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Reckless in Training

By xcpony
Created: 1st August 2022 04:11:48 PM
24th November 2022 03:12:20 AM

  1. >Another damn day in hoof camp.
  2. >It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that nopony seemed to be taking it seriously.
  3. >Nopony else on your side of the platoon, at least.
  4. >Well, there was one mare.
  5. >"You stay."
  6. >But she was more drilled than some of the instructors.
  7. "Morning, it's just an exercise."
  8. >The foreign enlistee, who seemed more re-enlistee than anything, gave you a steely glare.
  9. "...Reckless."
  10. >She insisted on that name, even though her papers and uniform had her down as Morning Flame.
  11. >"Not just exercise. Treat as war. Could be real, one day."
  12. "Equestria hasn't had a war in centuries."
  13. >There were some close calls, recently, though... Pies /were/ pretty dangerous, given the right application.
  14. >"No care. Always watching. Always ready. Semper fi."
  15. >Another blunt training spear curled over the top of the enbankment. You, and the other five ponies she'd hauled on her back, instinctively leaned away.
  16. >Reckless simply squinted over the top.
  17. >"Corporal! What plan?"
  18. >"Hay if I know!"
  19. >She grunted, and looked back over you and the sorry ponies in the trench.
  20. >"Stay."
  21. >With her last order reiterated, she vaulted out in one swift leap, thundering up and out of sight, right into the midst of the fray.
  22. >Peeking out yourself, you caught eyes on the rest of your platoon scattered about.
  23. >Reckless had made it safely to the frontline again, and from the looks of things, it seemed like the corporal was about to get dragged back, too.
  24. >You settled back into the trench.
  25. >It was going to be a long siege.
  26. >But somehow, you knew Reckless had been through longer.
  27. >Instead of laying about like the rest of the sods, here, you crouched low, and prodded about for 'injuries'.
  28. >You'd get these ponies to soldier up, and take back the lost ground.
  29. >Reckless was doing all she could to keep you in the fight.
  30. >She needed you to get the rest in line.
  31. "C'mon, you heard the mare. Let's go, ponies."
  32. >"Why bother? They've been shelling us for hours."
  33. "Because /she/ needs us. You want to win don't you?"
  34. >Some murmurs wound through the trench.
  35. >You sighed.
  36. "If we lose, we're not getting the hayburgers they promised as a reward."
  37. >"I love hayburgers!"
  38. >Well, that put them back on their hooves.
  39. "Get your things together, we're going back out there. We can win this."
  40. >With renewed vigor, the ponies made to snatch up their equipment.
  41. >Suddenly, the warhorse barreled back over and in. The corporal thumped into the dirt beside you.
  42. >You looked Reckless in the eye.
  43. >What had she said?
  44. "Semper fi, Reckless. What do we do?"
  45. >The edges of her mouth twitched, and she leaned back, looking over all of you.
  46. >And Reckless smiled.
  47. >"We fight together. We win together."
  48. >When the corporal was shaken out of their fugue, the plan that formed wasn't much more than that.
  49. >But you didn't need much.
  50. "Let's do this!"
  51. >"For hayburgers!"
  52. >Reckless nodded vigorously at that.
  53. >"For Equestria!"
  54. >With spears at the ready, you all tumbled out of the trench, a war cry cheering out among you.
  55. >For her.
  56.  
  57.  
  58.  
  59. >"Morning Flame, do you know how many violations you tripped out there today?"
  60. "No, sir."
  61. >The stallion on the other side of the office desk leaned forward.
  62. >"None."
  63. >Reckless paused. Then, she licked her lips.
  64. "Good, yes?"
  65. >"Good? Recruit..."
  66. >The officer shook his head.
  67. >"What you did break out there were /multiple/ Academy records. And I'm not talking hoof camp records, I'm talking the Royal Officer Academy's records. All without any signs of foul play."
  68. >Reckless was silent. Her muzzle was locked into her usual flat-lipped form.
  69. >Incredulity mounting ever-further, the officer tapped the scrolls unfurled across the table.
  70. >"To say nothing of the numbers, what the platoon saw out there was nothing short of heroics, with none of the theatrics. Over the course of the six hour battle regime, you carried out several charges in the face of overwhelming casualties and opposition, and saved enough ponies to recover the tickets needed for your NCO to refield your whole column."
  71. >The officer crept forward a little more.
  72. >"Not to mention your multiple /full-loads/ of munition resupplies. Six bundles of spears on each run? Are you aware that you overwhelmed the logistics team with your efforts? Because those were veterans in the Guard, and even they struggled to keep up with you."
  73. "No, sir."
  74. >"And yet, one thing bothers me..."
  75. >The officer fell back, settling uncomfortably into the space behind the desk.
  76. >"You don't even have a cutie mark."
  77. >Reckless ears perked upward.
  78. "Yes, no cutie mark. Hear much from soldiers. I earn, sir?"
  79. >The officer blinked.
  80. >Reckless nodded sagely.
  81. "I see. I do better, sir. Promise."
  82. >"What? No, recruit, you..."
  83. >He heaved a heavy breath, and it made Reckless' ears pin back.
  84. >"Despite being a training exercise, by all means, you've proven to be exemplary in the field. Simply put, you work like a mare possessed. Even with all the mock spell blasts, you kept pushing through. Most recruits have to build up a resistance to that kind of sensory overload. I've never heard of a pony with so much determination and will, no less one diving into Equestria's finest battle simulations for the first time. You're an earth pony possessed by so much talent that I find it downright impossible for you to be lacking a cutie mark."
  85. >He tapped his hooves warily, clearly unsure of how best to continue.
  86. >"Recruit, I'll ask you this once. Is there something about yourself that should be disclosed to the Guard?"
  87. >Reckless' ears straightened back to their normal resting position. Slowly.
  88. >The officer's brows furrowed.
  89. >"This is purely for everypony's benefit, recruit."
  90. "Yes, sir. I will think."
  91. >A moment passed.
  92. "Okay. I share?"
  93. >The officer eagerly threw out a hoof.
  94. >"As much as you're comfortable."
  95. "Okay."
  96. >And with that, she was off to the races.
  97. "I am horse, not pony. Hope pony say as such. Because pony scare very easy, yes? Smaller than me, too. I also happy when stallions at mess hall offer as sire, but wish no more asking. Have many little ones already. Want no more."
  98. >The officer opened his mouth, but the floodgates were open.
  99. "No cola, too. No way for more? Very disappointing. Blankets tasty, though. Will take more, yes."
  100. >"You—?"
  101. "And when previous rank return? Was promised reward for service. Lost retirement and find pony company. Prefer retirement. More work, here. Not many more oats, too."
  102. >"...Recruit."
  103. "Yes, sir?"
  104. >The officer tapped the desk, and spoke droll.
  105. >"The medical exam for you here states nothing about delirium."
  106. >The warhorse beamed.
  107. "Good!"
  108. >"...And you are far too young to justify those... 'experiences'."
  109. >Reckless tilted her head.
  110. "No?"
  111. >The officer's voice fell soft.
  112. >"Just who do you think you are, recruit?"
  113. >There was a knock on the office door.
  114. >Pushing off the desk, the officer whirled a hoof.
  115. >"Come in."
  116. >As the door opened, the stallion swiftly rose to his hooves. Reckless stood, too.
  117. >"At ease. I won't be long."
  118. >From the doorway, Shining Armor, standing Captain of the Royal Guard, grinned.
  119. >"I thought I'd find you here, Reckless."
  120. >She dipped her head respectfully.
  121. "Captain."
  122. >"I hope the lieutenant here isn't giving you a dressing down for your performance today?"
  123. "No, sir. Talk good."
  124. >His grin gave way to a genuine smile.
  125. >"Good! In that case, I'm sorry to interrupt. Princess Celestia would like to speak with you again. It concerns your future here in Equestria. Mostly good news."
  126. >Reckless nodded affirmatively, then looked to the lieutenant.
  127. >"I, er... dismissed, recruit."
  128. >He seemed prepared to say more, but the words died on his lips.
  129. >Shining Armor gave the lieutenant a nod, and stepped back out.
  130. >"She's expecting us both. You remember the way to the throne room, I'm sure, but you're free to join me."
  131. "Yes, sir. I join."
  132. >Reckless nosed the door shut behind her, leaving the lieutenant alone again.
  133. >He slumped back into his proper place, and stared down at all the documents he'd collected.
  134. >With a weary hoof, he picked through until he'd found one certain piece. Not a scroll like the rest, but a formalized piece of paper.
  135. >Reckless' charter for the Guard.
  136. >With another look over it, he was left even more stumped.
  137. >Somehow, he'd mistaken one note on it. Badly.
  138. >The signature of Princess Celestia was unmistakable.
  139.  
  140. >"I wasn't there to see it, but I've heard plenty of detailed after-action reports about today."
  141. >As Shining Armor and Reckless walked down the hallway together, shimmering rays of sunset refracted through the clear glass windows on the one side of the hall.
  142. >"I put a lot of faith in you, convincing Princess Celestia that you had the makings of a soldier. Of course, that was all in the way you introduced your... history. And it seems like I was right."
  143. "No lies, sir."
  144. >He laughed politely.
  145. >"No, I never doubted your story. Still, it's not something everypony needs to know about."
  146. >Reckless gave her trademark eager nod.
  147. "I understand. No war in Equestria."
  148. >Her tongue slipped on Equestria. Shining Armor found it hard to blame her: she'd only known how to say it for two weeks.
  149. >At her reply, his smile turned a little pained, and his voice remorseful.
  150. >"I'm sure the princess will have it sorted out. Like I said, her summons on my side were positive, at least."
  151. "Bad news?"
  152. >Shining grimaced.
  153. >"We'll have to see."
  154. >Reckless smiled warmly.
  155. "Been worse, captain."
  156. >He chuckled.
  157. >"You made it sound like it was worth it in the end, though."
  158. "Very much so. But never forget wartime."
  159. >"Oh, of course."
  160. >What little tension there was in the air fell away. Shining Armor returned his easygoing smile to its rightful home.
  161. >"Why don't you tell me a little more about your retirement? I'm thinking my time's coming soon enough..."
  162.  
  163. >With the last petitioner on their way out, Princess Celestia gave an internal sigh of relief.
  164. >Soon, her sister would take to the throne room, and the court would assume nightly operations.
  165. "Miss Inkwell, is there anything else left to address?"
  166. >She loved her little ponies dearly, but truth be told, they could wear her down. A chance to retire from court early was one she wasn't willing to let slip.
  167. >Her loyal secretary cleared her throat, and lowered her clipboard.
  168. >"So far as courtly matters are concerned..."
