout if I have to be, but preferably recon,” Shadow said.

“Hmmm. Both tough positions, but both of you are strong farm pegasi,” The General stated. “Mark them both for Black Sergeant Terror Space.”

“Black Sir? We have not even begun?”

“We have done enough. Mark them black.”

“Yes sir!”

Shadow didn't like the sound of being marked black, especially before they had even begun. Flash had already been processed through with everypony else. They were waiting on Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire. Cardinal Spitfire was fuming. It was obvious. Just as obvious as her trying to hide it.

The sergeant pulled two black patches off his uniform and put them on the Velcro spot on their left shoulder on both of their uniforms. “Fall in line you two! And throw your bags in with the rest of the others.” The sergeant commanded.

Cardinal Spitfire tossed her's on top and ran off to get in line, Shadow slid his off to his left and slung it around his neck twice before ducking his head and sending it off to land on top. The almost empty bag had just enough weight for Shadow to perform that act. He jogged off to the line and took the open spot in the back. They were kindly marked with an X on the ground.

“Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire!” Sergeant Terror Space ordered. “Font and center. Recruits, reform the formation around them.”

In the shuffle, Cardinal Spitfire bumped into Shadow, hard, making him step to the side to keep from falling. It was definitely out of spite. The look on her face, as well as how tense she was, made it extremely obvious. Shadow cracked his neck and relaxed his muscled, just like he would do before an obstacle course.

“Five Laps around the circuit, on your wings,” a sergeant ordered.

“Seven laps for Shadow and Cardinal,” Sergeant Terror Space ordered.

Cardinal Spitfire sprinted to make up the extra laps. Shadow was moving, faster than most of the others. By his gauge, he would finish his seventh as they finished their fifth. Exactly where he wanted. He would not be 'broken' like the General asked. It did not sound conductive to training.

The laps took a small toll on everypegasus. And then there were ordered to run another five on their hooves. Seven for Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire.

“Cardinal and Shadow,” Sergeant Terror Space called. “Whatever I order, make sure you keep up with the other's orders.”

Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire were ostracized immediately. Nopony wanted to join them, talk to them or stand by them. Cardinal Spitfire's anger only grew.

“Water break!” The sergeant called.

“No water for Shadow or Cardinal.” Sergeant Terror Space added.

Shadow's face was set in stone as he stepped over to the Sergeant. He had taken enough, and he could not make it any worse. “I'm sorry Sergeant Terror.”

The sergeant's face got angry. “You will address me properly! Sergeant Terror Space!”

Shadow stepped into him and said with more authority than the sergeant. “And so shall you address me! Shadow Flare.” Shadow stared him down. The Sergeant was leaning back, and his wings were half out. The sergeant recognized his mistake immediately.

“And you had better address Cardinal Spitfire the same way. Neither of us have given you the permission to call us anything else.”

The other sergeant stepped in, bumping Shadow back. “Recruit! We are in charge here! We will call you by the name we chose.”

Shadow turned to him. “Call me what you will. But I will only respond to my given name. The name on my orders!” With that, Shadow stepped back to his spot on the grounds while the others drank water.

“Thanks for nothing,” Cardinal Spitfire spat out the side of her mouth.

“Not my fault you got pulled into this.”

“You are the one not making things easier for either of us. You are making things worse by resisting! I am dying of thirst.”

Shadow shrugged. “Just another long day in the fields.”

Sergeant Terror Space barked another order. “Recruit Cardinal Spitfire, water break!”

Cardinal Spitfire trotted over to the water as quickly as she could. She was tired. All the extra work was weighing deeply on her. Not as bad as others like Flash. Flash could barely stand. Shadow was feeling it, but he was by no means tired yet. He had worked a lot harder for longer. There was nothing testing strength yet either.

The recruits had regathered, with the help of the drill sergeants. There were a dozen and half other drill sergeants helping to correct and control the recruits, who had to number in the 250's.

Then there was the main drill sergeant, and then Sergeant Terror Space. Shadow didn't find him that terrifying at all. Lance and Buck were intimidating. Black's word was final. When Black spoke, you listened and obeyed, You never forgot Black's words.


“General, he doesn't seem tired at all. You may be right. He might make good candidate, as much as one can be in a few hours into training. I know you spoke to him, but still. He has a long way to go. A long way to go convince me.”

“We have plenty of time Major Winter,” General Red River replied. “And he certainly has an angle of control over Sergeant Terror Space. I have never seen the sergeant on edge like he is. It is amusing.”

“What about his speech?”

“The Enclave will learn to understand that Shadow comes from a different place where community is key. I knew he was coming, but I never guessed the difference he would bring. It is an obvious difference, where there it is 'everypony' for a reason, because it encompasses the community as a whole. And that 'everypegasus' just does not make sense to him. He also is not going to let it make sense. That will be his real breaking point, if he bows to 'everypegasus.'”

“He isn't going to break then, not for a while.”

“Which is exactly what we want.”

“Doesn't that make him less dependable?”

“His family's farm goes back to the war,” General Red River said. “Well before the clouds were sealed up. There is a lot of strength and history in that linage. We need to preserve that as much as possible.”

“The loyalty he has is greater than some of the most notable military families. Far greater than some of those on the Counsel. They look out for themselves sometimes. Shadow Flare would never knowingly put himself above the Pegasus race.”

“With good comes that bad. Calculated risk Major. He will break in many ways, ways he doesn't even know he has. But at the core, we don't want him to break his ideology of ‘everypony.’ Then he will become truly dangerous and out of control. Then he will truly be lost forever. If he breaks to early, he will have to be put down. Only bullets will work. And if he is already armed, it will truly be terrifying.”

“Everypegasus means he is alone and he will be frightened beyond what we can comprehend and he will lash out. If we tailor training right, reconnaissance is perfect for him. He does not possess raw, physical strength, and is the weakest recruit when it comes to that, but he has power and is sure in every step he takes, along with a strong head. He will need that to make it into recon. You will need him like that.”

“I forgot I had written his acceptance orders until he had the problem at the gate. Then things became interesting.”


“Now that you are all warmed up, Push ups recruits!” The drill sergeant barked.

The others were strong. Sure, he could not pull a plow, or buck a cherry tree in one go, but those were brute strength. Those actions had their forms, but he was not built to perform them. ‘Speed, Agility, Power.’ Sky Breaker was right. Shadow lost himself in the orders he was given. He didn't know that for every push up most of them were doing, he was doing two. It was all very simple body weight work.

Patches were beginning to be passed out. Black, Red, Green, Blue and Yellow. No one understood what the patches were for exactly. But they could tell they were dividing them up in some way.

“HALT!” The drill sergeant yelled. “On your backs and begin sit ups.”

Shadow was down on his push up, so he dropped onto his belly and rolled. As he rolled, he spun so he was facing the drill sergeant and so that he never actually moved an inch. He was already on five when the others began to do their sit ups.

Sergeant Terror Space came over to Shadow. “What do you think this is recruit? Some kind of circus?”

“No Sir!” Shadow answered at the top. Back down he went, never stopping.

“Then why did I see you preform a circus act?”

“It… was… no… circus… act… sir… it… was… only… using… my… current… position… to… my… ad… van… tage… to… trans… ition… to… begin… sit… ups… as… quickly… as… possible.” Shadow answered as he was breathing.

He was only able to briefly speak at the top without stopping. Every time he sat up he was face to face with the sergeant. Every time he sat up the sergeant was face to face with Shadow who had zoned out and only focused on the next task, each and every time. The sergeant had no counter response to Shadow's enthusiasm.

Shadow had lost track of time. They had run and flown a lot, and now they had again begun basic body weight drills.

“Halt!” The drill sergeant called. “Stand up and we will begin to squat.”

Shadow had no idea he was the only one still doing sit ups. Even Cardinal Spitfire had given out. Most of the recruits groaned as they stood up and began to do the squat. Shadow stood straight up on his hind legs and then leaned forward into a push up. Shadow never realized the strengths he actually had. Better put, the power he had. The muscles where there, and they were stronger than these city ponies.

So far Shadow had only been tested on endurance running and flying. The push ups were no different than many of the actions he had to do on the obstacle coursed. While the obstacle courses didn't directly do sit ups, push ups and squats, Shadow had to preform movements that only strengthened those muscled. Vaults, flips, hoofstands, they all were useful for the basic bodyweight workouts. The squats were a lot easier than most of the vaults he had to do. He was only being asked to lift his bodyweight, nothing more. An easy task.

Shadow noticed the pegasus next to him fall as he tried to squat. He glanced around him and saw that the others were dropping too. Shadow was feeling the workouts, but he was not ready to drop.

“HALT! Take five,” The drill sergeant said. Shadow was the first to get to the water. He could keep going without water, but there was no point. Besides, the next water break he probably would not be allowed to get some.

“How are you able to keep going?” a pegasus asked him through rough breathing.

“I am a farming pony and this was life for me,” Shadow stated. He just trotted off, back to his spot.

“Everypegasus take another five!” Sergeant Terror Space barked. “You all can get to watched our little prodigy spend the next five minutes in hell. Recruit Shadow Flare.” Flare was said with a strong edge of distaste. “Do a hoofstand.”

Shadow shrugged and rolled up onto his front hooves. He was perfectly still.

“Now, do pushups in that hoofstand.”

Shadow began to move up and down as requested until the drill sergeant barked more orders. “Break over! Everypegasus back to their spots! Recruit, stop those push ups!”

As ordered, Shadow stopped. A quick tuck backwards and he landed on all hooves in the same direction he was facing, where the drill sergeant was. They got a moment more of rest as the drill sergeants assembled and began to talk amongst themselves.

“Great, now you have them talking,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered to Shadow.

“Hey, you are also the one with enough breath in her lungs to talk,” Shadow shot back.

“I heard what you responded to the other recruit,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I can't believe you were put through so much daily to keep going when everypegasus else had given out.”

“Well, the longer you don't believe it, the more stunned you will be. And I left out I was the communities acrobat, performing for the other fillies and colts, trained for fun since I was young.”

“That explains the hoofstands,” Cardinal Spitfire stated. Talking to Shadow couldn't hurt her since she was already singled out with him.

The drill sergeants broke up. “Nice little break there. Three more laps, six for our prodigy and he better finish first.”

“Hooves or wings?” Shadow asked.

The drill sergeant was taken aback. “Wings of course. You and your hooves. You had better learn to go to your wings instinctively!”

Shadow heard him, but was already well on his way to begin his lap. Shadow noted that many of those marked with red where able to push it and were doing their best to finish before him. Shadow had to make sure he kept focus so he was not overtaken.

By mid afternoon, every recruit not only had a colored patch, but none of them could keep up; outside of short bursts. Shadow was left to continue as ordered. The first day was obviously to take them all down a notch and exhaust them. Shadow was certainly hurting, but he was not going to give out anytime soon. The lack of lunch took out many of the other recruits. And even limiting Shadow's water access did littleto slow him down.

They put the recruits through everything. And Shadow had a feeling they were being extra tough and rough in general because of him. They also allowed the others more down time before they were yelled at to get going.

Laps, sit ups, push ups, squats, swim kicks, leg lifts, wing ups, repeat. They did everything they could to break him, but he never gave. The harder they tried, the harder he resisted and was set against them. It still surprised him how harvesting ground plants like turnips and parsnips was a lot like push ups and half of the other harvesting work was like many of the other drills.

Shadow thought it was about 5pm when they let everyone go except him and Cardinal Spitfire. Even Cardinal Spitfire had given out and had very little, if not nothing left. The had Shadow run sprints, fly sprints, more bodyweight movements until there was nothing else they could think of.

I was after dark and Shadow was still being worked.

“Alright Sergeants. You did well today. Shadow Flare, you can stop,” The General Red River softlyordered.

Shadow was currently doing push ups. For fun, he dipped down, pulled himself up into a hoofstand and flipped over fast to land on all fours.

He almost didn't make it, but none of them noticed. None of them could see that he was almost about to give out. His focus gave him control. He had long ago learned to control his shaking muscles when they were almost depleted.

“Shadow Flare has a unique background. I am not surprised he kept up this long,” The General said. “I hear he was also trained as an acrobat, and one without wings.”

“Yes sir. Lots of vaults and flips, twists, you name it, I probably have done it. Most of the work was on levels and moving through them to vault up to the next level. I even have bounded back and forth off vertical walls over a wide gap. Years of training. Ever since I was a young colt. The first thing I remember is obstacle courses. As soon as I could stand Sir.”

“See sergeants. That is why Shadow Flare wins this round,” General Red River explained.

He redirected his focus to Cardinal Spitfire, “Sorry Cardinal Spitfire. You gave it an amazing run, better than the others, but I have never seen anypegasus handle the beating we gave Shadow Flare. Go get dinner you two,” The General said, pointing his head to the mess hall. “I had them hold food for you.”

The General turned to Sergeant Terror Space. “Sergeant, make sure they find their barracks in the dark. There will be a debrief in the morning while the recruits eat to get everypegasus on the same page, but it is sufficient to say that I am impressed with all the recruits. Every last one.”

Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire arrived at the almost empty mess haul. They were given two trays, still warm, of their dinner. Cooked turnips, hot mashed oats and hay. Simple food.

Cardinal Spitfire turned to the cooks and asked suspiciously, “This is what the other recruits ate?”

“Yes. And we snuck in a bit extra for each of you. I have no idea what they were putting you two through out there, all of you for that matter, but you two most definitely need the extra we could spare. I would eat quick though. You will want to get rest.”

“Thank you,” Shadow smiled happily. “Let's eat Cardinal Spitfire.”

“Finally something I can not hate about you,” She groaned.

“Sorry, I never meant to drag you or anypony into this. I never wanted any of this myself.”

“I still hate you.”

“Understandable.”

“I don't get it. How you did it?”

“The right upbringing, being taught the right mindset. Much of the farm work is similar to all of that. But I keep saying that and nopony gets it.”

“This food is so bland,” Cardinal Spitfire said changing the subject.

“These turnips are from Central West Farming District,” Shadow stated.

“How can you tell?” Cardinal Spitfire asked with a mouthful.

“Because of their taste. The clouds are different there. It is mostly oats and wheat there. And my dad may have had us learn the difference one year.”

“Uggh,” She growled. “Just stop talking. My head hurts.”

They finished in silence. The food was bland. And the hay was harvested a bit late, but food was food. Shadow could not think of a time where he had eaten worse food, this was almost certainly the worse he had ever eaten. He could hear his father giving another lesson about hard work, toil and being happy with what you had, even if it was little.

Sergeant Terror Space had come in soon after they had begun. He was sitting a few tables over, quietly watching them and sipping on something. He was obviously there for them, but he was not going to push anything yet.

Shadow was done eating first, but he waited for Cardinal Spitfire to finish. “How come you always beat me at every!” She exclaimed.

“Because I was taught to value what you have. We never had much, I do not expect much. Sure, my mother was a better cook than this food, but this is obviously prepared for the first day of the recruits. The few others here are not eating the same food. Just like today, take it like every break you get and be thankful for it. Every advantage is an advantage.”

Cardinal Spitfire weighed his words and continued eating.

Shadow though to himself. She really is special. I know she is not like the mares back home; she lacks that rugged, determined look and mindset of the rural farms I grew up on. But I can still see the strong farming muscles rippling beneath her coat. She is quite attractive, more so if she didn't hate me.”

Her Cutie Mark was yellow lighting bolts crossed, except the wide ends of the bolts tapered off into flames. A very unique Cutie Mark and one you could not forget. It stood out perfectly against her deep red coat.

She really was quite pretty for a mare, once you took off all the ugly light green uniform of the Enclave. Her soft yellow mane was cut in a way so that it could be pulled straight back into short braids. Braids that did not look like they were coming loose anytime soon. Her tail was the same, a short braid. It would look much better free. She was here to train, not look pretty. She was making sure they stayed out of the way.

When she was finished, Sergeant Terror Space led them to Black Barracks. “You will be briefed in the morning before breakfast by your Barrack Masters. They may be sergeants, but between us, I would not call them any other name than Master. Even the drill sergeants call them masters. Our primary job is done. From now on you take your orders from them, although the drill sergeants will be around to aid them. I will still bring whatever terror I can over you two.”

“Thank you Sir,” Shadow Flare smiled.

Sergeant Terror Space just nodded his head and walked away.

Cardinal Spitfire was the first through the door. It was a long bunkhouse. The doorway opened up into a short hallway. It was a co-ed bunkhouse with no partitions. Showers and the bathroom right next to the door, the rest was bunks. Every bunk had somepony on it. Some were sleeping or trying to sleep. Most were talking. Everypony had their uniforms off and was in fresh shirt and shorts. Shadow guessed those were the regulation bunkhouse clothing.

The bunkhouse quieted as they realized that Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire had arrived. None of them wanted to be caught up in whatever Shadow was. They all had seen that Cardinal Spitfire was stuck with him and Sergeant Terror Space.

A brave pegasus spoke up. “Your bags were here when we arrived. You two are the last two bottom bunks on the right. I am Olive Pit.”

“Nice to meet you Olive Pit. Interesting name,” Shadow complimented.

“My family is olive farmers, south of New Cloudsdale. My mother always said I was called pit because her labor was 18 hours. I was tough to get out, like an olive pit.”

Olive Pit did resemble a green olive. With a white mane, cut short for military service.

Shadow laughed. “My Family never had a direct reason for my name. Only Lunar Harvest, the first, had a reason. Her birth was during the day, forcing my dad to work a lunar harvest.”

The bunkhouse began to lighten up a bit.

Shadow's bunk was the hottest place in the bunkhouse. There would be little airflow. It was designated to him by his almost empty bag which was laying on the bed. Cardinal Spitfire's bag was on the other. No doubt they gave him the worst spot on purpose. But he had a bed.

“So, Shadow Flare, I am Flex” the pegasus above Shadow's bunk said. “What exactly happened today?”

Shadow took a deep breath in before he answered he answered. “I have no idea, honestly.”

Things got quiet for a little bit before Cardinal Spitfire, who was sitting on her bed with her back deliberately to Shadow, spoke up. “What happened was that General Red River ended up putting Sergeant Terror Space on both of us to test the difference between an regular farmer and a nowhere, uselessfarmer.”

“Thank you Cardinal Spitfire,” Shadow chuckled. He was still standing at the end of his bunk. “I think we all got an extra whooping from the drill sergeants for that as well. The General wanted me to break? Whatever that means. Not even I knew I could last that long.”

Shadow took in a deep breath in and released it before continuing. “Back on my farm, in the community, well you can see, I look more like a mare than a stallion.”

They all chuckled.

“I am no farming pony by our standards, but I guess years of hard work led to this. A friend once explained the difference between strength and power. Power was the form you used. Proper form brought you power, which can increase strength. But brute strength requires you to push through it. I noted that most of the ponies keeping up with me at the end were marked red. I bet it is red for brute strength.”

“And this is where it all started,” Cardinal Spitfire said in their shock at Shadow saying 'ponies'. “Shadow is apparently so far out that the rules do not apply. Apparently its where enough of our food is grownand that his only official laws is no stealing and no going under the clouds. Apparently everything else is community based and enforced. And that is why he is allowed to say every pony. Because only somepegasus from there would be that stupid.”

Cardinal Spitfire stopped suddenly. “I hate you, yet I am explaining you! The General literally said 'Both of you are farmers. One is formal, the other practical. That is all I cared about. Sergeant Terror Space, break both of them. Farm pegasus against farm pegasus. One side of the Enclave against the others.' He had both of us tagged black before we even began!”

Her hate was the only reason she remembered the words verbatim.

Cardinal Spitfire took a deep breath and calmed down. “Anyway, apparently Shadow's speech patterns are allowed and not to be treated as the treason we grew up with. He wasn't even schooled to anywhere near Enclave standards.”

“Where I come from, Family comes first,” Shadow shrugged. “Then the community, which is an extension of the family. The General decided we were to be pit against each other. I mean, look at her. You can see the muscles, and she is only a fraction smaller than me. On me, you can't see muscle like you can her.”

“But I have more endurance and a different mindset than anypony in here because of my rearing. Only two from our district came, one from the small city, and me from hours away from any city. 4 years before that another pegasus joined, and before that, no one in my community knows. I doubt anypony in the district joined. But today is over. Done with. Tomorrow is a new day and a new type of training. No more pitting Cardinal Spitfire against me... I hope.”

“Sounds good,” A bright sky blue pegasus spoke up from the bottom bunk in the middle. He had to whip some of his orange hair out of his face. “I'm… Well just call me Deke. And it is nice to meet all of you and nice to meet you Olive Pit, Cardinal Spitfire and you Shadow Flare. I think Shadow Flare is right. We are black badged and that binds us. If there is any testing, it will be against the other colors. Shadow Flare, we have all had time to chat back an forth. I am bucking for working on the Raptors, I want to become a captain of one. What about Cardinal Spitfire, You, and I didn't catch your's Olive Pit.”

Olive pit spoke up first. “Medic. I'm going to patch you bastards up when you get your dumb asses shot.”

Everypony laughed at his comment.

“Not if I shoot your ass first,” Shadow fired back. That comment had everyone relaxed and laughing. “I'm bucking for recon. Which is why I am guessing the General really wanted to test me.”

“Nopegasus knows much about recon,” Flex said. “I didn't even know you could apply for them.”

“And I'm going for Wonderbolt. My name Spitfire isn't used lightly. I am a mapped out descendant of THE Spitfire from the great war. But I am going to earn that spot on my own.”

That got plenty of nods and respect from their fellow bunkmates.

“Let's hit the sack guys,” Deke said rolling into bed.

It took several minutes for everypony to get organized. Deke had been trying to sleep when they came in. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire still had their uniforms on. Shadow had one of the two lockers that were in between the wall and the bunk bed. He stored his few belongings in there where they would be safe. Besides, there was no need for his duffel bag, at least for a while. So he just slung it up on one of the hooks in his locker, along with his uniform.

He did not remove the two bands he wore. One on each foreleg. One was yellow, like Cherry Tart, which had a a red cherry hoof embroidered on it. The other was barely visible on him It was white and from Dream Catcher. Both were tied snug, but not to tightly. Totems to always wear, too remember perhaps the three most important pegasi from home. He was a long way from home.

Shadow was on his back in bed. It had been one hell of a day. A very interesting start. At least the bed was somewhat comfortable. He was going to be stiff in the morning. He looked over at Cardinal Spitfire and felt bad for her. It wasn't his fault or intention to catch her up into any of this, let alone get caught in it himself. But he still felt bad. And she hated him for it with good reason. She deliberately laid with her back to him.

As Shadow's eyes closed to sleep and he began to dream, he heard Cherry Tart and Early Blossom. He heard his father's teachings, and remembered what the community meant. He could still feel Dream Catcher's embrace.




END: PART 1: LOYALTY

STRENGTH – 4

PERCEPTION – 3

ENDURANCE – 8

CHARISMA – 2

INTELLIGENCE – 7

AGILITY – 9

LUCK – 7

Chapter 7 - Filly Foolers

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“OUT OF BED AND AT ATTENTION YOU WORTHLESS SACKS OF FEATHERS!”

Shadow rolled out of bed, the drastic contrast from dark to light blinding him. He stumbled to attention at the end of it like others were. No doubt they were from the military schools as they intuitively acted. Shadow did his best to mimic them through the confusion.

“I am Sergeant Wind Whisper,” He said walking down the isle. “I am the Master of Black Barracks. If you call me anything but Master Wind...” Master Wind's mouth turned to a wicked grin. “Lets not test me there.”

“Now! You were marked Black. If you paid attention yesterday, you would have seen other colors. Does anypegasus know what they are?”

“Back, Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Sir!” Somepony at the front responded.

“Correct Golden Dawn. Somepegasus was lounging rather than working her ass off!” Master Wind said turning around at the end of the hall.

“Red is for strength. Their primary skill is just that.” Master Wind said beginning to walk towards the front. “Blue is for those who's strong point is flying. Yellow is the baseline who have no strong or weak points. Typically Yellow tends to be filled with the technologically minded pegasi. Green if for the weakest recruits that need a little bit more love. Each Barracks will be treated differently in training. Working on the skills they most need to improve. You will learn and be tested on all skills. The final tests are the same for all recruits and not barracks specific.”

“What about Black?” Olive Pit asked. “Sir!”

“Black is for those special pegasi who peaked our interest for one reason or another. Leadership in one of those, but do not let that go to your head. Few of you are here for that reason. You will be worked twice as hard because of it. There will be no area of your training we will focus on more due to your individual weaknesses. You will all have no weaknesses and will be expected to prove that, immediately.”

Master Wind was again at the back. He sized up Shadow, who focused on looking straight ahead.

“I have figured out everypegasus else, except for you. I can't tell if you are a strong filly or weak colt. Until I do, I will call you Filly Fooler since you look like a butch bitch.”

“I don't think he knows what that is,” somepony at the front called out. Most snickered.

“You are right. Wrong to speak out Majesty, but do you know recruit?” Filly Fooler?

“Yes Sir!” Shadow replied.

“From what I hear, I think you are lying to me,” Master Wind said pulling out a file from a pocket under his wing.

“I am not lying Master Wind, Sir,” Shadow said. He was losing his nerve and trying not to shake. Despite his best efforts, shame was knocking at the door.

“Tell me what a filly fooler is,” Master Wind ordered.

“Its umm...” Shadow stumbled to the enjoyment of the others. “Mares who…”

“Answer me!”

“Mares who live together.”

“Is that all?”

“No Sir.”

“Well tell me.”

“They are married like a mare and stallion, but… mares.”

“Why the red cheeks Filly Fooler?”

“Because it is not right,” Shadow stated with nothing left in his voice. He saw several hateful looks out the corner of his vision. At least one was a mare.

“Why is that?”

“Because it makes a weak farm that can not be passed down,” Shadow said sheepishly.

“That's it?” a mare said before Master Wind could respond.

“Did I tell you you could speak Recruit?”

“No Sir!” Golden Dawn replied. “Sorry Sir!”

“So you are a filly fooler,” Master Wind smiled.

“No sir,” Shadow said scratching the floor with his hoof. “But my sister is.”

Master Wind shook his head. “And you lived with her,” He stated.

“I helped out a while before I came to start training here. I was not much help home, but there I was a big help. We had plenty of ponies on my farm. Big family. Lunar and Buck are getting the farm. Buck is really good to her and the family. He deserves it.”

“I don't give a shit about the rest of that Filly Fooler,” Master Wind said walking away. Shadow's front legs were left quaking.

“You will all be whipped into shape and one tight knit unit. Structure and order are key. When something goes wrong, like the Riots in Cumulus, they make a bad situation stay just bad. We can not lose control of the situation. Especially in battle. Understand?”

Shadow was the only one who said no. Master Wind wasted no time being back in his face.

“No?”

“No Sir. I get the Order and Structure, but not the riots.”

“You really are a dumb one,” Master Wind said making pegasi laugh.

“No Sir. But we don't get news sir. The closest city is a half day's flight away and we only go there out of necessity, like market days and to pick up supplies or equipment.”

“Ignorance is bliss. It is time you learn what the real world is like,” Master Wind snarled. “Not all are happy with the Enclave as you simple pegasi are. Some have been misled. I hope you will have no problem dealing with them.”

“I will have not problem Sir. But I didn't say we were happy. Nor did I say we were unhappy. We barely have interaction with the Enclave outside tax time. We just do our duty to the Enclave and farm the clouds so everypony can eat. We do not want ponies to starve.”

“You talk to much and have no voice to make it worthwhile to listen,” Master Wind said walking away.

“You will all learn to lead small groups,” He said picking back up. “You will learn to navigate the sky, the clouds, cities and the ground. You will learn weapons and unarmed combat. You will learn basic medical care. You will become soldiers. And because of pegasi like Filly Fooler, you will take classes on Enclave History and what Loyalty and Duty really mean.”

“Now,” Master Wind said from besides the door. “We have wasted too much time already. File out and we will begin with calisthenics to whip your sorry asses into shape! THEN you will get changed into your uniform and hit the mess hall for breakfast, if they are still serving it. Every morning, I expect you to be up and in uniform before I arrive.”

Master Wind drove them through much of the same things they did the day before. Sergeant Terror Space was one of the drill sergeants assisting Master Wind. They all were more than lose by the time they were done. The final thing was how to form up outside at their barracks parade field. Then it was into the barracks to change and then they hit the mess hall with only a few minutes to spare.

Shadow sat alone in the mostly empty mess hall. He was too used to being alone and he knew it. It was a crowd and he was not comfortable with this type of crowd. It bothered him that it didn't bother him. The platoon mimicked a community in many ways. It needed all its members to work together. He just didn't know how to fit into it, but he knew he had to learn fast.

They were forced out of the mess hall after a few minutes, meaning most hadn't finished their food. Then it was into one of the largest buildings were they were thrown into the class work on the Enclave and being a loyal soldier carrying out their duty. Every few minutes the class was stopped because somepony fell asleep and was forced to do wingups to wake up.

The rest of the day they were worked hard on physical fitness and proper drill and marching. There was no flying. They spent most of the afternoon learning how to stand at attention. Every time somepony moved they were forced to do something as punishment.

Shadow silently sat at a table with others in his barracks. They shot him evil looks as they ate and talked. They talked about him every so often as if he wasn't there. And they called him by his new name, Filly Fooler. He had made the most mistakes all day and they were all punished because of it.

Worse, he wouldn’t bend to the drill sergeants screaming at him, because it didn’t mean respect. It only lost respect in his eyes.

The next day was mostly the same. Up early in uniform, morning PT, breakfast, class and then rigorous activity before parade drills. Shadow was the first one to move on the parade drills. Twice before anyone else did. The second time was a face plant into the gravel the enclave had suspended on the clouds.

The third day they were introduced to the ground obstacle course. They were sharing it with Green. Shadow had no problem with the obstacles and was well ahead of the others when he finally met the double wall. It required two ponies to to help each other up and over. One to lift the first, and then be pulled up by their team mate. Shadow was waiting quietly when they caught up. He was ignored as others teamed up as fast as they could.

“Fuck you!” Cardinal Spitfire spat as she was rejected again as a teammate.

“They won't help you, not yet,” Shadow stated.

“Fine,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned as she helped Shadow up. He had trouble pulling her up.

Shadow decided to ignore the ease of the course and chose to stay together with the pack. Others started watching him navigate the different things they were having trouble with and learn from him. They never would admit they were.

Cardinal Spitfire fought hard to push them to the front of the pack, following Shadow's lead. They lead for the rest of the afternoon until it was time for parade drills. Ponies dropped like flies at parade meaning most of that time they were being given all sorts of punishment other than actual drill.

Day four brought the addition of wings for PT. A good respite for most. Shadow was now at the back of the pack. Keeping up, but at the rear. Day five switched obstacle courses to air. He was the fastest at it because of his ability to out think every obstacle.

His flying skills flipped because he had a set goal, unlike the day before which was endless flying. Touching an obstacle was against the rules. It was like hitting a teammate in an air formation, which could prove deadly.

“Today we begin unarmed combat,” Master Wind said. “For now, you will be teamed up and work on the drills we show you. And only those drills. Open combat will not be tolerated, but it will happen later.”

Shadow was teamed up with Golden Dawn. She had it out for him since he had to explain filly foolers. She was aptly named for her golden hair, which was in interesting contrast against her sagish green coat.

Shadow was the most agile of all recruits. He could dodge and weave perfectly. His strikes, however, left much to be desired.

“You are really pathetic,” Golden Dawn stated as they got water. “You can't take a hit and can't deliver one. You are lucky you can dodge so well. I would call you a coward except you never run and only work to set up the next strike.”

“Well, its not like I grew up needing to fight. Things never got physical where I am from,” Shadow stated.

“Not even against filly foolers?”

“Not conductive to the community as a whole,” Shadow sighed at the relief the water brought. “They make a weak farm because the more hooves there are to help out, the more you can produce and at some point, the easier the work is. And we help each other bring in harvests. Their farm can not grow like the others. It will never strengthen and we can't hire help. Practicality is key.”

“So she is supposed to go unhappy for the rest of her life?” Golden Dawn said annoyed.

“I never said that. No one knew. And I understand that not even she knew until they met. Everypony was shocked. That was the worst thing. The shock.”

Shadow sighed. Explaining the complexities of his community was proving beyond difficult. “If they had stayed on a strong farm with someponies married who's colt or mare would take over, that is one thing. But they started a new farm that could not grow. A farm that can not grow is a burden on the community. It's only been a year. The community was warming up to the idea of their duty to help their farm like any other, but it still is new and a big shock.”

“You are going to go back, aren't you?”

“Yes. My duty is to here for now. But eventually I well end up back home to do what I can, on their farm. ”

“Things sound backwards and wrong. How many sisters do you have?”

“Four,” Shadow said refilling his cup. “Most farms have two or three per couple. It is expanding and we don't have to worry about those laws regarding reproduction we have heard about.”

“That has to be nice,” Golden Dawn said. “They took away my younger brother at birth because he was a third. Unexpected third, but still a third. My parents appealed as soon as they found out they were expecting and they lost. They won the appeal to not abort, but he was gone before they could even name him. All we know is it was a colt. My mother never even got to hold him and seeing him even after was out of the question. We have no idea what happened to him.”

“Damn,” Shadow sighed. “I can think of several farms that could use another pair of hooves. Not all flourish. It is tough, and we don't get the best medical care. A local healer, but the closest doctor is so far away… sometimes farms have nopony, and the community decides who will take control.”

“Backwards and deadly,” Golden Dawn said concerned. “I will stay clear of farming.”

“It's not that bad,” Cardinal Spitfire defended. “There is a big difference between farming, and his rural, basically nowhere survival farming. The law is still applied to my community, although we win more third appeals. Just don't head out to his part of the clouds. They are near the northern mountains that mark the Enclave's boarder. You really don't want to go there anyway.”

“That is far,” Golden Dawn said socked, with he jaw wide upon. “No wonder why Filly Fooler is so odd.”

Shadow just rolled his eyes as they chuckled, along with several others listening in.

Sky navigation was instinctual. You had the sun and stars to help you calculate your location. Urban Navigation was a whole different technique. They had to work in small teams to find points in a enormous city they had built out of clouds. You could not go through clouds either.

Ground navigation was difficult. There was a cloud ceiling they could not go above as they tried to make their way to different points. Everything was miniaturized to give the illusion they were higher than they were. This was for going below the clouds. Most ponies didn't think it was realistic. Still, they had no better answer than what they were given.

And the start of week three they were fitted for full gear. Shadow's name tag was Filly Fooler. Basic armor, single gun battle saddle with saddle bags, and survival equipment like canteens, pup tent, gas masks, geiger counters and small safety diagnostic equipment.

That immediately lead them to the gas chambers. They had to enter as a group, then the chamber was flooded and then they had to take their masks on and off. It was to simulate battle, if they ran into anything nasty or were bombed with something. Pure survival.

It set your lungs on fire, your eyes felt like needles were being stuck in them, and for some, their coat itched for a couple of days. It was not uncommon to see other recruits in the mess hall missing some of their coats or manes from scratching too much.

The gas chambers thankfully lasted only a day, and then it was back to navigation and problem solving as things became more difficult. This time they were in full gear, loaded out with weights to simulate gear they did not have yet. They started working in larger groups and then as a barracks to get all types jobs done.

Team building became a huge part of their training. Shadow was used and worked with them, but he was not making friends. They were coming together well as a group, overcoming what was thrown at them. Often it included moving weapons, gear and wounded over long treks with minimal carrying tools and random objects. It always was more than what they all could carry on their own. Shadow had to lead exercises every so often like everypony else, but that was the most talking he usually did.

The navigation test came at the end of week three. It started well before morning and lasted almost 36 hours. They had to eat field rations and everypony led at least one exercise. Two new elements were thrown in. The navigation course required all three navigation elements and it was against the other barracks. It was the first time they were pitted against each other. Black came in third. Blue took first and Yellow second. Green surprisingly beat out Red.

They had the rest of the day off before the next test, unarmed combat. They had done only a little open combat. This would pit them against random opponents until it came down to the top two.

Red was favored to win as always. It took a whole day to boil it down to the top 16. Shadow had cinched a spot by wearing out his opponents with his agility. The final 16 would begin in the morning.

“Alright Filly Fooler,” Deke said from the end of the table. “I have to say, for a filly fooler you took them down easily. The finals are stacked half with Red, one Green and five Yellow. Everypegasus was shocked when that pegasus from Green knocked out three Blue in a row. It's you and Cardinal Spitfire. What are you thinking?”

“Survive until they get tired and give me an opening,” Shadow chuckled.

“If you get hit by any Red, you will be done,” Olive pit stated. “They accidentally injured 6 from Green, two from blue, another from Yellow and our own Golden Dawn.”

“So I don't get hit,” Shadow stated as if it was nothing.

He was doing his best to stay calm despite the storm of fear growing inside. He did not like fighting like this. It was savage at times. And this open combat was not a test of skills, it was bloodthirsty event put of for the enjoyment of the instructors.

“Good luck,” Flex murmured.

“If anypegasus can do it, it is either you or Cardinal Spitfire,” Deke encouraged. “Otherwise, Red wins, like always.”

Shadow was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He was awake early and took a short jog to warm up before anypony was awake. He got back and Master Wind was going off about Filly Fooler running away.

“Here I am Sir!” Shadow announced from the door. “Sorry Sir. I woke up early and took a short jog to warm up for the day. Apparently not short enough Sir.”

“Alright then,” Master Wind said. “Don't make a habit of it.”

“Yes Sir. I mean no Sir. I mean I won't make a habit of it Sir.”

“It may be relaxed day for the competition, but we are still doing morning PT. Fall out!”

It was a short PT for Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow. Master Wind was in a good mood because Black made it into the top 16. He sent them in to eat an early breakfast so they didn't lose it while competing. Everypony else did the typical morning PT.

“Ready?” Shadow asked Cardinal Spitfire as they ate.

“Yes,” She said. It was clear she didn't want to talk. She still hated Shadow. Everypony knew it.

They finish in silence and at the approval of Master Wind, headed over to the competition field. An arena had been set up, centered around a single ring with stands so everypony could watch and cheer on their comrades. It wasn't long before the other competitors showed up.

“Stop pacing!” Cardinal Spitfire shouted at Shadow. “You are driving me nuts.”

“Just trying to stay loose,” Shadow replied annoyed.

“Well it is destroying MY concentration.”

Shadow sat down on the bench besides her. She slid down the bench away from him.

Blue Barracks was the last one to arrive. Their demeanor spoke volumes. Green was ecstatic somepony had actually made it.

“First round,” General Red River called out. “From Red, Lightning Rod. And From Black, Filly Fooler.”

Shadow shook his head. Few recruits, if any, knew that name outside of Black Barrack. Now they all knew and probably thought he was a mare. He climbed into the ring as if nothing was wrong, forcing himself to concentrate. He would be not be able to dodge and weave like he had been. He had seen Lightning Rod fight the day before. He was the pegasus who had hurt Golden Dawn.

“Fight!”

Shadow circled but Lighting Rod came right at him. He dodged a rear hoof kick and rolled around to his front. Lightning rod made several jabs at Shadow. When he was coming back down, Shadow stepped in, throwing his shoulder into Lightning Rod's chest. Lightning Rod didn't move Shadow was so weak.

Shadow didn't care. He used that leverage to easily sweep a leg before rearing up and pounding several strong blows to Lighting Rod's head. Lightning Rod was dazed, but stood up. Shadow didn't give him a chance before bucking him in the chest. Lightning Rod dropped and Shadow was declared the winner.

“That was straightforward,” Master Wind said as Shadow sat down. “I did not see that coming.” Master Wind had never praised or complimented Shadow before.

Cardinal Spitfire won easily and the pegasus from Green knocked out his Red opponent. Red started with half of the slots, but they ended the first round with half the slots. Shadow took out the one from Green easily. Cardinal Spitfire dispatched her Red opponent in an unavoidable bloody manor, forcing him to be taken away on a stretcher.

Shadow worked his way to the semi finals. He had to dodge and duck a lot in the match before he could land a solid hit. When he did, it was to the rear leg at the joint, deadening the nerves. He left his opponent barely able to stand. Shadow was forced to end the fight. He hated such senseless violence, but it was made clear he would have to end the fight himself. He wished they had called the match before he had strike his defenseless opponent.

Shadow was too distracted to notice Cardinal Spitfire's semifinal match. Cardinal Spitfire never left the ring. Shadow was knocked back into reality with a swift knock by Master Wind. He was shocked and shaking about the idea of facing Cardinal Spitfire. He couldn't back down. He couldn't let her win, that would make her anger grow. If he won she would hate him even more. There was no good ending to this and they had never run unarmed combat drills together.

“FILLY FOOLER AGAINST FILLY FOOLER!” A Red Recruit called out from the stands. “FILLY FOOLERS” Chant started up right after, getting everypony swept up in it except for Black.

“FUCK ALL OF YOU!” Cardinal Spitfire yelled. She turned to Shadow with pure hate in her eyes.

“Sorry you got wrapped up in this,” Shadow said for the hundredth time. “At least you won't see these fools after training.”

“Fuck them and fuck you. I will take you down and make sure you spend a few days out of training.”

“Fine,” Shadow said invading her personal space. She drew back slightly and then was annoyed at falling for the trick he had used plenty of times on the drill instructors.

Cardinal Spitfire lashed out, but Shadow wasn't there. He had rolled to the side to get a better position. She rotated expertly and threw a strong buck at him. Shadow vaulted over her legs and landed. He was able to plant two quick shots right on her Cutie Mark. He dove to avoid her and dodged several more times, waiting for the next opening.

There was no way he would be able to tire her down. He had to find an opening fast. She forced him back against the ring's wall and threw a buck. Shadow jumped over her, landed on his front hooves and drove a buck into her exposed side, right behind the shoulder. She was thrown into the ropes and collapsed.

Shadow took two steps back in caution.

“COME ON FILLY FOOLERS! AFRAID TO GET PHYSICAL!” Someone in Blue called out.

“YOU WANT TO COME DOWN AND SAY THAT TO MY FACE!” Shadow yelled back. “NO, OF COURSE YOU DON'T. YOU ARE TOO AFRAID OF YOUR OUR SHADOW TO COME DOWN HERE!”

Things quieted down and Shadow heard Cardinal Spitfire struggle up. He sighed. He hoped it was all over. She took two steps towards him and collapsed.

“FILLY FOOLER SHADOW FLARE OF BLACK BARRACKS WINS!” General Red River declared as he entered the ring.

Cheers arose from Black Barracks at the announcement. The others just clapped their hooves. Shadow looked over at Cardinal Spitfire. They were putting her on a stretcher. Cheers or winning didn't feel good. Not when it came to hurting her. She was innocent in it all.

Under all the hate for him was a special, sweet pegasus who had wonderful dreams and was tough enough and determined enough to achieve them. Lofty goals that few ever would attempt. She didn't do anything half-heartedly. She did things right. With all she had.

“You do what you have to do,” General Red River said to Shadow. “She is hurt, mostly in pride. Things get physical here, but out there, most pegasi will not fight like she did. If they do, you won't be left alone to face them. Besides, recon won't have to deal with civilians or the weak. They are to gather intel, not outright fight. So if you make it, you can rest easy.”

“I better make sure I make it then,” Shadow swallowed.

“Yes, you better Filly Fooler,” General Red River said walking away.

They spent the rest of the day lazily working through the obstacle course a few times. Blue was being drilled hard in unarmed combat and Red was being terrorized for losing. Shadow didn't see Yellow or Green. Golden Dawn was with them, an injured wing, but she could navigate the ground course, so Master Wind kept them on it.

When they got back to the Barracks after dinner, Cardinal Spitfire was in bed with her back to them and blanket all the way up. Everypony wanted to congratulate her on making it as far as she did and many wanted to try to comfort her. She was their comrade. Nopony knew the right words to say so they didn't go near the back bunks.

Golden Dawn finally walked over. “I know you are awake from your breathing pattern. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit,” Cardinal Spitfire said after a minute. He back was still to them all. “It hurt like hell and the pain meds only help a bit. I will be fine in a day or two. They said just rest up and let the bruising heal.”

“At least yours is just a bruise,” Golden Dawn said. “Lightning Rod almost dislocated my wing.”

“At least next is lacking in physical activity. It is weapons training,” Master Wind said shocking them all. “At ease. I didn't plan on coming in since you deserve the night off. This is informal to check on my recruit and your comrade. I expected her to make it to the Semi-finals, but no Black has made it to the finals in the last seven years.”

“It is almost always Red on Red, with some Yellow in the mix. Instead, two Blacks made it. The Reds are not happy, especially their Barrack Master. They have the real bruised egos after the beat down the took from everypegasus but Blue.”

“You are only as strong as your comrades, even in a one on one fight like this. That was one of the best shows we have seen since the combat ring was introduced. You two shocked everypegasus these past two days. You Cardinal Spitfire, showed you can live up to that Spitfire Heritage. And Shadow Flare, you showed your mare body means little. Both of you need to be very proud of what you did.”

With that Master Wind turned and left.

The others wanted to talk to Shadow for the first time. Filly Fooler was his nickname, but it was not said in a mean or derogatory way anymore. Deke, Olive Pit and Golden Dawn stayed awake the longest, swapping stories and dreams. They still went to bed well before the enforced lights out.

Shadow Flare had a a minute before Olive Pit would turn the lights out. He was sore and they wanted to make sure he made it to bed and didn't fall off it in the dark. Shadow caught the spot drying on Cardinal Spitfire's pillow. She had been fast asleep for a while. It was probably from before they came in.


“Alright Black Barrack,” The Range Master said. “Now you get to use those rifles you have been carrying around. Ammo is expensive and not easy to come by. Same with your brass. You will clean both up for recycling. You will scour the clouds until they are all picked up. The targets are designed to collect bullets for recycling the lead. It will take time to learn to aim, but that is why we have instructors here. Remember the rules of safe firearms you were taught when you received them. They will be strictly enforced. Flash any of us and you will most likely be punched before you make the mistake deadly.”

“The basic battle saddle fires a small caliber round. It packs a good punch and holds a lot of ammunition before having to reload. You will be trained with other weapons systems, but the battle saddle is your main priority. Every Enclave Soldier knows how to accurately use one and unless you are in the Cloudship crews, carry one.”

“Most of you will be trained on other types of weapons, like Magic weapons. Lead only makes up a small number of guns in Enclave. But it is the easiest to teach you on and give you the skills you need to handle the others.”

Cardinal Spitfire and Golden Dawn were not released for the range yet so they had to sit by and watch. Nopegasus was hitting their target. Aiming a gun that was on your side was very difficult. Turning your head did nothing, looking straight head didn't mean anything. You had to align everything up just right.

Shadow was very frustrated. Every shot was somewhere else. He couldn't even shoot the same spot twice. His bullets were known to cross over into the other targets on either side.

“Slow down Filly Fooler,” A sergeant told him. “Think. Use your brain. Breath and aim. Don't shoot until you are ready to. This isn't about speed. Just focus on learning it.”

They only got a few hours before they were forced to clean up and recycle everything. Then they were back to the old routines and drills to keep their skills sharp. Their marching was much better and they had learned the cadences and to sing them together. Some had bits of pre-war and war stuck in, unable to be removed or replaced because of their beat.


One mile - No Sweat
Two mile - Better yet
Three miles - Gotta run
Four miles - Just for fun
Come on - Let's go
We can go - Through the snow
We can fly - To the sun
We train - In the rain
E-N
C-L
A-V
E
Can you be - Like me?
Enclave - Infantry


V.I.C.T.O.R.Y.
Victory, Victory, That's my battle cry!

S.O.L.D.I.E.R.
Soldier, Soldier, That's what we are!

E.N.C.L.A.V.E.
Enclave, Enclave, That's who we are!

P.E.G.A.S.U.S.
For my race I'll give my life!


Up in the morning out the rack
Greeted at dawn with an early attack
First sergeant rushes me off the chow
But I don't eat it anyhow

Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Bring the battle or follow me
An Enclave Soldier life for me
Where nothing in this world is freee

I’m a pegasus in the sky
All will fly and some will die
Off to battle we will go
to live or die hell I don't know

Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Bring the battle or follow me
An Enclave Soldier life for me
Where nothing in this world is freee

Early at night its drizzling rain
I am hit and feel no pain
but in my heart I have no fear
because Celestia is here

Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Bring the battle or follow me
An Enclave Soldier life for me
where nothing in this world is freee

The mortars and artillery
The screaming verse around me
Jaggy shrapnel on the fly
kills my buddy, some must die

Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Hail oh Hail Oh infantry
Bring the battle or follow me
An Enclave soldier life for me
where nothing in this world is freee


Marching down in the valley I heard a loud roar
It was an Alpha Trooper treating Red like a toy
So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas
Move over Ratty Red let the mighty Black pass

BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO

Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar
It was a smooth Alpha Trooper treating Yellow like a toy
So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas
Move over Yucky Yellow let the mighty Black pass

BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO

Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar
It was a cool Alpha Trooper treating Blue like a toy
So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas
Move over Baby Blue let the mighty Black pass

BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO

Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar
It was a daring Alpha Trooper treating Green like a toy
So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas
Move over Ghastly Green let the mighty Black pass

BLAAAAAAAACK!


“Alright, settle down!” The Range Master ordered. “Yes, now we are moving to the Combat Shotgun. It fires 12 gage, 00 buck and is an essential close combat weapon. We will only cover it today. If your job needs it, later training will give you more instruction. You won't be tested on it, but don't fail.”

The Shotgun left most of the them bruised and sore from it's kick. It was a lot of power. Golden Dawn was on the range shooting her battle saddle, but she was not allowed to use the Shotgun since she was still recovering and they had to use their wings to carry it.

Cardinal Spitfire was still not cleared to fire anything, but she was with them at least. Silent, but with them. She would only talk if somepony asked her a question and even that wasn't a guarantee.

Cardinal Spitfire was allowed to fire a week after the fight. She had plenty of time to still learn the battle saddle and proved she didn't need much time either. She darted past Shadow on the first day while he was still learning to shoot the same area. He was hitting the target about 10% of the time a week in. Easily the worst shooter in Black Barracks.

The grenade launcher was fun for a tiny bit. They only had five rounds to hit their target. Most did not do too well. But the explosions were tons of fun. Likewise, they only had five rounds for the mortar. Everypony cheered at the awesome booms and explosions it made. Deke just called the whole thing booms.

The rocket launcher was scary, difficult to aim and a real problem when it came to keeping it on target. It weighed differently than any other weapon and Shadow felt like it was going to tip him over. Three shots was all you got and only two from their barracks hit the target.

Grenades were somehow scarier. Nopony could throw it far enough to stay out of the blast radius, so you had to duck or stay behind good cover. They only got two grenades to lob. Bucking them was impossible because of their timed fuse. 5 seconds if you were lucky.

The machine guns were a separate day entirely. They tried two types. A stationary one on a tripod, and a lighter one on a battle saddle. The light machine gun threw everypony off. They could aim, but because it moved so much it was extremely difficult to keep on target. Shadow was able to keep it steady enough to lead his pattern to his target. He was no better than any other recruit.

Side arms were also separate, but lasted three days. They learned both laser and regular side arms. The targets were no more than 15 yards away, giving everypony a confidence boost.

They spent a morning in a classroom discussing Magic weapons. They would not fire any, leaving that to secondary training if they would even need to learn them. They also reviewed all the weapons and talked about the tactics of each.

Shadow passed his range test with general ease. But he was in the bottom quarter proficiency out of all the recruits.

“I just don't get it,” Shadow said to Deke. “It sounds easy. It should be easy.”

“But it isn't easy,” Deke finished. “You can't out maneuver shooting a weapon. You can't change the accuracy needed by changing your position. You passed, well enough. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”

“Halfway through and I still choke at any commanding exercises,” Shadow said as he dramatically plopped onto his bed. “And nav is okay.”

“We all suck at the ground nav,” Olive Pit pointed out.

“All I have for my leg up is unarmed combat. My measurable strength hasn't increased at all! How am I supposed to make it into recon with that?”

“Well, you have to focus more on navigation then,” Cardinal Spitfire said from her bed beside him. It was the first time she had openly spoken up for weeks.

“Stop whining and get down to learning it. And every chance you can, get on that range to improve. You can't fix that strength, or the fact that you have no charisma to lead, but you can work on the other skills. And you can turn your intelligence into leadership material. That is more important than charisma.”

“At least you speak honestly,” Olive Pit said. “There is a charisma to speaking honestly. Not much, but there is.”

“What is next?” Deke asked.

Nopony knew what tomorrow would bring.

Chapter 8 - Autumn Arrives

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They all were up and dressed, waiting for Master Wind to arrive. He was late. Very Late.

“Black Barracks,” A drill sergeant said coming in. “Head to chow.”

They filed out and headed to breakfast. When they got back they assembled at the parade field where Master Wind was standing with another pegasus.

Master Wind shifted a bit uncomfortably. “This is Lieutenant Autumn Leaf. He is here to continue command training.”

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf just smiled a grin that made your mane stand on edge.

“The Lieutenant came just in time. Your Basic Training PT test is today. You are graded with a pass or fail. You know what not to do. And that does not mean PT is over!”

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf took over from there as he directed and pushed them. It was not as bad as the first day by any means, but they were not mentally prepared for another test. Sit Ups, Push Up, Wing Ups, Sprints, and a timed four mile ruck march awaited them called the 2x2. Two on the ground, two in the air. The final test was a 1 mile air sprint.

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf made Master Wind feel easy and soft. Especially when it came to language. He was outright abusive at times.

“He is one tough bastard,” Deke panted as they braked for water before the 2x2.

“He has a lot to prove,” Shadow said.

“No, that isn't approval,” Cardinal Spitfire spoke up. “That is an over achiever and a deadly one. He will get what he wants any way he can.”

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf began calling out orders as they strapped on their packs and began the march. He made it clear it was everypegasus for themselves. They still worked together as much as they dared, giving all the encouragement they could.




Hey! Hey! All the way,

We love to run every day.

If I were General and had my way,

There wouldn't be a fat pegasus in the Enclave today.

Everypegasus would be fit to fight,

Whether you test them day or night.

When I fly to the old drop zone,

Most of the enemy had already gone.

Those that remained weren't fit to fight,

So enemy contact was really light.

We ran the stragglers off the old drop zone,

Everything is quiet and they're all gone




That was the only cadence they got in before Lieutenant Autumn Leaf caught up and nicely ordered them to 'shut the fuck up.'

“What the fuck are we going to do with that maniac?” Cardinal Spitfire angrily asked everypony when they got to their barracks. “We did our PT test and more.”

“And he is not going to be going anywhere anytime soon,” Deke added. “You can tell he is pissed at something. But we all passed.”

“We can survive. Trudge on,” Shadow groaned. “Its unit tactics. He will push us hard and we will do all the better. But he missed the main PT. That saved our asses.”

“Shadow is right,” Golden Dawn piped up. “Trudge on, together.”

“He came out of nowhere,” Olive Pit said. “But where did he really come from?”

“A strong, old military family,” Blue Wings answered. “You stay out of their way. I was in school with at least one of them. A pegasus named Pride. You don't want to know what that family is like.”

“So, we get to deal with a demon set loose upon the clouds,” Olive Pit moaned.

“Don't push against him Shadow Flare,” Cardinal Spitfire warned. “It will end badly for all of us.”

“I won't,” Shadow replied. “This time, I know when to back off. I finally learned that lesson. Late but learned.”

“I doubt he will let you go easily,” Deke warned. “You have a reputation for pushing back and being stubborn. Prepare for a fight.”

Morning was not fun. They were ordered outside to the parade field in full gear. There was no PT of any kind.

“Today is Tactics,” Master Wind announced. “You will have to put your urban and land nav skills to the test as we work on battle tactics on the ground, and later in the sky. But enough about that. You will be outfitted with a special case to chamber, and vests. These will be used for war games to put those tactics to the test. You will face instructors, other soldiers assisting and soon, the other Barracks. Leaders and support weapons will be chosen before each exercise.”

“Prior to this point,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf said stepping forward. “You have learned to work as a team, and only a team. Now you will finally begin working together as a pair like it should have been from the start. Battle Buddies. They watch your back, you watch theirs. That means you will live and breath next to them. Eat together, Shower, shit and piss together. One watches while the other does their thing.”

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf pulled out a piece of paper. “I have my decided buddies here. The Filly Foolers will make the first one.”

Shadow groaned instinctively and regretted it. The Lieutenant was on him immediately screaming in his face as he had to do wing ups. Worse, Cardinal Spitfire was forced to join him. Everypony watched, afraid of the verbal abuse that was being dished out. Shadow resorted to tuning it out in order to survive. Lieutenant Autumn Leaf left them both on the ground gasping for breath as the others formed up with their assigned buddy.

“Sorry,” Shadow gasped.

“Forgiven,” Cardinal Spitfire coughed. “He didn't hear my quiet curse. Neither of us was smart and in control. Fucking Filly Foolers name.”

“We will learn by the end of this,” Shadow said, trying to stand.

“It is our duty,” Cardinal Spitfire continued. “Our duty to be in control. To keep things civil and orderly for the good of all. It may not be what we individually came here for, but it is fundamental to the survival of the Pegasus Race and the core of the Enclave.”

They were sent inside for a quick breakfast before the real training began. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire were in last.

“Wait,” Shadow halted as they entered. “Look at the others.”

“I don't see anything,” Cardinal Spitfire said surveying everything.

“Exactly,” Shadow said. “He told to do everything together. Everything as one watched over the other.”

“I do not want to get smoked again,” Cardinal Spitfire gulped. “You eat first.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded slowly. “No mistakes.”

Nopony caught on. They were still sorting out the battle buddy change. Cardinal Spitfire gave Shadow a warning kick when Lieutenant Autumn Leaf entered. Shadow was almost done eating, but he ate faster.

“I SAID TO DO EVERYTHING TOGETHER!” The Lieutenant said as he went off.

Cardinal Spitfire held fast as he sent everypony outside for punishment. Trays were left half eaten. He stared at them for a good fifteen seconds before he walked away. Cardinal Spitfire quickly switched out and ate while Shadow took watch.

“Ah! The two who actually learned from their mistake,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf greeted them as they came out. “NOW ALL OF YOU INSIDE TO CLEAN UP THOSE TRAYS! AND I DON'T MEAN LICK THEM CLEAN! TAKE EVEN A SNIFF AND YOU WON'T HAVE ANYTHING FOR THE REST OF THE DAY!”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire breathed a sigh of relief as the Lieutenant followed the others into the mess hall. Master Wind was left to watch over them. He stood there attentive, but not moving, like he had trained them to do.

“The Lieutenant is distracted, we can talk quickly,” Cardinal Spitfire said quietly. “Pact. Whatever happened has happened. It is you and me.”

Shadow smiled. “Together we fail or succeed.”

“Together we teach the other. Help round ourselves out. I will help you shoot and lead, you will help me not give up. I can talk, but I lose my never sometimes. Teach me that fucking insane endurance you have and don't forget the agility. I will need that as a Wonderbolt.”

“Deal,” Shadow said as the wrapped their hoof around the other’s, sealing the pact. “Lesson one on agility, think agile. I know, duh. The point is to plan ahead, but be ready for a change at any moment. It takes the right mental stance. We can teach you the physical acrobatics as we go. And you can call me Shadow if you want. If these are our last days, lets make it on a first name basis.”

“I still will call you Filly Fooler in groups, but call me Cardinal. I love my heritage, but my family is so fucking annoying with it. Especially my mother. They won't even call me Cardinal. Always has to have Spitfire.”

“Fair Cardinal. And that sucks. I had the opposite. No one would add the Flare back home, until I was about to leave and fitting in more. Three years to late.”

“That is why you came?”

“No. And yes. I still think this is the best place for me. Where I am destined to be.”

“You Cutie Mark does point to that,” Cardinal Spitfire admitted. She chuckled. “Ever notice how we both have lighting bolts?”

“I never did,” Shadow chuckled. “Now compose. Here they come.”

“MOVE MOVE MOVE!” Was what they heard most of the day.

They were learning how to move under fire and take cover. How to navigate the immediate battlefield was very important. The other drill sergeants were using lasers pointers to simulate enemy fire. Stay out of the laser was the game. They all were losing.

“I was thinking Cardinal,” Shadow said as he stood watch while she ate. “After this, lets work on that agility. All day you were doing what you could to help me command and navigate things in my head.”

“Sounds exhausting,” She replied. “But lets do it.”

Shadow had to slow down her eating. He didn't need her stomach to turn. Once outside, they started with hoofstands. Shadow held her legs up while she got used to the blood flowing to her head. After a good half hour, he switched to basic dive roles. She knew how to dive, but the roll usually ended up with her slamming her back on the ground. The Clouds were only so soft.

Tactics training continued until they were familiar with controlling the area and clearing buildings safely. They were aware that they were different than the other barracks. They knew that at the very least, they were the only ones using the buddy system to eat, and most likely in the barracks as well.

Most everypony shuffled their sleeping arrangements around so they would be beside, above, or below their buddy. There were a few exceptions, like Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire, who were already matched. They even decided to go to the lengths of setting watch through the night. Two would take watch at the door for a few hours and patrol the whole barracks through the night, armor and saddles ready. Which meant after a scare or two, they had to declare when they were getting up at night.

“This sucks,” Deke said as he slammed into the red cloud wall next to Shadow. Shadow gave cover while their battle buddies darted over to them. Olive Pit had been paired with Deke.

“I took last shift,” Deke continued. “I am so tired.”

“No one is sleeping well,” Cardinal Spitfire replied.

The sound of a simulated explosion on the other side of the wall made them duck. They were in the urban nav course fighting it out against at least Green and Blue. Their radio communication skills were choppy and still new.

Cardinal Spitfire slid to the corner and opened fire. Two Green recruits yelped in shock as their special vests registered them being hit by the training round by giving them a nice jolt of electricity.

“I have a visual on an objective box,” Cardinal Spitfire radioed. “But it is in the center of the square on grid 12C. Over.”

“Roger that Beta,” Golden Dawn said. She was their leader this time. “We will converge on that location and take it. Don't let anypony… Fuck you Filly Fooler! Any PEGASUS get to it.”

“Roger that,” Shadow replied. “Better hurry. It's just four in Beta now. Over.”

“Deke,” Shadow said tapping him. “That building has a door on the front, and window. I think. It is a great place to lay down cover on the square.”

“You will get trapped!” Olive Pit objected.

“Its a risk, but it could be very rewarding,” Cardinal Spitfire stated.

“Halfway out we do a dive roll and then vault sideways in through the doorway. I lead and you follow to know when to make each movement,” Shadow suggested.

“It could work,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “And we would surprise anypegasus inside so we should be able to clear it.”

“I like your plan,” Deke said. “On your cue, Shadow, we will give you two all the cover fire we can.”

Another simulated explosion boomed on the other side of the square. The still instinctively ducked. Shadow took the moment to dash out as planned. He made it safely and Cardinal Spitfire made it as well, albeit it was a very rough landing inside the building.

Shadow took the window and Cardinal Spitfire worked from the doorway. Green had seen them enter and had them in their sights. Cardinal Spitfire called out their movements and Shadow did a decent job at picking them off. Mostly his shots were just enough to keep their heads down. It wasn't long before reinforcements arrived and the square was taken.

Sirens sounded soon after and all barracks assembled at their insertion point. Red had taken five of the ten points for the victory.

“You got two points,” Master Wind stated. “For the first all Barracks field exercise, that was well done. Red took things by storm. They were not subtle about their movements and took heavy losses. Yellow shied away at their might, and Blue was blindsided by their speed. Trampling pegasi down is not a good overall strategy. Black was the only Barracks to use their wings and their brains to navigate.”

“Next time take objectives even with greater cost,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf stated. “Losses are to be expected. You played it too safe. You only lost eight and it got you nowhere.”

“Yes Sir,” Shadow said without thinking. He didn't agree, but he wasn't going to disagree by saying nothing.

“One of the Filly Foolers knows what I mean,” The Lieutenant smiled. “Even if she is a pathetic soldier, she thinks she gets.”

“Take some time to relax before dinner,” Master Wind ordered. “After we will begin night combat training.”

The group groaned as they fell out of formation. Master Wind was keeping the Lieutenant on a leash and giving his barracks all he could. He didn't let the Lieutenant smoke them for the groan. It was still his Barrack to control and they were being worked to their limit. Shadow had a feeling he knew the full situation after a spot inspection the day before. The Lieutenant had not been inside their barracks yet, if he even was allowed.

“Admirable job with navigation,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And even though it was only eight of us, you are learning command.”

“Tactics make command so much easier,” Shadow sighed. “It is a lot more straightforward.”

“All in how you look at it,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “It isn't much different. Switch how you view leadership like you adjust in acrobatics. I want to do acrobatics but…”

“You have improved a lot,” Shadow smiled. “But lets not push because of tonight. We have time.”

In their attempts to get some rest, no one took the unexpected watch. Master Wind woke them with gentle orders to head to dinner.

“Now we get to do this at night,” Shadow said to the others as he stood watch at dinner. They had gotten good at communicating while paying attention on watch.

“We can. Nopony… Fuck! Nopegasi said this would be easy for any of us.” Golden Dawn stated. “You are rubbing off on us in the wrong way. And still you have yet to be correct in your speech once!”

Shadow chuckled. “At this point, I am just going with the flow.”

“Anyway, this should be no different other than learning to do it with less visibility,” Golden Dawn stated so everyone could hear. “We navigated with different weather patterns well enough.”

Night combat was worse than they thought. Being tired made no difference. The night vision gear had no depth perception. The entire night ended up being a lot of bumping into ponies and walls, tripping over everything and nothing, and a lot of long crawls to the cover they thought was closer.

They all were frustrated by the morning, and then had to sleep all day before heading back out the next night. That was their schedule for the week, ending with a night battle.

Master Wind held a hat and Lieutenant Autumn Leaf pulled a name tag out of it.

“Filly Fooler. You are the commander,” The Lieutenant said disappointed.

Shadow took his name tag and put it back on.

“Deke, you are a squad leader,” The Lieutenant droned on. “Golden Dawn, you are a squad leader. Flex, you are a squad leader. And Majesty, you are a squad leader.”

“I want a fifth Squad Leader,” Shadow stated.

“A fifth? You can't handle a fifth,” The Lieutenant said as if he was a small filly.

“Pull one from the hat or let him pick one,” Master Wind said through his teeth.

“And Sharp, You are a a squad leader.”

They drew casings from a hat to determine what gun they carried. Shadow had 8 machine gunners to place. Olive Pit drew one and he was already with Deke. Sharp's battle buddy drew another. The other six were free. He put two in each squad except for Golden Dawn's.

“Golden Dawn,” Shadow began with a reassurance nod from Cardinal Spitfire. “I want you to be light and fast. Scout things out. Move, avoid being seen as much as possible, and only engage if it is your last option. That is why it is just you and Silver Lining for now. That is your show.”

“Deke, I need you to spearhead the assault, flanked by Flex and Sharp. I will stay in the rear along with Majesty. When I need him, Majesty will move to reinforce somepony or flank. I want to hold him in reserve.”

Shadow took a deep breath. “I think the Lieutenant was right last time. We were too meek. We need to be heavier and faster. But I won't accept heavy losses. That is why we will start closer together and then I will have Majesty swing where his team is needed.”

“That is why you need a scout team,” Golden Dawn stated.

“Exactly,” Shadow said. “I bet Red will be coming in from our north due to our location.”

“I will move up that way,” Golden Dawn responded.

“But I think they will have an objective box around V5. Not a far trek, but they will probably stick two others close by as well. Now, anypony else have suggested points of interest for us to check out?”

Shadow listened to the other suggestions. Golden had two points she wanted to check out. The first she could probably get to safely and secure it alone. The second would be deeper in and behind lines when they finally could get to it.

“One last thing,” Shadow said wrapping things up. “Remember to use fliers to pop straight up for a quick recon and then drop back down. Fast enough to catch major movements, not fast enough to be seen. Oh, and remember our work with the commutation and codes.”

“Not bad,” Cardinal Spitfire said as they watched the others form up at their insertion point.

Master Wind gave the countdown but let the sirens do the final job. Deke's squad sprinted into the cityscape.

“Captain, objective sighted,” Deke radioed a short while later. “It is on the opposite side of the square but on top of the building. Easy to miss. Sending someone up.”

“Hold that Lieutenant,” Shadow ordered. “Lieutenant Flex, send one up. I don't want Lieutenant Deke's position given away.”

“Somepegasus is moving on the far side of the square,” Their flier said. “At least one squad is moving north, and at least one squad to the square. We also have visitors on my flank. I think it's Yellow. Nopegasus knows we are here.”

“On it Captain,” Sharp said. “Circling to take it.”

“Captain. We stumbled upon an objective,” Lieutenant Golden Dawn reported. “Hidden, but we could secure it. Three marks south where I predicted at V8.”

“Well done Lieutenant,” Shadow praised. “Play?”

“Heading towards primary target still, Captain,” Golden Dawn replied.

The sound of their laser mods firing began, a good way off and with screams of pain as recruits took hits.

“Captain, picking off Green with a sniper,” Deke reported. “They have no idea where the objective is.”

“Yellow is right on our flank Captain. Lieutenant Flex can't report he is so close.”

“Prepare for them to come. Make them come to you. Lieutenant Deke, be ready to send half of your squad to hold Lieutenant Flex's other flank.”

More combat erupted off to their side.

“Send us in,” Lieutenant Majesty pushed.

“Not yet,” Shadow replied. He was apprehensive to play his trump card yet. Not until they got word from their flank.

“Captain, two down,” Lieutenant Flex reported. “But we have 6 of theirs hit with us, and we believe we hit at least two more.”

“Bravo Lieutenant,” Shadow replied. “Hold there for now. Lieutenant Majesty, move out to pick up the far flank with Lieutenant Sharp. Lets take that objective and be prepared to meet Green face to face. They have to be reacting to our presence. Stay quiet and let them come. I will be with Lieutenant Deke's squad.”

“Captain, we got the objective,” Lieutenant Sharp responded as Lieutenant Majesty moved out. “A quick dash to there and back while Yellow attacked. I don't think we were spotted.”

“Excellent!” Shadow exclaimed. “Two of three objectives! Well done all!”

“Two of three?” Lieutenant Majesty asked.

“There are five Barracks going for 10 objectives,” Shadow said. “If we take three, we have the upper hoof. Somepony will need to fight for four. I know Red took five last time, but if we rob them of one, we can win this.”

“Captain,” Golden Dawn said. “Red is north. Thank goodness it was just us. They have a heavy force heading south towards you. And I hear more off to the middle. Moving to secondary Objective.”

“Copy that,” Shadow said. “Play that really careful Lieutenant and good job.”

Shadow switched tactics. They no longer needed to be at the square.

“Lieutenant Deke and Lieutenant Flex, we are moving to form up on Lieutenant Majesty's flank. We are going to be committed to battle in a few minutes so lets move and take strong positions.”

Deke made several orders to his squad. He was moving some to take to the roofs at their next position.

“Captain,” Flex said catching up to them. “Yellow is moving to attack again. I guess they will be surprised to find no resistance.”

“Good,” Shadow responded. “Any advantage is an advantage.”

Battle erupted on what had to be Yellow and Green's front. Even more of an advantage.

“Captain,” Sharp said. “We almost opened fire, but held off. The Green Squad didn't see us as they moved south to engage Yellow.”

“Then lets change it up,” Shadow said. “M8 was a popular pick. Diamond shape with Lieutenant Deke in the rear. We move out as soon as we get organized. I will move to point with Lieutenant Majesty.”

Shadow was leaving his squad leaders control of their squad's actions. Before, commanders who they now designated as Captain, had given a lot of individual, micro management orders. Shadow was borrowing from home, with how his community organized harvests.

Who went where was decided in meetings, but each farm used the extra hooves how they saw fit. Each farm knew how best to bring in that year's harvest. Likewise, his squad leaders knew what was happening directly with them. He focused on his squad being just his lieutenant.

Several battles were erupting all over, causing confusion as few knew what was going on and where it was happening.

“Captain, Red and Blue are hitting each other hard over an objective at L12,” Lieutenant Golden Dawn radioed. “It is a well placed objective. I recommend moving me to M8. I will be there faster than you and can scope things out.”

“Do it Lieutenant,” Shadow ordered. “But lets avoid a direct meeting if possible, I want to keep you free.”

Battle erupted dead ahead as they neared their target.

“Lieutenant Deke, swing down to Sharp's flank,” Shadow ordered. “It is time we rolled back out to probe the area.”

“Fuck Captain” Lieutenant Majesty said. “It is in the middle again. Not too big of a large road, but exposed. And it is a long one cutting through a lot of the map.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire moved up to the edge to get a look.

“I say send Sharp across,” Cardinal Spitfire spoke for the first time since the exercise had started. “A quick dash while we cover them.”

Shadow radioed the command. Sharp's squad made it without incident. A firefight erupted further out in front of them. Sharp moved his squad to primarily defend against it.

“Cardinal Spitfire, get that objective and meet up with Lieutenant Sharp,” Shadow ordered.

She made it without incident.

“Three objectives,” Shadow stated. “Lets go win this thing with the fourth. We know where Red and Blue are fighting for one. Shadow led the other three squads across in one go. Lieutenant Sharp immediately moved his squad to engage the firefight. He cleared the several surviving recruits with ease.

“It was Lieutenant Golden Dawn,” Lieutenant Sharp informed them. “Our scouts are down.”

“They did and amazing job,” Shadow said. “Move on out to the next objective at L12.”

Shadow lost half his Barracks taking the next objective. But they robbed Red from obtaining it. Blue only had a few left who they caught in retreat and dispatched with only one of their comrades down.

Taking the objective ended the exercise. Blue had two, red and three and Green had managed to capture an uncontested objective before Yellow wiped them all out. Yellow was in no fighting shape after the engagement with Green.

“Well done Filly Fooler,” Master Wind greeted them on return. “I had my doubts, but it worked.”

“You got lucky finding that one with your scouts,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf said annoyed.

“A find is a find,” Shadow replied back.

“Engaging Yellow and Green would have been smarter,” The Lieutenant continued.

“They were no threat and it would have cost us the third objective. That Blue Squad would have taken it. Credit goes to my scouts for that.”

“Sorry we got pinned,” Golden Dawn said.

“This is war. Combat,” Shadow stated. “Casualties will happen. You gave us a ton of information and took an objective on your own. And still yet, you kept Blue distracted enough for us to nab the third and then get revenge. You got us three of the four objectives. That is more than good enough for me.”

“In real combat you won't have troops to split like that,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf chastised.

“But I will be able to use information from scouts and recon teams,” Shadow shot back. “And hopefully a good commander would send them in advanced of our position to tell me what I need to know. Any advantage is an advantage.”

“Go get a few hours sleep,” Master Wind said ending any further discussion. “Don't run shifts. Everypegasus get some sleep. It will be a full PT day and obstacle courses. The day after begins aerial training.”

They all confirmed with a unified 'Yes Sir!' before beginning the trek back to the barracks.

“Nice job Filly Fooler!” Deke said as they got in the barracks. “You did well. Much better than expected. We got that lucky objective, but you also got us a better grasp on commanding a whole unit.”

“Thanks” Shadow yawned. “This victory was more all of yours than mine. I barely fired. And then only from a strong defensive position at that last engagement.”

“If we had lost you, it would have been chaos,” Golden Dawn said from her bed. “No matter who is commander, losing the commander is always a big deal. Now turn those damn lights off!”

Chapter 9 - Marble Falls

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“Alright recruits. I am Lieutenant Marble Falls. Don't let the name fool you or the uniform. I am a Wonderbolt and that is more than you can understand.”

“Yes Ma'am!” They responded in together.

Being a Wonderbolt explained the dark brown flight jacket the blue Pegasus was wearing. Although it didn’t bear their lightning bolt and wings symbol. Her black mane was cropped short, but with enough length she could still style it. The gray streaks were natural, not a sign of any aging.

“Five of you are bucking for aerial teams. A surprising number from Black. Usually they are all in Blue. Good for you. But that also means I am going to be working you extra hard for their sakes. If you pass with exceptional skill you might get a new choice for your service to the Pegasus Race.”

“You all will need to fly and fly well. Flying and combat is much different. You have to watch out from everywhere. Above, Below, to your rear, and in front. And you have to be steady shots. Now is the time to fix any accuracy issues.”

Shadow's heart skipped a beat. He was not prepared for shooting while flying. He should have seen it coming, but should was in the past.

“I am toast,” He whispered to Cardinal Spitfire.

“Excuse me recruit… Filly Fooler,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said after looking at his name tag.

“Sorry Ma'am. Nothing Ma'am,” Shadow responded.

“I still would like to hear what you said.”

“I said I am toast Ma'am. Shooting is not my strong point.”

“I am well aware of your inability to shoot straight,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated to everypony. “If you don't learn, I have failed in my job. Your Barracks Master… and that Lieutenant, are not with you for the next three weeks.”

“That is why you brought your half of the tent. You will be sleeping outdoors with your battle buddy, here by the flight deck. That is, until I am done with you. Your food will be field rations. As good and admirable as it is, you will not need to keep watch at night while here. All of us are impressed with your initiative to immediately take up watch without needing to be told.”

“There will be no major PT. Just some warm ups at dawn. You will get plenty of physical fitness training under my watch. To start, we will be working with battle buddies. Both in lead and wing positions. We will add on your equipment once I am satisfied you can handle it.”

They went over safety on and around the flight deck, the different flags they would use for signaling and how to properly take off and land. Armor changed a lot when it came to flying. After that was taught, Lieutenant Marble Falls sent Majesty and his battle buddy, Blue Wings, to do a lap. Majesty was given lead.

“Pull it in tighter Blue Wings! Drop back a bit. You don't want to be hit by spent brass. It is hot enough to burn you and will block your vision! Too far back! Why are you slowing down Majesty! I never told you to slow down!”

Lieutenant Marble Falls seemed easy enough at the start, but she quickly turned out to be the most ridged instructor they had ever been put under. Everything had to be perfect. If it was, she didn’t bother you.

She could give commands to every battle buddy team while she worked them non stop through the laps. The single teams were not the optimal position for drafting so there was little break, even when they switched roles. After lunch it was the same, except they switched which side their wing mate was on.

When they stopped for dinner, they began to compare what they saw the other colors do. Red was slow and struggling to work together. Blue had armor and weapons on by the end of the day. Green and Yellow were out of sight.

“Don't worry about what the others are doing,” Lieutenant Marble Falls addressed them after awhile. “Focus on you and your Barracks. Remember, Barracks are groups of Pegasi who have similar strengths and weaknesses. Help each other get stronger. All recruits have to pass the same tests with the same standards, but we all train you according to your general abilities. Five minutes until we launch again.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls ignore the several involuntary groans as she walked away. A moan were fine with her as long as you worked as hard as you could and met her approval. So far they had for the day. They flew well into the night and were forced to set up their tents with only starlight.

“How am I going to learn to shoot and fly?” Shadow asked Cardinal Spitfire.

“You will. Lieutenant Marble Falls isn't going to let you fail. It is a mark against her if you do. You improved greatly over the exercises. Just relax and aim. And now relax and shut up so we can both sleep.”

“And don't fool around you two,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said surprising them from outside their tent. “I don't need the Filly Foolers team working together like that and messing up my training.”

“I think she really thinks you are a mare,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered.

“As long as that is my only concern, I am happy.” Shadow said. He fell to sleep in minutes.

It was a much lighter PT in the morning. Leagues less than they had to test on. The Lieutenant had better plans in store.

“You did well enough yesterday to justify putting your armor on. GO!”

They raced to throw it on and assemble along the flight deck. There was no breather. As soon as the last team arrived they were immediately sent to launch. This time in the opposite direct.

“We can't let you get used to flying in one direction can we?” Lieutenant Marble Falls laughed.

“This sucks,” Shadow said as they flew in endless laps.

“Pull in a bit tighter,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered. “Adjust to the lead pegasus. It is part of my job to make sure I don't out fly you. The faster we master this, the sooner aerial combat begins and the longer you have to learn.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded.