  169. >She smiled lightly, pushing her lenses up with her magic.
  170. >"You are free, princess."
  171. >There was a 'but' attached, and Celestia had a feeling she knew what that smile meant.
  172. "I take it that Captain Shining Armor has already replied to my summons?"
  173. >"Yes, your majesty. A missive turned in by his messenger stated that he would collect Morning Flame shortly."
  174. >Punctual as always, captain.
  175. "Very well. I suppose a moment of respite is in order, then."
  176. >She opted not to retire to the office behind the throne.
  177. >At her echoing behest, Raven Inkwell and the guards in the wide hall visibly relaxed.
  178. >In a much lighter and quieter tone, Celestia drew in Raven's attention.
  179. "Tell me, what does the castle staff think of her?"
  180. >It was far from an inquiry of gossip: Raven was wanton to know these things.
  181. >Yes, like the Captain of the Canterlot Royal Guard, Celestia's finest left-hoof mare was one astute in many exceptional ways.
  182. >Raven was quite infatuated with the operations of polite pony society.
  183. >But it was kinder to avoid calling her one for gossip.
  184. >Raven hummed conspiratorially.
  185. >"Morning Flame, princess?"
  186. >Celestia tittered behind a hoof. She humored her secretary.
  187. "Yes, Miss Inkwell. Our newest flame."
  188. >Raven laughed.
  189. >"/Your/ flame, your majesty. Of course, she's still in training, so she hasn't been around the staff as much as she has the garrison, but she's still managed to make some waves."
  190. "Is that so?"
  191. >"For one thing, there's been talk of her stature. Some say she has Saddle Arabian in her blood. She's a big mare for certain, but not quite Saddle Arabian. Regardless, ponies give her berth in the halls, as she tends to be very set on the paths she takes."
  192. >"As far as her etiquette goes, it's been something of a concern. During one tour, the recruits were permitted a meal in the Royal Gallery. There were quite a few misunderstandings as to just how much of the plate was on the menu."
  193. >Raven paused.
  194. >"When it comes to her palate, she takes no issue with the packaging on the imported sweets. She also ate with, at least how I've heard it put, 'gusto'."
  195. "Could you elaborate?"
  196. >"She eats like a starving monster, your majesty. As I alluded to, everything is fair game to her, or at least not the cutlery... which she tends to avoid entirely."
  197. >Celestia softly laughed.
  198. >Raven smiled at that.
  199. >"But, to put it lightly, I heard it was quite the sight."
  200. "Oh, I'm sure."
  201. >"And there is one last thing that catches the attention of most ponies. The same thing you yourself noted in our first meeting, princess. Her accent."
  202. "It's causing her no trouble, I hope?"
  203. >Raven shook her head.
  204. >"Hardly, your majesty. In fact, I'd go so far to say that many have been making earnest attempts to help her with her speech. Whether or not she's been taking the advice to heart is up to debate. And well..."
  205. >Raven tapped her clipboard with her levitating quill, blushing slightly.
  206. >"I for one, find her voice charming. It's... exotic."
  207. >Celestia shined warmly, dipping her head.
  208. "Well, be sure to make your compliment clear to her when she arrives. The dear has been through a great deal."
  209. >Raven's luster fell through to trepidation.
  210. >"She has, your majesty?"
  211. "I have a strong conviction. It's something I'd like to address directly with her tonight."
  212. >"She must hide it very well."
  213. >Celestia smiled sadly.
  214. "That's just it, Miss Inkwell. I don't think she's aware of it at all."
  215.  
  216. >Reckless waited patiently, stock-still for the massive doors before her.
  217. >The pearly-white gates were both a sign of a future that inspired, and a glimpse into a forlorn existence.
  218. >Neither of these concepts seemed to come to mind for the warhorse.
  219. >What mattered to her was that she was here, reporting for duty.
  220. >By her side, Shining Armor gave a curt nod to the doors' guards.
  221. >"Is the princess ready to see us?"
  222. >"Of course, sir."
  223. >Shining looked Reckless' way.
  224. >"Are you ready, Reckless?"
  225. >She bowed her neck slightly.
  226. "Yes, sir."
  227. >"Then let's not keep her waiting."
  228. >As the doors to the hallowed hall opened up, the pair of them stepped through.
  229. >Salutes for the captain went up on Reckless' left and right, silent and unbidden.
  230. >At the end of the silky velvet road below hoof, a pair of blue and gold thrones were fixed in waiting.
  231. >By the side of the golden throne, a bright smile shone at Reckless.
  232. >And on the throne proper, Princess Celestia was perfectly perched.
  233. >The captain and recruit drew close enough to bow, and they both did so.
  234. >"Hello, my little ponies. There's no need to bow. This is a private audience, of course."
  235. >They both stood straight.
  236. >"Captain Shining Armor, I would like to say that I'm glad to have you here so promptly."
  237. >The Princess turned to Reckless.
  238. >"And it is a pleasure to see you once more, Miss... Reckless."
  239. >Reckless nodded eagerly.
  240. >She really liked the 'princess'.
  241. "Yes, you too."
  242. >Shining and the princess' secretary shared a chuckle.
  243. >Celestia smiled amiably.
  244. >"On that note, I'd like to congratulate you on your success in the field today. Based off your actions, am I correct to assume that you've been enjoying your time in the Royal Guard thus far?"
  245. "Yes, princess. Work like old times."
  246. >"That's good. There are much more trying positions in the Royal Guard, but you appear to have found your stride to be that of a guardsmare. Of course, once your training is complete, you can always see about a shift in responsibilities."
  247. "Would like. Can work marines again?"
  248. >Celestia's look turned gently apologetic. The action alone was enough to flick Reckless' ears.
  249. >"Well, dear, as we said before..."
  250. >She gave Shining Armor a look.
  251. >"Equestria simply has no marines."
  252. >There it was again.
  253. >That phrase.
  254. >No marines.
  255. >What was a Marine like her supposed to do in a world with no marines?
  256. >Reckless, just as before, fought back her natural urge to let out her frustration.
  257. >Instead, her ears fell back, and she bobbed her head quick.
  258. "Yes, yes. I understand."
  259. >She didn't. But pretending she did was the path of least resistance.
  260. >She especially didn't want to bother the one who'd given her purpose again.
  261. >"Is something the matter, Reckless?"
  262. >But evidently, she /had/ bothered the princess.
  263. >"If there is, please, share. This meeting is all for your benefit."
  264. >Silence dripped like the slick of the candles above.
  265. >"Well, perhaps it would be best if we start with your situation, first."
  266. >Reckless snorted a breath, and turned her head back down.
  267. "Yes, princess."
  268. >Celestia nodded to the pony by her side.
  269. >"Miss Inkwell? You have the floor."
  270. >The dressed-up secretary cleared her throat, and her ever-present magic lifted her clipboard up.
  271. >"Miss Flame, the court magicians were unable to pinpoint an exact cause and means for your displacement. Whatever physical translation you experienced is beyond Equestria's current understanding."
  272. >Raven met her questioning gaze.
  273. >"In essence, something magical in nature has occurred, but nothing they've seen before. I would be prepared to receive future summons from the mages in question."
  274. >She flipped back to the clipboard.
  275. >"On a similar note, while the doctors in the infirmary slated you with a clean bill of health, further review has confirmed that, by all means, you are both young, and /completely/ healthy. You are no more than thirty years-old, but closer to the upper end of twenty. They noted some confusion, however, as you couldn't provide a specific age, and your statements of health seemed more in line with an older pony."
  276. >Reckless nodded fervently.
  277. "Told doc same. Bones not hurt when should hurt."
  278. >Clearly curious, Celestia interjected.
  279. >"What do you mean by that?"
  280. "Get older, hurt more. Problem. Don't remember name."
  281. >"Arthritis?"
  282. >At his help, Reckless gestured with her neck to the captain, her ears pivoting like frictionless bearings.
  283. "Yes, arthritis. Doc in Marines, and doc in Guard, they say same."
  284. >The captain carried on with some shock.
  285. >"You had arthritis, Reckless?"
  286. "Yes."
  287. >She stretched openly.
  288. "But happy without."
  289. >Reckless turned back to the ponies before her.
  290. >The princess seemed to be frowning.
  291. >"Such a degree of healing is unprecedented."
  292. >Healing was such a word.
  293. >Reckless shuffled on her hooves.
  294. "Been worse."
  295. >Too familiar a word.
  296. >Her ears folded back, and she forced her eyes shut.
  297. "Much worse."
  298. >Worse than some scrapes and bruises. Worse than some light shrapnel. Worse than the graze of a bullet.
  299. >The princess hazarded another question. It only drove the stake deeper.
  300. >"Were you 'worse' recently, Reckless?"
  301. >The captain spoke up in her stead.
  302. >"No. If we recall her story, she was in retirement. It's been quite some time since she's seen combat. Though, I will say she has no wounds or scars you'd expect from somepony at war for so long."
  303. >Wounds.
  304. >Wounds didn't need to come from combat.
  305. >They could happen in retirement.
  306. >And even at home.
  307. >Reckless opened her eyes.
  308. "No. Not war. Wounds in Pendleton."
  309. >Shining Armor furrowed his brows.
  310. >"Pendleton?"
  311. >Princess Celestia's frown deepened.
  312. >"Wounds?"
  313. >She hadn't forgotten. She'd simply pushed it out of sight. With her arrival in Equestria, there had been so much to contend with.
  314. >Now, she was forced to confront her final moments before the pony planet.
  315. >She remembered the hot white flash.
  316. >The pain before bleakness.
  317. >The nothing between.
  318. >The barbed wire.
  319.  
  320. >She screamed as she fell. It had to have been her own voice.
  321. >There was more motion by her side as her fall shifted to a struggle. Bodies. Talking.
  322. >She couldn't slow to breathe, draw breath to think in a uniform manner.
  323. >No, she screamed until the blood-red world turned white.
  324. >She could have done better.
  325. >She /should/ have done better.
  326. >Instead, she kicked, she screamed, she bled.
  327. >And there was no honor to this struggle.
  328. >In those bloody, agonizing seconds, she fell back to her primal instincts.
  329. >Marines weren't supposed to cry.
  330. >She was just an old, dying horse.
  331. >A marine unmade.
  332.  
  333. >The others were still waiting.
  334. >From the empty space between the ponies, Reckless turned her gaze on the princess.
  335. "I fall into barbed wire. Tangled... Pain. Blood. Nothing."
  336. >She paused to collect her thoughts.
  337. "Wake here. No wounds. No pain. Only memory."
  338. >A memory from a world so far away.
  339. >A shameful memory.
  340. >Shining Armor joined the princess with a frown of his own.
  341. >"/Barbed/ wire... and blood? Do you mean to say that you..."
  342. >He searched for the right words.
  343. >"Bled out?"
  344. >All noise seemed to tide away from the throne room. There were only the stares from the ponies around her, and the ominous glow of the candles in the evening light.
  345. >Orange and black. Bleak and distant. Like recoilless shells crashing in the summer night.
  346. "Yes... sir."
  347. >The candles flickered in a graceful, invisible breeze. But the throne room was so cold.
  348. >It sept into her coat, wrenching away at all the warmth buried beneath. Yanking. Pulling. Shearing.
  349. >"Morning Flame."
  350. >Reckless had to lift her eyes to meet that of the princess; her head had fallen.
  351. >"You have fought well. And this... troubling time. It has passed."
  352. >The princess rose to Reckless, like one rising sun to another. She tread delicately across the carpet, not quite calculating, but still pre-determined. Her movement was as a smooth as the candles lauded overhead. The very form of serenity before Reckless' eyes.
  353. >Princess Celestia stopped just shy of the former staff sergeant, and dipped her slender neck down.
  354. >"You are in safe hooves, Reckless. No harm will befall you so long as you are here in our land. Equestria is as much our home as it is yours."
  355. >The princess lowered her neck. Their muzzles were level.
  356. >She had intentionally left herself open.
  357. >Reckless felt herself moving forward.
  358. >And Celestia met her hug.
  359. >They rested with their necks pressed against one another.
  360. >The princess' coat was as soft and fine as satin.
  361. >Reckless tried to absorb as much of the feeling as she could.
  362. >For something that had overtly appeared forbidden, Reckless found herself doing all she could to embrace and remember the feeling of the princess.
  363. >This natural response was the good she needed.
  364. >"Do not forget your time as a marine."
  365. >The princess' whisper was warm, but commanding.
  366. >"I only ask that you not carry your burden alone. Until such a time comes that I can help you further, know that I will always be willing to listen. And my little ponies, too."
  367. >The princess sank deeper.
  368. >"In Equestria, you are among friends."
  369. >Celestia fell silent; there was time for Reckless to respond.
  370. >But this time, her body did not move for her. She didn't know what to do.
  371. >So, Reckless let the moment stay.
  372. >Celestia accommodated her choice.
  373. >Eventually, the princess unwrapped herself from their shared touch.
  374. >Reckless pulled back and stood straight, momentarily stunned.
  375. >By the time she'd recovered, Celestia had returned to her throne. She was sat there, smiling gently.
  376. >It took Reckless a moment to realize that she was smiling, too.
  377. >"Shall we continue, Miss Inkwell?"
  378. >"Yes, your majesty."
  379. >The secretary took a moment to loosen her withers.
  380. >"And, if I may, I will say that going forward, there will only be talk of good things to come."
  381. >From the way Inkwell spoke, even with that fresh sense of joy, there was still much more to discuss. But at least it would be positive.
  382. >Celestia nodded, and returned her attention to the front.
  383. >"Well, Reckless. Are you ready to continue?"
  384. >She replied immediately.
  385. "Yes, princess."
  386. >As Raven delved deep into talk of forms, registration, and citizenship, with comments from the captain and princess as needed, Reckless stood resolute.
  387. >And she was determined to hold her princess-laid smile all the while.
  388.  
  389. >The meeting passed relatively quickly, and rightfully so: they were treading close to overstepping the time-slot of the Day Court.
  390. >The princess, secretary, and captain kept things concise, and Reckless did her own part.
  391. >But there was one statement that forced Reckless to slow down, and think.
  392. >"We can see about restoring your rank once your training's done. I think you've provided ample reason and history for me to fast-track you back up to Staff Sergeant. But you'll have to go through some courses. You would know those, right? For leadership and the like."
  393. "Restore rank, sir?"
  394. >It was the first real question Reckless had asked in the hour. It made Shining Armor stop in his tracks, and left the princess waiting.
  395. >"...Yes? You mentioned wanting your rank back when we were working out your charter."
  396. "I change mind."
  397. >Having stayed out of the captain's jurisdiction up until this point, the princess spoke up.
  398. >"And why's that, Reckless?"
  399. >She'd been working up the reasoning since the captain had started talking.
  400. >It was simple.
  401. "If can't work marines, then work Royal Guard. But start fresh. Earn back all. Only fair."
  402. >Shining gave her a look, but it was mostly implacable.
  403. >"Are you sure about that, Reckless?"
  404. >He waved the scroll in his magic.
  405. >"Not many opportunities like this out there."
  406. "Never worked Royal Guard before. Only know Marines."
  407. >"I can't imagine there's too many differences. You've even got the same rank structure, so far as I can tell."
  408. "No matter, sir. Still not same."
  409. >"Reckless."
  410. >The princess, again, intervened. Her eyes had a wisp of curiosity about them.
  411. >"You do understand what Captain Shining Armor is offering, yes? You could bypass years of service."
  412. "Yes, princess. Did same before. Sergeant through battlefield promotions. Retire Staff Sergeant."
  413. >Shining Armor nodded his head, chewing the inside of his mouth.
  414. >"Huh. That makes sense. I guess that means you'd have no problem finding opportunity."
  415. "Yes. But just want work again."
  416. >Reckless teetered on her hooves, tugging the corners of her mouth into a tiny smile again.
  417. "Feel young. Ready for action, captain."
  418. >Shining Armor laughed.
  419. >"There'll be no shortage of it once you're out of training. Canterlot's a busy post."
  420. "Korea busier."
  421. >"You still haven't explained anything about it."
  422. >Reckless stared.
  423. >Internally, she was grinning her ears off.
  424. >Evidently, Celestia picked up on it. The princess giggled like a filly.
  425. >"Ah, well. That's something for another time, captain. We should be wrapping things up shortly, don't you agree, Miss Inkwell?"
  426. >"Of course, your majesty. Princess Luna loves her Night Court. It'd be best to not risk her time any further."
  427. >Shining Armor gave Reckless a playful eyeroll, and turned back to his scroll.
  428. >For her own part, Reckless was looking forward to seeing her platoon in the barracks later.
  429. >She was young again, and back in the saddle on a new company. After tonight, she'd finally been opened up enough to feel comfortable.
  430. >Oh yes, her company and platoon had only seen the beginnings of soon-to-be-Sergeant-again Reckless.
  431. >And this time, she could talk.
  432.  
  433.  
  434.  
  435. >You are—
  436. >"Recruit!"
  437. >You turned around in time to see the happy, cantering goliath that was Reckless.
  438. >More than a few heads in the barracks turned at her arrival.
  439. >Like the rest of them, you were busy cleaning the dried mud and grime from your trainee armor. And for the unluckier ones, the scuffs.
  440. >Its colors weren't that Royal Guard gold standard, but orders were to polish it until it was a pure golden shine.
  441. >On the bunk beside you, Reckless' gear was still in need of that treatment.
  442. >You set your helmet and rag aside.
  443. "Hey, Morn... er, Reckless. What's going on?"
  444. >She trot over, still beaming.
  445. >It was a little unnerving, but mostly just nice to see.
  446. >"Want say good job today."
  447. >She turned to the rest of the platoon.
  448. >"Everypony do good on field."
  449. "You weren't bad out there yourself, Reckless. We were getting our plots served to us before you stepped up."
  450. >On that note, some more vocal agreement cropped up.
  451. >"Was you who charge, but I lead by example, yes? Expect ponies stand up in future. Prefer not lead."
  452. >As she pulled herself up and laid across her cot, you went back to work.
  453. "You seem like a natural-born leader to me."
  454. >"No. Try inspire. Keep spirits high. Trained supply, not combat. Support role."
  455. "You've got one hay of a gait, though. Ponies stand behind those who can blow a trail like that."
  456. >And if today was anything to go by, ponies would scatter when they were in her running path.
  457. >You raised your hoof for her to see. Your rag dangled.
  458. >You were no paragon of muscle, but you weren't a slouch, either.
  459. >Yeah, you were as average-built a stallion as they came.
  460. >And Reckless' legs were like tree trunks compared to yours.
  461. "You're a fast mare."
  462. >"Faster supply, then. No like fight."
  463. >After a few flimsy swipes with her hoof, Reckless took her rag into her mouth, and started working away at her gear in broad, swooping strokes.
  464. >You went back to work as well.
  465. "...You're awful talkative today. I take it your talk with the lieutenant went well? You were gone a while."
  466. >"Talk with lieutenant good, yes."
  467. >That wasn't surprising: of all the COs for the platoon, he was probably the favorite for most recruits. Of course the lieutenant would see good in Reckless.
  468. >"But talk with princess much better."
  469. >And—
  470. >You stopped, and stared at Reckless.
  471. "What?"
  472. >Reckless stopped, and stared at you.
  473. >"Captain Shining Armor, too."
  474. >This sounded confidential.
  475. >You wanted in.
  476. "Captain, eh? That why you're in a good mood?"
  477. >"Princess say do not... carry alone. Say ponies listen. So, talk more."
  478. >Sounded more like an order than a warm conversation.
  479. >And carry what?
  480. "But you weren't in trouble or anything?"
  481. >"No. Work on papers. Talk future."
  482. >She went back to her breastplate.
  483. >"Turn down rank to stay with you."
  484. "You /what/?"
  485. >"We stick together. My new company. My new platoon."
  486. >She smiled lightly, and it shone in the first cleared corner of her armor.
  487. >"My new friends."
  488. >Okay, you couldn't help yourself: you smiled back.
  489. >But still.
  490. "You know what, that's your choice to make. More power to you."
  491. >You shrugged as nonchalantly as you could.
  492. "Guess I just don't know what you know, y'know?"
  493. >Take the bait...
  494. >"Yes, much different here. Still learn."
  495. >It was weak bait, anyhow.
  496. "Well, if you ever want to talk, I'm more than happy to let you offload."
  497. >For emphasis, you flicked one of your ears with a hoof.
  498. >She nodded.
  499. >"Thank you. But work now."
  500. "Sure."
  501. >It was better than nothing. You could wait; it was only the third week of training.
  502. >Yeah, five more weeks left plenty of time to get to know her.
  503. >Up until today, she'd been pretty reserved. The battlefield exercise had ignited some passions in her, and whatever the princess had said to Reckless had fanned the flames.
  504. >All you knew was that this was where the fun began.
  505.  
  506. >The hoof camp's mess wasn't anything like the Royal Gallery, but it was good eating all the same.
  507. >Well, that's what you had to say as an earth pony from outside Canterlot; the unicorns about were all-too willing to share their stingy woes with you.