“RECRUITS! ASSEMBLE!” The Lieutenant called over the loud speaker.

They all turned and headed immediately back to the flight deck. They stayed in their flight positions getting back.

“No bad. There is a lot of potential in all of you. Keep up the good work. While the crew reorganizes the flight path, get some water.”

They took their break and reassembled.

“At ease,” The Lieutenant ordered. “They still have plenty to do on the course. So time for constructive criticism. To start, Filly Fooler Team. Cardinal Spitfire, you are bucking for a spot on the aerial teams. Specifically the Wonderbolts. You are going to have to move faster than that if you ever hope to achieve a sonic rainboom. Without that, you can't make the Wonderbolts.”

“Shadow Flare, you are in line for the nonexistent scout or recon. You have good endurance. The best endurance I have ever seen. You look like your flight skills will be enough to pass the requirements they had when active. But passing and getting chosen are two different things. You better pick up the pace if you want my stamp of approval, especially since you are paired with Cardinal Spitfire.”

“Thank you Ma'am!” Shadow responded.

Shadow looked over at Cardinal Spitfire. He could see the dread in her eyes.

“I have never actually tested my speed,” He said. “So lets see how much wing power I actually have.”

Cardinal Spitfire just smiled back as she schemed.

“Alright recruits,” The Lieutenant said wrapping the talk up. “They should be done by now. Your goal is to stay together and move through the course. This is no longer a simple loop. There are turns and obstacles to avoid. At times, you will be forced to fly low to the laid out track. For now, just follow the red clouds. Weather training will come later.”

She launched Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow first with Cardinal in the lead.

“Lets do this Cardinal,” Shadow said. “Hold nothing back.”

Cardinal Spitfire began to increase her speed and Shadow kept up. So far it was a simple track with smooth curves. Halfway through it charged to a more aggressive situation. Their line of sight was blocked as they were forced to zig zag through several columns and then duck low, skimming the surface of the track into a sharp turn. Shadow shifted to the other side as they came out of the turn and were forced straight up and then into a roll and twist upside down to speed back around to the flight deck.

The red flag was up so they dropped to a stop and stepped off the flight deck.

“Much better Cardinal Spitfire,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “Why did you switch wing positions?”

“Going into the low turn it gave me a better angle to see what was ahead,” Shadow stated. “I was able to let Cardinal Spitfire know the next move would be up. Several seconds before she could see.”

“Not bad recruits. Now get back to it and do not be afraid to pass.”

Shadow took the lead as they sped off. They met up with the last team in the low ceiling area. Shadow Shifted to an aggressive inside position going into the curve. It was exhilarating jetting out of the low hang and then into the sharp turn up. They had to dodge those who had not been able to adjust and gotten stuck in the clouds.

They were waved on and Cardinal Spitfire came up beside him. “Lets see if you can handle my speed.”

“We know the track. That is our advantage.”

“Any advantage is an advantage!”

Cardinal Spitfire burst ahead into the lead as they crossed back onto the track. Shadow kept up easily. They passed the others with ease, sometimes being forced to split to make the move, but they came back around with the fastest paces set out of the other teams. With no flags showing, they stayed in their positions.

“That was Lieutenant Autumn Leaf talking to Lieutenant Marble Falls,” Shadow said.

“I am not surprised,” Cardinal Spitfire responded. “The Battle of the Lieutenants has begun.”

They could not increase their pace any more due to the track's design. Shadow took lead when Cardinal Spitfire had to dodge another team more than she could have expected. They stayed with Shadow in lead for several more laps until they were called to a halt. Shadow hadn't dropped his speed at all during that time.

“Good job everypegasus,” The Lieutenant greeted them. “Lieutenant Autumn Leaf will be joining us. As an observer only. For now, go grab chow and take a well earned break.

When they were done and assembled Lieutenant Marble Falls had a few new changes.

“Filly Fooler team, you will be heading out to follow the red cloud rings. I need to see your speed.”

Four other teams were set up to run the rings. Cardinal was given the lead.

“Calm down Cardinal,” Shadow said. “Breath. Remember my Cutie Mark. Its lighting bolts. I know you can't see it, but remember it represents speed, power and agility.”

“We know your power and agility,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “So I guess we really need to find out your speed.”

She launch from where she was at and Shadow bolted off after her. The others took off after them using normal flight trot they had been taught.

Shadow was keeping up with a pretty tight pattern. The course was not flat. It did have plenty of twists, turns a climb and a fall, and surprisingly a few rolls. It was a long course though, taking them past all of the other flight decks. Often they were sent to go through the other Barrack's courses for fun.

The Red Flag was up and they skidded to a stop. Shadow tripped and fell face fist into the deck before sliding another yard. Lieutenant Marble Falls was right by his side to help him up.

“I am fine Ma'am. Fine enough,” He said as they helped him up.

“Well, a nice scrape and probably a black eye, but nothing serious,” The Lieutenant said as she examined him. “Still, go get to the clinic in our Squad Barracks and get some ice on that eye. We want the swelling to stop before you can't see. You need every training day you can get. Cardinal Spitfire, help him to there.”

“Yes Ma'am!” Cardinal Spitfire said as she began to walk Shadow there.

“You lost a bit of hair on your cheek,” She giggled. “A nice battle scar for a few days.”

They chuckled.

“You kept up with me,” She continued. “Easily.”

“It still isn't a flat out sprint,” Shadow replied.

“True, but it is in a formation and a fast track. I was the fastest flier in my flight school, but they never had us work this hard or long, and the tracks were not this tough.”

“Flight school?” Shadow asked.

“You never spent time at a school to learn how to fly?”

“I was doing farm work before I could fly,” Shadow replied. “And the obstacle courses. We had no time for some formal training. My parents taught me, and then like the other fillies and colts, I was not allowed to touch the ground for hours. Often all day. My introduction to flying was being kicked off a low cloud by my Dad. It wasn’t gently.”

“You kept up with me without any actual flight training?”

“I guess so,” Shadow said as he applied ice to his eye. “But you should get out there are see what you can do solo.”

“I do not know if I would be allowed. Besides, I am not leaving my battle buddy behind. It isn't like you will be out for long.”

Shadow wasn't allowed back on the track and Cardinal Spitfire never even asked if she could go solo for the practice. They stayed on the sidelines talking while Shadow rotated icing his eye.

The red flag was put up and they all assembled as they flew in.

“Filly Fooler, front and center,” Lieutenant Marble Falls ordered.

“As you can see, Filly Fooler took a face plant trying to land quickly after coming in very hot. This is why we take off and land in like we do. This would have been prevented if he was wearing a standard combat helmet. Many of you will wear different helmets once you move to training and depending on your jobs. But for now it separate pieces. Land properly. Fall out for a break. I am getting dizzy watching all of you wobble uselessly around out there.”

“Nice job,” Deke said poking Shadow. “Let onto the other track and you do that.”

“I had to help you guys look better,” Shadow replied.

“How fast were you guys going?” Golden Dawn asked.

“Faster than I ever went in flight school, on a much more difficult track. We passed every other barracks and still had most of the track to go. I think we were supposed to find out our time, but Filly Fooler face planted. Filly Fooler also didn't go to a flight school.”

“We have an untrained flier here!” Olive Pit exclaimed. “Isn't that extremely dangerous? That is why we go to flight school so we are not a danger while flying!”

“I heard danger,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said rushing over.

“Shadow Flare didn't go to flight school,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “Nor did he know about it until we were talking on the way to the medic.”

The Lieutenant pulled out a file and read it. “Interesting,” She said. “He obviously can handle himself. I was surprised nopegasus else fell earlier. The armor usually crashes my recruits all day on the landings. That is why I have you spend the first day flying without it. But carry on.”

They had over an hour to relax before they were ordered to eat and then back on the tracks, including Filly Fooler team. Spitfire kept them fast, but slowed down a bit. They worked on landing every time they got back to the flight deck. When twilight hit, the five side teams were put back on the first track to work on night flying. Most teams had to drastically slow down. The five others kept close to the max speed the track allowed.

With the light gone, pegasi were making bad landings and slamming into each other on the course. Shadow got slammed multiple times, even as the lead.

Lieutenant Marble Falls loved to laugh at the crashes on the flight deck. More than once teams overshot the crowded deck and tumbled to the base clouds below. The landings got inventive and usually funny to watch. Outside of a little banging up, nopony got hurt worse than a good bruise, ignoring Shadow. His eye was hurting, but the swelling was minimal.

“Well done today,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “I didn't expect to see this progress until day four. I do not know if my expectations have dropped, or if you are all around good fliers.”

Everypony chuckled.

“Still, tomorrow means we will be working on recovering from spin offs and anything else that suddenly separates you from your formation. For the sake of everypegasus, you will not have breakfast. Better safe than sorry. And you will be sorry.”

“Your agility should help you there,” Cardinal Spitfire said to Shadow as they crawled into their tent. “If you can flip like you have been teaching me, then you should be exceptional.”

“You have gotten good too,” Shadow replied. “Control in the air is one thing. Controlling your mind is the key to it all.”

The morning brought the launching machines used to force spin offs. All day long they were shot into the air from different angles and speeds. The better you got, the harder they made it. Shadow never lost his stomach, but was slower than they hoped for to recover. He kept his head screwed on tightly the entire day and was soon being asked for advice.

The machines were gone the next day. Off to other Barracks to toss more recruits. The track angles became sharper, turns quicker and line of sight less. At times it felt like Shadow was dancing rather than flying.

“Was that just two holes we were forced to go through?” Cardinal Spitfire asked Shadow.

“Yeah. Out of nowhere, they changed the course since last pass to force us apart. Keep your eyes peeled for more.”

“Right,” Cardinal Spitfire said as they came into a really tight turn and then were forced apart again. This time they were separated for a few seconds until they were in open air to recover the formation.

“Day five is sprints,” Lieutenant Marble Falls announced. “The simplest thing you will do in the aerial training. But the hardest to impress me at. You will be racing against your battle buddy, but you will be timed separately.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire were last to go. It was a short sprint to begin. Cardinal Spitfire left Shadow well behind, but he was still in the top half for the times. As the day grew, so did the lengths. By the end of the day, they were doing marathons rather than sprints. Shadow's endurance raised him to the top 5 for the marathons.

“Not bad,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Only battle Buddy team in the top ten. Still isn't flying and shooting though.”

“Don't remind me,” Shadow groaned as he pulled his blanked over his head.

“Do you think this… us will last after training?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“I am the only pony who calls you Cardinal. We may be headed to two very different places, and it does not sound like either of us will have much time to talk and see each other after, but it will if we want it to. Friendships only die when somepony wants it to.”

“Before the war there was a special group of friends Princess Celestia trusted greatly,” Shadow continued. “Heroes of Equestria. When the war came, they were tasked with unique jobs, Ministries they were called. The great Rainbow Dash was the Pegasus who was in charge of the Ministry of Awesome. The other Pegasus was Fluttershy, the head over Ministry of Peace. There were two unicorns and two earth ponies in their heroic team as well.”

“All six were thrown into their roles and often didn't see each other. But they still were known to say 'friendship is magic.' If they could hold out through that bloody war, then we can outlast separate trainings.”

“You have a very different history than we do,” Cardinal Spitfire stated. “I hope your words to General Red River at the start of training do not bite you in the ass. I hope your community can keep that history alive if the Enclave comes to enforce our standards. I have a feeling you have a better picture of war history than we are taught.”

“That is odd,” Shadow replied. “I know they teach the history we need to know to keep us alive and remind us just how much the Enclave does for us. That is what matters.”

“They might replace your textbooks,” Cardinal Spitfire stated. “I am not sure how I feel about that.”

“Don't worry. I do not know what a textbook is which means we do not have any. Most of this history are legends of the war and prewar, which are passed down as stories.”

“I wish you had time to tell me more. I know at least Deke, Olive Pit and Golden Dawn would be interested.”

“I don't want to push that. I still say pony instead of pegasus. I know they are just waiting for me to grow out of it, and I probably will. But its safest if I keep the mannerisms of home, home.”

“That scares me. I do not want disunity. I do not know if your minor differences are okay, or are actually detrimental to all of our safety. Somep… are questioning the Enclave. It could be used to fuel the fire.”

“Rest easy Card,” Shadow said as a yawn took over. “nal. My community is loyal to a fault and will not cause harm. Even our gripe about taxes are small gripes and not taken seriously. We give a huge amount and we have more than enough food for the year and we help each other out for wedding food and such.”

“We get our weekly food… tickets that we use at the market. Its like a point system. Say we have 100 points, and each item takes off a certain number of points. We have to make the best choices to feed our family for the week. The price of food changes depending on supplies.”

“My mom would get a small stockpile of oats started each fall. By the end of summer, prices would constrict how much we could get since the supplies are lowest before the harvest, but duh, you know that personally from farming. The oats were never needed, but she kept them as a safety net. Just in case. But we never shared food like that and rarely entertained. When family visited, they would bring their points to cover food.”

“That does not sound like fun,” Shadow replied. “But I thought you were farmers too?”

“We are. But close to a city, so it all went to the Enclave and exchanged for points. Almost all. We got to keep a bushel or two.”

“Did you make jams or can any of it?”

“No. If we wanted apple jam, we had to go to the market and buy some. Pegasi work in factories that do most of the jamming. You do your own?”

“The farms that had fruit to jam did. There were only a few in my general area. We never learned until my sister started that cherry farm. And an apple farm was within a hard day's flight, but my dad only went once to help out because of the distance.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire almost jumped with fright when Lieutenant Marble Falls spoke. “You two will want to shut up and get some sleep. And you will definitely want to keep that stuff quiet Shadow Flare. And your questions Cardinal Spitfire, you are learning to think for yourself and understand, but if you speak, do so cautiously and wisely.”

Chapter 10 - Duty

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“You all have done well over the first week, but now it is time to get nasty,” Lieutenant Marble Falls grinned. “Now we add weather. Sweltering heat, blistering cold, hurricane winds; you will face it all. If you think it has been cold, it is only just beginning.”

It was nasty. Despite the recovery training, the strong winds blew teams away and apart.

“Okay, we have this,” Shadow said popping his head out of a cloud. “We have this.”

“At least you are confident,” Cardinal Spitfire shook her head to get the remaining tufts out.

“Positivity is key,” Shadow breathed as he flapped out of the cloud. “Lets make sure you get into the Wonderbolts.”

“Right,” Cardinal Spitfire agreed, joining him.

They were both knocked back into the cloud and had to untangle with their visitors.

“Sorry,” Deke greeted Shadow. He pulled him up, off his back.

“I guess we need to move,” Shadow chuckled.

“Any pointers?” Olive Pit asked popping his head out the cloud.

“Not yet,” Cardinal Spitfire said motioning them to get going. “Lets go before another collision.”

“Where is Golden Dawn?” Shadow asked as the slowly made their way to the edge of the track.

“No idea,” Deke said looking around. “I don't think they have made it this far. She didn't do well recovering and these winds are more than nasty. Nor did Silver Lining.”

They spent the day dealing with excessive winds. The final headwind Shadow and Cardinal eventually worked thorough, once. It was something nopony else was able to do.

“Well done,” Lieutenant Marble Falls flatly praised. “I see your bruises and how stiff you are. That back half of the course is well beyond what you need to pass. We usually ground teams with any weather near those conditions.”

“You learned more by the failures than you did passing. I have never needed to ramp things up so high, yet all of you not only passed the required levels, but surpassed them before dinner. Be ready to face heavy winds again after dinner, on a new course.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls just smiled like she always did at their well earned groans.

“Over a week on these fucking field rations!” Golden Dawn said getting really angry and tossing it aside. “My insides do not know what to do! And my stomach is dead.”

“Food is food,” Shadow offered.

“Yeah yeah,” Golden Dawn mocked. “You lived on a simple diet. Never having much or expecting much. But I don't know if I can do that.”

Golden Dawn broke down crying. Ten of the sixteen weeks in and the ponies in Black were beginning to openly break down in tears.

“I don't know if it is the flying, the raw time we have been here at basic, or the long stress,” Shadow said concerned. “But this is getting ridiculous. Crying isn't conductive of building soldiers.”

“Green might be expected to cry, but not us,” Deke declared. “Still, almost everypegasus has except our tiny group. But now Golden Dawn broke. I call Shadow next.”

They all chuckled including Golden Dawn.

“At least I have friends I can cry around without being embarrassed,” Golden Dawn sniffed.

“I do not think we are supposed to make it alone,” Olive Pit said distracted. “We are supposed to bond together as a whole, and make friends. That is what all those team building exercises were for. We won't forget these times. Even after years and we grow old and senile, we will still be friends.”

“Agreed!” Cardinal Spitfire piped up. “Us five, friends for life. A Raptor commander, a medic, a soldier, a Wonderbolt and a recon Pegasus. Together until the end. Trusting each other until the end. A duty to each other.”

They all tiredly clanked their canteens together in approval before finishing dinner in quiet. They all were concerned about the winds in the dark. It never grew easier to see at night.

“Welcome to winter!” Lieutenant Marble Falls said over the speaker to wake them up.

Snow was all over their tents, the clouds and the flight deck was covered in at least two inches. And it was still growing. Everypony was shivering except for Shadow as they lined up.

“How the hell are you standing still?” Hay Bail blatantly asked.

“Farmer. Worked in worse. This is northing compared to the north. Every try to heat a whole house with a small fireplace and candles? Candle are useless except to help see at night. And wood is very scarce.”

“Didn't you have power?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked approaching Shadow.

“Yes Ma'am. But we rarely used it outside of food prep. It takes a lot to bring a grid so far out. And if too many houses use it at once, its blows. That means no power until somepony comes to fix it. Nopony in our district can do that. It takes a long time. Plus, even with a good house, the power required to heat it in our location is tremendous. We use a lot of blankets instead.”

“With such a small frame, I am impressed,” The Lieutenant said walking away. She was staying warm in a very nice and warm coat. This one bore the Wonderbolt's symbol, unlike the flight jacket she always wore.

“On topic, you will have to deal with the cold for a while. I am sure once you start flapping you will warm up. But then we will give you some good winds and if you are lucky, toss in some ice. Persistent ice will ground you. But I hope you all get a chance to experience its grasp and compensate so you can land safely. Some of you will go onto training that will require you to learn to fly iced until you can properly land. So give them the best you can as a team and show me what Black really has. You will break for breakfast after you warm up a bit.”

They launched into the basic loop around the flight deck.

“Don't glide,” Shadow said noticing Cardinal Spitfire begin to. “If you don't use your wings they will become to stiff to fly.”

Cardinal Spitfire groaned and stopped gliding despite the pain. Shadow took lead to relieve her physically and so she could watch.

“We had to fight the cold by flapping every so often while working and talking. It sucks, but works,” Shadow continued.

“Talking about what?” Moonless Night asked from behind them.

“Sometimes work, but usually just to keep enough of our minds distracted from the cold as we worked.”

“Like what?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Winter was when we mainly told tales and legends.”

“What tales?” Rays asked. His name was officially Little Rays, but everypony dropped the little off. It was not fitting for his build.

“Most of them are old. Warriors from the great war, legends from before.”

“Tell us one,” Moonless Night pushed.

“We should focus more on flying,” Shadow said deflecting it.

“Come on. What was your favorite one?” Moonless Night poked harder.

Shadow sighed. “A war one. The great Rainbow Dash and her Shadow. There are at least three dozen tales of her missions to kill different Zebra generals. Some they did, others like Two Toned escaped multiple times. No tale tells of her killing him. Only the fight for survival after what was usually a trap. She falls for a lot of traps. My favorites is her taking on a Zebra Pirate Ship.”

“You mean Rainbow Dash, as in the first Dashite?”

“I don't know what a Dashite is,” Shadow replied. “I only know that her overall mission was never completed because of the spells. The sky being sealed up was the last anypony heard from her.”

“That can't be true of the traitor.”

“I do not know about that, but I did sneak off once, with some others. It was a several day flight, but there was this cave in the northern mountains, above the clouds. Something had been done there. Scraps and pieces all around. A very big explosions destroyed most of it, at least that was what our young minds saw anyway. Traditionally, that was her private training ground. But its has been two hundred years. It could be anything or nothing.”

“All legends,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said firmly as they landed. “Pure legends. Rainbow Dash was no hero. Her job in the war was useless and when the spells fell, she turned her back on the Pegasus Race. Which is why anypegasus against the Enclave is painfully branded with her Cutie Mark over theirs and forced into exile to die. She abandoned her race and her duty.”

“That explains why the legends stop,” Shadow stated. “Legends never die, but the truth is often lost in them. Her fearlessness into battle to the point that she knowingly sprung traps and somehow making it out alive with her Shadow intact is beyond far fetched. Along with her Shadow fighting. Just stories we told to keep warm.”

“You have to have your own stories,” Shadow continued. “You know how much I did not know about Enclave history from the first week. So we have some odd tales that contradict it. We know what we need to know to be good, productive Enclave citizens. But my community has its tales. Just like we still say everypony. A bit different, but still the same and fiercely loyal to our Race.”

“You are wise to recognize tales from fact and legends as fiction.” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “The Enclave was new when Rainbow Dash betrayed us. You were far away from that catastrophe. Legends will happen. Now go eat and lets not talk about these dark things. Leave those to frightening fillies and colts in the dark.”

“You are always honest,” Deke said conflicted. “It has a simple charm to it. I want to take you at your word.”

“Deke they are just tales,” Shadow shrugged. “I speak honestly. But if I am wrong and do not know it, my honest answer will always be wrong. There never is a way around that. But do you really use tales about Rainbow Dash to frighten fillies and colts?”

“You have no idea,” Olive Pit grimaced. “They still give me chills.”

“I wonder what was in the cave,” Deke said distracted.

“Probably somepony, and I actually mean somepony, hiding out during or right after the war. They could not last long there and it was a mess with little inside.”

Shadow ended it by focusing on breakfast and only breakfast. He was going to need every bit to keep the cold out. He wished he was eating his mother's cold day breakfast. It kept you warm all day, even in the fields.

He thought about the cave. He was lying why he said it was nothing. There was an explosion in it, but plenty of books and papers were left. The persistent cold air had preserved a lot. There was nothing of consequence in the papers, mostly old newspapers and articles.

The rest of the cave was a different story. Metal scraps were all over the cave floor except for the clear trail made by those before. Several razer sharp dart like knives were still buried in a wall which also had Zebras painted on it. Others had holes blown in them by powerful weapons. The back half was totally collapsed, forever sealing off it's treasures.

But nopony needed to know that. It was a solemn place like a graveyard and the young fillies and colts only slipped away once to see it, leaving a note to their parents so they would not worry. It was a coming of age adventure that held it's own tests and dangers outside of the cave itself.

Up in the sky again, teams formed up around Shadow as best they could to hear and obverse some knowledge about surviving the winter chills. It kept them going all day, even when diving into the freezing winds.

Lieutenant Marble Falls did crank the machines up to give them an icy wind the last hour. Everypony was forced to the ground. Shadow and Cardinal were the last to drop, but even Shadow's agile wings could not keep the ice broken up long enough to make it halfway through. He helplessly fell all the way down to the clouds prepared to catch them like everypony else. Shadow was used to removing ice from his wings and never thought that others would not know how. Most lost a feather or two deicing.

They didn't bother with night flying. The cold winds and ice was dangerous enough when they could see.

“Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire sighed as they settled down in their cold tent. “I don't know what I would do without your stubborn head helping me push through.”

“Learn it on your own,” Shadow yawned. “Because you would not let your dream slip out of your grasp because of something like this.”

“Still, it is nice to have a real friend helping lead the way.”

Sweltering heat came the next day. Most fell out due to not drinking enough water. That was the main goal; to really teach them the essential value of drinking water. Combat got hot fast and a soldier always needed to carry plenty. They were told there was no restrictions about breaks to drinking water, but few thought to. Shadow stopped Cardinal Spitfire the most often, but they still both fell out before lunch.

They spent the rest of the day relaxing and recovering from the hard lesson.

“I do not want to head outside,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned the next morning.

“It's just rain,” Shadow said, strapping on his gear. “Nothing special.”

Lightning struck and left them with a boom that deafened their ears.

“And a bit more,” Shadow shrugged.

“You would work in this?” Cardinal Spitfire gasped.

“Hell no,” Shadow replied concerned. He watched a small stream begin to flow into their tent. “You can work the clouds in the cold, but not in such a downpour. We had to keep the farm up and protected from run off with this type of rain. The last thing you need is your farm losing it's crop because of some rain picking up and walking the seeds off. That was not a fun year. I literally was chasing down a row of turnip sprouts floating in a neat little row before we lost them permanently.”

Shadow shivered at the thought and stepped out into the downpour. He was the first pegasus out. Cardinal Spitfire joined him at the line a minute later.

“Its a free warm up this morning,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said over the downpour.

She didn't look any different than normal and appeared to not even notice the rain. They took off to do some laps.

“Lieutenant Autumn Leaf wasn't there,” Shadow commented.

“I was blinded by the water pouring off my face,” Cardinal Spitfire sputtered. “Still am and its getting in my mouth.

“Yeah, this sucks worse than the cold. I am already soaked. By the end of the day we will be lucky if we are not all pruny.”

They took it slow with the visibility being no more than a few feet. Flags were pointless and they had to light up the flight deck and each ring. Nopony cared to eat. It would just end up drowned out worse than a bad soup.

Late in the afternoon Cardinal Spitfire moved up besides Shadow. “What do you think tomorrow will be?” She shouted.

“They blew us away, iced us over, gave us sunburns and are now trying to drown us. I hope tomorrow begins aerial combat.”

“You are excited for aerial combat for once!”

“Surprising. I know.”

Shadow suddenly dropped like a stone. Cardinal Spitfire dove after him. She caught him and tumbled into a splash landing.

“Wake up!” Cardinal Spitfire said patting him on the cheek. “Damn it!”

Cardinal Spitfire did all she could to protect his face from the rain and the water that was up to her chest. A team had noticed them drop and reported it immediately. The Lieutenant found them and tossed Shadow on her back. Medics were waiting on the flight deck for them.

Shadow woke up in a bed with an IV in his arm. “What happened?”

“You fell out of the sky for no apparent reason,” a medic said coming over.

“How many others?”

“Only you from Black, but there are twelve others who fell out between yesterday and today from various training tasks.”

“What time is it?”

“2000. The rest of your Barracks are in the indoor gym still drying off. Lieutenant Marble Falls is know to push the weather to extremes, but she never has had a pegasus drop out in the rain. Looks like your gas reserves finally ran out. I will let them know you are awake, but you are staying here overnight.”

“Glad you are back,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said, followed by Cardinal Spitfire, Deke, Olive Pit and Golden Dawn.

“I have never had anypegasus almost drown on me,” She continued. “What happened?”

“I have no idea Ma'am. I recall discussing what tomorrow will be, and then waking up here.”

“You never have taken a dive and given out yet as a recruit. Eleven weeks in is impressive.

“I have fallen out before,” Shadow stated confused. “Like yesterday.”

“But you never have run out of endurance,” Lieutenant Marble Falls explained. “You always got enough from meals, breaks and sleep to keep going. At some point, the mind and body just give out. Most recruits hit that wall and break within the first three weeks. Almost all before aerial combat segment. So get some rest. They won't release you unless you are cleared medically, but tomorrow starts the combat training. I know you don't want to miss the shooting.”

“Before I go, mind explaining these?” The Lieutenant was holding the bands that were made from him.

“Totems. From family when I left. I forgot I was still wearing them.”

“Since they don't interfere with anything and are easily covered by the uniform you may continue to wear them,” The Lieutenant said as she lightly tossed them onto his chest.

“Thanks,” Shadow said as she walked away.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Cardinal Spitfire exclaimed. “You were there and then not there. It was a good thing I was looking at you or it would have been bad. That water was all they way up to my, and well your, chest.”

“Thanks for being such a good wingpegasus,” Shadow said tired. “But no warning?”

“None,” Cardinal Spitfire said still concerned.

“The Lieutenant has to be right. I hit my wall for the first time,” Shadow sighed.

“I don't recall my wall,” Cardinal Spitfire said.

“You hit yours when I beat you in the ring,” Shadow explained. “It changed how you thought and acted. It made you more like the drill sergeants and how they want Enclave soldiers to be like. It isn't a bad thing.”

“The end of week three,” Cardinal Spitfire sighed.

“No shame in that,” Olive Pit said trying to add cheer to the air. “How many times have I given out? I fell out twice the first day alone.”

Deke chuckled. “I broke down in front of the others when I couldn't find out where we were on that navigation exercise.”

“You all remember my fall out during the team building exercises,” Golden Dawn said blushing.

“No shame,” Shadow said softly to Cardinal Spitfire. “It has to happen at some point. For our good so we can do our duty properly.”

“Alright, everypegasus out,” The medic said.

“Can his battle buddy stay a bit long?” Cardinal Spitfire asked quietly.

“As long as I do not notice your presence, you can stay,” The medic said walking away.

Shadow was released just before lunch after a doctor gave a final review. Cardinal Spitfire had been put in as a third team member with one of the other stronger teams. She left formation when they came back over the flight deck and landed.

“Ready?” She asked.

“I am in uniform and gear. What do you think?” Shadow said taking off.

Cardinal Spitfire took point. They moved slowly as they navigated through the targets. There were always two. One for each team member. They had to hit it before they passed the marker. Unlike the range, these were the same laser rounds from the exercise. That meant they could fire as often as needed. The more times Shadow could fire at the same target the better.

Now it was like he was behind the gun. He was the sight. Shadow slowly caught on and fired less as they continued around the course. He was impressed with his improvement by the end of the day. They were not thrown into night training yet. That would wait for a few more days.

Each day it was a different course. Later on they were switching courses up to three times a day. Lieutenant Marble Falls worked the instructors and engineers almost as hard as the recruits. Things got more complicated as they lost more and more visibility, and as they were forced to dance around obstacles and take razer sharp turns at high speeds.

As the speeds and complexity were raised, they had to fire more to make sure they hit the target. It was difficult to impossible to only need to fire once and the target sizes were also shrinking.

“Final day,” Lieutenant Marble Falls announced one morning. “A whole new course. It is at least twice as long as you ever have seen and brings a few surprises. You have had to avoid or chase off instructors, but now you will have to shoot targets at different angles. Watch for them everywhere, just like in real combat.”

Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow were eighth to hit the new course. Lieutenant Marble Falls was not joking. They missed a lot of targets at hidden angles. Shadow kept reminding Cardinal Spitfire to calm down and focus as she got frustrated. As they picked their way through the entire course they noticed that there were sometimes multiple paths.

“It is like we are flying through a city,” Shadow noticed. “And other teams are taking different courses as we blast our way through.”

“Makes sense. This is supposed to be combat training for our cities and for below the clouds.”

Shadow saw where a potential target was. He rolled onto his back, doubled over, fired three times and rolled out. He hit the target on his second shot. It was his first time shooting a target behind him. They had been dealing with targets off to their sides, above and below, but now the full directional combat began.

When they finally skidded to a stop on the flight deck it was almost lunchtime. A single lap took them half a day. And the other barracks were using their own tracks that often weaved around theirs and alongside theirs.

“Good job you two. Eighth launched and first in. Take a break. We reassemble after lunch for round two. You will be launching last.”

“So the challenge has been thrown down,” Cardinal Spitfire grinned as they walked off to the side.

They all were ready after lunch before being called.

“I love timely recruits,” Lieutenant Marble Falls smiled. “Now for round two! Everypony… Ten Laps.”

“Yes Ma'am!” Shadow said taking off while the others chuckled.

“Round two. You all did well enough the first time. I hope you can handle this next one. You all noticed targets behind you way to late. Fix it.”

They were counted off and into the track. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire were held back a good half hour before Lieutenant Marble Falls allowed them to begin.

Shadow was good at the new element. He could flip and roll fast enough that his inertia would not allow him to drop before he rolled out of it. Each time it felt like the world slowed down for minutes, but Shadow knew that it was not more than a second.

Cardinal Spitfire soon picked it up after him. She was not as smooth, but she had picked it up. She didn't shoot as much as Shadow, only needing three or four shots for most targets to his seven or eight.

“How are they keeping track?” Cardinal asked as they flew.

“No idea. But its probably got something to do with magic,” Shadow replied. “Can lasers be much different?”

“You and your tales should be able to answer that.”

“I wish. Most of them are about the two Pegasi, not the unicorns. And even then its unreliable. A dark tale says that Fluttershy and her healing ministry fired the first megaspell. Impossible with all the care and compassion her tales speak of. Unity and compassion. Loving one another. All examples of how we need to work together as a community and race.”

“Alright,” Cardinal Spitfire grunted as she rolled to shoot a target. “Point taken. Its a wish that can't be true. And I missed so shut up!”

Shadow smiled and didn't even see his next target.

They caught up to another team and split to overtake them. Shadow instinctively took the lead and they continued on the course, occasionally passing other teams and switching leads.

They bolted out of the track and towards the finish line to finish a few paces ahead of another team.

“Sent in last and came out tenth,” Lieutenant Marble Falls nodded to them. “Good shot percentages too.”

Shadow sat down and pulled his goggles off. “I want out of this armor. But I know that we will be put through a night course.”

“I know,” Cardinal Spitfire sighed. “At least this has been the tamest day in aerial combat training. Tomorrow we should be starting formations. That will be fun.”

Shadow plopped onto his back. “This will be worth it, for both of us. We will need it for our schools.”

“I hate that we will be split up. A new battle buddy… well you will always be special. My first.” Cardinal Spitfire giggled and Shadow just smiled.

“We knew the separation coming in,” Shadow finally said. “But not how much we would miss each other.”

“You got really good at aerial combat,” Cardinal Spitfire said changing topics. “I wonder how you will do at the range.”

“I don't think we will get another chance at the range,” Shadow replied. “Which I am happy about.”

“Dinner and then line up!” Lieutenant Marble Falls ordered.

Thankfully the night course had small lights for targets, but they had to run it three times, finishing well past dawn. Bed for a nap and then formations started after lunch.

It was like the first day under Lieutenant Marble Falls. A lot of yelling and orders to squads about speed and distance. They were in the first squad, named Filly Foolers, and their flying skills roughly matched their squadmates mates.

Silver Bar and Shooting Star were battle buddies. Rays and Moonless Night were also battle buddies. All six of them took turns leading. A pair made up the front, and then a team on either side like they had been doing in doubles. Cardinal Spitfire was the only mare.

The name Filly Foolers was a joke. Other teams wished they had been paired with Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow. They showed the most skill together in the whole barracks. It was a lot of confidence over skill. Confidence went a long way.

Dreamers was named after Cloud Surfer who the Lieutenant said did not live up to his name. Hence, he was a Dreamer. Rover was a collection of teams that were not the steadiest fliers. Ditwitz was named for Golden Dawn's mistake the first day. She took off in the opposite direction as everypony else. Hay Bail was named after Hay Bail. Lilly Blossom was named because two of their members looked like dainty dancers in the sky, not soldiers. Hurricane and Gale were simply named after weather patterns Lieutenant Marble Falls liked.

The next morning brought real formations as they were instructed on not just flying with their squad, but now directing them through a mapped out track of rings. Shadow had just taken point when they were called back. They landed on the center of Flight deck and lined up, facing General Red River. Master Wind was with him and Lieutenant Autumn Leaf, who had not missed watching a single day other than the rain.

“Recruits,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said sternly as she began to pace in front of them. “A situation has occurred. An odd situation. A group is gathering in New Heaven, two hours flight from here. We are a small force at this base, focused mostly on training the new recruits. What soldiers we have are already dispatched and on their way. They should be arriving about now.”

“But there is a concern about the troop numbers since it is a larger city with little need for law enforcement. General Red River came to ask me if you were ready enough. No other Barracks can help back them up.”

“What we are looking for is a presence to calm any potential issues. We do not anticipate violence and it should not be more than raised voices. We want to avoid conflict at all costs. Citizens get angry at times, we do not need to give them anything to get them justifiably angry about.”

“You will be under my direct lead. Master Wind will be assisting me. Follow our lead to the letter. It will mostly be standing around at attention. Does anypegasus feel unable to perform these duties?”

Nopony spoke up, but they all were feeling the rush of adrenaline mixed with fear of their first real assignment. It had all been fun and games until now. This was a call to be real soldiers. To do their duty the first time.

“If you feel unprepared fall out. We would rather not have you. There is no punishment or bad marks for falling out. You have not completed your training yet and it is an understandable choice. Being able to head out is the exception. You have until we take off to step down. Do not worry about leaving your battle buddy behind. It will all be worked out.”

“Now go take a leak and fill up your canteens. Do what you need to do. Be back in ten, lined up like you are now if you are coming.”

They fell out in disorder as everypony went to prepare. There was not much to prepare outside of their minds. Shadow double checked his armbands for assurance and made sure he was all set and in line before the time was up. Olive Pit stayed back. The look in his eyes showed shame.

“Alright,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “Only four. I expected a lot more. I hope you are all really ready for this, because it is serious business. Safety is priority. You will keep your training case in your rifle. But a loaded magazine will be attached. Only on our order will you cycle and load a round. And only on our order will you fire. No exceptions, no mistakes. Pure discipline no matter what.”

“I can not stress enough that we do not anticipate any violence. It is showing to be a peaceful gathering. These magazines are for looks. A rifle without a magazine doesn't look right and the citizens will spot the difference. Also you will be besides soldiers that have magazines loaded as well. We have to make sure you look the full part and not just recruits. An unloaded magazine is stupid and leaves one defenseless in a crisis.”

“Again, this is not a crisis. We are just short hoofed for a gathering and need bodies to stand there and look pretty. I can not stress enough that there should be absolutely no violence. This is peaceful.”

“Follow my lead and nothing will go wrong. Don't, and everything will go wrong for you.”

Six others fell out, including Deke and Golden Dawn, and the General thanked them for their honesty. They needed bodies with level heads. If you could not adjust, it was best to stay back.

They flew in their squads, making a large V. Shadow was, again, on point like nothing had changed, minus the fact that they were right off Lieutenant Marble Fall's flank. Some shuffling had to be done to two squads since others fell out, but that took no time at all. Master Wind was pulling up the rear, making sure nopony fell behind. They were making a quick pace to the city.

“Flying with a Magazine and loaded feels weird,” Rays said shifting to try and balance things better.

“Just keep trudging on,” Shadow said zoning out. “It is just another exercise. Just another day. The only thing that we can change is our mindset. Don't change it from this morning and things will be fine. Just trust and follow the Lieutenant's guide.”

They touched down in a street. They were given wide birth to land.

“This makes El Nino look like a village,” Shadow marveled. “Buildings are not supposed to be that high.”

“We all can't live on acres of clouds Shadow Flare,” Lieutenant Marble Falls retorted. “Keep your head about you. You will get used to cities like this while you serve, but you need your head focused on the task at hoof.”

“Yes Ma'am,” Shadow said snapping back into focus.

Heads were poking out of windows to see them as they filed down the street. They stopped at the end where they could see a large plaza and a crowd gathering.

“Make sure your coms are on,” Lieutenant Marble Falls ordered. “We will be split and go to two sides of the Plaza. Master Wind will take his squads to be by the city hall where the citizens have gathered. If you are with me, we will be further back. We do not want to scare or crowd the citizens.”

“They want to be heard, not threatened. And no speaking unless spoken to by either Wind or me. Any questions before we head out?”

Master wind took four squads to the city hall, leaving the other three with Lieutenant Marble Falls.

“Remember, this is one small part of doing your duty to the Enclave,” She stated before they walked out and over to their post. “Marching and walking in file looks better than flying,” She said quietly over their coms. “Pegasi are expected to fly. Marching looks more professional and shows discipline.”

They lined up in two rows as another officer walked down to meet up with the Lieutenant. They stayed behind them as they talked softly. They were the screen for the two officers talking, keeping them out of sight.

Shadow watched as two and then three crowds gathered. There was the first group demonstrating, the second was protesting the demonstrators, and the third was pegasi interested in what was going on as a whole. Shadow could not see what the issue was from where they were.

An hour went by slowly. “Squad Filly Foolers,” Lieutenant Marble Falls called quietly over the coms. The sudden noise startled them. “A Captain is coming over to take charge of you. They need you to relieve some of the peace officers by the city hall. They have been there all morning, unable to be relieved. You know how to march and drill together. There are only six of you. Keep in step with him and you will be fine. Once there, continue as you are now.”

Shadow's heart was racing. It was all he could hear. He wanted to glance at Cardinal but didn't dare. He felt like he was in way over his head.

“Relax soldiers,” The Captain said quietly as he stepped in front of them. “This is simple peace keeping. I know it is your first time. When we get to the spot, you will fan out to single file. Shoulder to shoulder this time. Just act like you are on the parade field and unable to move and it will all be over soon. I am happy you are here to help your fellow Enclave soldiers and peace keepers.”

Shadow was stunned they were working together so easily as they marched down the sidewalk and behind the others to the city hall. The ones they were replacing were on the steps almost at the top and the main entrance. They neatly fell out as one and headed off behind the hall.

They were shifted into one line, placing Shadow on point and Cardinal Spitfire directly behind him. Each step felt like it rocked the world as he walked up the steps and to his spot. Somepony tripped a few spaces back. Unlike in training, nothing was said as they calmly and professionally rushed back in line.

Their uniforms were different than the others around them. The others were in crisp, black uniforms and carrying only side arms. They were wearing their green armor and carrying rifles. Nopony in the crowds seemed to notice the change.

The demonstrations were about food distribution. Shadow felt bad for all the years he spent growing up, not worrying about food. He knew it wasn't his fault and that his community produced everything they could, as well as being taxed as heavily as possible, but he did not like knowing that others had to feel the need to bring the issue up.

Another hour passed and then the sun reached its zenith. Nothing changed as it began to fall and dip out of sight.

Somepony finally blew a whistle. “Alright, you had you time,” he ordered. “Off to home for you. You have made your concerns known and we appreciate it. But now it is time to go indoors. Tomorrow is a work day.”

The others began to move and break the ponies up.

“You six! Stop standing and help them break it up,” The pegasus with the whistle ordered.

Shadow began to move to meet up with the others and physically clear the streets. Pegasi were resisting and Shadow froze, the others bumping into him.

“Move!” He was ordered.

Shadow still couldn't move and nopony else behind him was moving either. They were rescued a minute later by the Captain. He led them off to the side and back to the city hall's steps.

“Sorry Sir,” Shadow said ashamed.

“None necessary soldier. That was my fault,” The Captain replied stiffly. “Crowd control is another training that many of you will not have to undergo. At least not yet. But for now, you did exactly what you needed to do.”

The other squads came to them at the steps to form up.

The Lieutenant began to organize them. “Form up like we came in. We will be flying back in the same formation. Same leaders. We will debrief once we touch down on the flight deck.”

They flew back at a slower pace, gliding for the bulk of the trip. Everypony was drained. Their adrenalin was gone and they had no meal to replenish it, let alone a water break.

“Well done recruits,” The Lieutenant praised them as the touched down. “Duty is often boring and without glamor. Standing there is something you will do from time to time. Not always at a demonstration. Think back to special occasions for your homes. Those celebrations require pegasi to keep the peace. Just being there and visible stops most everything and helps for emergencies.”

The Lieutenant stopped and chuckled. “Recruit Filly Fooler, do you even know what I am talking about?”

“The biggest gathering I have ever been to is Market Day Ma'am. When we sell our surplus food and trade for things like equipment, bits and other necessities. And that never has Enclave presence. Or any problems. The only Enclave personnel in that town is the recruiter.”

“You sell your food?” Deke blurted out from the sideline

“Our tax is on the food we harvest,” Shadow replied. “I felt bad. We trade around our surplus to diversify our food, and we always have some left over to sell. How else can we keep equipment repaired, or get materials for cloaks and blankets and other necessities?”

“You live in such a different world,” Deke said shaking his head.

“Alright, snap to,” The Lieutenant ordered getting them back in order.

“Thank you Lieutenant,” General Red River said walking over. “Yes, food is always a touchy subject. Our farmers do an amazing job; your comrades can elaborate further. But the fact is that I got flying colors across the board in the reports I heard. Boring work, but a vital part of doing your duty. And you did your duty well. Keep it up and you will go places and be very happy. Training is tough, but it will pay off handsomely.”

The General walked off and they were orderly disarmed before being released to get food. They were told to go to the squad barracks where they would get a hot meal instead of the field rations. Those that stayed behind had already eaten inside. A reward for the entire Black Barracks being ready and able to perform their duty ahead of their full training.

“Was that a wet sniff to pull back tears?” Cardinal Spitfire asked as she settled into bed.

“I can't shake the feeling,” Shadow said with a sad chuckle. “How could I possibly have it better when it came to food. Ignoring our herb and spice garden.”

“You grew your own… never mind,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “Of course you did.”

Cardinal Spitfire sighed. “The only recruit here that would cry about it is you. I wish I had your… I do know what it is.”

“Ignorance is bliss,” Shadow sniffed. “Ignorance is bliss. And so is sleep.”

“Well, you did your duty. We both did. Nopegasus can say otherwise,” Cardinal Spitfire finished.

Chapter 11 - Up and Down

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“DIVE FILLY FOOLERS! I SAID DIVE! ROVER, BANK LEFT AND REVERSE ROLL! GALE! WHERE ARE YOU? LILY BLOSSOM, MOVE FASTER! WHERE ARE YOU GALE? DITWITZ BANK LEFT! NO, YOUR OTHER LEFT. HAY BAIL, OPEN CROSS THEN REWIND. THERE YOU ARE GALE! GIVE ME A ROLL, LOOP AND THEN BANK RIGHT INTO A STAR ATTACK! HURRICANE, GO WITH A STAR, BANK RIGHT, ROLL, CROSS, STAR. DREAMERS, BANK LEFT AND CROSS THEN CLIMB OR ELSE FILLY FOOLERS WILL HIT YOU!”

Lieutenant Marble Falls had been drilling them on squad flying for two days. They were down to following a quick set of orders as they flew all across the sky, sometimes accidentally scaring another Barrack's Squads with their general proximity.

Ditwitz squad had even gotten close enough to drop and blow over Green's tents. A mean trick, but fun. They were yelled at by Lieutenant Marble Falls for their inappropriate prank and sent to set up the tents.

The Lieutenant was giving corrections and orders from where she was hovering in the general middle of their zone. They were avoiding Blue as they were also doing mass squad maneuvers.

“CIRCLE UP!” Lieutenant Marble Falls ordered over the coms.

All squads circled up in a loose formation in the air.

“I think we are ready. Blue is too loose to start it, so Black will. Typically, Lieutenant Razzleberry over there directing Blue gets his squads ready and then together fast enough to start the strafing. His squads look good. I think he is hesitating. I have never been able to get my squads on the defensive, let alone the offensive.”

“Your job is to lead your squad in a dogfight. Chase the Blue Squads and make them do what you want them to do. Just like you would come up behind and on a group in combat and shoot them, just no guns. If you can, force them to land on their flight deck. It will be a fast and heated game. Pride is on the line.”

Everypony cheered.

“But we will not start out with a direct offensive. Meeting up like this and then starting is to straightforward. You will be sent off like before until I tell you to move in. You are ready to start reactive formation training and I have a score to settle. Watch out for other Barracks. They will most likely try and launch their squads in a counter offensive or preemptively before you begin to outright terrorize them.”

Shadow rolled backwards on cue and they dropped straight down. Rays was leading. After several tight turns and rolls they ducked under Red's flight deck and circled up and around. Hay Bail Squad was on point as they moved in to take on Blue.

Filly Foolers skimmed their own flight deck and ducked low before popping up over Blue's flight deck. They surprised a Blue Squad that was on the deck and the squad was forced to dive out of the way as Filly Foolers screamed towards them. They were taken into a roll under Blue's flight deck and were able to force down the same squad as the came up and around again.

They rolled up into a climb and then lazily peaked as one, falling straight towards the flight deck again. They crossed which forced them into a split. Shadow was on the tip of the wing and their half chased down the same Blue Squad for the third time. This time, the Blue Squad got airborne and dove down and out of the way as soon as they had cleared their deck.

They reformed and began to assist Hay Bail who was being pursued. They forced the Blue Squad to break off their chase and followed them in a tight chase before the Blue Squad broke and Filly Fooler gave up chase.

Instead, Rays passed lead to Moonless Night and he chose to start that assault on the other barracks by picking Yellow. Yellow had landed all their squads on their deck and appeared to be preparing to launch as they strafed right above them. Shadow flicked off their Lieutenant's hat with the tip of his wing with ease. They split to avoid chase.

As they reformed, two Green Squads moved in behind them. The call for a cross barrel roll and then tri-split was made and they executed it flawlessly. Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow banked hard and flipped around behind one of the Green Squads.

The two of them separated so they were flanking the now panicking Green Squad. They let them go when the squad split and turned to find the rest of Filly Fooler. They were still split into their pairs and causing terror among the Red Squads that were airborne. Shadow shifted to lead and He turned into a climb before rolling over into a dive.

It gave him the view needed to pick their target. One of Filly Foolers' teams was being corralled by two Red Squads. Shadow called for them to slip through and they tucked their wings in and sliced their way in between the Red Squad who did a dead stop from the shock. It was a very advanced and dangerous move.

The other Red Squad broke off their chase and Filly Foolers was reunited with Shadow on point.

“I still can not believe you did not go to a flight school,” Shooting Star said as they formed up.

Shadow laughed and asked for target suggestions.

'Yellow chasing a Blue which is chasing a Red' was suggested and they banked into another role to put themselves where they needed too be.

It ended up being more of a four squad flying formation than a chase. After a bit, the Blue Squad didn't like the odds and fragmented. Yellow then freaked out and went the other way. They dove hard onto the Red Squad and forced them to land on Red's flight deck. They were headed to their flight deck before Filly Fooler made that move, but it was still humiliating.

Shadow dropped back a tad and Cardinal Spitfire took her turn leading them to victory. They rejoined the major battle over Blue's flight deck and forced eight squads to break off their pursuit of another squad and even grounded a Blue Squad in less than two minutes.

Cardinal Spitfire was in her element. Leading a strong flying squad through maneuvers at high speeds with little direction and quick orders. While she was on point, no other squad could force them to break. The few that did get behind them were quickly shaken. She had let loose and it was obvious.

Other than Shadow's hat trick when they first attacked Yellow, they left the Lieutenants and other instructors floating around alone. All were enjoying the performance.

Lieutenant Marble Falls called off Black after a few hours. No collisions had happened and only a few rough landings were reported. Blue Barracks strafed them in revenger as they assembled, but the damage was already done to Blue's pride.

“Well done all Squads,” Lieutenant Marble Falls praised. “That was exceptional. Across all the barracks as well, but especially Black. Black was on the attack!”

“Cardinal Spitfire, you really came alive out there. I hate to admit it, especially in person, but that was Wonderbolt material I was seeing. You still have to complete Aerial Combat School and then pass Wonderbolt Testing, but I am liking what I am seeing. I do not make those decisions though. That is way over my head.”

“Thank you Ma'am!” Cardinal Spitfire said beaming.

Lieutenant Marble Falls continued to give praise all through the ranks. Sometimes highlighting an individual, always highlighting a squad's choices in tactics and their performance at one time or another.

“That was the most fun we have ever had!” Deke squealed when they were released for the night.

“I know!” Shadow said as they bumped hooves.

“I wish we were in the same squad,” Olive pit confessed. “Then it would have been more fun.”

“I do not know,” Golden Dawn said thinking. “It was a lot of fun seeing Cardinal Spitfire force the Blue Squad that had attached itself to ours break away as they buzzed them. Seeing her fly, I would have spent more time focusing on the task with her leading than having fun.”

Cardinal Spitfire could only smile.

“You have to be able to keep up with her, let alone roll with the fast and often subtle calls,” Shadow added. “She is not loud when she gives orders, but we can more than keep up and have learned to handle her.”

“Slicing that red squad was awesome,” Cardinal Spitfire finally said. “We did a lot of fun things, but just us breaking them up like that, that was the best.”

“Yeah, it was,” Shadow smiled. “And I was lead on that wasn't I?”

“Very much so,” Cardinal Spitfire said still beaming. “And knocking off the Lieutenant's hat, that takes skill.”

Shadow laughed. “I forgot I did that. It was just right there. A single feather was all I needed. I reacted on a whim. No planning. I might get smoked for it tomorrow.”

“And you retaining that feather is really impressive,” Cardinal Spitfire sighed contently. “It was so much fun actually flying with you beside me Shadow. I do not know if any other pegasus can top it.”

“I doubt you will ever have close to a free and fun time like we just had,” Shadow replied. “Well, at least it was free and fun for Black. It was one of the best things that Lieutenant Autumn Leaf threw us together.”

“I am still shocked about the turn around on that,” Deke said bluntly. “For six weeks you hated him until you were thrown together in a team that should have imploded.”

“Neither of us wanted to back down,” Shadow retorted. “Lieutenant Autumn Leaf was more of a threat than the other. It was easy enough to put aside the petty past and band together in fear.”

“I was deaf for the rest of the day in one ear,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “And after that, it was time to admit that my hate was not at him, but at things that happened because of him. He was not responsible in any way when it came to the General's decision to pit us against each other. Unarmed combat, he had to try and beat me or I would have hated him worse for going soft on me. The fact that either of us made it that far in the ring is what I should have been proud of. Although that kick really hurt.”

“Yeah,” Shadow sucked in. “I knew that as I was doing it and that it would hurt. It was no fun on my end either.”

“And that is why it was easy to forgive you. You didn't do it to hurt me in any way. You have a sweet heart, even when you are being tough.”

“Duty sucks,” Shadow stated.

“I hate that I didn't go,” Golden Dawn snapped. “I chickened out.”

“You didn't miss much,” Shadow said. “We just stood there and ponies yelled at each other and waved poorly made signs. Waste of resources those signs.”

“You did miss Shadow's introduction to a real city,” Cardinal Spitfire added. “But that was mostly just our squad's enjoyment as it was quiet and over quickly.”

“We got reassured so many times,” Shadow said annoyed. “They babied us a bit, but I was scared like a foal in a thunderstorm. When the Captain took command over our squad, it only made it worse. And then he forgot to take command when the clean up started. That was scary and confusing. Crowd control is something I don’t want to learn. It is terrifying and looks more dangerous than anything we have done in training. The Captain made a comment and seemed to believe that Crowd Control would soon become standard.”

Cardinal Spitfire took over. “Pegasi physically resisting peace officers, we all froze when ordered to assist. We were rescued by that Captain in time. That was all we did. Nothing more, nothing less. Just bodies.”

“We basically sat around the whole day,” Deke said. “General Red River was too distracted with reports from there to pay us any attention outside of making sure Lieutenant Autumn Leaf didn't jump us. He actually sent the Lieutenant inside, leaving him alone with us.”

“At least we all reaped the reward of a hot meal,” Shadow pointed out. “We all were deemed ready and able to perform duties beyond our training, by standing there for hours.”

They all laughed and settled into a quiet dinner. As usual, Golden Dawn couldn't eat more than half of her dinner. She did fine for most breakfast and lunch meals, but by dinner her stomach had enough for the day.

Field rations were fine to start, but after three weeks, even Shadow was hating them. Pumpkin pound cake was more pound than pumpkin or cake, a chocolate bar was 75% paraffin to preserve it in all weathers and every meal that sounded good tasted no more than half of what they initially expected.

“I am out,” Shadow said tossing his aside. “That tastes nothing like veggieloaf anymore.”

“Damn. You ate like two bites,” Deke said, questioning his own meal.

“These are calorie and nutrition packed meals. Missing one wont hurt us,” Shadow said laying down on his back. “Especially the last meal of the day. We are not doing any night training so breakfast will be before any more training.”

“How do you guys feel after today about the assignments?” Olive Pit asked. “Its easy for me to become a medic. The requirements for entry are low compared to things like recon and Aerial Combat Units.”

“I'll get on a Raptor,” Deke said with swagger. “And Officer training should not be far behind. I lead well with the little bit of training we have had in leadership. And we all know after today that Cardinal Spitfire has Aerial Combat School in her hooves.”

“I have the easiest,” Golden Dawn said. “Just a plain soldier. No flair, no special training. Just sixteen more weeks of pretty much the same thing. Soldiers get more specialized and heavier guns. Any fool can make it into Combat School. I just want to be a light trooper and only a light trooper.”

“Shadow has improved his shooting and because of his flying he should be offered at least Scout,” Cardinal Spitfire said smiling at Shadow. “And recon should be offered. Nopegasus knows much about either force. They are as mysterious as the Wonderbolts. But as least with the Wonderbolts we know you have to be one of the fastest fliers in the Enclave to even be considered.”

“This is week 14. We have a bit over two weeks left,” Shadow said not getting up. “And then we will know. This is going to be one hell of a finish.”

“Actually, you should coast in just fine,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said startling them all.

“You just come out of nowhere,” Cardinal Spitfire said trying to get her heart to stop pounding.

“Something I naturally picked up over the years,” The Lieutenant replied. “I actually came over to see if everything was alright, seeing that Shadow Flare had given up on dinner. You falling out again recruit?”

“No Ma'am,” Shadow said relaxing. “Just sick of field rations.”

“That is what concerns me. You have never shown any problems with any food at any time while training. And we all know your position on food. If you have a problem in the morning, speak up. Some other pegasus is probably having it worse and I can't have that.”

“What did you mean coast?” Cardinal Spitfire asked before the Lieutenant cold walk away.

“Black is about taking the best and making them the best they can be. Peak efficiency. Individually, most score in the top 100 of each class. As a Barracks, they balance out in the middle for most things. Shadow Flare can't shoot well, but he can fly for hours with great speed. Olive Pit is a decent soldier all around and would make a solid officer if he could navigate better. Deke can navigate and command, but his flying is weak. That is absolutely fine for a cloudship officer. A position on a Raptor shouldn't be too hard to get either. Golden Dawn, you are going to have no problem at all in Combat School. Cardinal Spitfire is top five out of all the recruits. Her agility training with Shadow Flare has only improved her position.”

“The point is, each of you would be top in any other Barracks except for Red. You saw how they flew today. Red is Red. Green is better than they are at flying. Black's focus is on individual improvement by pushing them past their limit. We pick the best we can to do it. It takes internal drive and ability to think ahead and adapt. You all show those qualities extremely well and have improved by leaps and bounds. Your formation flying was top notch. Personally I think Black far out flew Blue which is why they strafed us at the end.”

“It is true that most of Blue will go either to cloudships or squads who focus is more in the air, but Red, Yellow and Green will make up the bulk of the Enclave as soldiers. Which is what we need. The colors are to help you improve and do your duty perfectly by organizing you into groups with similar weaknesses and strengths.”

“That is so you become reliable no matter what happens. You already showed you had the confidence, a level head, and the proper structure and order needed to begin that duty when you were called up for that special assignment. A tough assignment when you are not done training, let alone basic. I was surprised the General even asked.”

“But that is off topic. Don't think this will be an easy finish. No instructor is going to let that happen. But if you put your skills to their proper use, things will fall into place and the stress will be minimal. It is all downhill from here, showing that you have the skills we taught you.”

The Lieutenant walked away, ignoring their thanks. She headed towards the squad barracks and her room.

The morning found them again waiting. This time they were lined up along the flight deck instead of bunks. Most had fallen out of 'at ease' and were sitting down. The Lieutenant finally came into view and they came to order. She was joined by Master Wind, Lieutenant Autumn Leaf and a newcomer in a worn out brown jacket.

“Recruits, this is Captain Nova. He will be here for a few days to lecture you on surviving in the wasteland in the event you ever are sent below. You will also practice the vital skills he will teach you.”

Captain Nova was obviously not typical. He seemed to be only half there and his posture was horrible, including a wing that was half open and draped over his side like it was dead. The radio on his jacket was upside down and as he got closer they could see the threads were worn and it's warm, cotton lining was patchy at best.

Lieutenant Marble Falls continued. “The schedule was to send you back to your barracks for this training and then use it as your starting point the the joint exercises and final testing. However, you will be staying here. The good news is that I got it so that Breakfast and Dinners will be served in the Squad Barrack's mess hall. Lunch will still be field rations, if you are inclined to eat them. I know most of you can barely stand then by now.”

“For now, we are behind and if you did not eat, too bad. Now I will turn things over to the Captain.”

The Captains voice matched his relaxed image. “I began my career in the Scouts well before the Enclave decided to head below. For the first ten years of my service, there was never any legitimate talk about heading below. Until they suddenly sent the squad I was in below for the first look at the land below. It was a foolish thing to do. Almost as foolish as the General sending some half baked recruits to help with crowd control.”

“Captain,” The Lieutenant said. “Personal opinions besides please. They need training, not opinions.”

He continued as if nothing had been said, but his tone got aggressive. “I have gotten bad radiation sickness three times and my wing has an mass that they can not remove from radiation exposure. The wasteland is a death trap and I am supposed to teach you how to survive long enough to do something other than die.”

The Captain's tone changed depending how how happy or sad the topic was to him.

“Up here in the clouds, food is plentiful enough, for now, but raw material are getting shorter and shorter. Recycling can only do so much. But amidst all the destruction and ruins lies bountiful scraps that can be recovered. Living trees with solid enough wood can be found and harvested. That is the only good thing down there.”

“To get there though, means toxins. Lots of toxins. You will need your gas masks at all times. Even if you are in a 'toxin free' zone, the stench of rot is everywhere. It is like a festering wound and you will want to wear them instead of facing that odor. Nothing is redeemable.”

“Sir, are there inhabitants?” Olive Pit asked.

“You want to be a medic, don't you colt?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Things live. If you can even call it living. Painful mutations riddle with cancer and diseases you have never heard of because those too have mutated. If it lives, it hunts. They seek only blood. Anypony left shoots before they think. It is always their first thought, shoot. And I mean every pony. What once were Unicorns and Earth Ponies.”

“They are savage cannibals who will happily cut off your wings and roast them over an open fire for a snack. All while you sit by bound and gagged, forced to watch and dread your painful death. Skulls, ghastly weapons, and blood stains are their Cutie Marks. At least that was the report before that team was hacked to pieces. They even use boards with nails in them to bash each other for initiation into the raider gangs that control everything.”

“Since we first dropped below, nine scout units have been shot down and devoured, and we lost the all twelve recon teams. Wiped out within days after they touched down. Nothing down there is redeemable. Nopony, no creature, no buildings, nothing.”

“The point,” Lieutenant Marble Falls softly pushed.

“Right. The point. If you have to go below, you need to know how to overcome the rules of three. Three minutes without oxygen and you die. Three days without water, dead! And three weeks without food… that is a painful demise.”

“Gear like gas masks and technical things like geiger counters and shit will help you survive the air. We will cover those tomorrow. But first I will teach you how to purify water. I know you were taught the importance of drinking enough water. Your canteens will become radiated quickly turning that safe water bad.”

“Captain,” The Lieutenant stepped in again. “That oversight was fixed, including shielding the crates that hold rations and fresh water.”

“And your field rations will fall prey to radiation as well. If left out long enough. And we are only taking a week at most.”

The Captain stopped and looked around. “Somepony down there scrambled my brain. The doctors might find nothing wrong, but somepony did something to me.” He shook his head and continued.

“Radiated water can be treated with tablets called… PWT. Purifying water tablets. These are only good for small amounts of water mind you. You can't cleanse a stream or large water source. They also have water collectors that do some purifying as you collect it from a large sources.”

“Food you have no help for. Your geiger counters will help determine how unsafe something is to eat. Sooner rather than later, something will happen with supplies and you will be forced to eat the pre-war stuff that is somehow still lying around. That and there is mutated fruit and vegetables that are 'edible'. It is better than starving, but still bad.”

“Which bring us to medicines. Basic first aid was taught, but radiation was not covered. Radiation sickness stalks you wherever you go and pounces on you if you do not keep track. That is why my wing has this mass on it.” The Captain moved his wing. It wasn't able to move much and flying was certainly out of the question. However, there was no visible sign of a mass.

“Pre-war they created a mix called Rad-Away. And orange liquid you drink that combats radiation and clears your system. It tastes worse than it looks but chugging death to stay alive tastes better than a rotting tongue. If you stupidly have to enter a radiated zone, they made stuff called RadSafe. Stuff is shit too but they do their job. I pity you.”

“That is pre-war pony shit. The Enclave has developed much better stuff. Rad-Flush is like Rad-away, except it is blue and tastes slightly better. RadBlock is like RadSafe except more shitty but much better protection. I said your supplies will run out. That definitely includes rad meds. If you stumble upon any pre-war radiation meds, secure it. Better safe than sorry. Having the flesh pealed off of you with a knife is better than drying of radiation sickness, which often comes with your flesh falling off.”

“Now, team up little ones and each get a pack of tablets from whichever box it is behind me that has them. This is one thing you do not share. Ever. If you share, you run out and then both of you die.”

“He is cheery,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered to Shadow in the chaos.

“Yeah. But I will take it so long as I learn to survive. I signed up to probably go do everything he is saying not to do.”

Cardinal Spitfire chuckled as she grabbed a box and tossed it to Shadow, who caught it on his wing and carried it back that way.

The box had all the instructions and ratios to used, but they sat by and listened to the Captain drone on in his introduction and instruction. Lieutenant Marble Falls looked like she had stopped listening in her boredom. As a Wonderbolt and training recruits, she must have heard these instructions a hundred times.

They put to practice the tablets with buckets of water. The biggest catch was having to wait an hour before they could drink it. Not that anypegasus wanted to drink it. It had a bad odor and almost burned your mouth.

“You have not had worse water than this?” Cardinal Spitfire asked Shadow.

“Hell no,” Shadow shot back.

“Now young ones,” The Captain said softly. “Grab a bottle of RadBlock and sit back down.”

Once they were seated he made them drink it.

“It is safe enough to drink even when you do not have radiation sickness.”

“Personally, I think the distant cloud farmer are irradiated a bit. It explains their large size and strength. I think the clouds are not thick enough. But they just tell me I am wrong and then expect me to teach recruits the same stuff I cite as evidence for my explanations.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire just shook their heads and chugged the Red-Flush. Three of their comrades threw up and were forced to drink another one to feel it's effects. The Captain did mean business. Or he was insane. Both were a strong possibility, yet their superiors found him fit to teach them wasteland survival.

“I feel itchy,” Shadow said scratching a bit.

“I hear buzzing,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “If hhe going to have us take everyhing in the medicine cabinet?”

“I have no idea what a medicine cabinet is, but I hope not,” Shadow groaned as he fell over.

“I can't talk straight,” Cardinal Spitfire said slowly.

“These are not combat meds,” Shadow replied, slowing his speech down as well.

“Now that you all know what that tastes like, Drugs!” The Captain said clapping to get their attention. Most had to sit back up. He didn't bother to make them stand. Formality meant nothing to the Captain.

The Captain held up a small box. “We have bandages and you know how to use them. However, this is a box of Magical Bandages. We can not make these. It requires unicorn magic. They heal faster than regular bandages. Simple. But all types of bandages take time for you to heal.”

“Also a thing to look out for is healing potions. Faster and better than bandages. We have them and you will be supplied with them on mission, but like the Rad-away and RadSafe they should be picked up for use. None of those meds spoil. Healing potions are in short supply in the Enclave. They are to be used wisely.”

“Avoid the other drugs. They are highly addictive. Alcohol should be an obvious no no while in the field, in combat, and even on duty above the clouds. Painkillers like Med-X are a double edged sword. Pain is reduced, but so is combat effectiveness as you are fighting at least heavy drowsiness. It is more liable to addict you or get you killed than help.”

“There is some drug called Dash. It is a very bad war hallucinogenic. Probably part of the reason why Rainbow Dash stabbed us in the back. She was a Dash addict. It was named after her.

Rage is a booster that is highly addictive. And some of the things down there use it, meaning you must shoot them twice as hard. It is not good for the body or mind.

Buck and Stampede are similar drugs. Stampede was developed by Fluttershy, that war ministry head healing pegasus. So much for healing and peace.”

“Mint-als. I know you all know about them.”

Shadow looked at Cardinal Spitfire and shrugged his shoulders. He had never heard of them.

“Don't become a drug addicts. Especially below the clouds. The poisons down there strengthen their potency and quickly will make you unable to perform your duty as a soldier. That means you will die! And you do not want to reap the punishment of being caught taking drugs. Also, down below there is rumored to be a worse form of Mint-als. Party-time Mint-als.”

“Any questions?”

They all shook their heads and the Captain moved on.

“Time for Ghost, Ghouls and other ghastly creatures one must avoid and how to kill them if forced to face them.”

“Are you sure you want to go into recon or scouts?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“They have to be getting this new information somehow,” Shadow whispered back. “Even if it is ten or twenty years old, somepony has to make sure that the Enclave stays informed of new developments. Without it, more will die trying to clear the way for resource gathering.”

“That little mare is right!” The Captain said from on the other side of the group. His hearing was crystal clear “You there. Tell everypegasus what you just said.

Shadow repeated the question and his answer.

“This brave fool is right. And better listen if she wishes to survive and successfully carry out her duty. Now what is so funny young ones?”

“She is Shadow Flare, a stallion,” Deke said trying not to laugh more.

The Captain stared at Shadow for a bit before giving his verdict. “You are fucked. The wasteland is no place for somepony your size. They even murder their own fillies and colts for fun.”

“Move along Captain. Please,” Lieutenant Marble Falls softly ordered.

“It is true. The mares always died first,” The Captain replied.

“Captain, there is no sufficient evidence to support that. All you are going off of is your failed mission where she died first. And that wasn't your fault either. I have trained that recruit and seen him fly and shoot. Her, I mean his, scores prove that he is prepared more than sufficiently to deal with what is below. Assuming he is taught properly by you.”

“Whatever,” The Captain said turning back to ghosts.

Shadow Ghosts, Star Ghosts, and Howling Ghosts. Most were anecdotal explanations and had no combat answer other than run. The Captain was a good story teller and he had their manes standing on edge.

Ghouls were terrifying. The Captain told them about whole herds numbering in the thousands and out seeking the fresh blood that they needed to survive, including them turning on each other if food was not found. Thankfully they were too stupid to use weapons, if they even were capable of it. They had to be ripped apart so their bodies couldn't function and bleed out. Otherwise they would heal the bullet wounds and eventually regrow limbs.

The Ghastlies were again more anecdotal stories of things as simple as irradiated bunnies to hogs and even reports of toothless gators that swallowed ponies whole. It also included moving trees and mutated fish walking on land.

“How many days of this do we have to go through?” Deke moaned as he sat down for dinner.

“Two more,” Shadow answered. “At least tomorrow get to learn the equipment before more lectures on creatures, be they fact or fiction.”

“How does Rainbow Dash being a drug addict fit in with your tales?” Golden Dawn asked Shadow.

“Perfectly,” Shadow replied. “I won't tell folks back home since it will ruin her swashbuckling stories. Especially about her high jacking a Zebra pirate ship. It hurts nopony to keep the tales going and only helps keep our moral up. I doubt the stories would change much anyway. No more than forgetting a General's name and making one up on the spot.”

They all laughed quietly.

“Some of those lessons are more like nightmares,” Olive Pit shivered. “And he hasn't gotten to the surviving ponies.”

“You are going to die,” Deke said in a dramatic panic. “I hate saying that I am going to lose a friend, but everything he is describing will kill you like the other teams.”

“Relax,” Shadow said forcing him to let go. “I won't die. I am sure some is exaggerated. What is or isn't I do not know, but somehow they got that information back, which means successful missions. The Lieutenant mentioned he had a failed mission. But it also sounds like he had plenty more completely successful ones.”

“You are right,” Deke sighed. “I am letting fear get the better of me.”

“Ever notice how much we sigh while talking?” Olive Pit said. “I know how tired we all are, how hard we work and that we are open and honest, but we are downtrodden most of the time.”

“Lets fix that,” Shadow smiled. “Sighs of contentment and groans of physical pain only from here on out!” The slammed their cups together in a toast and went back to focusing on eating a real meal.


END OF BOOK 1: PART 2: DUTY

Chapter 12 - Aerial Combat

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“Welcome to week 15,” Lieutenant Marble Falls greeted them in her typical command voice. “Just two more weeks left. Speaking with your comrades the other day I mentioned coasting to the finish. This will be hard work. These Practicums will test you to the best of our abilities. But you also have trained well, you have at least a good grip on all the skills we have taught you and work together phenomenally. Put those to use and you won't feel too stressed out and just coast in. You already did the work to fly so high, now its just about coming in for the landing. Just remember, a flight is not successful until you land safely.”

Everypony clapped and cheered.

“The practicums are going to be tough. This time, it will really require your skills in the air and ground. And you will be facing fellow recruits and then Barracks. Your vests will buzz you while flying and zap you when you are on the ground. You know the drill. Get hit and you shut up and stay down unless moved by an instructor. While flying, break away and land safely before staying still.”

“This is an easy match up thankfully. Last time I had 7 squads and the time before that 9. Eight is nice and easy. We will be scoring you through a point system you do not need to worry about. Do your objectives as fast and thoroughly as possible. However, bring field rations. You do not want to be the squad that gets stuck out there without food or water. You pick your leaders and your weapon case.”

“Squads facing off, Red is Filly Foolers against Dreamers. Blue is Rover against Ditwitz. Green is Lilly Blossom, taking on Gale. And Purple Hay Bail and Hurricane. You will head to your flag to begin the practicum. This is pure aerial combat. Any questions?”

“Yes Ma'am,” Olive Pit spoke up. “What do you mean by buzz?”

“Fly,” The Lieutenant ordered.

Olive pit popped up several feet and the Lieutenant shot him with her pistol. They all heard his yelp, but he didn't drop more than two feet before recovering.

“Does than answer your question?” The Lieutenant asked.

“Yes Ma'am. Safe enough Ma'am.”

The Lieutenant blew her whistle and the squads took off towards their flags in the clouds below. The Lieutenant smiled. She loved when somepegasus asked what buzz meant. It was fun to shoot the recruits and she never had to deal with recruits for their practicums before. She had assisted plenty of practicums and exercises over the years.

“If this is going to be aerial, then we need you Cardinal Spitfire,” Silver Bar said.

“I was hoping that would be suggested,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed. “I didn't want to assume or just take command. For guns, we will only take semi automatics. I don't want to rely on a shotgun of lead to take targets down. We are better than that and all the other squads know it. Dreamers will take us on with machine guns. They fear us and their first target is going to be me. Shadow Flare, be ready to take command.”

They finished organizing and were waiting for the order to start. They had no idea where the Dreamers were. They were pointed to their flag by several instructors because they were that far out.

When the time came, Cardinal Spitfire led them in a slow, steady take off and ascent. There was no point in wasting energy. They pitched and rolled while they flew. The last thing you wanted to do in aerial combat was stay steady. It made for an easy target, even at long distances.

Battles were erupting elsewhere and often were visible. But the Dreamers were nowhere to be seen. Cardinal Spitfire called for a nearby cloud to be shot. They put plenty of rounds on it, but the Dreamers were not there.

“Fucking Dreamers,” Cardinal Spitfire said over their coms. “Suggestions? Other than splitting up. That is what they want us to do.”

“Battles are off to our right,” Moonless Night replied. “I can not see any free squads. They are ripping each other apart so counting is difficult.”

“Off to our left laying low!” Shooting Star called.

They rolled into a dive without needing a command and began the pursuit. It was only three meaning the other three were waiting to ambush. Cardinal Spitfire didn't have to order them to watch their rear.

“Pick them off and lets break away before they draw us in further,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered.

They took them down easily since they were in the superior position. That left the other half.

“Cloud off to our left,” Shadow called. “Looks like it is moving and going to intercept us.”

“Their loss,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Break into teams and lets hit them from three angles.”

They rolled into the turn and glided apart. They glided so they kept their guns focused on their target as log as possible before they became vulnerable. As soon as they did their full break shots were fired. Each team rolled and dodged, quickly reacquiring their target. They fired a dozen shots and pulled away to meet up.

“Good move Filly Foolers,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said over their coms. “Your flag has been moved to grid CD103. Wait for orders there.”

Shadow used the map to quickly ascertain their position and they headed off. It was his job, being next to the leader, to navigate. He had done a good job at being aware of their location. Only a grid off.

Shooting Star spoke up. “I do not think we should switch while running aerial practicums. Use our strengths. You lead, Shadow Flare navigates and we do the bulk of the shooting.”

“Good plan,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Now that we have one under our wing, I do not feel bad about taking charge full time.”

“Use our strengths to the best we can,” Shadow replied.

“Filly Foolers,” The Lieutenant called. “Launch”

“Who is our target?” Cardinal Spitfire asked as they took off.

“Unspecified.”

“This is where the real fun begins. Stay tight. I want other squads to think we are at half strength at a quick glance.”

They pulled in really close. Each of their heads was directly behind a set of wings, including Shadow. He slid back all the way. The proximity did not slow them down. Cardinal Spitfire would not let it. It was well within their abilities.

It was another long search before Cardinal Spitfire gave up hunting and called them to line up.

“This is getting us nowhere. It has been an hour with no obvious boogies. We are going to cross through the battle straight ahead. Be ready to face anypegasus and in any numbers. It is time to try and spring a trap. Stay loose to avoid an easy strafe but lets stay together. We are the prey. No matter how much we try and hunt, we are the prey. I bet ahead is just mock combat.”

They shifted back into the formation, banked into a lazy barrel roll and then screamed towards the squads ahead. Just like Cardinal Spitfire thought, it was mock combat. They all stayed loosely in formation, turning and rolling to avoid fire in their individual positions.

They took out three on the first pass, banked around hard and came back around. They lost Silver Bar and Shooting Star in the tight curve, unable to keep up. It turned out well enough since their enemies had to now face two well skilled groups and panicked.

“Damn it Cardinal Spitfire!” The Lieutenant swore. “How did you avoid that?”

“Skill Ma'am.”

“Head back to the flight deck. I will have to figure out something new.”

They touched down and walked quietly off to the side. They were on an adrenalin high after being recalled with no immediate plan to send them on another mission. They kept their composure. It was better that way. Confidence is key, and when they came down off that high, they didn't want it to be noticeable.

“Sorry we missed that turn,” Shooting Star apologized.

“Please,” Cardinal Spitfire scoffed. “I almost didn't make that. It was a bad call on my end.”

“So, the Lieutenant is gone,” Rays said. “What do you think we will face?”

Cardinal Spitfire shook her head. “This is my first time doing a practicum like this. Nothing even close. I have no idea. That is why it is called training. But I do know this. The Lieutenant is going to do all she can to make sure I go down first. She wants all of Filly Foolers to be hit. We are all extremely dangerous, but…”

“If you want to be a Wonderbolt, she needs to knock you down a few pegs,” Moonless Night stated. “To see how you stand after.”

“Exactly!” Cardinal Spitfire exclaimed.

“So lets switch it up!” Shadow suggested. “Lets play our own trick. Shuffle up the cards. In a squad of six, we have two at point where lead is on the left, navigator is to their right.”

“That will be an adjustment, but flipping is a good idea,” Cardinal Spitfire said smiling. “That will be really difficult for you Shadow. You will have to look like the lead.”

“I think he can do it,” Shooting Star agreed.

“I think I can to,” Shadow smiled back. “Think of more. Every advantage is an advantage. We need to come up with new ideas to keep them guessing.”

“Cardinal Spitfire, do you think you can lead from the rear?” Silver Bar asked.

Cardinal Spitfire thought for a minute. “Yes. It will be a difficult transition to start for all of us, but yes. And worse care scenario, point takes lead. We all are good. Not me, but more than sufficient to handle ourselves.”

They all chuckled.

“Team coming in,” Shadow said for basic safety.

They all froze and then dove for cover. The strafing run missed and they were airborne immediately and on the offensive.

“Drop back,” Cardinal Spitfire called.

“They are almost in our sights,” Moonless Night protested.

“And they know that,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Watch out for incoming teams. All we need to do is keep them in our range for now. Eventually they will cross and we can nail them.”

“They were packing machine guns,” Shadow said.

“Not surprised,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And now they will bank left and then cross roll into a drive. We dive to intercept in 3… 2… 1… Now!”