  508. >But for ponies like you and the pegasi, a meal was a meal. Especially in the Guard.
  509. >And oh colt, you knew one filly who scooped up the mess hall meals like there was no tomorrow.
  510. >You were seated next to Reckless, and shared the table with some of your fellow recruits.
  511. >You weren't the only one entranced enough by Reckless' previous performance to keep an eye on her, but you were the only one intrigued enough to stay at a conversational range.
  512. "Coffee?"
  513. >She nodded eagerly, because her mouth full of mouthfuls of toast and eggs kept her occupied.
  514. >You pushed your coffee towards her, and sipped from your water instead.
  515. >In the past weeks, recruits (previously including you) had tended to avoid Reckless' table entirely.
  516. >Not out of malice, but for safety's sake.
  517. >As you sat now, you were the only one in the blast zone, and you could tell from the looks you were receiving that many didn't think you'd last long.
  518. >Mirth from most, outright worry for the few, and some bets being exchanged at a nearby table.
  519. >Of course, everypony knew what Reckless' eating habits were like. She was hardly versed in etiquette, but it wasn't like she was hurting anypony.
  520. "You even taste any of that?"
  521. >She swallowed, and licked her lips.
  522. >"Would not eat like this if didn't enjoy."
  523. "Alright, fair enough."
  524. >She grunted. You doubted it was from annoyance.
  525. >But you were well aware that your approach would've aggravated any other pony.
  526. >"Ask many questions, yes?"
  527. >That was another thing that made Reckless so interesting. She was practical. A mare built different. She just kept it going.
  528. >...And you did agree with some of the others that she had a good heft to her.
  529. >Hate to see her leave, love to watch her go.
  530. "Just curious."
  531. >She resumed munching, but slowed enough to speak coherently.
  532. >"Work hard. Rest harder. Enjoy when can. Life change often, no warning."
  533. >You looked briefly across the table. Her statement had stumped a few of the observers.
  534. >Apparently there were some heavy things in her thoughts. Heavier than the mare herself.
  535. "We're just guards, Reckless."
  536. >"In training. When leave hoof camp? Royal Guard. Then, pony rely on us. Then, fully focus on duty. Live. Take advantage of time while still peaceful."
  537. >She nodded.
  538. >"But off-duty good for fun, too."
  539. >It was clear by now that she was trying harder to make her voice heard; her speech was coming along, and she wasn't quite as 'soft' spoken like she once was: her words were loud enough for ponies nearby to hear.
  540. >And for that matter...
  541. "Well."
  542. >That was why you wanted to be a guard, wasn't it? To protect ponies? To fight for Equestria?
  543. >Or was it for the guardsmares?
  544. >Hay if you knew.
  545. "Uh... semper fi, yeah?"
  546. >She swallowed, placed both her forehooves on the table, and tapped twice, smiling.
  547. >"Semper fi, recruit."
  548. >You let her eat a bit more, taking the time to feed yourself, too.
  549. >You didn't have forever in here, though...
  550. >A few minutes later, you'd wrapped up your meal.
  551. "So, what does it mean? 'Semper fi', that is."
  552. >"Semper fidelis. Is faith."
  553. >She paused, mulling it over eggs and coffee.
  554. >She licked the dark-amber ambrosia from where it'd painted her muzzle.
  555. >"You are faithful. Always. Always faithful."
  556. >It certainly sounded like something the Royal Officer Academy would teach.
  557. >But... it felt right. You rolled it across your lips once more.
  558. "Semper fi."
  559. >"Semper fi."
  560. >And she always echoed it.
  561. >You rubbed a hoof against your jaw while Reckless went back to eating.
  562. >Despite the answers, you were left wanting more.
  563. >And you did have more to ask, but for now, your time was up.
  564. "Gotta be outside soon, Reckless."
  565. >"Yes. Thanks, recruit."
  566. >You didn't stand like the others in the mess hall were starting to.
  567. "I'll stick with you."
  568. >She grinned, muttered something in a different language entirely, and buried her muzzle back in the last of her food.
  569. >You had no idea what that meant.
  570. >But that was a part of the fun.
  571.  
  572. >The foggy weather set out for the battlefield exercise had been swept up by the Canterlot Castle crews, and replaced with a beautiful, burning, sunshine-laden sky.
  573. >Your whole company was stood together, amassed for whatever the day's training would be.
  574. >As of late, the work had been more practical in nature. You were all too glad to be out of the theoretical portion of training... for now. The officers could go on and on for hours.
  575. >You just wanted to get physical.
  576. >When the lieutenant of your platoon sauntered out before you, you got your wish.
  577. >"Now, as we covered in the debrief yesterday, one of the things we found lacking in you all was discipline."
  578. >He let the word hang in the air.
  579. >"Discipline on the endurance side of things. That means running. So, on your hooves!"
  580. >And then you were marching off to the tracks.
  581. >The dirt-pressed race lanes were on their own side of the castle: juxtaposed between the outermost wall and the inner-castle turrets the winding trails formed an oval of a loop that measured out to a gallop's worth of running.
  582. >Until today, the most you'd been forced to do was a canter.
  583. >But this time when the lieutenant said 'running', he meant /running/.
  584. >Fifteen minutes after leaving for the tracks, you were through your first gallop and a half.
  585. >It was at precisely this moment that you found yourself sidling up beside Reckless.
  586. >You weren't completely out of breath, but your pacing meant it wasn't so easy to talk.
  587. >She bobbed her head, acknowledging your presence.
  588. >"Hello, recruit."
  589. "Hey, Reckless."
  590. >She trot so effortlessly across the track that it was as if she were gliding on ice.
  591. "You're lucky you've got those long legs."
  592. >You didn't have to speed up to keep up with her; she wasn't working quite nearly as hard as you and the other recruits.
  593. >In fact, she slowed for you.
  594. >You sped up a little. You weren't gonna let her take it /too/ easy.
  595. >"Yes. You like?"
  596. >You rose an eyebrow.
  597. "Like what?"
  598. >She tilted her head down, then lifted herself back up to keep her level gaze ahead.
  599. >"Jealous of long legs, yes?"
  600. "I'm very well-adjusted to my height..."
  601. >You huffed, and had to take a breath.
  602. "Thank you very much."
  603. >"Good. Not want carry you. Keep working on legs. Maybe even one day be fast like me."
  604. >She was trotting to match your canter, but that was an awful lot of talk.
  605. >Granted, she /was/ Reckless, the fresh new star who'd somehow caught the princess' eye.
  606. >Maybe this was a part of it.
  607. >You narrowed your eyes.
  608. "Prove it."
  609. >She snorted, then listed your way.
  610. >"Lieutenant say five-hundred laps today. I full gallop, have to watch you do last three-hundred."
  611. >She was absolutely full of it.
  612. "That so?"
  613. >"Very so."
  614. "Then... let's see just how fast you are!"
  615. >Grinning you moved right on from your canter to a full-blown gallop.
  616. >Even with surprise on your side, you couldn't get Reckless to leave your sight.
  617. >Reckless pulled ahead of you in seconds.
  618. >There was absolutely no way you could match her at all.
  619. >Yet stubbornly, you kept trying.
  620. >You galloped past pony after pony, but all you could focus on were the white socks of Reckless' coat: her legs nearly blurred as she rode further up the track, gaining distance on you with practiced ease.
  621. >From the sidelines of the track, you were dimly aware of the watching officers.
  622. >That kicked you back down a notch, but by that point, you'd already galloped three quarters of a lap.
  623. >Reckless easily looped around and slowed as you fell back into a canter.
  624. >"Don't be betting pony. Not your strong suit."
  625. >Despite the subdermal fatigue you were sure you'd feel later, you grinned.
  626. "What's that make you then, a racer?"
  627. >Surprisingly, she put out her signature nod.
  628. >"Was racehorse before duty. Not fastest, but try hard."
  629. >So she /was/ a racing pony? And she wasn't even the fastest in her league?
  630. >And princesses be damned, no normal pony should've been able to talk so easily after taking a gallop at full tilt.
  631. >Out of breath for the moment, you gave a grunt.
  632. >"Don't worry. Training meant to build-up strength, yes? Can't run long like so, but move like this all day."
  633. >She cocked her smile your way.
  634. >"Good moves, recruit. Keep up good work."
  635. "...Thanks."
  636.  
  637. >Everyday in hoof camp so far had been on-beat, and relatively unmemorable.
  638. >But since that battlefield exercise, things had really been ramping up.
  639. >Maybe it was your exhaustion playing tricks on you, because you /did/ end up running all day and into the evening hours.
  640. >But you did it with Reckless, even if you didn't quite see her the whole time. And nopony could say that she didn't make things interesting.
  641. >Today seemed on track to continue the trend of the officers' focus on physicality.
  642. >And Reckless was at it again.
  643. >Siege weapons.
  644. >The mare was /made/ for them.
  645. >"Fire when ready, recruit."
  646. >You couldn't help but be a little intimidated when the first mighty crack of the ballista sent a heavy wooden bolt flying 100 hooves into the distance.
  647. >It pounded a clean cylindrical tunnel right through the wooden divider that had been formerly erected, and pinned it to the stack of hay bales just beyond.
  648. >Reckless stepped down from the mount, looking particularly pleased with herself.
  649. >Then, after she'd easily hefted the next bolt up for the standing CO to levitate into place, she fell back to let the next recruit get their hooves on the device.
  650. >Reckless came around, and bumped you lightly with her flank.
  651. >"Seen better."
  652. >You shook your head with a grin, but kept your eyes on the weapon in-action.
  653. >Aiming was as easy as Reckless made it look, but the stalwart moment before and after the trigger wasn't the same for everypony.
  654. >Recruit after recruit went up, and even when your time came, you just couldn't blow as clean a shot as she had.
  655. >The lack of hesitation, and the degree of patience applied, seemed only to apply to Reckless, and it made all the difference in the world.
  656. >"You have to trust your weapon."
  657. >The officer urged on.
  658. >"This is one of the Royal Guard's most valuable assets. You have one of these on the field going at all times, and you give the enemy that steady report, then they'll think the princesses themselves came out to hurl the forest at them. If you show fear, the weapon will know, and then the enemy will, too."
  659. >There was a deep, bassy twang, chased by vibrato.
  660. >A distant thwack, and a bullseye just like Reckless.
  661. >You and a few others gave a little stomp of applause for the recruit.
  662. >The officer nodded to the sharpshooting mare as she stepped down, shaking, but smiling.
  663. >Then he held a hoof out, and she stopped, pinned into place like the target she'd just maimed.