Everything happened as Cardinal Spitfire predicted and the squad found themselves facing down Filly Foolers. They never had a chance to fire. It was not any of the Black Barrack Squads.

“I know I should not be surprised,” Rays said. “But that always gets me every time Cardinal Spitfire. I just do not get how you read them so well.”

“Think fast! One on my far right!” Silver Bar called.

“Another on the left. They have us flanked.” Rays said.

“Then lets see if they can keep up,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Bob up into a long curved dive, then we will cut right. That will put one in our cross hairs and then we will have to roll up and over to the left.”

The two squads adjusted and almost blasted them out of the sky. They fragmented and scrambled to get together.

“Coms off!” Cardinal Spitfire ordered. “They are listening in.”

They turned the coms off and were forced to follow blindly after Cardinal Spitfire. It would slow down her movements as well.

It was one hell of a chase. Cardinal Spitfire got Filly Foolers to intersect one squad and pick off three. They knocked out two Filly Foolers and they tightened up. Cardinal Spitfire was not out of tricks yet. They got two more, but she was shot.

That left Shadow in charge and he had never commanded the squad without coms. He didn't know exactly who was left and couldn't see without losing track of their opponents. He only knew it was two others.

They got around and were able to flip at 270 degree angle at the cost of a huge amount of speed and one more Filly Fooler. Shadow called for wings in tight and they slipped through a confused squad. On the way out they picked off two more. Before they could turned back to fly they were picked off.

Shadow felt the buzz. It was strong, but not a zap. He opened his wings and let himself go into a free fall before he tightened up and circled back around to land on their flight deck. The others were the only ponies on the flight deck.

Lieutenant Marble Falls dropped out of nowhere in front of them. “DAMN IT CARDINAL SPITFIRE! You switched places and it took way to long to figure that out. Those are formation changes we leave to Aerial Combat School.”

“Shadow Flare's idea Ma'am. And the team obviously handled the switch without a problem. And its even more embarrassing that you missed it while listening in. And on top of that, you let us know way too early. You played that card wrong.”

“Then fuck you too Shadow Flare! All of you!”

Lieutenant Marble Falls took a few deep breaths.

“Understand that I say all of this with love and admiration. You all are really solid fliers. But nothing compared to Cardinal Spitfire. I have no idea how you improve so drastically when she is leading. And even after she went down. A 270 degree angle can not be performed like that unless somepegasus like Cardinal Spitfire was leading and with pegasi with the same skill. And I can't believe there was no spin out on that move. And it was Shadow Flare leading since Cardinal Spitfire was taken care of. That slice was gutsy but it paid off since you were finished from the turn.”

“I hate all of you right now!” The Lieutenant said storming off. “Recruits in basic training should not be this good!”

Shadow broke down first with laughter.

“Who they hell did we face?” Rays asked.

“I don't know,” Cardinal Spitfire grinned. “But we did an amazing job.”

“Do you think she will rally some Wonderbolts to come at us?” Shooting Star gulped.

“No,” Cardinal Spitfire relied. “A very good chance they are watching, but no. Still, lets be ready to switch up where I am in the formation. Confidence is key, but I also do not get how your skill can make huge leaps with me in charge. Skill is skill.”

“We are one hell of a team,” Shadow explained. “I bet its like the second day on the flight deck. When I found out about flight school. We thought I was a weak flier because I had never tried. With you in the lead, we try. We can't push ourselves like you can push us. Teams are supposed to help and make each other stronger as one, but we don't think when you make a call, we just do. The skill is there, we just need you to draw it out and shape it.”

“You are probably right Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire admitted. “It seems like you are always right. Fucking honesty.”

“At least they took us out this time,” Moonless Night pointed out. “But it didn't drop us down a few pegs.”

“It isn't even lunch yet,” Cardinal Spitfire commented. “We have almost two weeks of Practicums. Filly Fooler Squad has to be ready anywhere, anytime.”

“Guard duty?” Shadow asked.

“Guard duty,” Cardinal Spitfire nodded. “Shadow Flare and I have first watch. Move your tents to ours. It is a great honor to have to be put on edge like this.”

“So much for the coasting comment,” Rays groaned.

“I would rather be tired, sore and dirty than coast in,” Cardinal Spitfire said encouraging them. “Because at this point, they are all out to get us and they want us out to get the other recruits. We are perfect for these practicums. They do not have to use instructors to do the work. They can rely on us.”

“If we can think of it, so can they,” Shadow stated. “One way to knock us down would be to up the zap in our vests. Another is to pit us against the recruits, and then put the instructors on us. Blindside us.”

“No longer a blindside now that its pointed out,” Silver bar said.

“Exactly,” Shadow smiled.

They moved the tents and set themselves up in the best defensive position they could. Lunchtime came and went. They were not hungry. It was lonely with nopony else on the flight deck. Very quiet. There was no sign of even an instructor watching them.

“We should nap, but I am not tired,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And I doubt any of you are.”

They all shook their heads.

Just before the usual dinner time the others came back. They were led by Master Wind with Lieutenant Autumn Leaf in tow. Lieutenant Marble Falls was no where to be seen. Master Wind didn't blink or question anything. He just ordered everypony out of their armor and head to dinner. Filly Fooler Squad didn't disarm. They got dinner like ordered, but didn't run guard duty while in the mess hall.

None of the other squads asked any questions. It was clear they knew something had happened because they were separated, but not what happened.

“Watch? Again?” Deke asked as the others came over after dinner.

Shadow just nodded his head. He was the first sentry of the night.

“What put that back on? Lieutenant Autumn Leaf was with us.” Golden Dawn asked.

“Things got… heated,” Shadow said as if it wasn’t news. “We only know that it took them a longer time than they wanted to knock any of us out. And even with Cardinal… we don't want any surprises. They threw us enough of them.”

Deke walked away shaking his head. “I guess we will have all the fun over here. So much for you coasting.”

Shadow chuckled. “We had a blast. Totally worth it.”

With his shift over, Shadow went to sleep. Morning came quickly. Filly Foolers Squad was all geared up and it spurred the others to put on their armor, vests and saddles.

When Lieutenant Marble Falls finally arrived she was wearing a black flight suit. She looked at everypony, took a sip from her mug and said. “Get them!”

Filly Foolers Squad shot off the flight deck right away.

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME! YOU PUT THEM AWAY! I WANTED YOU TO SHOOT THEM BEFORE THEY HAD TIME TO ORGANIZE!”

They chuckled as they worked their way to a good distance. They would not hide. They wanted outright aerial combat.

“It didn't matter that they put their training cases away,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “We were too quick. They won't try that tactic again. Even if they do tomorrow morning and it works, it wont have the same feeling. We win that round.”

“Here they come.”

Cardinal Spitfire began to lay out the game plan. She had the whole thing planned out including how each squad would react. It didn't even take them half an hour before their comrades were all down. They were ordered back to the flight deck where they lined up with the other squads.

“That was completely unproductive,” Lieutenant Marble Falls growled. “I wanted the normal squads to continue showing me they know how to conduct air to air combat effectively. I guess that segment is done. They did a lot yesterday. More than enough for my personal hoof stamp of approval.”

“Time for teams. You all know how to fly with another pegasus and you know how to be in a Squad. Now it is time for you to show me you can adapt to lead and wing squad pairings.”

All morning long they switched up pairings. No matter what the pairs were, if you were with Filly Foolers, you won. And quickly. Filly Foolers were placed as the lead squad the first match. After that it was all wing squad positions. Their skill in playing wing squad took care of any problems in the lead squad.

“Lieutenant?” Deke asked at lunch. “What if Cardinal Spitfire didn't lead?”

“It doesn't matter,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “As long as she is with them, they fly like that. They had her leading from other positions yesterday, and even when she finally was shot down, they still kept up the performance.”

“Although,” The Lieutenant thought. “I had not thought to remove her entirely.”

Cardinal Spitfire was out of her armor in seconds. “Bring it. Filly Foolers are ready. With or without me. And no machine guns.”

The afternoon was spent proving they didn't need Cardinal Spitfire. The Lieutenant just shook her head. In the four on one match, Filly Foolers lost four of it's members and wrapped the round up by finishing off the last two squads solo.

“Five on one?” Deke begged. He was pissed they cleaned his squad up solo.

“That just puts the advantage to them,” The Lieutenant responded. “They are using the chaos to their advantage. These practicums are useful. We are scoring you. But the big one is the one that really matters. True war games on all fronts. Air and ground combat at the same time.”

“All of the Black Squads are almost ready. I need to introduce you to four squad maneuvers tomorrow, and then all eight working together. Then you will have been run through everything you need to know before the final practicum.”

“Nighttime?” Shadow asked.

“Right. I knew I was forgetting one,” The Lieutenant said. “Tomorrow night though. And Filly Foolers. You can drop your guard. I toyed with trying to jump you at night, but even if we got a clean kill on the first pass, you still proved you were ready and vigilant. And something tells me I would not get a clean kill.”

“I was pissed and proud of your response right off the bat this morning. Pissed that I should have subtly made sure the others were armed. I knew you hadn't disarmed. I am sorry they have become the focal point everypegasus. Not intended.”

“We get it,” Golden Dawn assured her. “As long as we are ready it is cool. It is fun to see them fly.”

“It is fun,” The Lieutenant smiled. “I am glad we got the jump on Blue. It was the best thing to happen to Cardinal Spitfire. She really got to let loose.”

The larger the formations, the easier they got. They were slow to react and change direction. They looked impressive, but when it came down to combat, squads had to break off. Still, they worked most of the day in flight patterns and proper ways to break away.

They landed mid afternoon for a quick break and General Red River was waiting for them along with another pegasus.

“General,” The Lieutenant said as her hooves touched down. “You should have called. I hope you were not waiting long.”

“No, it is fine,” The General replied. “I enjoyed watching Black Barracks work with those formations. Wonderful work. My formation flying was always sub par. But I came here to let you know that I have allowed the acceptance of several challenging squads.”

“Can you elaborate sir?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked.

“I mean that several squads have formed that want to take on Filly Fooler Squad in a head on dogfight.”

“Filly Foolers. You know what to do,” The Lieutenant smiled as they launched.

“They jumped the gun a bit,” General Red River said watching them.

“You have no idea how much they have been wanting this,” The Lieutenant replied.

The Filly Foolers glided over their flight deck.

“Plan,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “We are going to flip flop all of our roles. Still staying in our battle buddy teams if forced to separate, but lets make sure they can not guess who we are by our position with each other. At least to start.”

“Team coming in off the right.”

They rolled into their newly designated positions. Shadow was at point, but Cardinal Spitfire was on his left. The team did some quick maneuvers before they had to face the incoming squad.

They bobbed to fake a dive, which was anticipated so they actually dove. And all the way to the base clouds before they curved around and banked up. Their opponent had come around and was getting behind them.

“Its a squad of eight,” Cardinal Spitfire announced.

They rolled twice, into a sharp opposite curve and did a roll down. Their opponent shifted accordingly and was still on their tail.

“Let's get crazy,” Cardinal Spitfire said.

She called them into a very tight turn. They almost skipped across the air it was so tight. It got them in an offensive position, albeit with the lose of speed. They played chase. The other squad kept out of their grasps for a long while until they did a faked split and recovered into a sharp turn, flipping the tables.

“Alright. I think we have had enough play time,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Shadow, lead is yours. Push and lets pull a 180 so we are sliding backwards. We can fire as we drop into free fall. Regroup on me.”

Shadow took control. The play was called, but it was his to order. He moved them through some quick zig zags and then had them hit the brakes to flip. They laid out as one and open fire. They took three out but by the time they reformed they got picked off in one go. All of their opponents used semiautomatic rifles.

They touched down on the flight deck for a quick drink of water.

“Alright. Game plan,” Cardinal said before they took off. “We do not know them. But I do know that they probably are not the best that wants to face us. Great timing Shadow Flare. All of your shots missed badly, but great timing. We won't get as much time to feel each other out anymore. The others have to have been watching. We are at the disadvantage, so shoot better Shadow Flare.”

They chuckled and took off.

“Now that we are free of their ears,” Cardinal Spitfire said pulling her com out. “Shadow your shots were not misses. We just all shot at the same targets. Bad play, but now we know to call our targets when we are outnumbered and in a head on attack.”

“I hear and now see our next opponents. Seven are skimming the cloud base,” Rays called.

“Drop!” Cardinal Spitfire ordered.

They tucked their wings and began to fall. The area they had just been at was shot with lasers. They reformed on Spitfire and were off. They were facing not only a squad with high accuracy, but with adjustable rifles.

They split and each side rolled up and around, passing through each other as they continued at the same heading. Cardinal Spitfire dropped out but they left the spot open. She made several shots at the distance but was not able to get her rifle to be steady enough. She lost track of the laser it was so far out.

She rejoined the team and they aggressively pushed towards their opponent who had gone in a steep climb. Cardinal Spitfire made several separation calls at the right times so incoming fire missed them. Still, in a matter of minutes they were on Filly Foolers' tale.

Cardinal Spitfire put up a good chase. They stayed tight, calm and rolled as one. Cardinal Spitfire was forced to call for the split. Shadow went down with her while their teammates got clear. The rest were taken out a few seconds later.

“Good thing you figured out when they were going to shoot, and that they could accurately shoot at that distance.”

“Lucky. I did not see movable firearms coming though,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Need a break?”

They all shook their head no.

“Shadow and I will take the tips. Lets start without them knowing where I am if we can.”

They adjusted and soon were in hot pursuit of their next opponent. It was clear they wanted to prove they could shake Filly Foolers. It was obviously getting to them the longer they could not shake free. Shadow took several bad shots, but it forced them to split.

They stayed with a half through a crazy cat and mouse game. The other half was unable to get them in their cross hairs. When they did, Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire silently split off and flipped back. Their opponents screamed past and they were stacked up in four.

Unlike the time with the other Barracks, they were actually fighting to lose the bulk of Filly Foolers, and their other half was trying to keep up, but out the line of fire as well.

The other half tried to break away with a roll. Their guns flipped around as they were on their back. Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow had guessed the move and opened fire. It was a draw, two for two, with the third opponent surviving. The other Filly Foolers were able to pick off another one before they were shot down.

They met up at the flight deck. They all needed water. Nopony spoke. General Red River just gave them a nod that there was another.

This time it was a fast and loose team. Their eight fliers broke into teams of two, which forced them to break apart. They further split with just Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow together. Shadow was leading. They picked off one team before they were all taken out. The chaotic swarm had won.

When they landed Shadow stumbled a bit, catching himself before he totally went down.

“I am fine he said. A little shaky on the legs, but fine.”

“One more,” General Red River announced.

They formed up, but never saw their opponent before they sliced through their formation in a head on strike. Filly Foolers dove and picked up speed. They came out of the dive and put up a good defense as they tried to shake their opponent. It didn't last long and they were cleanly picked off one by one. One shot per pegasus, along their formation and before they could break apart.

They reformed and turned their coms off.

“Nice job!” Cardinal Spitfire said happily. “Now that was some aerial combat. I doubt we will ever know who they were, but it was a treat.”

“Hell yeah!” Shadow shouted. “All of it was awesome!”

“They all out thought us,” Rays complained.

“No, they didn't,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “A lot of that was luck of the draw. Guessing what we would do and what they would do. High speeds and all these turns, you know how you lead. There is very little time to plan. Hesitation kills. Ignoring whoever the last squad was. They were just plain interesting.”

They all congratulated each other and glided back to the flight deck. Shadow slowly landed. His legs were still weak. It was a lot of strain on all parts of their bodies.

“Very impressive Filly Foolers,” General Red River nodded. “I deeply enjoyed what we could see. I am happy to say that all six of you have invitations for Aerial Combat School. Assuming you don't totally fuck up the rest of the practicums. And those invitations come from Aerial Combat Trainers, not me. We actually have a school being done right after this Basic Training finishes.”

They cheered, everypony in Black cheered and Lieutenant Marble Falls shook each of their hooves.

“We won't get to know who we stacked up against?” Silver Bar asked.

“Not a chance recruit,” The General said. “But good try.”

They watched in silence and the General and the other pegasus flew away. Once they were gone, Lieutenant Marble Falls spoke.

“I doubt General Red River knows who wanted to test you out. They may have formed their own squads for this gig. You are really lucky to have peaked the interest of trainers and soldiers stationed here so much that they asked to be pitted against you. As it is, this was technically wasted training time and should have been turned down.”

“We are just as happy to have the opportunity given to us,” Cardinal Spitfire said exhausted.

“So am I,” Lieutenant Marble Falls replied.

“All of us! Black is on the attack!” Deke said causing cheers.

“Alright, quiet down,” Lieutenant Marble Falls ordered. “Dinner and then I suggest an early bed. You will need the rest. It is going to be four on four in an all out battle practicum. Just like you will be facing for the big test.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls watched them head off to dinner. The six Filly Foolers would make a phenomenal team to take into Aerial Combat School and then as a Unit. Shadow Flare would have to not take a recon spot and Cardinal Spitfire would have to not be a Wonderbolt. The six were good, but not capable of making it as a Wonderbolt Squad together.

The others would probably not take the offers up. Silver Bar wanted to be a mechanic and Hay bail an engineer. They had gone to school for those roles and were exceptional at them. Moonless night and Shooting Star were heading for combat school. They had fun flying at such an amazing level, but not enough to change their goals.

Chapter 13 - Practicums

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“Now its time to really put it all together,” Lieutenant Marble Falls announced as she paced in front of them. “Overnight the instructors worked their asses off to build you a custom battleground. Since Black Barracks stayed here, we can not use the practicum battlefield that is already set up. It is too far away. So make their generosity worth it.”

“Its four on four. Wipe the other team out. Plain and simple. Red Team is Filly Fooler, Gale, Hurricane and Lilly Blossom. Blue Team is obviously Rover, Hay Bail, Ditwitz and Dreamers. Your flags are opposite of each other. There are twelve objects to capture. If one side gets seven, game over.”

“Isn't that not trying to wipe the other side out?” Deke asked.

“Always with the questions and something to say,” Lieutenant Marble Falls chastised. “I do not doubt that you will end up in direct combat for most of the practicum. The objectives are to make sure you use all your skills and do not play chicken.”

“What are you waiting for?”

They took off and began to organize.

“Anypegasus object if I take command?” Deke asked.

Nopony objected.

“Good. Then the main goal is ground combat. I am thinking on final approach to separate some. Hopefully each squad can grab an objective. Except for Filly Foolers. You will give us close air support and take on anypegasus in the sky. I know you love your semiautomatic rifles, but you need to run full auto machine guns to make the most out of strafing.”

“Good call,” Cardinal Spitfire affirmed.

They got to their starting platform. The city was in sight They quickly grabbed their cases and launched into the Formation Deke ordered. Filly Foolers was on the outside tip to allow them to break off easily.

As they moved into their approach they pulled apart and dove to find their assigned locations. Filly Foolers circled around. They had seen all four of Blue Team's squads drop into the city.

“Break off and search those clouds quickly,” Cardinal spitfire ordered. “They might have put an objective Flag in one.”

One was recovered and reported to Deke.

“Why are we not moving in to shoot?” Rays asked.

“We are highly visible and make for an easy target,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “We can get shot out of the sky.”

“Right. Of course.”

They stayed high and caught sight of three more objectives. Two were side by side in a large plaza in the center. It had a good amount of low cover scattered around. They made their report.

“Wonderful,” Deke replied. “They really did make it so we would have to face each other.”

Deke called together two squads and they converged on the plaza. The other was left loose to circle around. Both teams were crawling towards the center with heads low. On Deke's order, Filly Foolers came in for a strafing run. They made sure they were wide enough to not get hit all at once.

“Two confirmed kills,” Cardinal Spitfire reported.

“Damn!” Deke replied. “Make another pass.”

They circled back and made a low run. It didn't matter. They were blasted apart. Blue had taken out the flanking squad and converged on those left in Red Team. It was a hard fought loss. Blue never had a squad completely wiped out.

They touched down at the flight deck for a debrief.

“That was interesting,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said annoyed. “What did you do wrong and what did you do right.”

Several comments were made.

“Pathetic,” The Lieutenant spat. “Red is Gale, Rover, Hay Bail Lilly Blossom. Blue is Hurricane, Dreamers, Filly Foolers and Ditwitz.”

They took off and ran it again. Filly Foolers again played air support and were again knocked out before they could do any real damage. The battle as a whole turned into a stalemate with Red winning with a single pegasus left.

“What went right and what went wrong?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked again.

“Pathetic again,” The Lieutenant said shaking her head in disappointment. “Nopegasus has any grip on the battle as a whole. Red is Dreamers, Gale, Rover, Hurricane. Blue is Filly Foolers, Hay Bail, Lilly Blossom and Ditwitz.”

The battle was over quickly with Red sweeping Blue with the capture of 8 objectives.

“Objective win,” The Lieutenant said. “Pathetic. What went right and what went wrong!”

Nopony spoke up.

“No answer? Even more pathetic. Take the rest of the day off and think!”

“Back to her old self,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I didn't see that coming.”

“We were excelling,” Olive Pit said. “Now we are… not. And have no idea why.”

“Everypegasus gather round!” Shadow called. “We need to figure this out.”

They loosely gathered around.

“In your squads. You need to think together,” Shadow ordered. They were quick to organize.

“What consistently failed?” Shadow asked.

Individual performances were brought up a lot.

“That isn't right,” Shadow said after a while. “The squads can pick up for a member's lack of ability in one area. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and can compete the same level.”

“Filly Foolers was always shot down,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And fast. First Squad each time.”

“This is right,” Blue Wings agreed. “And whichever team they were on lost. That isn't right since they are the best. None of us will fight them in the air. It is suicide.”

Cardinal Spitfire laughed. “I have it. But you have to figure it out yourselves. I can't give away our advantage. Filly Foolers drop out. We will go over the answer tomorrow. I will take lead on the next match.”

They fell out, leaving very pissed off comrades. It wasn't long before the others gave up. Cardinal Spitfire refused to comment on it, even to her squadmates. All she would do is stress the importance of an early bed and the physical stress they would face tomorrow.

When they lined up in the morning, Cardinal Spitfire still had a beaming smile. It had not lessoned overnight.

“Ma'am. Request to only team up with Gale and Hay Bail. If I am right, I won't need the fourth.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls looked at Cardinal Spitfire for a bit. “Denied. I already have the teams I want all pick out. Red is Hay Bail, Hurricane, Rover, Ditwitz. Blue is Gale, Filly Foolers, Lilly Blossom and Dreamers. Blue, if Filly Foolers takes the lead, you will fail automatically. Understood?”

“Yes Ma'am!”

“Since no lead, what are your thoughts Cardinal Spitfire?” Sharp asked.

“Aerial Combat is not just about air to air and close air support. Every time we came in to give support, it backfired. Soldiers train for ground combat. They move on the ground unless they need to pick up and go a great distance. But that is what aerial combat squads are for. Drop in, fight, and move. Close air if necessary, but its for advance troop movements and putting up a new front while the ground troops move to catch up or land.”

“ Alright,” Sharp said. “Then we will form up and fan out. Filly Foolers will grab the one in the clouds and then form on our right flank. Find the objective, drop onto it and leave. Only stay to contest an objective.”

They left and acted as planned. They were not directly acting as one team. Each Squad was working on their own.

Shadow landed hard and dove for cover. Filly Foolers was dropping him in a few seconds in advanced to scope the objective out. He had the best chance at drawing fire while dodging it with his agility.

“Another objective,” Shadow radioed. He also was squad’s leader at the moment.

“That makes five,” Sharp replied. “We all know where six and seven are. No more worrying about objectives. Stay low, find a Red Squad, jump them and move on. Dreamers has the plaza and we will make sure the center is not taken. Lets pick them off.”

“There!” Shadow called.

He dropped down first right behind them and rolled to survive the drop. He didn't bother for cover as he opened up with his machine gun. The squad never had time to shot him as half of Filly Foolers touched down and opened fire from their flank. The other half stayed up a bit where they opened fire and made sure nopony launched.

“One squad killed,” Shadow reported. “I suggest a bold move to drop in behind their squads attack the square.”

“Make it fast,” Sharp said. “They just knocked out two of mine. Now a third.”

They stayed right above the rooftops, using the sound to navigate. Their landing was less than pretty and was disorganized. But it was fast enough to take out the squad. Cardinal Spitfire was one of the two lost in the attack.

They were right off the flank of another squad who knew they were there. Going to the sky was pointless. They moved to a strong position and made their stance. As their next firefight began, mass confusion erupted in the plaza.

Filly Foolers moved forward but it was all over. Lilly Blossom had taken out the other flanking squad and then dropped in to the center of the plaza. They ignored the objective boxes they were standing on and blasted the stunned Red Squad. They lost four members, but with Gale still intact and dropping onto the other flank, it was over quickly.

“What went wrong and what went right?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked unimpressed.

Shadow stepped forward to talk. “Blue Team used the air to advance quickly and launch surprise attacks on our enemy. That was what went right Ma'am. What went wrong was being to aggressive in our drops. We took out unprepared enemy squads. They will not fall for the that again and we will lose if we drop in so close. We also exposed objective points by trying for speed. Lilly Blossom could have taken the two in the square and finished the exercise, but they opted to expose themselves and paid the price. In real battle, that would have cost the objective of taking the square in the long run.”

“Objectives are not always positions,” Lieutenant Marble Falls explained. “It could be to recovered injured, to capture supplies, be they Enclave or the enemy's, secure vital technology, a raid to capture or kill a small enemy group. It could also be to quickly deploy explosives in order to remove significant or potentially significant buildings, fortifications or cover. Maneuverability is key.”

“Congratulations. Black Barracks figure it out on its own. Every other Barracks was taught it. I don't give a shit about teaching you certain tactics unless you force me to. You haven't yet. You put those pieces together just fine.”

“We will continue to work on this. You have to be ready to face all the Barracks and I want you to solidify how you want to deploy your squads through trial and error. There will be new surprises, for you, that will be explained right before the whole test begins.”

“For now, Red is Filly Foolers, Ditwitz, Hurricane and Hay Bail. Blue is Lilly Blossom, Rover, Gale and Dreamers.”

Shadow was given lead.

“I am not assigning weapons,” Shadow stated. “You make that choice. We will go High and Low. Screw objective. Taking objectives is a weak win. I am guessing they will still try for objectives, so lets pulverize them. We go in high and low.”

“Ditwitz and Hurricane, when we separate stay on course. Filly Foolers and Hay Bail will go low and stay above the rooftops. Your job is to give us air support and call out enemy locations. We will be the first to drop into combat. You job is to come in for backup and prevent backup from coming.”

“In the event that a squad takes casualties, we will reverse rolls. Ditwitz will cover Filly Foolers and Hurricane, you cover Hay Bail. Hot and Fast. Do what you can to avoid mistakes, but I know this is pushing it.”

“We have this. I like it,” Silver Lining said enthusiastically.

“Avoid dropping onto squads if possible. If not, kick them. These are supposed to be combining all we learned. Use it. Plus, we are wearing armor.”

“I am so glad you are my battle buddy,” Cardinal Spitfire commented.

They all laughed and lined up. As soon as the siren sounded they were off. There was no gliding and since they were ignoring objective points, they picked up their speed faster than before. Separation was flawless and Shadow lead Filly Foolers skimming over the rooftops.

“Filly Foolers, Mark six grids ahead and three left,” Ditwitz called.

They did a slow bank to keep up speed. Shadow ordered for two others to join him on the ground while the others kept it contained. Shadow called for the drop, held out for a second longer and then pulled his wings in.

He slammed his rear hooves into the cloud wall and rolled down it to stop the energy. He came up behind them and opened fire. The squad was caught up having to deal with two pegasus assaulting them in unarmed combat and with Shadow firing from behind them. Shocked by the unarmed combat, they were easily dispatched. The noise was heard and Shadow brought all of Filly Foolers onto the ground where they began to move towards the next Blue Squad that Ditwitz had seen turn towards them.

Ditwitz came out of nowhere and strafed the Blue Squad who had taken flight above the buildings. Hurricane was in a tough dogfight with Hay Bail moving to assist. The battle finished in the air but not without losing Hurricane and most of Hay Bail.

“Interesting choice Shadow Flare,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said when they returned. “Well played all. All of you are getting the feel for this. Too good of a feel. Filly Foolers and Gale. I have blindfolds for you. You will each go to your designated position and play injured. Your teammates will have to rescue you and prevent the other side from rescuing their comrades. Only your teammates can move you, so there will be no hiding the enemy's bodies. Injured can post up wherever they like within that assigned grid. Get there as fast as you can.”

“This is new,” Cardinal Spitfire said as they launched. “It almost feels like she is making this up on the spot.”

“Combining on the spot,” Shadow replied. “She has done this all before. She is reacting to our performance by pulling a planned objective out of a hat. Nothing is being made up, She is just revealing the cards she wants us to see.”

“She said she had never trained recruits past aerial combat,” Shooting Star commented.

“She said she had been doing plenty of assisting. Also, we do not know if she has trained anypony else from Aerial Combat School. It could have been specific about Basic.”

“Not bad observations,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “I hope you are right. That makes me feel more confident. See you later.”

Cardinal Spitfire pulled up into a barrel roll to get clear before she headed to her designated location. Shadow touched down on his and looked around. He chose to enter a building and lay down as if he had been shot while clearing it. It would be hard to find for either side and he had no idea what squads were coming to rescue him.

He settled down for a nap. By now, they all were good at falling asleep anywhere and almost anytime. He only woke up when a fierce battle erupted around him. Suddenly he was picked up and rushed out of the building where they took off. A minute later they touched down and Shadow was set on the ground. He heard his rescuer depart.

Blue won but Red had the much better plan. Blue nabbed their injured and kept them with the Squad. Red took the injured back to a safe location to be protected. Red lost troops by protecting their injured, while blue was only slowed down. Blue finished with five while red was decimated. However, it was Red who won the praise of Lieutenant Marble Falls for properly taking care of the wounded.

Onto the next Practicum. Others were chosen as injured and Filly Fooler was back in. They were skimming the rooftops watching for troop movements and places to strike. They had been dictated as scouts. A squad blindsided them and they tried to break apart.

Cardinal Spitfire rolled, got hit, and slammed into Shadow. They were too low to be able to recover. Shadow slammed into the top of a building and dropped into the street below. Cardinal Spitfire rolled to a stop right up against him.

He laid there in pain as the squad came back around to confirm their kill. They took off and Shadow breathed a sigh of relief. He slowly got up and began to move to a building to recover.

“You are not supposed to move!” Cardinal Spitfire growled through her teeth.

“I didn't get hit,” Shadow quietly shot bad. “You knocked me out of the sky and probably took the hit for me instead. My vest never buzzed. And they never said we couldn't play dead.”

Shadow took five minutes before he began to move in hops. Up over a building or two and then down. Up over a building or two and then down. He slid up to the corner of a wall when he saw a blindfolded Blue team member. A Blue Team Squad touched down moments later.

Shadow picked his timing and rolled out. He stood and fired several shots and then dove for cover. He had hit his primary target, the one who had picked up their injured mate. Shadow led them on a chase that turned around.

He hopped up and took the two blue team members that had taken off with their teammate out. When he landed he was around the corner. He waited for them to come. When they did he bucked the first, shot the second and the third before he finished the first.

He kept quiet. Over the radio the Red team had reported Filly Foolers down. And Blue had to have made the same report. He was a ghost and best left that. It was a much tougher decision when he came upon on of their injured. He walked away deciding the best course of action was to hunt.

Two squads were fighting over an injured Blue teammate. Shadow's gun was covered by their combat and he quickly assassinated two. Their flank down, the Red Team was able to knocked out the last four. It would not have happened without Shadow's help. He slipped away without being seen once all the blue were hit.

The horn sounded soon after. Filly Foolers kept quiet about Shadow meeting up with them from elsewhere. Cardinal Spitfire had caught them up on Shadow surviving and they wanted to use the tactic again if given the chance. No squad was an ally while they rotated like they were. Lieutenant Marble Falls either didn't know or didn't care. It was kept quiet.

“Alright. Take a break,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “After dinner, you will have to do it at night. If I approve, you will get the whole day tomorrow to rest up before the final battle. You will want that rest.”

When it was time to launch they were back to the original tactics. Eliminate the enemy and do not let them take seven objectives. Lieutenant Marble Falls didn't tell them that she had removed four objectives.

“Okay Blue,” Deke said as they were flying out. “I have a few ideas we should try. Mainly back to aerial support. Filly Foolers playing it high. Very high. Only coming down when we need them. Strike fast and hard and then get back out of there. We have been playing fast and close to the ground these last two times and I am afraid that again, we are forgetting key skills.”

“I want to see how this works because when we face everypegasus, we are going to need at least one strong aerial squad. The other barracks will probably be looking for Filly Foolers in the sky, so I would say we do not put them there to start, but as back up. They can handle the ground fine. We have to fool the other barracks.”

“And back to this practicum. Coms. Filly Fooler will switch one of their coms to listen in on Red. They will report their findings to whoever is in charge.”

Everypony pointed at Deke. “Okay. I am in charge.”

“Come on,” Flex said. “Its Golden Dawn over there. She will be leading the first night mission.”

“Shadow Flare can cover the radio with me at point,” Cardinal Spitfire chimed in. “He is good at reading my commands without a com.”

The horn sounded. “Shit!” Deke said scrambling to finish organizing. Filly Foolers didn't need any direct orders yet. They had to climb as fast as they could and as high as they dared. None of them had flown this high during basic training.

“I forgot how cold it gets up here,” Cardinal Spitfire shivered. “Remember our cold weather training.”

“Got their radio,” Shadow whispered.

Red had gotten a late start as well. After another minute Shadow had their orders and they were passed along to Deke. Armed with that knowledge, Deke had Red systematically hunted down and destroyed in fifteen minutes.

“Who is the cheater?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked as they all touched down.

“I turned one Blue into Red's coms if that is what you mean Ma'am,” Deke laughed.

Lieutenant Marble Falls yawned. “Took you guys long enough to try that trick out. As Shadow likes to say, every advantage is an advantage. Coms off. Everypegasus. Same teams. GO!”

They laughed as they flew back out to the start.

“If we are going to win this, we need to tighten up,” Deke advised. “Run a triangle with Filly Foolers in the center. That way they can provide support to any squad from the ground or air.”

“I think it is still your lead, Deke,” Cardinal Spitfire nodded.

“I wasn't going to give it up yet,” Deke smirked.

They all laughed. Deke finished organizing them and they were off.

Shadow slammed into the wall. Filly Fooler had made a move, but ended up separated from the rest. They were facing at least two squads who were bearing down on them. Worse, Shadow was separated from the main group.

He looked around but found himself to be alone. Shadow popped up onto a rooftop and crawled to the edge. No opponents were in view. He began to hop around like before. Without coms, things were quiet.

Shadow halted as he heard hoof steps. He slid into a dark corner and waited. They walked right passed him. He started to follow them, getting closer and closer before he made two quick shots from point blank range. Two others came around the corner at the sound and Shadow did the only thing that came to his mind.

Shadow crouched and did his best to look like he was their third member who had escaped the attack. They fell for it and Shadow turned on them. He felt like the night swallowing up the day. Shadow looked around. He thought he had seen something move out of the corner of his eye. He moved towards a doorway and poked his head in.

He breathed a sigh of relief. It was an instructor hiding in a back corner. The same one he had seen with General Red River when they tested Filly Foolers. The instructors were around. Always watching, scoring, and ready to render medical aid if necessary. They did their best to stay out of the way and not distract from the exercises. You could tell them by their clothes and hats. This instructor was not wearing the same clothing as the others, but he was still not an opponent.

Shadow never got back to the others. He never saw anypony else. He was not far from the big battle when it erupted, but he was too late to join the direct action.

When they got back, they were sent directly to bed. The night was still young enough to do another exercise. It was a few hours until sunrise. But they didn't argue. Sleep was sleep. The Lieutenant was half asleep as well.

Chapter 14 - Final Pieces

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Even with the later night, Black Barracks was up by lunch. They ate and then each squad took off to get some basics workouts done. Most of their mornings had been workouts on their own. Once that was done, they waited. And waited.

The Lieutenant finally showed up when it was almost dinner time. She was in the black flight suit she had worn a few times. Despite the suit being black, fresh sweat stains could be seen.

“Sorry,” She said as they all assembled. “Normally I do not have recruits at this time and scheduled training can happen. We have been working training in at night and did some for most of the day today. I forgot to send somepegasus to cover for me.”

She perked up. “I have a few things to tell you before the morning. First off, you will be heading back to your barracks as soon as I am done speaking with you. The second is vital intel for the practicum. Except it to last, nonstop, for the three days. Pack plenty of water, bring plenty of rations and be ready to camp out under the stars.”

“I train you so hard on weather because they usually throw some in. You can go three days because you will be replenished with reinforcements. When you get zapped, stay down like always, but your teammates can drag you back to a designated medic who can revive you.”

“That is simple. The medic will pull a white patch off your chest and place it in their medical bag. You have three bars. Once your bars are gone, you must go back to the drop zone until you are allowed back in.”

“If your teammates are dicks, like mine were, and leave you, eventually an instructor will send you back and you will wait to be released as a reinforcement. If they can not get to you, same deal. When you go back, they will make sure you have three patches on before you are allowed back in. If the medic goes down… The instructors get any white patches the medic had collected to reuse. Don't let your medic die and kill their medic. The medic has one life and can not be revived.”

“This isn't an all out slug fest. Throughout the test you will be given new objectives. I have heard that they often pair up Barracks for individual tasks. Have a contingency plan for everything. Make sure your structure is set. If your commander goes down, you better have a backup.”

“I also know that last time, they included mock radiation. Bring rad meds and bring PWTs. That does mean you will have to visit the quartermaster. They won't refuse you for training purposes. Everypegasus knows the practicum is coming and many of the instructors draw equipment.”

“Do not let the other Barracks find out you drew anything. And also draw more training cartridges. Ours had a cool down period so you may have to deal with that as well. They may supply you with a full magazine. It is better to end up at the drop zone over prepared than having to scramble to get these supplies there. They will be limited out in the field.”

“After Captain Nova visited us, I began to try to figure out a way around the taste of the water. One that would be light and easy to carry. Rosemary worked best. It is good for several bottles of water, so don't drink it. I made sure you have supplies waiting for you in your barracks. That is one thing I doubt the Enclave will ever issue. I never cared enough to toy with the taste of the water before, that is how much you impressed me these past weeks.”

“Back to combat. Personally, I would not allow reinforcements to come back in without being in a unit of some kind. It is unproductive to send in one or two at a time, especially if you are not close to your drop zone. The enemy may have occupied the territory in between.”

“This will encompass all aspects. Air, ground and urban. Yes, there is a forest and other simulated ground side locations. I think they even added a small canyon this time. We had a big river cutting straight through ours back when I went through basic. But they change it often. Nav will be highly important.”

“The other Barracks may have had this information several days ago and trained accordingly. I trust you have learned what you need to and can adapt. That is why I love Black. You learn from your failures and I can push you to the limit, including letting you try tactics instead of structured teaching of a half dozen models. But, you have to have the drive to let me work my magic.”

“More specific training and tactics await you in your specialized schools. I request to train Black Barrack on aerial combat. It only has bitten me in the ass twice. I blame the drill sergeants on the first day for those disasters. And training green was no fun. But you were a lot of fun. And it was a special treat for me to continue your training these past two weeks. That also means my reputation is on the line, so don't fuck it up!”

“No go pack up, head back to base camp and rest up. I may or may not see you after this. That depends on a lot of things on my end. Farewell. May the wind be ever at your back.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls zipped away before responses could be made.

They rushed to pack up and head off. They had been taken out this far by Master Black, but they had to navigate back on their own. It didn't take them long and they pushed their speed rather than glide.

They touched down at their parade field. There was nopony to greet them.

“Lets grab dinner in full gear,” Deke said taking charge. “If we do that, and anypegasus asks why we are in gear or going to or from the QM, we can let them know we have to stop to drop things off with the Quartermaster. They have no idea what we have been doing, so lets put that to our advantage.”

They agreed and dashed off to dinner, bags bouncing as they ran.

“Finally back from your exile?” Crystal Bliss from Yellow stated.

“Yep!” Golden Dawn said smiling. “Dinner first, then to deal with our gear. We have been on field rations the whole time.”

There was a general groan across the room for the thought of being on field rations that long. Technically they had been the whole time due to it being their lunch menu. They had no fear heading to the quartermaster as a group after dinner.

“What broke?” The quartermaster asked before he realized it was all of Black coming in.

“I see. Here to prepare for tomorrow?”

“Yes sir!” Deke replied. “We will be requiring field rations, Rad-Flush, RadBlock, PWTs and training magazines. Is there anything else you suggest Sir?”

“No, you have it covered. I do suggest brining your tents. At the very least they can shield you from the rain or provide shade. They throw anything they want at you,” He replied. “This will require a bit of paperwork per recruit.”

“Has any other recruits come in for supplies?” Deke asked as the quartermaster began to get the paperwork and the others with him began to grab the supplies.

“No recruits have come in and no supplies have been sent to the Barracks. I can not say what the instructors have grabbed, but they have access to a separate stockpile with all sorts of toys.”

On top of the food rations, they each loaded out with six Rad-Flush, six RadBlock, four packs of PWTs and two magazines. It was decided that Shadow should carry a machine gun.

They had enough rounds that a resupply might not be needed. 1800 rounds if you carried a semiautomatic rifle and 2400 if you carried a machine gun. There was another advantage to going to the quartermaster. The magazines would not require you to eject a case to cool it down. It would take a second to simulate an actual magazine change, but it meant they didn't have to try and collect cases cooling down for reuse. A big advantage since they were told the instructors did bring out magazines for final supply right before the practicum, but never these type. Always cased magazines.

They all happily waited for each other and got back to the barracks as one.

“Hey! We have a new uniform in our lockers!”

“It is just a dress uniform. Must be for the graduation.”

“Lets hit the parade field tomorrow in them!”

They agreed and did their best to fall asleep. Everypony shut up and the lights were turned off. Excitement was in the air and even though it kept getting later and later, sleep was not easy to find.

When morning came, Shadow pulled his uniform on. It felt like it had been tailored to him. The only problem was that it was marked as a mare's uniform. There was no difference between a mare or stallion's uniform other than sizing.

Shadow looked over at Cardinal Spitfire as she tweaked hers to make it as presentable as she could. She looked stunning in it. They all did, but even more so for her. Being friends was one thing and battle buddies another, but now they were days away from separating to different trainings and possibly different sides of the Enclave.

It was a different feeling than knowing that Deke, Olive Pit and Golden Dawn would be moving elsewhere. A very different feeling. Shadow took a few deep breaths. He didn't want things to change. To grow apart by life was painful. He wanted to be with her, always. They flowed together and didn't have to speak to know the others immediate thoughts and reactions.

Shadow shook his head. There was no chance they could be more than just very good friends with the paths their lives were taking. It was the same for anypony during this time and this time only. A real shame.

Shadow made it out to the parade field first. Master Wind was silently waiting. It was only a few seconds until the others poured out and quickly got in place. Master Wind was in no hurry to start.

“Welcome back,” He finally said. “I see you are enjoying your dress uniforms, as you should be. They look stunning. But go change. You need to head out soon for your drop zone. Final instructions and gear will be done there.”

They hurried as slowly as they could. Excitement was turning into nerves and the beginning of the battle for their heart had begun. As things quieted down, Shadow could only think of one way to keep the fear at bay.

“Marching down in the valley I heard a loud roar” He began.

“It was an Alpha Trooper treating red like a toy!” Cloud Surfer replied back. That was all they needed as they launched into the whole cadence.




So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas

Move over Ratty Red let the mighty Black pass




BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO




Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar

It was a smooth Alpha Trooper treating Yellow like a toy

So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas

Move over Yucky Yellow let the mighty Black pass




BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO




Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar

It was a cool Alpha Trooper treating Blue like a toy

So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas

Move over Baby Blue let the mighty Black pass




BLACK BARRACKS IS ON THE GO




Way down in the valley I heard a loud roar

It was a daring Alpha Trooper treating Green like a toy

So put your hoof on the peddle step down on the gas

Move over Ghastly Green let the mighty Black pass




BLAAAAAAAACK!




Master Wind smiled as they finished most of it on the parade field.

“Keep your spirits up. Lets fly!” He said taking off.

They launched and immediately shuffled to a formation. It was an easy glide. As they flew, they kept their spirits up with other cadences. It lasted a few songs, but the flight showed no sign of ending soon, so they just focused on flying.

“Welcome recruits to hell. I am Major Winters Breath. We have laid out a more than sufficient challenge for you. I certainly do not want to be in your hooves.”

The Major walked them through the rules. Lieutenant Marble Falls had already covered them to a T. The instructors gave them a magazine, a box of PWTs, two Rad-Flushes and two Rad-Blocks.

“You won't be needing your tents for this exercise,” The Major said finishing up.

“I think we will keep them,” Deke replied. “They might be more weight, but they have their uses.”

“Your choice.”

“Arm up squads,” Deke ordered.

They put on the magazines from the quartermaster and loaded their rifles. Up until that point the instructors were unaware they had visited the Quartermaster. If they had know, they might have not supplied them with the items. Any advantage was an advantage.

“Listen up,” Deke continued when they all were ready. “I will take lead and Golden Dawn take second. I expect to be forced into plenty of situations where we need to work together to control two fronts. Flex, you are the navigator with Golden Dawn. Majesty, you are my navigator. It will be best to split command and navigation now and know that heading in. Cardinal Spitfire, take Lilly Blossom with you.”

“The goal for the aerial teams is the same from the other day. Keep you low when we can and out of sight. We want to keep them guessing as to who is ruling the skies. We can't wear either squad down. And play that little trick of your's Filly Foolers. Shift where your leader is when you can.”

“I say we do not contest the sky from the start,” Cardinal Spitfire advised. “Put all eight on the ground. That will surprise them and give us a heavier hoof to start. They will keep looking for Black's aerial team. Any aerial team that is. Where an aerial team is, the rest will close by.”

“Sounds good,” Deke replied. “We all see the forest in front of us. We take it low and slow. The trees will provide cover and block line of sight, both ways. So we will have to spread thin. Past that, I have no idea what we will face. But everything will be worked with as much aerial combat maneuvers to start.”

“When battle buddies go down, find another when you can. Remember the medics. Don't be left alone and unguarded if possible. Resort to every advantage we can. Unarmed combat, playing dead, hiding, setting traps, whatever you can think to give us the edge. If we spend too much time engaged, we lose the advantage. If we lick em fast, it means we can take ground quickly.”

“Deke,” Golden Dawn said. “It just occurred to me. We worked to rescue our injured the other day. We had the same objectives, but different locations. We can never assume we know what the other Barrack's objective is.”

Deke nodded his head in agreement. He was done talking. Until they were given more information, nopony had anything to add.

The typical start siren squawked but Deke didn't launch.

“What are you doing recruit?” The Major asked.

“Waiting for orders Sir. Sirens are not orders.”

“They mean go.”

“Go what Sir?” Shadow asked, backing up Deke. “Go is no direction. Without direction we are useless or could end up in a worse situation because we chose the wrong path.”

“You all are as smart as they said,” The Major stated. “Your object is to take out Red.”

They got the last know coordinates for where Red was and took off.

Deke began to give orders. “So much for our original goal. Filly Foolers and Lilly Blossom, climb. We need a lookout and I do not want to send just one team. Besides, if Red wants to fight in the air, you two can deal with it easily.”

Cardinal Spitfire took control. “Lilly Blossom, level off at a standard height. We will climb higher. Keep all eyes peeled. Even with us above you we can't get comfortable.”

“Captain Deke?” Sharp said.

“Yes?”

“If we have hunting orders, Red might as well. For another Barracks. Which also means another Barracks has hunting orders for us. A revolver. I know not to assume...”

“That is an idea not an assumption,” Deke replied. “A good idea.”

“Staying frosty,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “We see you, but no targets or movements yet.”

“Hurricane and Rover get some air,” Deke ordered. “I want you to look like our aerial teams and get us a bit of height to run a defensive screen against any hunters.”

They came up on the coordinates and took cover. Golden Dawn moved Ditwitz up to check the site.

“Plenty of hoof prints, but I can see they organized and did a standard flight launch,” She reported. “I do not know what they look normally, but I want to say they have a good amount of equipment on. Hold on… We found a Rad-Flush that must have fallen out. It looks like they can't pack either. But it confirms my thoughts on their direction. North by Northwest.”

“Interesting,” Deke replied. “Lets head out that way. From here, it will cut across the middle. Very exposed. Keep the same formation. Let's go. Filly Foolers?”

“We will catch up,” Cardinal Spitfire said distracted. “I think something is on our current heading. Lilly Blossom will turn to cover you.”

“Careful,” Deke ordered. “Last thing I need is you being spotted and throwing us into an engagement we do not want.”

“Shadow Flare what is our location, altitude, heading and speed?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

Shadow had to take a second to calculate speed, but everything else he knew right away.

“Cardinal Spitfire, I see it as well.” Silver Bar said.

“Yes. Low and fast,” She replied. “They are on an intercept course with Black.”

“At their current position and heading, they will,” Shadow confirmed.

“Any others in sight?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Yes. Further out is the main force,” Moonless Night said.

“Ah, I see them,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And I see their aerial teams. Suggestions?”

“We have to stop them from the intercept,” Shadow said. “No matter what, they will fight us.”

“Captain Deke,” Cardinal Spitfire. “A whole Barracks will intercept with you in about thirty minutes. Requesting permission to strafe and lead away.”

“Granted Filly Foolers,” Deke replied. “Knock them out.”

Cardinal Spitfire kept them at the same hight. She wanted to literally drop onto them and give them no directional information.

When the time came they rolled over into a dive. Their wings were half out. They didn't want to hit too fast of a speed. They needed to come out of the fall ready to strafe. They opened their wings together without a command and began to fire.

They sliced through one aerial team and into the second. The squads below were spread out enough that they were able to dip down and take out another one before they were past them and turning back around.

“YELLOW!” Cardinal Spitfire shouted and directed them into two more turns before they rolled out of the way of incoming fire. A squad popped up right in front of them. Filly Foolers played it hot and fast, learning from their challengers. They sliced between them without blinking, flipped to bring their guns around and opened fire. The squad fell and Filly Foolers turned into a steep climb.

“There we go Filly Foolers!” Cardinal Spitfire praised.

“Captain Deke, Filly Foolers broke up Yellow. Four of nine squads terminated. Turning in pursuit of another squad. It will move us towards your directed to meet up.”

“Make it fast Filly Foolers. Red spotted.”

They turned and ended the squad with no tricks. All business. They pushed their speed to catch up with their Barracks.

“Filly Foolers, engagement moved to the ground,” Deke said a little while later. “Where are you? We need close air support. I dropped Lilly Blossom too low and they were forced to land.”

“Two out,” Shadow replied.

“Come on,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I know we have more speed than this!”

They pushed on harder than they had ever flow together. Red was trying to get to Black, but they had a good defense set up in the trees. They were successfully keeping any teams from landing inside their zone. Red never saw Filly Foolers coming.

Cardinal Spitfire split the squad into their teams. It was safe enough since they were undetected. Shadow moved out a bit as they separated and then they were on a strafing pattern. Red had broken down so there was no formations in the air. They still picked off four on the first path. The other two picked off seven more.

Deke took the moment to mount the offensive. Lilly Blossom took to the sky, Hurricane busted through through the Red line in front of them and the rest lashed out from their defensive positions.

Red bolted. It was difficult to keep up with them in the trees, but they used aerial combat tactics to pick off one after the other. Hopping all around until they were cleaned up.

“Did we get them all?” Deke asked.

“I think so Captain,” Flash said. “We should have confirmed their kills better.”

“Filly Fooler is now in a strong position overhead Captain,” Cardinal Spitfire lazily informed Deke.

“NEW ORDER FOR BLACK BARRACKS. TAKE AND DEFEND THE COMPLEX AT 145.53 BY 885.45”

“That is a good hour flight,” Majesty said after a quick calculation.

“Move out on Golden Dawn's command,” Deke said relinquishing lead. He was obviously concerned after he got Lilly Blossom trapped.

“We are going up,” Golden Dawn announced. “We will set up a good altitude for the bulk of the flight. Lilly Blossom, stay high and loose with Filly Foolers, but keep to the north. Hold for further instructions.”

They finally saw the complex. It had four buildings around a walled off courtyard. The buildings were broken and blown apart. Only one was two stories. Filly Foolers gave a report as the others slowed down.

“Lieutenant Cardinal Spitfire, suggestions?” Golden Dawn asked.

“I think they have most of their force on the other side of you. It is well protected ruins, but we believe we caught movement. The South East corner is missing. Otherwise it is over the wall and in through windows.”

“That makes for a tricky entrance if they have a trap waiting,” Golden Dawn replied.

“At some point, we will be shot,” Shadow commented. “Not that we should give up. But we are going to be forced to accept losses.”

“I have an idea Captain,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And I hate it. Shadow Flare can lead me through a hole on the second story roof. We can secure it and that will disrupt their plans.”

“An insertion like that is dangerous; real, physical danger,” Golden Dawn warned. “Don't take unnecessary risks. Your call Shadow Flare. But it may be time to take some losses. If we place our two medics right, we will have minimal damage.”

Shadow took some time to think. They were not on a clock. “I can do it Captain. But I don't trust anypegasus to come with me. Besides, they will get in the way.”

“Hold position Filly Foolers. We are going to move into an assault position. But I am going to send you to put down cover fire on their forces outside while Shadow Flare does his thing and we jump the walls.”

They waited for several minutes, watching out for anything and everything. They saw their comrades moving below them.

“Shadow Flare we move on your call,” Golden Dawn said.

Shadow began to slowly work Filly Foolers down. They had been circling for a while. If they had not been spotted by now they were facing blind opponents. He was working up his nerve and planning as they descended.”

“Team is airborne!” Shooting Star shouted.

“Protect Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered.

Their hooves force, they dove and made the call. Halfway down Filly Foolers pulled away from Shadow to meet the squad head on. Shadow pulled the breaks and then dropped again. He slammed them back on right before the building and dropped in through the small hole.

He misjudged the timing so the roll jolted him badly. Shadow came out of it and vaulted off the wall. Lasers erupted as they tried to hit him. He rolled along the floor and slammed into a pegasus, driving him back. Shadow did a back hoofspring and they lit up their own comrade.

Shadow landed next to the second, swept his legs and fired on the third. The one he had knocked down tried to stand and Shadow stepped on his neck. He was going to zap him when he heard the hoof steps coming up the stairs.

Shadow gabbed the pegasus where the armor opened up for the neck and pulled him up as a shield. It worked and Shadow opened his gun fully on the new visitor.

“Fuck you. That hurt,” He said to Shadow.

“I hated it too,” Shadow said walking to the stairs. “I am sorry I am not sorry”

“What?”

“I mean I don't want to hurt anypegasus in training, but there are little options and we all will get banged up. Learn to handle it or to block me.”

“Shadow Flare?” Olive Pit called from the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m clear Olive Pit,” Shadow called down. “We all took a beating. Flag down an instructor.”

“Will do!”

Shadow laid down as he waited. It was just to be safe.

“Why did you call for an instructor? Because you hit us? We may be Green but we are tough enough to withstand that basic unarmed combat.”

“I landed hard,” Shadow groaned. “Real hard. I misjudged the distance to the floor. I am fine for now. But they need to know.”

“You bounded all over the place!”

“Yes, I did.” Shadow said flatly.

“Incident report?” An instructor asked as he bounded up the stairs.

Shadow gave the report and the instructor gave a quick look over the two who Shadow had physically struck. He sent all four of them packing before looking at Shadow. Shadow had to take his armor off.

“How do you feel?” The instructor asked.

“Sore and bruised,” Shadow said. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Good call. That was a stupid move. Even with your acrobatics. And yes, I saw you break before you actually dropped in. It had a lot of speed. Now get back into gear.”

Shadow tossed his on as the instructor left. Several from Hurricane bounded up the stairs to take up defensive positions. Olive Pit followed them up.

“You okay? They froze the who area. Nopegasus was allowed to move.”

“Sore. Very sore. But clear,” Shadow said as he walked down the steps. “Where is Filly Foolers?”

“No idea,” Golden Dawn said meeting him. “But we are about to have company. The freeze didn't stop them. They hesitated before that thankfully. Watching you drop in like that...”

“I know. Stupid,” Shadow said. “They probably were outside the zone. They went after Green hard and fast.”

“So it is Green,” Golden Dawn said. “I wonder what they are thinking behind their cover. We spot some movement.”

“We could flush them out,” Shadow suggested. “We were ordered to take and defend. But that doesn't mean we have to stay inside to defend.”

“Good point,” Golden Dawn said staring at the ground to think. She began giving orders to not only assault the Green squads, but set up defenses outside. They had noticed several good locations on their way in.

“Filly Foolers here,” Spitfire said. “Are you unfrozen?”

“Yes,” Golden Dawn replied. “Precautionary move. Where are you?”

“We wiped the Green Squad without a problem. High up and trailing large force moving towards your location. Half a Barracks at least.”

“Roger that Filly Foolers. We will be ready. Taking care of those Green waiting.”

They stopped and listened as the firefight erupted outside.

“Thank goodness for the medics,” Deke radioed. “Captain, they are cleared out. I love these aerial combat techniques.”

“Good,” Golden Dawn said. “Get moving. Large force is on it's way.”

“What else can we do?” Golden Dawn asked herself.

“Hold our tricks back,” Shadow said. “It is day one and mid afternoon. We will need them when we are tired and hungry and hurting. They will only work once.”

Golden Dawn said nothing. She just watched and checked on the status of her troops. Lilly Blossom was standing by to head back up so Shadow joined up with them for the time being.

Filly Fooler,” Golden Dawn said coming over. “Stand down. Lilly Blossom, hit the skies and patrol North to West.”

They were gone without a word.

“I want you to rest Filly Fooler,” Golden Dawn said softly. “You do not need to fly right now so you are grounded. Find a place to rest before they are on us. We need every soldier in the best shape possible.”

Golden Dawn smiled warmly. “And as a friend I do not want you to get hurt worse. We have two and a half more days for you to do that.”

“Thanks Golden Dawn,” Shadow smiled back. “I forget we actually get to meet hell.”

“I wish this was going to be as close to hell as we could get,” Golden Dawn sighed. “I joined because I feared being helpless. I feared not having control to protect my loved ones. But the nightmares that drove me to join haven't stopped. The bullets are not really flying yet. When they do, that will get us close to hell. Being back stabbed and betrayed, left to suffer alone, cut off from friends and family, that is hell. But lets talk of good things.”

It was blue that had been moving their way. Right before they arrived they took care of Filly Foolers and then launched a savage assault. They kept their medics in reserve.

Shadow popped out of a corner and lit up another Blue recruit. Shadow got hit and felt the electricity hit him. They dragged him back in and pulled him back up. They removed another white patch. Everypony in the room had only one left.

“There are not many left,” Shadow panted. “Lets push and get to their medics! They probably are exposed trying to patch up the swath of injured.”

They charged out after him and surged over the wall. Shadow let his gun loose, the laser along with the others, lighting up the enemies. Shadow felt another surge of electricity and fell as it zapped him. He rolled a few times and saw the others go down. But they had gotten both of the blue medics and the ones they had just healed.

Shadow was sent with the others back to their drop zone. It was Majesty and three others left holding the location. They could see half a barracks heading towards the location as they flew back. The instructors had warned everypony that they were coming through.

Cardinal Spitfire looked like she was about to launch as they came into view. They probably were, but seeing so many come in changed their tactics. Nopony could talk while they were waiting to become reinforcements. They were released when four figures came into view against the purple sky.

“You four are released as well,” The Major said as they touched down. “No point in holding four back while the rest are right here and ready to go. Now, your orders are to kill the leader of Yellow and do it before Red does.”

“Great,” Flex groaned. “We have no idea who the others are. We will have to kill them all.'

“You will know the leader of Yellow,” The Major said. “Crystal Bliss is anything but subtle or quiet. You will see why.”

“And if they switch?” Majesty asked.

“They won't switch,” Major Winters Breath said. “She is the only one with a tactical mind in Yellow. They drew the short straw this lot. Typically there are two or three that rotate. But just Crystal Bliss for Yellow.”

“And if nopegasus can lead?” Deke asked.

“The objectives are based on the reactions on the practicum. If leadership is a problem, then that Barracks does not get complicated tactical tasks, like killing the enemy commander.”

They all chuckled.

“Just to be clear…” Deke said.

“Yes, you have a lot of good leaders in your group!” The Major said shooing them away to get the task done.

“Majesty,” Deke called. “Pick your second and navigators.”

“Shadow for my primary Navigator,” Majesty said without thinking. “Now go find them Filly Foolers!”

“Interesting strategy Captain Majesty,” Shadow said. “None of us have tried to use our lead navigator as the scout force before.”

“I hope it pays off,” Majesty replied. “If it doesn't, we have plenty of others who can navigate.”

Filly Foolers pulled up and away smoothly before picking up speed. Majesty began to set their course. Hay Bail was the other navigator. They knew the general location Red started, and they knew where Yellow had come from at the start. If Red and Black were given the same task, then Yellow had to be achievable to both Barracks.

Hay Bail had the probable location down to a five mile radius. Filly Foolers had raced ahead to the location. Their navigation half would start when they needed to bring Black forward to their location.

“Captain, I see movement,” Shadow reported. “Make that two distinct movements. One is on hooves. I bet that is Red. The other is mixed. They seem to be wandering around with no clear goal.”

“We are way behind you and out of time,” Majesty said. “Any way you could draw off Red?”

“Maybe. They have the same goal though. Even if they believe we are Yellow, they will only send some after us.”

“Any other suggestions? Anypegasus?”

Shadow thought about their last night battle when he struck like a ghost.

“Yeah,” Shadow said. “I'll give control of Filly Foolers to Cardinal Spitfire and drop in silently. In their current state, it should not be hard slip up and blend in. I did it a few times in our Practicums.”

“That must have been what happened,” Majesty mumbled. “You Bastard. Its all on you Filly Fooler.”

Shadow pulled safely up and out of the formation before rolling and heading down. He dropped straight down. The low light was to his advantage with flying, but he wasn't going to take any chances. This was a hoof only operation.

It didn't take long for Shadow to intersect with them on hoof. He was exposed when a squad turned. He crouched down as low as possible. They turned to continue their previous heading. He let out a sigh of relief and crawled forward as fast as he dared.

Three squads were airborne and the rest on hoof. Shadow peeked out of hiding a bit more and smiled. Crystal Bliss was certainly obvious to spot. Yellow was an organizational train wreck. The orders made even more sense when he noticed she only had one white patch left. One shot, one kill.

Shadow was not going to leave this to chance. He could shoot her from where he was, and he was armed with a machine gun, but that wasn't a guarantee. He wanted to not only test himself, but make it as embarrassing as possible.

Their rear was exposed. The two squads were not paying attention to behind well. Shadow crawled along the ground, keeping up with them and even gaining ground. He watched and waited. The individual squads were also very loose and sometimes beginning to blend. All recruits, no matter what barrack, were wearing the same uniform and it was dark. Only that single color patch was different.

Shadow slipped further ahead and crammed himself in a hiding hole. By all logic, they should have heard his heart. It was difficult for him to hear their hoofsteps because of his own heart. If he came out too early, he was toast.

Shadow forced himself to calm down. By the time he could hear them again, it was too late and he had to slid forward again. He had a riskier hiding spot, but it allowed him to be able to see over his pounding heart.

It took all his control, but he went back to the obstacle course and calmed his body down until it was confident. He slipped out and began to walk behind them. In another minute he was right behind and then alongside a squad.

They never noticed he was not one of them. After sixteen weeks, not knowing if somepony was in your barracks or not was beyond embarrassing. This whole thing was a huge embarrassment. Shadow confidently shifted course as if it was nothing until he came up along Crystal Bliss. He walked just slightly behind her. She was distracted.

“Go back to your squad,” She said. “And stay in it like your orders are.”

“Sorry, reinforcement,” Shadow said. “Where is two and what is happening.”

“Good. They are trickling in finally. Those Black Bastards blew us apart last time. I had no idea how long they hold us. Two is over there and we are navigating to an objective. In about a mile we will begin to fan out to find it.”

“It would be faster,” She growled. “Except you guys are afraid to fly!” Crystal Bliss looked Shadow in the face in an attempt to get one of her teammates to grow a backbone. She realized the problem immediately.

“Hi,” Shadow said as he fired.

Yellow focused on them from her yelp. He looked at all of them, shocked that none of them fired or at least were thinking about. He rolled his eyes.

“BLACK IS ON THE ATTACK!” Shadow yelled as he rocketed up. Their shots were in vain and ended quickly as they tried to deal with the loss of their commander.

Shadow smiled as he heard Red charge towards Yellow after hearing Black and Attack yelled.

“Filly Foolers on me,” Shadow giggled.

“You can't fly and laugh,” Cardinal Spitfire said rolling her eyes. “Get it out quick.”

“I am good,” Shadow said reigning it in. “Lets regroup and then I will tell everypegasus.”

They all had a good laugh at Shadow's story and how ridiculous it was to pull all of it off. Especially since he had planned on dying for the cause.

“I do not know if they can graduate after that,” Majesty said breaking down laughing again. “I wish I could have seen her face. But now, lets tighten up and make sure we don't add anypegasus. Especially after what Shadow just did.”

“ NEW ORDER FOR BLACK BARRACKS. HIDE. SEVEN HOUR COUNTDOWN BEGINS NOW!”

“Great. Now we are all supposed to be stealth masters,” Majesty said. “This one is all you Shadow.”

Shadow blinked twice taking in the change of command. He had not expected this at all.

He took a deep breath before beginning. “Yellow and Red clashed. We have no idea on the outcome. But they are twenty minutes out at most. I have to run off the assumption that they are not the ones searching for us. Olive Pit, what is our surroundings?”

Olive Pit took a second to find out and answer.

“You said a that the water had a clearing?” Shadow asked.

“Yes,” Olive Pit said. “A large pond. Half has a tree line, the other is all open field. And the stream leaving it is open on both sides.

“Seven hours should take us to about dawn,” Deke added.

“Lets go. NOW!” Shadow ordered, taking off.

The others quickly followed suit and in no time they were in the clearing.

“There is nothing here,” Cardinal Spitfire said confused. “How are we supposed to hide?”

“Tents,” Shadow stated. “No poles. We lay down around the edge of the water with them draped over us. Nice and uniform. Flowing from one to other. In the dark it will make it easy to miss. Nopony will look for us in the middle of a clearing, and we get some rest. Besides, how many of you are familiar with landscaping like this?”

They all shook their heads.

“Exactly,” Shadow smiled. “They will not know something is different because they do not know what it should look like. Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. Besides, worse case, they find us and we all get zapped.”

Shadow helped them all get situated and covered up well. It would make a good show. Pretty uniform in its rises and bumps to look like a berm. Everypony was stretched out on their stomaches to be as low as possible. He slipped under the last one where Cardinal Spitfire was. It was his half of the tent after all.

“Stay quiet,” Shadow ordered. “Make no sudden movement. None. I do not care if somepony steps on you. No movements unless I make the call. I suggest sleeping. We have about 6 hours to go and I can not believe they are actually giving us an opportunity to sleep.”

“I do not think sleep is what they had in mind,” Deke said.

“Shut up Deke. I know it wasn't. Any advantage is an advantage.”

Shadow looked over at Cardinal Spitfire. She was just smiling at him. Then it turned to staring. Shadow flipped his front hoof out a bit to tap her on the fore head. She snapped out of it.

“What?”

“You were staring at me. Well through me.”

“Sorry.”

“Get some sleep Card,” Shadow yawned, ending the sentence.

“That is the second time a yawn has cut my name off at Card. I like it.”

Shadow didn't know what to say. He just laid there are went to sleep.

“Captain Shadow Flare… Shadow Flare… Shadow… Filly Fooler!”

“I'm awake,” Shadow said. He froze. He had almost shook his head to wake up. The adrenalin rush woke him though.

“Your mission is successful. You survived for 7 hours. Surprising. Green and Blue were teamed up to find you. They walked right past you and and even stopped to refill their canteens on the other side of the pond.”

“Before you move, they are in the woods. You mission now is to to kill them. The hunted becomes the hunter.”

Shadow work everypony up. They had all fallen asleep. He gave orders and the slowly exited their tents. They took positions and converged on two very tired and frustrated Barracks. Everypony stayed low and slipped up as close as Shadow would let them.

They identified the enemy medics and took them out with a well placed shot to each. Lilly Blossom took to the air. It was easy from there to clean the rest of Green and Blue. Most lost a life but they were successful. They dashed back to grab their tents and took the time to refill their canteens as well. The rosemary did make the water easier to drink. Not much, but better than drinking it raw.

“Congratulations Black Barrack. A successful assassination that led to the destruction of Red and Yellow. You hid in plain sight and got away from Green and Blue and then you wrapped it up by annihilating them. Stand by for further orders.”

They took to the woods and set up sentries while they waited. Clouds gathered above them and darkened.

“Great, rain,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Don't fall out on us Shadow.”

They all chuckled.

“Take a RadBlock! What if it is irradiated rain!” Flex said panicking to grab one from his pack.

They all took the advice and took a pill.

“Why does all this shit burn?” Deke asked coughing. “Can't they make it taste better?”

“Probably,” Olive Pit gasped. “But where would the fun be in that? Besides, they don't care if it tastes bad when you have to take it to live.”

The rain began to pour down.

“BLACK BARRACKS, HOLD FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.”

“I bet we just rained on their parade,” Golden Dawn said shielding her face. “I hate the rain. Have I told you all how much I hate the rain?”

“BLACK BARRACKS. NEW OBJECTIVE. DISARM THE BOMBS FROM THE TOWER AT… HOLD FOR LOCATION. DISARM WILL BE BY PRESSING STOP ON THE TIMER. IF YOU DO NOT DISARM IT IN TIME, INNOCENT LIVES WILL BE LOST.”

They finally got the location.

“We have to push it,” Cardinal Spitfire said over the rain. “It is clear across the map. We have to ignore any other Barracks if we want to disarm them in time. They are tying to get us to fail. Fly high and move fast. The rain will give us good cover.”

Cardinal Spitfire was given lead and she quickly set a fast pace. Fast enough that a scout squad was pointless.










“General, they disarmed the bombs.”

General Red River looked at the sergeant standing in the doorway.

“They did what?” He asked calmly.

“Black Barracks arrived and disarmed all of the bombs before they went off.”

“This is insane!” General Red River said standing up.

He walked out and headed over the practicum headquarters.

“Who fucked up? How did Black Barracks disarm all of the bombs?” He growled.

“Well,” A Colonel said. “Nopegasus fucked up. We finished the tower with about ten minutes to spare. They arrived on scheduled. Two minutes left. We made it 50 stories tall as requested. They went in through the windows.”

“Windows?”

“We made it look real General,” The Colonel said. “My teams and my instructors made sure of it. Which includes regular clouds for windows. They just crashed right through them.”

“This was supposed to wipe them out! They were supposed to fail! We have to make sure they fail.”

“I keep telling them to throw all the barracks at Black,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf growled.

“You called for me?” Lieutenant Marble Falls said walking into the room. She was in her Wonderbolts armor and other team members were out in the hall. They all were tired.

“Yes. Black out smarted us again,” The Colonel said. “I was hoping you had some ideas. They are walking through this test like it is just another day of training.”

“Walk me through things,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said annoyed.

She had trained Black to be this good, but she expected the teachers to be able to handle it. She had training she had to do. The Colonel walked her through the objectives and their tactics.

“I say we put all four barracks on them,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf spoke up when the Lieutenant didn't respond. “Make them defend that tower.”

“Are you not supposed to be here to learn to lead the teaching side?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked Lieutenant Autumn Leaf. “I thought the objective of your time here was to flesh you out so you could be the best officer in the Enclave. Or is that not what you want?”

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf had no response to her sharp words. She was in command of him.

“Colonel, General, you are going about it all wrong. You can not just send every barrack after Black. Combat and tactics is fun and great, but you are diminishing the test from all of the barracks by pitting all of them against Black. And just to annihilate the one barrack that is pissing you off.”

“I do not get how they are this good,” General Red River said.

“Because they had Master Wind teaching them and then me as their final teacher,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “Your only hope is to run them ragged. Fly them all over the place, with the occasional combat. They are smart, thinking ahead. They outsmarted your irradiated rain, they out thought your tower. They got lucky, but not, with the hide and seek objective. Conventional methods will not work. Think unconventionally and how to make them show you they have all the skills they need to continue training and be a proper Enclave soldier.”

“Is that it?” General Red River asked. “Are you just going to walk out that door with nothing else. That doesn't help.”

“If you had given me a minute to breath you would have heard my suggestion Sir,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said from the doorway.

She sighed. “Retrieval games will be good for them. You can force combat that way. But do not forget to make sure all Barracks are effectively tested. It won't be easy, but don't let it slip. This is for all of their benefit. Second, whoever has the radio, plug up Black Barrack's coms outside of orders and official communications. ”

“Lieutenant, that is against regulations. It is unsafe,” A sergeant at the radio center said.

“Unsafe? They handled it just fine the other day. I taught them formations without coms. Remove me from teaching for being unsafe if you want, but remember what they are handling and how they got there.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls walked out with her other squadmates and back to their training.













Olive Pit began to laugh. “HEY! CAN YOU HEAR ME?” He yelled from the roof of the tower.

“Why are you shouting? That gives away our location!” Flex called back as he popped his head of a window further down.

“Because, they just cut our coms!” Olive Pit laughed.

They all laughed and then snapped back to full attention. Deke yelled commands to get them all to form up at the base of the tower so they could easily communicate.

“Coms are off and the fun begins,” Deke smirked. “Play?”

“We have to run aerial formations,” Cardinal Spitfire immediately said. “We can see and drop where we need to. We also have a good chance at beating any barracks in a dogfighting match. Being seen is a risk we have to take.”

“ORDERS FOR BLACK BARRACKS: RECOVER THE PACKAGE FROM BLUE. LAST KNOWN COORDINATES WERE 889.54 BY 993.22 and headed South by South East.”

“Smack dead in the center of the map,” Flex said 30 seconds later.

“I just had lead,” Cardinal said. “Sharp?”

“Fine with me,” Sharp replied. “No standard formation. Get high and fly in our squads. One very long band. No squad will play scout or get ahead. We will use our squad tips to pass communication between the squads.”

They all agreed and took off. Shadow was on the tip of their formation, with Shooting Star on lead for Filly Foolers. It wasn't long before they began having to pass information. Hay Bail came up besides Shadow.

“Rover reports a team off to their side,” Hay Bail said. “Captain Sharp wants Filly Foolers to make a close pass. They have a squad in the air. They have not spotted us because of our height, so its an advantage.”

Shadow relayed the information and Filly Foolers dipped down before safely turning below their comrades. They found the group easily and then dropped down aggressively onto them. They never fired and Shooting Star pulled them up and away.

It was Red so they ignored them. It was a waste of time and they would not be able to get a medic to revive them if they did get hit. Two more Red Squads took flight. Filly Foolers easily dodged and weaved and then out flew Red with raw speed.

Shooting Star pulled them up and away while Silver Bar navigated them back to the others. They quietly rejoined their Barracks. It was evident there was noting significant to report and Sharp had them continue on.

Two more Barracks were spotted after another hour, locked in combat between each other. Filly Foolers were immediately sent down. Shooting Star put them to work chasing a squad that was chasing another. When the squad realized they were being chased, they broke free and Filly Foolers moved forward to the other squad.

After another minute, they pulled up and away to the amazement of the squad. Shooting Star put them back into their spot and Shadow slid off the tip to pass the information. It was Blue and Yellow locked in combat.

Shadow passed on the orders and stayed with the other squad as he awaited final orders.

“Filly Foolers are to stay in the air and suppress Yellow while attacking Blue. Gale off to our right is to land by Yellow and aid in their assault on Blue. Orders are to do your best to fight only Blue. Hopefully Yellow will take the hint and not assault us. Be ready for them to attack but no do start it or give them a reason to feel threatened.”

Moonless Night left to pass on the orders to Gale. When he came back, Filly Foolers did several bobs to signal the orders were received and passed along. Dreamers started the descent, but Lilly Blossom and Filly Foolers dropped in faster. They had to make sure their squads made it down without incident.

Silver Star spotted their first target and dropped in behind a Squad who was in chase of another. They quickly identified them as Yellow and slid up besides the Yellow Squad. It took a minute, but the Blue Squad made a mistake and easy targets. Filly Foolers downed them on instinct and then safely left the side of the Yellow Squad. They gave Yellow a good position to make chase, but they turned away and dropped to the ground.

Without coms, they were forced to leave the congratulations to after the battle. A Blue Squad tried to get behind Filly Foolers but Lilly Blossom intersected them and put them out of commission. Two more Blue Squads left the ground. Their medics were patching them up.

Shooting Star moved to combat them. They split as the Blue Squads began to open fire. Filly Foolers crossed over the two squads and shot them all down as both halves sliced over them. Shooting Star made a difficult choice and dove to try and see the medics. Shadow had the position and opened up. He missed the medic entirely.

The strafing run didn't go unnoticed and they shot down Shooting Star. Before she could safely descend, Cardinal Spitfire dropped beneath her and Shooting Star fell onto her back. Cardinal Spitfire pulled away leaving Shadow on his own. Lilly Blossom and the other half of Filly Foolers had just finished cleaning up the last of the Blue Squads in the air and the last Yellow Squad was escorted to the ground.

Cardinal Spitfire and Shooting Star were soon airborne and rejoined Filly Foolers. Moonless Night had taken point. They circled around the battle, waiting for something to happen. They made two solid strafing runs. One to stop a Blue attack against Yellow and the other picking off Blue Soldiers who were running off.

The firing stopped and Moonless Night set them down at the nearest opening. It was in the middle of Yellow. The Yellow Squads were on edge with their presence. Filly Foolers ignored them and walked towards the meeting of the two commanders.

“I am very inclined to not trust you,” Crystal Bliss said speaking first.

“Captain, here is the package,” Golden Dawn said walking up with a box on her wing.

“What is in it?” Crystal Bell asked.

“Lets open it and find out,” Captain Sharp said taking it.

“DON'T!” Shadow shouted. “If it is a bomb, all of us will be taken out!”

“Crap!” Captain Sharp Said. “They would do that. Cloud Surfer, take this box out a hundred yards and open it.”

“Yes Sir!” Cloud Surfer said taking the box.

Crystal Bliss wasn't taking any chances and sent a soldier out with Cloud Surfer. They came trotting back a few minutes later. Cloud Surfer was beaming.

“Ten White Patches,” He announced.

“Give one to Shooting Star,” Captain Sharp said. “I want Filly Foolers at full strength.”

Captain Sharp took another one and put it on Crystal Bliss' chest bringing her back to full strength.

“What? Why?” She asked stunned.

“Because even though this test is difficult and often has us in combat against each other, you still are fellow recruits,” Captain Sharp explained. “My name is Sharp. Captain Sharp right now since I am leading. And we all know you are Crystal Bliss.”

“Who was the Bastard who got me?”

“Me Ma'am,” Shadow Flare said stepping forward. “I am Shadow Flare. Bucking for recon. So do not feel bad.”

Shadow scanned Yellow's Squads. “It is their fault that it happened. I had decided to sacrifice myself. I thought we had problems with unity to start. I can not believe their disrespect and lack of care. I am one of our weakest leader, but even then, our squads know to not cross that line. Just like they would with any other commander or instructor.”

Yellow was pissed at Shadow's words. A few trained their rifles on him. Black didn't react.

“Stand down,” Crystal Bliss ordered. “I SAID STAND DOWN! YOU ARE JUST PROVING HIM RIGHT!”

They backed off at that.

“You need rest,” Captain Sharp said. “I know none of you have had it. Lilly Blossom and Filly Foolers, did you see any promising posts?”

They hadn't.

“Somepegasus find me a promising location,” Captain Sharp order.