  664. >"See? One clean shot is all it takes. But when you're out there, you're no one-shot wonder. You've got to keep firing, but you also have to aim. Can't do that when we've got weak hooves, can we?"
  665. >The lieutenant turned away from the rest of the platoon, and lowered his hoof.
  666. >"Good shooting, recruit."
  667. >"T-thank you, sir."
  668. >The mare quickly scampered off.
  669. >"We've only got the one ballista pulled out for today, but I'll give everypony three consecutive shots each."
  670. >A little antsy, the platoon wriggled.
  671. >"Then, we'll move onto something a little more familiar."
  672. >Everypony seemed happy about that. No surprise there.
  673. >Yet, Reckless was as implacable as ever.
  674. >How could she be so happy to shoot the ballista, and yet be left unimpressed by the catapults being setup in the yard behind you? Everypony in Equestria loved a good catapult!
  675. >...Oh.
  676. >You knew you were a little on the slower side, but it shouldn't have taken you this long to realize just how foreign Reckless was.
  677. >The results of the final shots followed a similar pattern as before: Reckless landed three more bullseyes, the sharpshooting rookie swung thrice for three not-quite bullseyes, and the other recruits like you were a mixed bag of hits and whiffs.
  678. >You attributed a lot of the glancing and grazing blows to the excitement brewing.
  679. >Still, there was improvement overall.
  680.  
  681. >Born and raised in a more wayward town, you were all too happy to be launching things via catapult.
  682. >So far as you were concerned, there wasn't much of a difference between a boulder and a pumpkin when both were flying at a target faster than a bucket-soaked phoenix.
  683. >There was a bit of an arc to the art, though, projectile and mechanism alike.
  684. >And Reckless adored both with the curiosity of a big filly in little Seaquestria.
  685. >The counterweight swung and the training ammo went soaring. It traced a graceful hill as it cut its way through the sky, before ultimately falling just on the edge of the target area.
  686. >Reckless was totally unbothered by her lackluster 'point'.
  687. "I can tell somepony's enjoying themselves."
  688. >The big mare went about loading the next volley.
  689. >"Who, Morning Flame?"
  690. "Yeah. Reckless."
  691. >You finished loading your catapult's next round, and waited for the sharpshooting mare by your side to aim and fire.
  692. >"How come she's got a nickname already? I thought we had to wait to be guards for that kind of thing."
  693. >Fwick. Slish.
  694. "She's a special case."
  695. >Thwump.
  696. "Good shot."
  697. >The mare huffed. Her wings twitched as she struggled to load your round in.
  698. >You gave her a hoof.
  699. >"...Thanks."
  700. >She stepped back. A frown creased her muzzle.
  701. >"But why does everypony like her so much?"
  702. >She licked her lips and looked away.
  703. >"The captain..."
  704. >Her words fell away.
  705. >You cocked your head. And then you noticed it.
  706. >Reckless wasn't the only blank flank in the platoon.
  707. "Hey, aren't you a little young to... be...?"
  708. >Your voice faded off on your own accord.
  709. >The mare, no, the /teenage filly/ brushed her mane aside.
  710. >"It's your turn on the catapult."
  711. >You went over and took your position by the lever. Cranking and adjusting the mechanisms to range it in, you once more saw Reckless across the way.
  712. >Mare moved like a machine.
  713. "What was that about the captain?"
  714. >After another moment, you sent your round flying.
  715. >Not a bullseye, but full points.
  716. >The lithe, and smaller-than-average mare, who you now recognized as a teenager, worked up a reply.
  717. >"Do you remember what he said on our first day? How that was the moment we became enlisted members of the E.U.P.?"
  718. >Of course you did; it was a big speech and show. Might have had to do with that same speech noting your company as the last one to be trained under his authority.
  719. "And the part about offering ponies the chance to leave?"
  720. >"Yeah."
  721. >Nopony had left: you'd been the same unified platoon over the course of training.
  722. "You're not thinking of leaving, are you?"
  723. >You both rested to the side while you talked, watching Reckless in her element.
  724. >The mare by your side was surprised.
  725. >"You'd care if I did?"
  726. "Of course I would. We're in this together."
  727. >You nudged her.
  728. "Plus, you're not so bad as you might think. You were the one tagging ponies from up above on the battlefield, weren't you?"
  729. >She jostled her wings.
  730. >"You saw? Yeah... I want to work as an armored scout. The captain said... I have promise."
  731. >She shook her head, and looked distantly at Reckless.
  732. >"I'm just... out of place. Out of time. Everything I hear about Morning Flame makes it seem like we're not all too different."
  733. >She looked down, and scuffed a hoof against the yard.
  734. >"Except she fits right in."
  735. >The young little mare was soaked with that viscous, teenage angst.
  736. >What /was/ she doing here?
  737. >Then again, she was right on one thing: Reckless wasn't supposed to be here, either.
  738. >But that didn't mean that they didn't belong.
  739. "Hey. I never got your name."
  740. >"Wishseeker..."
  741. >You nodded, and bore a smile for her.
  742. "Wishseeker, stick around with Reckless. She knows her stuff. And whatever answers you're looking for, I'm sure you'll find them with her."
  743. >"But, she's..."
  744. "Intimidating?"
  745. >Wishseeker nodded.
  746. "She's a big mare, but she's got a big heart. You'll be in good company."
  747. >"...Okay."
  748. >It started light, but her smile turned bright.
  749. >"Yeah, okay. I-I will, thank you!"
  750. >With that out of the way, you rolled the next catapult round onto your back.
  751. "Alright, let's get back to the fun stuff. It's your turn."
  752. >Wishseeker giggled out the rest of her anxiety, and you rolled your eyes.
  753. >Now you had /two/ interesting fillies to keep your eyes on. Lucky you!
  754. >But for now, you'd pull back on your open curiosity. Perform some research from afar.
  755. >Maybe then you could figure out just how involved the captain was in their enlistment.
  756. >Because after today's soiree, you were fully convinced that some major investments had been made behind closed doors.
  757. >And you had your hooves wedged in both.
  758.  
  759.  
  760.  
  761. >"Morning Flame? I mean, um, Reckless..."
  762. >Reckless turned from one recruit to the next.
  763. >She hadn't noticed there was a new pony eating in the mess hall with her.
  764. >And really, there was no way to blame her: this particular mare was somehow smaller than the other ponies!
  765. "Mmf?"
  766. >The mare wilted.
  767. >"Reckless, this is Wishseeker."
  768. >The stallion by her side gestured out toward the opposite end of the table.
  769. >"She's a big fan."
  770. >He turned to his coffee, and said nothing more.
  771. >Reckless swallowed her eggs, and tilted her head at Wishseeker.
  772. "Fan?"
  773. >"T-that's not what he meant, I just..."
  774. >Wishseeker tapped her anxious hooves against her full meal tray.
  775. >"You and I are a lot more alike than it seems. I think."
  776. >Reckless looked her up and down.
  777. >The mare was tiny by compare, and with no significant meat or muscle to her bones.
  778. >She failed to pinpoint anything they'd have in common.
  779. "Wishseeker. Okay. What we share?"
  780. >Reckless sat still, eyes trained on the mare, awaiting an answer.
  781. >Waiting.
  782. >...Waiting.
  783. >She was patient, though.
  784. >"Don't take all day."
  785. >The stallion pushed through a mouthful.
  786. >"Hey! I'm not, I'm just... looking for the right words."
  787. "Struggle with words, too?"
  788. >Wishseeker shook her head.
  789. >"You don't struggle like me. And even though you have an accent, you speak really well."
  790. >She wilted.
  791. >"Or so I've heard."
  792. >That wasn't exactly a similarity between them. But that was because the pony was treading too cautiously.
  793. >She appreciated the compliment, though.
  794. >Reckless snorted a neutral puff of air.
  795. "I struggle. Strong only through war. This strength through struggle, yes?"
  796. >"...Yes?"
  797. >Wishseeker appeared to look to the stallion for help, but he just grinned back.
  798. "How you struggle? Still better when not alone."
  799. >"Well..."
  800. >Reckless traced the nervous movements of the mare with interest.
  801. >It wasn't immediately clear that they had anything in common, but at this point, Reckless was starting to feel out the roots of the wallflower seated before her.
  802. >Yes, there was a shared fertile soil between them. She just had to dig it up, because the pony was far too bashful to do so.
  803. >"You know what, I'm sorry. I-I think I'll—"
  804. "Sit."
  805. >On the warhorse's order, the mare reseated herself.
  806. "I talk, okay? You listen. Think. Answer. Okay?"
  807. >"Yes, Reckless."
  808. >Wishseeker's voice was a scant whisper.
  809. >The stallion by Reckless' side sat up, but the rest of the mess hall continued on. It was as if a bubble had formed, wrapping around and isolating their little triangle from the goings of the world.
  810. >A reserved moment that wasn't quite tranquil, but still consoling.
  811. "Not born for war. Grow into it. But before war, just mare. Flame-of-the-Morning."
  812. >"What do you mean?"
  813. >Wishseeker shrank back.
  814. >"Sorry."
  815. >Reckless smiled; it was an interesting change of pace to be the one telling the story. It was good that the pony was intrigued.
  816. "Was filly, then. Born to race. Always work hard to find place in race. Never quite win. But try and try."
  817. >She paused, breathed.
  818. >It was proving to be quite an effort to string her words and memories into a message that sounded right.
  819. "Then, Marines come. Like Royal Guard, train for war. But Marines were already war. They come for me, bring me to camp. Go from civilian to military. Go from racehorse to warhorse. Hoof camp much shorter than here. Less certain. Fearful. But keep try. Find Marines not so scary. Then, comfort."
  820. >"Comfort?"
  821. "Yes. Grow on marines. Marines grow on me. It is, how you say..."
  822. >The stallion popped in from the side.
  823. >"Friendship?"
  824. "Yes. But stronger. Bond through sweat and blood, day and night. Eat together. Train together. Sleep together. Live together. No moment alone, even when seem alone."
  825. >Reckless looked up at the ceiling. There was no visible sky, but she could still see the stars of the Korean night. Winking distantly, like flickering pilot lights.
  826. "But war still war. Always exist. Day come, carry weapon, ammo. Night come, sometimes keep moving. War last long time, but work last longer. Live many years with Marines."
  827. >She came back down.
  828. "So, I work until work done. Then work until never-end work done. Retire. But always faithful, even to... dying breath. Semper fi."
  829. >"Semper fi."
  830. >Reckless smiled at the stallion briefly.
  831. "Even he learn this. Would not expect growth from stud like so, yes?"
  832. >Wishseeker blushed.
  833. >"I-I guess not."
  834. >The stallion had turned a little red his own self. He didn't reward Reckless with a reply, however.