“ORDERS FOR BLACK BARRACKS: ELIMINATE YELLOW.”

“FUCK YOUR ORDERS!” Captain Sharp replied. “I DON'T KNOW IF YOU CAN HEAR ME OR NOT, BUT FUCK THEM. YELLOW NEEDS REST, ESPECIALLY CRYSTAL BLISS. I AM NOT LEAVING MY FELLOW RECRUITS IN THIS BAD OF SHAPE AND I AM NOT STABBING THEM IN THE BACK. SO FUCK OFF!”

Sharp shook his head and they were ready with three locations.

“They gave us elimination orders,” Crystal Bliss hesitated.

“We have three locations to set up a strong defense and camp,” Captain Sharp said ignoring her. “We can post up and get a few hours rest. Olive Pit, your lead.”

“Yes Sir,” Olive Pit said. “Gale and Rover, head out and secure the location. We will be right behind you.”

“We were told to remember to use all of our skills,” Olive Pit told Crystal Bliss. “That includes teamwork and supporting each other. I see, we all see, no reason why this should not apply to aiding other Barracks. Now, lets hit the sky and get there fast so you all can get some rest.”

Olive Pit took off. Hurricane took off right behind him. Crystal Bliss followed suit and the rest of Yellow slowly followed.

“Fuck it,” Cardinal Spitfire said leaving Filly Foolers shortly after take off and without an explanation. They watched as she came up beside a Yellow Squad and began to whip them into shape. Deke dropped out of Hurricane and followed suit. Soon after Sharp, Moonless Night, Golden Dawn, Hay Bail, Rays and Silver Lining joined up with other squads and began to work with them as well.

“Thanks,” Crystal Bliss said to Olive Pit.

“No problem,” Captain Olive Pit smiled. “We were drilled hard. Black is supposed to have no weaknesses. We all picked up leadership to different degrees.”

“Maybe now they will finally get it,” Crystal Bliss yawned. “I was forced to take this on my shoulders because none of them even wanted to try.”

“You have been doing a good job,” Olive Pit said, complimenting her.

“I wish I could believe that,” Crystal Bliss replied.

“Confidence is key. Buck up,” Olive Pit softly ordered. “I am so nervous. I do not feel prepared to lead outside of my squad, Hurricane. But it was passed to me. Leading a whole Barracks is like leading only your squad leaders. Let them do their job commanding their squad. That should take more off your shoulders. Shadow Flare taught us that.”

“Thanks for the advice. Mind giving that speech to them?”

“Not at all. When we touch down I will. Not much further.”

“You guys really just pass off command to each other?”

“Yep. I guess we never thought about it much. We all want to be the best we can be. So each time we were given leadership we did what we could to learn, and then outside exercises we helped each other. It made us stronger as a whole. And even when you are solo, knowing your barrack is behind you, it boosts your confidence.”

“You are really that prepared to ignore orders?”

“Yeah,” Olive Pit smiled. “You played it smart and didn't attack us back there. Why should we not work together. I am assuming you got the same orders?”

“Yep,” Crystal Bliss yawned.

“You obviously need rest. And screw orders, I do not like how bad you are looking from the stress and lack of sleep. None of us do. So we will work as a team, like one Barracks, to look out for each other.”

“Two Pegasi on intercept Captain. Dead ahead,” Deke yelled.

“Understood,” Olive Pit yelled back.

“Why are you yelling?” Crystal Bliss asked.

“Because they blocked our coms,” Olive Pit chuckled. “But our aerial combat instructor taught us to communicate through signals and work without coms. We have to adjust our tactics a bit, especially moving long distances, but its not a big deal. Each Squad can act alone while working with the bigger picture.”

“Black is about training leaders,” Crystal Bliss nodded.

“Some, but the real goal is individual development because we have the drive to push to be the best,” Olive Pit explained. “Only seven of us were bucking for officer training right after. But a lot more should be getting offers. Golden Dawn over there is just here to be a regular soldiers. Nothing more. But she has proven to be a strong tactician and good leader.”

“I am our weakest navigator, but it just occurred to me, I have no idea where the others outside my Barracks are ranked in navigation skills. Shadow Flare over there has no charisma and his aim isn't great, but he can lead well as long as he is able to gain their respect. We didn't have an option to not give him the respect early on in training.”

“A stallion? Not a mare?”

“Yeah,” Olive Pit chuckled. “Honest to a fault. I do not think he is capable of lying. Or he is really good and we just can't see it.”

They chuckled and the two pegasi came up and around to Olive Pit's side. It was Majesty and Blue Wings.

“Captain, we have moved to secondary location,” Majesty reported. “It was too small. There was no way two barracks would fit.”

“Lead on,” Olive Pit ordered.

Olive pit looked around. “CHANGE IN PLANS!”

He followed after Majesty and Blue Wings. The others turned after their leader. It took another twenty minutes and the sky was completely dark. Clouds had been put in place after Yellow and Black teamed up.

They touched down and within minutes had tents set up. While Black was setting up, Olive Pit gave Yellow a quick pep talk before sending them into the tents for sleep.

“Your tents?” Crystal Bliss asked shocked.

“You left yours and this will make the second time they have come in handy. Use them. You need them most. Oh, and have your squads take RadBlocks. The rain is coming and last time it was irritated rain. We won that by each taking one just before it started.”

“We all lost a life from that trick,” Crystal Bliss said as she headed off to give orders and then settle in.

It was only a steady rain, but it also was irradiated. Instructors flew in and collected their empty RadBlock containers. It showed they had taken one and that they were protected. The instructors didn't get to take any patches.

At midnight they woke Yellow up and prepared to depart. It was still raining when they woke them up. It was too risky to stay any longer. Black Barracks quickly took their tents down and went back to their squad's defensive position.

“Command? What are our orders?” Olive Pit asked.

“Survive.”

“ALL HOOVES TO BATTLE STATIONS!” Olive Pit yelled. “YELLOW SQUADS TEAM UP WITH A BLACK SQUAD. ORDERS ARE TO SURVIVE. COMMAND STRUCTURE IS ME, CAPTAIN OLIVE PIT IN HURRICANE SQUAD. THEN IT IS CAPTAIN CRYSTAL BLISS. THIRD IS GOLDEN DAWN IN DITWITZ SQUAD.”

Crystal Bliss asked for orders and received the same. “YOU HEARD CAPTAIN OLIVE PIT, GET TO IT!”

Ditwitz, Hay Bail and two Yellow Squads were in the sky under Golden Dawn's control. The rain made it hard for Red to look up so they were making effective strafing runs.

On the south front, Crystal Bliss was leading the defense against Blue. The west had two Yellow and Two Black with no actual commander. Filly Fooler was on the western front.

Blue and Green hated each other since their failed team mission in the morning. It made for a poor attack and an obvious break in between their lines.

Shadow rolled out of cover, fired, and continued to the cover in front of him. He had no idea if he hit anypony, but it looked impressive and it kept the appearance that their numbers were higher as he hopped around. Cardinal Spitfire made sure Filly Foolers was moving all across their line to bolster the effect.

Shadow collapsed behind cover. Cardinal Spitfire rolled over to him.

“You okay?” She asked.

“Cold, tired and sore. That drop is really hurting now. I am not sure how much longer I can keep hopping around like I have been. I am so thirsty too.”

“You have been a real trooper,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “You have been moving four times as much as us. I have been out of water for hours as well.”

Cardinal Spitfire ordered a Yellow Squad to begin moving around like Filly Fooler had been. The idea was too create chaotic shooting from their enemies and draw fire away from their stationary defenders.

They suddenly heard a mass yell as Crystal Bliss called for a charge against Blue.

“OPEN FIRE!” A Yellow Squad leader called.

Shadow took a deep breath in and let loose his machine gun. He took down two in his sweep and forced more heads down. His stationary position was noticed and he was hit for the second time.

“YELLOW ADVANCE!” A Yellow Squad member ordered.

Yellow Squads leap frogged forward as Black Barracks covered them. Two Yellow Squads came around for a strafing pass that drastically helped. Yellow had lost half of each squad moving forward. They had a much better position and it would make a huge difference, but it was costly.

A medic from Yellow slid forward and pulled a patch off of Shadow's chest.

“One left buddy,” She said before moving forward. Cardinal Spitfire dashed out in front of her and put down cover fire. The Medic was able to bring a squad back to full strength before Cardinal Spitfire was hit. Cardinal Spitfire was dragged to cover by a revived Yellow Squad member and lost her second patch.

“Blue is cleared!” Crystal Bliss said over the coms.

“WE HAVE COMS AGAIN!” Olive Pit laughed victoriously. “Lets finish this! Captain Crystal Bliss, swing around to strike Green. Yellow aerial squads, keep Red down, Ditwitz and Hay Bail, fuck them up with aerial combat tactics.”

“Our pleasure,” Golden Dawn chuckled.

They dropped down and blasted Red from the back with heavy firepower. Most of them lost a life, but it did it's job. Crystal Bliss sent half her teams to come around the far side of Green while she lead the sweep north.

The Yellow aerial teams picked off the Green run aways and met back up. In total, they had lost twelve, including a Medic. Everypony was down a single life.

“What they hell happened?” Cardinal Spitfire asked Shadow. “I know you were tired, but did you even fire after you took that hit?”

Shadow shook his head.“I froze. I couldn't get it out of my mind that this time it would mean death. Real death. Despite the logic of it being training…”

“Don't worry about,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I won't tell anypegasus. It happens. This training feels real. As real as they can make it. The stress and time with no sleep and little food has made it so it feels real.”

“Alright every… pegasus,” Olive Pit said slowly. “That was one hell of a defense. We did it though. The sun should be coming up any minute now, even though we can't see it from the rain. For starters, everypegasus take RadBlock and chug a Rad-Flush. Better safe than sorry.”

They followed his lead.

“Good call whoever it was in Yellow to use our tents to collect rainwater. They should be safe to drink. It has been over an hour and I hear that some of the tablets are not dissolved. We over bombed them for safety because the water levels would rise. Lets refill.”

Olive Pit led the orderly refill of their canteens. Everypony was able to refill one. Only one. But it was better than none. Tents were broken down and packed up.

“Flex, take lead,” Olive Pit said.

“Flex reporting for duty. Orders?”

“Hold for orders Black and Yellow.”

“One more day, Crystal Bliss sighed.

“And you are done leading,” Flex decreed. “I saw some Yellow squad leaders who can step up to the plate and handle the challenge. Even if you fail, it is about showing our commanders about how we can use all of our skills they have taught us.”

“BLACK BARRACKS, DEFFER TO YELLOW BARRACKS. YOU ALL ARE NOW PURPLE UNIT. YOUR JOB IS TO SECURE FOUR OF THE SEVEN OBJECTIVES BEFORE THE OTHER BARRACKS DO.”

“So much for leading,” Flex chuckled. “But I know Yellow can lead. You have to have confidence, or fake it. Give us the play!”

As they came up upon the first objective and were being issued orders, a long thunder was heard above them.

“We have visitors,” Shadow said. “Powerful ones. If they put us together…”

“The other Barracks were probably strengthened,” Their Captain said.

There were three fresh squads of unknown origin defending the first objective. They easily wiped out half of their unit. Filly Foolers were all wiped out in one go. They were sent to a new drop zone to wait. The rest of Purple was taken out trying to take a second objective.

“Half hour rest and to eat before we head out,” their Captain said. Shadow had forgotten his name. “Thank goodness the rain is over.”

“You have objectives to take,” Major Winters Breath said. The Major had been waiting for them at the new Drop Zone.

“I know. But we all need some rest. We are halfway into day three and if we want to finish this assignment, we need sharper minds. That few hours of sleep last night taught me that.”

Cardinal Spitfire had to kick Shadow several times to wake him up. “Wake up!”

“Sorry,” Shadow yawned as he stretched.

“You body should not crack and pop like that,” Cardinal Spitfire shivered. “You fell into such a deep sleep that you kept me up a few minutes from your snoring.”

They chucked and listened in for their orders. The known objective was abandoned because another barracks had been seen approaching it. They prepared to head out to the rough location of another one.

It was a three way fight. Red was already engaged with the special sentries and taking hits. Purple was split to put them into a pincher movement with two squads held quietly in reserved to cover the objective.

Even reinforced, Red Unit's leader couldn't handle the pincher movement and Purple Unit took the objective with low effort. Then it was off to another objective.

Shadow gave it his all. Diving, rolling, crawling and whatever he could do. He was sent forward, sometimes alone, other times with Cardinal Spitfire. Shadow's acrobatics were slowing down and beginning to fail.

He was currently alone, the forward most pony in a cityscape and it was dark. The Blue Unit was giving them a hard fight. Two Blue Unit soldiers came around. Shadow kicked one against the wall, swept the legs of the second, shot the first and then was forced to strike twice a rear leg to deaden the nerves before he finally could shoot the second.

Shadow put his back against the wall. Tears began to fall down as he looked at the two soldiers laying there right in front of them. They were not recruits and both were breathing heavily. He hated unarmed combat in these settings. It was just training, but instructors had made it clear it was allowed. And every advantage was an advantage.

Shadow pounced onto the back of another Blue Unit member. They rolled around before Shadow was painfully kicked off. Another one was standing by, waiting for the clean shot. All Shadow could do was watch and feel the painful zap.

It was enough distraction for Cardinal Spitfire to shoot twice, dropping both opponents. She took cover along the wall Shadow had just been. The rest of Filly Foolers moved up right behind her. Cardinal Spitfire just looked at Shadow. Her gaze showed her tired eyes that were soaked in sadness.

At least for Black Barracks, they were recognizing the state of real warfare. Golden Dawn had broken down earlier while flying. It spurred all of their minds to think of the reality of these 'games' and 'tests.'

“PURPLE UNIT. YOU FAILED. GREEN UNIT TOOK FOUR. PATHETIC.”

“PATHETIC? I WILL TELL YOU…”

“SHUT UP DEKE!” Golden Dawn ordered. “It doesn't matter. Don't let them get to your head.”

“Right,” Deke said.

“ORDERS ARE TO REPORT BACK TO PURPLE DROP ZONE. EVERYPEGASUS, NO MATTER WHAT YOUR STATUS IS.”

Cardinal Spitfire helped Shadow up while the rest of Filly Foolers helped the others to their hooves.

“You guys okay?” Shadow asked.

“You would think we were more prepared for that trick,” One chuckled. “We know Black has been playing it. Don't worry about us.”

Filly Foolers took off. They stayed in a line, giving up on formations. It was easily midnight when they finally arrived.

“Follow me,” A random instructor said. “I trust once we get close to the barracks you can navigate yourself.”

They had to continue with no rest and the instructor made sure they kept a fast pace.

“Thank goodness we got the sleep we did over the first night,” Shooting Star said after she dropped a bit before she came back up. She was not the only pegasus dipping as they fought sleep.

When they landed, they found a note on their barracks door.



Formation at 0800. Eat beforehand if you chose to. Be in dress uniform for formation as we will be photographed as a unit.

Master Wind



“Thank Celestia it is simple,” Shadow yawned.

They spent the extra few minutes to properly put their gear away before crashing. Shadow wasn't the only one who just laid on his bed, completely ignoring blankest and covers. The last thing he saw was Cardinal Spitfire's exhausted face.

Chapter 15 - Graduation

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They rushed the showers at 0730 and took no more than 2 minutes to get clean. Breakfast never happened.

“Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire called. “Help me undo these braids. I want my real mane today.”

“You certainly did these well,” Shadow said struggling to undo them.

“Hurry up,” She said fighting off the pain of her mane being pulled.

“Did these ever come undone?” Shadow asked.

“Nope. Same as the first day. My mom can really braid.”

“Golden Dawn,” Shadow called. “Good, you just got out of the shower. Help me out. I don't do braids.”

They laughed and Golden Dawn helped him fight to get them undone. Shadow traded out and headed to the shower. Cardinal Spitfire was the last to shower. It took a total of five pegasi to get the braids undone. When she came out of the shower she looked like a completely different mare. It was short, but a bit of a natural wave. Shadow hadn't seen such a pretty mane before.

“Like it?” Cardinal Spitfire asked when she caught him staring.

“Yeah,” Shadow stumbled. “It is unlike anything I have seen before. The prettiest mane I have ever gazed upon.”

“I love it, but I am so glad I had it tied up for training. It can get in the way at the farm. No fun. Now finish getting dressed. You stopped midway pulling it on!”

Shadow shook his head and finished. “I hate how mine just is straight.”

“Eh, it probably would look better down and a bit messy, but its got a cute aspect standing on end naturally.”

“Thanks,” Shadow blushed.”

“Hurry up!” Silver Bar said. “0754!”

They rushed to finish and made it barely in time for formation. Shadow made sure that today he was carrying the seeds, along with the armbands.

“I see you skipped breakfast,” Master Wind said as the fell in. “The Sergeant here will reorganize you so we all fit in. You will get a book with photos from training at the end of the day. They should be on your bed when you come back from graduation, after dinner at the very latest.”

They were moved to the front of their barracks where some boosters were set up. It made it easy to tell they were Black Barracks because of the big sign above the door. “Black Barracks A”

“Room for one more?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked dropping out of nowhere. She was in her Wonderbolt's flight jacket. The Sergeant placed her on the other side so that both instructors flanked the recruits.

“I have less time than you,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “You did more than well in your final test. They got so desperate they even called me in for advice.”

“And that is why we lost coms,” Olive Pit laughed.

“And you did so well, they called me back in,” She smiled. “I kept you and Yellow together, forming one unit. Bolstering each Barracks numbers was new, but it really showed leadership and tactical grasp. You guys got Yellow to perform better than they have ever been and best of all, with little time and without directly leading. And I can say you guys because leadership was passed around and they could not target a single one of you. Time for me to go. It was an honor!”

She was gone like she had come in. There one second, gone the next.

“Alright recruits,” Master Wind said getting their attention. “The Lieutenant was right. It was an honor instructing you and watching you grow. The Enclave is lucky to have such amazing pegasi entering it's ranks. You will do well and be very happy.”

“Important business. When you get back from breakfast, your official orders will be on your beds. You will have time to clear up anything or talk to personnel if you have two choices before making one. 1100 we line up to begin graduation drill practice. 1200 lunch, and 1300 back to practice. Graduation is at 1500 and your families will be there. You will want to look your best and make your comrades look their best. Dismissed.”

They all rushed the mess hall and breakfast. They were in sore need of a meal after the exercises. They had little opportunity to eat during them.

“And the fun begins!” Deke said as he calmly walked to his bed for orders.

“Officer School.” He said a minute later. “Just Officer School.”

He was disappoint it guaranteed him nothing outside a commission. It was not what he was expecting.

“Hey, if you want to command a Raptor or any cloudship, you have to be an officer,” Shadow said.

“Officer School?” Olive Pit said stunned. “Oh, then to Combat Medic School. Bastards trapped me into becoming an officer.”

“I get a choice,” Golden Dawn said confused. “Officer School or Combat School. If I go combat, I can go to officer right after. Suggestions? If I want to be the best officer I can be…”

“Go talk to ponies,” Shadow offered. “Find out what the noncommissioned officers think. You would be leading them, so find out what they want in an officer.”

Golden Dawn dashed out of the barracks without a second word.

“I can see by Cardinal Spitfire's smile that she got Aerial Combat School,” Deke chuckled. “Shadow?”

Shadow only could stare at the envelope on his bed. It held his future. As long as it was unopened, he was just a recruit who's job was to train and learn the skills needed to be an Enclave soldier.

“Shadow!” Cardinal Spitfire said poking him with her hoof.

“Sorry,” Shadow mumbled.

He picked up the envelope and opened it quickly. He let out a sigh and pulled it out. It would be easier the faster he went.

Report to General Red River's Office Immediately.

“Shadow!” Cardinal Spitfire said poking him again.

Shadow just passed the orders to her.

“That is it?” Cardinal Spitfire stated. “Nothing official, just a piece of plain paper and one sentence in the middle? Hoof written, but still.”

Shadow double checked the envelope. “That is it. Just report to the General's office immediately.

“I am sure you will be fine,” Deke said trying to encourage him.

Shadow just walked out, ignoring everypony.

“Shadow!” Cardinal Spitfire called after him. She nearly tackled him outside the barracks.

“Recon,” She said giving him the paper back.

They walked together for a while in silence.

“Nothing to say? Fine. We know little about how recon operates! A plain piece of paper is more likely good news. It means no paper trail and they may really value that.”

She got in front of him at the Headquarter's steps and physically stopped him.

“You are a damn fine recruit and the best battle buddy I ever could have had, be that on the ground or flying. We made a pact that we would not let our friendship die. And to me, that means even after one of us dies! We will always be friends, no matter what. Growing up, I never had real friends who really cared about me. I won't let that die. And as a friend, I really mean it when I say only good things await in there for you. It is the truth.”

“I know this means we will be separated. It hurts me. It really hurts me. The closer we got, the… harder it got. If it could happen, I want our friendship to be more than that. But I never want to lose a friendship I value too much.”

Cardinal Spitfire gave Shadow a quick peck on the cheek and dashed away as fast as her hooves let her go. She didn't return to the barracks immediately. She had to make sure her eyes were dry and that nopegasus could tell what had happened.

“General Red River is waiting in his officer upstairs,” The pegasus at the front said as Shadow walked in. “It is open. Just walk right on it and close the door.”

“Thank you,” Shadow nodded.

He took a deep breath before walking up the stairs. Cardinal Spitfire was right. Only good things had to await him.

“Ah, I was wondering when you would come,” General Red River said as Shadow came in and closed the door. “Take a seat. You have been introduced to Major Winters Breath.”

“Major,” Shadow said sitting down. He was shaking a bit.

“You do not have anything to fear Shadow Flare,” The Major said. “I am the head over recon. Right now I am assembling the final pieces to the next team.”

“Is it true about the number of deaths in recon and scouts?” Shadow asked.

“Damn it. Did you have Nova?” The Major asked.

“Yes Sir.”

“Fuck. He is a good wealth of information for the typical troops. A bit eccentric, but still good. You will have to forget some of what he taught you.”

“Like what Sir?”

“For starters, Rad-Flush and RadBlock are not better to their war counterparts. Without magic, the optimal equipment, and limited resources, it is difficult to produce them at the same potency. They do their job more than well, but they are not as strong. Long ago, the choice was to focus on numbers over such a high potency. And the original equipment died out long ago. Teams have failed to locate or recover any of the original equipment.”

“The ponies below are not all savage as he says they are. Some of it is exaggerated. There are a lot of raiders who pray on the weak, and most of the chained stories are slaves, not food. There are a few towns and such, but the raiders hit them hard. More has to be hiding.”

“A lot of clean up work needs to be done before the Enclave can go below. A lot. Which is what I am doing to prepare this new recon team for. Secure the ground enough for us to be able to land in a sufficiently safe manor.”

“None of the ponies like the Enclave though, and every humanitarian attempt did end in failure, often death. They do not want help and do not want the Enclave anywhere near them. They will fight back. It is sad that they view things as they do. We could make life so much better for them. We want to, well some of us. But they won't even talk and quickly turn hostile.”

“But you can't cleanse the land and make a safe zone for our soldiers with the equipment you have. More is coming. Specialized to help you deal with the raiders and bring justice to the wasteland.”

“Bloody Justice?” Shadow gulped.

“Mostly,” General Red River said. “I am for the total eradication, the Major isn't. How it plays out will be decided by what happens with the recon team you are joining.”

“You have proved beyond a doubt that you are the material we need,” Major Winters Breath smiled. “Tough headed enough to get the job done. Plenty of endurance for long assignments. A quick mind and able to hide. You shoot way better than the ponies do and much better than you think you do.”

“And most importantly, you can lead. The team I am assembling will be headed up by a Lieutenant you will meet later, but the others are specialized in their fields. Your skills we be put to use as the most soldierly of the team, which also means you will be secondary lead. There will only be six of you in total.”

“But that will come later,” General Red River said. “We do not have the team fully put together yet. That means you will be staying here for further training. We spent all of yesterday arguing over the best course of action. The others are already in full units. They know they will be reassigned soon to this recon team, but that is it.”

“And why you had no official papers or why I have not heard any names,” Shadow said.

“The less you know right now, the better,” Major Winters Breath nodded. “I already said too much about the actual situation below. Only special teams like recon and scouts need to know that much right now. I hope I did not make it seem too tame. Either way, we will make sure you know everything we know before the mission. And do not speak about this at all. It is all highly classified and stays in this room”

“Right,” Shadow said. “Just say I made recon and that is all I can say.”

“Exactly,” General Red River said.

Shadow sat there for a minute. “I have a question about Captain Nova. Well two. His wing and his mind.”

“Ah,” Major Winters Breath chuckled. “Yes, his wing is helpless. He is not faking it. The mass is at the joint and can be very painful. We would have to surgically remove the whole wing to remove it. He understandably has opted against that. As to his mind, he experienced a lot and at times, took a lot of radiation. It may not have been a specific attack on him, or ponies may have figured out how to harness radiation to attack others with. Either way, we can not find anything directly medically wrong. Just that his mental state and mood has changed.”

“Understandable,” Shadow nodded. “Especially since I understand he had a problem with a mission that really effected him.”

“That was a sad mission,” Major Winters Breath sighed. “Classified so keep it quiet. They were down no more than thirty minutes when she was blown out of the sky. They had flown together since Aerial Combat School. His team began evasive maneuvers and he lost the another mare in his team. They couldn't find out who was shooting at them or from where. He lost two other stallions. It was just him and another when they finally escaped.”

“We grounded all scouts after that. It was our last mission below, five years ago. Since then we have been working extra hard on a safer way to go below. We never blamed him and did the opposite. They were our best scout officers. They had over twenty highly successful missions below together. They lost a lot of pegasi on their missions, but those two always survived.”

“That is horrible,” Shadow said. “Was her body… recovered?”

“No,” The Major said. “They had no idea what happened or where. It was chaos. They followed their training to a T and made a great defense and escape attempt, but they had no idea what was happening. By the time they did, it was just him and a new scout. Actually, it was Lieutenant Marble Falls. I forgot she was training you.”

“That is why she wants to train recruits while being a Wonderbolt,” Shadow said connecting the dots. “She wants to personally make sure we are given the best we can to survive. Starting from the beginning. And Captain Nova must rotate who he trains.”

“Actually, Captain Nova always trains Blue,” General Red River. “He requested Black because he heard somepegasus was bucking for recon. He didn't care who it was, just which Barracks they were in.”

“I understand why we can't know, but I wish I had,” Shadow said. “It puts a new importance on what he did say. Even if some of it was wrong. I wish I knew when we met Lieutenant Marble Falls. Why did we stay at the flight deck?”

“Her request,” General Red River said. “Because of you and Cardinal Spitfire, we granted it. Typically a Lieutenant who trains recruits in tactics would have been given control back at your barracks. It worked out better in your favor because Black needed a lot more space than a typical training Barrack needs. The training sites could not handle your larger movements. It showed in the final Practicum. We are more than happy with her training techniques.”

“How mad where you when we defied you orders?” Shadow asked. He figured he could get answers to almost anything with the position he was in and their mood.

“Very,” General Red River said. “But then I realized I should have seen that coming with the way you took out Blue. The orders did not make sense. I know you have learned to listen to orders that didn't make sense from officers who knew what was going on, but it was backstabbing and a poor choice and illogical on all fronts.”

“Lieutenant Autumn Leaf was raving. I let him allow the others to team up to take you out. Even with them knowing they were a team, they didn't act like it. How Black helped Yellow, showing and teaching, even indirectly, changed our view of Yellow. We learned a few tricks from Black this time. If we do not learn from the way our recruits act, then we are doing something and not preparing them to do your duty.”

“It is getting late General,” Major Winters Breath said. “1018.”

“Parade field at 1100 are my orders Sirs,” Shadow said. “Graduation drills. And thank you for pictures.”

“The recruit's training book?” General Red River asked.

“I guess so,” Shadow said. “We never have pictures taken where I am from. They are expensive. Highly treasured.”

“You lived in a very different world,” Major Winters Breath said. “But it was the right world for you to make recon right away. It isn't easy to impress me. It took over half of training for General Red River to convince me you were a good candidate. We haven't taken in brand new recruits since…”

“I understand,” Shadow said standing up. “It is all about safety and making sure the mission gets done.”

“You are smart,” The Major said. “We didn't finish with the training schedule for you. To start you will be at the range. 0900 in four days. I want accuracy with certain weapons raised, specifically how to shoot a rocket launcher. You can stay in Black Barrack for now. Proper orders for that will come later today or tomorrow.”

“All recruits have a week off. Most of them will have to use that time to transfer to their next training, but the barrack will be open for you until we place you somewhere else. Now get going. We can talk after graduation more, once I get back. I will be leaving right after lunch on business.”

“Thank you all,” Shadow said saluting them.

Shadow quietly walked back. He was still trying to take in all the information. Most everypony was in a lose formation on their parade field. Nopony realized he joined them. It wasn't until Master Wind came and called them to order at exactly 1100 that they realized he was there.

“Where is Cardinal Spitfire?” Master Wind asked.

Nopony knew.

“Filly Fooler?” Master Wind directly asked him since she was his battle buddy.

“No idea Sir,” Shadow said softly. “She walked with me to headquarters to meet with General Red River as ordered, but after that I have no idea.”

“How did that go?” Deke asked.

“Quiet Deke,” Master Wind ordered.

“I'M HERE! I'M SORRY!” Cardinal Spitfire yell as she raced towards them. She silently slid into her spot next to Shadow.

“Graduation drills are special,” Master Wind said, ignoring the start. “After lunch all barracks will make several dry runs before Graduation. So lets not hold them up. Besides, you have a reputation to uphold.”

The drills were not much different. It wasn't a style change, but a different filing order. And they were yelled at to make sure their trot was high enough.

“Man,” Golden Dawn said sitting down at lunch. “I feel like it was the first day again with all those drills.”

“Yeah,” Deke agreed. “But what is more important, what happened Shadow?”

“What do you mean Deke?” Shadow replied.

“You orders?”

“Recon,” Shadow shrugged. “That is all I know right now.”

“Training?” Deke poked.

“I have little information on that,” Shadow said. “More information to come.”

“They are serious about it,” Golden Dawn said. “Do you know anything?”

“Yes,” Shadow curtly said. “What little I have been told is highly classified. I will learn more as time goes on, specifically after you all leave so Deke does not consistently ask for classified information.”

They all chuckled and focused on eating.

“One thing is for sure, this is the best and most important thing we have ever achieved,” Deke said when he was done.

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged. “I had more important events back home.”

“Even of pride?” Cardinal Spitfire asked shocked.

“Yeah. Like the work I did with the first cherry harvest. Or my first harvest working in the fields. Those were important things as they helped more than just me. Standing in front of ponies as they tell them we trained and are going onto more training doesn't help anypony but your pride. The training we did here is important, not the graduation.”

“You ruin so much,” Olive Pit said annoyed.

They all laughed. It felt good to laugh and not have any impending doom potentially around the corner.

The dry runs were easier, as they had seats and a clearly marked isle to march down, in front of the stands, where family would watch with pride.

“Cardinal Spitfire, Deke, Olive Pit and Golden Dawn,” Shadow said gathering them several minutes before they were going to snap to attention and then head out. “We are friends, more than friends but good friends. I do not know where we all will end up after our next training, but no matter what, they can not take away our friendship and trust in each other.”

“They built that platform and we fostered it. An unbreakable loyalty, duty to each other and making sure we are all good soldiers. Finally, the honor of friendship. Deep friendship few attain but all want.”

“Loyalty,” Deke said putting his hoof in.

“Duty,” Golden Dawn said, her hoof joining Deke’s.

“Honor,” Olive Pit added.

“Friendship,” Cardinal Spitfire said.

“Memory,” Shadow added.

“Memory?” Golden Dawn asked confused.

Shadow smiled. “That we all remember the times that brought us together and solidify why we have loyalty to each other, a duty to help each other and trust them, the honor it was learning and teaching each other in basic training, and remembering just how strong our friendship is, even to the day we die.”

“So it is!” They all said together and pulled their hooves up in celebration.

Marching into the amphitheater wasn't much different, when they marched out in front of nopony, except for the butterflies. But with their mission to look perfect, it was easy to tune it out.

They got to their rehearsed seats and stayed standing as the Enclave anthem was played. They took their seats and General Red River walked to the center mic to speak.

“Welcome everpon…”

“He is already doing wingups Sir!” Deke yelled.

The General sighed. “Welcome everypegasus. I am General Red River, in charge of training here. As you can see, we have a special recruit. Shadow Flare hails from the farming communities way out on the far reaches of the Enclave. We never get pegasus from there. Good, hearty cloud farmers. They are fiercely loyal to the Enclave.”

“Recruit Shadow Flare is from a Homestead, which means he comes from a family and farm that started farming the clouds around their home during the war. One of the first cloud farmers.”

“The community has it's quirks like saying “everypony” instead of everypegasus. Their community togetherness has stayed that way because of their bonding as a community of farmers and not a single farm. They help each other out more than we can understand.”

“But like I said, everypegasus there is loyal. Some of the most loyal in the Enclave and where many of you get your food. It is a sort of honor that he came to serve, since they put their duty to providing our food as the most important thing in their life.”

“The point is, his training has come up, especially concerning his progress with such a big transition from tough cloud farming, to what a city is.” The crowd chuckled as they pictured the transition. “Enough that I obviously just slipped up. I care very much about my recruits. I love teaching and shaping them, no matter what part of the enclave they come from. It is an honor that my duty falls to do such a job.”

Shadow stopped since the General had made a smooth transition back to the planned ceremony. Only Shadow knew the truth. It wasn't him exactly. It was him, the recon team and talk about everypony below. It occurred to Shadow that he didn't know how much General Red River knew. The General may have been hearing some of that for the first time. The Major did the speaking on those details.

General Red River continued with his speech about loyalty, duty and honor. About serving the Grand Pegasus Enclave. He highlighted the top barrack for this training session. All of Black Barrack stood and everypony in the stands clapped. They sat down and the General highlighted the top five recruits.

Cardinal Spitfire was ranked first. The next two were from other barracks. Shadow was shocked when General Red River declared he ranked fourth out of 253 recruits. It explained just how difficult placing on a recon team was and why Major Winters Breath didn't agree with the General until halfway through training. That was when Shadow had really began to shine on all fronts, despite how he saw himself.

The graduation ended with a show from the Wonderbolts. They sat by and marveled as at least two teams did aerial tricks and put on a good show. As the General was giving his final thanks for those attending and their duty to the Enclave, an unidentifiable pegasus came out of nowhere and flipped the General's hat off with the flick of a feather. It landed on Shadow's head.

They filed out like they had rehearsed and General Red River came over at a fast trot. “Who ended up with my cover?”

“Here you go Sir!” Shadow said extending it to him on his wing.

“Do any of you know who that was?”

“I have never seen that Pegasus, Sir!” Cardinal Spitfire reported. “How about any of you.”

'No Sir. Never seen that Pegasus before,' was the most common response.

General Red River trotted away. They knew there were only two non recruit pegasus who knew about that incident. And only one of them had the status to even think about trying it. Lieutenant Marble Falls.

They all assembled at their black banner for family to find them.

“I am going to head back,” Shadow said.

“What if your family came?” Golden Dawn asked. “You did get your duffel bag packed right?

“I did. I didn't feel like explaining anything earlier. There is no way they could afford to leave the farm right now. And it is much more expensive trip than the 187 bits we made at market. 50 of those were gone by the end of the day because we bought supplies.”

“Well you can meet my family!” Cardinal Spitfire said enthusiastically. “Battle buddies after all.”

“Alright,” Shadow smiled. “Because you are my battle buddy.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls dropped out of nowhere for the second time today. “Can't stay long. I am not on the outreach team and pegasi will swam me with questions and for autographs. I don't have time. But congratulations on recon Shadow Flare. And Fourth. I was shocked at both. Same with you Cardinal Spitfire, for first. Well, congratulations, I knew you would take first. All of Black, congratulations on taking first. It has been way too long since Black dominated.”

“Maybe you could show me a thing or two,” Shadow asked. “Being a Wonderbolt and here. I do not know my training schedule yet.”

“Perhaps soldier. Perhaps. Here comes families.” The Lieutenant was gone like she came.

“Like that,” Shadow marveled. “I could use learning how to do a real drop in like that and blast off straight up. Out of nowhere and then nowhere.”

Nopony had time to say anything as family swarmed. But they did notice the switch from recruit to soldier.

“Cardinal SPITFIRE!” They soon head.

“That would get annoying,” Shadow whispered.

“Mom! Dad!” Cardinal Spitfire said as she hugged them. She was a spiting image of her mother.

“We were not surprised at all that the Spitfire in the group was ranked first,” Her mom said.

“It had nothing to do with being a Spitfire,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “I earned that without my name. And my battle buddy here helped me. Shadow Flare, meet my parents.”

Shadow was embraced by her mom. “Fourth place for a Flare, not bad.”

“Flare?” Shadow asked.

“You are not part of the Flare family line?”

“Dear, he is the farmer from way out,” Cardinal Spitfire's father said.

“I have heard plenty about your apple farm,” Shadow said shaking his hoof. “At least somepony here got half of my background. Our farming our there is radically different, especially since we farm turnips.”

“Turnips, interesting,” Her dad said. “Its all apples and oats where we are.”

“Parsnips mostly for us, with our turnip homestead, a half dozen wheat and hay farms, my sister's cherry farm was a few hours away and the closest apple farm was a good day's flight away. Didn't have much to do with them because of the distance. I have never worked with apples. Just one cherry harvest.”

“I must say, you do not look like a farming pegasus.”

“Mom,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned.

“Sorry dear. And you too Flare. Oh, honey, camera!”

They took a picture of Cardinal Spitfire, and then Cardinal Spitfire got them to take a picture of both of them. Shadow was no help and they had find somepegasus else who knew how to work a camera so they could get a picture of the Spitfire family. They would get them developed and get Shadow a picture of the two of them.

“Mind if we join in the discussion?”

Shadow shook his head to focus his eyes because they were clearly not working. Same with his ears.

He opened them to the same sight. “Blossom? Cherry Tart? How?”

“We found of from Sky Breaker when you would be free,” Early Blossom explained. “He said graduation. Tart and I have to talk with you. And Dad and Mom are at our Farm while Buck and Luna have it covered.”

“What about?” Shadow asked.

“It is private,” Cherry Tart replied.

“All this way for a private discussion?” Shadow asked shaking his head. “Alright. I trust you. You came out this far. Which also means you have to meet my battle buddy, Cardinal Spitfire.”

Cardinal Spitfire immediately got her parents to take a photo of the three of them before she would continue with the introductions. Cardinal Spitfire found out where they were staying and was going to drop off the pictures in the morning.

“Early Blossom and Cherry Tart,” Shadow introduced.

Cardinal Spitfire started laughing before Shadow could continue. “Deke, Olive Pit, Golden Dawn!” Cardinal Spitfire called out. “You have to take a second and come here. And you too Shooting Star, Silver Bar, Rays and Moonless Night!”

It took a minute for them all to push their way to them.

“Shadow Flare's sister, Early Blossom and then Cherry Tart.”

They all began to laugh.

“I don't get it,” Cardinal Spitfire's mom said.

“You are really blushing Shadow. What happened?” Early Blossom asked with her head in her hoof.

“My Size…”

“Yes?”

“Day two didn't go well from the very start.

“Go on.”

“This is to slow,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned. “His nickname ended up being Filly Fooler!”

Early Blossom and Cherry Tart laughed.

“Somehow home got wrapped into it, didn't it Shadow?” Cherry Tart chuckled.

“Yeah,” Shadow said laughing. His cheeks were as Red and Cardinal Spitfire's coat.

“It gets better,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I got roped into the whole mess when we were thrown together as battle buddies.”

“Wait,” Early Blossom stopped her. “Back up to battle buddies. We don't know what that is.”

Shadow quickly explained battle buddies. And they went into the nickname carrying into team Filly Foolers and then Filly Foolers Squad. Except for Cardinal Spitfire's mother, they all laughed. Their friends parents were listening in too and got a good laugh out of it.

“I think the name is immortalized here,” Deke said laughing even more. “They both made a big splash and with Black Barracks quickly becoming the best barracks score wise, they were well known. I mean First and Fourth individually ranked soldiers. Our aerial combat instructor gave most of the squads good nicknames based on something they did. Sadly, not mine.”

“But like mine, Ditwitz,” Golden Dawn said, happily explaining the reason.

It was nice having everypony together with family for a bit before they were pulled apart. Cardinal Spitfire did get more pictures taken; Filly Foolers Squad and then the five of them. Photographs to immortalize their oath.

“That was a lot of fun,” Cherry Tart chuckled as things cleared out. “They said you were free tomorrow?”

“I guess,” Shadow replied. “We have a week 'off.' Here they do Basic Training and Aerial Combat School. If you are headed to a different specialized school, then you have to report in a week from now. So travel time. But I think those have scheduled departures. I am moving on alone with my training in three days.”

“Alone?” Early Blossom asked.

“Alone,” Shadow repeated. “Recon. Its all very complicated.”

“You did make it!” Cherry Tart said excited.

“Yes, I did,” Shadow smiled. “No other recruit was going for recon. I got the impression recon isn't something you really get to go for. Not like to become a Mechanic, Medic, Engineer, or any other soldier. You have to prove yourself and that usually can only happen while in service, meaning you are a seasoned soldier. Same with Aerial Combat, but that is easier to prove you belong while in basic. We learned a bit of the basics for everything. We are well prepared for most any job.”

“Lets go into town and get dinner,” Early Blossom suggested.

“New Heaven?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah. Have you visited it?” Early Blossom asked.

“Sort of with training. We did a lot of flying. It is the closest city from what I understood.”

“It is where Sky Breaker said we should stay at and grab dinner with you if we could. The only place we could do that.”

“I can fly,” Shadow said getting serious.

“Duh,” Cherry Tart said.

“I mean I can really, really fly,” Shadow tried to explain. “I learned a lot from training and Cardinal Spitfire. I was marked as a weak flier to start, but when we got to aerial combat that changed. I mean that I can fly like the Wonderbolts, just not as good.”

“There you are Filly Fooler,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said gliding in to land in front. She was back in her Wonderbolt flight jacket. “You said something earlier that confused me. Oh, I didn't expect family to make it for you. We can talk later.”

“Lieutenant Marble Falls, my sister Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were just talking about flying into New Heaven for dinner,” Shadow said. “Perfect timing since I was just talking about what real flying is.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. “I hope you two can keep up with him. I assume both of you didn't go to flight school as well?”

“Heard about,” Cherry Tart said. “But that was it. Heard.”

“I can't believe both of them are bigger than you. My, you are really small for out there,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said.

“We already heard about the nickname and laughed about it,” Cherry Tart said. “It is very funny and clever.

“Well Ma'am, we do what we do to motivate recruits. Sometimes that includes a nickname. I don't actually know why you were named that. I only know it was set when I got your file. It was the first name and what your name tag had.”

Shadow answered that. “Master Wind was sizing me up and chose it because of my body size. I am currently wearing a mare's uniform.”

Marble Falls chuckled. “Of course you are. That does not surprise me. Most of the mares in Red were probably given Stallion uniforms. Whatever fits best for the body type. It is all the same look.”

“And these two are Filly Foolers,” Shadow said. “Master Wind embarrassed me badly the first day with him with how he pushed me.”

“I should let you go,” Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. “But I am definitely going to get all the details from him. He rarely forgets anything.”

“And she is just gone like that,” Early Blossom marveled.

“I would say you get used to it, but we haven't,” Shadow chuckled. “Come on. Lets get me to freedom. I suddenly want to leave on this adventure.”

Shadow had to glide most of the way to the city. The other two worked on drafting behind him, but they were untrained and Shadow fully understood what they meant by untrained. For the trip, Lance had given the two of them plenty of bits to cover the expenses. Shadow told them some of the funny tales of basic while they ate.

“Time to talk,” Cheery Tart said as they got to their hotel room. They had gotten one with two beds.

“What is up?” Shadow asked. “It has to be big and family important. I don't get how it matters with me being gone.”

“Well, it directly involves you,” Early Blossom said hesitating. “And they don't know it does. This is just a happy coincidence to them.”

“You hesitate when something is uncomfortable,” Shadow said plopping onto the bed.

“I want to bear a foul,” Cherry Tart said bluntly. “Early is for is, but we need a donor.”

“You want me?” Shadow asked shocked. It sounded wrong.

“Its all done through medical procedure. No actual interaction between us, like that,” Cherry Tart quickly explained.

“It is a big honor,” Early Blossom added. “You were the only pony we knew that embodied the kind of pony we want our foul to be. We know that a lot is by upbringing, but a good roll model to grow up hearing about…”

“And it is half like having Early as the biological parent,” Cherry Tart finished. “But, New Heaven doesn't have the medical facility to do it. Las Pegasus is five days away from here and is the only place.”

“Time was a big concern,” Early Blossom hesitated. “We were hoping Nellie Air Force Base would be where you would get sent to soon since it is right outside the city.”

“Well,” Shadow said thinking. “We can make a formal request for a temporary leave of absence for family reasons.”

“How do we do that?” Cherry Tart asked.

“Umm, the didn't give us a manual for stuff like that. But we can start tomorrow by heading back there. You got into the base today and probably can tomorrow to make a formal request. It will probably be embarrassing to you Blossom. Just be ready. I know it will mean paperwork. And it could take time. We don't want to wait. We should submit it as soon as possible.”

“I was hoping to see the city tomorrow with you,” Early Blossom said. “I know its not a grand one…”

“My response was 'buildings are not supposed to be this tall,'” Shadow chuckled. “We can head back after an early lunch.”

Shadow had a good, long yawn.

“It still is early,” Cherry Tart said. “How much did they work you today?”

“Today was just drills to prepare for the ceremony,” Shadow replied. “But I am sleep deprived. The last three days were our final testing. I mean three days. No stops, no breaks. It was field tests. We had to do all sorts of things showing we had mastered the basic skills they required. We ate field rations when we could sneak the five minutes, sleep had to be done tactically. Most of the time we were either in mock combat or in fear of ending up in it. As close as real as they could make it.”

“That does not sound fun,” Early Blossom stated.

“Well, we dominated some things they never expected,” Shadow lazily said. “So some was. But the rest was just horrible like combat is.”

“Do you want to shower?” Cherry Tart asked. “It is a good shower. Way better than home. Actual hot water.”

Shadow chuckled. “I am good. I showered this morning in the barracks, albeit a quick shower. And as crappy as the shower head was, it still beats home. All of us in the barracks were wanting to use them since we never had time after the test, so it was like 2 minutes long. But I am clean.”

“Co-ed?” Early Blossom nervously asked.

“Yes, but we all wore proper clothing and it wasn't some free for all pit in the bathrooms. It was shared, but private enough. And nopony did anything. We didn't dare. Or think about it since they had us so busy. The Barrack was for sleeping, changing and quickly getting clean. Nothing else. No time for anything else. There is a reason why Black Barracks became number one this time. We had an amazing group that worked together as a team to overcome everything quickly.”

“I am taking that luxury,” Cherry Tart said getting up.

“I am getting changed and under the covers,” Shadow said. “I may fall asleep, but I will try and stay awake. At this point, it doesn't matter where I am. I am able to sleep anywhere. Under or over the covers too.”

Early Blossom started to catch Shadow up on the mundane things from back home. Dream Catcher was now directly working with the local healer and growing her own herbs and stuff for medicine. That was as far as she got.

Chapter 16 - Request

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Shadow was stunned at what time it was when he woke up. He jumped out bead out of instinct before realizing he wasn't in the barracks. It woke up Cherry Tart and Early Blossom.

“Well, it isn't too early,” Early Blossom commented. “I was hoping for some more sleep.” She finished with a shrug.

“It is 0723,” Shadow said as he stretched. “This is late for the farm.”

“Not us right now,” Cherry Tart moaned. “It is really relaxed with little to do since we are a fledgling farm. But yes, you have a very good point.”

Shadow put his uniform on without thinking. The girls were not wearing anything. As they headed out, they noticed the envelope that was slid underneath their door. It was the photos. They were all good shots.

“I wish I could have seen her,” Shadow sighed. “But it is as it is. We will be heading to separate trainings after all. And the five of us formed a bond that will last for life.”

“I am sure you will meet up later,” Early Blossom smiled. “But now, breakfast.”

They were walking the streets after breakfast, stopping in at various shops that the girls wanted to.

“You think you can just stroll around, doing nothing?” A stallion said angrily as he came up to them.

Shadow didn't flinch or move when the pegasus got up close. He held his ground in a non confrontational way.

“Is that a sign sir?” Shadow asked.

“You going to take it from me?”

“No Sir,” Shadow said. “I assume you are demonstrating again today. I was not aware there was one today.”

“You have a problem with that?” He challenged.

“No Sir. I would never stop you from making sure your concerns are heard. But I am not somepegasus you should be talking to. I am not stationed here Sir, or familiar with anything here. I am on leave. I am sure I can help you find the proper pegasus to speak with.”

The pegasus backed up. “You are useless and all you do is take up food.”

“Hey!” Early Blossom barked. “Take that back!”

“Blossom, let it go,” Shadow said moving to block her. She was in an aggressive stance.

“You are not though,” She said softly to Shadow.

“What do you actually do to help the Pegasus Race?” The Stallion said still angry.

“I am training for a new roll,” Shadow said firmly. “But! I came from a farm. A hard working farm. And this is my sister and both of them are farmers. They work the clouds all year long to make sure everypegasus is fed.”

“That is all they want, and all I wanted before joining up. And it is what I will go back to doing once I serve my time as a soldier. Farm so you can eat. It is our duty and we love doing it despite the hard work. We take pride in helping to feed everypegasus. I understand that things are not optimal in places. Serving with the Enclave had opening my eyes to a lot of things. I am doing what I can to make sure we all survive, in the best way I can.”

“All three of us sympathize with you and are doing all we can,” Shadow said softly. “Go make your voice heard. It is already heard here.”

The pegasus walked away and met up with some others carrying signs.

“We should avoid the main plaza,” Shadow cautioned.

“The last shop I wanted to visit is there,” Early Blossom replied. “They are supposed to have designer bags.”

“Clothes?” Shadow asked.

“Yes.”

“Then lets go,” Shadow sighed. “I need to get a change of clothes. I never had any to bring from home like others and it feels weird without something proper on.”

The gathering was not that big when they got to the plaza.

“That is a lot of soldiers,” Cherry Tart said looking at them all lined up.

“Most of those are simple law enforcement,” Shadow said. “Not soldiers. A different training program after basic. They do not need many for this city.”

A pegasus in Enclave armor dropped down beside them. “What are you doing over here. Get back to your post.”

Before Shadow could answer another one dropped in front of them.

“Back off Tuff and damn it Filly Fooler!”

“Sorry Lieutenant. How could I know this was happening today?”

“You have no change of clothes, do you?”

“You are correct. We are heading there where I will grab something.”

“Better hurry or they will pull you and put you to work, even with you being on leave. Duty first like we all swore. Better yet, I will walk you to it. Better safe than sorry.”

“Is that a Wonderbolt insignia?” Cherry Tart asked.

“Yes,” Lieutenant Marble Falls sighed. “Along with training recruits, I am a Wonderbolt stationed at Fort Wind.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Simple farmers Tuff,” The Lieutenant said answering his question. “And no, it isn't bad. They just need some extra hooves today. Duty calls, no matter what position you hold. Fort Wind has always kept some Wonderbolts Squads stationed there. We have to be stationed somewhere, so we are there to perform at graduation ceremonies. But here is the shop.”

“I will wear a dress if I have to,” Shadow smiled. “Thanks.”

“With the right dress, you would look amazing,” Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. She didn't disappear like usual, but just stood there talking to the one she called Tuff.

“Welcome too… am I in trouble?”

“No Ma'am,” Shadow said. “I am the one in a bind. I am on leave with no other clothing. I was not aware this would happen today.”

“Good,” She said finally breathing normally. “We can find you something easily and I know we can find something to your special somepony.”

“I am just a brother Ma'am. With family.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No worries. But I guess it is getting tough to be a shop here?”

“Sadly it has slowed down business during their days off. But I am more than fine.”

It ended up fun, as Shadow modeled several sets of clothing for them. They paid for the one they chose and Shadow neatly folded his uniform before putting it in a bag.

“Have a wonderful day.”

“Thank you, we will,” Cherry Tart said.

“That got big,” Shadow said referencing the demonstration. “Lets go before this gets even more uncomfortable.”

“Definitely,” Early Blossom said picking her speed up.

They ate a later lunch than they had planned, quickly grabbed Shadow's duffel bag, and then took off back to Fort Wind.

Shadow had to wait past the gate for them to be approved. It was no problem for him since he was stationed here with his own ID. Their saddle bags had to be checked and then they were walked to the headquarters by one of the MPs.

They headed inside and approached the desk.

“DAMN IT FILLY FOOLER!” Lieutenant Marble Falls yelled behind them. “Every where I go today you are there! And there is no way you could be following me because I do not even know where I am going.”

“Are you alright Lieutenant?” General Red River asked from the top of the stairs. He had come out of his office at the yelling.

“No General,” She panted angrily. “And it has nothing to do with Filly Fooler there. The rally had to be ended early because some of the pegasi protesting the peaceful demonstrators got hostile. I had to drop in and pull one of them off another. Over a dozen arrests were made and there are half a dozen minor injuries. Strong medical care was provided. That is all I can report on. We left right after to report back.”

“Thank you Lieutenant,” General Red River replied. “But Filly Fooler, what brings you and your family here?”

“We wanted to make a request concerning Shadow,” Early Blossom hesitated. “A family request.”

“Farm troubles?” General Red River asked.

“No sir. Well indirectly?” Cherry Tart replied. “I am Cherry Tart and Early Blossom is my special somepony. Early Blossom is Shadow's sister. I want to have a foal, but we need a donor and the only place it can happen is Las Pegasus. We know it will take a while to work everything out.”

“Now it makes sense why you would leave your farms this long,” General Red River nodded.

“Nice pick,” Lieutenant Marble Falls interjected. “I know you didn't make it just because he is family. He is a real catch for any mare. Despite his size.”

“Lieutenant, your squadmates help with the Aerial Combat School correct?”

“Typically Sir. Not sure with the Captain being out, but typically. And with the changing situation…”

“All four of you come with me,” General Red River said turning to go back into his office.

Shadow shrugged and headed up the stairs first. The Lieutenant came in last.

“Lieutenant,” General Red River said as she closed the door. “The Major has headed off to take care of some other business.”

“I understand Sir,” Lieutenant Marble Falls replied.

“I don't,” Early Blossom whispered.

“You are not supposed to,” Shadow said. “Two different roads crossing and some you can't know.”

“Tell me, how long have you two thought about this?” The General asked.

“We have considered all the options since the beginning,” Cherry Tart said. “Last fall around harvest, we did discuss the options with Shadow. Just open chatting, but nothing specific.”

“You can relax,” The General said to Early Blossom. “I get the situation out where you come from. It is tough which is why I am immediately hearing it personally. Shadow really peaked my interest.”

“After Shadow left we thought more about it,” Early Blossom said more confidently.

“I was living with them and helping out for a while,” Shadow clarified.

“Yes. So without him, we explored the options again,” Cherry Tart explained. “ We needed to fill the void. We both are used to large families and ponies always over or being over with others... the quiet is okay for a little while. Two months ago we decide to do it and to ask Shadow. He embodies all the traits we want passed on and would make a great roll model for our foul to know about and hopefully find a hero to strive to be like.”

“Nopony back home found our favor,” Cherry Tart continued. “And being filly foolers is one thing, but being a donor is completely foreign to them, and us.”

“You have given plenty of thought to this then,” General Red River stated. “And it is a big honor for you Shadow Flare. What does it require him to do?”

“A quick semen donate at the facility,” Cherry Tart stated. “That is it. But it is a five day flight from here. I know it is a lot to ask.”

“I have done some digging into your district,” General Red River said. “I have gotten to know Sergeant Sky Breaker, the recruiter for the district. He has a wonderful plan and is working hard to be the best image of the Enclave he can be. He is working as hard as if he was home, farming.

“And I know he helps out sometimes. I actually prefer that. Recruiters fall under my control. If a recruiter in his location and with his background, heads home for a bit to help with planting and harvest, that is fine for me so long as he is representing the Enclave proper. It looks good to the community. We all have our duty to do, but I do want to improve relations so that together, we can do more.”

“Lieutenant, how fast can you two make the trip?”

“Round trip to Las Pegasus? Five days tops.”

“Lets get Shadow's family back to New Heaven and then on their way to Las Pegasus. You two will meet up with them in seven days. This will be family emergency leave. Your farm can not survive without producing foals. I assume you two have the finances worked out.”

“Yes Sir,” Cherry Tart replied. “Early Blossom's Family, and Shadow's, has been able to save a good amount over the years. Including enough to cover this.”

“Yes, I saw the legal document connected to your homestead,” General Red River said. “Shadow Flare really peaked my interest on the first day. Then it is settled. Let's get you two on your way. And they will meet you in seven days. Plenty of time for you two to make it there.”

One of the Lieutenant's squadmates was tasked with leading them back to New Heaven since it would be dark soon. The General needed to talk with Lieutenant Marble Falls and Shadow, otherwise Shadow would have flown them back.

“Lieutenant, Shadow is aware of your past mission,” General Red River said as he closed the door. “I would like you to pass on what you can while you make that trip.”

“Yes Sir,” The Lieutenant replied.

“Shadow Flare, that means 0900 be at the range to start weapons training.”

“Thank you Sir!” Shadow said. “Thank you so much Sir. My whole family appreciates it.”

“I have seen thousands of recruits. None have ever peaked my interest like you have. That has little to do with you going recon. Your family and community has been interesting to get to know, from what I can. But you are the real gem. Cardinal Spitfire may have placed first, but you are the most interesting recruit I have ever met. And interesting as in you will go places and do great things others can't even dream of. Including me.”

“I want to help you do that in any way I can. Making sure your family is safe and secure will only calm you mind and help you train better. And I say that because I care, not because I want a better number on my next report to the counsel.”

“Thank you Sir!” Shadow said again.

“Now, I am going to retire for the night soon,” General Red River said dismissing them.

General Red River left out the part that his care for Shadow meant he needed him grounded and happy. It was not fair to rip what Shadow cared about from him. It was the very reason he was so good, but the very thing that would destroy him if he lost hope in his family.

“Well that was interesting,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said as they walked down the stairs. “I never saw any of that coming. I do look forward to our upcoming flight. That is what I wanted to ask you about the other day concerning your comment about learning from me. I wanted to confirm that you had been told what happened.”

“I look forward too Ma'am,” Shadow smiled. “And yes. I had just learned about it. I had asked about Captain Nova, and it led there. I wish we could of known as we began training with you. I think we would have learned better and worked harder.

“Nah,” Lieutenant Marble Falls scoffed. “You guys had me on the tip of my hooves at times. I made sure you were more than ready for below. And Filly Fooler, you can call me Falls.”

“Alright Falls,” Shadow said. “And I love the nickname Filly Fooler.”

“That is the best damn nickname this Fort has ever seen. Mind you, I am still your superior.”

“Of course Falls. And if you can, I would love to learn how to drop in out no nowhere like you do and disappear into thin air as well.”

“I can teach you that. It will be an invaluable skill for you. But off to bed. 0900 may be later, but you definitely need the sleep. Your whole body shows how much you need.”

Shadow didn't notice which beds were occupied and which were empty. He found the recruit photo book on his bed and flipped through it.

It had a letter from the General, the heads over training and then the history of the Enclave. After it was a dozen pages from different times all around the Fort. He had no idea that some of those pictures were being taken. The other Barracks had some downtime photos, but not black.

Next was the page of the top ten recruits. Each recruit had a big picture, which they pulled from their group photo. Cardinal Spitfire had the largest one. Their name and next school was below. Shadow's said Reconnaissance.

Black Barracks had three pages of random pictures of just them in training and then each recruit and their name was on a separate page. There was a picture of the five of them doing some activity together and a picture of Filly Fooler Squad in mid flight, from above and off to their side. The camera crew was really good at not being seen.

Shadow flipped through the other Barracks. They were in order of overall placement. Red was last, not yellow, and Green was in the middle. Each Barracks had the same organizational system like Black did and with their own personal highlights.

Shadow finally set it aside and laid down to sleep. His back was to the rest of the Barracks.

In the morning, Shadow did a light PT workout before breakfast and gearing up. He landed at the range at 0845. There was only one Pegasus there who's back was to him.

“0845, right on time,” Lieutenant Marble Falls smiled.

He didn't recognize her at first because she was wearing her Wonderbolt Armor. He had only seen her in it yesterday, and never seen the Wonderbolts before that.

“I spoke with General Red River this morning. If I am going to teach you what little I can during the flight, I might as well take care of your weapons training. I am well versed in them all and hopefully can pass on more than I realized I learned and experienced. After all, I am the only active duty soldier who has gone below.”

“Wow,” Shadow said shocked. “Makes sense. But don't you have to prepare to train more recruits? I know that there is already in full session. Black Barracks B.”

“Typically, this time is spent with some training for my squad and boring, useless paperwork. But, I excused myself from training. Our Captain is out medically for an unknown amount of time. I am the current leader. With things potentially heating up in New Heaven, I decided it was best for me to not be tied down with training recruits.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. “Lieutenant Razzleberry is not happy. He wants revenge. But for now, it is what is best. And he knows that.”

“Now, enough time has been wasted. You are going to learn it all, but the training is technically Heavy Weapons School, personalized. We are starting with explosives. After, we will get you a modular set up for the real guns.”

“Don't get me wrong, what you are packing is what a typical light trooper carries and it does a really good job, standing the test of time since before the clouds were sealed up. But you will have different system. Major Winters Breath is doing something new and special, but I doubt that will be a main weapon. We have better.”

The ammo was unlimited and they didn't have to worry about clean up. Lieutenant Marble Falls put Shadow to work learning how to really shoot a rocket launcher. It was a different model. It was lighter and compact, the opposite they were introduced to. It wasn't long before he could quickly load, find his target and then hit it.

He was then taken to grenades. They tossed some live ones to make sure he could time them really well and didn't jump out of his armor each time one went out. Then became the important training, tactics and accuracy.

Lieutenant Marble Falls was working Shadow through flushing out enemies behind cover and forcing enemy combatants to move where he wanted them to. Accuracy was key and it wasn't all about killing. They also tossed a lot into bunkers, through holes in walls, and into trenches. Strategic placements, not just some behind a wall. Almost all of the grenades were training dummies, but the Lieutenant had a box filled with a mix. It was luck of the draw and Shadow was not allowed to check the stamp on the bottom.

“Using a mortar alone is the toughest weapon,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said introducing it to him. “It isn't designed to be used solo and you have to have an exposed line of sight. I am sure you remember training and how you typically want to fire blind from behind cover like rubble, a hole, or a hill.”

When the Lieutenant felt Shadow was trained enough on the philosophy she put him behind the mortar. They used a lot of blank warheads, but the training was not about being spot on, but generalized and fast. Shadow learned how to aim and judge the distance without a spotter giving him the coordinates and adjustments.

“Lets grab lunch and then switch out your gear,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said bored. “Then we will work on some flying. I actually have a reason to fly with one of the Filly Foolers Squad without looking too favorable.”

“You did a good job,” Shadow assured her. “It wasn't easily juggling us with the others. Despite how good all of our squads were. In the end, we all learned what we needed and more.”

“Thanks,” The Lieutenant smiled.

Lunch was different only in his mind. The cooks knew them at least by face and congratulated Shadow on graduating. Sitting with the Lieutenant was odd in his mind. He was a soldier sitting with another one. That was all. She just happened to be his special instructor and a Wonderbolt.

The quartermaster office had a line.

“Lieutenant, we will be right with you.”

The soldiers came to attention and were going to salute the Lieutenant, but she called 'at ease' before they could.

“We can wait in line like everypegasus else,” The Lieutenant replied. “We are not in a hurry.”

“Hey Shadow,” Deke said as he looked up from signing paperwork. “Back and turning in gear already. When do you leave?”

“Unsure,” Shadow said. “You?”

“Tomorrow. Officer School is at Nellie Air Force Base and its marked as a four day flight. So what are you going to do, just stay in Black Barrack and wait?”

“No, they have me at the range with a lot of different guns. Lieutenant Marble Falls is my instructor. She is well versed in all weapons.”

“Really?” Deke said surprised. “Nothing against you Ma'am.”

“Deke, they are just having a familiar instructor training me,” Shadow stated.

“Why are you turning in your battle saddle if you are weapons training?”

“He needs a different one,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “It is a standard battle saddle, the base model not just for training, but use. All of yours belong to the training here. Shadow needs a different saddle for the training he will be undergoing.”

“Like a real machine gun,” Deke grinned.

“Already was working on explosives again,” Shadow said. “There was no time to turn in or draw gear.”

“Like what booms?”

“I can accurately shoot a rocket launcher,” Shadow said. “And am learning to use a mortal alone.”

“No spotter?”

“Have to have direct line of sight, but yeah,” Shadow said.

“Recon doesn't mess around,” Deke chuckled.

“Yeah. But I told you all I know,” Shadow said. “Its ponies like you who will pick at me to get the classified stuff. I learn more after you leave.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Deke said chuckling as he walked out the door. “You already said that.”

“Let's get this gear in first,” The quartermaster said when they got to the cage.

It didn't take long. He was well prepare for the graduated recruits to turn their's in. Everything was neatly in the file cabinets behind him.

“What are you needing to take out?”

“Mark 4 Armor,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “And a GPER 76-2 Delta and a EMG 55-6 Delta. Five training mags for each.”

“Let me see if we have those in stock,” He said heading to the back.

“They will have it ready out back. Only Mark 4 we have,” He said returning. “Paperwork.”

“I will be checking it out,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said.

“Are you sure?” He asked.

“This is temporary training. Last thing we need is Shadow Flare being transferred with no warning and having to spend time turn in gear. I know you are fast, but a transfer might be faster. We just don’t know.”

“Alright.”

They picked up the gear around the back of the building. Shadow had to head into the building and put on a different suit to go under the armor.

“Nice job dealing with Deke,” The Lieutenant commended him. “He loves his questions.”

“Thanks,” Shadow replied. “Just enough to keep him quiet.”

Shadow's Legs were forced into something and his tail was pulled into position as they put everything on. His head bobbed as they slapped his helmet on. He had to adjust it so he could see.

“This feels weird. Heavy,” Shadow said moving his legs and wings.

“You will get used to it,” Lieutenant Marble Falls shrugged. “And you are missing the guns. Wings up again.”

The guns were snapped into place and then secured.

“Yes, you can fly in it,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said as she began to walk away. Shadow walked after her. She was forcing him to learn it on his own. Shadow could hear the armor work alongside his muscles.

He kept moving his wings in and out. A protective layer of armor was on top, but expanded like his feathers. The body was well plated for strong protection against weapons. This armor would be able to withstand return fire while doing a strafing run, same with surviving an attack from above. The tale was longer than Shadow was used to and had a shard blade at the tip. He had to try and keep it out of the way so he didn't trip.

“What exactly am I wearing?” Shadow asked when they were clear of ponies.

“It's pegasus power armor,” The Lieutenant answered. “An upgraded model from the war. This is what pegasi were being trained to fly in back then. It had proved to be very effective in combat. It saved a lot of pegasi lives but not enough. The war wasn't ours to fight or concern us.”

“Still, it proves very useful to protect the Pegasi even today. Even ones from the war are still in great condition and are fielded today. You were trained with combat armor, which his very effective. Power armor though, it does more than protect.”

“It is what allows me to drop out of the sky the way I do. Well how I learned. It accentuates your body, making every move more powerful and keeps your limbs safe. Even your unarmed combat attacks will become crippling, if not deadly with a single strike. It helps everything move better, faster.”

“It is similar to the Power Armor the Earth Ponies made for battle, except their models were heavier and with much bigger guns. Their invention was taken to make it suitable for pegasi. I do not know if we have speed over them, but they certainly have the stronger firepower and shielding.”

“The armor requires a power source, but those last a long time. Some of our war models are still using their original sources. It feels clunky to start, but soon you will have no problem flying with it.”

“So,” Shadow said beginning to grasp it all. “Better than combat armor, can take a lot more hits from all angles, can protect you from crushing blows while helping me deal my own, and light enough you still can fly really well.”

“And a few more things,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “Your helmet leaves your mouth open. On your right flank is a mask that seals that off like the gas mask you were trained to use. It's advantage is it doesn't constrict your breathing as much. And the power armor is built to help shield the wearer from radiation. Not stop it, but a good shield for the unexpected. The other thing is a stealthbuck mod. A device that, for a limited time, renders you pretty much invisible.”

“Your rifles. You probably noticed there was no actual battle saddle. On the Mark 4 model, these rifles lock onto the armor themselves. The other Power Armor models use different connection systems, including battle saddles, but most weapons can be used on a battle saddle or bolted onto something. We have standardized mounts for a reason.”

“The GPER 76-2, usually just called Jeeper, is a long gun battle rifle. As you can see, it is several inches longer than the one you trained on, and instead of the small caliber round, this one fires a 7.62 millimeter round. The EMG 55-6 is a box magazine fed light machine gun. You learned the belt fed, MG-42. They both fire the same 5.56 millimeter round.”

“What does the GPER, EMG and MG stand for?” Shadow asked. “I get the numbers now…”

“Grand Pegasus Enclave Rifle,” Lieutenant Marble Falls explained. “The first rifle the Enclave made alone, post war. It also comes in the 55-6 Model with Alpha being shorter and Bravo being the longer variants. EMG is Enclave Machine Gun. A newer development made as our MG, Machine Guns, from the war began to break down from the use over a hundred years.”

“And the Delta?” Shadow asked.

“The last goody of power armor. E.F.S. Mod. Eyes Forward Sparkle Spell. One of the few things from the unicorns I don't hate. It is an advanced system that helps you target enemies, even down to specific body parts. It has its limitations. It can be flat and lack depth perception, making you calculate the distance and then do the manual adjustments.”

“The Delta models are the first to connect the rifle and the E.F.S. system. They are brand new, only coming into play over the past ten years. They help compensate for the distance errors with minor maneuverability from their mounts.”

“For when you began to go below,” Shadow said.

“Exactly. The scouts had the hardest time since we were zooming through at high speeds. Our E.F.S. was useless on the mission. Ponies popping out of everywhere and often nowhere. Our shots we made were often blind, attempting to suppress targets ahead of us to get clear.”

“I don't know if it even did something, but it didn't feel like it. E.F.S. along with Delta mods still wont help when we fly at blistering speeds, but when we do slow down, they become useful. Regular soldiers do not have E.F.S. mods. Those few that do get them are taught to shoot without them, so if they are not helping or give out, they can compensate. Just like you will learn.”

“Don't rely too much on your technology,” Shadow said.

“Every advantage is an advantage,” The Lieutenant said. “You taught me to value even the littlest ones, but you have to know the limitations of those advantages and when they will stop being an advantage, or worse, if they become a disadvantage. Some of this is pre-war tech we are dealing with.”

“But enough chit chat! Lets fly!” The Lieutenant said before jumping straight up.

Shadow bent down a bit and jumped. The armor tossed him into the air. He heard the Lieutenant laughing as he spun out and had to gain control.

“Trust the armor like you naturally trust your wings,” She called out.

Shadow pulled his wings in and dove. Right before the ground he opened them up and skimmed across the ground. He had to suddenly roll to avoid a barracks marching back together. Shadow pulled up and back around to meet up with the Lieutenant.

She wasn't there. She pulled up alongside him a minute alter.

“Nice going. You figured it out, but I had to cover you ass for your close call. On my wing.”

Shadow followed Lieutenant Marble Falls as she broke him into flying with the armor. It wasn't long before she had him diving and rolling with her naturally. Her training on signals and non verbal commands came in very handy. Their speed wasn't great. They had plenty of time to work on that. He was here for weapons training right now, not flight.

“Grab chow,” She said when they finally landed. “We pick up with your rifles at 0900. I wish the range was closer. For now, 0900. I want a bit of a break from the early mornings too. But that doesn't mean I will be lax, tolerate tardiness, or let up on your training.”

Shadow went to the barracks first to leave his armor.

“What are you wearing?” Deke asked intrigued.

“Always with the questions,” Olive Pit said. “He has armor on, duh.”

“When do you leave Golden Dawn?” Shadow asked ignoring Deke.

“In two days. Heading to Mareland Joint Operations Base. It is near where Cloudsdale originally was. I will do Combat School, run with a unit for a year and then go to Officer School. The NCOs like officers who were first like them, non commissioned. You think differently. A very big difference between a combat unit, and cloudship officers or medics.”

“Deke said you are staying here?” Golden Dawn asked.

“Deke and his big mouth,” Shadow laughed. “He is the reason I do not know my full orders. They want me to train more on weapons while I wait. I will get orders once you guys are off to you schools.”

“Deke said what you were shooting earlier,” Olive Pit said, asking without asking. “Well he actually only said booms training.”

They chuckled.

“But we can see the guns you are carrying now,” Olive Pit continued.

“These?” Shadow said lifting his wings. “Some of the standard rifles the Enclave uses. Golden Dawn should be trained on both of these in Combat School.”

“But you have two,” Golden Dawn marveled.

“Yeah. So?” Shadow asked. “We wore one, why not one on each side?”

“I never thought of that,” Olive Pit said.

“Flying?” Deke asked.

“A bit different, but think about how different the change is between flying in a uniform and flying in combat armor. Small adjustments. But this probably would ground you Deke.”

They all laughed at Deke's 'weak' flying. There were no real weak fliers in Black.

“What are we laughing about?” Cardinal Spitfire said coming in wearing a dress.

“I never thought I would see you in a dress,” Golden Dawn said. “You look absolutely gorgeous. Dreamy.”

“Not a chance,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed. “But who is our visitor?”

“You don't recognize you battle buddy?” Shadow asked. His back had been towards her.

“Shadow… Wow…” Cardinal Spitfire stuttered. “I… that is a transformation. Is this your new gear?”

“For now,” Shadow said explaining his current, small assignment.

“And you would not believe who they picked to train him!” Deke jumped in. “Lieutenant Marble Falls!”

“Good choice,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “When does the next aerial training start for the recruits?”

“Soon,” Shadow said. “For now, I am assigned to her. Or she is to me. Not sure which.”

“We all are here,” Deke said stating it like it was some big revelation. “Let's sign each other's books! Further cementing it into our lives.”

“They had a great shot with all five of us doing some task together,” Shadow said. Perfect place for the signatures.”

“Nah, I want to write more than just my name,” Deke said.

“You would write the whole book if you could!” Olive Pit said punching him in the arm.

“Maybe I will,” Deke smiled. “Maybe I will write a book about us later.”

Shadow ditched the armor so he could write better. It didn't fit in his locker, so he put it on the other side of his bed, along the wall.

“You got the pictures?” Cardinal Spitfire asked him.

“Yeah,” Shadow said. “They were amazing and so special. They will be with me on deployment. Same with my family seeds, a small Heritage book and if there is room, our picture book.”

“You are so sentimental,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled.

“Remember where you came from. Your foundation. Keep it strong and your will be able to build a tall house, lose it and even a simple house will fall apart.”

“Write that in my book,” She said giving it to him along with a pen.

Shadow did, along with 'any advantage is an advantage.'

“You look stunning in that dress,” Shadow said. “Who knows where we will be in a year or two. I don't even know next week...” Shadow just ended with a chuckled.

Cardinal Spitfire smiled back at him and passed him his book back. They got the others to sign them, and all squad members of Filly Foolers signed each other's books. Shadow put the same wisdom in all of their books, but in Cardinal Spitfire's he wrote some more personal stuff about their friendship by the photo with the five of them.

“Dude, your writing is...” Deke gawked. “Like a young colt's. What? Did you drop out of school?”

They all looked at him.

“Oh, yeah. Duh,” He chuckled.

“I do not have an early morning, but I can not be late,” Shadow said walking back to his bed. “A lot to learn in a short time.”

Chapter 17 - The Next Step

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“Not bad,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “The longer rifle suits you better.”

“Still slow to line up a shot,” Shadow said taking off his helmet.

“Its a precision weapon,” The Lieutenant explained. “The 76-2 is a battle rifle. It is a heavier, bigger round with more punch. It is designed to go through light cover and light armor. That is it's job and philosophy.”

“The combat armor?” Shadow asked.

“Light troopers wear what you were trained with. It will punch through, or on the off chance it does not, break bones. For a regular soldier, an armor piecing round will do the job. But the 55-6 model, even armor piecing will have to find the parts without a plate to punch through. Don't think that it won't hurt. Bullets don't bounce off without doing same damage. Even with power armor. We have armor piercing rounds for a reason.”

The Lieutenant was all business. All trainer. “Now I want to see what you can do with that EMG.”

Shadow put his helmet on. They had the laser training magazines, but they had been using live rounds. Sweep up the brass, but the lead down range would be cleaned up later.

Shadow cycled the machine gun and opened up. It was the first time he had fired this model or anything on his left. He was wild and high. Shadow tightened up and walked the shot pattern down to the first target. He ran out before he could continue and quickly changed mags. He was high again, but not as wild. He knocked out the next three targets in a nice sweep before he had to change magazines again.

Lieutenant Marble Falls soon switched up the target design. He had 5 to hit in and X design. The goal was to fire several shots and hit each target quickly, without walking the shot pattern to the next target. Accuracy was key. For starters, it conserved ammo.

Shadow had to slow down, but he soon saw the real value of a machine gun as he pounded each target with half a dozen rounds at once before shooting the next the same way. He would not have to shoot at full auto to easily dispatch or keep enemies pinned.

They stayed at the range all day until Shadow was mentally exhausted. Lieutenant Marble Falls still ran him through some aerial training exercises before she let him go for the evening.

He said final goodbyes in the barracks in the morning. He lost track of the time and dashed off to the range, arrive after 0930.

“I said don't be late, didn't I?” Lieutenant Marble Falls said annoyed.

“Sorry Ma'am. Poor choice. I lost track of time saying goodbyes. Not an excuse though. I will do better.”

It was light work with his guns before they moved back to explosives. This time they added the grenade launcher to the mix. The power armor helmet did a lot better job at blocking the loudness of the explosions.

Days blended with the barracks empty except for his bunk. Even Cardinal Spitfire had been moved to the Aerial Combat School Units.

For the flight to Las Pegasus, Shadow only wore his flight suits and had a dress uniform on hand.

“You know, I never got a good look at things below,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said as they flew. “But we did a lot of high quality flying at tough speeds. I am going to push you to those speeds. You need them for recon. Obviously, neither of us are wearing armor, which changes things. But we will still push. And power armor, once learned properly, can be as fast as no armor. Few can truly master it.”

They slowly built up their speed. Shadow was flying at least as fast as he did in Filly Foolers Squad. It never was a strait flight. Shifting and adjusting kept your mind awake so you didn't focus too much and get tunnel vision. They including rolls, dives, climbs and solo flying at times.

Night was spent at a hotel in a small town. Dinner, bed, up and then onto breakfast. All in the span in under 7 hours. Shadow was tired. The fast speed over the long distance was getting to him.

“See that flag?” Lieutenant Marble Falls said pointing. “Welcome to Nellie Air Force Base. We made great time. It still is a three hour flight to the main base where we will bunk for the night. And from there, its an hour out to Las Pegasus.”

“Some team will be intersecting with us shortly since we just came into their airspace. They are expecting us and it will be a simple check in like at the gates.”

“I am surprised,” Shadow said. “I was thinking we would arrive much later or early in the morning.”

“Nah, you are a hearty flier with good speed. Just what recon needs when it comes to aerial skills.”

“Have you been stationed here?” Shadow asked.

“Never. I have only been here a few times, for Wonderbolt shows. Most of my time was spent at Mareland Joint Operations Base. The scouts were based out of there until they were shut down. That is when we were moved to Fort Wind so I could train new recruits.”

“Are those Cloudships? Shadow asked about the big clouds mixed with metal.

“Yeah. I guess you never would have seen one where you live.”

“One probably landed at El Nino, but the Enclave flew chariots out to pick up the taxes from each farm. They paid close attention to the farm and what they thought it's yield should be for that year. They never really knew what they were talking about though,” Shadow said finishing with a chuckle.

“That small one there is the Red Dawn. She is from the war. The oldest cloudship the Enclave has, and the fastest. Raptors are fast, but their armor and guns slow them down. They need them to take on dragons. But the Red Dawn was built as a troop transport. Mind you, She isn’t a Sky-tank like the Enclave transports. She is smaller and predates that class of cloudships.”

“Besides her is the Solar. That is a Raptor. She was just launched a year ago. We can’t make Cloudships easily. Putting those resources into one, and a Raptor at that is, an interesting power play. Typically, a ship is retrofitted or docked for repairs. Most of the recent builds are transports. The transports take a lot of abuse and can be armed quite well.”

“The Enclave doubled the Red Dawn’s guns in a retrofit, so she really packs a good punch, but it’s still not the same as a Raptors. They call her a Battle Cruiser now, despite playing a troop transport role. There is a good prestige to be her captain. A long, excellent service history.”

“The Red Dawn has a lot of rumors associated with it, specifically Unit 731. A secret unit supposedly based out of the Red Dawn itself. A unit being based out of a small ship rather than a base or a Thunderhead is unheard of. Hence the rumor.”

Shadow chuckled. “And what does this Unit 731 supposedly do?”

“That depends on who is telling the story,” Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. “I did some checking a while ago about her. I couldn’t find much about the ship outside of technical specs and crew. But it didn’t cover any units being based out of the ship or it’s job. The Fleet its assigned to a the 3rd Fleet. That Fleet has five other ships of odd categories in it, including what is called a corvette.”

“Regardless of what fleet she is in, I have always believed the rumors that she is a Wonderbolt cloudship. Or in some way works with the Wonderbolts.”

“Wouldn’t you know?” Shadow asked.

“There is a lot I don’t know,” Lieutenant Marble Falls replied. “I only get a small picture into all that the Wonderbolts do. It keeps things contained.”

The aerial squad intersected them, ending that conversation. They were checked in and cleared quickly.

Their beds were in the general bunk house. The grabbed bunks and changed into their dress uniforms. They left their bags in the lockers assigned to each bed. They wanted to keep them in case they needed them, as well as them changing back into their flight suits.

“Now the fun begins,” Shadow said. “Finding this address… in all this.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls laughed. “First time in a metropolis like this is staggering for anypegasus. Unless you come from here, New Cloudsdale or even Twin Clouds.”

“It is so loud,” Shadow said. He felt like his voice was ripped away from his mouth and tossed into the loud drum of city life.

Shadow had never seen Sky Chariots that were for transportation and was amazed at the whole other 'street' for flying.

Lieutenant Marble Falls hailed a chariot and had him head to the main Enclave office. They were dropped off a ways out because of the crowd.

“Is it what I think it is?” Shadow asked.

“Probably. Make sure to tighten up your tongue to pegasus.”

“Yes Ma'am.”

“I guess that was a formal order,” She said.

“Sorry Falls. It is a weird balance with you teaching me and being so… unorthodox.”

An enclave pegasus came running up. “Good! We need more hooves to keep them back.”

“We are on official business,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said.

“But Lieutenant, duty is calling and it is falling apart. The dissenters have been been pushing at our riot shields. Besides, your uniform says you are a Wonderbolt.”

“Lets go take a look Filly Fooler,” Lieutenant Marble Falls sighed.

“On your lead,” Shadow confirmed.

They got above and Shadow have never seen so many ponies in one place. The city hall was right besides the Grand Pegasus Enclave Headquarters. This was the Enclave here. Where it all happened.

“I always bring a whistle,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “See that opening? It is time to try out the sky drop, without armor. And keep your wings tucked in no matter what. It reduces their chance of being pulled or hit. If you need to bug out, jump and then open them.”

They did a quick flip before pulling their wings in. Shadow was still getting used to it so he was forced to slid into a wide stance. He came up out of it watch Lieutenant Marble Falls blowing her whistle. Nopony knew where they came from.

“I shouldn't have to drop into the middle of you to shut you up!” She ordered. “I am a Wonderbolt. Back away and stay civil. It is your right to peaceful demonstrations. I did not see peaceful upon my arrival. I am not here because of you. I have official business and you should not be taking me away from that by losing your cool. I have had fresh recruits better than you. And no, I have no idea why you are gathered here. Knock it off!”

The Lieutenant looked at Shadow and they launched off, stunning the crowd at their speed.

“That ought to help for a little bit,” She groaned as they walked into the Headquarters.

“I think they mistook me for a Wonderbolt,” Shadow said concerned.

“That is what I was counting on,” She smiled at him.

They approached the front desk. The pegasus saluted them.

“Lieutenant Marble Falls with Sergeant Shadow Flare.”

“Yes Ma’am. Follow me.”

They were taken into the back where there were a lot of rooms. Most of them were for some officer or anther.

'Doctor Stitches' was on the door they were shown to.

“Ah, glad you could make,” He said standing up. “It is a pleasure to have you join us here. I hope things were not too crazy.”

“We had to drop in and yell at them,” Lieutenant Marble Falls stated. “But they are not used to a Wonderbolt's idea of coming in for a landing. It should help for a while.”

“We will head out the back way,” The Doctor said. “I trust your flight all the way was good.”

“Yes Sir,” The Lieutenant said. “And he could keep up.”

“Keep up?”

“I am not a Wonderbolt if that is what you are assuming,” Shadow said.

“I was,” He replied. “It has been busy and complicated at the hospital. I skimmed the orders and must have missed that. What are you doing with a Wonderbolt?”

“Specialized training,” Shadow replied. “Just graduated from Basic. But I am waiting for more permanent orders to whatever recon wants me to do. Right now its just more weapons training.”

“I see. I have never met a recon soldier. It is a pleasure to meet you. And you as well Lieutenant. I am a bit turned around these past few months from multiple things happening and seem to be dropping the niceties and proper manors.”

“Understandable,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said.

“Let me grab my coat and lets go. Oh... I am wearing it.”

They all chuckled and they were led out a rear exit into an alley.

“General Red River sent me a message about how important this procedure actually is,” The Doctor said. “Invetro fertilization is not new. It was develop pre-war to help ponies who were having trouble conceiving for various reason. It is completely safe for both parties.”

“That is the first time I have heard it name,” Shadow chuckled. “My sister is rather quiet about their situation as a whole.”

“That also was an observation General Red River sent me,” The Doctor said. “And for your home, it makes sense.”

“We are so thankful he was able to make it work this early,” Shadow replied. “Thankful to every pegasus.”

“I was kind of hoping you would say pony,” The Doctor chuckled. “I have never heard that said. Read it from war and pre-war texts, but I have never heard it said naturally.”

“With the way things are currently around here, I am paying attention. I do not want to end up causing more problems while I am here.”

“It is the smartest move,” The Doctor replied.

They had reached a major road. The Doctor mumbled to himself for a moment before he figured out where they had come out at. They hailed a chariot to save their wings for the flight back.

New Life Family Planning and Clinic

“Family Planning?” Shadow asked as they walked in.

“A fancy way to say getting pregnant,” The Doctor explained. “And care during pregnancy and for birth. But I get the feeling you never have had anything but home births.”

“Usually in the barn,” Shadow said marveling at the sterile environment they tried to make warm and inviting. “It is the only covered place big enough to make things comfortable, yet private. And allow for the local healers and a few other mares to help out. My Dad of all ponies couldn't handle being there after Lunar Harvest, the first, was born. We rarely have a problem with births.”

The Doctor led them past the front desk and to an elevator. Shadow hesitated.

“I get in and it goes up?” He asked taking a closer look at the space in between both floors.

Lieutenant Marble Falls was laughing and the Doctor had no idea what to say. Shadow gingerly stepped into the elevator.

“I do not like this!” He declared as they went up. “It feels unnatural. This should not be.”

“This is not new technology,” The Doctor stated. “It was old technology when the war broke out.”

“You certainly know a lot about pre-war,” Shadow commented.

“Mostly medical,” He replied. “It fits with the job description. We Enclave Doctors have to take care of the Pegasus Race, and that means learning from our predecessors, no matter what race they were. You and your community are almost carbon copies of the farming Earth Ponies.”

Shadow was first off the elevator. He jumped out quickly.

“I do not like that,” He said again as the others chuckled.

“Shadow!” Early Blossom exclaimed from where she was sitting.

They all hugged and then introductions were made. Lieutenant Marble Falls didn't remember their names.

“I am surprised an Enclave Doctor is involved,” Cherry Tart said shocked.

“We all our Enclave Doctors,” Doctor Stitches replied. “We work for the Council and are trained by their standards. But don't be embarrassed. I know you don't have a doctor near you.”

“They had us all set up,” Early Blossom stated. “We had the basics covered, but now I get why the rest was all ready for us.”

“When the Enclave puts its mind to something, it happens fast,” Doctor Stitches said. “Sometimes that does takes time to make up the mind.”

Shadow was taken back to donate. It was something he was not familiar with at all. After, they brought him to the room with Early Blossom and Cherry tart. It was just the three of them and Cherry Tart was up on the exam table.

“Hello Cherry family. I am Doctor Melody Song,” She said coming in and closing the door.

“I understand that you are Early Blossom's brother, Shadow Flare?”

“Yes Ma'am.”

“Well you should be proud, your donation was more than enough and of high count. You are certainly a very healthy and strong stallion. For you, you should have no problem with natural conception when that time comes.”

Shadow just nodded and rolled with it. He understood enough to have no idea what to say.

“We can try multiple times,” She continued. “And you Shadow Flare should not have to come back. Even if they wish to have two foals and do not want to use another donor.”

Shadow was a bit uncomfortable sitting there with his sister discussing conception. They had never been taught all this medical and biological stuff about conception and pregnancy. They had stages and charts for everything, including a sheet on what the foal would look like and have grown at the end of each week.

“Are you okay?” Early Blossom asked Shadow.

“I can drop out of the sky, strait down from a hundred feet, but all this science behind pregnancy and birth...”

Cherry Tart started laughing. “I know. They take it so seriously in the city. Out on the farm, it will be nice to get back to reality, where what matters in right there in front of you and clear. When you can hear the cry of a newborn foal for miles. Such a sweet sound.”

“Where are you from?” Doctor Melody Song asked now very confused.

“The far side of the Northern Farming District,” Early Blossom replied.

“I am not familiar with that district. What doctors are out there?”

“Largest district in the Enclave,” Shadow said. “Head north all the way, and then a tad west. We are far out there and there are no doctors near us. Only healers. This is an expensive trip and they had to leave their farm, which can not take care of itself. A farm out there can not survive without help, including that of foals. The more hooves, the easier the work is the more we can produce and that means the more we can feed others. That is our duty.”

“Okay,” The Doctor said scratching her heard. “I guess we can skip coming back for routine check ups. How do you give birth?”

“At home, with help from others,” Early Blossom explained. “I helped give birth to Dream Catcher. Mom made me and Spice help, even though dad could not handle being in there.”

“Wait? Spice? Dream Catcher?”

“Oh, yeah,” Shadow chuckled. “Early Blossom is third, I am fourth, and then a few years later, Dream Cather came along. The Enclave doesn't care about the population limits where we are. We are that far out. So long as we provide sufficient enough food per farm, that is what matters. It is still growing out there as some families from the area set up a new farm every few years. Starting a new farm is a lot of work though and difficult to make it worth it.”

“I do not know if I am supposed to report this or what. You are already born, and this is your two's first. Right?”

“The Enclave knows,” Shadow added. “We had to get permission for my leave, which meant we had to talk talk to my superior, General Red River. And one of their head Doctors, Doctor Stitches, got us here today. They are out in the waiting room. Well, not the General. But a Wonderbolt Lieutenant who accompanied me here for this special leave. You may go speak with them.”

“I think I will,” The Doctor said slowly before stepping out.

“You got good at speaking,” Cherry Tart praised Shadow.

“I am smart,” Shadow chuckled. “No charisma, but I make up for it with my intelligence. We were worked hard and learned to out think problems and anticipate orders. We were top barracks for a reason.”

“And you were fourth,” Early Blossom reminded him.

Shadow shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. I care most about what we did and experienced as a unit. As friends.”

“I am still telling Dad,” Early Blossom stated. “And you need to write.”

“I will,” Shadow smiled. “As soon as I get to my next training, I will have the time. It was either work or sleeping, with some extended breaks before getting back to work. Specifically changing from day to night training.”

“How has your mini training been going?” Cherry Tart asked.

“Well… I can sit on our front porch and hit Black's house with a mortar, all on my own. Mortars are a meant to be a two pony weapon. One to both aim and shoot, one to tell them how to aim. It shoots up into an arch to come back down, not a straight line. A nice big explosive boom.”

“That is scary.” Early Blossom said nervously.

“Not as scary as a grenade. A hoof thrown explosive. But really, this is a lot of training above and beyond what I ever will need. Recon will never have the space to carry such a clunky, heavy weapon like a mortar into battle. And nopony else will need them. It is an old weapon that is still trained. In Basic, they gave us three rounds to try. That was all. It is pointless.”

“It is just scary thinking about the weapons you, they, have,” Early Blossom added.

“Always the worrier in the family,” Shadow replied. “They have had them for two hundred years and more. They have not had to turn them at anypony and won't have to. Besides, they need us, we don't need them. They are nothing to fear.”

“You are just letting all the nerves get to you,” Cherry Tart cooed.

“How can you be so calm?” Early Blossom asked.

“I am surprised I am not quaking in fear,” Cherry Tart replied. “This isn't normal, and its new and scary and we have no idea where we are and Shadow is here, no offense.”

“None taken,” Shadow said. “Its been odd with you two.”

“We want you here,” Early Blossom said quickly. “It really can't get any weirder, with or without you. And it would feel worse just having you leave. You are a special part this. All of this and our farm.”

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled.

“Okay,” Doctor Melody Song said coming back in. “Your chart and paperwork is updated. You can come here and have as many foals as you want. You might want to leave them all home. Coming in with two… it would complicate things around here. Even with the approval.”

“Good,” Early Blossom smiled. “Because we want more than two. Although I will probably be next. We can't use my brother then.”

“Yes,” The Doctor said concerning herself with the chart. “You will have to have another donor. We would catch that.”

“That definitely got weird,” Shadow said. “Crossed the weird line.” He chuckled. “Sorry, please go on.”

There wasn't much more to do. Shadow had to leave for the procedure, not that he even wanted to stay. Cheery Tart laughed at staying a few more days to have a pregnancy test. Doctor Stitches convinced her to stay the week it would take.

Shadow accessed his Enclave funds to help out. He wanted it to be successful, and if that meant them staying another week, then he was going to help however he could. He had never accessed his account and was shocked at the bits in it. They never thought to use it in New Heaven for his clothes. They didn't cost much, but it was the thought of not using his hard earned bits that bugged him.

It was lunch time when Shadow went to say his goodbyes.

“We made it in two days,” He said hugging them both. “So it won't take any time for us to make it back and continue my training.”

“Fuck it Filly Fooler,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said coming over. “I don't want to start today. Can you navigate back to the base?”

“Yes,” Shadow said. “I better be able to after the work you put into it.”

They chuckled.

“We leave at 0700. Breakfast will be 0630. Day off is yours, spend it wisely. I know I am not heading back to base yet and will dodge work if I can. Some days it sucks to be a Wonderbolt. When you get leave, pegasi still expect things.”

She took off, leaving them alone.

“The language,” Cherry Tart shivered.

“I know,” Shadow replied. “Kind of normal in the military. And she is on the civil end. One… Cardinal Spitfire and I were just put together as battle buddies, except we hated each other. We got smoked. Screaming all sorts of things while we did wing ups as punishment for our poor response. Turned out the to be the best thing for us. I try to keep my tongue from language like that…”

“We won't share that,” Cherry Tart said. “Your nickname, but not that. Buck is a really good pony. He has embraced us surprisingly well. Well past obligation and being Dad's married son. He will get a good laugh, and it is great that the name turned out to be so positive. And Black will too.”

Shadow just sighed with a smile on his face. “Some things I can not grow out of.”

“You will be well received once we tell them everything,” Early Blossom assured him.

Shadow got to spend a wonderful afternoon as the explored the city. Some of the buildings were so big and tall that the houses in their community could fit in them and still have room.

“I wish you could stay even for just an hour longer,” Early Blossom said as they finished dinner.

“I know,” Shadow admitted. “But I need a good night's sleep for the trip back. And if I navigate wrong, an extra hour will be nice to fix that.”

“Number four worrying about navigation?” Cherry Tart asked raising her eyebrow.

“Says the pony who couldn't find El Nino and ended up at our house she was so far off,” Shadow shot back. “The Lieutenant made sure we were really taught to always know where we are and how to get back where we came from.”

A pegasus cleared his throat. He was in an Enclave Peace Officer uniform. “You three need to come with us.”

“Fuck,” Shadow said. “Here is my military ID.”

“A good fake,” He said pocketing it.

“What for?” Early Blossom protested.

“Treason against the Grand Pegasus Enclave.”

“Don't fight it Blossom,” Shadow said. “Lets comply and get it cleared up.”

They were cuffed and put on a Enclave Chariot. It took them to the headquarters, which made Shadow's heart calm down.

“I would like to speak with the commanding officer,” Shadow said. “They can confirm my status.”

“Likely story. To the jail for now. Bringing in three mares Sergeant.”

“Is Doctor Stitches here?” Shadow asked. “I was in to see him about a medical emergency procedure this morning.”

Nothing was said and Shadow shook his head to the other two so they would not say anything.

“What happened?” Early Blossom asked when they were alone in the cell. She was shaking and Cherry Tart was holding her.

Shadow gave them the quick run down of pony vs pegasus.

“I never thought to tell you two. I never expected somepegasus would be this harsh. The officers did not come on their own. A report had to have been made while we ate dinner. Lets just sit back, and wait. Worse case, Lieutenant Marble Falls will find out in the morning.”

“I can't believe it,” Early Blossom stammered. “This is insane.”

“Part of what we live in,” Shadow sighed. “Distant part, but part. It serves its purpose well, and so does ours for what we need. When they clash… That is how General Red River got interested in me. When I checked in wrong to the training. And Cardinal Spitfire got wrapped up into it and that is how we started hating each other for first six weeks.”

“Come with me,” A pegasus came and opened the cell.

They followed him to the front of the holding cells.

“I guess we are flying back together,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said as they came around the corner.

“Duty called?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah. I didn't get any time off before I was tracked down and asked to come here.”

“General, they still...”

“I am a fucking Wonderbolt,” The Lieutenant growled. “I will have all of your heads. Sergeant Shadow Flare can kick all of your asses from where he is standing. I already showed you the orders.”

The General was unsure what to do.

“I swear. If have to call my commanding officer…”

The General cracked and had them released. Cherry Tart and Early Blossom thanked them. Shadow gave the General an evil stare and Lieutenant Marble Falls was silent, letting her face do all the talking.

Once they exited she spoke. “Bastards. If I had the time, I would track down who made the call about 'evil, treasonous pegasi who are impersonating an Enclave officer and plotting to take the Enclave down from within.'”

Shadow chuckled. “They took it that far?”

“Idiots. The one time they pay attention and it had to be you three. Thank goodness I was here. I would have been in a worse mood if I had to fly here, especially if it was in the morning.”

“I think we learned our lesson, for outside home,” Cherry Tart said relieved.

“I wish you didn't learn it so hard,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. She didn't even turn her head to look back at them.

“Alright Filly Fooler,” The Lieutenant said after a few deep breaths. “Let's escort them to their hotel and then head back. Ladies, the office has your clearance in case, for some horrible reason, it happens again. And I hated to, but I add Doctor Stitches and the Family Planning Clinic are attached to contact. Well, I only hated adding Doctor Stitches because he is so busy.”

The Lieutenant took off and Shadow took up the rear. They brought them all the way up to their hotel room and Lieutenant Marble Falls even checked the entire room she was so suspicious.

“We will be careful and not make any mistakes,” Early Blossom assured them.

“I know you will,” The Lieutenant replied. “Thank you. And thank you and all back home for all the work you do. I wish we lived in a world where it doesn't matter, but it has to matter. It got a lot of pegasi killed in the war because of it.”

“I should send the community a history textbook,” Shadow added.

“Textbook?” Early Blossom asked.

“Of course,” The Lieutenant said rolling her eyes.

Shadow laughed. “That has become a very typical response with everything for me.”

“And we never had a problem with whichever pegasus that came with you. I don't know his name. Everypegasus at Fort Wind knew your nickname and maybe your full name. But ladies, stay safe and stay yourselves. I really hope everything went as planned and you can get back home soon.”

“Thank you Lieutenant,” Cherry Tart said as she hugged Shadow.

“Always is an adventure with you,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said as they walked away. “Nothing is ever simple.”

“Comes with being recon?”

She chuckled. “No, it is just you. Just who you are. Yet you still wiggle out of everything.”



END OF BOOK 1: PART 3: HONOR

Chapter 18 - School

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Shadow walked into the Headquarters. General Red River had asked him to come. Shadow had been at the range with Lieutenant Marble Falls. It was no surprise. The day before they had officially tested him with everything and he passed easily. He was able to use the E.F.S. mod pretty well, despite it not being part of the ‘Heavy Weapons School.’

“Sergeant Shadow Flare come in,” General Red River greeted him. “My, you look good in that power armor. I didn't know Lieutenant Marble Falls had you change gear. You look like a whole different Stallion, in a good way. That backs how strong and unyielding you are.”

“Thank you Sir. I know, my size can be laughable.”

“It has it's advantages,” The General said. “Fast and agile. But I had you come here because your next training orders have come. I am to put you in the Aerial Combat School.”

“You had a slot open from the start, didn't you?” Shadow asked.

“Sharp and intelligent mind is also a plus,” General Red River added. “I was asked to wait until you passed your impromptu Heavy Weapons School. They are only a week in. Do you have training magazines for those weapons?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Good. You will stay in that armor and with those weapons for everything, unless specifically told not to be. I have no idea what armor and gear you will be getting for you upcoming mission, but that will be more than sufficiently cover all types and models.”

“The unit you are in will be back from training after dinner. You can have the rest of the afternoon off to move your personal items. I would eat early. I have no idea what they have been doing or if they plan on night activities.”

“Thank you Sir. And thank you for the advice, and thank you for allowing me that personal leave.”

General Red River chuckled. “I got a report that said it went great, and then in the morning the first one on my desk was a report of the whole incident. You are always a surprise. I thought I had seen everything, but you kept your head about you. That is what matters. And enough that the Lieutenant really trusts you to be able to handle yourself properly, even with crowd control.”

“Is the Aerial Combat School going to learn crowd control?” Shadow asked concerned.

“It is a new addition this cycle. First class to have it. Just a week, but better than nothing.”

“Wonderful Sir. Well, not that it needs to be required...”

“I know what you mean Sergeant. That is all. You may go.”

“One question if I may Sir?”

“Yes?”

“You said sergeant. The others I graduated with are private first class or specialist. Not even corporal for Deke.”

“That was Major Winters Breath's call. Something about needing higher access. I didn't ask.”

“Thank you for the clarification Sir.”

General Red River just silently nodded and Shadow left. He went to the barracks and found Master Wind inside, cleaning.

“Ah, Filly Fooler, I mean Shadow Flare.”

“It is okay Sir. Filly Fooler is still fine. Lieutenant Marble Falls only calls me Shadow Flare if it official. It is a good nickname, with a good story and a happy ending.”

“Prestigious ending.”

“I hope I have not made things terribly messy. Let me help you.”

“No, no,” Master Wind said. “You all kept it wonderfully cleaned like I taught you. I just like to do the final clean up and remember fond memories of the class that just graduated.”

“Well, I am here for my things. I am a late transfer to Aerial Combat School.”

“I figured you would end up there,” Master Wind smiled. “Good Luck.”

Shadow's things took no time at all to pack nicely. Master Wind just kept silently cleaning as if he wasn't there. Shadow took off and found himself back out to the flight decks. This time they were not at the recruit flight decks, but at the big one behind the Squad Barracks. The original Flight deck. It was bigger than all the recruit flight decks combined.

The Squad Barracks only housed instructors. Shadow had to find unit 41 where his new Squad was staying. It was just six beds with two toilets, two sinks and two showers. The back right bed was open, just like the other barracks.

Shadow looked around at the very neat and clean unit. Six beds expertly made, floor clean and there was no sign of a jumbled up locker that needed to be fixed before next inspection. Of course, there were only six single regular beds, unlike the smaller, bunk beds in Black Barracks. It looked cleaner and neater without bunk beds.

Shadow put his stuff away. Their lockers had a lot more space and there was a foot locker for armor. It was too small for Shadow's power armor. Shadow found an envelope with his name on it in his locker. When he opened it, several patches fell out with a small bag with a needle and thread. Sergeant Patches.

Shadow took his armor off and sewed the patches on. Everypony in his community knew how to sew. It was a vital skill. Shadow could hoof stitch his own clothes and his mother had him do it once as a final test. Still, his mother did most of the repairs as part of her chores.

Shadow put everything away and then put his armor on again. General Red River said to do everything in it. He was not going to be lax about it even with this 'free' time. He was heading out to the early dinner so it did matter.

Shadow showed his ID at the Squad Barrack's mess hall. They had served him before, but when he was a recruit. They were not paying attention since they did not have their full IDs yet.

“A lot of stuff to be wearing out here,” The cook said as he scooped food onto Shadow's tray.

“A lot of stuff happening for me,” Shadow smiled back.

He thanked him for his food and sat down to eat. Shadow was still getting used to sitting on a bench in the armor. He had only done it for lunch so far. That ended today.

After, Shadow watched the flight deck. Pegasi were coming and going. Usually in groups of six with the odd mix of four and five here or there.

“I don't even get an afternoon off?”

Shadow was pulled out of his thoughts and turned, smiling at Lieutenant Marble Falls.

“I guess not. It is like Equestria wants us together.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled. “Friends for sure. But it better not mean marriage because then we would have some problems.”

They chuckled and stood watching from the sidelines for a while.

“What unit are you in?”

“41 Falls.”

“That was my unit when I trained for the scouts. What spot?”

“Back right.”

“Front left. They beat the bunk beds, that is for sure. You will sleep better without somepegasus sleeping above or below you.”

“I assume that will be countered appropriately?”

“It won't be as hard as I pushed Black. You do not have to worry about learning and combining all these skills and techniques. Now it is about techniques that have to do with just Aerial Combat. Taking what you know, or should know, and tweaking it to make it better.”

“But, you have all your armor on, so I assume orders were to do everything in it?”

“Yep,” Shadow said. “Unless specifically ordered, power armor.”

“I do not know who is in 41, but you should not have any problem blending into their squad and flying with them. They do not have armor yet and won't get it for another week. Team building right now.”

“Great, I missed an important week.”

“Better than missing all of it, or coming in halfway into training.”

“True. Very true. I will see you around Falls. I think a nap is in order for me.”

Lieutenant Marble Falls just chuckled quietly as Shadow walked away.

In the Unit, He put his armor in between the bed and the wall and laid down. Next thing he knew there was a commotion at the door and the clock had been turned ahead an hour.

“Finally you arrived,” A pegasus said.

Shadow yawned as he sat up and turned to see his squadmates.

“Shadow Flare,” He said, turning to sit towards them.

“No way! Arrow Heart. I was in Blue. So was Dipper and Chocolate Rain.”

“And I am Sergeant Flags, here to change jobs. Just call me Flags. Our fifth disappeared on us at dinner. She is Cardinal Spitfire.”

Shadow sat there shocked. He shook his head finally.

“I forgot she was at this school. She was in Black with me. And my battle buddy.”

“That explains a lot,” Flags said. “That is why she was left without a teammate. But what took you so long?”

“Recon wanted me to be tested on some weapons,” Shadow said.

These were his new squadmates, he should be more open.

“Oh, and I had to make a five day trip for a family emergency in between.”

“Everything okay back home?” Arrow Heart asked.

“Now it is,” Shadow said. “Everything worked out well enough. I will have to wait for a letter to come to hear more, but it can only be good news.”

“Wonderful,” Flags said. “It can be tough to deal with family matters while serving. I missed my brother's wedding, but I got two weeks leave a month after to catch up. Duty first.”

“Shadow?” Cardinal Spitfire said softly from the door.

“There she is,” Flags said. “We turned around and you were gone.”

Cardinal Spitfire was nervous but trying to hide it. “They pulled me aside to let me know my teammate had arrived, but not who. Lieutenant Tuff didn't have the file yet.”

“But how? Why?” She asked Shadow softly. The confusion and pain was written in her eyes.

“Recon and a family emergency. Had to pass my weapons training first. But I made it.”

“You knew?” She asked hurt.

“No,” Shadow shook his head. “General Red River called me in earlier this afternoon to inform me of the change. This should be it until the end of school.”

Cardinal Spitfire laid down on her bed, the one next to his like before. Her mane was back up in its braids.

“So, family emergency?” She asked more like her normal self. “That is why your sister came?”

“Yep,” Shadow nodded. “Simple enough. It is done and over with and things can go on and will be better from it.”

“You used a lot of words but never actually said anything,” Cardinal Spitfire said annoyed.

“And that is how it will be for now,” Shadow replied.

“If you wont share it with me, then it was something very private,” Cardinal Spitfire said laying on her back. It hurt her obviously.

“Catch me up,” Shadow said trying to distract himself. “Thankfully it has just been a week, but I am at a major disadvantage.”

“Not too major,” Flags said. “Its been conditioning and team building. None of us have gear yet, so you won't have to go alone. And I am the only one behind on the conditioning.”

“Already got gear from the weapons training,” Shadow said. “They didn't want me to change since it was already drawn.”

“Well then,” Flags said trying to figure out what else to say.

“Oh, I know. I have been teamed with Arrow and given lead. That leaves Chocolate and Dipper together.”

“They wanted the most senior member to take official lead,” Cardinal Spitfire yawned. “We all will get plenty of time to lead though.”

“Sergeant Shadow Flare?” Tuff said coming in.

“Lieutenant Tuff,” Shadow said. “Good to see you again.”

The Lieutenant looked at the file and then back at Shadow Flare.

“Okay then,” He said walking out.

“Sergeant?” Flags looked at Shadow. “Didn't you just-”

“Graduate,” Shadow finished. “Blame my Major. He made that call. I also found that out a few hours ago. It makes no sense to me and the General only knew that was my assigned rank. It wasn't like I had some official presentation on my promotion.”

“Good to see you again?” Arrow said completely satisfied with his answer. She was peppy and full of energy.

“Umm… I don't want to say long story don't worry about it,” Shadow stated. “But I guess it isn't really long.”

Shadow told them about New Heaven and being saved by Lieutenant Marble Falls.

“You and the Lieutenant have become buddy buddy,” Cardinal Spitfire commented.

“Sort of,” Shadow chuckled. “Equestria wants us to be friends, I think. I got an early dinner and was watching the flight deck when we ran into each other again. Neither of us can seem to shake the other outside of training. And if Lieutenant Tuff is teaching us, she will be nearby.”

“Why do you say that?” Flags asked.

“They are in the same squad,” Shadow said laying down.

“Why do I have a feeling you know more than we do,” Dipper said.

“I am starting to think I do too,” Shadow chuckled. “And I know they are purposefully keeping me in the dark. What time does everypony have to up?”

That started a whole other discussion. It reminded Shadow about the end of the first day of Basic when a very angry Cardinal Spitfire ended up explaining and defending his speech. At least this time she wasn't directly angry at him. Hurt and confused, but not angry.

“I do not know how Lieutenant Tuff will take that,” Flags said.

“As far as I know, the order still stands,” Shadow answered. “I can use pegasus and had to while traveling on the family emergency trip. But if I am not paying attention, it comes back. It is hard to change such a simple word. One that, for my life, growing up was a staple. You can reverse it and find out yourselves how difficult it would be to switch to pony.”

“Fair,” Flags said. “Very fair. But this all started with sleep. 0700 in front of our Unit for PT and then breakfast.”

“That is early,” Shadow said. “Its been 0900 at the range for me. A good flight away, but 0900.”

They were all shocked and envious.

“I look forward to 0700 and real PT,” Shadow said getting up to use the restroom before the lights were turned out.

“That is more like it,” Flags clapped.

Shadow settled into bed. Sleep didn't find him right away. The next bed over, Cardinal Spitfire was asleep. She wasn't herself. She was quieter. Unsure. Sad. Grief would be a better term. The last time they had really talked was before graduations, as he ran, afraid of what his orders meant. She had not only been by his side as a friend, but finished with a kiss on his cheek before running away.

Every time they spoke after that, it was with their friends or other ponies around. He didn't confess his love to her in her photo book. He expressed how it felt to have her as a friend and how much he valued it, along with how special she was as an individual. It was meant to forever be a reminder to her whenever things got tough. Shadow had no idea if she had picked up any of his feelings for her going farther than just really good friends.

Shadow was the last out of bed in the morning.

“And you had the lightest week,” Arrow poked at him.

Shadow chuckled and put his armor on, piece by piece.

“Okay, maybe not that light,” Arrow corrected.

“It isn't as heavy as it looks,” Shadow said. “No joke. It is light and I can fly easily.”

“But you are going to wear it?” Flags asked concerned.

“Orders,” Shadow smiled. “Things are really just beginning for me. And I have no actual goal. My superior is keeping me blind. It is how it is.”

“He says that a lot,” Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “One of his catch phrases. It will get annoying as hell and we should openly mocked him for it.”

Shadow chuckled. “I deserved it.”

They formed up in a single line, based on your bed's location in the unit. They were in their primary formation. Shadow was at the left tip, Cardinal Spitfire next to him.

Lieutenant Tuff dropped out of the sky. Cardinal Spitfire jumped.

“You are going to have to get used it sometime Specialist Cardinal Spitfire,” Lieutenant Tuff said. “And if you want to make it into the Wonderbolt, you will have to get very used to doing it.”

The Lieutenant’s voice showed a general disapproval. The Lieutenant looked at Shadow in his armor. “I should have spoken to Falls. Mark 1 Power Armor?”

“Mark 4,” Shadow replied. “With a GPER 76-2 Delta and EMG 55-6 Delta. Her picks.”

“E.F.S. qualified?”

“No Sir. I did some good training, but not required for my impromptu Heavy Weapons School. I never was tested on it directly.”

“I wonder what she was thinking,” Lieutenant Tuff said.

“Get me to pass the weapons test,” Shadow clarified. “That was it. After was an unknown.”

“Watch out for his tail,” Lieutenant Tuff stated. “It is sharp. You will get your own later.”

“Sharp?” Chocolate asked concerned.

“Are you afraid of a tail?” The Lieutenant asked.

“No. No Sir. Surprised Sir.”

“Lets get some laps in. Sergeant Shadow Flare, its in formation. I see you know your position. We will make sure everypegasus is trained at all positions including lead. However, real squads require the lead to be at least a Second Lieutenant which means officer school. Now everypegasus go!”

Flag led them to the flight deck and then into the standard trot to flight start. They looped back over the flight deck where they began their laps. After twenty laps, they were given a hundred wing ups to do before breakfast.

Shadow sat down with his tray at the end of the table and promptly slipped off. Everypony looked at the loud crash. Cardinal Spitfire was able to save his tray.

“I am done sitting down in this,” Shadow said splayed out on the floor. “Whoever cleaned this floor, it smells nice. Like lemons. Not a lot of lemons are grown. They did a good job with the synthetic smell.”

Deep laughter from the other side of the mess hall suddenly rang out. “Nice job Filly Fooler. Learn how to sit like a proper filly!”

“Yes Lieutenant,” Shadow called back as he stood up.

Shadow looked at the bench for a few second and then sat down again. He had no sign of trouble this time.

“That was the first time. I swear,” Shadow laughed.

“You have to roll with Filly Fooler,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “Things just happen, so just laugh.”

They lined up outside when they finished. The Lieutenant had weights tied together and laid out for them.

“Individual conditioning,” He said. “Drape the weights around your necks and then your job is to fly up to the green flag, where you will balance them on your wings and glide. When you drop them, start again. You have to make it to the other green flag. Power armor, your get two.”

They all took their weights and flew up. Everypony touched down on the cloud except Shadow.

“Afraid?” Dipper asked.

“Filly Fooler is an acrobat,” Cardinal Spitfire said not looking. “He has something cooked up.”

“Something to try at least,” Shadow said. “Never done anything close to this, ever.”

Shadow dipped his neck and then popped it up. The weights came up as planned. Only one landed on his wing, another smashed into it and the other two went nowhere and slammed him into the cloud.

Cardinal Spitfire gave a short chuckle and then jumped. She lasted a whole second before her wings collapsed

Shadow was back up and standing. He stood this time when he flipped them up. With their balance learned, they landed one on top of the other. Shadow locked his wings tight and then did a short hop off the cloud.

His wings felt like they were on fire. His eyes were getting watery and his vision reduced to blurs. He could make out the flight deck and the target flag by their shape and color.

Shadow's wings give out with a large grunt. He pulled his wings in for a second and then unfurled them, catching the weights evenly around his neck. He glided back up and around, right in front of the Lieutenant.

“Nice job,” Arrow said to Shadow. “Halfway.”

“Thanks,” Shadow replied.

Cardinal Spitfire launched.

“COME ON CARDINAL! HOLD!” Shadow yelled.

She was shaking and on the verge of a wobble. She held out another second before dropping.

“Team spirit,” Flags awed. “Forgot what that is like.”

“Well I will make sure you are reminded,” Shadow said giving it another go.

He adjusted the pitch to a more forward angle. Two degrees made a big difference while flying normally. Here, it shifted the weight and locked his wings in nice and tight. He glided smoothly and with little difficulty to the target flag.

“Luck,” Lieutenant Tuff said. “Do it again.”

“You never said to stop sir, only make it to the flag with each glide,” Shadow replied as he effortlessly glided back up to the flag.

The others had launched and he watched as they each collapsed. Nopony made it halfway. Shadow flapped up a bit before he tossed the weights and locked his wings in the same position. He glided to the flag again.

Shadow landed next to an annoyed Lieutenant Tuff. “Sir, my orders were to wear this armor at all times unless instructed otherwise. Permission to do the exercise without the armor. I am wearing a flight suit underneath.”

“Yes. That armor is giving you the heavy advantage.”

Shadow ditched the armor and left it with the care of the Lieutenant. He flew up, carrying both weights.

Cardinal Spitfire was shaking from the stress. “Please tell me you figured this out.”

“Yeah,” Shadow smiled. “But I had to ask permission to ditch the power armor because of my orders. Let’s test. If I am right…”

Shadow said nothing more. He jumped up, catching the weights which locked his wings in the same position and began to glide. He felt the extra weight this time. A lot more. But he was able to hold it and glide past the flag.

“Damn it Filly Fooler!”

Shadow landed next to both of the Lieutenants.

“Sorry Tuff. I didn't mean to get in your way. It is your squad. I should have sufficiently warned you ahead of time about his knack of getting into situations and somehow figuring ways out of situations easily. Just like this.”

The Lieutenant just grunted.

“What did you do?” Lieutenant Marble Falls asked. “We ran this exercise a few weeks back. I hate it. I am a stronger, better flier and you make it look easy.”

“Pitch forward two degrees,” Shadow said showing her the position. He tossed the weights on and let her look. “It isn't easy. It is a lot of weight. But the position is optimal for locking the wings in. The weights keep them in and your flying muscled can focus on just holding up the weights.”

“Damn you to the wasteland and back,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said walking away.

Shadow flew up and set up again. Cardinal Spitfire hadn't tried again, But she was shaking less. With Shadow's instructions, they were all gliding much better. Cardinal Spitfire barely made it before she dropped the weights. Flags got close and Arrow was slightly behind him. Dipper and Chocolate made it halfway for the first time before the weight was just too much.

Shadow just kept gliding down and flying back up. By the time they were called back, Dipper and Chocolate were the only ones who had not made it. Their performance had significantly improved each time they tried.

“You are explaining Filly Fooler as soon as lunch hits,” Flag stated quietly.

“Of course,” Shadow replied.

They were called back and quietly formed up in front of the Lieutenant. His back was to them and he was with another pegasus. They stood by, waiting. What was being discussed, they could not hear.

“Squad! Break!” Tuff said, suddenly walking off with the other.

“Filly Fooler story,” Flags immediately said.

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire began to tell the tale from day two until graduation. They others laughed and Shadow's nickname was sealed again. At least with them.

“It is really quiet,” Shadow said as they finished the story. He looked around. There were no teams in the sky and plenty were sitting around. No instructors were to be seen. Aerial Combat School required few others outside their squad's instructor, but it was too quiet.

The doors burst open and Lieutenant Tuff dashed out, taking to the sky.

“TUFF! GET BACK HERE!” Lieutenant Marble Falls called.

“I'll go Falls,” A stallion said. “But he won't-”

“I know,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said hurriedly. “Go. I can't get through to him. He won't let me. Anypegasus else can go. I can handle things.”

“There are a lot of squads,” A mare stated.

Lieutenant Marble Falls chuckled sadly. “I deal with more while I train the recruits. And they are bad fliers when they come in.”

The others took off after Lieutenant Tuff.

“Everypony gather around,” Lieutenant Marble Falls order. “DAMN IT FILLY FOOLER! No punishment this time, just everypegasus gather around.”

“A year ago, my squad had an accident while training. A collision. That is why we focus on spin outs so much. Recovery from anything. Our Squad's Captain took the brunt of the collision. He has been in the hospital since. He had started rehab and was doing well, but he just unexpectedly retired.”

“The Lieutenant blames himself,” Shadow said quietly.

“Filly Fooler is right,” Lieutenant Marble Falls said. “A lot happened fast. It is one of two times I can say, I have no idea what happed because that is how hard and fast the shit hit the fan. I blacked out for a few seconds and had to recover from a bad position. I was able to nab our Captain who had not recovered and was out cold.”

“We all were grounded for a month and spent at least two weeks in the hospital. It shook up all flight squads and instructors. A lot saw it happen and even more saw the immediate results.”

The Lieutenant mood dropped. “Now with the Captain retiring, he put his wingpegasus in charge, promoting me to Captain. We knew I would be promoted when he eventually retired, but that is a sad promotion and it hits the whole squad hard. The Lieutenant will make it. Like any spin out he will get back in control and come back in to land safely.”

“The Lieutenant also just backed out of teaching. Understandable, but sudden. He needs some good rest. I think we pushed him too far.”

“You did your best,” Shadow assured her.

“Thanks Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls smiled at him. “It is impossible to stay sad too long with you clanging around like a giant magnet of trouble.”

Shadow laughed along with her. She stopped and just continued to stare at the ground.

“Captain?” Shadow asked after minute.

“Lieutenant?” He asked again.

“Falls?” Shadow tried.

“Falls? Right. Sorry recruits.”

After waiting another minute Shadow spoke up. “Perhaps we should go roll out with the Barrack recruits? I saw they are here.”

“Damn it Filly Fooler,” She said. “Go tell Lieutenant Razzleberry. On Filly Fooler's lead. I really need the day off.”

Shadow shot straight up and then began to order them into an organized loop before forming up behind him. 41 was without him for now, but they were used to not having him. All squads stayed back as Shadow Flare flew in close to approach Lieutenant Razzleberry on his hooves.

“What is going on?” The Lieutenant asked meeting Shadow halfway.

“Sergeant Shadow Flare, Sir. The Captain retired out of the blue, and Lieutenant Marble Falls was promoted. They all broke down and apart. We are supposed to come to you and your recruits for the day while they recover.”

“You suggested this I assume?” He asked.

“I had a plan when she had none,” Shadow replied. “She could handle all of us normally without a problem. And she was personally training me for special assignment over the last week by orders. I got to know her well enough-”

“Understood Sergeant. How many teams?”

“All 14 Sir,” Shadow said.

“It was a really bad collision,” Lieutenant Razzleberry stated. “Put three squads at each Barracks, except for Black. Put the squad you are in and another squad with Black. Tell each commander what you told me and that I said to use them to help train the recruits. It is day one for us.”

“Yes Sir,” Shadow said turning back to give orders.

Shadow just pointed to three teams and led the others on.

“Flag, take 41 and the squad off your left to Black,” Shadow ordered. “I will be right back.”

“Yes Sergeant!” Flag said. Both squads broke off perfectly.

Like at Blue, Shadow just picked three squads, explained the full situation, and then moved on. Every commander was understanding. It was really obvious they too had been shaken up by the collision. Green was commanded by a Captain, not a Lieutenant. She was happy to have willing wings take the Green Barrack's recruits under their wing.

Shadow landed at black and explained the situation to their new lieutenant, Lieutenant Glitter. Her voice was soft and kind, but Shadow knew it was hiding something.

“Well Sergeant, it is a difficult situation we are all in. You wings will be put to good use. I could really use you and Cardinal Spitfire. I know the others are great fliers, but two Blacks from the last batch of recruit, when you all did so well. That will be a moral booster.”

“Lieutenant Razzleberry sent my squad personally to you,” Shadow said. “The others were randomly chosen by my wing.”

“He always has it out for Black, but he is playing fair and what is best for the recruits. One less squad of helpers, but I have One and Four from last recruit cycle and they are both from Black. That more than cover one less squad by moral alone.”

“Half of Squad 41 is Blues,” Shadow stated.

The Lieutenant shrugged. “Your reputations matter more. The others made it from Basic which means they are good and teachable as well. Lets roll out.”

Lieutenant Glitter waved them all over. “How many are you straight from Basic? Great, just you five. There goes that idea.”

“Lets get the recruits into the Air running laps,” Carding Spitfire suggested.

“Right,” Lieutenant Glitter agreed.

She got them into the sky doing laps by their partner's side.

“Sorry,” She said coming back. “They only got in ten minutes before you showed up. I was still introducing them to the training schedule. Shit! I never did get to teaching them safety on the flight deck.”

“Leave it and lets game plan,” Cardinal Spitfire said keeping them engaged. “All of us! Come one! Together we are more and smarter.”

That was more of the Cardinal Spitfire Shadow was used to. The other squad with them was Squad 15, all seasoned light troopers.

“Training, training,” Arrow said getting her mind moving.

“GEAR! Filly Fooler! Shadow!” Cardinal Spitfire exclaimed a minute later. “We do not have gear. They do. But they have us. Lets get them familiar with the proper team forms and use all of us to help them adjust to flying with gear on, from the very start!” She was hopping with excitement

Lieutenant Glitter smiled. “Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire? Can you two put on a demonstration? I know how you two fly together from helping out around here.”

“Definitely,” Cardinal Spitfire grinned. “Lets get this rolling! Good brainstorm everypegasus!”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire stayed on the deck while the others helped teach the recruits proper formation. It wasn't long before they were working well together. As they flew, they also taught them the flight deck safety, signals and rules. After that, they landed and formed up on the side.

“Recruits, I have two special soldiers for you to meet. Every single one of our helpers today are in Aerial Combat School for a reason. They are all very talented fliers, some of the best in the whole Enclave. They are training for a very difficult roll in the Enclave military.”

“But what makes these two special is… well this is Cardinal Spitfire. She was first in her class, LAST cycle. Both are from the class before you. I did not teach them aerial combat, but I helped out in ways they didn't know I did. And the second is Shadow Flare. He placed fourth last cycle. They were battle buddies and an amazing flying team. Arguably the best Fort Wind has every seen.”

“Best of all,” Cardinal Spitfire said taking over and beginning to walk in front of the recruits. “We both were from Black Barracks. We might have placed high personally, but we both can attest to how much teamwork and selflessness made Black the best barracks. Helping each other to shoot, fly, nav, LEAD, and think together to overcome every obstacle.”

Shadow wasn't going to let her have all the fun. “We will show you some of the awesome stuff we learned on this very flight deck. That way you can really picture what a two pegasus team looks like before transferring it to a squad. Our Squad would go on to easily dominate the sky the rest of training, but that will be for battle formations later. Ready?”

Cardinal Spitfire nodded and Shadow walked up on her wing. They made a quick trot together and began to fly, letting loose into the freedom. Cardinal Spitfire had to make sure they stayed within sight. It would have been very easy for her to lead them out of sight as she put them through a marvelous performance.

They came back around and turned on their side so they all could watch Shadow switch to lead. He put them into multiple rolls, twists and separated them into a mirror formation before coming back together as if they had never split. It was all easy things and without great speed.

“They look so young,” Shadow said as they came in to land.

“I can't believe that was us several weeks back.”

Shadow didn't have time to respond. He had the recruits in front of them.

“Armor, NOW!” Shadow ordered.

The recruits rushed to throw it on and then line back up.

“You better be familiar with wearing your armor and gear by now,” Shadow instructed. “They do make flying a bit uneven to start. But I know you, I was you not long ago. Black Barracks can handle the adjustment. When I took lead, I hope were able to see to see the optimal position for the wingpegasus. Out of the way of the gun and it's hot cartridges so you do not get blinded, but still close it to make a smaller target.”

Shadow showed off his armor a bit. “And if I can learn to fly in this, you can learn to fly in your gear.”

“What are you wearing Sir?”

“I am learning Aerial Combat right now for work on special assignment with a future reconnaissance team. This is a special type of armor is called power armor. Some of you might get trained on a type of power armor. It works with my body to protect me, in different ways, but the same idea as the plates you have on. It is a giant metal suit. Strong, lightweight, and protective. This one is designed to protect for specific close air support missions and other things for aerial teams like Aerial Combat Squads and Scouts. Honestly, my special instructor last week told me to wear it. You now know what I know.”

The recruits laughed.

“So you carry two rifles?”

“Currently, yes,” Shadow answered lifting his wings to give them the full view. “Those are training mags in my rifles. Two rifles. Makes sense. If you can put on one, then you can put another one on the other side. Or just one on the opposite side. The mission and your future job will dictate weapons, and for me, that means I am learning to carry two. The big advantage is that this gives me two different guns. Every advantage is an advantage.”

Cardinal Spitfire seamlessly took over. “We are here to give you a huge advantage. Learning how to fly with your combat gear at the start of day one will only make you better, stronger and more agile fliers. You will excel more over the rest of training. Blue isn't on gear yet but they will be soon. Blue and Black are big rivals during aerial combat training. So lets get you flying! Start with laps, in the two pegasus formation. We will come alongside you and guide you.”

The recruits took off and then the squads soon followed to begin instruction.

“I am impressed,” Lieutenant Glitter declared. “This is my first go at leading a barracks in aerial combat. I am so glad you two are here. You just finished up with the best aerial combat instructors we have.”

“She also is the one who trapped me in this,” Shadow chuckled. “We are just following what she did to us. You have been watching barracks learn. Put it all in a basket and use those techniques and tactics to shape your recruits. Like kick starting armor by just ordering 'Armor. Go.'”

“I see a wobbling team,” Cardinal Spitfire said taking off.

“You two are a special pair,” Lieutenant Glitter commented. “The way you read and work together in the air and together talking to the recruits was fluid and instinctual. I know it is matched on the ground. Life?”

Shadow felt his cheeks get slightly warmer. “Life is training. I am going recon and am getting brief training orders. I have no idea where I will be next week. I could be pulled out of the school. And she is bucking for a Wonderbolt. No time.”

“You two have chemistry,” The Lieutenant pressed. “I know you are paired tightly again for training and you can't mess that up, but don't let those different future paths dictate everything. At some point, training stops and you settle into a nice routine before they inevitably transfer you and you have to settle back into a new routine. And eventually, you retire. Which means you will want somepegasus as your special one. Plenty of families have both parents as active duty soldiers. It does work. Often.”

“They are going down,” Shadow said bolting after a failing squad. “THANKS!”

Shadow got them to compensate and then form up on his wing positions while they made several passes finally figuring out the tricks on their own. Shadow shifted to another team already with a Squad 15 member. Together, they gave them the one on one training needed. Shadow didn't realize the adaptation and teamwork their Barrack's did until he was side by side with these recruits.

Their yellow flag was up and Shadow saw it was him Lieutenant Glitter wanted. He landed next to her and another pegasus in a plain soldier uniform.

“Are you Sergeant Shadow Flare?” The soldier asked. His stripes were those of a First Sergeant.

“Yes Sir. What can I do for you?”

“I have orders for you,” He said extending the envelop.

Shadow took it and opened it. This time it was on official paper.




Leadership training begins now. As of now, you are Acting Captain over the Aerial Combat School. The next three days are on your shoulders Acting Captain Shadow Flare.




General Red River




Shadow shook his head and read it again.

“DAMN IT FALLS!” He yelled, reversing things.

He handed the orders to the Lieutenant, unable to find the rest of his voice yet.

“Interesting that he thinks you are ready,” Lieutenant Glitter said intrigued. “I mean-”

“I know what you mean,” Shadow said politely cutting her off. “I am not and he knows that. But I was aware they wanted me to show more leadership and take every opportunity they can to push me. I spent the week after graduation doing a personal, condensed Heavy Weapons School. They are aggressively taking every opportunity they can.”

“Do you have any orders for me Sir?” The Soldier asked.

“Give me a minute First Sergeant. I need a flight to clear my head and take this in. Then I should have orders.”

“I will stand by. But Sir, your coms can now reach dispatch and they will pass anything on that isn't high security.”

“Wonderful,” Shadow said saluting him. “Thank you Sir.”

Shadow took off and came up behind Cardinal Spitfire who was leading two recruits in personal training. There was no way she didn't see him so he tilted back and forth three times. She responded with a quick flutter.

Shadow pulled away from the group. Cardinal Spitfire joined him a few minutes later. She let Shadow lead them through five minutes of aerial acrobatics before he slowed down drastically and she pulled up alongside him.

“What is up?” She asked.

“New orders,” Shadow replied. “For leadership training.”

“Already?” She asked shocked. “You haven't even been here a day!”

“I am not leaving,” Shadow stated, passing the orders to her. The had come to a full stop in the air.

“They...” She stuttered. “They are really throwing you into anything they can do. What are you going to do?”

“I have no idea what to do,” Shadow replied. “That is why I pulled you out here.”

“Why is leadership so important that they want you to do this insanity so early?”

“All I know is that everypony else in the recon team I am in is specialized in something. I have the job of being the 'most soldierly' of the group and second will fall on my shoulder.”

“Second? You all are fresh troops then.”

“Not from what little I got. This is all highly classified. No talking about this, ever. I am the greenest soldier forming up on this team.”

“Okay, so second the first time you head down, you can deal with that. At least the others will know what they are getting into.”

“Not from what I understand. Captain Nova did a great job for soldiers, but not recon. I was informed of a few secrets that we will have that counter his training. After his catastrophic mission, all scouts were grounded and there was no recon teams left. They have been working hard to overcome all the mistakes they made. Deadly mistakes.”

“Captain Nova had over twenty successful missions, the final was not his fault at all. He still took a mental beating from it like Lieutenant Tuff. Captain Nova is one of two surviving pegasi who went below that are still in the military. And I got the feeling that few of them had the chance to retire.”

“Who is the other?”

“Classified beyond what I need to tell you to solve this immediate problem. I am only telling you this little because I need help sorting this out. Pure necessity.”

“Together, we will do this,” She smiled and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Think about our training. By the time we enter the final test, we all were familiar with leading 8 squads. What is that command wise? At least the ranks of Captain. You led us to a very successful mission on your own, which included battle. You can do this.”

“You are right,” Shadow said take a deep breath. “Play?”

Cardinal Spitfire looked at the recruits and squads.

“What do you see?”

“Recruits from each barracks being hoof trained in formations by experienced soldiers.”

Shadow smiled. “The Blue and Black recruits are already flying in gear and the squads helping are not. I can't see the other Barracks, but there is a good chance all are in gear, including Red.”

“Play?” Cardinal Spitfire asked him.

“Inform the squads and instructors of the development. Inform the quartermaster office all 14 squads will be coming late, after dinner, for an unscheduled gear pick up after new developments. Gather the squads in the mess hall after gear is drawn and directly talk to them about my goals for the next few days.”

“Brainstorm with them, but I think I have it. Solid morning PT, Breakfast, make sure the recruits get a amazing updraft and then skills in the evening.”

Shadow smiled at Cardinal Spitfire. His 'I know before you know' smile. “I know you have to have noticed the difference between the Black Barracks and how much we learned on our own. But I found myself learning a whole lot by teaching. Having to explain why.”

Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes indicating he was right.

“Family?” Cardinal Spitfire asked since they were alone.

Shadow shook his head.

“I will inform Black last,” Shadow said dropping into a dive and then opening his wings to carry himself to the other flight decks. When he got back to Black, they were on break. Shadow approached his squads.

“Alright. 41 knows some of what is going on, but new developments. 15, I am a recon soldier and here for further training. I was randomly tossed into this armor and rifles and am not allowed to take it off. Recon already had me spend over a week intensely learning advanced weapons before I came here, a week late.”

“I wish I knew more of their plans. I found out yesterday afternoon of my transfer to this School. They had a slot secretly held for me, but it would have been closed if I failed my weapons test.”

Shadow pulled out the envelope. “New orders for me are leadership training. Acting Captain over the Aerial Combat School Units for the next three days. I assume they have grounded everypegasus for recovery. I feel like a colt again, when my father literally kicked me off a cloud to learn to fly. And he is a hearty farmer, it wasn't gentle.”

Cardinal Spitfire snorted a laugh.

“It is okay to laugh at my weird raising on the edge of the Enclave,” Shadow chuckled before continuing.

“I have learned the importance of working together as a team, even while leading in Basic. I take questions. I take suggestions. I take them to make sure the group succeeds because that is what matters most. While training combat, that meant that no mater who was leading, my barracks took significantly less casualties and took objectives twice as fast as any other barrack.”

“Today, we will work here until dinner, eat and then draw the appropriate gear for Aerial Combat School. There will be a meeting after in the Squad Barrack's mess hall.”

“My planned schedule for the next three days is 0700, in gear, at the flight deck for morning PT. Breakfast, and by 0900 at the latest, back to the flight decks to assist in training recruits under the Lieutenant you are working with today. Then after dinner, working on skills before bed.”

“I hope that by the end of the day, you will see how much you have learned just by teaching these recruits. You know these flying techniques, and will become better masters of those techniques because of teaching them. I already am learning a lot more about flying in combat situations by being forced to think and explain things to them, not just do.”

“Do you know how to actually teach and lead Aerial Combat School?” One from 15 asked.

“I actually do know the tactics and can teach them to you. I can not teach the crowd control segment that has just been added to the program. Captain Marble Falls was our Barrack's aerial combat instructor and taught us how actual aerial combat is supposed to be. She also was my advanced weapons trainer.”

Shadow continue. “Aerial Combat isn't all in the sky. Yes, a very important part of combat is air superiority and providing close air support. But real aerial combat is landing first to secure the drop zone, or be the first to create a new, advanced front, take a building or something behind enemy lines. It is the regular soldier's job to hold the lines the aerial combat teams set up. You will clear the way for them to safely land and bring in the big guns and do the heavy lifting.”

“I successfully led all 8 of our squads in our final test, which was only a few weeks back. I led complex maneuvers and went on to successfully take three objectives, heavily reliant on aerial combat and skills we learned in training.”

I know, I am not seasoned like most of you are. But I have the small advantage of coming right from intensive training and the tactics of leading squads are fresh in my mind. I paid attention to how my instructors were teaching us. Had to pay attention if you were going to survive out where my family's farm is.”

“What missions did you run?” Arrow asked.

Shadow smiled. “I led the strike team to assassinate Yellow's only commander, Crystal Bliss. After, it was a hide mission, which ended with orders to eradicate Blue and Green since both barracks didn't find us and were right there for us to strike at.”

“Damn it!” Arrow swore. “That mission was horrible and embarrassing to us. Pathetic you were able to avoid us and flip the tables. That took skill.”

Shadow chuckled. “Any other questions before we get back to helping out?”

There were none and they got everything going again. Lunch was late for them all. 41 and 15 ate in the mess hall. No field rations for them. Shadow took some breaks to think and plan for the next few days. How he conducted everything mattered, but he was putting his chips on his time training them in the morning and evening.

Shadow was back in the air when two teams collided and began to fall. Squads dove to catch them.”

“DON'T!” Shadow ordered them. “Be ready to assist but let them try and recover. Failure is the best teacher.”

Three recovered and only one had to be scooped out of the air. The others teams were kept in the sky like nothing happened as the officers dealt with the collision.

“Tough call Captain,” Lieutenant Glitter said as they approached the injured. “The right call that I would have missed. But lets turn attention to their injuries.”

Medics landed a minute later.

“Bumps and bruises, and she might have a broken wing,” A medic said. “All are coming in for rest and further evaluation. We will keep you posted Lieutenant.”

“Thank you. First time leading and a collision,” Lieutenant Glitter sighed.

“We collided all the time,” Shadow informed her. “Spin outs included. But we never hit like they did. Surprising now that I think about it. Narrow track at high speeds. They will come out of this better off. Even if it is a broken wing.”

“What if my wing is broken?” She asked scared as they secured her to the stretcher.

“Then you will heal up and be put in the next cycle,” The Lieutenant said.

She started shaking.

“It's okay,” Shadow cooed. “I almost drowned when my instructor put us under extreme weather. If it wasn't for my teammate… I just dropped out of the sky unconscious. You will walk out of this, armed with a new experience and valuable lesson under your hooves and be a better flier. So long as you believe and take confidence. Minor mishaps happen, you can't let them get to you. All of you.”

The medics took them off to be treated.

“I remember that day Captain,” Lieutenant Glitter said as they watched the medics take them away. “I didn't realize it was you, but it was the talk of the Squad Barracks. Lieutenant Marble Falls almost drowning her recruits.”

“If she teaches again, she wont let up even a drop,” Shadow chuckled. “All other teams stayed airborne and continued as normal. Same goes to you. Don't hesitate from a single thing that happen which you can not control. You can not control everything and this was very minor. Push, don't baby. Soft, yet firm.”

“You may have just graduated, but you are wise,” She replied.

“Nah,” Shadow said waving the compliment off with his wing. “I just learned a lot from home and all the work. And I watched and learned from all of my teachers here. That is where I am wise, but that wisdom was taught as I grew up. Otherwise, it isn't something that I have discovered, just learned.”

“I do not know the others at all, by Acting Captain fits you.”

Shadow just shrugged. “I can not agree or disagree. It is not something I can judge.”

“Officer School will be next. It is better to train a soldier in one run and then assign them to a unit, rather than break it up and often be forced to assign them to a whole new unit.”

“We will see,” Shadow replied. “I don't even recall how long Aerial Combat School is.”

Lieutenant Glitter giggled. “Ten Weeks total Captain.”

“It may be eleven with the addition of crowd control.”

“They are adding it to even Aerial Combat School?”

“I won't be surprised if a two if a two or three week segment is added to Basic,” Shadow sighed. “I ended up once in basic and then last week with Lieutenant Marble Falls being thrown into helping. Just bodies, but present. Sad. But I should get to helping.”

Cardinal Spitfire pulled right up besides them, ending the discussions. “We need to switch this up. They are handling it fine. Past day two for us.”

“Play?”

“Other direction and switch wing sides.”

Shadow nodded and got them all changed up.

“Smart move again,” Lieutenant Glitter said as they watched them make the adjustments.

“That would all be my teammate, Cardinal Spitfire,” Shadow said. “Take the time to listen, take suggests and and do your best to answer questions. That is how we pulled together and came out so prepared. Thanks to the Lieutenant, well Captain.”

“How many Wonderbolt are stationed here?” Shadow followed up. “We left that question alone.”

“Three squads,” Lieutenant Glitter said. “Lead was their team. Part of their training is what you are teaching your squads. Explaining and teaching are great methods to perfect your own flying. But otherwise, I know nothing else about the Wonderbolts.”

“Glad to know I am getting one thing right,” Shadow said. “And thanks for the clarification.

“We both are helping each other,” Lieutenant Glitter replied. “Both fresh into new positions. Long or short. Adjusting your duty can be difficult. It was a good thing the Captain stepped away from teaching this cycle. In the end.”

“We wore her out,” Shadow chuckled. “She loved every minute of it, but we wore her out. Especially since she continued training us for the rest of Basic. Tomorrow, these recruits should be tossed onto a track and challenged.”

“Lets put our minds together and design it right now,” Lieutenant Glitter smiled. “Are you going to call your teammate in?”

“No,” Shadow pondered. “I think it is best for her to work with them. She is looking herself again. Separating from our Barracks hit us all hard. We got really close. We knew it would come, would do it again, but it hurt. Neither of us were expecting me to join the school, or expect they purposefully left a spot open, her teammate.”

By dinner, they had planned out 15 tracks of varying lengths and difficulty. The last one was a mean one and they were hoping the recruits would prove they deserved to try it. They looked capable of achieving it, which is the point of proper training.

Shadow grabbed a field ration from a box to eat while they planned. He needed to be at quartermaster's office first. He left the final instructions with each Lieutenant and headed over.

“Hello Captain,” He was greeted. “Things are prepared and ready for your squads.”

“Wonderful,” Shadow said. “I have a few questions about what exactly they are getting, but lets transfer the gear Lieutenant Marble Falls signed our for me to my name.”

The paperwork wasn't too long thankfully. The Aerial Combat School loaded out their trainees out in a similar manor to Shadow's set up. It was a medium weight plate armor with duel battle saddle. They used two GPER 55-6 Alpha rifles. Shadow had them add on 5 training magazines for each rifle. It was going to add weight, but be more realistic for combat. And it was the good training magazines, not the individual cased ones.

When all squads were armed, he headed back to begin the night's discussion.

“Okay,” Shadow said walking to the front. “We survived a very odd day one. The call for me to lead us out to train with the recruits was given purely because I had just ended training with the Captain less than 24 hours before, so I was fresh on her mind.”

“Can we see your orders? I let it run earlier since it was still following her orders.”

“Of course,” Shadow said giving them to him. “You can pass it around. Everypegasus on the same page only makes this better. This is free and open to talk.”

“Are you really this special?” Another one asked.

“No,” Shadow said shaking his head. His response stunned half of them. “But the recon assignment apparently is. I am kept blind, but I know they need me trained in certain areas. They have shown nothing but aggressive tactics to produce the outcome they want. Special advanced weapons training with no break after graduation, starting E.F.S. training, and I knew leadership training, but that was supposed to come from the school's regular program.”

“E.F.S.?”

“You may learn it here,” Shadow informed them. “It is a targeting program that is attached to the armor I am wearing, as well as other armors and combat systems. I never thought to ask if your combat gear is equipped with it.”

The door to the mess hall opened. It was just them, so the noise overpowered everything.

“Can I help you Lieutenant?” Shadow said, looking at Lieutenant Autumn leaf.

“I am to lead this for the next few days,” He said walking over to him. He was also wearing power armor. It was the first time Shadow had seen him in anything but an officer's uniform. It was not the same model as Shadow's power armor.

“Excuse me?” Shadow politely asked.

“Step down recruit. I am leading the Aerial Combat School,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf demanded.

“To start, it is Sergeant, and currently Acting Captain,” Shadow informed him. “I have orders and I can not, and will not, step down without new, proper orders.”

“You will if you know what is best for you,” The Lieutenant said getting in Shadow's face.

Shadow acted like he wasn't that close and kept his composure.

“Take it up with my Major,” Shadow replied.

“That is all you have to fucking say?” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf replied. “You are just a, pathetic recruit who doesn't even deserve that rank, let alone know what to do with it. I should physically show you where you belong!”

“You think you are safe? Your Major can not be reached and General Red River is overstepping his boundaries by placing you in command instead of me. It is a part of my assigned duties. I may be here, but I do know the recon team and plan.”

“Prove it,” Shadow scowled. “Because I am not stepping down without the proper orders from my chain of command. Who else is in the team?”

“That is classified,” Lieutenant Autumn Leaf deflected.

Shadow took a step in, resulting in them pushing their chests against each other. They continue to push, neither yielding.

“You don't know,” Shadow smiled as he pushed forward. “You don't know shit and you don't scare me. I now outrank you and you fear me. You have always feared me. I do not know why, but you see me as a threat.”

“LEAVE!” Shadow order as he shoved him back with another step forward. The Mark 4 was stronger than whatever the Lieutenant was wearing.

The Lieutenant walked away. “I will be back,” He said. “You will regret it.”

“Bring my Major or General Red River with you,” Shadow kindly said.

“You are a retard,” Cardinal Spitfire said when the Lieutenant was gone. “Have you forgotten what he did to us?”

“Pitted two struggling and scared recruits together in an attempt to make them fail, but instead creating what could be argued as the strongest team Fort Wind has ever seen?”

“You left out how much we hated each other,” She smiled. “But when you put it like that.”

“Always annoyed or angry at our barrack without reason, loved verbal abuse, attached to our barrack for no reason, forced his way to be with us during our aerial combat phase when he wasn't supposed to be there, let alone needed since he just stood there. Every day I wanted to push back and tell his vile mouth and arrogant attitude to learn some respect and humility.”

Shadow looked at everypony. “I know. I just put all my chips in the pot without seeing the other cards, only what is in my hooves. I am that confident they will hold.”

Shadow shook his head to clear it. “Now. Concerns? Mostly about me leading and the upcoming tasks.”

“Observation. You stayed with Black. You never checked in on Yellow.”

“Good observation,” Shadow smiled. “I did not check on my other squads or the Lieutenant they were put under temporarily. I will follow up periodically with at least somepegasus in a squad. 14 busy squads on field exercises. I will be around to check on them all. Was there are problems I should know about?”

Nopony had any.

“Can you go over the planned schedule again?”

“Yes. But first a question. Did any Barracks not fly in combat gear?”

Everypony was silent.

“Good. 0700 for PT. Form up at the flight deck in front of the Squad Barracks in your full gear. After a short PT, breakfast. We will be out with the recruits by 0900 at the latest. You will be in your gear so that you will be able to relate better to recruits as they fly. I know Black is starting on tracks. I am sure you will be able to continue teaching right alongside them while on the tracks.”

“Did Black have a collision? I was all the way down at Green.”

“Yes,” Shadow answered. “Two recruit teams bumped into each other, hard. Bruised and one injured wing. Three of them should be out in the morning with the rest of their barrack. I do not know the extent of the wing injury.”

“I never had a collision while in Basic,” He replied concerned.

“Cardinal Spitfire and I took so many slams and hits while training. All of Black did. Had to deal with spin outs all the time. Nothing head on or coming in from the side, but we got a lot of bruises.”

“Blue as well,” Arrow pipped up. “Really competitive and pushed hard. We just dealt with it. Our two injuries were not due to collisions.”

“The Captain face planted on a hot touchdown,” Cardinal Spitfire giggled. “Had to ice his eye the rest of the day or risk a bad black eye and being grounded.”

Shadow chuckled. “I forgot I did that. But it is late by that clock. Any more questions, comments or concerns?”

Nopony had any. “Alright. I am always available for them. See you in the morning.”

Flags was the last one into their Unit.

“Interesting day,” Flags said as soon as he closed the door.

“That is why you sit by and laugh,” Cardinal Spitfire yawned. “Stories of his face plants and falling off a benches, luck is always on his side despite something interesting always happening.”

“After dinner agility training?” Cardinal Spitfire asked Shadow.

“Yes. You know personally how much it helps,” Shadow replied.

“You are going to be teaching us acrobatics?” Flag asked confused.

“You have not actually seen me do anything yet,” Shadow smiled. “A master at ground acrobatics and I was able to transfer it to the air. But now I am transferring to bed.”

0700 meant that Shadow had to be up quietly and ready by 0600. The others would be up at 0630.

0700 had them all lined up and looking spot on. Shadow took them out to follow and do some laps. He brought them in for ground sprints and then sit-ups. Breakfast was quieter without the instructors present. It hung in the air as if there was a dark cloud brewing above the mess hall. By 0830 they were touching down at their assigned flight decks.

Most of Shadow's flying was spent checking on all of his squads. He did make sure he got time to run through the track with Cardinal Spitfire. They shocked the recruits and dazzled the other ACS units.

That brought Shadow to give a new order. All individual teams in Aerial Combat School were to make specific runs together in the tracks. It made it so that they were actually focusing on aerial combat techniques throughout the day. It was at least something like they normally would be doing as trainees during the day.

“Welcome to skills,” Shadow said after dinner. “Go put your gear away and meet back here. You don't want it on.”

Shadow was not wearing his armor either. He needed them to see his body's movements and joints. And, he was in command. The power armor was now optional for him. He still planned on following those orders. They were obviously for his own good.

“Acrobatics isn't just some thing you mess around with as a foul,” Shadow began. “Somersaults are not acrobatics. Aerial combat often requires you to dance through and around things rather than fly. So we will start with the basics. Master these on the ground, and you will find you can transfer that knowledge to the air. It also dramatically helps with a spin out.”

“First up, getting you used to blood to your head,” Shadow easily rolled up into a hoofstand. He walked around a bit before rolling over into a bridge and back to all fours, making a complete flip.

“I've been training for years. Keeping track of where you are and where you want to go is important or you will fall over. We will work within teammates. Cardinal Spitfire?”

Cardinal Spitfire joined him and they showed them how to begin to hold up the other and how to roll up into the stand. Shadow left her standing alone as he walked along their line, helping and teaching. They fell and rolled over a lot, even with their teammate helping.

“I am thoroughly surprised and happy with what I saw,” Shadow praised them when they were done. “The only pegasus I have to compare you to is when I taught Cardinal Spitfire. It isn't easy. It is called acrobatics for a reason. You are dismissed.”

Chapter 19 - Letters

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Shadow had them all line up in the morning at 0800. They had eaten breakfast first and were in full gear. He stood there in parade rest, in front of them. They all knew the plan. This was day four: prepare for him to be relieved. If 0900 hit, Shadow was taking them out to continue as they had been. Around 0815 Shadow saw pegasi approaching and they all came to attention.

Captain Marble Falls touched down first with General Red River besides her. The other Wonderbolts and instructors were behind them. Shadow hadn't seen Lieutenant Tuff, but there was a lot going on and they were not in a formation.

“Interesting strategy Captain Shadow Flare,” General Red River declared. “The reports that came in were on a variety of things you did. Captain Marble Falls is here to relieve you of your position so you can continue as a trainee.”

“Yes Sir! Thank your Sir!”

“I will do a full debriefing after you are relieved.”

Shadow did his best to roll with something he had never seen before. In the end, what mattered was that Captain Marble Falls was back in command. She was not tired like he had seen her the past few weeks. She looked and acted like he remembered her when they first hit aerial combat phase. A great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

General Red River lead Shadow to the Captain's office to debrief.

“Captain Marble Falls will be with us shortly,” He said as he took the chair beside Shadow.

It was all, serious business. Captain Marble Falls closed the door and sat down behind the desk.

“What the hell did you do to the squads?” She asked Shadow bluntly. She also meant business.

“Trained them as best as I knew how,” Shadow replied before explaining his methods. “I focused on training them by having them teach recruits. By explaining and showing the detailed aspects of aerial combat, they picked up a lot. Our presence meant all barracks were able to jump start their recruits and get them into their armor and the air faster. It also allowed them to learn to handle speed and skills faster.”

“Since the recruits were in their armor on the first day, I had the squads draw their gear to better understand and show how to balance the two. Eighty percent were experienced soldiers who were at least a year out of training. It helped them get back into paying attention to all aspects of flight.”

“There was a collision.”

“Yes Captain,” Shadow curtly replied. “There was a collision among the Black Barracks recruits. Some bruising and lightly clipped wing. The recruit will be back in the air today. As far as we could piece together, it was found to be a circumstantial collision by two teams not paying attention to the other teams around them. No pegasi under my command were close to them or involved in distracting them in any way. A pure mistake made by four recruits.”

“You ordered that they were not to be assisted and to recover on their own.”

The Captain was not letting up. Shadow kept being as professional as he could be giving a report.

“Yes Captain. I did. Of the four recruits involved, three of them recovered on their own after the hit. Some under my command were right besides them to grab them if they couldn't. The fourth was picked off well before there was any danger. As soon as the injury was noticed, they nabbed her.”

Captain Mable Falls look at Shadow for at least a minute. “How do you feel about your performance?”

“Captain, you know I do not comment about those matters. That is for my superiors to decide.”

“You were Captain. The superior,” Captain Marble Falls stated harshly. “You have to answer that question and be able to defend your decisions. You are not a recruit leading simple exercises, you were a full Captain. Leadership requires you to defend your orders. How do you feel about your performance?”

Shadow took a deep breath. “It was poor. I relied upon the recruit's training officer to do the work I should have been. Helping the recruits train was a way I could fill time when I was unable to decide on how to proceed. I froze. I had no real plan on how to train the squads in Aerial Combat School. I learned the tactics the school would teach, but had no game plan for applying those in training. Especially only in week two of Aerial Combat School.”

“I only did two things correct. First, I kept a strong structured day with a clear unit structure. That did include using the barracks training commanders. Second, the skills at the end of the day. Teaching acrobatics was something they could highly benefit from. I relied on my strength there.”

“And what about Lieutenant Autumn Leaf?

“What about him Captain?”

“I hear he went to talk to you about leadership and you just yelled insults and shoved him.”

“Do you really think I am capable of shoving him?” Shadow asked with an eyebrow raised. “He came in and was already in a confrontational mood. He was barking orders with nothing to back them. He even resorted to impersonation of an officer over troops he was not involved in.”

“What troops?”

“Reconnaissance. Yet he had no idea who my teammates are. His attempts quickly turned to violent intentions and threats. You can ask any of the Units.”

“Oh, we are,” Captain Marble Falls replied. “They are all being talked to and getting reports from.”

“You look a lot better Ma'am,” Shadow smiled.

“Thank you Filly Fooler. I feel a lot better.”

Captain Marble Falls took a deep breath in. “I will be back. They should have the reports wrapped up.”

Shadow forced himself to stay calm. She had put a lot of pressure on him. Calling him Filly Fooler was a relief. It meant she was loose and not angry. At least not angry enough to go formal. He had no idea what a normal debriefing was like. The only other one was after their special assignment, but that was as a group.

Captain Marble Falls finally returned, with a stack of papers.

“Well,” She said flipping through them. “From the other trainees, given the odd circumstances, they had nothing but good things to say. Your leadership and performance was high. They believe they learned a lot. Your acrobatic skill lessons were hated and found absolute disapproval among all the ranks, excluding your teammate, Cardinal Spitfire.”

“I am impressed,” She smiled at him. “When General Red River heard, he called us all to headquarters to talk. I was shocked he wanted to throw you out there until I remembered that the day before, when I was having you light up the range with that minigun on similar orders. It was a heated discussion.”

“We all needed the rest and soon the discussion was ended. The report said that your plan was to use the barrack trainers to help lead and to put the trainees to use in the fields they were supposed to be training. That news calmed things down. You were in over your head. But at least you were not in too deep and using resources wisely.”

“You predicted my moves,” Shadow said stunned.

“We did train you,” Captain Marble Falls said. “We better be able to since you are barely out of Basic.”

“Now to continue. Drawing gear was a great call and we will continue to keep all squads in their gear for everything. They did learn a lot from working with the recruits. It did exactly what you wanted it to do. The last thing is the skills training you conducted at night. Every trainee hated it. But we are going to continue with it. I personally want to see how this goes.”

Shadow smiled. “Thank you Captain.”

“Alright, enough with the Captain in here. You are not in trouble.”

“I do have a question,” Shadow said. “When was the last time Major Winters Breath was spoken to?”

“We called him up during the conversation. He was apart of the whole thing. He agreed with General Red River's plan. He was at Mareland when we called. Why?”

Shadow felt a crazy, evil smile form. “Can I be reinstated to kick Autumn Leaf's ass? Or at least permission to. One of his claims is that Major Winters Breath was not able to be reached and that General Red River was overstepping his boundaries. I do not know why, but he fears me. I threaten him for no apparent reason.”

“No,” General Red River asserted. “I can not allow that. That would come down on my head for allowing it. If it had happened while he was acting out, then it would be on his head. But no. That is past.”