  835. >"And I... I mean, what you've said? I understand... but still."
  836. "Yes. You not grow overnight. Training take time. Experience."
  837. >The young mare's face soured.
  838. "I no lie. I truth. Once think never be best. Last place in life. But I train. Work. Go beyond duty. Eventually, reward."
  839. >She stopped.
  840. >"But...?"
  841. >Reckless nodded. Once.
  842. "Yes, 'but'. I find real reward in experience. As filly, first find purpose. Then, work, and work. But want to work. Improve. This race, training and training. Only then, win race. Earn first place. My place in /world/."
  843. >The filly had her eyes glued to Reckless as her words came around.
  844. "I become..."
  845. >A mare.
  846. >A mother.
  847. >A marine.
  848. "Reckless."
  849. >She wriggled her lips, tilting her head to look at her meal tray.
  850. "Now, I eat. You eat, too. Or I eat for you. We continue training."
  851. >Reckless dove in, leaving Wishseeker unable to reply.
  852. >It was for her own good: there were more weighty kicks to the gut waiting for them in the day ahead.
  853. >Kicks that were all too literal.
  854. >Wishseeker met the eyes of the stallion. He just grinned.
  855. >"Not too much. You don't want to throw up when the sparring starts."
  856.  
  857. >Reckless was no stranger to conflict.
  858. >From all her allusions so far, it was a little odd that she'd not actually been on the violent, 'giving' side of combat. But it wasn't entirely unbelievable: she'd said it herself that she had played more of a support role in her previous service.
  859. >But as Wishseeker gawked longer and longer at the large mare, the unsettling realization manifested itself.
  860. "You've /never/ fought somepony?"
  861. >Even Wishseeker had gotten into scuffles. Granted, she had a tendency to be a bit of an instigator.
  862. >It was a good thing that Reckless was here to help her in her quest to tone down that side of her.
  863. >So, maybe it wasn't all so bad?
  864. >"No. Never need use hooves. Unless walking."
  865. "I just can't see how that's possible. You're an earth pony."
  866. >"Our weapons not built for pony war. Always range. Across hills and fields."
  867. >She paused, then lowered her voice.
  868. >"Sometimes closer. Same weapons. More violent, then."
  869. >She held a hoof out. The long white-sock traveling upward from her fetlock was dusted in dirt from the training yard. She shook it limply.
  870. >"But never so close."
  871. >Wishseeker had to wonder if it had ever been streaked red.
  872. >Squirming a little, she looked back over at the dueling rings currently in use.
  873. >In hindsight, it was silly to even entertain the possibility that she wouldn't have to /actually/ get physical with her company.
  874. >The battlefield exercise had never come down to hoofticuffs, and neither had their earlier training.
  875. >Today, the captain was on field again. And he summed up the reason for the current day's training in one neat thought.
  876. >"Sometimes, we won't have ground to fallback on. We could break rank. But that's when you have to stand your ground, and fight."
  877. >Distantly, a pony crumpled into the dust. She cried out, and her combatant was quick to drop their armament, and run over.
  878. >One-on-one combat.
  879. >No real weapons. Yet.
  880. >Spears were the staple of the Royal Guard's arsenal, and while Wishseeker certainly felt that it was her strong suit, she wasn't so confident about her effectiveness with it in close-quarters.
  881. >Spear or shortstaff, it didn't matter: they were sticks, and they were meant to be hurled, not couched!
  882. >Yes, she'd done phalanx training alongside her platoon, but that was an entirely different kind of combat: even Reckless was comfortable with defensive formations.
  883. >The prospect of having to fight alone made Wishseeker want to fly away.
  884. >"Wishseeker?"
  885. >She looked back at Reckless. The big eyes on her were filled with concern. And on top of that, she was frowning. Deeply.
  886. >Every day, Reckless changed a little more: not quite a different pony, but a newer pony. A pony who garnered more smiles her way each and every day.
  887. >Wishseeker smiled weakly, but her anxiety stayed.
  888. "I-I'm fine."
  889. >Reckless looked her over, her eyes roaming across the surface of Wishseeker, her body giving off all the signs.
  890. >Wishseeker folded her ears back, but long before that point, she knew Reckless knew.
  891. >"I see fear."
  892. >The younger mare reeled and held back a breath.
  893. >"But fear good. No fear, no motivation. Best motivation. Keep you alive, moving. Trying. No fear? Mistakes... I know too well."
  894. >Reckless took a much longer pause than usual. And then, with painstaking slowness, she spoke.
  895. >"It is okay to be afraid, Wishseeker."
  896. >Each word was a clear concerted effort on Reckless' part. But the mare looked pleased as she settled back, looking out toward the dueling field.
  897. >"Fear make you brave. Very brave. You will do well."
  898. >Wishseeker whispered, though Reckless was no longer close enough to hear.
  899. "I wish."
  900.  
  901. >At this point in training, most of the company's platoons had sorted out how to properly hold their spear. For earth ponies and pegasi, this meant figuring out the most comfortable, yet effective grip. Unicorns had it 'easy', except for the ones who lacked confidence in their telekinesis.
  902. >But regardless, everypony had been trained to physically use a spear.
  903. >It varied from pony to pony: a one foreleg hold was rare, but it tended to manifest in earth ponies; pegasi preferred to keep two hooves on their weapon during combat; and an overwhelming majority of unicorns preferred to keep their spear mounted or 'tucked' into their armor, just like the remaining earth ponies.
  904. >Experimentation and deviation weren't frowned upon, but the officers had required that ponies demonstrate their effectiveness with the weapon.
  905. >Wishseeker could hold a spear comfortably with one hoof, but she liked to keep her spears loose: like a few other scattered pegasi in her platoon, she was confident in the part of her that was always by her side.
  906. >But wings wouldn't do her much good if throwing was banned.
  907. >"No hitting those extremities, that means no horn flicks, no wing tips. And no 'disabling' tricks, like kicking up dirt... at least on purpose. We'll do three rounds. Previous sparring rules apply. Understood?"
  908. "Yes, sir."
  909. >"Yes, sir."
  910. >The lieutenant nodded, and stepped out of the circle.
  911. >"Captain, ring's ready again!"
  912. >Wishseeker's heart was pounding hard. She looked away from the lieutenant, and met the eyes of her opponent.
  913. >A purple shield rose up around them, distanced, and smoothly forming into a dome.
  914. >And then it sealed.
  915. >The unicorn on the opposite end was a young mare, but she was filled out like any normal pony would be. She bore a light smile, and her eyes and withers were relaxed.
  916. >Her armor was clean, unmarred by dirt and dust. This would be her first spar of the day, too.
  917. >With her magic, the opponent lifted up her shortstaff, keeping it just by her side.
  918. >"Don't let me get you too much. I want to take some hits, too!"
  919. >Wishseeker was riding off the confidence of Reckless when she smiled back.
  920. >As per the sparring rules, there'd be no sticks hurled today. But...
  921. "I'll try!"
  922. >The first round began at the whistle.
  923. >Falling on her budding training, Wishseeker took the first round with a defensive stride. The unicorn had to come up close to swing, lest Wishseeker knock the staff out of her concentration.
  924. >Which she did manage several times, much to the unicorn's embarrassment.
  925. >They'd go until one or the other tapped out for the round, another attempt at training endurance. Wishseeker was all too prepared to keep up her side-to-side hops.
  926. >Then, the unicorn seemed to be getting tired.
  927. >Internally, Wishseeker squee'd.
  928. >Then, she earned a sharp thwack to the foreleg.
  929. >The unicorn had ducked right under her guard.
  930. >She collapsed immediately, though the stinging pain followed after a moment.
  931. >The whistle was blown, and the lieutenant's voice came through the shield.
  932. >"Solid defense, but that's not going to be enough. You need to break through their defense, too, not let yourself be broken."
  933. >Standing back up soon enough, Wishseeker was met with the queasy grin of the unicorn.
  934. >"You did good."
  935. >Wishseeker started back to her initial position, frowning.
  936. "I can finish this. Two more rounds."
  937. >Leaving the unicorn without time to respond, she grumbled alone on the opposite side of the dueling circle.
  938. >How was she supposed to take the attack to the unicorn, especially when she matched each move? Staying defensive seemed like the only option.
  939. >Distantly, a whistle blew.
  940. >Wishseeker's eyes went past her opponent, and right through the purple shield. Murky as the figure was through two shields' worth of interference, she could tell from their size and gait just who it was.
  941. >Reckless had entered the ring.
  942. >The whistle for Wishseeker's duel was blown, and she was back in the fight before she could take in the sight.
  943. >Like before, she started out side-stepping the unicorn. It was certainly less effective, as her opponent had learned to better predict where she'd hop next. And increasingly, here movements turned erratic.
  944. >Was she... frustrated?
  945. >Pulling all the way back, Wishseeker nearly hugged the magical wall of the duel.
  946. >She peered out at the unicorn, and sure enough, her jovial muzzle had turned to that of intense focus, and had even earned a frown.
  947. >Wishseeker was going to lose in spades if she didn't figure something out...
  948. >Her eyes caught on the battle raging in the distance: she watched as Reckless steadily... stepped backwards? And what was that in her mouth?
  949. >Wishseeker was stunned when the realization came through: Reckless was using her staff like a sword!
  950. >Blow after blow came from the earth pony ahead of Reckless as they tried their damnedest to jab at her. With remarkably consistent precision, Reckless slid each blow off with a twist of her thick neck, and a swing of her atypical grip.
  951. >It was something no other pony could've pulled off: her unique physique gave her the range of motion she needed.
  952. >Wishseeker looked back to her own fight. The unicorn was prowling around the edge, steadily creeping closer and closer. And the mare said nothing.
  953. >Maybe, Wishseeker just had to think beyond the training. Fight in a way that appealed to her best.
  954. >She went forward again, meeting the unicorn halfway, and their parrying duel resumed.
  955. >All throughout her spree of blocks, Wishseeker's brain fired off.
  956. >The unicorn was unpredictable in her movements, but the one constant measure was that overwhelming offensive.
  957. >Something the unicorn had oversold.
  958. >Wishseeker adopted her improvised counter with a flourish.
  959. >Hopping as before, Wishseeker ducked the incoming strike, and threw the stick from one foreleg to the next.
  960. >She managed to catch it!
  961. >With a beam, Wishseeker sank her off-hoof jab into the exposed side of the unicorn.
  962. >The mare /squeaked/, and scampered backwards.
  963. >She growled.
  964. >Wishseeker swallowed.
  965. >The mare's visage went wayward from the expected frown.
  966. >Instead, she grinned, eyebrows playfully narrowed.