Shadow sighed. “It's for the best. That is the first time I have ever had blood lust. At least he was smart enough to confront me in power armor. He still wasn't as strong as me when our chests pushed against each other.”

“You two had physical contact?” General Red River asked stunned. His level of concern shot through the roof.

“He just got up on my space,” Shadow explained. “And then I tried to force his hoof and get him to back up out of my face by stepping in closer, our chests bumped. He pushed against me while the conversation wrapped up. It ended when I ordered him to leave and forcing him to back up a step. What armor was he wearing?”

“Mark 3,” The Captain said annoyed. “I hate that piece of trash. That was probably all he could get. The Mark 2 is way better than the Mark 3. If the Lieutenant does get physical again or threatens you with physical violence, kick his ass. His aggressiveness against you for no reason is noted and you are allowed to defend yourself.”

“I should say no,” General Red River groaned. “But if he does, it will be on his head. I will make sure of it. But to nicer things. Congratulation Sergeant, you did a marvelous job.”

“You are dismissed,” Captain Marble Falls said. “Tell Unit 41 I will be down shortly.”

“The Lieutenant is not back?” Shadow asked.

“Personal leave of absence for a month,” Captain Marble Falls sighed. “Which means I am stuck with you again Filly Fooler. Or you are stuck with me. Not sure which at this point.”

Shadow closed the door and took a few deep breaths before trotting out to the others.

“I did all I could,” Cardinal Spitfire said as soon as she saw him. The panic was evident. “But they were tough and not joking.”

“Relax,” Shadow told her. “I am fine. They were impressed. There was a lot more happening behind the scenes than you would believe. The order for my command was given with the knowledge and approval of Major Winters Breath.”

“That lying sack of” Shadow stopped Cardinal Spitfire but putting his hoof in her mouth.

She batted it away. “That hurt! You have that armor on!”

“Sorry,” Shadow shrugged. “You made me. And that incident is in the past. They are well aware of what happened. That is all that matters concerning that incident.”

Shadow took deep breath before changing topics. “Two things. Lieutenant Tuff is on a personal leave for a while, so he is not going to be training us. We get stuck with Captain Marble Falls.”

“YES!” Cardinal Spitfire yelled as she jumped up.

“Sorry,” She said floating there. “I have nothing against the Lieutenant. Good commander. I just love her style of command.”

“Now the really bad news,” Shadow said getting serious. “Evening skill training with acrobatics will continue under my leadership.”

Everypegasus groaned except Cardinal Spitfire.

“Not my call. I didn't even ask for it,” Shadow stated with wings up in surrender. “The Captain wants to see where it goes and takes things.”

“When will the Captain be joining us?” Flags asked.

“Soon,” Shadow replied. “The General and her are talking.”

“That could mean anything,” Arrow said.

“Or it could mean I am right here,” Captain Marble Falls stated.

Cardinal Spitfire was shaking from the surprise.

“You still are not used to it? Shame,” The Captain shook her head.

Captain Marble Falls stood there for a minute sizing them up.

“Arrow is the peppy, loud and energetic type. Flags, you are serious and tired of your current job. You fear you will fail and be stuck there for another two years until your service term is up. But you don’t entirely want to leave the military. Chocolate, you are quiet and meek, but you want to be on an Aerial Combat Unit more than anything and will push though. Dipper, you are all over the place. You do not know what you want and you need more self confidence.”

“Cardinal Spitfire, you are the starry eyed trainee who dreams to be something more than just a soldier. You will do all you can to make it to what you view is the top. You also need more confidence despite how hard headed you are. You have to stop relying on Filly Fooler for your confidence and find it within yourself.”

“Filly Fooler, you do not know what you are getting into, but you are in and won't stop because you believe it is your destiny to serve the Enclave in a recon team. Your ignorant, simple upbringing also brings strength from out of nowhere, even to your own surprise. For somepegasus so simple, nothing is simple for you.”

“Now that I know each of you, I have to warn you, it has been a while since I trained an ACS Unit. Wait… Have I? No, I have not. Oh well. Let's head out. Form up with me on point, I need to check on Glitter at Black. It will loosen us all up.”

Shadow smiled and the others nervously looked at each other as they formed up. It was an easy and quiet flight. Shadow could see how stiff Captain Marble Falls was. He doubted the others could.

“Captain.” Lieutenant Glitter said saluting.

“At ease,” Captain Marble Falls said. “That is a standing order. Just like it was when I was a First Lieutenant. I just came out to check on my old stomping ground and get the rust off my wings.”

“I am behind,” She said nervously. “Black is performing better than I could have planned. And I planned with the Acting Captain. They could be on par with last cycle.”

“Good. That means things are headed in the right direction. Nice track. Evil.”

“The Acting Captain Shadow Flare is the primary designer. It is the last one we designed and the toughest. Out of 15!”

“I got a few in my file cabinet that will take care of that,” The Captain chuckled. “Make them the best you can. But now I have to turn to my recruits. I mean trainees. That is a switch.”

Captain Marble Falls turned and walked back to them. “Alright, I have a plan in place. I know this is the team building and conditioning phase. But I need to feel you fly. On me. If you spin out or can't keep up, regroup at Unit 41.”

They took off and the Captain began slow. It wasn't long before she skipped past a few gears and really got going. It became very clear that they were supposed to follow and read her nonverbal commands. At the same time as she was testing their skills, she was also trying to shake them.

They handle everything for a good half hour when Captain Marble Falls changed tactics. Short, high speed burst with jagged turns and twists. On the third one, Flags was lost. Fourth took out Dipper and Chocolate. After the seventh, the three of them were still with her.

The Captain dove, picking up great speed. A hard turn near the base clouds to end the drop and then they did everything and anything at high speeds. Arrow fell out when they straitened out. It took another thirty minutes for Cardinal Spitfire to be shaken. She was sent skipping on the air when she couldn't hold onto the 270 turn.

After Cardinal Spitfire was lost, Captain Marble Falls gave up and just out flew Shadow by speed alone. She timed it so that Shadow would fall behind too much right above the flight deck. She was gone in the blink of an eye.

Shadow scared Cardinal Spitfire by practicing his dead drop.

“YOU! I HATE YOU!” She screamed at him in frustration as Shadow laughed. The others in 41 were learning to laugh as well.

Cardinal Spitfire had just calmed down when the Captain dropped right besides them. She was able to keep from screaming at the Captain, but she fell over exhausted.

“She is really going to need to get used to that,” Captain Marble Falls said looking at her. “Felt good to really, really fly. Fun fly.”

Captain Marble Falls looked at the Unit. “You all did a better job than I expected. No coms and you handled me fine. You will be proficient in reading each other with non verbal commands and signals. Filly Fooler and Cardinal Spitfire, or what is left of her, had the advantage of learning from me. And Damn you Filly Fooler. I had to beat you with raw speed. That flight to Las Pegasus gave you the heavy advantage. You really pay attention to everything.”

“Los Pegasus?” Cardinal Spitfire said perking up from the ground. “That is the other side of the Enclave from your family. What the fuck is going on with your home?”

“You haven't told her yet?” Captain Marble Falls said raising and eyebrow at Shadow.

“I forgot she was here,” Shadow chuckled. “She left like the others. I was shocked to see her when she entered the Unit. I had been napping in the free time when they all came in and things got crazy.”

“It wasn't a family emergency,” Cardinal Spitfire accused.

“No, it was,” Captain Marble Falls asserted. “He was placed under my charge and I had to fly him there. He would have understandably gotten lost and there was a major time table on the situation. A private emergency. It is his to share. I just was surprised that you didn't know. You two share everything but the shower, TP and a toothbrush. I also know you have worn each other's jump suits a few times under my training in Basic.”

Shadow's cheeks glowed at the public announcement at that mistake. Nopony else had ever known. You could not see Cardinal Spitfire cheeks blushing, but her eyes said it all.

“Sorry Filly Fooler,” The Captain apologized. “My bad for not thinking that through.”

“Perfectly fine,” Shadow said. “It happens. It isn't like I lied. I just never said anything except emergency family leave. But lets move on.”

Shadow pulled Cardinal Spitfire onto her hooves.

“We need weights,” Captain Marble Falls declared. “Follow me.”

They spent the rest of the day flying in a singe line, weights on their wings. All of them were tied together; meaning if one pegasus dropped their's, they all dropped. The last hour they were having to do turns together with the weights.

Captain Marble Falls smiled as she heard Cardinal Spitfire, Shadow and soon Arrow encouraging each other. Talking and bringing up team spirit. The higher that was, the better they would be and the harder she could push them which would make them all the better. It was a wonderful cycle.

After dinner, Unit 41 got ahead of the others by getting out of their gear. The other units left the mess hall, saw 41, and dashed to follow their lead. Shadow just stood there at ease waiting for all to assemble. He was going to keep it loose. Changing how they viewed the world was difficult enough.

Shadow took a deep breath in before picking up command again. “I should have started out teaching you by telling you what I first told Cardinal Spitfire, who needs to be by my side. You have to think agile. Meaning plan ahead, but be ready for a change at any moment. It takes the right mental stance, just like flying at blistering speeds and making a 90 degree turn.”

“With that in mind, hoofstands. For a bit.”

Shadow ignored the groans.

“Don't tell me you are afraid?” Captain Marble Falls said walking up. “It isn't like you are alone. Cardinal Spitfire, help me out.”

Shadow shook his head and rolled with it. He didn't expect the Captain, Wonderbolts, or other ACS trainers to join in. It explained her choice to continue with it.

“Alright,” Shadow called. “You can stop with those for now. Back springs are no different than a quick turn or hard bank.”

Shadow walked to the end of their line. He moved into a round off and did back springs all the down their line, finishing with a tuck, landing on all fours, wings never opening.

“A bit excessive,” Shadow announced. “But that is not the point. I had to keep my focus on where I was going or I would have gotten dizzy and smashing into the ground. At that speed… That was not a fun day.”

“But I do not need you to learn all that,” Shadow chuckled. “It was just fun showing off. The simple back spring should be taught in pairs. One does the back spring, the other spots and guides. You will not make it right away. But you didn't learn to fly right away or without bumps as bruises.”

Shadow demonstrated it with Cardinal Spitfire. She was already proficient. The biggest key was the spotter. Shadow spent ten minutes teaching them to properly spot before they began to try. Without a spotter or proper spotting you could easily injure yourself.

“As turned around as I am, that went well,” Captain Marble Falls said when Shadow ended the lesson. She made sure everypegasus heard. “Day one, and I like this Filly Fooler. If this works, I will have to find somepegasus to replace you when you move on.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said, unsure of what else to say. “But you guys are Wonderbolts. Your agility in the sky is legendary. And I know your agility without your wings it top notch. You picked up the back springs easily. In a week I will be teaching you to teach future trainees.”

The Wonderbolts chuckled.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Captain Marble Falls said. “A good end to the start of a new adventure.”

“Anypony hitting the showers?” Shadow asked as he came into their unit.

“All yours,” Flags offered.

“Shadow worked me hard,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “A shower sounds good.”

“Worked you hard?” Arrow said exhausted. Her voice was void of it's usual energy.

“I was helping Captain Marble Falls,” She reminded them.

“You love the Captain,” Arrow said. “Crush love!”

“I do not!” Cardinal Spitfire stammered. “She just gets me and helped me unlock all of my awesomeness!”

“On that. What was up with her when she met us?” Dipper asked. “She looked at us and tried to tell us who we were!”

Shadow came out of the shower laughing. Even in the shower, you could here everything.

“It is a natural gift,” He explained. “An invaluable one for an instructor. Gauging those you are training helps you give them the best training and make them the best.”

“And what is up with 'damn it Filly Fooler,'” Flags asked.

“When did that happen?” Shadow asked Cardinal Spitfire.

“I think it started when she said pony in training, not pegasus,” Cardinal Spitfire said as she hung up her towel on the hook of her locker. “Either way, you are going to hear it whenever something goes wrong, his problem or not.”

“That flight?” Chocolate added. “We are all good fliers, but you hung on. And then-”

“I sucked?” Shadow chuckled. “I didn't just sit at the range firing guns. She wasn't going to let that happen. She couldn't do that to herself. She put me in that armor with those weapons and made sure I learned all of them.”

“Did you do strafing?” Cardinal Spitfire asked annoyed.

“Only with the heavy machine gun,” Shadow said rolling his eyes. “And you do not want that strapped to your side, no matter what armor you are wearing. It was longer than me and you know the mount point. It wasn't even on my weapons test or anything close to it.”

“But off range, I got to learn her cues and nuances during those flights,” Shadow said. “Not like us Cardinal. Not like us at all. It took everything I had to hold on after Arrow dropped out, and when you went, she just used speed. She knew she would not be able to wear me out with tricks, pointless with my endurance. It was all about learning how we each fly as an individual, not a test to see who is better. I watch, I learn, I adapt. And now I sleep.”

The lights went off but Shadow's mind didn't shut off. It wouldn't until Cardinal Spitfire's did, and she was on her side, facing him. There was only one thing she had on her mind now, his trip to Las Pegasus and the family emergency.

He was still processing it in ways. No letter had come yet. He needed to write a letter home soon. Even with them giving a report, he needed to give them all the courtesy of fulfilling his promise and reporting back in his own way.

That would be an easier letter to write than telling his best friend what happened. More than best friend if they both went for it. He knew she was in. The look in her eye one time as she encouraged him to hold the weight up said it all. And he kept the weight up another minute because of it.

He didn't knowingly say he was in, but he didn't know if she knew. It was a complicated mess. At least he felt that way. Lieutenant Glitter only spoke once to him about it and had high optimism that it was not as complicated as they thought.

He had no idea how to explain the trip and everything that it meant. He wished he had grabbed some of the free materials they had, but then it seemed like pointless papers and a waste of resources. And now it would openly show everything to the others, but not the real complexities of his family life.


Unit 41 was enjoying a quiet lunch before the real work began. Things had shifted out of the team building and conditioning to very aggressive aerial acrobatic tracks. Captain Marble Falls had given them another test to follower her. They had dramatically improved. Shadow stayed the longest again. Instead of some measurable luck from the first time, he was a much better flier and was able to apply his knowledge with less stress. She still had to beat him with outright speed.

“DAMN IT FILLY FOOLER!” Captain Marble Falls yelled from across the mess hall. “DO NOT TAKE EVEN A SINGLE PIECE OF YOUR ARMOR OFF UNTIL I TELL YOU YOU CAN!”

“Did I do-”

“NO!” She said walking out. “ITS BECAUSE YOU ARE WEARING THE ARMOR. OTHERWISE YOU ARE NOT INVOLVED. 41 is off for the day! Until skills tonight!”

That was all they got as she stopped yelling and was cursing incomprehensibly. It was all quiet when the door slammed shut.

“I finally have time to write that letter,” Shadow said.

“I'll dictate,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I know how you write.”

“I write fine enough,” Shadow said rolling his eyes.

“You will have to use so much paper it won't fit into one envelope. If you even have enough paper. How much did you get?”

“I do not know,” Shadow stated. “I said I needed to write letters home, they automatically removed it from my account, and paper, pens and a stack of envelopes was delivered to my bed. And if I don't hoof write it, the community will know and it will destroy the entire purpose of me writing the letter. Same for the one to my family.”

“Speaking of letters,” A soldier approached them. “Are you Shadow Flare?”

“Yes, I am,” Shadow replied.

“You know an Early Tart?”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “I have been waiting for that letter.”

“It got stuck in holding until we were able to track you down. It just said Fort Wind for address.”

Shadow chocked back a laugh. “I will make sure the address is properly done the next time they write.”

Shadow took the letter. His hooves were shaking. He wanted to open it, but opening it made it final. Now he lived in an okay suspense of ignorance. He put it away, leaving it to be opened it at a more private time.

Cardinal Spitfire groaned. “I expected you to rip it open, so I could find out what was going on.”

“If it is what I think it is,” Shadow said slowly. “Then it can wait until I can process the entire thing.”

Cardinal Spitfire was frustrated and put her head in her hooves.

“You two are close,” Flags advised. “It is okay that he is dealing with a family situation on his own. It is his right, and to him, his best interest. Even with being so close, things can hurt the other without meaning to. He is protecting you as much as he is protecting himself.”

“He can't open it in that armor,” Arrow added. “Ignoring the shaking, anything finite like that is difficult.”

“I hope we are not put behind because of this time off,” Chocolate said putting them on a better topic.

“We won't be,” Flags said. “If she was afraid of it, she would have paired us up with another instructor.”

Cardinal looked at the others. “She told us when we first met her as a recruit that if we did not succeed, she didn't do her job. It would be her failure.”

“What was a Wonderbolt doing teaching in Basic?” Arrow asked.

“We never asked,” Shadow replied. “It was clear that discussion wasn't happening. She stated she was a Wonderbolt and it was more than we could understand. That was all.”

“And not to let her name and uniform to fool us,” Cardinal added. “Just threw it in front of us and we knew that was all she was going to say.”

“Green is being led by a Captain,” Shadow pointed out. “Its about the recruits being trained the best they can be. If a Wonderbolt wants to and can, fine. They are instructing the Aerial Combat School. That makes sense to us.”

“One to a squad of six though,” Arrow said. “Not one to 50. And this school is just ramping up. Basic is fly straight, shoot strait and land ready to fight.”

“I forgot we had her for wasteland survival and after,” Cardinal Spitfire added. “She blended everything right into it. Still have no idea why she stayed with us into the practicums.”

“How do you know she stayed with us?” Shadow asked. “Why couldn't it be we stayed with her?”

“I just assumed it,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Nothing was prepared for us out there. Wasteland survival could easily be done on the flight deck, but Lieutenant Autumn Leaf was still with us every day, watching, waiting, and such. And Master Wind joined them the first day. It was a lot of work for all keeping us there the next three weeks. And there never was a justifiable answer.”

“You are green,” Flags clipped. “Smart and can out think problems, but you can't out think some orders and just have to follow them. Not everything makes sense. Such is life. Especially military life.”

They took care of their trays, but stayed in the mess hall talking. The Unit was for sleeping. It was best to stay out of it to keep up a better schedule. You instantly felt tired as you walked in.

Shadow's com opened after a while. “Filly Fooler, you are clear to remove your armor. Imbeciles.”

Shadow had no time to respond as the connection was severed.

“I am clear to remove my armor,” Shadow said picking up his helmet. “I am going to go back to the unit and write that letter.”

They wished him luck as he trotted away. When the standing order was for him to in his armor at all times, that was one thing. But when it was a huge, dangerous problem if he removed it, then it all felt like a burden and weighed twice as much.

Shadow showered to relax and then plopped onto his bed. He looked at the unopened letter and he tossed it onto his pillow for a bit. He chose to leave it unopened and write from what he knew. That way, it didn't complicate anything.




Dear Family,

There is so much to tell and so much you can not tell. I would not be where I am now without what you taught me as I grew up. No, I did not grow any, but nopony in basic could match my endurance. And that is because of you. I have gotten stronger, but not like you. Or at least that is what I feel. I can not test that.

Basic training tested me in ways I have never heard of. Which is how we found out how much endurance I have. And later, we found out how fast I could fly and how much flight endurance I have. We do not test those things back home or need to. It is pointless and I prefer it that way.

I have not gone a day without the ribbons I was given to wear by Dream Catcher, Cherry Tart and Early Blossom. The seeds are always with me and the pictures are stashed with what little I have. Right there for me to grab when I need to.

I wish you all could have come to graduation for one reason. To meet my friends. Real friends like Dad and Black. We trust each other, share everything and are bonded for life. Cardinal Spitfire who was my battle buddy, Deke, Olive Pit, and Golden Dawn. Having to leave each other at the end of basic to got to our separate trainings, it hurt almost as much as leaving you.

Otherwise, graduation was really just for the families of the recruits. Parading us around so everypony could see us, a speech by the commanding general, and such. The Wonderbolts did put on a show. They wow all with their aerial tricks and flying.

I got to see my first real city and buildings should not be that high. I met good and bad ponies. But things have been more than alright.

I did get orders. I was accepted onto a recon team. I can not say anything, it is all secret and classified. I barely know anything because they are putting me through some very difficult training and now into Aerial Combat School. That is a difficult training school to get into and requires you to be an expert flier.

I made it, because of you guys, and the love and time you spent raising me right. I was, and still am, out of place compared to the ponies who are closer to the Enclave. We live in a very different world. A simpler, better world. I will add other general things to the letter for the community.

If only I could transfer the experiences I have had onto paper.

Love,

Shadow

Shadow set that letter aside. He would not seal it up in case he wanted to reference it.

Friends,

I miss you and our simple ways. Nothing is simple here. El Nino looks so tiny compared to some other cities. I do not know how buildings stay up so high. They should not be six, or seven, or even over fifty stories tall.

That is not the only thing that is different. How food is distributed, I do not fully understand, and that is the problem. Others are feeling the need to speak out about it. They are not going hungry and are not close to even going hungry yet, but they are afraid about it.

I am proud to come from such a strong community who finds it their duty to provide them the food they eat. It is sad to see and hear their concerns, but I know your integrity is strong and that there is little if anything you could do to improve things. Keep doing what you are doing no matter what.

Our community is old. Which means we say things others find offensive and are dangerous to say. I do not want our ways to change, but I speak as one experiencing the difficult transition into life as an Enclave soldier.

Pony isn't allowed and a very serious punishment because it says there is more than the pegasus race. I am allowed to say it. It is not something you can just change. Besides, it is held on for a reason. If we changed, we would lose the sense of togetherness that has bound us up tight since the beginning and keeps us tight even 200 years later.

Our stories are our stories, but some of history goes against those. Legends are fun and I would hate to lose them because some might find it improper. I hope to get a good book on the real history of the Enclave and the war to you soon. Our schools do not prepare us for life in the Enclave, only the farms; which is one thing I love and prefer. I want to send you it so that you can see the differences and if you find yourself facing some of what I am, you can adapt quickly. Everything is so different, including farming in a core district.

Our simple ways have many advantages. And it has only shown to be very conductive for me in training. My endurance is unmatched. My raw strength has improved, but is still way short of yours. But I do not give up like you taught me. I hold firm because that is what is needed. Integrity, honesty, and building others up.

As soldiers in training, we were broken down into groups for training. Our group ranked number one by the end. I was even leading 50 ponies through all sorts of trials and to do certain actives, including mock combat. And I was one of the weaker leaders. I took a lot of my techniques from how we function as a community. And it worked.

I write this not to brag, but to show you how much you impacted me and made me into something they had rarely seen. Of all the recruits, I was ranked fourth in individual performance. I find our training group ranking first much more impressive and important. A group is always stronger than an individual and always better.

That is why I was able to be taken into a recon squad. It is very difficult to get into one. They were very, very impressed. That is all thanks to you raising me and every foal right, no matter what strengths and weaknesses they have.

Number one as a whole group and number four individually is why I could not write sooner. Our group was worked around the clock, all day long and then often late into the night or without even a break during the night and into the next day. I felt like we were harvesting farms together for sixteen weeks as fast as we could before the crops spoiled or were destroyed.

I will write again as soon as I can. For now, it is more very intensive training for my new job. I am writing this while on a very unexpected break. Our teacher had to step out for the afternoon. After dinner, it is back to work. This time, it is me teaching everyone in this training school agility. They have never seen anypony with agility like me.

The Enclave is blessed to have you working so hard for their food, and so are the ponies. Even though they often do not recognize it, they truly are. I look forward to my full service in recon after my training is complete; but I also look forward to coming back to you and working alongside you again.

I can’t wait to see you all again,

Shadow

Shadow wasn't much of a writer, but he reread each one multiple times. He wished he could transfer more onto the paper. But you can not transfer experiences. Some of those experiences he would not wish upon anypony.

Shadow sealed them up. He thought quick enough to write the proper address so that letters could reach him and slip it inside his family's envelope. Shadow didn't write a specific one to Early Blossom and Cherry Tart since he had gotten to see them personally. There was a box to put the letters in inside the main entrance of the Squad Barracks. He would drop them off before dinner.

Shadow picked up the letter for him and stared at it. He lost track of time as his staring turned into mindless gazing where his imagination took it's own journey. Shadow finally snapped out of it and looked at their clock. It was almost time for dinner, but he had time.

Shadow,

We know you are very busy. We are impressed of all that you are doing, what you have done and will do. We know you will make Equestria a much better place. You certainly have done us a great, great honor. We could not ask for a better brother.

The procedure worked! I am pregnant. I am carrying a foal. Your foal or our foal, however it works. It doesn't matter because you are family and apart of our farm for life. Because of you, our farm is well on it's way to surviving for generations to come.

When the time comes, I hope you can get leave to visit. We had to go back to the place the next day and pick up those paper things they had. Not all of them, but some because they helped explain everything to us. When I went back for the pregnancy test, we picked up key ones for you. We know how much our heads are spinning, and we have each other. I hope they can prove useful.

Love,

Early Blossom and Cherry Tart

P.S. Early doesn't know I am adding this. Keep an eye out for special stallions that might make good donors, for Early. That sounds so wrong and impersonal. I do not know where we will find somepony when Early wants to carry a foal, so if you find somepony special, that you know we would love, let me know.

P.S.S. Thanks for the financial help. Early is too overwhelmed right now to appreciate it, let alone understand. Dad may have way more than enough, but your help means a lot more. It shows just how much you care about not just us two, now three, but the family as a whole.


Shadow smiled at the ending. It was certainly Cherry Tart. It was also a big responsibility and honor to help them out again in a similar way. A worse way. Playing matchmaker. Still an very big honor. The best thing was hearing the news that their farm would make it and go on to stay in their family line.

Shadow pulled the other papers out. The ones on 'what to expect' were helpful at the moment. The others were hit or miss. They would be there when the questions did come up. Shadow put them back in the envelope and in his locker. Cardinal Spitfire really wanted to know, but she would not invade his privacy. She would just keep hinting and poking at him.

Chapter 20 - Focus

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They were flying through the course at high speeds in their official formation. That included quick changes at the spit second. They would elongating a side to make hard turns by making their inside edge more compact. Avoiding an obstacle often meant one side rotating up so they were upside down above the other, or stacking up on top of each other to slide through a tiny space.

On top of that, individual pegasi had to be ready to roll up or down if something popped up only in their way. Below, gunfire was one of those reasons. But there was no way to simulate hot lead and lasers coming that them.

Shadow wondered how much of this ruined city was from Captain Marble Falls memory. At least what she could remember. The full buildings they were headed into may or may not represent some city, but Shadow would not even recognize El Nino. And not just due to their speed.

A directional flag popped up and they were forced to turn to the left. It was a very tight turn, forcing the left wing to slide in. Shadow lost focus and slammed into the building. He dropped to the ground, unconscious.

“DAMN IT FILLY FOOLER! FALLING OUT ON ME AGAIN!”

Shadow woke up to them around him. A medic was looking him over. They had pulled him out of his armor.

“I am fine,” Shadow said trying to wave the medic off. He was pushed back down.

“What happened trainee?” Captain Marble Falls asked.

“Lost focus,” Shadow said. “I have run into worse.”

“Not at these speeds,” She shot back.

“I do not see any reason that he shouldn't be able to continue,” The medic said leaving.

“You don't just lose focus,” Captain Marble Falls stated.

Another Unit zoomed past them overhead.

“I can't be perfect,” Shadow said.

“You know that isn't a valid answer,” The Captain said annoyed. “You, Shadow Flare, do not lose focus. Ever.”

“I lost focus and misjudged the distance.”

“This wasn't clipping the building. You slammed into it face first. You armor saved your ass.”

“My mind slipped off of flying. I tunneled,” Shadow said sitting up.

“If you think that you can just glide through this, you are wrong. I can remove your ass from recon if I feel you are not ready. I can keep you out of recon for life. Shape up or you will die.”

Captain Marble Falls took off.

“Can she really do that?” Arrow asked. “You are already in.”

“Oh yeah,” Shadow said as Flags pulled him to his feet. “She can. It was not an empty threat.”

“I knew she had connections, but you are just here for supplemental training,” Flag said. “Right?”

“It's all complicated,” Shadow said shaking his head. “I have to pass or I will get pulled.”

“That didn't sound like just passing,” Cardinal Spitfire commented as another Unit screamed past them.

“Nope,” Shadow shrugged. “Lets go. I learned my lesson. Focus is back on track.”

“You armor,” Flags pointed.

“Right,” Shadow chuckled.

They ran the entire course three more times. It was long and there was an infinite number of paths that could be designated for that squad to fly. The flags made it so that they never got close to taking the same path twice, even for a short time. Pure reaction.

“Alright 41,” Captain Marble Falls said as they gathered around. “Good job, except for the run where Filly Fooler fell out of me again. Much better than I expected and much better than the other Units. Speed and reaction times were very impressive. If only one of you was a Lieutenant. What is left of the afternoon is off.”

They all went to take off their gear and get cleaned up without a time limit.

“You are just staring at you locker,” Arrow said poking Shadow.

“Huh? Sorry.”

“You are not okay,” Dipper stated. “I think its the letter. The Captain doesn't know about it.”

“That was a week ago,” Shadow said.

“So?” Dipper asked. “You have to work this out or you will get injured. Or worse, take one of us out.”

“I need a walk,” Shadow responded. “Clear my head.”

“You and your farming life with walking,” Arrow called out after him. Her voice was like a babbling brook, full of laughter, yet it felt cold.

He walked to the Squad Barracks and around the back. From there, he could see all of the recruit flight decks. They were almost done with that segment and were looking good. They were a special training group outside the normal ones in winter and summer.

“I thought I might find you here,” Captain Marble Falls said sitting down next to him. “Three intensive days leading. You poured it all into them, even though you barely got to know any. Thus is the life of an instructor.”

“But seriously, what happened?” The Captain asked confused.

“I stopped thinking,” Shadow admitted.

“So, what were you trying to not think about?” She asked kindly.

“This letter,” Shadow said pulling it out of a pocket. “Came when you had to leave for the afternoon.”

“That makes more sense. Bad news?”

“No, good news,” Shadow said quietly. “It worked. The farm will be passed down for their generations.”

“Because of you,” She said happily.

“Yes and no,” Shadow sighed. “I already am and always will be a big part of their farm prior to any of this coming up. It is all complicated. This 'science' stuff complicates the beautiful wonder of life and loving one's partner. It screws up what a farm family means to us. They already did that by founding that Homestead, but even more so now.”

“I am happy for them. They want me apart of everything that I can be and I want it as well. The wonder and simplicity of it all is destroyed. That is what confuses me the most. This could even go as far as saying it is extramarital sex.”

Shadow let what air was left in his lungs out. “My home, my community thrives on simplicity. Without it… it shakes the foundation.”

Captain Marble Falls nodded. “And you don't fly well and just blank. Is it okay if I read the letter?”

Shadow passed it to her. “It isn't anything new you didn't know.”

It didn't take long to read it. “I didn't know you withdrew bits to help. And asking for your help to pick a donor for your own sister…”

Shadow chuckled. “We love our community and they are handling things great, but this is going to really make things spin. And it doesn't matter how accepted their farm is, no stallion would be a donor, even paid and on a failing farm. That is way to foreign.”

“I have had recruits join up to support families, but never support like this,” She smiled. “You really are a special brother. You should figure out how to tell Cardinal Spitfire. Together you two overcome everything us instructors, and life, have been thrown at you. You will figure this out together.”

“I am very afraid,” Shadow said quietly. “I do not know how she would respond… Things are… complicated enough without throwing this into the mix.”

“You feel like you cheated on whoever you will marry,” Captain Marble Falls said getting excited. “That is it. It is so simple. You said it could be viewed as extramarital sex and you already view it as such. You can't fully see the amazing gift and love from it all. You only see it as if you did something the community finds very, very distasteful, shameful, and as a whole, tearing down, not building the community up.”

Captain Marble Falls pulled Shadow in for a tight hug. “I do not hug recruits or trainees. She stated firmly. “But I do hug friends. And you my friend, need a hug and reassurance that what you did is not shameful.”

“I could not do what you did. Well, do the opposite. My brother is having trouble. They have had two miscarriages. I don't think I could help them if there was a way to help, despite being family. Family means so much more to you than I can ever understand. Did you even blink when they asked?”

Shadow chuckled while he enjoyed the warm embrace. “They didn't directly asked. Just stated they wanted it and were behind it. I finished putting it all together asking the obvious question that they wanted me.”

“Of course that is how your family handled it,” Captain Marble Falls chuckled. “I wish we could call them.”

“I sent a letter to my family and another to my community a week ago,” Shadow said. “No idea when it will get to them, but the two of them would have had to be home by the time I sent the letters. I never sent a specific one to my sister, but they physically saw and spent time with me. I am way behind in keeping everypony posted. You guys have been brutal with no spare time. And we are better soldiers from it.”

“I pull off when I can,” She said kindly. “You had that afternoon off. It didn't even take two hours to fix.”

“What exactly happened about the armor?” Shadow asked.

“A certain pegasus wanted it issued to themselves. The few Mark 4s around here are all carried by officers or in positions they can not be removed from. It was the last one. You were a freelancing sergeant who's training didn't require you to have the Mark 4 model.”

“Let me guess. That pegasus has Mark 3?”

“It has been issued to that pegasus for years, and not from Fort Wind.”

Shadow pulled out from the hug.

“Thanks for caring,” Shadow smiled. “And for figuring that out. I also hate how easily you understand us.”

Captain Marble Falls chuckled. “It took a bit, but I figured out to read recruits. There are only so many personality types.”

“Today's exercises. How realistic were they?”

“Way to realistic. Nova and I pieced it together with what we could remember. We built the back half as if the city was still standing. Many buildings were hugely intact. Plenty still are. Think you could handle lead?”

“I have to,” Shadow replied. “I have to.”

“You will have a few days to prepare,” Captain Marble Falls said walking away. “Tomorrow brings weather.”

Shadow made it in time for dinner and polished it off before half of them were done. They were lazy at eating dinner in an attempt to avoid the skills session. They were lined up before Shadow was done preparing. They could handle dive rolls, back flips and springs, the tucks were coming along nicely, along with hoofstands. They all could handle doing it alone, now they just had to learn to hold it longer and walk.

“This one looks complicated,” Captain Marble Falls admitted.

“Just a different mindset,” Shadow stated.

He took a few steps back and launched into a simple vault. He landed on the cloud behind him that was ready.

“A simple vault,” Shadow said from on top. “You can see I got up the same high as the next floor of a building. It is useful in many ways, including being able to stay lower when you come up on a new floor, rooftop or anything. Along with the sneak aspect, you are in motion, which allows you to transfer that into a dodge, attack, or anything else. It is way faster than flying.”

“Very useful if your wing is injured,” Captain Marble Falls added.

Shadow finished setting up the last two sets of clouds. Each squad had their own, including the Wonderbolts. Shadow watched them as they slammed into the cloud walls.

“You have to apply the pressure of your hooves at an angle,” He coached. “Their angle dictates how you will move.”

Cardinal Spitfire never had a problem with vaults so she was helping others. The Captain picked it up on the first try, and the rest of the Wonderbolts were right behind her. Shadow moved the landing platform back to challenge them.

It was a short training session. Most of them had taken their fair shares of slams and falls.

“How high can you do?” Shadow was asked.

“Six,” Shadow said after a few seconds to think.

“Prove it.”

Shadow smiled and set it up. He got a good running start and then vaulted off the first. He was fine for the first two, after that it became tough. Third and four he dropped a lot of height. Five his back hooves were on the bottom of the wall which meant that for six he had to double over, bringing his rear hooves to his front to spring off. He got a good push, allowing him to float through the back flip and easily land on all four hoofs.

Cheer erupted from below. They had thoroughly enjoyed watching him be challenged for once. They all helped bust the clouds up and headed off to bed.

“That felt good,” Shadow said as he came into the Unit. “I haven't pushed myself like that since before Basic.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Flags said. “It suits you and calms you.”

“I have not had time,” Shadow chuckled. “I got a little here and there, mostly in exercises. Diving to avoid this, vaulting to get on top of that.”

“It was good to see you, you,” Cardinal Spitfire said.

“In other words, no more kissing walls,” Arrow poked.

Shadow slowly shook his head as they laughed.

“I am getting the extra sleep if I can,” Shadow said plopping onto his bed.

“I wonder what is tomorrow,” Dipper said. “I got the feeling it was not going to be the same thing.”

“Weather,” Shadow yawned from under the covers. “Wind, Rain, Cold and then Ice. Maybe not in that order.”

“How do you know that?” Flags asked as he laid down.

“The Captain and I ran into each other on my walk,” Shadow said as if it was nothing.

“Look out Cardinal Spitfire,” Arrow giggled. “You are going to have to fight for the Captain's love.”

Cardinal Spitfire gave her an evil glare.

“What?” She whined. “There is no way they just ran into each other. She sought him out.”

“Just friends,” Shadow sighed.

They all looked at him, wanting more details.

“As soon as graduation ended, things got really interesting and we kept running into each other at the wrong place and time,” Shadow explained. “So when she became my weapons instructor, things just fell into place. Have you seen her go easy on me?”

“I would say she is toughest on you,” Chocolate said as he killed the lights.

“Good,” Shadow admitted. “I felt that as well. It is all out of love and what is best for me, and all of you. She got a deeper look than anypegasus at the base here for what recon means. She knew what she was doing for the armor and my guns. She has predicted things well. And I am sure there is a checklist on things I have to excel at for this school.”

“You seem to know a lot more than you let onto,” Cardinal Spitfire coaxed. “I didn't think you held much back from me when you got kicked into being Acting Captain. I thought you only left out one or two minor things so I could help screw your head on straight. Now I wonder just how much you know.”

“Fair,” Shadow said turning onto his side to look at her. “I know that I know more than I do. I just do not know what I know.”

Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “That sounds about right.”

Shadow sighed and calmed his mind down to sleep. He looked at Cardinal Spitfire. She was also on her side, looking at him. Shadow thought he saw a smile on her lips. It was hard to tell in the lighting. There were no windows in the units.


“Weather!” Captain Marble Falls said as they lined up in the morning. “Today we will all start with winds. The weather segment is under my exclusive control. For now, we will be running in teams. These weather patterns are no joke. I need to make sure that you are prepared to handle them in your team before you face them in a Unit. Go eat, then we will begin a light workout to get you in gear for excessive winds.”

“Is this going to be as bad as I think?” Flags asked.

They all said 'yes' at the same time and laughed.

“You might want to start with Arrow as lead,” Shadow suggested. “She was tested on this not to long ago.”

“I got tested on wind,” Arrow frowned. “But not gale force patterns she sent you into.”

“Be ready for everything to shift,” Cardinal Spitfire advised them. “Be ready to spin out, be ready to be thrown into clouds. Just know that most of the day you are going to fail because she will make you fail.”

Flags was obviously disturbed.

“We are not being throw into a twister,” Shadow stated. “Just learning how to navigate and anticipate. Learn by failing. “

“Cardinal Spitfire and Filly Fooler,” The Captain greeted them after breakfast. “I was trying to figure out how to challenge you two. This is the same course after all. I decided that I am going to have you dropped into that to start.”

“That is a twister,” Flags exclaimed.

“Good observation flags,” Captain Marble Falls said. “I am assuming they said I would not toss you into a twister?”

Flags just nodded his head.

“Well they were right. I am only going to drop them into it. She wants Wonderbolts, and Shadow knows what recon requires.”

“So apparently I definitely know more than I know I know,” Shadow stated.

Captain Marble Falls sighed. “I can't seem to keep ahead of you two. To a degree, you predicted a twister.”

“They were apart of it too,” Shadow said pointing to the others.

“He thinks you have a checklist,” Arrow bounced back. “For him getting into recon.”

“Nope,” The Captain smiled. “I am the checklist.”

She sent them on their way. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire stood on the cloud looking down into it. There was an unnerving lack of instructors or anypony where they were.

“Sorry,” Shadow said.

“Sorry? For what?”

Shadow just pushed her off the cloud and into the vortex. If she said anything, it was sucked away before it reached him. Shadow leaned over, relaxed and fell as loosely as he could into the cloud. He kept his eyes closed for a bit, feeling things out.

When he felt he had it, Shadow opened his eyes and began to fly with the vortex. He first attempt to slip out slammed him back into the middle where he sucked away and taken where it wanted him to go. He had hit a harder wall than his head on collision the day before.

Shadow had no idea where Cardinal Spitfire was. She could have already escaped, or be lying somewhere injured, the second being very unlikely. Seeing where you were was impossible and there was no way to navigate. It was like your vision was also torn away by the wind.

Shadow set himself back into feeling the wind. When he felt he was connected he made a second attempt, only to find himself hitting a solid wall again and spinning out of control.

Captain Marble Falls chuckled as Arrow and Flags were kicked out to be caught in clouds placed there for safety. The other squads were having just as much trouble. But the other Units were not hers, so it was less satisfying. Very satisfying, just not absolutely completely satisfying.

Besides Cardinal Spitfire, there were the four others from their barracks who were wanting to go to Aerial Combat School. But they were not in Units together and they seemed to have forgotten everything they were supposed to learn. Then again, this was all weather that would ground any groups except maybe the Wonderbolts. And even she wouldn't go into these conditions unless it was absolutely necessary. And there were few necessary reasons to risk these.

Shadow forced himself to relax. He had been in for almost two hours and still had not see any sign of Cardinal Spitfire. He only knew the time from his armor's heads up display. It was all he used it for right now.

Every attempt to follow the wind and then slip out with it failed. It was time to think backwards. The cyclone was strong enough to keep him inside when he followed it's rules. Which meant he had to break it's rules. The first was the direction he was going in.

Shadow slipped backwards and was facing the strongest he had ever flown against. He let it pushed him back as he slipped closer and closer to the wall. He could hear his wing's armor shred the wind. He slipped to the side more and more.

Soon Shadow was in a lot of pain as his wing was trying to be ripped back. It was now or never. Shadow pulled himself into his wing. At the same time he flipped it open for optimal surface area. He used it to block his body and roll out of it's grasp.

Shadow was free but in a nasty spin out. When he finally got his eyes to stop looking at two different spots he opened his wings and pulled up, gliding back to the flight deck. He never made it as his wing gave out. Shadow was falling helplessly with a wing that was unable to bear any weight.

As he began to try and glide down with a single wing he was picked out of the sky and before he knew it, set down on the flight deck besides the Captain.

She just looked at him and then at the Wonderbolt who had brought him.

“DAMN IT FILLY FOOLER!”

Shadow shook his head trying to clear it from the noise of the wind and her yell.

“Where is Cardinal Spitfire?” The Captain asked focusing on the wind track.

“No idea,” He said as he tried to pop his ear. “I couldn't see her after I kicked her in first.”

Captain Marble Falls almost fell over laughing. “You are going to get it for that move.”

“Calculated risk. And now I am putting everything on her not hurting an injured teammate.”

“What did you do Filly Fooler?” She growled, looking at him.

“Busted my wing getting free. Could only do it because of the armor.”

“How exactly did you get free?” She asked with her jaw tight.

Shadow explained his method.

“You sliced a hole in that and slid out!” The Captain exclaimed. “That… is impossible. That should have failed as well. I ramped that thing up so high not even in my armor could I escape!”

She shook her head annoyed. “Get out of your armor and lets get ice on that wing.”

Shadow came back with and ice pack on. “Ma'am?”

“Yes?”

“How was I supposed to get free?”

“Let it spit you out,” She said annoyed. “There is supposed to be no way out. Apparently that is flawed thinking, but it obviously came with grave consequences that could have proved deadly. And yes, there are a few Wonderbolts watching for safety. She has not exited.”

Shadow laid down and watched them work on the wind patterns. Captain Marble Falls worked them all through lunch. Weather was her forte and guilty pleasure. Mid afternoon, the first team made it past the last headwind and was given leave to rest.

It wasn't much later that Cardinal Spitfire was shot out of the twister. Her panicked screams were very easy to hear. She also was snagged and brought in.

“Damn it Shadow! That wasn't funny!” She said stumbling over. Her anger was sucked away and converted into just enough energy to keep her standing. “Did you hurt your wing?”

Shadow just nodded.

“How?” She asked very concerned.

“I used it to slice a hole in the wall to slip through,” Shadow replied with no emotion. “Not smart. Well, smart, but I was sent into an unrecoverable fall. Hence the ice pack.”

Cardinal Spitfire shook her head. “I can't be mad at you right now!” Cardinal Spitfire stomp the ground, pouting a bit. “I want to, but can't. And not because you are injured. I don't know why. I just can't.”

Captain Marble Falls turned to look at them. “Cardinal Spitfire, you are free for the day. You can remove your gear.”

“Are we doing skills Captain?”

“Shadow?” Captain Marble Falls asked.

“Nothing physical,” Shadow decided. “I do want to see if they could apply anything they have learned on the ground to out there.”

“This will be an interesting session. Very valuable for future training.”

Cardinal Spitfire joined them after a little while. He braids were wet from a shower. She laid down next to Shadow to watch the others with him.

“I am glad we are not in that,” She said to him after a while.

“We would have been able to conquer it our first go, even that last headwind. Our flying has improved so much.”

“That headwind holds nothing compared to that twister. I hate that course, but now you made me wish we could attack it together, but somepony had to hurt himself.”

“We will see it tomorrow in the squad,” Shadow replied. “And we will figure out a way for all of us to deal with it.”

“Progress on the others?”

“They come around every so often, but I can't really tell much from here.”

Shadow stood up. “Lets go for a walk.”

They quietly walked around for a while before Shadow sat down in one of the two private places in the zone. Cardinal Spitfire laid down beside him, head on the ground. Shadow sighed contently and laid down as well.

“Las Pegasus,” He said softly.

Shadow knew she was awake, but she had decided not to respond.

“I went there to meet up with Early Blossom and Cherry Tart. You remember my response from day two about filly foolers not being good for a farm where I am from, and hurts the community. Still holds true. Cherry Tart is pregnant.”

Cardinal Spitfire's ears perked up.

“A farm can't survive unless it is also producing foals. I had some things to work out in my head over the whole thing. The letter they sent me telling me she was pregnant, it forced it to weigh heavily on my mind. Hence me slamming into the wall. The Captain figured things out and knocked some sense into me last night. She had the advantage of escorting me to the family emergency.”

Shadow sighed and put his head on the ground besides her's. He had to close his eyes before he could continue.

“She is pregnant because of me, from me, by me, something me. That is where I was getting caught up on. Still am. The whole thing was done with medical science. I was the donor and then they took mine and then took all of her and did… it.”

“I much prefer the quiet simplicity of two ponies getting married, having fun getting intimate and letting the magic happen. The wonders of pregnancy and birth. Simple. Wondrous. A miracle. This was anything but that. It took all of that away.”

“I am honored that they asked me. It wasn't because I was family, but what I represent. I became a key part of their farm before joining, and now am even a bigger part. They will never give up the bedroom they gave me. It is mine for life. I will end up there to live out my days. I didn't even think about not… donating.”

“But since, I have been working through shame. I didn't realize that as honored as I was, as easy of a decision it was, that I felt ashamed. Not for helping them… but because I had it twisted in my head that it somehow effects me and my future love life. That I already cheated on my special somepony by helping my sister and her… spouse.”

“You are so stupid.”

Shadow opened his eyed to find Cardinal Spitfire's looking at him. He picked his head up to look her eye to eye.

“So stupid. But your simplicity...” Cardinal Spitfire planted a slow kiss on his cheek. “And yet you didn't even think before feeding me to that vortex.”

Shadow chuckled and she joined in.

“I had no idea what to do. I just instinctively tossed you in first. I do not understand how I never got any sign of your existence in the vortex.”

“I was as lost and scared as you were I guess.”

She put her head softly on the ground. “This isn't two scared…”

“I understand that no matter what, it is scary,” Shadow replied. “Has anypony here spoken to you about any of… it?”

“No,” She said. “But we are teammates in a squad. And after this…”

“Recon,” Shadow said smiling at her. “And then after that, eventually you test and pass and become a Wonderbolt. And eventually you settle into a Unit assigned to some base. And I will be settled into a Unit at some base. There are plenty of bases. And then we both will retire. And who will we retired to?”

“That is what I was told a few weeks back,” Shadow explained. “With assurance that there are a lot of military families with both parents active duty Enclave soldiers. Actually, it was Lieutenant Glitter after watching us together, working and leading naturally.”

“And Captain Marble Falls,” Shadow said slowly. “Well she didn't give any warning that it was bad. She only said more about our ability to work together. She told me I needed to tell you because together would would overcome it. That we have overcome everything they have thrown at us, and that life has as well.”

“You use gambling references,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Have you ever gambled?”

“Yes, but not for bits. Not for anything serious except pride. And that did get heated. You had your chips and you won and lost and you didn't turn them in at the end. You held them for next time, with whoever you were playing. Luck always seemed to tilt my way. On top of being smarter than they are. Why?”

“This is a huge gamble. Both of us have to put every chip in. And… I have never gambled so I can’t continue with the metaphor.”

They laughed together. Shadow let all of the air in out and laid his head onto Cardinal Spitfire's. They quietly stayed like that for a while until the noise by the Squad Barracks indicated the others had been released for dinner.

They continued in silence as they entered and got their food. When they sat down at the table, everything changed. They were no longer alone and they were pulled into the conversations and stories.

Chapter 21 - Flying

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“Good morning,” Captain Marble Falls said. She was very chipper this morning. “Go eat. Free warm up and then we will hit the course. It is the same one.”

They ate fast and took off to warm up. Shadow did some sprints and then a few wing ups. He looked around for Cardinal Spitfire. She had finished eating first and then disappeared.

Shadow almost fell over as something landed on his back.

“Ready partner?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Wing is feeling fine,” Shadow said looking up at her. “But we might need to switch sides in the formation to rest it. We will see.”

“Nah, I know you have it, I have it, our squad has it.

Shadow walked over to line up with the others. Cardinal Spitfire stayed on his back. It was weird, but not a problem.

“Cardinal Spitfire,” Captain Marble Falls said as she turned her attention to Unit 41. She stood there looking at Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow for a minute before continuing. “Cardinal Spitfire, you have lead.”

“YES!” She said launching herself off of Shadow's back. She did a front flip and landed right in front of the Captain. The Captain didn't look impressed and walked away.

“Stubnose bullet formation,” Cardinal Spitfire happily declared.

“A what?” Arrow said.

“Form up,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered. “Ignoring that Shadow and I are facing you.”

“In more,” Cardinal directed. “More. And there.”

They were right off each other's rear legs.

“That is the bullet. If you were to take two steps back, that would be a SP, or soft point. If we dropped it down to one at the front, then it would be spitzer. The final formation is putting one at the rear, in between the last two. That will make the boat tail.”

“What is up with the names?” Arrow asked.

“All different bullet types,” Shadow explained. “Depending on what you want the bullet to do, they have a shape for it. Below, the wasteland doesn't seem to keep track. What matters if it fits in the gun. For us, it usually won't matter as well. The QM or mission leads will make that call.”

“Back to the stubnose,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed. “Take two steps forward.”

“That gives us barely room to flap,” Chocolate said. “And if one spins out we all go out.”

“Yes,” Cardinal Spitfire admitted. “Trust us and you wont. If Shadow does a pitch fluter, you will elongate until he does it again. Same with me. These will help us adjust to varying winds and patterns.”

“Bullet formations?” Captain Marble Falls said walking over. “Tough, tough formations. Filly Foolers could handle it, but are you sure you are not overstepping things?”

“I hate being compared to them,” Flags groaned.

“I am confident Ma'am,” Cardinal Spitfire chirped. “Very confident.”

She was acting more like Arrow than her usual, focused and serious self.

Cardinal Spitfire turned her attention back to the squad. “One last piece you need to know. Shadow and I may switch lead. If I drop a bit, Shadow will pick it up. There is a good chance you won't notice the change. I can lead from any position. Filly Foolers figured that out. It is an invaluable trick.”

“We learned with them,” Shadow said. “But they went off to other trainings because they wanted to. Even though they were offered this school, they wanted what they joined up for. Silver Bar is becoming a mechanic. But you are all here for a reason. We handled the ground flight course the other day fine. More than fine. On every run except for my error.”

Shadow smiled. “Yes, Squad Filly Foolers was unlike anything anything seen here before. But it was all because of Cardinal Spitfire and our trust in her. We knew that if she made the call, we could do it. Same for here.”

“Lets do this,” Arrow agreed. “Worst thing that happens is that we epically fail! Right Flags?”

Flags sighed. “If you think I can handle it, then I will.”

Cardinal Spitfire smiled and turned around. On her mark, they began to move and then took off. They handled the first few patters fine. Cardinal Spitfire put them into a roll which slipped them through another. Speed was not the focus, which surprised the others.

Shadow called for and elongation and they slipped through. Challenge after challenge they twisted, turned, rolled and zagged, coming out the other side with ease. They had to fight through a tough crosswind. Cardinal Spitfire actually rolled each wing towards and through each other other halfway through, to switch who was taking the beating.

As they slipped through. Shadow pulled up and dropped back. They formed up into the boat tail and took the massive headwind on. Their wind resistance was dropped, making it easier to push through. Once they did, they dropped out formation as they came in to land on the flight deck.

“Interesting move Shadow,” Captain Marble Falls said with an eyebrow raised. “What made you adjust?”

“Last time we faced that headwind, there was no way one could shield the other. Now in a formation, we needed our strongest at the tip. We needed a real tip. Cardinal Spitfire is better, so I dropped back, adjusting out formation as a whole to more steam lined and it cut the stress on the others, making the formation as a whole easier to maintain.”

Captain Marble Falls walked away. “First time and you made it. The wind course has nothing more to teach you. We pick up after lunch.”

“Nothing more to teach us? Dipper asked. “I don't feel like it taught me anything?”

“Oh?” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Think about how we pitch and roller to overcome patters on our own. Patterns that pulled you apart the day before. At hard winds, we shifted to give a break to the side that was getting pounded. You can not do what we did in a two pegasus team. A team must power through, but our Unit didn't fight the wind.”

“She is right,” Chocolate admitted. “It was tough, but not as bad as yesterday.”

“These winds would ground all teams,” Shadow reminded them. “The back half isn't supposed to be beaten. Yes, we did. And so will most of the Units by the day's end. This is ACS. Passing and grounding are two different games. Here it is controlled. We can be rescued and risk of injure is reduced. Outside here, failing will mean injuries, if we are lucky.”

“What will be after lunch?” Flags asked? “You seem to know everything Shadow.”

“No idea. Not a clue.” Shadow shook his head.

“Excuse me,” A corporal asked trotting over to them. “I just got transferred here recently and they sent me to deliver a letter. I think I am turned around. However, I am looking for a Shadow Flare.”

“You are looking at him,” Shadow smiled.

“Oh, then I have a letter for you,” She said extending it.

“Thank you,” Shadow said as he took it.”

The others pointed the Corporal back to the main camp.

“Well?” Arrow asked.

“A letter from home,” Shadow answered. “My Father's name. I am going to read this in the Unit.”

“A nap sounds good,” Flags said. “Unless that is a problem?”

“Not at all,” Shadow said as he began to walk to the unit.

Dear Son,

I am writing on behalf of the family and the community. Community first. They are all impressed as to how well you did. You have taken on such a responsibility and they all look up to you. You words have sparked great discussion about how to better farm. Even one more row of Parsnips from each farm will stack up fast.

Our differences are noted and the word is being spread around. Sky Breaker is working hard to build a stronger relationship between the farms here and the Enclave. We want to do our part. We got him to get the standard textbooks.

We will never let the stories go. They are as much apart of the community as our farms. Even with the textbooks, we will never be able to teach all that is 'required'. We have our foundation and it will not be shaken. We need hooves on the farm, not in the classroom. Black is going over everything and will be presenting a new school program for vote.

It will only make things better. Even being simple farmers, we need to be able to understand and work with ponies outside the community. Our harvests will be strong this year. Things are going well. Several deaths, but nothing that breaks a farm. Grandparents are passing as nature intended.

Your nickname has brought joy to this family and the community as a whole. It is prestigious, despite its start. The meeting house was filled with laughter as Cherry Tart launched into the whole story. It was a good end to a difficult meeting. We had read your letter and been discussing the differences. I also think it helped Early Blossom's and Cherry Tart's image.

Now to family. I am so happy that on their journey, Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were able to visit for the two days. It was good to hear them talk about you and your success. Your value to the community over self is impressive, to all when they heard. But it was agreed that number four, you need to own that with strong self pride. Like having a strong thriving farm that others look up to.

Cherry Tart is pregnant. They would not speak much about the rest of their trip. It makes total sense. I guess they chose a donor off of a list they had. I am a proud father. Confused, but proud. Some times things do not make sense and you just have to go with it.

Dream Catcher is seeing a nice stallion from El Nino. She met him while on a supplies run. He has yet to have the time to make the trip out to the farm, but I went with her the other day to town to meet him. He works at the local clinic and loves to care for ponies.

Dream Catcher has become a very important part of the community as a compassionate and kind healer who is very good at her job. She had learned a lot fast and she travels a lot because of it.

I bought her some medical book things to increase her knowledge and her healing garden now is as big as the barn. It covers all of the front of the house. We now have to follow established paths, which I hate, but this is not like that wheat infestation a few summers back. It is for helping others. It already has helped the family.

Spice Cake's marriage and leaving the house has made things quiet. We miss her, and she is always welcome, but the quiet is saddening. However, Lunar is carrying a foal. It will not be Dream Catcher's first time bringing a foal into their world. She has helped twice and led three more.

I know that your new home is with Early Blossom and Cherry Tart's farm. But know that when you do come home, you will always be welcomed. You are our son, forever. Nothing could take that away.

You are holding strong to your foundation and will not topple while you do. You have already proven you have not budged even a tad and it took you great places. Continue and you will do even more.

We all send our love,

Dad

P.S. I forgot to tell you just how amazing those cloaks are. They kept us warm all winter long and the rain we have gotten, only our hooves are getting wet. I would have ripped a regular cloak a few times, but this shows no sign of those incidences. Thank you again.


Shadow set the letter down. He was smiling and felt content. It was really good to hear from the family. It was a better felling that he expected.

“Good news?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Yes,” Shadow smiled. “Things are going very well at home. My oldest sister Lunar is also pregnant and my younger sister has become an amazing healer. It is going to be a good harvest and they are having heated discussions on how to increase crop yield for the years to come. Among other great things.”

“Do they know all… you know?”

“Only that they visited me,” Shadow said.

“You know we are right here?” Flags pointed out.

“Sorry,” Shadow said.

“Whatever it is, I am glad she finally know,” Flags said angling his hat to better cover his eyes.

Shadow rolled onto his back and just enjoyed the time to relax. He wished there was more to write. Nothing had happened since his last letter. But that didn't meant he didn't mean he couldn't write.


Family,

Nothing else has really changed. I got a your letter and a little free time after we did better than our instructor expected. It was great to hear from you. It was great to hear that the community is still the same, even though they are realizing how things are different outside, and they are not letting it change their foundation.

I will not let them change mine either. I will take good pride in my individual placement. Especially since my battle buddy, Cardinal Spitfire, placed first. And now in my aerial combat training, they have us paired again and we have been tearing up the sky. We can read each other without speaking while we fly at speeds that few can achieve.

I love my new Unit in this school. We are all doing well together. If you can not trust your squadmates, you are in major trouble, like not helping another farm.

I am so happy that Dream is doing all that. I wish I could pull her in for a tight hug. I am thrilled for both Cherry Tart and Lunar Harvest. I can not wait to meet their fouls. I love the miracle of birth and the special time of pregnancy.

And hearing the cloaks have held out so well in their first year is wonderful and highly promising. But it is back to work for me.

Love,

Shadow

P.S. I was promoted to Sergeant.

Captain Marble Falls looked angry when they met her after lunch. Relaxed angry. “Since you all do so well with wind, I had to figure out what to do next. It is back to the reactive city scape. Filly Fooler's lead.”

“His lead?” Cardinal Spitfire said shocked.

“He will need it's lessons most,” The Captain responded. “I have it all set up. I am needed at the wind course.”

“Can you elaborate?” Cardinal Spitfire.

Captain Marble Falls sighed. “It is a direct simulation of the final run below the clouds. The only thing that could be added is bullets and explosives. Captain Nova helped design it from his experience. If he wants to survive, he will need to be able to make the choices on his own. His life and the life of his comrades depend on it.”

Shadow didn't give them a chance to ask any more questions as he took lead, forcing them to follow.

“How much do you know about this whole things?” Flags asked as the touched down at the start.

“Fast, bloody and chaotic,” Shadow said. “Two of six survived and the probability of them killing any of their attackers was next to nothing. They could barely spot any of them and despite their speed, they got cut to pieces. But that was scouts, not a direct landing force.”

The previous courses were not like this was. They often ended up circling around, using most of the course. Shadow kept them in tighter than Flags had. It made the difference, allowing them to pick up more speed. Many of the turns were jolting and tough, but they were now flying for their lives, not just doing it for skill training.

As they came out, Shadow made sure they dove and dodged, weaving them safely back to a good distance where it would be impossible to hit them. They came up and landed next to the Captain.

“Damn it Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls growled. “You survived and with great speed.”

“I would say more than that.”

“Major Winters Breath,” Captain Marble Falls said. “I was not aware you were on your way here.”

“Nor was I until I decided the other day.”

The Major looked at Shadow thinking.

“Good choice on the armor Captain. I assume it was you.”

“Yes, it was.”

“Sir?” Cardinal Spitfire spoke up. “Have you been below?”

“No,” The Major replied.

“So, you are flying this mission blind.” Cardinal Spitfire stated.

“In way. But I am leading it based off the previous information gathered. Failure is the best teacher. In this case, it was very painful as well. We bled. That is what we are trying to fix. I think we are ready. But there is no one who can lead below the clouds right now. The individual had to back out. We have a few we are approaching.”

Cardinal Spitfire pushed things. “I understand that somepony, some pegasus, else is still active duty and went below the clouds. With Captain Nova.”

The Major looked at Shadow.

“Throw me out to lead, I had to confide with somepony,” Shadow said. “My wingmate and second needed to know why I was being tossed into leadership like I was. So I explained the balance. What would you have me do?”

“Do what you had to do and adapt,” Major Winters Breath finally said. “If she is going to be a Wonderbolt, she will need to learn discretion. But no harm was done. You both are too smart for that. Your squadmates are good too. As to the other, they are indisposed. They have made it clear they will only go below if their hoof is forced. For very understandable reasons.”

“But Shadow, How do you like the power armor?”

“I love it,” Shadow grinned. “So much better than the regular combat armors. It doesn't shift, its lighter and magnifies my movements, as well as protect my limbs. The two gun option is nice.”

“Good. I have a set ready for you. We are ready with that at least.”

“I have him for another 6 weeks,” Captain Marble Falls reminded him.

“Of course,” The Major replied. “You are the master. I lead. I do not teach for a reason. I look forward to the combat section. But I only meant ready with the armor. I need a new lieutenant.”

Major Winters Breath took off. Captain Marble Falls immediately glared at Cardinal Spitfire.

“Discretion,” The Captain said. “That was not discrete. You should not have spoken up in front of others.”

“I wanted to get Shadow more information,” She said holding her ground. “And I do not like him leading it. It is like a blind pegasus leading another blind pegasus. Except the first knows how to read braille and thinks he knows the way to go!”

“Enough,” Shadow said standing in between them. He was afraid of what Cardinal Spitfire might do. She had shifted into a state he had never seen before.

“I know more than you do. And yes, its got its blind moves, but they were worse off when they first sent teams below. I trust the Major with my life, and so should you.”

Cardinal Spitfire jumped when Captain Nova spoke. She had not seen him approach.

“We were truly blind then. The Major has a good plan, a good recon team assembled, with a new lieutenant being settled upon. Shadow Flare will more than be able to handle himself.”

“Thank you Sir,” Shadow said. “I know you never touched down, but that is very encouraging.”

“You look well today Sir,” Captain Marble Falls said.

“I feel much better today dear. Much better.”

Captain Nova looked at Shadow. “I know I never said that. I was a scout, but scouts touched down before recon did. Twenty-two missions I led, seven of those missions our team touched down. Our third mission was the first time Enclave hooves had touched down in almost 200 years. We took soil samples. Lost two good scouts on that mission. Both mares. That was the first Enclave blood spilled below. After that, my squadmates dropped like flies, no matter what armor we wore or what we did. I swear they target mares first.”

“I didn't know that about the other missions,” Captain Marble Falls said.

“Of course not. That would scare ponies and keep them from joining. The Enclave has a lot of mares in it. 35% of all direct combat roles last I checked. Once the real war begins, it won't matter. It only matters for scouts and recon.”

“Even then, the Council doesn't find it sufficient evidence. The do not trust my reports on what order my team died. The only conflicting report for order was the last one… a brand new recruit surviving it along with me. Every other time it was either not stated, or my wingmate backed me. I miss her. She would love you Shadow Flare.”

“Twenty two hot missions with what, another 5 years service prior?” Shadow asked.

“Ten, plus the five years of missions.”

“How many were lost?” Shadow followed up. “We all are going to be some of the first down if it happens while we serve.”

“Twelve recon teams totaling 102 ponies. The nine scout units that were shot out of the sky totaled 162. Another 84 scouts died and in my squads, I lost 68. In five years 416 Enclave soldiers died below the clouds. That is ignoring the 17 that died from radiation and the 42 that died from their wounds later.”

“Scouts was the hottest place to go despite the danger. Very difficult with all of the competition. When I say nine shot out of the sky, I mean all went down in essentially one go. In between, they led other missions and were constantly getting new recruits to fill the ranks. We had 15 new Scout Units ready to go when it all stopped. We put a lot of soldiers directly into the line of fire and paid the price for it on almost every mission.”

“Yet all twelve fucking Wonderbolt missions went off without a hitch,” Captain Nova grumbled.

“Twelve Wonderbolt missions?” Cardinal Spitfire asked shaking.

“Oh yeah,” Captain Nova chuckled. “You want Wonderbolts. Yes, they went below the clouds during that time. I do not think they have gone below since. But you need to stop being afraid. It does not back your skills or talk. Stand on your own. Courage is being afraid, but doing what has to be done despite fear.”

“Shadow? Are you afraid?” Captain Nova asked.

“No Sir,” Shadow said. “I am not. Simply because it is out of my control. I know that I am being prepared as best as possible. I am in this until the end. At least one mission below the clouds. Nowhere to go but forward.”

“That is either stupidity, or courage,” Captain Nova observed. “I lead towards the latter. But when are they due to begin combat training?”

Captain Marble Falls looked at her clipboard. “Snow in the morning and then rain in the afternoon tomorrow. The day after, ice. And then combat. We also have crowd control to teach.”

“A pity,” Captain Nova said before moving topics. “Shadow, how is your family with farming. I hear they are far out?”

Shadow related what they do and what they are trying to do with the information he sent them.”

“I like what you have been taught,” Captain Nova announced. “Hold to it like they say and you will only have to worry about luck. A tricky thing luck, but luck will always be your biggest opponent.”

“Thank you sir.”

“I have been watching Unit 41's progress,” Captain Nova said looking at all of them. “You all look better than good. And the luck factor is low.”

Captain Nova walked away.

“I didn't know he was watching,” Captain Marble Falls told them. “He actually is focused and happy. I haven't seen that in a long time.”

Shadow was looking at his guns. “You think this is going to be enough firepower?”

“The Major would be able to answer that,” Captain Marble Falls said. “It sounds like they have a plan and actual mission. And he said he had power armor for you. I would bet my left wing it is unlike any we have. Mission specific.”

“Are you ready to go below the clouds?” Cardinal Spitfire asked the Captain. “Being a Wonderbolt?”

“I am ready to do my duty,” She replied stoically. “And I am way down that list. They need me to teach so that others can go below.”


“Yesterday you faced blistering cold and then blinding rain,” Captain Marble Falls stated. “I bet you are glad I didn't reverse it.”

They all chuckled.

“This morning is ice. Ice grounds everypegasus. It is tricky to fight off small amounts, yet it is something we do not always have the luxury to avoid. Not in an Aerial Combat Unit. So I am going to ice you and then let you work out how to survive to get to safety. This time, it is purely survival based.”

Captain Marble Falls smile. “Somepegasus go!”

A dozen bolted but one from Unit 3 got airborne and hit the track first. In another minute, she was flown back and set down in front of them.

“Good,” The Captain said looking her over. “More than sufficient.”

“What do you see?”

Nopony answer so Shadow spoke up. “2mms on the tip of her wing, at least 5mm on the inside. Each feather has at least 0.5mm of ice. There is 6mm at the joint, blocking the fore…”

“Fuck you Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls cursed. “Get up here and teach. I forgot you lived up north.”

Shadow went on to explain what is okay build up, where to watch out for, including other body parts. The mane freezing to a wing is a major concern. If your eyelids iced, then you had seeing problems. He continued on how to deice your body and wings properly and then how to do it in the air. He also covered where it was acceptable to let ice build up and how much.

“You turn Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls said when Shadow was finished. “Hit the track!”

Shadow took a few running steps and then put on the breaks.

“I SAID GO!”

“One moment,” He said looking himself over and moving his armor.

“GO!”

“I can't. I know my body, not my armor.”

“You can't!” She screamed.

“GOT IT!” Shadow declared. He snapped his wings out all the way. The armor rang out clear and with a sickening sound as it sliced through the air.

Shadow took of as fast as he could and quickly disappeared in the snowstorm. They waited and nothing seemed to happen.

The ground shook as a frozen Shadow dropped down heavily behind the units. He whipped out his wings, sending shards of ice slicing into the ground. The units split as he slowly walked to the Captain.

Ice cracked and fell off in crystal clear chunks as he brought his hoof up to his mouth to remove his mask.

“I love this armor,” He said as he finished breaking off the ice. “This mask is great. The wings are flexible enough that I was able to deice them well enough. Like I said, I love this armor. Only way I could make it through. Can't just fly straight. I dipped, turned, rolled, zagged then zigged, balled myself up and then unrolled. It worked.”

“Damn it Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls said with her head in her hoof. “I should have seen this coming.”

Shadow shrugged. “I barely made it. I am not exactly sure how I made it out. I was thoroughly iced at least three times that should have dropped me.”

“I know you know ice. I iced you hard in basic. Everypegasus else, go get iced out!”

They all dashed off to hit the track.

High pitched, genuine laughter rang out behind them after they were alone.

“Captain and Major,” Captain Marble Falls said.

“You really have a knack at slipping through the crack,” Captain Nova laughed.

“Captain Marble Falls, how long will the others be out there?” Major Winters Breath asked.

“All morning Sir.”

“Shadow, I have never flown with you, let's go.”

Shadow followed his lead and they took off. The Major had different plans as he nodded and slipped into wing position. Shadow began work him through the paces. He had to pull back a lot because the Major was not able to keep up.

Shadow leveled off and the Major slid up besides him.

“That was wonderful flying. Have you thought about the Wonderbolts?”

“I have trained hard, but my top speed still won't hit that marker. Its just not there for me. If I was bigger maybe.”

“You small size is an advantage. You wing strength is high and your small body means low drag.”

“Was there something else you wanted to speak about? If you wanted to see me fly, you had a lot of better opportunities before this random one.”

“You are blowing me away. I have not seen anypegasus push like you do. Come out on top so high, And yet, you don't do it alone, but can. It is more than admirable. General Red River saw things I could not. Still do not. But I do not teach for a reason.”

“Heck, I do not even have a background in this. I was tasked to rebuild the recon teams. I talked a lot with Captain Nova, and Marble Falls was no help. We have been rebuilding over 3 years. Marble Falls was offered my job, including Colonel rank. She told them to fuck off and joined the Wonderbolts.”

Shadow laughed. “I can see that happening.”

“Cardinal Spitfire is right, and I fear that. We just don't have an option.”

“Captain Nova spoke with us after you left. He told us the statistics, and how we have no choice. But he left praise with us all. Besides, Marble Falls makes an amazing teacher.”

“You have only seen that soft side. The other… well she hides a lot.”

The Major did some lazy rolls.

“Shadow, I know your performance, but how are you holding up? The others, I didn't have to worry about them being pushed like you are. You are in training and they are in jobs waiting to be officially ordered to assemble. Two of them are so bored they are working on trivial, useless shit and have been for two years.”

“I am fine. More than fine. I have been getting and sending letters to my family and to the community. They are going to figure out if they can plant more. They do not like the food… concerns that others have. They don't want others to suffer. They are proud of what I have been doing.”

“I am where I am because of them. And I will never forget that. A strong foundation makes a strong house. Forget who you are, and a simple house will never stand. I will end up back home in the end. I am no farming pony by their standards, but I see how I am more. I will just stay away from planting.”

“But two of my sisters are pregnant, the other is seeing somepony from the closest town. When she has the time. She has turned out to be an amazing healer and is kept busy across half the district. As far as I know, my last sister is doing well. Nothing to write about. I missed her wedding.”

“Shadow, what does family mean to you?”

Shadow thought for a few minutes. “I do not know. It means everything. Without it, I would be lost. Same with the community. I am doing this for so much more than I can explain. Not even for me. I made the best move for me within my family and community.”

“I was caught up on the family emergency.”

Shadow let out a sad laugh. “I miss them all. Early Blossom and Cherry Tart have a room, my room. From staying and helping them all the time I did. Whenever my duty is done, that is where I will go home to. It isn't far from my parents and sisters and it still is within the community.”

“Shadow, I have my own family. A wife and two colts. When I became an officer, my wife didn't sign back up. She didn't so we could all stay together. That was the goal until I was thrown onto this assignment and have been traveling so much. I get home when I can and even though it is stressful at times, I am not blamed. But it is hard. I miss them.”

“Still, I don't find identity in my family like you do. It makes it so you do things we thought impossible. Slicing up a twister, flying iced out, surviving day one. I just do not get it. I can't grasp it, but I can see and do all I can to help you with it. It isn't going to be an easy mission. A long one.”

“I didn't sign up for easy,” Shadow said. “I signed up to do what I am best at.”

“That has turned out to be a lot of things.”

“Isn't that better for recon?”

“Much, much better. But it would also make a lot of good jobs. You could probably get to Wonderbolts. Recon will only help that. I am glad I am not qualified for this mission. I know I would not make it. But I know that I am just a standard soldier, who was able to make it as an officer. I am not special, like the recon team.”

“We have armor that will make the Mark 4 seem like paper. We have newly designed weapons and all that you need for survival. And there is this program, E.F.S.”

“Captain Marble Falls already got me rolling on that.”

“Excellent. She has predicted my orders phenomenally. I wish I could get her to lead this fucking mission. It would be over a lot faster because of the soldier she is. You two are more alike than I can tell you.”

“We are friends. That has been openly defined between us.”

“Good, very good. But we got off where I was trying to head. Family is everything, but what about your family goals?”

“You have had us in training and hard training since the start. And separate goals… different schools… I have been told to plan and go for it. Things can work out, including stations.”

“What school did she end up at?”

“Does it matter? And you and I know that I am really not at ACS. This is all recon training.”

“You have a point about the training difference. We did… that leadership thing. You need a training device, like every other soldier. We are putting that to ACS since it was happening. But, are you going to at least give it a try with whoever it is?”

“Well… at this point… both sides are undecided. It is kind of hard to make a move when we are at separate schools and separate jobs after. I know I will not be going to a normal station, and soon after, will go below. She… will be normal. It makes it hard when there is no way to be together if we were together.”

“Good point, but I do not see either of you failing. I know what you were like with Cardinal Spitfire as your battle buddy. I know whoever she is, she has a strong head too. It can work, and you will not be down there for life.”

“The problem is our friendship. If we gamble and lose, the friendship is mixed up in that. I love her too much to do that to her.”

“Do you love her too much to make sure that it doesn't happen? Either way, its going to hurt. Lose the friendship, or live with regret?”

“Never thought of it that way.”

“Family means a lot to you.”

“And that would make her family.”

“Just to think about. If you start to crack, speak up.”

Shadow chuckled. “Captain Marble Falls will find out first. And probably sort me out quickly. She did the other day, but that is a story long gone and a lesson well learned.”

“We should get back. We have been out here a while and I know it is a flight.”

Shadow laughed. “Even with your speed, the flight deck is only five minutes that way!”

“Damn. I never was good at navigation.”

“Black Barracks. They made sure we had no weak points.”

“Yes, they did that very, very well.”

They turned and picked the pace. Shadow wanted to get his hooves on solid ground. And then think about the conversation. Shadow recognized the annoyingly familiar pegasus talking next to Captain Marble Falls. He left the major behind, flipped up and dead dropped.

Lieutenant Autumn Leaf jumped as Shadow came out of nowhere and appeared right next to the Captain and in his face.

“Whoops, a little too close,” Shadow said stepping back. “Still learning that.”

The Captain couldn't stop laughing.

“Alright Filly Fooler,” She said getting a grip on things. “Lunch and then prepare for combat training. And practice that aiming more. You were in motion so it was not straight down. ”

The others were in the mess hall eating.

“There you are!” Cardinal Spitfire smiled.

“The Major took me out for a flight, or well I took him. He is slow. He could not make it in ACS. It is a good thing he won't be groundside. Preparing a mission and leading it are not the same.”

“What did you talk about?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Me. Me mostly. Just getting to know me. It has not been easy on me and he has not had the time to get to know me. He does think that in a few years, I might be able to make it as a Wonderbolt.”

“You are fast and an aerial acrobat,” Arrow pointed out.

“Are you fast enough, or can you become fast enough?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Potentially. For now, recon.”

“Ready for combat?” Flags asked.

“More than ready,” Shadow smiled.

Chapter 22 - Crowd Control

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“Damn it Filly Fooler! And you too Cardinal Spitfire! I trained you both too well. And then I made it worse with Filly Fooler's weapons training.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire were laughing. It was another successful mission and Unit 41 was making it look easy.

They had been put into similar tracks with targets like they were in Basic Training. Then they moved to Units. That was a whole weak. Dog fighting with the training vests was next on the list. Shadow had to get the regular gear for that, but he kept the same rifles.

Their squad dominated the skies again. Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow made sure they built Unit 41 like they had built Filly Foolers. Each individual in their squad was left tenacious and unyielding.

It was day three of ground exercises. They were to take and hold objectives. The catch was that the objective they were assigned had at least one other team trying to take and hold it. It forced them to use aerial combat tactics and face off in ground combat.

Shadow's weapon knowledge was holding the ground, and Cardinal Spitfire was tearing the sky up. they were leaving most of the leading to their squadmates. They proved they could lead, so it was up to the others to prove themselves.

“Tomorrow changes things,” Captain Marble Falls announced. “Tomorrow is the new segment, Crowd Control. You will not need your armor. After that, it is the final practicums and test, in a similar fashion as to what you did in basic. You will not have ground tactics applied like they did. Everything is focused on the get in get out set tactics the ACUs use. Those will include being tested at night, but it won't be extended field time. Go hit the showers.”

Cardinal Spitfire slammed the door to their Unit closed. “Came off a great evening win and then we have to do that shit work tomorrow.”

“Its simple,” Arrow bounced back. “Its not ACS, but it shouldn't be hard.”

“It is bad,” Shadow insisted. “We got a look at things. Twice for me.”

They caught them up on their special assignment and Shadow explained what he did with the Captain in Las Pegasus. He also told them the story about his free day in New Heaven.

“Sounds like that was a fun day though,” Cardinal Spitfire pointed out. “At least you played it cool. And honest. Better than him yelling about shoving his quantum harmonizer into you.”

“What?” Shadow asked.

“Wait? You do not know that joke?” Cardinal Spitfire asked intrigued. “It is some war question thing that has survived. We don't have an answer.”

“That isn't true,” Arrow clarified. “There are four answers, but nopegasus knows which one is right. Or where the thing comes from.”

“He knows pre-war and war legends,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “And yet he doesn't know about this. It is unheard of. Then again, you might have the answer. Okay, the set up is: You are approached by a frenzied Stable scientist, who yells, 'I'm going to put my quantum harmonizer in your photonic resonation chamber!' What's your response?

“A: But doctor, wouldn't that cause a parabolic destabilization of the fission singularity?”

“B: Yeah? Up yours too, buddy!”

“C: Say nothing, grab a nearby pipe and hit the scientist in the head to knock him out. For all you knew, he was planning to blow up the stable.”

“D: Say nothing, but slip away before the scientist can continue his rant.”

Shadow looked at everypony. They wanted to know his answer.

“This is really a thing?” He asked.

“It split my class into a four way feud,” Arrow giggled. “Friendships died. And no matter what, it hasn't been able to be stamped out by the Enclave. If they care. But it is before the sealed up the clouds and they tend to care about those things, a lot.”

“What is a stable?” Shadow asked.

“That is part of the mystery,” Flags said. “It survives because there is no understanding and there is no answer. We just don't know. So your answer?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Slip away quietly.”

“Damn it!” Cardinal Spitfire swore. “Wrong answer! The right one is up yours!”

“You said 'up yours'?” Arrow gawked. “I thought you were the pipe pegasus.”

“I went and still am pipe,” Flags chuckled.

“Destabilization,” Dipper popped in.

“Shadow, I am with you,” Chocolate said. “Slip away. I had to do that twice who some of my classmates wanted to get physical over my answer.”

“You keep this alive?” Shadow asked. “I can't believe this. But it is too well formed.”

“He also has visited Rainbow Dash's secret training cave,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed.

“Back to this?” Shadow groaned as he had to tell the basic story. He kept the dangerous details out. When he finished, they turned the lights off, and like good trainees, were asleep in minutes.

The morning they had a whole new instructor. He was simply known as Bull. They did not expect the labyrinth that crowd control would bring. Riot shields, cuffs, stun batons, pepper spray and more. Their job was learning how to stop and control a group that had gotten violent and chaotic.

“I CAN'T PIN SHADOW TO CUFF HIM!” Cardinal Spitfire growled as Shadow stood up and she slipped off onto the ground. “Bull! Prove you can!”

“I don't take orders from trainees,” Bull said sternly.

“You don't what?” Shadow said walking over to Bull.

“Back at it.”

“No.”

“What?”

“Make me.”

“Not going to work,” Bull grunted. “You fail this, you fail Aerial Combat School. I don't give a shit if you pass or fail.”

“Cool, because I am here for aerial combat training, not the school. I can fail this. It isn't aerial combat.”

Bull looked at Shadow. They stared down. It was obvious that Bull had no soul from his eyes. Shadow guessed that in order to do this stuff to others, you had to have no soul. None of this was conductive to society. It was power. All about power. At least combat was about a different form of power. This was torture and abuse.

Shadow bopped Bull on the chest. He did it again a half a minute later. By now, everypony was watching. Shadow smiled and did it again, but two at a time. Shadow rolled his eyes and plunged into Bull, chest to chest as he tried to move him.

Bull struck. Shadow twisted in his grip so they were side by side and used Bull weight against himself. Bull toppled and tried to pin Shadow. Shadow slipped out and around. Bull Stood up, thinking Shadow had broken contact. Shadow was holding onto Bull's neck and his chin was resting on his head.

Bull tossed Shadow to the ground, not letting go. Shadow twisted around and rolled away at a satisfying 'click' echoed. Shadow stood up and Bull looked at his back legs. Shadow had cuffed Bull's hind legs with Bull's own cuffs. Shadow didn't even have a pair because he was being cuffed first.

Cardinal Spitfire and Captain Marble Falls were outright laughing.

“Shadow,” Major Winters Breath called out sternly. “That is not conductive to training. Even if it is not apart of your requirements. It now is.”

“Fine,” Shadow said rolling his eyes. “If you or the Captain can subdue me.”

Major Winters Breath was fuming, but he didn't come down the steps of the Squad Barracks.

“I'll play ball,” Captain Marble Falls said. “Watch and learn.”

Shadow threw himself at her like he had see in Las Pegasus. She slammed his back onto the ground. Shadow swung his legs up and around her shoulders where he flipped her on her side. It broke contact and Shadow took a step back.

“This is when you use pepper spray,” Captain Marble Falls said.

Shadow didn't know she had a can and she sprayed him. The burn was the burn. In his eyes, nose, throat and lungs. But he still read her moved and avoided her from cuffing him.

Shadow grunted as a sharp pain was jolted into his hindquarters. He forced his leg's muscles to do what he wanted them to do and drove a sharp kick into Bull's chest, which also broke the stun baton. Captain Marble Falls looked at Shadow.

“What are you?” Bull asked.

“Not a good pony to try and subdue,” Shadow said. “A farm pony who grew up working hard and in control of his body.”

“Damn it Filly Fooler!” Captain Marble Falls said walking away. “Stop trying to resist period. Don't put up a fight. Just let the other do the exercise. Or you will fail the aerial combat portion.”

“Fail me then,” Shadow said.

Captain Marble Falls was speechless.

“Shadow?” Cardinal Spitfire asked. “You have nothing to prove. If this was all about not begin able to be subdued, you won. What is up?”

Shadow took off into the sky, leaving them behind.

“DAMN IT CAPTAIN YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO CONTROL HIM!” The Major yelled.

“Control him? He is YOUR subordinate to control! I never took on responsibility for controlling him. I am not stupid.”

“If you had taken the assignment in the first place this would not be happening!”

“Take the assignment? You know why I won't! And you know that has nothing to do with it!”

“I need him! I have nopony else lined up that can do the job we need from him. Every other option is shit! Do you want this mission to fail!”

“Do I? Nopegasus has ever asked me that yet! YES! I DO WANT IT TO FAIL! IT IS STUPID! WE ARE NOT READY!”

“THERE IS NO READY POINT!”

“I AM GIVING IT MY ALL, MAKING SURE HE IS READY FOR YOUR MISSION!”

“YOU JUST SAID YOU THINK ITS STUPID!”

“I DO! I DON'T WISH IT UPON ANYPONY! AND I MEAN ANY PONY! BUT I DON'T TRUST ANY PONY WITH TRAINING HIM! I FIND IT MY DUTY TO MAKE SURE HE LIVES THROUGH YOUR STUPID PLAN!”

“YOU WERE GIVEN THE OPTION TO MAKE ONE, BUT YOU TURNED IT DOWN! THEY TOSSED IT TO ME FOR SOME FUCKING REASON AND THERE WAS NO PASSING IT AFTER THAT! DO YOU REALLY HAVE A BETTER ONE?”

“BETTER AND STUPID ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS! AND IF YOU NEED HIM, WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME? YOU SHOULD BE FIGURING THAT PLAN OUT!”

They were out of breath and out of words. All they had left in them was to stare at the other with all the anger they could muster.

“While you were screaming at each other, I have a solution,” Cardinal Spitfire said calmly.

“What is it?” The Major growled.

“Not without out giving me something first,” Cardinal Spitfire said with an evil grin.

The door to the Squad Barracks banged open. Captain Nova was standing there. He spoke kindly yet firm.

“Cardinal Spitfire, please come here. Major, you are an idiot. Dear, you are letting the stress get to your head. Let's talk in your office in a bit. Let Shadow go. You two officers should be ashamed at yourselves. Especially you MAJOR. You claim to have gotten to know him, yet you do not. And you put too much on his shoulders. There are others that you do not see. You are striving for perfection when that does not exist. Bull, get them back to learning these unfortunate necessities.”

Captain Nova led Cardinal Spitfire down the main hall and out the other set of doors that looked out over the empty recruit flight decks.

“It is not as bad as they are making it seem,” He said as they sat down. “Not as bad at all. And I know the plan. Like any assignment, it holds it's danger.”

“The real problem is that the Major's career is now weighing on this mission, and he was not happy about being given it. He didn't ask or want it. It was just given to him for unknown reasons. He has done a wonderful job, but it is a huge stress to him over these past few years.”

“Shadow is special. He could find another. But Shadow is right here and best of all, in training. Nothing is set in stone with him. He can, and is being molded into their new plan for a recon soldier. That is to his advantage. He will survive. He is too hardy to fail. Which is what is needed down there. He handled the pepper spay that takes down all but the very few and that stun baton, he beat science. He forced his muscles to stop contracting and broke the stick.”

“But you, you can not afford to take advantage of them in their anger. It would have backfired badly. I could not let that happen to you. You have real worth as a soldier. The answer to your question is yes.”

“Sir,” Cardinal Spitfire said softly. “That wasn't my question. It wasn't a yes or no. I wanted to know who the active duty pegasus is who survived going below.”

“My team started and ended everything. All those numbers, it was just us two by then. They halted 15 new scout units and a new recon team. They disbanded them and split them up to the four corners of Equestria. Marble Falls can't take that assignment because it is too traumatic.”

“The pour dear. Barely out of ACS. Like she wanted, she was given a scout assignment. They were the hot thing and you had to be really good to grab a spot. Down we went and immediately under tremendous fire, flying for our lives and unable to climb to the safety of the cloud for half an hour. I had never taken anywhere close to that fire in all my missions. I lost the love of my life, and she lost her innocence in such a drastic, horrifying way.”

“She got through being grounded and made it into the Wonderbolts, only to find out, they have to be ready, very ready to go below. She has focused on passing down the knowledge about below so she could hopefully save some lives. I do the same with my teaching, although I never recovered like she did. I lost my… at least she found him later. And then the mass began to be a problem about a year ago.”

“Now you know the answer to your question. And the answer to the question about Shadow is that he will be alright.”

“Sir, he will push and resist as long as he is in the training.”

“Oh? Why do you say that young one?”

“Because this is all wrapped up into one thing. Food. Food is… his family. He is a farmer, every small little, frail bone in his body. He feels his duty to them is here. It is. He already took a beating when we did our special assignment helping with the incident in New Heaven. We were some of the half baked troops the General sent.”

Captain Nova chuckled. “I went on some rant I assume.”

“Yes Sir.”

“I remember the important things. The better I feel, the more I remember. But that makes more sense. He can not continue training it. How do you feel about it?”

“I was a farmer, but close. He was the outer reaches. It bothers me, but I grew up with giving our food to the system. He didn't. His was a true tax. The world was perfect in his naive eyes. Or well, the imperfections were really small comparatively. But I know it has him in a worse position.”

“Would it stop you from acting?”

“Maybe. I do not know. If the Wonderbolts need it…”

“They are overkill. Being used in a few places because they are well trained, but they are not trained to do that stuff. I have a call to make. This was a good talk. If anypony asks, you have my permission to not participate for now.”

“Thank you Sir. I should probably go find Shadow.”

“No young one, let him think and process. He didn't go far. Even if he heard the argument, it would be mute to him. He will be on that recon team. Because he needs to be on it. Not the Major, or anypony else. Because he needs it. And his squadmates are lucky to have him.”

“You have been keeping tabs?”

“A bit. I am restricted from certain things, but remember, I was one of two left with real information. I had survived it all. They came to me. But I must go to speak to Marble.”

Cardinal Spitfire had no idea what to do. She decided to walk over to the spot Shadow and her had really talked at. She laid down and just let her thoughts go. Shadow, her home, Shadow, their training in Black, the Captain going below, Shadow, how odd Captain Nova was, and on and on. All that had happened over the last year.

Cardinal was brought back to reality with a small tap. She looked up to see Shadow smiling at her.

“We are wanted in the Captain's office,” Shadow said. “Its past dinner.”

Cardinal Spitfire sighed and looked at the ground.

“Come on Card,” Shadow softly encouraged her. “I am standing, so you can stand.”

“A lot…”

“Yeah yeah,” Shadow batted it away. “I know a lot is riding on me right now. Fuck it. I am going to do my job in recon. I am going to do it better than they ever expected. They will underestimate me. And I will come back to my family, the community, two new fouls in the family, and you. I will come back to you.”

Cardinal Spitfire smiled and he helped her up. They walked to the Squad Barracks and into the office. It was not crowded, but full. General Red River, Major Winters Breath, Captain Marble Falls and even Master Wind.

“There you two are,” Captain Nova said.

“Shadow,” General Red River said taking in a deep breath. “Where does your loyalty lie?”

“Please be more specific than that Sir,” Shadow replied.

“Crowd control. When does your loyalty lie when it comes to their vocalization to the food distribution system?”

“I am a loyal Enclave citizen who does his duty and has taken up the mantle of protection on his shoulders. But I can not deny my heart. My Home. My… everything. I can not accept their disruption to society, but I can not enforce it as my heart lies with my fellow cloud farmers. The protesters are not cloud farmers, but still, I have always done all I can to work and feed everypony. Doing my duty to here helps my community. But I am a farmer. I know that is different than the distribution system. But I am where it starts.”

General Red River sighed deeply. “Cardinal Spitfire? What about you?”

“Me?” Cardinal Spitfire asked unnerved. “I… I… enforcing the law isn't why I came. I want peace and order and to do all I can, but on our special assignment, I also froze. Food is still a part of me. Not like Shadow, but its been my life. Even though how food is handled is completely different… I can not guarantee you that I will be able to do my duty. Because I fear they are right and much of me wants to go home and make sure every tree grows twice as many apples.”

Shadow was not bothered by his admission, Cardinal Spitfire was deeply ashamed. They all stood there in silence for several minutes.

“General,” Captain Nova urged.

General Red River sighed. “Sergeant Shadow Flare, you are excused from crowd control training and are to pick up training as soon as the segment is done. Specialist Cardinal Spitfire, you too are excused from crowd control. I will mark both of your files as unable to perform crowd control duties. You two are too closely linked to the issue and are therefore, unreliable in that aspect.”

“I know Shadow could not enforce the population limit,” Captain Marble Falls stated. “I doubt Cardinal Spitfire could as well.”

“Population limit demonstrations?” Cardinal Spitfire asked cocking her head. “I have not heard about that being a contested issue. I am the third in my family. I was allowed because of my brother's condition. I have a huge problem with the population limits. I have no solution because I know what will happened, but I in no way signed up to enforce that.”

Captain Marble Falls opened a folder on her desk. She slid it towards them. “Six more days of training on crowd control. That means on the morning of the seventh, you had better be in gear, ready for the real test of your skills in aerial combat.”

“Passes?” Cardinal Spitfire said picking them up.

“Passes for leave,” The Captain nodded. “New Cloudsdale is the favorite around this base for anything past three days. It is a long days flight for most, less for you two. BE BACK, ON TIME.”

“Yes Ma'am,” Cardinal Spitfire agreed.

“I am lost,” Shadow said.

Captain Marble Falls hoof hit her head. “You have permission to leave the Fort, on your own, for the next six days. Before, I escorted you and that wasn't leave. Now its on your own.”

“Oh. OH. Thank you! All of you. Especially for understanding. I didn't until the discussion began in here.”

Cardinal Spitfire dragged Shadow out of the room and the door closed.

Major Winters looked at General Red River. “General. On day one, you were watching him and already trying to convince me he was right. You warned me he would be a problem if he lost his everypony verses everypegasus. I fear that it is beyond that.”

“Oh?” General Red River replied.

“It is no longer about speech,” Major Winters Breath said. “It is him. He keeps his foundation, he will overcome and out think it all as he has already done. If he looses it, if it breaks apart, then he will take that same tenacity, endurance and skill and be unleashed upon us all, no discrimination.”

“I think that is a solid assessment,” General Red River said after thinking for a bit. “We must make sure he never looses it and therefore forever wins, in our favor.”

Cardinal Spitfire was dragging Shadow down the hallway.

“You can stop pulling I can walk,” Shadow said finally slipping away.

“Lets get packed and ready for an early flight. New Heaven is okay, New Cloudsdale is another thing entirely. Plenty to do.”

“I just want to stay here and relax,” Shadow sighed.

“That defeats the entire purpose of leave!” Cardinal Spitfire retorted. “It is called leave for a reason. Otherwise they would have just excused us, or made us do something else for the week. Captain Nova is good.”

“Captain Nova told you?” Shadow asked.

“No, but we talked after. You missed the big fight between the Major and our Captain. Pointless fight about the mission, not about the problem at hoof. I was going to solve the problem, after they told me who the active duty soldier who went below is. Captain Nova stopped that before I got myself in trouble for extorting officers. And I found out. So win, win, win.”

They entered their Unit and the others were there. Cardinal Spitfire hesitated at the door and Shadow just plopped onto his bed.

“Is this something to talk about, or ignore?” Flags asked. “Your call. After I say that Captain Nova saved your ass Cardinal Spitfire.”

Cardinal Spitfire looked at the floor and was tracing circles with the tip of her hoof. “Yeah… he did. And the rest…”

“I can't do crowd control,” Shadow said like with nothing. “It… just goes against everything in me because the main set of demonstrations are about food. I didn't realize the conflict of interest at all until it was brought up in the meeting. Neither can she. Our files are marked as crowd control being a unable to perform because we are closely linked with the issue. We are farmers. Unreliable to perform those duties.”

“Damn,” Arrow said slamming her hood into the mattress she was laying on. “You two would handle the physical aspects fine too.”

“Shadow would do what he did,” Cardinal Spitfire pointed out. “Act out childishly and cause a problem. Probably flip sides or get squashed in the middle. Its one thing to agree and want peace… I can not side with the Enclave on the issue, despite being loyal…”

“I get it,” Flags said cutting her off. “Bull was tough and didn't pull any punches. We know what we are having to deal with at the very best… and the worst… well neither of you a suitable. You make bad ass soldiers. Great peace keepers, but crowd control at a demonstration, no. Not a weakness. Not with your backgrounds. So, what are you to do?”

Cardinal Spitfire didn't want to answer.

“They gave us something called leave,” Shadow announced. “Cardinal Spitfire explained it, but I still do not get it.”

Flags burst out laughing. “You work too hard man. Have you ever had a day off?”

“Not before coming here,” Shadow said. “I mean, there were lax days, but we usually were forced just to wait for something big, like harvest, because we were all ready. Otherwise, no.”

“I do not know how you survived,” Arrow groaned. “Its work. You have to have a break.”

“It was life, not work,” Shadow continued. “Just like breathing. You just do it.”

“And this is what will make you such an amazing recon soldier,” Chocolate chuckled. “You just do. On or off for you. And it is really hard to turn you off.”

“How long do you have off?” Flags asked.

“Six days,” Cardinal Spitfire said. She was still embarrassed. “Back in formation as soon as the rest of the real school begins.”

“They never have had to deal with crowd control and conflicts within their troops yet,” Flags pointed out. “Learning experience for all. Y'all headed to New Heaven then?”

“We can easily make it to New Cloudsdale apparently,” Shadow said. “Might as well find a new place to make me want to go back to my home out in the middle of nowhere and live in fear.”

Shadow couldn't keep it together after putting himself down like that. The others laughed with him. They all needed the laugh.

“Lets get some sleep,” Flags said. “It is a bit of a break for us, but you guys need to get out of here early to make the most of things.”

Chapter 23 - Leave

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“So, what is there to do on leave?” Shadow asked as they flew.

Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “A movie, a play, skating, shopping, they have a good symphony from what I hear, the Cloudsdale Memorial, and there are several other things to check out like the Weather Factory.”

“So, you have been?”

“A few times. My parents and the farm is about three hours away.”

“Is that three hours Enclave time, or three hours your time?”

“Enclave. Why?”

“We have plenty of time for you to spend some there.”

“And what? Leave you in the city? Besides, it is leave, I don't have to see them even being that close.”

“Not even getting them to come into the city for dinner?”

Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “I forgot, again, how important family is to you.”

“I just do not want you to regret this unique opportunity.”

“We'll see. First, we need to nab a place to sleep and then get you new clothes.”

“They said it was a day's flight for most soldiers. Lets pick up our speed and beat that!”

Cardinal Spitfire nodded, slid her goggles down and they raced off. Shadow was wearing the clothes he had picked out with Early Blossom and Cherry Tart. Cardinal Spitfire was wearing the dress she had been wearing when she got back from her time off after graduation. Since they were not flight suits, it slowed them down some. Clothing had to stay on.

They came to the city in the early afternoon. A designated landing and leaving area for visitors had been designed. It made things safer. They were forced to come to a hard stop to wait in line for permission to land. Without Enclave business, they were regular visitors.

“There is the visitor's booth,” Cardinal Spitfire pointed. They will give us a good idea about hotels, what we can do, where to get you clothes and such.”

“First time to NC?” The old mare behind the counter asked.

“For me, no. Him, yes. We are on leave and are needing a good hotel and plenty of options for several days.”

“Here is a basic city map. Blue is hotels, red are points of interest, yellow is city attractions and green is food. The names are on the back along with cost range by stars. Food is rated by quality and price. And here is a brochure on the places with military discounts.”

“You print these up to give them out free?” Shadow asked.

“Yes. Why?”

“That costs a lot of money. With no return.”

“He doesn't come from a big city,” Cardinal Spitfire said to her.

“Shadow, if it isn't a city one, they have to pay which covers the cost,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “This is called advertising. It only makes visitors want to stay longer, come back, and the places get more business because we look at this, and see what we want to do because we know these and the basic information.”

“Here is also a brochure on special events for the month and another one on the Cloudsdale Memorial and Weather Factory,” The mare said giving him several more.

“Thank you Ma'am,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I think this is all we need.”

“I am glad you are here,” Shadow said looking at everything. “I could not do this without you. It is all so much. So very much. So busy and more noise than the firing range.”

“Just stick close to me. If you want to stop, let me know. For now, I have a hotel in mind.”

The lobby was nice with a red carpet and lots of brass.

“Welcome to the Mareiott Hotel,” They were greeted by well dressed Pegasus behind the desk. “We have a lot of suites and rooms available to suit your very needs.”

“I hear you have a military discount?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Sure do. So long as you have your IDs.”

Cardinal Spitfire pulled hers out. “Then one room with two beds for the next five nights.”

“Two beds? Are you sure?”

“We are just on leave from some training. Same unit and bunk together in the same barracks,” Cardinal Spitfire explained.

“Oh, well that is a new one. Even on leave, two pegasi coming in here…”

“I get it,” Shadow said annoyed.

Cardinal Spitfire looked at him shocked.

“Not your fault, Sir,” Shadow said coming around. “Just rubs me the wrong way. My home town, you don't share a bed or anything until after the wedding. Even the hint of anything... We are here as friends on leave together.”

“I am sorry I made you feel uncomfortable, Sir.”

“Don't worry about him,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “He is in shock. Never been to a real city.”

“Ah, I see.”

Cardinal Spitfire paid in advanced and they were given their room keys. It was a nice room and Shadow spent plenty of time looking at the shower.

“It almost looks like you have never seen a shower,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed. She was leaning against the door frame watching him.

Shadow chuckled. “The barracks had better showers than my house. And hot water. My family would only use hot water in the winter or special reason. It took thirty minutes to heat the tank up. One of the few times we would use electricity. Those times, my parents would double up, and then when she got married, Lunar and Buck would double up.”

“Some shower fun. Nice.”

“Huh? It was always wash quickly and then get out so the next in line could go.”

“Of course,” Cardinal Spitfire said rolling her eyes. “But I would have thought you would be more interest in the TV.”

“I have seen and used them before in El Nino. A novelty. That is all.”

“Well, we should get going. We have plenty of time to get you a wardrobe instead of the closet full of cloaks.”

“I wish it was a closet full,” Shadow groaned. “But yes, lets go get more.”

They left and soon headed into a big building.

“All of this is a store? It is over twenty stories tall!” Shadow marveled.

“No silly. The store is the bottom level. Above is apartments and housing.”

“I do not like this place,” Shadow said a minute later. “Everything is choppy.”

“That is why it is called a department story. Each department has a specialty. And there is the stallion section. Or at least their shoes.”

“Hello, can I help you two?” A pegasus asked when they entered the stallion's shirt sections.”

“This is a lot of nice stuff,” Shadow breathed.

“We pride ourselves ourselves on quality products. What are you looking for?”

“He needs clothes,” Cardinal Spitfire answered. “You are looking at his only set. Farmer by trade, now and Enclave soldier. Both of us are on leave, so I am taking the time to make sure we fix that oversight.”

“Hmm,” The pegasus said. He pulled the tape measure from around his neck and took some measurements.

“I am sorry, but anything we have would just be too big. And our colt section won't fit you properly.”

Shadow's head was in his hoof. “Thank you Sir. It is much appreciated. I know my odd size is… odd.”

“I would hit the fashion district. You still have plenty of time before shops begin to close. They will be able to get something nice and fit it to you. We do not do alterations here.”

“I should have seen this coming,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “But I am not used to stallion clothes. Thank you.”

“I am so glad to be out of that weird place,” Shadow said as they exited.

Cardinal Spitfire laughed.

“If we are wanting to make it to the fashion district, we need need to fly and merge with them up there. Stay on my wing and everything will be fine.”

Shadow nodded and they took off. Signs were posted and it was easy to find the fashion district. It was odd for Shadow to be flying in a street. All different Pegasi were present, including fouls and chariots, both delivery and travel.

“The fashion industry can easily become expensive,” Cardinal Spitfire informed Shadow. “In boutiques, things are hoof produced. Not like in a factory in that department store. The work and often individuality of each piece takes time. But we don't have time for anything custom designed for you, only minor alterations.”

Cardinal Spitfire chose a shop on their side of the street and they entered.

“Welcome you two,” A stallion said. “Let me guess, you Sir, can't find anything in your size at the regular stores.”

“Correct Sir,” Shadow nodded. “And coming from a farm, we didn't exactly have the bits for clothes. If we did have clothes, we made them ourselves.”

“I commend your abilities with a needle and thread. It is rare that a stallion knows how to use them, let alone make their own clothes.”

“I am from a farm way, way out. On leave from Fort Wind right now. You are looking at my only non Enclave clothes,” Shadow chuckled.

“Our stallion section is small compared to the mares, but I know we have plenty of options and can find what you need. How many are you looking at getting?”

“At least three,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “I know price will really stack up quickly.”

“Well, lets see what we can find first. I would not mind adding a discount for your service.”

“Thank you sir,” Shadow said.

“Dear, I could use your expertise. Small stallion that will not grow anymore.”

“Well hello,” A tall and lean pegasus with a flowing red mane said coming out of the back. “Oh my, I do see the problem. But we can adjust things to fit you properly. Easily and before you have to leave.”

“We were bunked side by side,” Shadow said. “There may have been a few days we accidentally switched uniforms. No way to tell that we had. And I know my dress uniform is marked mare. No difference for looks. Most surprising, I am from a farm.”

“He can make his own,” The stallion added. “But obviously there is no time for our hard working soldiers.”

“Onto our stallion section in the back here!” She said leading them. “I have some outfits in mind already. You will look like the stallion you are once we are done.”

The price did stack up. It wiped out half of Shadow's account, even with the discount, but he got five good sets and a nice sport coat. The shop had been closed for a few hours when they finally left, but the owners had no problem with the time.

“That was weird spending so much on clothes, or anything,” Shadow admitted. “Good purchases, but weird.”

“They will last you for years to come,” Cardinal Spitfire confirmed. “And she delivered her promise, to make you look like the stallion you are.

“They are exquisitely made,” Shadow added.

“Okay, dinner and then bed,” Cardinal Spitfire decided. “Well, planning our leave before bed.”

“Sounds good,” Shadow nodded.

With little restaurants open in the fashion district this late, they ended up dropping off Shadow's clothes before choosing an inexpensive take out place. Noddles with a variety of vegetables and sauces. It was a new style of food Shadow had never heard of.”

“Tomorrow, we have to get you to the Cloudsdale Memorial,” Cardinal Spitfire said in between bites. “That is free. We might as well do a tour of the weather factory. That isn't expensive.”

“Okay,” Shadow replied. He was confused with all the brochures he was looking at. It was a lot to take in.

“Depending on time, maybe a movie,” Cardinal Spitfire offered. “I know you have never been to a movie theater.”

“Nope. Never actually seen a movie either.”

Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “How does that sound to you?”

“Wonderful,” Shadow replied. “I am really interested in the memorial. Don't understand it though.”

“The next day we can visit my parents. After that, I have no plans.”

“I like it,” Shadow nodded. “I am really happy to have somepony with me. I would not make it on my own yet.”

Shadow smiled at Cardinal Spitfire with all the sweetness he could. “And I am really, really happy that the somepony is you.”

Red coat or not, you could easily see that Cardinal Spitfire was blushing by her eyes.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Cardinal Spitfire perked up. “Can you help get these braids out? I would like to have them out for tomorrow.”

Shadow had finished learning how to under the braids the morning of the graduation, so it didn't take long. Shadow also showered before bed. He enjoyed just standing there, letting the hot water soak into his coat and massaging his muscles. A single light was on when he finished, but Cardinal Spitfire was out cold.

When Shadow woke up he almost panicked as it was after 0900. He had to take a few minutes to calm down before he rolled out of bed. Cardinal Spitfire was up and in the shower. She didn't want to go to bed with wet hair.

Shadow had never faced the problem of having to choose what to wear.

“It really doesn't matter,” Cardinal Spitfire said as she came out of the bathroom. She surprised him.

Shadow shrugged but froze. He still had no idea what to do. Cardinal Spitfire picked up the first one and shoved it into his chest.

“This one,” She said urgently. “Now hurry so we can get breakfast. There is a small breakfast place across the street. We are not on a schedule, but lets not dilly dally.”

Breakfast was fast and they flew out to see the memorial. Cardinal Spitfire put Shadow in lead to get him used to flying in a city. He did well, as she expected he would. He was an expert flier and even going recon, ACS still would hold him to their criteria for safety.

“So, its just a cloud… house?” Shadow asked looking at it.

He tried to view it sideways to make it make sense. It didn't. Neither did the fountains around it or the reflecting pool besides the building.

“It it's a building, not a house. It has several wall sections open for free traffic. And the design was made by some hot shot artist. Lets head under the roof and show you why it is so important.”

“Wow,” Shadow said taking it all in. “So, that is how many died? And why they targeted Cloudsdale first.”

There was the whole history of Cloudsdale and how it was significant to Equestria before and during the war.

Two armed guards were standing in front of a heavy encased cloud.

“A piece of the original Cloudsdale,” Cardinal Spitfire said quietly. “Taken before the clouds were sealed up to understand the weapon launched at the city. Well protected so it doesn't harm us. Just look at the sickly green color. We use red to train, but those clouds are dyed and obviously very different in their form.”

Shadow walked up to the rope blocking ponies from getting too close. He just stared at it. Trying to unlock it's secrets.

“They will be changing the guard in a few minutes,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered. “It is a big ceremony. It is a big honor and takes great skill to be chosen to guard the cloud and Cloudsdale Monument. It is always guarded the Military. Always.”

“That isn't a real cloud,” Shadow blurted. “No, that is more of whatever struck than cloud.”

“I assure you sir, it is a fully formed cloud,” A stallion in a fancy uniform came over.

“And you are?” Shadow asked.

“A keeper of the memorial. We are here to answer questions. It is odd because it is tainted, but it is a fully formed cloud.”

“Have you personally studied it?” Shadow asked.

“No, but it was intensively studied in the early years. It is well shielded, but still potent.”

Shadow just shook his head.

“You doubt me?”

Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “Thank you Sir. Lets not get him going. You have better things do than argue over the validity of the cloud. So does he. All of this is way to new to him.”

The changing of the guard was simple, but not. They made it look so easy. It seemed like a lot for nothing.

“Well, how did you like the whole thing?” Cardinal Spitfire asked as they were walking away.

“The guard ceremony took great skill, there was stuff to learn, but not vital. This whole open area is just wasted space in my eyes. I think too practical.”

“At least you realize it,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “Last month you would not say that.”

“Excuse me,” Another Keeper said coming up. “I believe I heard that you had deeper questions about the cloud.”

“No sir. No deeper questions,” Shadow said.

“I must have the wrong couple. I was pointed to you and told you didn't think it was a cloud.”

“Oh, that,” Shadow rolled his eyes. “I am not a weather pony, but that is not a cloud. Mostly whatever binding agent it is. Too loose to be a cloud.”

Cardinal Spitfire had her head in her hoof. She groaned. “Don't start this. Either of you. Please.”

“You are an expert on clouds?”

“No,” Shadow said. “A farmer from way, way up north. The weather teams never go out us, they just push things in our direction we are so far out. And most of our weather comes off the mountains. I know a lot of different clouds and and easily read weather patterns. Have to where we are.”

“I am Specialist Cardinal Spitfire,” She said annoyed. “And this is Sergeant Shadow Flare. We are on leave and he has never seen the monument, let alone a real city. He thinks to practical. In fact, next is the Weather Factory for a tour. You can call off the law enforcement officers off to my 5.”

He didn't know what to do with Cardinal Spitfire knowing they were being watched. Both of them had been looking at him and fully engaged.

“They are not here for you,” He finally said. “Just the safety of all. They may be right there, but not because of you.”

“What about the others on my 8?” Shadow asked. “Or the not subtle ones approaching from the front.”

“Great,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned.

“This is why I hate cities,” Shadow declared. “More trouble than they are worth.”

“Here is my ID. And my leave pass,” Cardinal Spitfire grumble. She pulled them away before he could grab them. “No! Mine!” She barked. “I am not losing my leave because you stole them.”

“We are both in Aerial Combat School,” Shadow explained. “Our Captain and superior officers will not be happy if you make the move you want to. I know they are 7 feet off my side. You can't make it into Aerial Combat School without being aware of everything around you.”

“Soldiers or not, please come with us,” A lieutenant asked.

Cardinal Spitfire sighed. “I can already hear 'Damn it Filly Fooler'.”

“No,” Shadow shrugged. “She will be glad to get away, and then murder them. Captain Marble Falls already had to rescue me from idiots who tossed me in jail. When they run my ID, it will come up with specific orders to let me go.”

“Now you are resisting and threatening a superior officer,” The Lieutenant said.

“Hurt feelings?” Shadow asked. “And all over a stupid opinion over that puff of air?”

Shadow pulled out his ID and his leave pass.

The Lieutenant stepped away for a moment and was obviously using his radio. He came back a few minutes later.

“Let them go,” He said. “They wont make trouble, and we won't get in trouble.”

Cardinal Spitfire pushed her way passed, bumping into the Lieutenant as she trotted away. Shadow followed civilly after her.

“Well that was fucking stupid,” Cardinal Spitfire grumbled. “Yes, I am making a formal complaint. Or we are.”

“Or we could just leave it,” Shadow suggested. “It was stupid on their part, but we could leave it. I am the only one who would question it. I am the one heading into recon and have to watch for that stuff.”

“Fine,” She said annoyed. “Lets get off to the Weather Factory.”

The tour wasn't the actual factory. They had built a mini factory next to it. Everything they saw was working and being used to produce clouds and weather patterns. The real factory was too big and dangerous to put a tour through it all.

“That was enjoyable,” Shadow announced. “Very informative. They do amazing work. Very valuable to our survival.”

“Glad that was positive,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “And practical.”

They both chuckled.

“Its close to lunch,” Shadow pointed out. “And I prefer the heartier food they have been serving us.”

“Agreed. We can plan for the afternoon. I didn't think it would go this fast.”

A place was right in front of them so they went inside and soon were working on what to do next.

“Our hotel has a spa,” Cardinal Spitfire suggested. “I am not sure what the prices are, but a massage would be nice. Maybe we should leave that to the last day.”

“Make the most of it,” Shadow agreed. “That is the better plan. But you are out of idea?”

“Direct attractions, yes. I have only been here twice.”

“Okay, so lets skip the attractions. El Nino had market day once a year. Surely there is a market that is going on all the time.”

Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “They have a large shopping district. All kinds of small stores, neat things, and more. I guess, I was thinking too big. But I never thought shopping.”

Shadow chuckled. “You know me. Simple is my cup of tea. But shopping, I like it. I never get to do it, nor is there a point when you have no bits.”

“I wanted to make a good impression,” She chuckled. “I guess I failed.”

“Nah. The memorial, sure, but the factory was very worth it. And even the memorial, I can say I saw it and the changing of its guards.”

“Shopping it is then,” Cardinal Spitfire proclaimed.

It was a nice afternoon, just the two of them, walking around and checking out all sorts of fun things. Shadow was confused by nik naks. If it didn't serve a purpose, he had no idea why anypony would by it.

“I wish there was something worth it here for my homes,” Shadow said looking around.

“We have plenty of time to find something,” Cardinal Spitfire commented. “Maybe it doesn't have to serve a purpose other than remind them of you while you are gone. Shipping can cost a several bits, but it would be worth it.”

“Good point,” Shadow said.

They continued to browse. Eventually they came to a store that was dedicated to window gardens.

“May I help you?” A sweet mare asked coming up to him.

“Just looking,” Shadow replied. “And marveling. I am from a farm. So all this, except for the flowers, is grown right off the back porch.”

“I didn't know farms were allowed to do that,” She said. “I just try and bring a little cheer to the pegasi in this city.”

“It is a unique idea,” Shadow said. “Great idea. If I lived here, I might try it. I have no green hoof, but try.”

“Well, perhaps some flowers to grow on the front porch our lawn?”

Shadow chuckled a bit. “My little sister just took that over. She’s a local healer and is growing all the herbs she needs.”

“How far out are you?”

“Far enough,” Shadow chuckled. “Way up north. Just on leave from Fort Wind where I am stationed for training.”

“I didn't know the clouds could be farmed that far north.”

“It isn't easy work,” Shadow smiled. “It is all I know though. Get up, work, relax a bit before bed and back to work the next day. We enjoy it. But thank you for your time.”

“I found something,” Cardinal Spitfire said coming up to him. “Easy to ship and meaningful.”

They were decorative hoof knit towels. They were meant to be displayed on the wall in the kitchen.

A mare approached them. “I hoof knit them myself. A small way to brighten up your apartment or house's kitchen. Do you two have a theme?”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire chuckled.

“Just friends on leave together from Fort Wind,” Cardinal Spitfire clarified. “Shadow?”

“Well, my family lives way up north, farming. I am toying with the idea of sending home something to remind them of me. Everything has a purpose in my house. So, I was thinking that sending the right thing to remind them of me might be its sole purpose. These are pretty. Do you have any with cherries?”

“I do,” She said looking through another pile. “Cherry farmers?”

“My sister is. My parents are turnip farmers.”

“I do not have turnips. Nor could I do that up quick.”

“Do you do lettering?”

“I can quickly add some letters. What where you thinking?”

“My mother is Rain Jubilee and my Dad is Turnip Lance.”

“I could easily do RJ & TL.”

“Yeah,” Shadow smiled. “Lets do that.”

She took the time to do it right, but it only took 15 minutes to add the letters.

“We can send it tomorrow from my house,” Cardinal Spitfire told Shadow. “I know where everything is and it won't take long to do.”

“Sounds like a good play,” Shadow smiled.

“Lets find a good place to sit down for dinner,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “We have to game plan for my parents house. The questions will flow.”

Shadow just nodded and followed Cardinal Spitfire's lead. A good place was not hard to find. Sitting down, Cardinal Spitfire was obviously getting nervous.

“Relax Card,” Shadow smiled at her. “Lets start with your parent's names. I never caught them at graduation.”

“Right,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “A lot was happening. My mother is Spearmint Spitfire and my dad is Yellow Seed. Don't ask the origin, just call him Yellow. And you can probably get away with calling my mom just Spearmint, but be ready for the whole name. And always use my fully name.”

“You will also meet my two brothers. Auburn is the oldest and Fire is in between us. Fire took a fall early on and broke his back. Which is why I am here. My family got permission first. He does what he can, but is officially a cripple.”

“That takes care of that,” Shadow declared. “Now, the inevitable.”

“I dread this,” Cardinal Spitfire admitted. “There is no good ending with my family.”

“What is the best ending for them right now, not us, but them?”

Cardinal Spitfire had to think it over. Their food came and Shadow went to eating. She needed time to think.

“If we tell them we are again teammates on the same Unit and just friends, my mother will try and play match maker and will end up forcing our hooves at some point. If…”

Shadow let her pick at her food for a while.

“How would your parents react?” She asked him.

“They trust me to tell the truth,” Shadow replied. “So long as we laid things down clearly, they would say nothing and act accordingly, which would be to bring you in as a friend and show you all the hospitality they could. But we would have to tell them exactly what we are.”

Cardinal Spitfire stared at her food.

“Card, relax and lets talk back at the hotel where it is more private.”

Cardinal Spitfire looked up and smiled warmly at Shadow.

As soon as the door close to their room Shadow spoke.

“We went from enemies hating each other… well mostly you hating me, for six weeks and then tossed it aside when we were thrown together. We built a friendship out of nothing. A strong, deep friendship. I know that no matter what, it is strong enough to weather anything.”

Shadow sat next to Cardinal Spitfire on her bed and smiled at her. She was just staring at the floor. Shadow leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. It was the first time he had reciprocated the gesture.

“That felt nice,” She said after a few minutes. “Right, but in one week…”

“So?” Shadow asked. “We are stubborn enough to make it work. We can always take leave to come together for a visit. Do you really think we do anything different?”

Cardinal Spitfire turned and kissed Shadow on the lips. She wrapped her arms around a stunned Shadow and pushed him all the way down to the bed. She broke the kiss but left her face close to his. “This had better not fuck up our final tests.”

Shadow brought her back in for a kiss. “No, it could not. We are better than that. But I hope you know I won't do anything… yet…”

“I know silly,” Cardinal Spitfire said kissing him again. “One more kiss before bed.”

Chapter 24 - Family

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Shadow was on Cardinal Spitfire's wing. It was easier this way as they were heading to her home and he only had a vague idea of where he was.

“Can you smell the apples?” She asked.

Shadow took a deep breath in. “Nope.”

“The oats are looking good,” She commented.

“They do,” Shadow replied.

“Can you see the trees?”

“Yes,” Shadow said.

Cardinal Spitfire began to glide and Shadow came up besides her.

She smiled at him. “I am glad you said to visit. I would have regretted it.”

“You say that now,” Shadow laughed.

They may have been side by side, but Shadow joined Cardinal Spitfire as she quietly pulled up and then flipped around to land in the street and right in front of their sidewalk. Unlike Shadow's community, the houses were barely set back from the street.

Cardinal Spitfire knocked on the door and waited. She knocked again.

“I'm coming!” Spearmint yell from deep inside the house.

The door opened by it was not Spearmint. It was Fire. He was bigger than shadow, but his rear legs were shaking and skinny. He was aptly name give his coat and mane color.

“Hey Fire!” Cardinal Spitfire said with a big smile on her face.

“Cardinal Spitfire, what are you doing here?” He stumbled.

“Trying to visit. Duh.”

“Sorry, come on in, both of you! Just can't believe it. Mom and Dad went to your graduation only a two months ago.”

“I thought it was longer,” Cardinal Spitfire replied.

“Because it has been ten weeks,” Shadow stated.

“We are in week nine and ACS is ten weeks,” Cardinal Spitfire said confused.

“Now its eleven.”

“Oh, right, but Shadow, this is my brother, Fire. And Fire, he was my battle buddy and now teammate in my current school.”

“Nice to meet you Fire,” Shadow said shaking his hoof.

“The same to you Shadow,” Fire said. “Glad you could make it. I heard a bit about you and saw you in the photographs.”

“Fire! Who is it?” Spearmint Spitfire called out.

“She is in the kitchen, scrambling to make snacks,” Fire explained. “Dad and Auburn are dealing with and issue with the trees and many other farmers are here, trying to help.”

“Fire?”

“Sorry Mom,” Fire called out. “We are in the living room. It is Cardinal Spitfire and a friend from training.”

“I thought she was in training?”

“I got unexpected leave mom!” Cardinal Spitfire yelled.

“Give me a minute. Got to pull these out of the oven.”

“This is a farm house?” Shadow asked walking around a bit.

“Oh boy,” Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “Lets not get into housing stories. I know this is big.”

“Please,” Shadow chuckled. “My sister's house is big. 11 bedrooms plus the master. With a bathroom in the master bedroom, one at the end of the hall, another one by the stairs and and just the toilet downstairs. They went outrageously big, but are a Homestead.”

“My parent's house is average. It is only six bedrooms. Both are two stories, with the stairs attached to the living room and the walkway overlooking the family room. Standard design. My parents have been planning on putting the addition on that was designed two generations ago when things got tight. And with Lunar pregnant it is probably going to happen in a year or two.”

“I never pictured you living in such a big house,” Cardinal Spitfire said shocked. “I mean, its… everything is simple for you.”

“Simple until it comes to family,” Shadow chuckled. “Then things get complicated fast. But houses are simple, big, but simple.”

“I wish we had a room downstairs,” Fire added. “It would make things easier.”

“Understandable,” Shadow nodded. “Big houses or not, we really just care about being together with a roof over our head. Few houses have downstairs rooms. We go up to allow more room to grow crops.”

“Which isn’t always the best idea,” Shadow admitted.

“There you are dear!” Spearmint Spitfire said coming over to hug Cardinal Spitfire.

“Mom,” She hugged her back.

“You undid your hair?”

“It was really starting to bother me being up. But you remember-”

“Flair, Yes. Black Flair.”

“Close,” Shadow smiled. “Shadow Flair.”

“Now, unexpected leave?”

“It is complicated Mom,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Several days off, so to New Cloudsdale. It was where everypegasus on leave goes. So really easy to flip out here. It is now a really fast flight.”

“How fast?” Fire asked.

“Just over an hour cruise for us,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “He can keep up with me. Mostly.”

“Yellow is out in the orchard with troubles?” Shadow asked.

“Yes,” She said nervously. “It has everypegasus around her concerned because we do not know what is happening.”

“Fire, can you show me where they are?” Shadow asked. “Let them catch up.”

“Yeah. Follow me. They are not far.”

“Hoe and shovel for your cutie mark,” Shadow pointed out. “Skilled on the farm?”

“I was when I got it,” Fire sighed. “But not anymore.”

“How did you get it?”

“Working in the orchard. We were replanting trees. Disease struck and we quickly chopped them down to stop it.”

“Good call,” Shadow nodded. “So you know planting and cloud soil.”

“I was learning. I loved it. Although here we don't call it cloud soil.”

“Why stop? You need a good top layer, be it below in the dirt or in the clouds. Good name.”

“What? I can't… It's not proper.”

“What would be proper? How you see it changes how you farm. As soil it makes more sense.”

“It doesn't matter for me anymore,” Fire said dropping his head.

“Are you unable to learn and master the cloud side of cloud farming and passing on your knowledge?” Shadow coaxed. “Back in my community, we knew who had the best knowledge about certain things and we would go to the experts. Many were old and well past their field years. But they consulted and passed down their knowledge.”

“I am not a good farm pony, but I know most everything,” Shadow continued. “I know how to plant and keep them growing, however they just always die on me. I have a black hoof.”

Fire laughed with Shadow.

“Fire, Who is our visitor? Wait, you were Cardinal Spitfires friend, Shadow something.” Yellow said.

“Yes sir. Shadow Flare. Cardinal Spitfire and I got an unexpected leave and followed the others to New Cloudsdale.”

Shadow laughed. “The city scares me, so I came out with her to visit. She is inside the house. But you have a farming problem?”

“Ah, yes. Shadow Flare is a real farming pegasus,” Yellow said to the dozen others with him.

“What do you mean by 'real'?”

Shadow chuckled. He began to talk about home. Turnips, parsnips, cherries, and what their farming entailed. He had captivated them all.

“I now get real,” One said. “So you have to be pretty strong despite that size. ”

“I have my strengths,” Shadow nodded. “But not for plowing and harvesting. I still do harvest, but slow. My three older sisters are bigger than me. As big if not bigger than you. Lunar Harvest is bigger than any of you. My younger sister was my size when I left for Basic, the same time as Cardinal Spitfire left, and should be much bigger than me by now.”

“You have four sisters?”

“Yep,” Shadow said, launching into the explanation. “And we are not overcrowded and there is room for more farms in places. The Enclave doesn't bother us so far out as long as give them our food tax. Which we more than happily do. It is our duty.”

“But my sisters. Lunar is getting the farm with her husband Buck. Buck is the second son of my Dad's best friend. His farm is secure. Spice is now married to Rift who is an only pony, Early Blossom started a Homestead with Cherry Tart further out. Dream Cather will never run a farm. She is a really good healer and spends her time doing medical work and tending her medicinal herb garden.”

“You said pony?”

Shadow chuckled. “Impossible to get rid of. That is how far out and old our roots are. We still use that term rather than pegasus. Yes, it is a problem as a soldier. I am given leniency on the matter thankfully. I slip back to it when I do not focus on the change. Like talking farming.”

Shadow shrugged to change topics. “But lets see what this problem is.”

Shadow was shown the row of apple trees leaning over a perilous angles.

“We fixed the first three a week ago, now this,” Yellow said. “Today we found them all like this.”

“Rain?”

“No more than usual.”

“Liters per year?”

Nopony knew.

“First, you need to know how much rain you get,” Shadow coached. “You can not trust the weather teams They know nothing about farming. They don't even do anything for us other than push stuff our way. The north brings in whatever it wants.”

Shadow looked around the first tree. He hopped a bit and then put his head down and looked at the row. He knew he was getting odd looks from it.

“You have no irrigation,” Shadow announced. He picked off a piece of cloud, tossed it up and it immediately fell straight down. “It should not do that. Not for the top layer. It should float a bit.”

Shadow took another piece off the top, this time from the row over. It fell quickly, but not straight down like the other.

“That one is better, but still soaked. You have to make sure the clouds do not soak up too much. If they do… well a bad storm when I was young had me chasing down a row of floating turnip sprouts before they disappeared on us. That was a tough year. We recovered, only loosing twenty percent of the crop.”

“But your rows are flat. You have no dip to slide water into. If you do not irrigate properly soon, then the rest will go. Your roots look solid, but I am not a tree expert. The cloud soil looks good for trees as well. I was learning that before I left. I was living with my sister and their cherry farm. Do you have fertilizer?”

“In the barn we do,” Yellow said.

“We can pop a little beneath the trees to help regrow the roots. And when you dig your irrigation rows, you can pile the soil up on top of the tree row.”

“Dig?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Right, forgot everypony here is ‘right’ by the Enclave. Yes dig. Not deep, but you have to get the water to channel or it will rot out your crops, topple trees and other problems. That same year with all the rain, the wheat farm right by us lost half it's crop when the wheat rows completely slid and crushed half the crop like a mudslide.”

“A mudslide?” One of them asked.

“Right,” Shadow sighed. “Sorry. It is a bit fun trying to translate things. My family is one of the first cloud farming families. Our farm has stood in the same spot since cloud farming began. We still use some soil techniques and the terms that are passed down. Nopony knows irrigation here?”

Cardinal Spitfire started laughing behind him. He had no idea that she had come out.

“You never will be normal,” She decreed. “But I assume you know the problem.”

“And explained,” Shadow smiled. “But teaching irrigation takes time. Something we don't have ourselves.”

“Who would know?” Yellow asked.

“My Dad and Black our the irrigation experts in my community. That is a 9 day trip for them. If they can leave the farms. I do not know if they know anypony else closer. Worth the call. For now, we need to get these trees anchored. At least three ropes per tree. Four preferably.”

“Yellow, we will head home and bring ropes after lunch.”

Yellow nodded and they left.

“We spend a lot of time irrigating,” Shadow explained. “The root crops have the most trouble in the clouds. It is so easy for them to be picked up and carried away or rot out.”

Yellow sighed. “This will be interesting. I can't afford to lose the crop. Can we call your father?”

“The houses there don't have phones,” Shadow replied, thinking. “But we could call the clinic. I could get a runner from a pony we know.”

“We need to mail those things,” Cardinal Spitfire added. “We would have to get that number in town.”

“It would be very much appreciated if you can go inquire?” Yellow asked.

“Crops first, we can mail later,” Shadow stated. “Be right back.”

Shadow launched straight up, Cardinal Spitfire jumped to join him. She hadn't learned the launch yet. She needed power armor to learn. When they landed, they were pointed to the post office for the call. Only they would have such an obscure number. Cardinal Spitfire did the packaging while Shadow made the call.

“This is the El Nino clinic. How can I help you?”

“I need to get a hold of Turnip Lance of the turnip Homestead. This is his son, Shadow Flare. I know my sister Dream Catcher-”

“Oh, you just missed them. They headed out for lunch. Lance is doing what he can to get to know him. Where did they say they were going. Oh right, Sids.”

Shadow got the number and called it.

“Sids. They best place to sids for lunch.”

“Hey, this is Shadow Flare of the Turnip Homestead.”

“No way. Heard about you and what you are doing. What do you need?”

“I have a question for my dad, Lance. I was told he is there for lunch.”

Shadow could hear yelling in the background as he called for Lance.

“Shadow?”

“Hey Dad. Nothing wrong. All good.”

“That is a relief with you calling.”

“I am on leave for a few days, visiting a friend's family, they are farmers.”

“This is Cardinal Spitfire's family?”

“Yes. We ended up in the next training school together. New Cloudsdale is where everypegasus goes on leave, but her home is only an hours flight for us. We fly fast, and the city scares me so she had me tag along.”

Lance was chuckling. Shadow was fast and choppy to get to the point.

“I am surprised we caught you in the city. They farm apples, and a row is leaning bad. About to be unrecoverable. They need to irrigate immediately, and I only have today. I can't teach them in such a short time, and they have no idea what they are doing, or anypegasus to ask. It was quite a few of the surrounding farms there to try and figure out what to do. Its that rain year bad, and I was getting that the other farms are in trouble. Do you know anypegasus nearer who can help?”

“When was the last irrigation?”

“I am in their local town, its a long distance call meaning we had to get it at the post office, but everything is flat and soaked.”

“Damn,” Lance said. “We all know irrigation, enough to cover our crops. I do not know of anypony who could teach it out there. Can you call the clinic in an hour?”

“Yes,” Shadow said. “Thank you.”

Lance just hung up.

“So?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Call the clinic in an hour,” Shadow answered. “This is the number.”

“We can call that from the house,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “Lets get this package sent and head back.”

It was a suspenseful hour, and it was still too early for lunch. There wasn't much on their minds other than the call, even though they had their daughter back for a day and a visitor. Nopony minded.

“This is the El Nino clinic. How can I help you?”

“This is Shadow Flare, calling for Lance.”

“Let me get him.”

“We are back at the farm,” Shadow said.

“Well then, let me talk to the farm master.”

“I am on our second line Sir. My name is Yellow. My son, Auburn is on our third line.”

“Well Yellow and Auburn, I am Lance. Lets get down to the problem.”

Yellow was only able to answer about half the questions Lance asked.

“Well Yellow, you are in a tricky situation. And Shadow believes the other farms in the area are as well.”

“Probably. We had no idea what Shadow was talking about.”

“Good to know you still remember Shadow.”

“They can add more knowledge, not remove it,” Shadow chuckled. “Besides, I will be back.”

“Business,” Lance said thinking. “Buck and Lunar can handle the farm. Black and I are slowing down. Just slowing. I have even been coming into town once a week to meet with Dream Catcher's courter.”

“I can head out in the morning. Rain Jubilee will probably want to join me and Black and his wife, Golden Harvest, very well may be able to join.”

“All the way here?” Yellow said shocked.

“Is that a problem?”

“No Lance. Just surprised. It is a long flight.”

“And you are a farm in trouble. Black and I have both made long trips before for various farm troubles and huge projects.”

“We will pay you to come out,” Yellow said. “And I know others will pitch in to help so they can learn while you help our farm.”

“We can discuss any payments when we arrive,” Lance said. “Save the farm first. Feed the pegasi first. That is what matters.”

“Doing this for us, when we barely know Shadow-”

“I am not doing this because you know Shadow,” Lance said cutting him off. “Farms first. I know about your problem through Shadow. That is all. Shadow wasn't born when I flew three days to help stop a big disease that was decimating the carrot farms south of us. All Black and I knew was that they needed all the hooves they could get as fast as they could. That is our duty. To feed the Pegasus Race.”

Yellow was speechless.

“You are redefining duty to me Sir,” Auburn said.

“Wonderful,” Lance replied. “The more with a strong sense of duty, the better things are.”

Lance had to pull the phone away from his face to cough.

“So, we are good to have four to come leaving tomorrow?” Lance asked.

“Absolutely. This is a wondrous gift.”

“Thank me after the work is done,” Lance said. “Shadow, it sounds like you can handle securing the trees?”

“With all the others helping, it will only take a few hours,” Shadow replied.

“Good. I wish I knew more about talking on the phone.”

“No you don't,” Shadow said laughing. Lance joined in.

“You take care son. I am proud of you.”

“The same Dad. Safe flight.”

Lance hung up without saying anymore.

“Well, he is all business,” Yellow commented.

“That is my Dad,” Shadow replied. “And Black. When there is an issue to deal with, their minds is on solving the problem. But they both are talkative when things calm down and a good plan is in place. I do not know how many times my Dad has used a phone. If he ever has.”

“It is very appreciated. Thank you.”

“I didn't see him leaving the farm,” Shadow admitted. “I thought he could hop us to a closer farmer, who could redirect us to a closer one and such. I don’t even recall the closest Homestead.”

“I should have know that you would end up doing some work Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire said bored. “I had to explain what leave was and practically drag him off the base. It is all work.”

Shadow chuckled. “Time off never existed. If we didn't need it, we often went to help another farm. I do not know what to do with more than a few hours break or such. Even the really light days, we stayed home. Maybe head out to a family's or friend's farm down the way for the day, or overnight. But never just open freedom.”

Yellow smiled. “It is better to know a life of only work and learn to relax than to relax and have to learn to work for your life. But I think Lunch is ready.”

It was a typical farm lunch, light and fast. Just sandwiches with your choice of vegetables.

“Shadow, do you know this stamp?” Cardinal Spitfire asked. “It is the jar of canned cherries my mom used for the cherry tarts for the help.”

“Yeah,” Shadow laughed. “That is the original Cherry Homestead. Cherry Tart was sent out by her family to found a new Homestead out west. They gave her a similar seal since it still is the family farm, just the west one. It is good to see that the food is being evenly redistributed across the Enclave.”

“Told you he would know,” Cardinal Spitfire said to her mother.

“You don't have to rub it in. I am impressed.”

“I know a lot of farm ID Tags from working harvests,” Shadow continued. “Nothing special. Now, when I can tell you where something is from, that is another thing. But I can really only do that with turnips and parsnips. Every cloud farmer who grows turnips got their seed from our family and each cloud mix tastes different by region.”

“But, lets get out to get these trees fixed,” Shadow announced. “Then we can relax. Oh, and Fire, when my Dad comes, let him know your cutie mark and he will make sure you learn it all. Become the local expert about irrigation and anything else he passes along.”

“I certainly will,” Fire grinned. “If he is willing to go this far, then I know I can learn and actually serve a purpose in the community.”

“That would be perfect for you,” Yellow backed him up. “You are a smart one Shadow. We all were at a loss.”

“Thank you Yellow,” Shadow smiled. “But I just was raised to look to better help the community. And I grew up the weakest, always getting the scraps and trying to find out how best to fit in. You will all see a big difference in our idea of community from what I have gotten from Cardinal Spitfire. It works for us out there, if it will work here or not, I do not know. Each community is different and unique. Each has different needs. Each has it’s own beauty.”

“It is good to know my mother is coming out,” Shadow commented. “Even with Lunar expecting, it will be wonderful to get her out of the house. And Lunar isn't that far along.”

“I am coming to watch,” Cardinal Spitfire stated. “I want to see how weak he actually is.”

Shadow laughed. “It will be fun to gauge things from outside my community.”

They got the ropes and fertilizer from the barn and Shadow made sure Fire was there to learn. Shadow didn't see him as crippled and it was obvious Fire really loved it. Shadow believed their entire family was seeing Fire differently, even in a span of a few hours.

More came than where there earlier, including fillies and colts. Shadow put the young ones to work putting some fertilizer beneath the roots.

Once that was started, Shadow began to teach them how to secure the trees. He had learned from Cherry Tart. If you just pulled them upright, they could easily be pulled the other way and be totally removed. They had to have a pegasus or two hold an anchor rope in the back, Once the primary ones were secured, they could secure the ones on the other side.

“Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire called. “Show me what you have, cover one side of the pulling.”

Shadow grabbed a rope and he was no help. He quickly had to be rescued for the sake of the tree. Cardinal Spitfire was the only one laughing.

“I know he can be the anchor,” She chided.

Shadow looked at her and shook his head. He was still panting from giving it his all. He roped the next tree, set a bowline knot and slipped into it. They began to pull the tree up and it quickly became evident that Shadow needed to let up a bit.

“Damn son,” One of the other farmer said scratching his head. “You can't pull, but you are a stubborn one who can't be move.”

Shadow chuckled. “My instructors hated me in Basic. I just kept going and going. It is the same for my wings too.”

The trees were quickly pulled back into alignment. To be safe, they secured a few others they were concerned about. They took a bit to relax after the work and enjoy the cherry tarts.

Yellow spoke to the others about Lance and Black coming down. They were excited and appreciative, showering Shadow with thanks.

“Don't thank me,” Shadow said waving it off. “Thank him when they are done. You are going to be worked and worked hard. Saving a farm like this isn't easy. He will have dozens of stories about doing the same to other farms, no matter where. This has nothing to do with me and everything to do with saving farms and feeding ponies. Our duty as farmers.”

“They are going to use ponies a lot, won't they?”

Shadow laughed. “Probably. They do know and will do what they can to blend in.”

Everypegasus left with still plenty of time in the day left.

“Dinner will be well earned,” Spearmint said. “Odd to have our guest working, but well appreciated.”

“You have no idea how much is farming about Shadow,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “You learn to know when it is coming. And when to mock him.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire laughed while the others gave a nervous chuckle.

“On that, Auburn and I have some stuff to do before dinner. Without Shadow,” Yellow said as they headed to the barn.

Shadow and Fire got to know each other more. Fire had learned a lot from the afternoon. Shadow was really enjoying the couch as they talked. Furniture was softer and nicer here.

It was after dinner when things inevitable became interesting. They had gotten to know farming Shadow, now they were moving into life in general.

“Shadow you are all about community and family. What about for yourself?” Spearmint asked right away.

“No one back home finds me fancy, or I fancy them.”

“What about Cardinal Spitfire?”

Cardinal Spitfire's hoof audibly collided with her forehead. “That was way more direct than I thought. And faster.”

Shadow chuckled. “Being in a Unit and worse, a team makes that very difficult. If it fails, then we have to still work together and be in perfect sync. We have a week left. We have survived worse and gotten to know each other very, very well. So we did decide the other day to go for it. We already decided we are stubborn enough to not let distance destroy our friendship, we won't let it destroy us either.”

“Mind you,” Shadow stopped. “We are barely into an official relationship or even remotely being open about feelings. If it doesn't succeed, our friendship will survive. We chose to live with knowing and failing than the more painful life of long regret.”

“Wise words,” Yellow said.

“Taught to me by a Lieutenant back at Fort Wind,” Shadow explained. “Apparently they all talked to me about her, and never asked her anything.”

“Jackasses.”

“Probably because I actually listen,” Shadow smiled.

“Goals?” Yellow asked.

“Survive this final test,” Cardinal Spitfire groaned. “I know we are the best and will pass, but I still hate tests.”

“Same, well goal wise,” Shadow nodded. “We have a few more days of leave left to figure that out before training and then to worlds unknown. To Equestria below.”

“Rhyming now?” Cardinal Spitfire asked. “Really? And you chose that. Stupid recon. Almost got us held up by Enclave soldiers because had to question the cloud in the Cloudsdale Monument.”

“Those were real jackasses,” Shadow replied. “Say that it doesn't look like a cloud and they come down on you. At least my file is already marked up well enough to let them leave us alone or face a very angry Captain and Major.”

“You got in trouble before?” Spearmint said.

“Eh, on break. Me and my sister might have publicly used pony instead of pegasus. And somepegasus brought charges against us that were bogus and beyond belief. Including impersonating an Enclave officer, because I was in my dress uniform.”

Yellow laughed deeply and the others found it infectious.

“He is a magnet of random incidences, yet he wiggles free without harm,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed. “You never know what you will get being around him. Always a good laugh.”

“Stories!” Fire piped up.

“The other day, he sits down to eat in his armor he has worn for weeks and then suddenly is on the floor. His comment? About how nice the floor smells and then facts about lemons since it smelled like them.”

“Our Captain trained us in basic,” Shadow began. “She got promoted in between and she also ran some specialized training for me for a few days. If something goes wrong, even if I am not involved, and she swears, it is 'damn it Filly Fooler'. I do not think she will ever be able to remove my name. Oh, right, Auburn and Fire you do not know the story of my nickname which has been immortalized at the Fort.”

That kick started the long story and plenty of other things from Basic. Aerial Combat School had its moments, especially with Arrow's energy, but it lacked the diversity of their 50 pegasus barrack. Squads of six are tame comparatively.

When bedtime came, it was made clear about Shadow's stance with dating rules. But he did concede to sharing Cardinal Spitfire's bedroom with their spare mattress on the floor. They had shared the same room for sleeping so long, not being in the same room would cause plenty of tossing and turning from the lack of the presence. And it was no different than in the hotel room.

Chapter 25 - Heritage

View Online

Shadow watched Cardinal Spitfire sleeping. It was still early, so no need to get her up. It was the last day of their useful leave. Tomorrow morning they would be up early and out the door to begin the day long flight back. For now, he could contently watch her sleep in the other bed.

“Mmmmmm,” Cardinal Spitfire moaned. “What time is it?”

“0746,” Shadow said.

Cardinal Spitfire groaned more as she tried to stretch under the covers. It failed. Shadow was the first thing she saw in the morning. She smiled warmly at him.

“Seeing you first in the morning is nice. Yesterday you had the covers over your head. Play?”

Shadow sighed. “Last full day here. We got massages yesterday, I was thinking of one, but it is risky. And dangerous.”

“You have my interest,” Cardinal Spitfire grinned.

She opened up her sheets and Shadow rolled out of bed and into hers. He was embraced by the warm sheets and her arms. She gave him a good morning kiss. It was pushing his community's rules being in bed like this.

“Play?” She asked again.

Shadow leaned in close and whispered it into her ear like it was a huge secret.

“That is risky. Nopony could find out,” She said. “Not until… later. We get caught, ACS is over.”

“The risk outweighs the benefits. I think.”

“I think so too,” She said kissing him on the lips. “They say that the most rewarding things require risk.”

“Never heard that,” Shadow smiled. “Ours was that most rewarding things require hard work.”

“Damn, that is better.”

“On topic, I think it solves a few things.”

“One more kiss and lets get going,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered. “Skip breakfast. This could take a while and we need every minute.”

“Dress uniforms to be safe.”













“I am Judge Gavel. I try to get to Enclave soldiers first. What can I do for you two?”

“I understand that this is a place of full confidentiality?” Shadow asked approaching the desk slowly.

“So long as its not something to do with breaking the law.”

“Some explanations may dive into confidential military movements,” Shadow explained.

Shadow would be doing most of the talking.

“I am Sergeant Shadow Flare and she is Specialist Cardinal Spitfire. The point is that we want to get married. Its our last day of leave and the only chance we will get coming up.”

“Oh?” The Judge said as they sat down. “Typically this matter takes a few days.”

“I was afraid of that,” Cardinal Spitfire said getting up.

“But lets talk,” Judge Gavel continued. He waved her back into the seat. “I only said typically. How long have you know each other?”

“Since Basic Training. Back about 26 weeks,” Shadow answered.

“Short time for marriage.”

“Not where I am from,” Shadow began. “I was told that when you meet the right one, it will move fast. And commitment brings approval. Approval is earned by commitment. Commit and hold, never letting it leave your mind. And that it will be a mare that I do not have to work to understand and feels exactly like I do.”

“Most of those weeks were spent being battle buddies who had no choice but to learn to trust each other and work together. We put all we could into that. Flying is the most difficult when it come to being pared. We had no choice. I can read her body language perfectly and adjust to what she wants or needs to do without commands. Neither of us have to work hard to understand the other. It comes as easily as it can.”

“I am going for recon and she is going to be assigned to an Aerial Combat Unit. We both are in Aerial Combat School right now. One week left. Then life splits us for an unknown time. We will weather the storm even at the ends of the Enclave, no matter what.”

“But it would make it easier if we weathered it married. And the Enclave would pair us up at a base as soon as they could. They do try to do that for their married soldiers. Plenty active duty soldiers are married to another active duty soldier.”

“I see your concern,” Judge Gavel said. “Your devotion is evident. I am concerned you are jumping the gun on this. Training is a lot of stress.”

“We know Sir. And we have evaluated that. But so is life and no matter what, seeing somepegasus romantically and talking about marriage is scary and stressful. I learned well from home, Sir.”

Shadow reached into his saddle bags and laid it on the table.

“Is this… A Homestead book?” The Judge asked. He wanted to touch it, but found it too sacred for him to.

“Yes Sir,” Shadow said. “Turnip Homestead. Northern Farming District on the Western half.”

Judge Gavel leaned back. “I need to call my brother. He has done a lot of research into Homesteads. I need his expert advice. I do not know fully what I am dealing with. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Shadow said give a quick nod.

The Judge made the call. “Money Bags, its Gavel. I have two pegasi in my chambers and a Homestead book has just been produced. I need to know what I am looking at before I can proceed. Good, see you in a few minutes.”

The Judge hung up and addressed them. “Thank goodness he only works a few blocks away. He has spent much of his life tracking the Homesteads. Our family is connected to one, way, way back. We do not know which one, which is why it has picked up his fancy”

“I am surprised he brought it on leave,” Cardinal Spitfire stated. “We didn't plan this.”

“It comes with me everywhere,” Shadow reminded her.

“I thought everywhere had some limits,” Cardinal Spitfire said rolling her eyes.

The door opened soon after and a lean, but fit pegasus in a fancy suit came trotting over to to them and then behind the desk. He was careful with the book. It was obviously reverent to him as he slowly opened it.

“I see. Turnip Homestead. There are only 48 Homesteads in the Enclave with another 17 that have sent out family to found a new farm further away. A Homestead has to have been founded before the sealing up. Around the 48, great farming communities quickly sprouted. They needed the Homesteads to teach and lead them. This is my first time touching a real Homestead book. Even a travel version.”

“That number would now be 18,” Shadow commented. “Last year, the Cherry Homestead in Norther Farming District set one up near us, close to the western boarder.”

“I had not heard of that move,” He replied. “But this is a very detailed book for so small, and with a lot of prestige. You inheriting a Homestead-”

“My older sister and her husband will be inheriting it,” Shadow corrected. “Much better farmers and she is first born. I am fourth of five. That travel copy is for me while I serve.”

“Out that far, they really do not care,” He said pulling out a book.

It was an old and big book. He opened it and compared first pages. Money Bags handed the book to Shadow.

“What is going on?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Comparing very, very old family records,” Shadow said as he read. “The 48 Homesteads usually have information on the others. Often arranging marriages to strengthen themselves.”

Shadow looked at the Judge and Money Bags. “Where did you get it?”

“Passed down through those generations,” Money Bags said nodding at the book. “One of the few Homestead heritage record books that are not of a farming background. Only one I know of that wasn't a Homestead to start. Our spot is in the middle because of the population restrictions.”

“What?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“This story is the other side of mine,” Shadow said. It was really directed toward Money Bags, who had already read the Turnip Heritage opening.

“I still put in the profit percentages agreed upon in each year. I have no idea who or where they go, well until now. It is an honor to meet you Shadow Flare,” Money Bags said shaking his hoof.

“It is mutual,” Shadow smiled. “A very great honor. We never knew the other side. The whole thing is a secret rarely divulged outside of the direct linage. I only know of it because of taking pictures and things before I left. The bits added up fast.”

“We live a simple life, on what we make and grow,” Shadow continued. “We live within our means and our farm has a strong savings outside the bank account. But the bank, it really came in handy helping my filly fooler sister's farm to get a foal. Expensive procedure and the only way it could be afforded.”

“A filly fooler farm that far out?” Money Bags marveled. “And they got a donor. Things our there are tight knit and that goes against-”

“Everything,” Shadow finished. “It is Cherry Tart carrying the foal, not my sister. I was the donor.”

“That is a big… responsibility, honor and gift,” Money Bags stammered. “Did you even blink?”

“Nope,” Shadow smiled proudly. “I had been living with them before I started my training. I am a big part of their Homestead and always will be. My room is forever reserved for me.”

“Brother, you didn't just call me here to swap Homestead stories.”

“No,” Judge Gavel admitted. “I called you here because they want to get married, but met in Basic Training and have only been together 26 weeks.”

“That is about right,” Money Bags concluded. “Solid time for Shadow Flare to decide what he wants. He won't recant on that, ever. It is shameful beyond what we could understand. If the marriage fails, he would never remarry. They rarely remarry even after a death. Solid time for her to decide as well. Your name?”

“Specialist Cardinal Spitfire. And I am of the Spitfire legacy. I do not have a Homestead book, but my mother keeps a solid family tree. She is really proud of it. Sometimes too proud. He has a slot as a recon soldier, I am going to an Aerial Combat Unit and will test for Wonderbolts as soon as possible.”

“Wow, two prestigious assignments and goals,” Money Bags sputtered.

“We have one final week of training, and after that, we will be split up,” Cardinal Spitfire continued. “We decided to finally go for it at the beginning of leave. And now we are here a few days later. We have been battle buddies and teammate for all but a few weeks of training. We grew a very close friendship.”

“Just… life splitting us up has stalled either of us from speaking out or wanting to go for it. No matter how this relationship ends, our friendship will always hold, no matter the distance or time. We made that pact together and with three others in our training unit. Best friends for life. To always trust each other.”

“I am no judge brother, but they both are very committed,” Money Bags stated. “To their their duty first, and now to their hearts as their duty allows them the ability too. And Shadow Flare will not soil his heritage. He will never get close to giving her grounds for divorce, even with distance and their duty separating them.”

“What got you leave in the middle of training?” Money Bags asked.

“An unfortunate situation put to halt our training in aerial combat for a week,” Shadow replied. We were given leave because of it. Tomorrow morning we head back and must be in formation at 0700 in full gear the morning after that.”

“He knows what he is getting into for marriage,” Money Bags approved. “He was raised in a harsh district with a strong community beyond our understanding. He knows what a real marriage looks like.”

Shadow chuckled. “You have done your research. It was not a direct class, but learning and watching my parent and other married couples. Hearing advice for when things got rough and life in general showed me more than any class could. I was told to watch and observe from the beginning. And never fear seeking advice.”

“Because of your heritage as a direct descendant of an old and powerful Homestead, I will grant you this marriage,” Judge Gavel declared with a bang.

Judge Gavel asked for the papers from his secretary over the intercom. Money Bags and Shadow talked heritages. Cardinal Spitfire was bored, but did what she could to listen in on the heritage conversation. It was something she obviously needed to learn joining his family.

Both sides of their family would be shocked. She was shocked. They gambled, lost, and then Shadow pulled out a magical book that changed their loss to a win. And Shadow connected to family.

“How are you two connected exactly?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Well...” Money Bags said trying to calculate it. “Our ancestors were brothers pre war. One found his duty to cloud farming, as soon as it was invented, to feed the ponies and then just the pegasi, the other brother stayed with the family business. The farmer gave up the share of the company for a portion of the profits each year to keep the farm always secure and running.”

“He could not do both, especially since he chose to farm. And stay very, very far from the civilized Equestria to do it safely. Since the brothers were not in Cloudsdale when it was hit, they were the only survivors in their family.”

“Our relationship has moved out so many generations, it would take me months to calculate it exactly, if I could. It is like twenty cousins once removed. Our foals could marry without there even being a concern of incest. We are really far apart. But the connections between business and the farm are still as strong today as they were at the beginning. Side by side, despite either side being blind about the other.”

“Oh, I have a spare heritage book from our side if you want it,” Money Bags offered.
It is in my office. A new copy I made a year or so back. Nothing too special. It is yours if you want it.”

“That would be wonderful,” Shadow grinned.

“Going to lug that one around on any deployments too?” Cardinal Spitfire asked with sass.

“No, that will stay back with my personal items. But carrying mine paid off this time,” Shadow replied. “I knew it held weight, but not this much.”

“I never expected to see one other than ours,” Judge Gavel marveled. “I wanted to double check with my brother since he is an expert, but many judges will immediately bend to a heritage farmer's request. Unless you are in the court room.”

“That really explains why my dad sent a condensed copy with me. He knew its value.”

“He knows more than its value,” Cardinal Spitfire said. She went in to quickly explain her family's farming situation and then into Shadow's family coming out to help solve the problem.

“Digging sounds wrong,” Judge Gavel confessed. “But I know they know what they are doing. Let them know I am here, in case things go wrong somehow.”

“Thank you Sir!” Shadow stammered. “And if it does happen, could you keep the marriage confidential. We will break it to everypony when the right time comes.”

“Of course. You came to me to seek advice and protection if they ran into trouble on their mission to help another farm is dire need. But really, it should be me thanking you for your entire life's work and more,” The Judge finished.

“Okay, I have to ask,” Cardinal Spitfire announced. “Is your name actually Gavel? His name is Money Bags.”

Both brothers laughed.

“No,” The Judge said. “My real name is not a good one for the courtroom, so Gavel is used.”

“Here are those papers,” The secretary said coming in.

“Thank you,” He replied. “You two sign here and then here. I sign the other parts, my brother can stand witness since he knows so much about Homesteads.”

They signed where they needed too.

“My, my Shadow,” Money Bags commented. “You really didn't go to a traditional school.”

“Practicality and needed on the farm,” Shadow chuckled. “At least I can read really well and can write sufficiently.”

“Touche,” Money Bags said.

“Touche?” Shadow asked.

“It is an old word from a long lost sport, fencing. The art of sword play. It means good hit, or good point. An admission of the other's response being a really solid or superior response.”

“I have learned several things today,” Shadow stated. “I love learning. An unexpected twist with such little schooling.”

“Not unexpected to me,” Money Bags replied. “I know how you guys love to learn, even though it does not fit in what most see as 'learning.' I may see about slipping away to see your father soon.”

“I can tell you that he is apathetic about the bank account. So long as the farm is secure and the community is well off, that is all he cares. That is what I got from him the one time it was talked about. But it was one talk, and he said the other side was stricken from the records. Knowing him, he doesn't care because there is no answer.”

“They would certainly welcome you in as a traveler and give you great hospitality. You could also swing a few hours north to the new cherry Homestead. I do not know if they have officially named it.”

“Makes sense and good to know,” Money Bags replied. “But let us chart this marriage in your book and chart our meeting. This was not by accident. Fate wanted this.”

Shadow was nervous about adding Cardinal Spitfire into the spot where his married partner was supposed to go. He knew the ending to their heritage, and Buck and Rift were happily added publicly. Cherry Tart was a late entry, after the Cherry Harvest. He still was nervous. He wasn't the inheritor and only the inheritors added to the books.

Their copy of the marriage certificate was rushed through processing and they were out of the courthouse before lunch. They went back with Money Bags and got the copy of his heritage book he offered. They declined his lunch invite which he totally understood.

“That was odd,” Cardinal Spitfire announced. “All of it. I am married… And your community things are weird. I guess it's our community.”

Shadow chuckled. “Every time a wedding is announced, the discussion about lineage happens. I am familiar with the process. Enough anyway. Once I learned about the books, it all more made sense. They never were brought out or directly spoken about. A secret nopony spoke about but all knew. ”

Cardinal Spitfire just rolled her eyes.

“And yes, our community.” Shadow said stealing a kiss on her cheek. “But what about yours. Miles apart between them, but that doesn't make one more important than the other.”

“Okay” Cardinal Spitfire said thinking as she blushed. “The Enclave will not know until after our training finishes. But that shouldn't stop us from recognizing the other.”

“What do you mean?” Shadow asked.

“In my community, typically, necklaces are traded. Usually simple gold bands on a chain, but with our gear and combat, we probably do not want to do that.”

“Closest jewelry store?”

Cardinal Spitfire looked around.

“That is an enclave peace keeper office,” Cardinal Spitfire observed. “Only one of us can head in. I will go. They won't expect me to buy jewelry for a stallion and they will most likely assume its for me.”

Shadow just nodded and waited. It took a good twenty five minutes before she came back out.

“I was getting nervous time wise,” Shadow said.

“Nah. It was all fine. We chatted a bit as well. But the recommendation I got isn't far by flight.”

Cardinal Spitfire took off and Shadow was right behind her. They merged into the flight street and went with the flow. They could have gone above since they were in uniform, but neither wanted to risk anything on their last free day in the city.