  967. >"You're getting up to speed now, huh? That's not gonna work next time!"
  968. "O-oh yeah? We'll see about that!
  969. >She tossed her staff back to her main foreleg, and the round continued.
  970. >With an ace up her fetlock, she had the unicorn shaken up: normal and sly hits alike were on her deck, and she used them as much as she could. Strike after strike, withering the unicorn down until she'd disarmed her one last time.
  971. >And while Wishseeker did take quite a few more hits, in her eyes, the round was less a pyrrhic victory, and more a total win.
  972. >They returned to their proper places, both mares sweaty, and both starting to really feel the burn.
  973. >But they couldn't rest quite yet; those playful smiles turned back to focus. But that camaraderie still carried on the wind.
  974. >The final round was all that mattered, now.
  975.  
  976. >Feint. Strike. Block. Riposte.
  977. >There were hardly 'combos' in her repertoire, but with how rhythmic the round had been, Wishseeker found it hard to imagine that the ponies watching from the sidelines weren't just watching a martial dance.
  978. >The unicorn and her had been at it for maybe ten minutes now: twice the length the spars had tended to run on to.
  979. >They had maybe a hoofful of actual hits shared between them, but nothing stunning as of yet. Most of it had actually landed on their armor this time.
  980. >However, the extended length of the round did contribute to the burning in Wishseeker's wings and legs.
  981. >She said nothing, but shook her wings in an attempt to wave some life back into them.
  982. >None of the officers had stepped in so far, and nopony expected them to; even though there had been a fair bit of passive squaring-off, the two mares had largely spent their time in contact.
  983. >The unicorn had taken two full jabs from Wishseeker, with a glancing one at the crook of her foreleg: a mistimed block on her part.
  984. >Wishseeker had earned her own wounds from the unicorn's sharp telekinetic twists, and arguably, she was starting to hurt more.
  985. >The unicorn was ever-so slightly at the advantage, and if the match went on any longer, the pegasus would be the one going down in the dirt.
  986. >Circling each other during the longest break in the fight, the question became a matter of who would cave in from fatigue first.
  987. >That is, unless somepony crafted up a new plan.
  988. >Wishseeker's well of inspiration had easily come up on her two rounds, and now seemed trapped in a similar deadlock.
  989. >Reckless was constantly moving up on the earth pony she was up against, having adopted an aggressive overtone as well. But the pony just kept leading the warhorse on.
  990. >Reckless certainly had the stamina to outlast whoever the poor soul was.
  991. >Wishseeker didn't have that luxury.
  992. >Feeling frisky (and a little worried that the match might get called off, and a potential victory tossed away), Wishseeker started back toward the center.
  993. >The unicorn met her with a swift thrust, which she slid off with her own staff.
  994. >"Getting tired?"
  995. "No, you?"
  996. >They were both winded beyond measure.
  997. >In a real situation, this would be their moment of desperation. If that were the case, Wishseeker would hurl her only 'spear' and end it right then and there.
  998. >But this was a simple spar with a comrade.
  999. >Yet one she didn't want to lose.
  1000. >Huffing for breath, the unicorn tried to pull a riposte after a near miss from Wishseeker. Her spear was sufficiently blocked, and slid into the dirt.
  1001. >She stepped backwards, levitating the spear back.
  1002. >Her magic wavered, popping in and out long enough for the mid-air staff to dip.
  1003. >Wishseeker's eyes furrowed. She let her guard loose.
  1004. "Are you alright?"
  1005. >She glanced outside the shield, searching very chiefly for an instructor.
  1006. >And then she /felt/ the telekinesis as the weapon thundered by.
  1007. >The main shaft of the spear swept both of her forelegs, and she cratered forward.
  1008. >The whistle blew.
  1009. >She wound her eyes tighter, and just laid there.
  1010. >The unicorn's voice came from above, as did her hoofsteps
  1011. >"Tired."
  1012. >Wishseeker winked her eyes open, and glared up. She took the offered hoof.
  1013. >On her hooves, her glare was met by a light, and truly exhausted grin.
  1014. "That was a dirty trick."
  1015. >"But all mental."
  1016. >The unicorn tapped the side of her head with a hoof, just as the shield around them fell away.
  1017. >"Nothing personal, but remember, you can't trust everypony out there."
  1018. >Wishseeker already knew that: she was from Fillydelphia, for sun's sake.
  1019. >"Even if they're supposed to be friendlies."
  1020. >With that, the unicorn winked, and turned around.
  1021. >Holding her head high, the battered Wishseeker filed out of the dueling ring alongside her.
  1022. "Still dirty."
  1023. >"My CO said it's meant to feel dirty, because what we fight gets uglier the longer we look at it. And eventually, we all have to fight as dirty as they do. I believe her. After all, what else are we preparing for?"
  1024. >Wishseeker's eyes went up toward the clear Canterlot sky. It was such change from the city she once called home. But it was one she wanted to fight for.
  1025. >In the end, her company-mate was right: the Royal Guard hadn't seen real action beyond keeping Equestria's more feral fauna in check.
  1026. >But quietly, in the backs of newspapers and official reports, the Royal Guard worked to keep evil out of everyday life.
  1027. >In truth, the constant opposition of the Guard were the monsters that looked like ponies, but acted without remorse.
  1028. >Wishseeker knew how horrible those things could get.
  1029. >She paused by Reckless' ring.
  1030. >The whistle was blown, and the shield fell.
  1031. >Bruised and battered, the warhorse stepped out of the circle.
  1032. >And she was looking at her, too.
  1033. >They smiled at each other.
  1034. >This time, Wishseeker approached Reckless without caution.
  1035. >And the good fights went on.
  1036.  
  1037. >It was a rainy day in Canterlot.
  1038. >Just outside the barracks' windows, recruits could be seen galloping out in the mud in packs of two to three.
  1039. >No training was going to take place outdoors, even if it did provide an opportune setting for the company's officers to get a headstart on 'resistance' training.
  1040. >Meanwhile, Wishseeker sat alone.
  1041. >Breakfast was a little longer today, but she didn't want to eat.
  1042. >On a bench to the side of the otherwise empty barracks, she peered out a window, though she wasn't quite watching.
  1043. >There was too much to think about.
  1044. >She'd been isolated for maybe fifteen minutes, mind racing in spite of the day's hazy pace.
  1045. >The door to the barracks opened, and she turned.
  1046. >In the darkened room, a brown, armored figure stepped in.
  1047. "Sergeant...?"
  1048. >The white blaze of Reckless came through the door thereafter.
  1049. "Oh. Hi, Reckless."
  1050. >Reckless crept up at an eased trot, her hooves echoing up and about. They fit in gracefully with the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on glass. Like dew-soaked strings set to play on stage: sharp and vibrant, yet mellow.
  1051. >"I look for you. Breakfast, now. No eat?"
  1052. >The filly looked down.
  1053. "No. I'm not really hungry."
  1054. >Reckless settled onto the ground beside the bench.
  1055. >Wishseeker was sure it would've held her, but then again, it probably wouldn't be the most comfy position for her.
  1056. "Thanks for checking on me, I guess."
  1057. >"Yes."
  1058. >Reckless' armor clinked softly as she shifted, and Wishseeker raised her head.
  1059. >The warhorse was looking out the nearest window.
  1060. >Wishseeker joined her.
  1061. >"You expect other visitor, then?"
  1062. >Actually...
  1063. "Yeah. Sergeant Meadow Blossom. She's kind of... well, like you."
  1064. >Wise beyond her years, confident in every step, willing to inspire.
  1065. >And a big mare.
  1066. "But she hasn't been around for a while."
  1067. >"She leave, not return?"
  1068. "She's with some other group of ponies in Canterlot. But I don't know if they're a part of the company and training, or if she's on active-duty."
  1069. >Wishseeker sighed.
  1070. "She really helped me get through the first couple of weeks. Without her, it's been... harder."
  1071. >Her heart wanted to say 'impossible'.
  1072. >"Why still feel so struggle? You do good. Very good. On battle, on duel. Better than I."
  1073. >Wishseeker snorted, and was surprisingly awarded a light bop to the side. She stared at Reckless as the mare retracted her white-splashed foreleg.
  1074. >"I tell truth. You no have confidence. Chin up!"
  1075. >Reckless pushed Wishseeker's muzzle up with her own, and gave her a stern set of eyes.
  1076. >"Life stable, here. Take advantage of struggle, not make worse. Mistakes easy to see. But easier to correct. No fear your fear, embrace struggle. Build confidence. Then, when harder time come, prepared."
  1077. >Reckless pulled away, but Wishseeker kept her muzzle where it'd been lifted to.
  1078. "Some days, it just feels like..."
  1079. >She searched Reckless' face. Her ears folded back, and she cast her gaze back out to the rain.
  1080. "Like every step forward is just two steps back."
  1081. >For a moment, they just sat there. Together, quietly watching the rain come down.
  1082. >It was a welcome island of peace amid a nigh-ceaseless sea of activity.
  1083. >"Wishseeker."
  1084. >Reckless voice was low.
  1085. "Y-yeah?"
  1086. >"Want share story?"
  1087. "What do you mean?"
  1088. >"Story of journey. How get here. Why you join Guard."
  1089. >Wishseeker shivered. This was the /last/ thing she wanted.
  1090. "Why do you want to know?"
  1091. >"Curious. And maybe see what share."
  1092. >She listed forward, smiling so damn easily.
  1093. >"Was filly once, too."
  1094. >...Then again, this was Reckless she was confiding in.
  1095. >She could trust her, couldn't she?
  1096. "Okay... but promise you won't tell anypony else! Please."
  1097. >"Yes. Secret. I see. Promise."
  1098. >Wishseeker laughed awkwardly, and glanced around one last time. Licking her lips, she settled back on Reckless.
  1099. >The warmth radiating from the warhorse was palpable.
  1100. >Maybe this was what she didn't know she wanted.
  1101. "/Especially/ that stallion. You know who I'm talking about."
  1102. >Reckless nodded eagerly, but said nothing more.
  1103. >Wishseeker closed her eyes, and breathed.
  1104. >She started with a whisper.
  1105. "I ran away from home..."
  1106. >She waited, passing a terse moment. But Reckless said nothing.
  1107. >Wishseeker rose again, eyes open, ears alert for the slightest hint of speech from her sole listener.
  1108. "I love Fillydelphia. But I just couldn't stay."
  1109. >She slid forward just a tad, wiggling along the bench.
  1110. "No matter what I did there, I always ended up just making trouble. Nopony ever told me that to my face, but I know that's how they felt. I'd always have a scene in my head, and it usually went... badly. So I kept everypony away from me."