“Welcome to Green Jewelry. How can I help you?” A nice mare asked.

“We are looking for necklaces,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “For marriage. But we have to consider wearing combat gear.”

“I think I know what you want. They are not grand and more like trinkets, but they will do what you want on assignments. We can put a better chain on too.”

It was a simple design. A heart that was torn in two. You paired the broken edges up to make it whole. Completing the heart symbolized completing their lives. Two halves finding the right pony like they did.

“That is cheap?” Shadow asked.

“Look at the other stuff stupid,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “You and your farming.”

“A farmer?” She questioned.

“Not anywhere close to here,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled at her. “A good year, they made 200 bits. Real bits. Not the ones in our bank accounts and cards. Thankfully, he made that transition easily.”

“Yeah,” Shadow said distracted. “Amazing pieces you have. But I can not comprehend how somepegasus could save up this much.”

Cardinal Spitfire laughed and made the purchase. They made some changes, but they only cost 200 bits.

The first change was the bigger and heavier duty chains, yet still sleek, lightweight and beautiful. The second was engraving their initials on back. Since theirs were CS and SF, they put them together so it was CSF with the S over the 'tare'. Only when both came together would the letters be complete. It was something that could never be replicated.

Cardinal Spitfire put Shadow’s around his neck with ease. Shadow had trouble with the clasp on her's but he finally got it. They sealed it with a quick kiss and left.

“To the hotel?” Cardinal Spitfire asked with a grin on her face Shadow had not see before. “Oh come on! I have to explain that to you too?”

Shadow laughed. “I have never flirted, and we didn't exactly do that either. Yes. Lets head back and quickly!”

Cardinal Spitfire's uniform was off before the door closed all the way. “Don't worry about anything,” She said as seductively as she could. “I have no idea what I am doing.”

“Hell,” She said flipping back to her normal tone. “I never kissed anypony before you. Even on the cheek.”

Shadow tackled her onto the floor. “You know, I was told by a wise old mare that my special somepony would never have done anything either.”

He never gave her a chance to respond as he pulled her into a tight kiss.

“Bed,” Cardinal Spitfire said with some panic. “Neither of us want rug burn or want to explain it to them.”

“Right,” Shadow chuckled.

Chapter 26 - Finals

View Online

It was just past lunch when Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow touched down at the main gate to Fort Wind to enter. In no time, they were back into the air and on their way to the aerial combat zone.

Nopony was in the sky, which could mean anything. Shadow was lazily in lead and had them circle around to make the proper approach and land on the flight deck. They pulled away without trying the approach. The flight deck was a mess.

It looked like Bull had brought some friends and were simulating an out of control crowd. The ACS squads were trying to keep them from surging the Squad Barracks which was probably simulating a city hall. From their view, it didn't look good. Chaos ruled.

Cardinal Spitfire backed off, allowing Shadow to land in front of Unit 41 first. Two landing off the flight deck could prove to be a problem if they didn't see somepony. With it clear, Cardinal Spitfire touched down.

“I can do a lot, but not that,” Cardinal Spitfire said shaking her head as a chill went down her spine.

“Lets just get inside and settled back in,” Shadow suggested. “For dinner, we will go in through the recruit side.”

“That is a good plan,” Cardinal Spitfire agreed.

Shadow put everything away and changed into a flight suit. It was foreign to have the necklace on. It was simple, flat and certainly didn't get in the way. But still foreign. The metal felt cold, despite being worn all day long and at a fast pace.

“Are you used to necklaces?” Shadow asked Cardinal Spitfire.

“No,” She replied. “I assume yours feels the same as mine, a cold, burning reminder. It will pass.”

“Yeah. Always present.”

“I never want to lose its presence though.”

“You should look at my locker,” Shadow said shifting topics. “It is actually getting full.”

They laughed and Shadow laid down beside Cardinal Spitfire on her bed. If the door opened before dinner, they never would see Shadow make the quick transition to his bed.

Cardinal Spitfire kissed him on the cheek while they talked about nothing in particular.

“Just felt like doing it. Felt right,” She explained after the kiss.

“Same,” Shadow sighed contently. “But it is late enough for an early dinner. And we didn't have lunch.”

Cardinal Spitfire shrugged and gave him another peck before she hopped off her bed and headed for the door. They avoided the mess like they planned and headed in through the back. As they entered, they ran into Captain Marble Falls in line for food.

“Ah, Filly Fooler, Cardinal Spitfire, glad you made it back safe,”The Captain greeted “And with great time. I trust you had fun?”

“The city scares me,” Shadow chuckled. “I do not know if I ever will get used to it.”

The Captain wordlessly joined them at the table.

“I fucking hate Bull,” She whispered. “I wish there was more of the trainees I could have removed from the course. And trust me, after you left, I made us all look. I am glad Captain Nova convinced me to give you leave.”

“We were all pissed we forgot you Filly Fooler and your background. After training and watching you so long, we should have seen your moves coming. Sorry about that. I am glad you did get away. It was horrible here. And I am a fucking Wonderbolt!”

“You are forgiven,” Shadow smiled. “I missed myself too.”

“So it was Captain Nova,” Cardinal Spitfire added. “There were a lot in the room.”

“Yeah,” Captain Marble Falls began. “When the fallout happened, General Red River was immediately on his way. And he had Master Wind come out since he helped train Shadow. That was a awful, painful discussion that lasted all day and then late into the night.”

“General Red River had us all write situation reports and told his superiors that he would begin flagging troops with conflict of interests to the situation. Doesn't make them any less loyal. I can not believe the resolve of Chocolate. As meek as he is, he won't back down.”

“I knew I caused a stir,” Shadow whispered back. “But that was more.”

“Keep it quiet though. I am speaking as a friend, not your trainer.”

“Understood,” Shadow nodded. “Thanks.”

“And one last thing you two, they were issued equipment and it will be in the barracks. I have no idea where they will put it, but it will be there.”

“I would say Shadows locker,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered. “But I took him clothes shopping.”

“I want to hear. But we do not need to whisper anymore.”

Shadow rolled his eyes and Cardinal Spitfire launched into the whole story.

“Well, plenty of new experiences,” Captain Marble Falls chuckled. “And now I have a really good story about a bad ass recruit who was top in everything, but had to have clothes tailed to his puny size.”

Shadow chuckled. “So long as you do not tell them about us switching up flight suits.”

“That will kill how bad ass you are,” She scoffed. “I could not let my reputation die with that admission.”

Cardinal Spitfire thought for a moment. “Shadow almost got us in trouble at the Cloudsdale Monument when he questioned the way the cloud looked. They don't like that apparently”

“Damn it Filly Fooler,” The Captain playfully growled. “I know it was leave, but I wish you had gotten in trouble. I could have used the break to knock some heads around.”

“Running my ID solved things,” Shadow stated. “They did not like how we could pick them out, coming in behind us in case things got out of control. I almost did go after their lieutenant. We would have kicked their ass if the pushed any longer. And then calmly walk to the nearest post to call you.”

“That is a good Filly Fooler,” Captain Marble Falls smiled. “You may only be a Sergeant, but you are untouchable in recon. And only a recon would look close enough at the cloud to question it.”

“I wanted to file a report,” Cardinal Spitfire continued. “Shadow talked me out of it. It was over and done. And like you said, only recon or scout would question it.”

“Best choice,” The Captain agreed. “Since they let you go, you let it go.”

“I enjoyed the Weather Factory,” Shadow added. “The weather teams just shove things our way we are so far out. But it was really cool and educational. I learned a lot.”

“Please tell me you both slept in.”

“We did,” Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. “Had some heart attacks when we saw the time in the morning, but we got through it.”

“Well, they are filing in, I am done and heading to do mindless paperwork,” Captain Marble Falls said standing up and walking away.

“Let's stick to just the factory, clothes, massages and shopping,” Shadow quickly said. “We never planned stories out.”

“Deal. But we both are done, lets wait for them in the Unit.”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded.

“I never considered barracks wear,” Cardinal Spitfire said as she turned to Shadow. “The necklaces-”

“Only a little. We can play it off if we need to,” Shadow replied. “Shopping on the first full day. Only ones they had and we have been together side by side from the beginning of training.”

Cardinal Spitfire took a deep breath in and let it out. “Okay.”

“If we forget it's there, they won't notice. We notice because we know. They don't show that much. And my forelegs can't hold more ribbons.”

Cardinal Spitfire giggled. “I forget you have them on. Even last night.”

“So do I, but they are always with me and always will be until my service is up. Unless I can not get them removed.”

“Oh, I have the papers,” Cardinal Spitfire pipped up. “Who should-”

“You,” Shadow decided. “I could disappear right as we finish and not have time.”

“Good point.”

The Unit door opened.

“Hey! You are back,” Flags said. He was loaded down with gear.

“Made it back around mid afternoon,” Shadow replied.

“You made good time,” Flags stated.

“Any good stories?” Arrow asked. She was tired and looking for a distraction. “I mean, 6 days, 4 without travel. Something good had to happen. Nothing good happened here. Fucking Bull.”

“Yeah, the gear...” Flags hesitated.

“Stays,” Shadow replied. “We were warned when we got in. If we didn't buy me clothes, I would say put it in mine, but not an option anymore.”

Cardinal Spitfire was chuckling. “Department stores didn't carry anything in his size. Had to hit a boutique. They took good care of us and had the alterations done before we left.”

“Was it a mare's boutique?” Arrow poked.

“Mixed,” Shadow laughed. “Mostly mare, but a large enough stallion section thankfully.”

“How much did that hurt?” Dipper asked.

“Plenty,” Shadow said shaking his head. “To be honest, I do not get my back account. I got an payment in halfway through the week. It has been happening for the past eleven weeks.”

“Recon training,” Flags informed them. “They bumped you up to a sergeant and they are paying you extra for training. Not uncommon. I went to learn heavy weapons for a week and got an extra boost for the training. You are a more valuable soldier and they reward it. I knew about the extra payment going in though.”

“I still know very little,” Shadow admitted.

“That was a boring story,” Arrow groaned. “Please, something that will get my mind off this shit so I can fall asleep with good dreams.”

“Shadow likes shopping,” Cardinal Spitfire offered.

Shadow launched into what shopping meant to him, and then all the different things that caught his eye like window gardens. The gardens got a good laugh. They all agreed his presents were a good choice.

Despite the others not going, they felt like they had and slept well.

Captain Marble Falls kicked open their door with a bullhorn. “Finally back to aerial combat!”

She set the loudspeaker down. “0800 formation at the flight deck so eat first.”

“That was new,” Shadow groaned as he rolled out of bed. “I didn't expect her to be that happy.”

“If she is that happy, we are in trouble,” Cardinal Spitfire moaned as she pulled the blanket over her head.

“Out!” Arrow said pulling the covers off of Cardinal Spitfire's bed.

“I'm up. I'm up,” Cardinal Spitfire said rolling out of bed. She fell right to the floor.

Shadow bounded over her bed and was first to her side.

“I'm fine,” She said as he pulled her up. “See, I can stand.”

When Cardinal Spitfire joined them for breakfast she looked herself.

“What happened?” Chocolate asked.

“Night wasn't too restful,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “I blame the hotel's beds. They enveloped you.”

“We will will be watching,” Flags declared. “As squadmates and more importantly, friends. A bad night's sleep is never good. We have your back.”

They were lined up by 0745.

“I love timely recruits,” Captain Marble Falls said as she came right up to them.

They gathered around at her insistence.

“Listen up,” The Captain whispered. “Your direct test is today. The rest of the week you will be giving the other squads hell as you simulate enemy forces. They will be testing you on that to a degree so do not make it easy. More details about that aspect tomorrow as I learn. Good luck. I am needed as score keeper elsewhere.”

Captain Nova walked down the line handing out files.

“Unit 41. Here are your mission objectives and parameters. Get it done.”

Flags opened the file.

TO: Unit 41

From: Scout Command

Objective: Scout and report on location 456.74 on map 123. Do not engage hostiles unless necessary.


“Scout Command?” Chocolate asked.

Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow looked at each other.

“Right, they are tailoring the first to you two,” Flags nodded.

“No,” Shadow said shaking his head.

“Now you have me confused,” Cardinal Spitfire said raising and eyebrow.

“Scouts were discontinued over five years ago,” Shadow explained. “Scout Command doesn't exist. Recon has one team and only one team until after our mission. They are rebuilding it all. That is why we ran that cityscape. That is scout, not aerial combat. It wasn't just for me, it was for all of us.”

“How many Aerial Combat Units are there?” Shadow asked.

Nopony knew.

“There are 120 Units here,” Shadow continued. “We are Unit 41. The other trainees are in random numbered units. They will be recalling all the Units here. Probably set to arrive just as we finish. They are shifting things.”

“Okay,” Cardinal Spitfire said bringing them back around. “That will be then, this is now.”

“We get it done,” Shadow concluded. “No other teams have left. So that means they are not going to be facing us. I do not know who it will be, but not them.”

“Could be the other Units,” Dipper pointed out.

“Good chance,” Shadow acknowledged. “But on point. We have to scout and report. Lets not get shot down and only give them what we can ascertain safely.”

“That is playing it very cautious,” Flags replied. “We are not known for caution.”

“We never have had any orders like this,” Shadow smiled. “We can not survey if we are under fire. Flags, take lead. Card and I will get a shot from the air and cover you if needed.”

“Suddenly, I think we need different rifles,” Chocolate gulped.

“Maybe,” Shadow replied. “I have gotten the feeling that only few heavy automatics are running around. Our rifles will cover that easily. We have two and you know how fast semi automatics can be fired. Same fate of fire, just depends on if your can pull the trigger fast enough.”

They were the first off the flight deck and headed towards the destination.

“Suggestions on approach vector?” Flags asked.

“Straight in,” Shadow suggested. “It won't matter and will give them less time to see us. Speed is our friend. And keep an eye out for air teams. These are new orders, but they will probably try to cover them up.”

“Like the team coming up on our right?” Dipper asked.

“Team Filly Foolers break off and deal with them,” Flags ordered. “I know you can catch up.”

Shadow banked left and Cardinal Spitfire followed suit. Shadow took lead and turned towards the team coming at them.

Shadow put them into a dive for speed and then pulled up. Their quarry adjusted to them. It was four on two. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire separated. Shadow went low, Cardinal Spitfire went high. The other team was good, but they were outmatched and carved to bits. Shadow's EMG carved up three of them. Two had stayed together making them an easy target.

Cardinal Spitfire came up on Shadow's wing and they kicked it into high gear. They soon caught up as the rest of the squad touched down behind cover. They were lit up with fire right away, including simulated explosives that tossed up clouds.

Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow split again and moved to give them cover. They came at them from either side firing with everything they had. Their squadmates took off and into individual evasive maneuvers like they had been taught.

They formed up at a safe height.

“I got nothing,” Flags admitted.

“You got a lot more than you think,” Shadow assured him. “I will explain for the report. I have a good idea on what to do. Keep your eyes peeled for incoming enemies. And good job all.”

When they landed, Shadow took the orders and a pen. Together, they began to map out what they saw and who was where. It was limited, but together they painted a small picture of what to expect.

“Captain Sir!” Flags said approaching Captain Nova. “We have our report for Scout Command.”

“I am Scout Command today,” Captain Nova informed him. “Report.”

“Sir, on our flight there, a group confronted us in the air coming in from the East. Easily taken care of. We hit heavy resistance upon landing at the location. There was adequate cover cover for us to land. Squad members Shadow Flare and Cardinal Spitfire were able to get some air cover for us to move back. This is what we could decipher of the surrounding area.”

“This is all you can tell me?” Captain Nova asked. “This is nothing.”

“It is all we could do considering the odds and that the orders were to not engage unless necessary. A larger, better equipped team will be needed to take the area and fully map it.”

“You are not equipped enough?” Captain Nova said annoyed.

“Not to confront that many hostiles in such a confined area.”

Captain Nova pulled out another file and looked at both.

“Good job Unit 41. Here is your next set of order.”

TO: Unit 23

From: Scout Command

Objective: Scout and report on location 874.25 on map 93. Do not engage hostiles unless necessary.


“Wrong orders Sir,” Flags said. “This is to Unit 23.”

“Whoops,” Captain Nova said digging out the proper one.

TO: Unit 41

From: Scout Command

Objective: We believe a piece of vital equipment is at location 423.71 on map 123. Retrieve if possible.

“Chocolate, its your lead,” Flags said.

“Mine? On the test?” Chocolate said wiping his brow to pull away the arriving sweat.

“You got this,” Cardinal Spitfire said encouraging him. “We will hit these quickly. They will have at least 6 for us to do. One per lead.”

Chocolate made his plans and they took off. There was no intercept team as they came in.

“Teams, drop back,” Chocolate ordered. “Filly Fooler take the rear. I want you in the back and I want this to look like a two Pegasus movement. Keep them guessing.”

“I don't like this,” Dipper said after a few minutes. “I don't like no contact.”

“We have to probe where technology would be,” Shadow added. “But is entirely possible our enemy has no idea we are coming.”

“I see some bits of something that is not trees off to my left,” Arrow informed them.

“Hold in defensive positions and slid up there Arrow and Flags,” Chocolate ordered.

“Yeah, I got a pod here,” Arrow said. “But it is big.”

“Can you get the whole thing?” Chocolate questioned her.

“It is heavy,” Arrow grunted. “ But I found a hatch.”

“I have no idea what I am looking at,” Flags said a few minutes later.

“Can the entire thing be recovered?”

“Maybe by Shadow,” Arrow suggested. “But he would need to be covered well. It will be at least twice his length.”

“Coming,” Shadow said.

Shadow slipped over to them, crouched all the way down and they rolled it onto his back.

“I think I can,” Shadow grunted. “Gas masks for straps.”

They did it, Cardinal Spitfire launched for primary cover. Shadow didn't get the air he wanted when he jumped but he got up and began to fly. It was tough work. There was no gliding. He had to push every stoke. If he had his power armor, that would help. But it didn't work with the vests.

They tried to help by lifting from the front and rear, but it caused balance problems for him. They settled with giving him the best draft they could with Cardinal Spitfire on watch.

Shadow's landing wasn't the smoothest, but the object didn't fall off. They undid it and Captain Nova looked at them.

“Commendable, but not what we were looking for,” He stated. “But what did you find?”

Arrow opened the hatch.

“I have no idea what you found,” He said after a minute. “Good enough. Tech down there gets confusing without knowing exactly what you are supposed to retrieve. I will call a team to find out what this is.”

Dipper took the next set of orders from Captain Nova.

TO: Unit 41

From: Combat Training Command

Objective: A scout team went missing. The second in the area. Find out what happened. Eliminate any hostiles necessary. Coordinates 476.31 on map 123


An actual combat one,” Dipper smiled. “We need to keep a team back. Filly Foolers will be on point. I want to use Shadow's EMG and his E.F.S. mod to it's full potential.”

“No E.F.S. with this gear,” Shadow reminded him. “But I can handle it.”

Dipper may have been keeping Flags and Arrow in reserve, but he was not subtle. He chose heavy and combat came quickly.

Shadow was bounding around and opening up without giving a thought to ammo. He was clearing a way through the enemy. His E.F.S. would have been a big help, but he was handling things just fine.

They found combat gear and helmets in a pile. Shadow took a break while Cardinal Spitfire quickly checked them out.

“How many?” Dipper asked.

“Six,” Cardinal Spitfire responded. “I recovered their ID's. Let's go!”

As they launched, Arrow flew overhead and strafed an incoming enemy team. They were gone before they could launch a counter attack.

“Sweet job Shadow,” Dipper praised. “You sneak around but know when to lay it down. That was amazing job. Why do we keep you in the sky?”

“Cause I am with Cardinal and am very well skill in the air. I can knock a squad out of the sky with my EMG alone.”

“You are too good everywhere,” Dipper admitted.

“That is the point for me in recon,” Shadow chuckled.

They landed but had to wait in line. Four other Units were in front of them and move were arriving.

“Unit 41 reporting in on the missing scouts Sir. We recovered their IDs. I am afraid their armor and ID’s were all we found.”

“Did you search the surrounding area for signs they were alive?”

“No Sir,” Dipper said. “I did not make a proper sweep of the area.”

“I will have to send another team to see if there is anyplace they might be being held captive. Meanwhile you have another assignment.”

Dipper passed it to Arrow.

“Time to show you how it really is done!” She chirped. “Aw fuck. Can I trade?”

They laughed and looked at them.


TO: Unit 41

From: Scout Command

Objective: Earlier scout teams reported a large raider presence in the area 425.64 on map 123. Determine the strength of the force so we can send in enough soldiers to clear them out. Avoid engagement.

They chuckled.

“You have this,” Cardinal Spitfire said nudging her. “We have worked on you being subtle.”

“I wish I had Dipper's-”

“Shut up Arrow,” Flags ordered. “Lets get this done.”

Arrow took a few deep breaths.

“We can not fly in,” She began. “We need to split and probe. Stay with wing teams and out of formation.”

They took off, staying away from each other as they flew towards their location. Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow were going to head around to come in from behind. Cardinal Spitfire kicked them into higher gear to better time things.

“Filly Foolers touching down,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “We are in position.”

“I wish you had-”

“I don't Arrow,” Shadow cut her off. “Lets focus. I can't rely on it always. My eyes wont fail me… you know what I mean!”

Shadow had separated from Cardinal Spitfire and was crawling from building to building trying to get an eye on the situation. He heard somepegasus approaching and slid back. No engagement and he was screwed.

No, it was avoid. And I can stay silent with a choke hold, knocking them out.

Shadow jumped out and tacked the Pegasus. It was light's out in seconds with no harm done. Shadow tried to drag him away to hiding but was getting nowhere.

“Cardinal, to me! Fast!”

Cardinal Spitfire moved quickly and slid besides him.

“Avoid engagement,” She whispered.

“Avoid, not that we couldn't. And its quiet. Which counts!”

Cardinal Spitfire shrugged and dragged the body away to hiding.

Shadow heard something from where Cardinal Spitfire had gone.

“If you know what is good for you, stay down and out.”

Shadow pointed to the encampment he had spotted.

“I have 12 in my eyes, in the corner of a building with one in tact window,” Arrow announced.

“I have the same,” Chocolate replied.

“Chocolate and Dipper,” Cardinal Spitfire whispered. “Head behind you 50 yards, then head north for about 300 and you find an encampment. Shadow and I are working out way towards one off to your Northwest.”

“I got 14 in my eyes,” Shadow reported. “Plus one chocked out,”

“Of course you did Shadow,” Dipper said annoyed. “Almost at their camp.”

“Falling back. Find that last group and lets scram.”

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire began to work their way back to safety.

“7,” Dipper reported.

“Shit! Run!” Chocolate called.

Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow Flare took off low and hot, working their way back around.

Fire erupted in the area where Dipper and Chocolate were.

“Free!” Dipper reported.

“Form up!” Arrow ordered.

They came together about halfway back.

“Sorry,” Chocolate said.

“Why?” Arrow asked. “You have the numbers and we all walked away. Our job is done.”

“Back already?” Captain Nova said shocked. “Wait in line.”

“What number are you turning in?” Arrow was asked.

“Four.”

“This is our first!”

“Well,” Arrow said looking at the sky. “It is late afternoon. Better pick up the pace.”

“How do you pick up the pace when trying to scout something out?”

“That one only took us an hour,” Arrow gloated. “We got what we could and got out under heavy fire.”

“Ignore Unit 41, lets see what you have for me,” Captain Nova ordered.

Arrow approached Captain Nova after he was done. “34 individuals in the area of 425.64 on map 123. Separated into three camps. Twelve were spotted in the south building. The northeast sector had 14 with one on the move totaling 15. The northwest camp had 7. All within a 500 yard radius.”

“Are you sure on those numbers?” Captain Nova asked.

“We maybe be a few short in the northwest location. They spotted a team and opened fire. We got away clean.”

“Interesting. You had eyes on them all at the same time?”

“Yes sir. Close enough to know they were not counted twice. Is there a problem Sir?”

“No. Not with you. With them. There were only supposed to be 21 in two camps. But here is your next set of orders.”

Arrow brought the orders over. “Filly Foolers, one of you is up.”

“Let's find out what it is,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “Not that either of us will have a problem.”

They all chuckled.

TO: Unit 41

From: Combat Training Command

Objective: A large number of non Enclave pegasi are on the move. Shoot them down. Numbers unknown. Any available teams are being diverted to intercept. They were at 569.86 on map 122 heading east by south east at a moderate pace.

“Card, its all yours,” Shadow said pushing it to her.

“Nah, I do all the flying ones.”

“It is your forte. I can do it well, but it is really enjoyable for you.”

Cardinal Spitfire chuckled. She already had vicious plan in mind.

“They won't be running formations,” She pointed out. “Our disadvantage. But I know we all can run solo.”

“Solo?” Chocolate asked concerned.

“You will do fine,” Cardinal Spitfire said, reassuring him. “If I wasn't sure I would not make the order. They will stay separated and focus on shooting while floating, like untrained pegasi would do.”

“Are you sure?” Flags asked.

“Shadow did a choke out, forcing me to drag the guy to hiding.”

They chuckled.

“He woke up,” She continued. “I made it clear he didn't want to 'wake up' during the exercise. He said it was as if Shadow had killed him with hand to hand. He didn't resist for a reason, and Shadow hadn't knocked him out. It wasn't their job to be soldiers, only simple raiders.”

“Lets fly!” Chocolate announced.

They took off in formation.

“A few key things,” Cardinal Spitfire added. “Stay fast. Do not force your hits. If we get reinforcements, then we will roll into our teams but stay lose in just our teams.”

They confirmed and Cardinal Spitfire kicked it up another gear.

“They there are,” Arrow reported. “On our 10.”

“Good spot, hold this height and formation,” Cardinal Spitfire ordered. “I want 5 more minutes to go by if we can. Then the light fades into twilight and our advantage.”

They got three when shouting happened and they were spotted. They never needed the order to break. Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow were the last pair to separate.

Shadow banked into five barrel rolls before cutting in a hard right and opening up with his guns. He was being shot at, but they were not good shots. Like Cardinal Spitfire called, they were staying still. Shadow zipped in between them all, shooting when he could. He cut it close with a barrel roll over one and came back around.

Several were following Chocolate. Shadow cut across and opened fire, dropping three. Cardinal Spitfire passed right in front of shadow with inches to spare. But her run had taken out two more. Arrow cut across and picked off a few more while Dipper finished the last two.

They made quick worked of them, did some flyovers to check for any hiding, and then formed up.

“Did anypegasus else see the looks on their faces?” Arrow asked.

“Yeah,” Shadow chuckled. “I recognized one or two. They were drill sergeant and not ready for our highly advanced flying.”

“Let's coast,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I mean, if there is one for each of us, then we just have Shadow. No matter what, we will end up making it happen in the dark.”

Most of the Units were on the flight deck when they landed. Most were preparing to leave.

“Again?” Captain Nova said confused. He called out several Units told them to hold.

“Reporting into Combat Training Command,” Cardinal Spitfire began. “The enemy pegasi have been eradicated. 53 were downed. We performed several sweeps but found no survivors or any evidence some here hiding.

Captain Nova sighed. “All five before dark.”

He perked up into command position. “Units 12, 23 and 89 stand down and come back for new orders.”

Captain Nova walked over from the others he had been with. “Unit 41. All of your order for the day are done. Report bright and early at 0600 outside your Unit for further orders.”

They silently cheered for themselves and went into see if there was a chance dinner was still being served. The staff was gone but they had left oats and thermoses full of hot water to make oatmeal.

“Well, that was interesting,” Flags said breaking the silence. “I am surprised they only did five.”

“Captain Nova may have given up on giving us another,” Arrow suggested. “No losses and everything was done at least satisfactory. Our problems were we found the wrong tech and didn't do a good sweep for those scouts.”

“Scout and recon can only be so… perfect,” Shadow pointed out. “Information and small tasks, not outright combat. Sometimes that does mean they will not be able to make that extra sweep.”

Chapter 27 - Family Stories

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“Nice and early,” Captain Marble Falls smiled as they filed out of their unit at 0558. She was wearing heavy combat armor. The guns on the side were unfamiliar and had no magazine slots. They had to be simulated or converted magic rifles for training.

“I must say, you pissed my superiors off. You crushed their tests, with no casualties and you caught us once with our pants down, the other you found a secondary objective.”

“Do we have a word on that object Ma'am?” Arrow asked.

“Nope and I do not expect to get one. However, from the description Captain Nova gave me, we believe it was unexploded ordnance from a Cloudship exercise done around here back about 35 years ago.”

“Are you saying I carried a bomb on my back for 40 miles?” Shadow asked annoyed.

“Yes.” Captain Marble Falls said flatly. “And twice your size. I think It was a 250lb one too. Can't pull, but you trudge on. And good thing it didn't go off. All of you would have been lost. A real big shame considering all six of your skill levels. But, it is now clear of the training ground and won't kill others.”

“When did we catch them off guard?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“Scouting the camp,” The Captain replied. “That was our bad, but your gain. We had too many there.”

Captain Marble Falls examined all of them.

“Shadow, get in your power armor. We will provide you with new guns.”

Shadow didn't reply. He just rushed it, tossing his gear in the general direction of his locker. He was back out in two minutes.

“Okay. We are going to be running pretty strict maneuvers. It is all choreographed and you have three days to learn your part. Then we will put it to use against the other Units. The one leading their side is going to be Captain Nova. They will be given specific orders designed around them working as a team. Captain Nova will not be present, but on their coms to give orders. Just like their commander would be doing in real combat.”

“Okay,” Shadow nodded. “But my armor?”

“Going to fuck with them,” Captain Marble Falls smiled. “Below, old pony armor is still being used. Including very, very powerful power armor with amazing E.F.S. mods. You will be simulating that. Make full use of your E.F.S.”

Shadow's smile matched the Captain's.

“Lets head out. You get to join the rest of us in tents and eating field rations. We have it all prepared.”

“Just like old times Captain,” Cardinal Spitfire laughed.

“Better,” Captain Marble Falls beamed.

It was a long flight out. Their camp was set back and out of the way of the planned exercises. It was all wooded clouds with random cloud structures dotting the way as they flew. They got there a little past noon.

“Lieutenant Tuff!” Flags said as they touched down. “It is really good to see you.”

“Same to all of you,” Lieutenant Tuff replied. “You have done an amazing job. More than amazing.”

“So Captain, this is your power team?” A stallion in the same armor and weapons as the Captain said coming up.

“Depends on when Major. Current, yes.”

Each of them saluted and introduced themselves.

“I am Major Windstone Hill. Drop the Hill. I am the major over half of the Wonderbolts, so bring your A game Specialist Cardinal Spitfire. Sergeant Filly Fooler, how do you like that Mark 4 armor?”

“I love it,” Shadow replied. “But this is the first set I have tried Ma'am, so I can not compare it.”

“Every ACS school faces off against Wonderbolts for the final test. They just do not know it,” The Major stated. “We have 15 squads, plus you. Almost all of my Wonderbolts. It is all fun and games. They shoot us, we shoot them. We do our job, but getting hit isn't a big deal.”

“Our job is to look and act like what the scum below look like. Disorganized, bloodthirsty shit heads who act on their own accord, even in a group, to attempt to gain power through violence. You should have gotten a look at that yesterday. Or just act like you were in basic during the first few weeks. Both work.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Arrow said.

“Sergeant Filly Fooler has the easiest, the hardest and the most fun job,” The Major chuckled. “We always run raging raiders hopped up on chems who take a lot of shots to put down. Now we get a real tank alongside a few of them.”

“You won't go down, but you can't show yourself too soon, or too late. We will give you more specific orders when that time comes. We know what orders their officer is giving them. So, lets get you your special weapons and we can start this first run through.”

They took Shadow to their makeshift armory. “We are giving you a minigun and my personal favorite, the EMG 76-2.”

“I love the EMG 55-6,” Shadow smiled. “The Captain had me load out with it for my weapons training. The 76-2 will be awesome.”

“I assume she taught you the minigun as well?”

“Yes Ma'am,” Shadow said.

They put the minigun on Shadow's right to make it his primary weapon. Shadow tested his movement with both guns, including some aerial acrobatics.

“Can he keep that up at high speeds?” The Major asked Captain Marble Falls.

“Yeah. He can. He just is shy speed wise. Cardinal Spitfire can hit the speed, but she could not handle that heavy set up. They both have the high agility skills. Every time I test Unit 41, the two of them hang on. I can usually boot Cardinal Spitfire after an hour and a half, but Shadow is way to good at reading me. I just pick up speed and he falls behind.”

“I would say we could get more out of him,” The Major observed. “But I do not think his body can do any more.”

“I flip flop on that, depending on the hour,” The Captain responded. “But now this is interesting. I have never seen him do his acrobatics in power armor.”

Shadow did six back flips in a row and called it quits since he was losing balance.

“Even with giant guns,” Cardinal Spitfire said shaking her head.

“Alright 41,” Captain Marble Falls called. “Let me show you to your tent and then we will set up and begin our dry runs.”

“When you said tent, you meant tent,” Arrow said impressed.

It was a large enough tent that it easily held six cots.

“Yeah, this is a real field tent, not your combat tents you learned in Basic. This and more are what you get behind the lines. But now that you know where it is, off to the tactical tent.”

The tactical tent was much larger. There were simple cloud stools for everypegasus to sit on, except Shadow who would just crush one in his armor. At least the armor locked up into standing so he could relax and even sleep decently in it.

The Major went over their line and basic commands. They knew all the objects and expected timing for each actions. They would get more reactive when it came to the actual test as squads succeeded or failed objectives. The big thing was knowing where the objectives were and what they were expected to do.

They would be retreating since the objective was for the Aerial Combat Units to drop in and secure the line while waiting for soldiers to come in behind them. Their vests would be adjusted so that they each would get three hits before they got a small jolt. Those recharged after a while and even had a reset button.

Shadow was going to be placed at the center and work on holding a very key objective. His agility was going to be a plus, allowing him to shoot up at angles to take out flying trainees.

“Being on this side will be interesting,” Cardinal Spitfire said to Shadow.

“Maybe for you. I just get to shoot with more firepower than they have combined. And I get to watch them be pissed off at not killing me. And then I get to go back and face them.”

“Touche,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “What can that thing really do?”

Shadow stopped, chuckling. “Arrow, stop where you are.”

“Okay, why?”

Both guns opened up. Arrow was on the ground immediately and Shadow just kept the light show going. The lasers were not all on the same point. They were more like a shotgun blast hitting a dozen place at once before switching to another dozen and on and on.

“WE GET IT!” Arrow called out.

Shadow stopped shooting and Cardinal Spitfire joined him in laughing. Flags helped Arrow up and they continued to their destination.

“Blame me,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I asked for a demonstration.”

“Like that gun Specialist?” Major Windstone asked.

“Yes Sir, I do not think I could handle them bolted to my side, but it looks like fun.”

“It is even more fun with real ammo. The other side you put the ammo and then you have at least 500 rounds. Less than a minute of fun. But totally worth it.”

“The Wonderbolts use miniguns?”

“Not typically, but we are trained to use them, because why not?”

“A lot more goes on with you than anypony realizes.”

Cardinal Spitfire froze.

She was confused with Major Windstone laughing.

“I heard about him getting to Mable Falls before, but damn. He is so lucky his job is in recon. Otherwise he would be in trouble. And being his teammate since the beginning, it has been noted for you. And for your group of friends. For your whole barracks actually. I know even General Red River made a mistake at your graduation because of him.”

“I bet it is really tough dating him too,” The Major said quietly.

“Dating?” Cardinal Spitfire said shaking her head in confusion.

“You two are not dating?”

“Personally, I found it best not to risk the team's integrity during all stages of our Basic Training,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “I never said anything to him about anything. We didn't know he was going to end up at ACS.”

“Nothing over leave?”

“Have you read his file? His community frowns so much upon that, even if they blew it all up and destroyed his whole family, he would still find it too shameful to do anything outside of marriage. He holds to his values.”

Cardinal Spitfire began to laugh. “It does not fit his stature.”

“I have not paid much attention to him,” The Major admitted. “But a lot of recruits who run so close and end up on leave together end up doing stuff. Sometimes not smart and getting a foul going.

“Well, now he is going off… somewhere and I am going… somewhere. Here I guess. Shadow thinks all ACUs are being recalled.”

“Interesting choices for your personalities. I hope for your sake it isn't a mistake, but I get the chaos and caution. And he thinks that? Based on what?”

“The training orders coming from Scout Command,” Cardinal Spitfire answered. “He thinks Scouts are going to be formed.”

“Damn. The bastard figured that off a fucking fake order? I would go kick his ass, but I am not in power armor and I would rather not test the rumors I have heard.”

“So we all are becoming Scouts?”

“Just a reshuffling,” Major Windstone assured her. “Some will become Scouts, most will stay ACUs. Scouts are still ACUs. It will be an interesting ordeal, but Colonel Nova has a plan. It does include personal choice.”

“Wait, he is a Colonel now?”

“Yes, but for the purposes of training, it won't be known until after the school and he officially becomes active duty again. He is the best for the job. He threw himself into their arms begging for it, from what I hear.”

“Knowing his history,” Cardinal Spitfire shrugged. “A really good pick. He doesn't want soldiers to die, best to pass on his first hoof knowledge and know they got the best.”

“Alright 41, halt,” Major Windstone said ending their talk. “This cloud building is what they are going to have to take. Two stories, she is all yours to hold. You will not give this up. If they bite, we really get to zap them all. This is the keystone to both of our operations.”

“I can wait in the bottom floor and just walk out of the doorway when the time comes,” Shadow suggested. “Let them get settled in a bit before destroying them.”

“We are all going to die before you come out,” Arrow said sarcastically.

“Actually, I was thinking something opposite,” Shadow chuckled. “There is an objective point for them to get that you will be dealing with further ahead. Let them chase you off and don't fight for the tower. Then as I start going, come back and reinforce me. They will be expecting reinforcements, or should be, but not see me coming at all.”

“Solid plan,” Flags agreed. “And I think they will fall for it.”

“Not a bad one Sergeant,” Major Windstone praised. “Just make sure you all remember your hits and how to use this area. Now, lets roll up forward, letting the Sergeant learn it and see if he has some better ideas.”

“This is it? Chocolate asked. “Just a few tufts of clouds?”

“Yep,” The Major replied.

“Three will post up here, relaxing,” Flags decided. “The other two can stay back a bit in the cover. They come in, shooting, we can run and the other two can give us cover fire. Fight for it if we are given the opportunity to or just roll back.”

“I know what happened when a single instructor came at us one training,” Dipper commented. “We bolted. So sounds good. I will take watch. Chocolate and Cardinal Spitfire are the best shooters, so they should give us cover fire.”

They found the plan agreeable and the Major walked them through everything the rest of the day. They knew every small bump and dip in the clouds by the end.

“We will do a walk through a few times over the next few days, but this will look great,” Major Windstone said as he began to walk back to camp.

“This is like a fun vacation,” Arrow said hopping around. “Like camping with all the fouls we did in our backyard, except for better.”

“You are a handful,” The Major commented.

“Yeah,” Arrow said happily. “I love life.”

“What got a filly like you to serve and be trained to kill and be serious?”

“My Grandfather served,” Arrow replied. “I just saw it as the thing to do.”

“Filly Fooler and Cardinal Spitfire,” Captain Marble Falls said trotting up. “I just got a call concerning your parents. Both of them. And a Judge Gavel you met who is trying to intervene. Still on the line with the lieutenant charging them.”

“Morons,” Shadow spat. “Taking care of a farm is illegal now?”

“What are your parents doing at your parents?” The Captain asked pointing at them.

“Mine were so close on leave, so a quick surprise visit was planned,” Cardinal Spitfire explained. “On arrival, the farm had some major problems that had just happened. Shadow knew what was wrong-”

“Wait,” Captain Mable Falls said cutting her off. “Filly Fooler went with you.”

“I couldn't leave him in the city,” Cardinal Spitfire declared. “He is terrified of it still. Besides, he met them at graduation.”

“Okay, that makes sense. I remember New Heaven. Continue.”

“Shadow called his local town to ask his father a question. He needed somepony nearby to help irrigate the farm properly, or more than that row of trees would be lost. A row of trees being lost… that will be a major blow to the apples we harvest. And the other farms were probably in the same spot without knowing it. We were looking at totally losing all the trees.”

“Point?” The Captain asked.

“Well… Shadow's parents decided to come out personally to help. Farm to farm. Nothing to do with either of us. His dad was very clear about that when we got a hold of him.”

Shadow tried to clarify things. “He has done some major traveling to help with big projects, to stop diseases and other things. Farmers helping farmers. They couldn't even give us a farm to talk to in between the two, and some irrigation expert needed to come out and teach them. Its a major project and teaching it takes days. Obviously, I didn't have that time with the leave we got.”

“I didn't know about the big trips until the call,” Shadow continued. “He did them in his younger years, before me. I am fourth after all. So I think he has been growing restless a bit. Tough to do with our farms. But to help another farm in a very perilous situation, especially a whole community, then yeah. It is our duty as farmers to feed the pegasi and make sure other farms can do that the best they can. And he is the local irrigation expert, along with his best friend Black.”

“Black must be the one they are really concerned with,” Captain Marble Falls muttered.

“Black standing there disapproving is scary,” Shadow chuckled. “He is well respected in our community for multiple reasons. Judge Gavel we met with to make sure they were taken care of if they did run into, well this.”

They followed Captain Marble Falls who then directed them to a few field phones to use.

“This is Captain Marble Falls here again.”

“Well? What did they say?” An angry stallion asked

Captain Marble Falls looked at Shadow.

“Sergeant Shadow Flare here. How much do you know about farming?” Shadow asked kindly.

“Excuse me?”

“Are you deaf?” Shadow asked. He make sure to say each word slowly. “How much do you know about farming?”

“Getting smart with me will get them in worse trouble.”

“Excuse me?” Shadow said shocked, before getting annoyed. “Did you just threaten me by using my parents as leverage? You do not want to do that. Not at all. Now how much do you know about farming?”

“You grow food in the clouds. What is there to know?” he blew him off.

“Fuck off!” Shadow said getting angry at his attempt to rule by fear. “You think you are all high and mighty because you live up above everything below. My family has been farming the clouds since the war. The fifth to pick up cloud farming. BEFORE, well before, the clouds were sealed up. The clouds you farm are not the ones you walk on in a city. They have to be properly cared for, just like real soil. If you have too much water, rot. Not enough, they die. That is called irrigation. Controlling the water.”

Shadow was let loose. “Now I understand why I have been told that as and Enclave soldier, all I am is a waste of food. YOU ARE A WASTE OF FOOD! How you passed basic I have no idea since you are that dumb. All of your accomplishments are nothing. I know you have to have a pretty bar of ribbons you keep in mint condition to show off.”

“You have no right to even think about passing judgment on any farm. Just because you wear a uniform doesn't make you smart or knowledgeable. All it seems to you is power and telling ponies what to do! Life, real life, doesn't work like that. The pony out there you are afraid of is Black. A senior member of the community. He is well respected for the knowledge and the respect he has earned putting other before himself and his farm. And still being one of the most productive farms in the area. You have no fucking idea what respect is!”

“I grew up working all year around. In all weather just to make sure you can eat. Try bringing in the harvest of fifteen farms in three weeks. And these are not small farms. The apple farm there isn't even half the size of my community's smallest farms. We pulled up more than thirty of those in twenty one days.”

“And my parents have worked longer than that. And then they fly a really long way to help a community with major irrigation issues and you want to toss them in jail for treason? I know it is treason because your fellow fuck heads have tried it on me a few times! Why do you think we contacted a judge about making sure they are protected from pinpricks like you!”

“So? Are you going to let pegasi go hungry and cause a real, justifiable problem, or are you going to let the farmers do their job. They know their crops, they know their land, they know how to best take care of it. Stay out of their business.”

“Oh, one more thing. Your stupidity here is why farmers are forgetting things like irrigation. And you know what that means? Dramatically decreasing crop yields. I bet the oat farms around there will produce three times what they are now with proper irrigation.”

“Captain are you there?” The stallion asked deflecting away from Shadow.

“Yes, and I back every word he says,” She said annoyed. “Because I have gotten to know the Sergeant and what family, community and farming means to him and where he comes from.”

“They are doing a massive digging project!” He protested.

“FUCK YOU,” Cardinal Spitfire swore. She had had enough. “That is my family's farm. Look around retard. To grow a tree, you have to foster and grow a sapling. Then you have to dig a big hole, put in fertilizer and then put the tree in. How thin do you think the base clouds are? And it is Specialist Cardinal Spitfire.”

“How do you plant a tree Lieutenant?” Captain Marble Falls asked him.

“We do not find this treason. We will watch to make sure they do not dig too deep.”

“How much is too deep?” Shadow barked.

With no response Shadow continued. “It is eighteen feet! And even then you have not gone through the base clouds or close. That is how you keep everything below, below! How else do you build a building 50 stories tall? Oh right, you are too dumb to know. Can you count to 50?”

“That is enough with the insults! You are a sergeant and I am a lieutenant.”

“Rank means shit if you don't know shit. A sergeant who is smart is way better than an idiot lieutenant like yourself. I-”

“No, not yet Shadow,” Captain Marble Falls said cutting him off. “But this lieutenant is getting dangerously close to making me let you go kick his sorry ass. Because I am a smart Captain. And over the Aerial Combat School. All three of us can make it there in half a day tops if we need to.”

The click of the phone being hung ended things.

“Shadow,” Captain Marble Falls said. She was stuttering with no clear direction.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” Cardinal Spitfire finally asked with little breath left in her lungs.

“YES! That!” Captain Marble Falls gasped.

“You don't fuck with my family,” Shadow stated. His jaw was set and beginning to hurt. “Especially when it comes to doing their duty as farmers. And there is little else that they could give you reason to fuck with them.”

“I have never seen you angry I guess,” Cardinal Spitfire replied confused. “It is… scary.”

“I guess some things did rub off on me,” Shadow said walking away.

“Shadow,” The Captain called running in front of him. “I am going to call General Red River and make sure that things are righted. He gets the farming stuff from researching you and will make sure it is all taken care of.”

“It is that stupidity that is probably killing half the farms in the Enclave,” Shadow growled.

“Noted,” The Captain replied urgently. “I am going to go make that call. If something happens, I will give you real ammo.”

“Shadow?” Cardinal Spitfire said coming up alongside him. “Stupid guns in the way. Lets get out of our armor and go talk privately.”

Shadow didn't argue and followed her lead. They got rid of everything and headed out into the woods.

“I didn't know you have this side,” She said laying down under a tree.

She patted the ground and Shadow laid down beside her.

“How do you feel? She asked quietly

“I don't know,” Shadow replied. “I have seen my father go off once at a community meeting when I was young. It was scary. It was like this. He was protecting a struggling farm on the edge of our community. Those farms often flip flop where they belong. They needed big help and he made a stand against some rumors about that farm. I do not know if they were true or not, but the community finally followed his lead and helped out. Combined from both communities, that farm became a thriving one.”

Cardinal Spitfire put her arm on his shoulder. Shadow was beginning to shake and her touch caused Shadow to sob. “I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all. The scary thing is it was controlled. I knew what I was doing. I was systematically tearing him down. I scared myself, but I couldn't just stop. I had to protect them.”

Cardinal Spitfire pulled him into a hug and just held Shadow as he cried the fear away. He didn't speak for a while after he had run out of tears.

“I do not know what I would do without you,” Shadow said softly. “Your embrace, even just your presence is calming.”

“We made the right call,” She said softly to him. “Because even when things go wrong down below, you have me here.”

Cardinal Spitfire was pushing on his necklace. “And always here as a reminder.”

She kissed him softly on the lips.

“When?” Shadow chuckled.

Cardinal Spitfire rolled her eyes. “You are a magnet of random shit happening. Something is going to happen. At the very least your job is to make something happen. But I will always be here for you. Waiting, loyal to the day I die. You will always come back to find me yours.”

“We should go back,” Shadow sighed.

Cardinal Spitfire kissed him on the lips again. “Are you ready? Really ready and okay?”

“Yeah,” Shadow said getting up.

“Oh, the Major directly asked me if we were dating. I told her no. And the problems I saw with it.”

Shadow chuckled. “Good call. It is technically the truth.”

“She asked if we even did anything. I told her you wouldn't. You didn't. Us as one did.”

“Nice job,” Shadow said kissing her on the lips.

They silently walked back into the camp and found Unit 41 sitting around a legitimate camp fire with the Captain's Squad and the squad Major Windstone led joining them.

“Good to see you in one piece,” Flags nodded. “Retards.”

Shadow let out a sad chuckle. “And now I am starting to feel bad for him. Is it really his fault he is so dumb?”

“That is the Filly Fooler I know and love!” Captain Marble Falls clapped.

“Catch,” Arrow said tossing each of them a random box of field rations.

“You look like you were crying?” Chocolate said concerned.

“I was,” Shadow smiled. “It is not always shameful to cry. We do it for a reason.”

“We have just been sharing stories,” The Major informed them. “I am sure you know some good ones.”

“Don't start this,” Captain Marble Falls groaned.

Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire laughed.

“Yeah, I got stories,” Shadow replied. “These legends… they are about the great Rainbow Dash and her Shadow as they go about killing Zebra generals and other dangerous Zebras. Even a pirate ship.”

Shadow looked at the stunned Wonderbolts.

“I told you not to get him started,” The Captain repeated.

Cardinal Spitfire had fallen over laughing.

“I am serious,” Shadow said. “We have dozens of war legends about Rainbow Dash. Including a nemesis and all the swashbuckling action you could ask for. My home and community is old. War old. They stuck around or were made up later. We don't teach about Rainbow Dash either way. Just fun legends.”

“I warned you,” Captain Marble Falls reiterated.

“Interesting,” Major Windstone said thinking. “Tell us one.”

“Seriously?” Shadow asked. “We tells these to help our minds as we work in the cold weather the northern mountains force in.”

“Come, on,” Cardinal Spitfire poked. “I want to hear the pirate one. I know it is your favorite. Then I can tell Deke I know it and drive him nuts.”

Shadow chuckled. With no objections, he began as requested.







“Okay. Rainbow Dash is in one of her secret hide outs. She is awoken from her dreams of the swashbuckling mission she had just finished. It was The Ministry of Awesome phone that was ringing. She rolls out of bed and grabs it off the desk from the floor.

“RBD, we need your help. A Zebra ship has taken out two unarmed Equestrian Ships. One was carrying medical supplies and medical staff. It is heavily armed with big guns and missile launchers. It is headed to Baltimare. If it makes it into Horseshoe bay, they will destroy the small fleet there and do major damage to the city, killing tens of thousands. We need you to stop it. Can you and your Shadow handle it?”

“Oh course we can. I'm awesome! You called me instead of Applejack for a reason.”

The call ended and Rainbow Dash began her pre-mission victory dance.

She looked at her Shadow and started to chuckle. “I have always wanted to meet pirates! Just… on their side.”

Rainbow Dash quickly tossed on the gear she would need.

“Are you ready Shadow?” She asked her Shadow.

They took off, and put all the speed they could muster to the flight.

“What was that?” She asked her Shadow as they neared Horseshoe Bay.

“Good eyes,” She said looking where it pointed.

The ship was getting dangerously close to the bay.

They pushed on, and when they were above it, they dove. Suddenly Rainbow Dash dropped strait down from 500 yards, cracking the deck. Her Shadow slipped right behind her and through the cracks. Their presence was noticed immediately. Rainbow Dash had to roll of the way of heavy Zebra fire.

She popped out of hiding and fired her foreleg dart gun, taking down three with a shot to their necks. She popped a grenade and casually kicked it around a corner where more Zebras were coming. It gave her the second she need to rearm her gun before she was stormed from all sides.

As some came out of a hatch, She jumped; drop kicking them back where they had come from. She dodged and weaved as more came at her with swords. She struck at them with her bladed hooves, gutting them with a quick slash before avoiding the next one.

Below her, her Shadow was doing the same. But it didn't need blades, she was one. Out of nowhere she sprung, easily slicing Zebras in half before disappearing to find her next victim.

Rainbow Dash had killed most of the Zebras on the ship and she was still topside. The First Mate opened fire with a pistol but Rainbow Dash was more than ready. As she dove, she grabbed a sword.

The First Mate tossed on his cloak, hiding him from pony eyes. But Rainbow Dash was too awesome. She tossed a knife and it ripped the cloak off the First Mate, pinning it to a gun turret behind him and ending it's effect. Without a loaded gun, the First Mate charged with his sword and Rainbow Dash met him head on with a smile on her face.

The First Mate stabbed and Rainbow Dash stepped to the side as if nothing had happened. They traded blow after blow in a dance of death. Rainbow dash parried another strike and then finally she stopped messing around and thrust her sword deep into the First Mate's chest.

“You never stood a chance. I'm Awesome,” Rainbow Dash chuckled before pulling the sword out.

She dashed to the bridge where she quickly killed two Zebras with the sword and then had to face the Captain.

“You are going to pay for this!” The Captain spat.

“Nope. I am too awesome.” Rainbow Dash chuckled.

Right before the Captain charged, his head slid off and Shadow found himself looking at his Shadow.

“You took away the fun,” Rainbow Dash whined. “But we do have a job to do.”

Rainbow Dash pulled out a Pirate hat from her pocket and put it on. “At least I get to add 'become a pirate' to my Book of Awesome.”

“We should probably bring this into Baltimare. The supplies below are probably really needed. Like the bombs you found.”

Rainbow Dash looked at her Shadow.

“Oh, they set bombs. Well we can't stay at this heading.”

Rainbow Dashes casually turned the ship around as fast as the ship could and set it to full speed. She bucked off the controls so it could not be reversed. They jumped out of the bridge and flew away as fast as they could. The ship exploded and they watched as it was torn in two and sank.

“I know. If I hadn't broken the deck for you to slip through, it never would have split into two chunks. Which was way more awesome to watch! Lets head back. All this awesomeness makes me want to take a nap.”

“And I have to tell them the mission is done. Work before napping,” Rainbow Dash said annoyed.







“The end,” Shadow announced.

“You told that to fillies and colts?” One of the Wonderbolts asked shocked.

“Well, not the gory stuff,” Shadow shrugged. “The story changes each time a bit too. I forgot the Captain's name, so I left the Captain on the bridge. Whether it is wooden or some new warship changes depending on who tells the story and who they are telling it to.”

“There are a few things that never change. She is awesome and always says it, it always starts in a hidden lair, makes the comment about Applejack, the ship is headed for Horseshoe Bay, she cracks the deck so her Shadow could go below. She gets into at least one awesome sword fight and then the ship blows up. Sometimes she does it, other times the Zebras set bombs.”

“Inventive,” Major Windstone concurred.

“Thanks,” Shadow replied. “I could’ve made it go much longer, but I know it is getting late.”

Chapter 28 - Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

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“So, I hear there is some new hot shot gang starting up,” Dipper said loudly. “They call themselves the ACUs. Like some catchy acronym will make them any better fighters.”

All three of them laughed as they relaxed and waited for the squads to show themselves.

“I bet they are a bunch of wide eyed ponies who don't even know how to hold a gun properly, let alone shoot,” Arrow added, borrowing from Shadow's dictionary.

“I bet when they shoot they wet themselves,” Flags said rolling over to look at Dipper. He saw one without meaning to. “Probably like that one there.”

They looked where Flags was pointing and opened fire. They were not trying to be good shots, but they had a good spread.

“Think we got the shit head?” Dipper asked loudly.

“If we didn't, they won't be back,” Flags said just as loud. “And if they come back, we'll kill em.”

All three dodged as multiple targets popped out of the tree line. Cardinal Spitfire and Chocolate opened fire, forcing the unit to take cover.

“They just hide when a shot is taken,” Flags announced. “One shot and all six of them ducked.”

“Lets get around them and gut em,” Cardinal Spitfire said.

A snap off to their side alerted the entire area to that pegasi’s location and they acted accordingly, but loosely. Some fell back, others moved to directly combat.

“Ha! They have a few more than us, but they are piss poor shots!” Flags taunted.

They were forced to better cover as more had circled around.

“I bet this is now a two or three squad attack,” Cardinal Spitfire said over their coms.

“Yep,” Major Windstone confirmed. “Fall back to the tower or you will be caught. Can't make it this easy. They blasted us apart.”

They dashed back, bounding through the trees as fast as they could. Raiders didn't have wings so it was all on hooves.

Cardinal Spitfire slammed into one as he dropped in front on her. Neither expected the other. Cardinal Spitfire was up first and gave him a swift buck to keep him down before she dashed away.

“Hit twice,” Cardinal Spitfire informed them.

“You are all clear for emergency override,” The Major replied.

They all hit the override and took their positions. Arrow made sure they saw her dash into the building. They were cocky and began to move in foolishly. Flags lazily hit one before falling back with the others.

“Be careful, one is trapped in the building!”

Shadow put his gas mask on to encase him fully and waited another 30 seconds before walking out and putting on the light show. In a single sweep his minigun shot down half of them. Their shots were useless and more fell trying to retreat. Shadow walked out into the clearing more and looked around. His E.F.S. was not picking any up at the moment. They were small in numbers from the first attack.

A team came through the air strafing him and Shadow easily shot them down as they flew away. His E.F.S. was the reason he could hit all of them so easily.

“How are things looking?” Flags asked. “We still have not come back as reinforcements. We are waiting back on the edge.”

“I blew apart at least two units and most of third. Then a strafing. They were so slow, my E.F.S. picked them out. They fell for it. Arrow, how are things looking in there?”

“I have the back window well covered,” Arrow chuckled. “I love that it is only the front door and back window on the second floor.”

“Good,” Flags said. “They are probably going to circle. Lets huddle up in a closer pattern in cover like we are scared.”

SNAP!

“They need to learn subtlety,” Cardinal Spitfire said. “Badly.”

She stepped out from cover and shot the Pegasus with two perfect shots.

“That is what you get for giving away your position like that,” She yelled. “Stupid pegasi who don't know how to walk on their own hooves.”

Two teams strafed Shadow, crossing over him. His E.F.S. picked them up and he shot down one and half of the other before they were out of sight. More fire erupted behind him as teams began to converge on Unit 41's reserves. They quickly called out being shot and stayed down.

Shadow heard soft fire coming from inside the building.

“Idiots,” Arrow stated. “Just because you dash in with four doesn't mean you have the advantage.”

It quickly became evident that the units were being revived as Shadow cut more and more down. They had no idea what to do. They finally took out Arrow after losing 16 members inside the building. They could not revived those soldiers.

“Stay cool Shadow,” Major Windstone ordered over their coms. “Captain Nova is regrouping them. He is not happy about their tactics.”

“Understood,” Shadow replied. “This is fun. They can't secure the building with me standing in the middle of the clearing. All I have to do is walk back in and finish them off. Does Captain Nova actually know you are running me in power armor?”

“We didn't exactly tell him about that,” The Major laughed. “It is getting late. He is probably only going to have them give it another run before calling them off. Ideally, this would be a time when the ACU teams directly protected several heavy squads to face you in outright combat.”

This time the came in with more caution. Taking shots from behind cover. If Shadow hit them, they were staying down. Several shot him from behind in the building, so Shadow walked into it and their comrades watched as the room lit up with lights and then Shadow calmly walk back out.

They began to retreat and Shadow took out several more with the minigun as they bounded through the trees.

“Nice job Shadow and Unit 41,” Major Windstone praised. “They called it off and are heading back to Captain Nova, defeated. Captain Nova is going to spend a few hours grilling them, but they did well until the final point. Come on back to the camp.”

“Then we really did our job,” Flags added. “Glad we could be here and help. It was getting boring on the other side.”

They laughed and talked about some the antics they did while running away or were hiding. How their taunts made the others react was a great laugh. A hard lesson for them to learn.

“Where did you set up Arrow?” Shadow asked.

“In the stairs, poking out. They never stood a chance because of the angle and I was really low. I was in the stairwell. Just eyes poking out until I had to come up to shoot. They hit me once on their third entry and one on the fifth. They the just had to lay there and just watch me shoot more and often get sat or stepped on. There was a good pile by the end.”

“Nova called them off early,” Captain Marble Falls said as they came into camp. “Well, more like they made quick work of the objectives and would not be able to take you out. I knew you worked fast, but they got it done today.”

“Good,” Flags smiled. “It wasn't just us rocking things.”

“Absolutely not,” Major Windstone said coming up. “The last time we did an Aerial Combat School was three years ago. And we only did three Units. With the Scouts shut down and transferred into ACUs, we didn't have to replenish many slots.”

“Three? Cardinal Spitfire asked shocked. “This isn't normal?”

“Nope,” The Major replied. “When it became evident that the new recruits who wanted aerial combat positions were up to the standards, we sent out the letters picking the others. We had over 300 applications to weed out. And we still have units that are opened or down some.”

“That will be sorted out over the next few days. Over the next two days all the ACUs will arrive. Shadow Flare was right about the Scout Command. Some will become scouts, all will still be ACUs. We will be opening up the school for more positions and do some heavy training. That is the state of things. What Shadow Flare will be doing, I have no idea.”

“That makes two of us,” Shadow chuckled.

“We will be staying here tonight,” Major Windstone continued. “But up before dawn. 0500, break the camp down, pack it into the chariots and then you guys will be flying out with Captain Marble Falls. As soon as you get back, its into uniforms and then line up for the small ceremony.”

“Yes Ma'am!” They replied.

Shadow went to get out of his armor and pack up his guns now. Cardinal Spitfire joined him.

“The day we feared is upon us,” She said quietly.

“One more night falling asleep looking at each other and waking up to see the other,” Shadow replied. “It will be a good night. Well worth it. We will get back and things will become right.”

Cardinal Spitfire sighed.

“Don't let fear get you,” Shadow said. He put his hoof on her chest where the necklace was.

Cardinal Spitfire smiled back. It conveyed everything she wanted to say, and more.

The morning was organized chaos. Unit 41 had looked at their tent the night before to see how to break it down. When that was done, they put it with the others on chariots and then began to move the crates of field rations and bottled water onto other prepared chariots.

They were in the sky by 0530 and the Captain picked up her speed to the fastest sustainable speed for them all. They made great time, touching down a bit before 1200.

“Get food fast, shower and change,” Captain Marble Falls ordered. “Now that we are back, 1300 ceremony.”

They rushed to follow orders. Lunch was much needed after no breakfast and the fast flight. Showers didn't even last two minutes and they were all into their dress uniforms quickly. They were the first team to line up at 1240. Pathetic since the other Units didn't have to worry about showering and should have been in their dress uniforms all day.

“It is so good to see you all,” Captain Nova began. “First, I see many golden crossed rifles from soldier units. Now you can replace them with the much better, the coveted silver wings. Congratulations all. You have earned your silver Aerial Combat Wings. Even if you go back to other units you get to wear your wings because you are Aerial Combat trained.”

Their Unit instructors came forward and pinned their wigs over their left breast and above their ribbon bars.

“I have no idea where you will go Filly Fooler,” The Captain said quietly. “But I doubt you will get another training occupation set like these wings. Only better is Wonderbolts and before, Reconnaissance was mostly aerial combatants with their wings.”

“Thank you Captain,” Shadow replied.

Captain Nova continued. “But we have absolutely no need to send you back to your previous posts. All of you are needed as Aerial Combat Units. In fact, Scout option will be opened up to you. Scouts are still ACU teams so do not fear the name, just specialized. More will come in a few days after the rest of the ACUs arrive.”

“I am reactivated as a fully active duty soldier and am the Colonel over the Scouts. Sorry Shadow Flare, Reconnaissance teams is not under my control, currently. However, I am told to officially announce you have been promoted. You are now Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance. The highest enlisted rank… with some special twists for Reconnaissance only.”

“Damn it,” Shadow swore.

“Not thrilled with the promotion?” Colonel Nova asked.

“Not even a year out of Basic,” Shadow began. “No actual leadership school and I am promoted past so many ranks? It is a lot of jumps that has no deserving accomplishments other than I am to join a recon team.”

“I do not make the rules young one. But you have shown incredible skill in leadership while training. Do not forget that.”

“Thank you Sir. I will not.”

“Well, your wings are on. We start up in three days. 0900.”

“Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance,” Major Winters Breath immediately said coming up. He had orders for Shadow. Unit 41 stayed to listen.

“You are to go turn in your gear. All of it except for your dress uniform. Every flight suit and barracks wear, no matter how clean or dirty. The quartermaster office knows you are coming and will have some basic equipment for you to check out. Permanently. I checked your locker and like I thought, you will have more than enough room.”

“You have tomorrow off, but the day after be at the front gate of Fort Wind by 0800. We have a long flight head of us. Dismissed.”

“We will help you get your gear back,” Flags immediately said. “Even with power armor, you can't carry it all.”

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled.

“Unit 41,” Captain Marbles said greeting them at their Unit. “I have leave slips if you want them. Filly Fooler, yours is marked the same time, but I know you have to head out a day early.”

They all thanked her.

“Got to turn in my gear. They are helping,” Shadow explained.

“Filly Fooler,” The Captain said. “Good luck. Although luck seems to favor you. It was a pleasure training you and becoming your friend. Until we meet again.”

“Until we meet again,” Shadow replied shaking her hoof.

They had a bit of trouble finding all of Shadow's gear from throwing it off and jumping into his power armor. He thought he was more accurate than he was. A boot was found behind a toilet. They distributed it and took off with Flags leading the way.

“Ah, Command Sergeant Major, we have everything ready,” The quartermaster said.

He had everything ready. Turning in gear took no time at all and then Shadow signed out permanently his new gear.

He was issued was two black flight suits with appropriate rank insignia, a set of black barracks ware, another dress uniform with the proper ranks, including his ribbons and a set of wings, the patches for his current dress uniform with a needle and thread, and large, heavy duty saddlebags.

“These hold a lot,” Shadow said before he put them on.

“Before you go Sir,” The quartermaster said. “I also have these for you.”

Shadow took the clear bag from him. It had all of his name patches from previous uniforms he had left on. Filly Fooler. It also had two name plates with Filly Fooler on them for his dress uniforms if he was so inclined.

“Thank you so much,” Shadow said beaming.

“We figured with the infamy of the name, you would love them.”

“I do,” Shadow said. “Very, very much so.”

They flew back to their Unit and began to pack for leave.

“Arrow and I are heading out,” Dipper said. “Not sure where we are staying yet. Neither of us are familiar with New Heaven.”

“Don't be stupid,” Cardinal Spitfire warned. “I was advised about… fun that backfires with an unexpected foul.”

Arrow blushed and Dipper didn't know what to do.

“Look, there is a place on main street, Pixels'. Lunch, twelve sharp,” Cardinal Spitfire said not caring.

“Agreed,” Dipper replied.

“I'll fly out and meet you tomorrow,” Flags informed them. “I am not single like the rest of you. My family is still back at the base and needs most of it. I guess they will be moving here soon. Or something. I want Scout.”

“Don't worry,” Chocolate said. “I am still single. We will get a room with two beds and I'll cover my squadmate. This is not up negotiation.”

They all chuckled and Flags went to packed a few things. Shadow and Cardinal Spitfire were going to have to head out with them after calling out Arrow and Dipper, making things complicated.

“Shadow?” Colonel Nova asked cautiously opening the door.

“Come on in Sir,” Shadow replied. “What do you need?”

“I would like to see you briefly in my officer.”

“Of course,” Shadow said following him out. “Don't wait for me. Or well at least let Cardinal Spitfire set up dinner plans so we can meet you there.”

Shadow followed him all the way to the third floor where his office was. It was a mess. The chairs had piles of papers on them.

“Sorry,” Colonel Nova said. “This is all work from my time below and lesson planning. Things like that. I obviously need to clean. This won't be long. You have heard everything I can pass on. I just want you to have this.”

Colonel Nova took an small orb off of his shelf.

“I found this on the last mission my hooves touched the soil,” He explained. “I never had a chance to learn more. We had been dodging some blood thirsty ponies for a while and were slipping in a break. Or tried to. It is something important from what I saw around us. This probably requires unicorn magic or shaped magic to access it. Perhaps it can give you some edge. As you say, any advantage is an advantage. Here is the exact location I found the orb.”

Shadow took both and peered into the orb. It was as if it was calling to him. It was pretty and you could easily lose track of time just staring.

“Thank you Colonel,” Shadow said stunned.

“Young one, rank be damned. Call me Nova. It can get lonely at the top.”

“Sure Nova. I guess I will experience this eventually. Probably sooner rather than later the way the Major is playing thing. I will miss being called Filly Fooler.”

“Don't let the wasteland waste you and suck you dry of all you hold dear,” Nova advised. “It is all to easy to do. I had lost all hope until I really saw you and Cardinal Spitfire take to the sky. Yes, that is why I accepted to option to rebuild the Scouts. The Reconnaissance Teams would need help. Although I think Cardinal Spitfire won't have time in them. A Wonderbolt testing is being scheduled. Not sure when or were, but it is. Don't tell her that.”

“I wish you the best of luck,” Colonel Nova said. “I know you are well prepared for below.”

“Thank you Nova,” Shadow replied.

“Now you get going. I know you were given leave. Get out of here. It probably is your last chance off before you go below.”

Shadow moved as fast as he could without running, until he was out of the building. Chocolate and Flags had taken off a minute or two before Shadow got back.

“What is that?” Cardinal Spitfire asked.

“That is the big question,” Shadow replied. “Colonel Nova gave it to me. He found it, but nothing about it.”

“It is so small. I could fit four on my hoof,” Cardinal Spitfire said holding it.

“He is hoping it will give me some clue, some advantage, below. If I can unlock it's secrets.”

Shadow took it back and put it and its location coordinates in the small safe in the locker. It was the only place you could lock away valuables. Shadow double checked his saddlebags and was ready to go.

“We have to come up with a different approach,” Cardinal Spitfire warned. “Flags and Chocolate didn't leave too long ago, and we will overtake them easily. We both are too excited for...”

“We can approach in from the south east,” Shadow finished. “Coming in around the north.”

“Let's book it,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “New Heaven isn't large, but I hope with your giant magnet we do not pick up the others in an odd time. I don't want to deal with it yet. I don't even get all of it yet!”

“That makes two of us,” Shadow chuckled as they headed out.

They had a fast, uneventful flight. Which brought the tricky part. Getting a hotel that looked like they had approached from the typical heading. That meant it would have to be close to main street. Homestay Hotel was what Cardinal Spitfire chose.

They were greeted as they came in.

“Hi, I was wondering if you had connecting rooms?” Cardinal Spitfire asked. “We have more friends coming in on leave and after dinner, we do not know what we are going to end up doing. They will have their own rooms elsewhere, but if we had connecting rooms we would have plenty of space if we all came back here for a bit.”

“Yes. I do have some available. And one set is at the end, so you do not have to worry too much about noise if they join you.”

“Thank you so much,” She smiled. “We will keep our noise down as best as possible if they come over.”

They paid and got their room keys. The first thing they did was open the connecting doors.

“Catch me up,” Shadow said standing face to face to her in the doorway. “I have been following your lead.”

“You are so stupid,” Cardinal Spitfire smiled. “If we get caught, we have two different rooms. If they want to talk to you in the morning, you can slip over to your side, close the connecting doors and open yours. They won't find you in mine.”

“So, everything in yours?”

“Yes silly.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

Cardinal Spitfire grabbed Shadow's uniform. “Now get in here while we have time before dinner!”

She practically dragged Shadow to the bed.

“Make me yours!” She said flopping onto the bed.

Shadow shrugged and jumped up all the way to the ceiling and came down onto her. She shrieked and giggled as he avoided landing on her, grabbed her and rolled them further into the bed. He stopped with him on top and kissed her on the lips.


“Hey!” Chocolate called as they came towards the table for dinner. “Look who we happened to find.”

Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow laughed as they saw Arrow and Dipper, who were still self conscious about being caught.”

“They made the mistake of going to the first hotel they saw,” Flags chuckled. “It was easy to ask if our friends in uniform had arrived. Then Chocolate ends up banging on their door, claiming to be some sergeant looking for Arrow.”

“If we hadn't opened the door,” Dipper said, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, its more fun for all of us,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Shadow leaves. Like gone, gone. Let's enjoy the time together. You two will still get plenty of play time.”

Arrow blushed even more. Shadow was glad it was her and not him. Light coats sucked.

“Where did you guys end up,” Dipper asked trying to get the topic off of him.

“Not at the Mariton,” Cardinal Spitfire replied. “Our previous leave took a tole on our accounts. I know they have discounts there, but Homestay Hotel had the better prices. It is on 5th. Not as nice, but better prices. My parents and I stayed there after graduation.”

“What did the Colonel want?” Flags asked putting all of it to rest.

“He gave me some location advice. He saw a lot fast, and at times didn't get to investigate like he wanted to, or should have. Only so much can go in a report. Most was bits and pieces you can’t add since they are just fragments. If I can, I will. A good chance since they seem to really want me as second for the team.”

“That's it?” Chocolate asked. He was not convinced.

Shadow decided to tell them and leaned in to whisper. “Alright. So he may have given me some bobble that caught his eye. It is… well eye catching. Maybe it can help, maybe not. It is completely unknown thing.”

“Interesting,” Flags whispered. “He probably wasn't supposed to have it. But now he is a Colonel and with great prestige.”

“Exactly,” Shadow replied. “But here comes our server.”

After dinner, Dipper convinced them to hit a bar for a few drinks and to really toast Shadow properly. Along with themselves and all of their important success.

“Well,” Cardinal Spitfire said as they entered their hotel room. “I wish I wanted to do something. But I am not used to drinking.”

“Neither and I,” Shadow said a bit woozy. “Flags was the smartest. I wish I didn't have that last one.”

“Me too. Sorry the evening is ruined.”

“Nah, Shadow said pulling back the covers. “We had fun with friends and with a good send off. I may never get to join in with them ever again. And we still get to share the same bed. That is what matters most.”

“Alright,” Cardinal Spitfire yawned. “Sharing does sound relaxing.

“Besides, we have the morning,” Shadow said joining her.

Cardinal Spitfire giggled at his touch and then sighed as Shadow pulled her in tight.

“You really like sleeping together together,” Cardinal Spitfire said enjoying his embrace.

“It got cold and lonely so many nights,” Shadow said rubbing up against her as he settled under the covers better.

Cardinal Spitfire was out and couldn't respond. She hadn't even been in bed for two minutes. Shadow kissed her on the cheek and joined her in sweet slumber.


Chocolate and Flags joined Cardinal Spitfire and Shadow for the flight back. They were not planning on spending another night in town like Arrow and Dipper were. Shadow was getting antsy after lunch about timing, even though he had plenty of it. He settled down a little as they glided in to land at their Unit.

“Okay, did anypegasus see those two coming?” Chocolate asked as he closed the door.

He voiced what they all wanted to know.

“Okay. So I am not blind. My teammate blindsided me and deceived everypegasus else,” Chocolate declared. “Captain Marble Falls pinned us well at the start. I guess Dipper really found what he wanted. The peppy energetic type who will wear him out.”

“He was worn out at lunch,” Flags chuckled. “And it is Arrow to show little sign of being tired no matter what her condition. But he was content. He found what he wanted. Now he just has to hold on for the ride until he can get her to stop long enough to be his and then let her go on bouncing around with joy.”

They all chuckled.

“Flags, you got out of your current job with ease. And want Scout now.” Cardinal Spitfire commented. “Do you think I got more self confidence?”

“I backed way off Cardinal,” Shadow stated. “Way off. And you never blinked.”

“Yeah, you got it,” Flags smiled. “It can be hard to see yourself properly, that is what friends are for. And Chocolate, you are still quiet and meek, but when it comes to it, you get it done quickly and professionally.”

“Shadow?” Chocolate called.

“Yes?”

“Are going to be able to sleep? I have never seen you shaking your hind hoof like that.”

Shadow sighed. “I hope so. But it is a good thing I am able to out fly the Major in my sleep.”

They all laughed.

Shadow went about packing. He was going to have to do it sometime, so best before lights out and while he had nothing to do but talk and wait for dinner. Not that there was much for him to pack. He made sure a dress uniform was on top and his other flight suit was as well. His regular clothes could be packed at the bottom since they would not be needed.

Dinner wasn't appetizing, but he forced himself to eat. He kept up with the others as best he could, but after dinner he went for a walk, alone. He watched the stars come out and dance in the sky until he lost track of time.

When Shadow found out what time it was, he didn't even find it worthwhile to go to bed. He just went up onto the roof of their unit and quietly settled down to think with the stars.

Leaving now was a big deal. Friends had moved on, but now it was him who was leaving friends. And the places he had gotten to know like he knew his house would no longer feel warm and comforting, but would always feel wrong, yet right, as change happens.

Shadow slipped down and went inside to grab his bags. It was still early, but he felt like sneaking off would feel best for all. He put his saddle bags on and walked out of the door.

He found himself face to face with an angry Cardinal Spitfire.

“You think you were the only one who didn't sleep well?” She whispered angrily.

“Sorry,” Shadow said keeping his voice down and walking away.

“What do you think you are doing?” She said getting in front of him. “Fuck yeah it hurts. The same amount, for both of us. How you view family doesn't make either of our pain greater or lesser. The other night, and day and all was amazing, but torture. I am your wife! I know you feel pain, but so do I!”

They stood face to face for a minute. It was the first time either of them had said husband or wife. Shadow snatched her up into a kissing embrace.

“I am sorry Card,” He said with a few tears. “It was selfish of me. You are right. You are my wife, and I am your husband. I was not acting as such. It has been a mix of right, but torture. Like you said to me, I will always come back to you. Always.”

They kissed again.

“I can't believe I said wife,” Cardinal Spitfire gasped for air. “It was so natural and right.”

“Leaving it all, its like removing the needle from your hoof. Getting it in there it hurt like hell, it being in there hurt badly, but pulling it out hurts the worst.”

“You are your stupid metaphors I can barely keep up with,” Cardinal Spitfire said rolling her eyes.

“I love you so much,” Cardinal Spitfire said kissing Shadow.

“I love you more than I can explain,” Shadow said. “One last kiss goodbye, to hold us over until the next time.”

“A big one?”

“One you will never forget.”

Shadow kissed Cardinal Spitfire and forced her to the ground where she truly could melt and relax in the kiss' radiant glory.

Shadow launched straight up and was gone in seconds. He fought back tears of agony. By the time he touched down in front of the mess hall in the main base, he had to have dry cheeks. Cardinal Spitfire probably wouldn't be able to get up off the ground for a while from the state he had left her.

Like dinner, Shadow had to force himself to eat. Nothing would be the same. She would be different from experiences that he never could share in. The same was true for him. Shadow touched his necklace and pressed it into his chest, knowing that no matter what, they were bound as each other's half.

He was at the front gate by 0735. The Major arrived a little before 0800.

“Well,” He said. “I am really going to have to keep up with you. I will inform you of the plans as we fly at a safe distance.”

“Direction?” Shadow asked.

“North by Northeast.”

Shadow took off in proper form and the Major was right along side him at his wing. He followed Shadow well as he brought them up to a good cruising height and the proper heading.

“We are headed to Fort Griffin's Gate. It was set up as the barrier between the Griffin's and the Enclave. Sealing up the sky did not go over well. It was a bloody battle but the Enclave prevailed and it has always been the place of secrets since. It is the official station for all Wonderbolt squads. Anything with clandestine actions originates there.”

“We will set up with the team and finalize things, especially equipment knowledge. We have a lot of new advancements for this team.”

“Alright, ready to kick it up a notch?”

“I know you want to get there as soon as possible, but I can only fly so fast for so long. I have designated stops along the way.”

“And how many days?”

“This is a full traversal of the Enclave. It is going to take us twelve to fourteen days.”

Shadow grumbled to himself. Twelve meant five, maybe six for him. Three if he needed to push it.


“Hello?”

“Hello, this is Lance Turnip. I am trying to reach my son, Shadow Flare. I believe he is a Sergeant.”

“Command Sergeant Major Shadow Flare departed this morning. I am sorry. I do not know where he is going. General Red River might. Can I take a message?”

“I just wanted to let him kno