  1111. >She sighed deeply.
  1112. "My mum and da, I don't know how they felt. I don't think they were happy with me at all. They didn't try to force me to talk to them, but they also didn't try to stop me from leaving."
  1113. >Her withers sagged, and the wings by her side seemed to reach out below.
  1114. "I left because I wanted to find a place where I fit in. But a blank flank like me isn't somepony anypony wants to hang around. I just feel like a charity case getting passed on from one pony to the next."
  1115. >Still, Reckless was silent.
  1116. >Wishseeker carried on, now far too along to stop.
  1117. "So I signed on for the Royal Guard. Lied about my age. Nopony tried to stop me there, either. And then, Captain Shining Armor approached me. And he knew that I was hiding a lot about my real identity. After that... he had me write a letter to my parents. Told me to explain everything I'd done to them. To confess."
  1118. >Wishseeker's eyes watered.
  1119. "A-and so, I did. I felt like I'd ruined my future even more. Beyond repair."
  1120. >A shaky breath splashed against the cold barrack air.
  1121. "When I was done, he took the letter, read it to himself, and placed it in his desk. Then he took out a blank scroll, and told me that he 'knew what to tell them'. And dismissed me."
  1122. "He could have pushed me away or sent me home. But he took me in, and gave me a chance. A chance to prove I had a place in Equestria. A place in the Royal Guard."
  1123. >She scanned Reckless' face for an answer. All she received was a flat-lipped muzzle, aligned with the backdrop of pouring rain.
  1124. "Why do you think he did that for me?"
  1125. >Reckless raised her head, finally moving for the first time since Wishseeker had started talking.
  1126. >Her eyes didn't leave Wishseeker, and she slid to a slow halt, muzzle tilted upward.
  1127. >"Because he see soldier who need help."
  1128. >"When I come, very lost. Big city. No horses. No marines. No family. Yet, look up, see only peace. Good life, no war. Feel home again, but still alone."
  1129. >Reckless shifted from one haunch to the next. Her eyes softened under the touch of memory.
  1130. >"Trot down streets. Ponies move like river, leave trench between us. But I keep trot, never stop move. Fear and doubt stay, but I bury. Persevere."
  1131. >"I think maybe scare pony. Royal Guard come. Like military police. Was in... how you say, park. Alone. Roll in grass, much sweeter and softer than all meadow before. Stand and meet guards. They ask 'come with'. I follow one, one follow me."
  1132. >Reckless breathed in, then let her eyelids shut, totally relaxed.
  1133. >"I step into castle. Hard to believe eyes. I see those like me, soldiers. But ponies, armored, armed. Feel uneasy. Think, 'how can horse live without man', and think 'maybe they take me see man in charge'."
  1134. >She opened her eyes again.
  1135. >"Instead, 'dungeon'. Not prisoner of war, but they say have question. I not speak well now. But speak worse, then. I talk, but not like pony... or man. Body move, make sound, no word. It... captain say 'primal'. Understand word, but not know how use."
  1136. >"He enter. Give me own tent, 'quarters' you call. Take many day. He use pony toy, picture, try speak 'primal', ask question. I move, respond. We continue, over and over. Then, he leave, come back with other pony. Pony, but not soldier. She help. Time pass, learn tongue. Still learning."
  1137. >"Some months, then enter training. First time speak to pony beyond captain, 'linguist', princess. Learn much here. Want learn more."
  1138. >Reckless paused.
  1139. >"Felt trapped as racehorse. Endless race. War give purpose. Was lost without Marines. Royal Guard give purpose back."
  1140. >Satisfied, she finished with a single nod.
  1141. >"As say, still not know all. Try and try. Work to victory."
  1142. >Wishseeker felt a stirring in her barrel; her heart slowed, and strained against her, pumping slowly in-between the beats of ever-present rainfall.
  1143. "But that's going to take a long time."
  1144. >"Yes. Life. Long travel. I do it once before. Ready go again."
  1145. "Why? Why even try?"
  1146. >Wishseeker frowned. Why /did/ she even try?
  1147. >In response, Reckless put on a small smile.
  1148. >"Maybe want belong. Place... to call home. Place call safe."
  1149. >She gave a neutral snort.
  1150. >"Maybe think different, but want same path. I want serve. Loyal... as you pony say, for Equestria."
  1151. >But was that really all there was to her life? Wishseeker could hardly imagine herself as a guardsmare all the way down the line.
  1152. >But for now, this was her best, and most comfortable option so far.
  1153. >"Future uncertain always. But make best until time come for reward. Me? Peace. You?"
  1154. >Reckless stopped to roam Wishseeker with hard eyes, and laser-like precision.
  1155. >"I am warhorse. Always will. You are filly... future-in-making. Path unclear. But not bad thing."
  1156. "Blank flanks like me don't have a purpose. I was supposed to get my cutie mark years ago."
  1157. >"But you still choose path. Come here, you say. Like me, captain see you, see fit, see purpose. Give chance. And you serve well."
  1158. "But what if this isn't what I'm meant to do?"
  1159. >"You think yes?"
  1160. >This was the closest she'd felt to belonging anywhere. She'd be lying if she agreed, even the tiniest degree: the only doubt about was her own.
  1161. "...No."
  1162. >"Then no problem. No try fix. Keep work, okay? You make it."
  1163. >Reckless stood, and Wishseeker found herself following.
  1164. >"Now, you want know more, yes?"
  1165. >At this point, Wishseeker was willing to take whatever advice Reckless offered.
  1166. "Anything."
  1167. >A nefarious twinkle in Reckless' eye lifted the moody darkness from around them.
  1168. >The warhorse twirled in place, aiming back to the barracks' entrance as she spoke.
  1169. >"Come. Enough discipline, for both us. I show you fun."
  1170. >The pegasus glanced back at the pouring rain outside, then continued in Reckless' wake.
  1171. "I know how to have fun, Reckless."
  1172. >"Not pony fun. Warhorse fun."
  1173. "...Does it involve breaking the rules?"
  1174. >Reckless had to stop mid-stride. Her deep thought occupied a good second.
  1175. >"No men... hm. I say... no!"
  1176. >When Reckless turned back around to face Wishseeker, her muzzle was plastered with the biggest grin in all of hoof camp.
  1177. >"I teach you how make stallion give attention."
  1178.  
  1179.  
  1180.  
  1181. >The day seemed set to be a quiet one.
  1182. >On the agenda, a loose plan of additional armor and arsenal maintenance made up the day's training.
  1183. >But from the word passed around, there was a surprisingly large amount of recreation time laid out.
  1184. >Breakfast being longer than usual seemed on track to be more than just a trick to get your guard down.
  1185. >For the moment, you were stood to one side of the mess hall. You were currently in the middle of a fierce conversation between two other recruits, both vehemently arguing whether or not the combined barracks of stallions and mares was as innocent as it seemed.
  1186. >You'd fanned the flames, and they were only fueling it further in their fervor. You certainly didn't have as big a stake in the argument as they did.
  1187. >For one thing, you didn't have any active complaints about your current state of living. In fact, you were enjoying your time with the mares here so far.
  1188. >Nothing was hampered by their presence, and you figured that, even if the quarters were separate, you would've been working with them anyway.
  1189. >When you moved up and on to active-duty in the Royal Guard, you expected to see less of that: proper segregation would come in time. What reason was there to not enjoy the company while you could?
  1190. >And hey, it wasn't like anypony had been getting touchy-feely... at least, not to the extent that the officers felt they needed to step in.
  1191. >It definitely helped that most 'guard courtship' happened behind more secluded doors.
  1192. >On that front, these two were entirely out of the loop.
  1193. >It wasn't like they had much of a chance at catching the hints, anyway.
  1194. >"But what if he does?"
  1195. >"If the lieutenant wanted a harem, wouldn't he want only mares?"
  1196. >"Okay... but maybe his barn door swings both ways?"
  1197. "You wish."
  1198. >"What? No!"
  1199. >His buddy laughed.
  1200. >"Yeah, you totally do!"
  1201. >With your two bits thrown in, you stepped back out, and let the fireworks roar on.
  1202. >And as you moved physically, you bumped into somepony.
  1203. "Sorry—"
  1204. >You froze mid-turn as something weighty laid itself across your withers, and brushed through your mane.
  1205. >Something burgeoning with muscle, and warmth.
  1206. >A heavy breath drifted past you.
  1207. "R-Reckless?"
  1208. >Without moving your head, you tried to peer back.
  1209. >You were met with the side-muzzle of the warhorse.
  1210. >The conversation ahead of you had come to an abrupt halt. You could feel their stares as Reckless rested her weight on you.
  1211. "Uh..."
  1212. >You squirmed a little.
  1213. >Still, she said nothing.
  1214. >Big. Mare.
  1215. >On. You.
  1216. >Your heart skipped a beat, but you kept it together.
  1217. "What are you... doing?"
  1218. >She grunted, and the sound bounced right through you, down to your bones.
  1219. >"Hey, uh... Reckless! That's your name, right?"
  1220. >The warhorse nodded, taking your head along for the ride.
  1221. >You furrowed your brow at one of the previously conversing stallions as he spoke right past you.
  1222. >"What's a stallion gotta do to get with a mare like you?"
  1223. >His friend thwacked him in the nape. And hard, too.
  1224. >"Ow! Hey! I'm just askin'..."
  1225. "Nothing's happening here."
  1226. >You kept telling yourself that, even as you felt the warhorse's weight compacting you further.
  1227. "Reckless is just being... Reckless."
  1228. >"So what's this, then? Some kind of team-building ex-ermer-cise?"
  1229. >Her muscled neck and throat were draped all over your back and withers.
  1230. >From what you could see in the corner of your eye, there was hardly even a slip of a smile cracking through her visage.
  1231. >Whatever this mare had planned to put into action, she was surely finding success.
  1232. "It's some kind of test, alright."
  1233. >The stallion seemed more than prepared to add to your response, but he stopped in his tracks, opting instead to just take in your standing circumstance.
  1234. >Luckily, you were a bit of a mind-reader.
  1235. >It was too bad the situation didn't necessitate it, but you invoked the words he was thinking.
  1236. "Reckless, you're pretty damn heavy."
  1237. >She puffed with the weight of an anvil.
  1238. >You sank into the floor a little more.
  1239. "Oh, yeah. /Much/ better."
  1240. >You weren't groaning. That was just your bones.
  1241. >How could a pony be this weighty? She was wearing everything but her extra large helmet, and if she'd had that on, you would have keeled over right then and there.
  1242. >No doubt, you'd have been extra sore today if you'd gone up against her on sparring day.
  1243. >As it was now, however, she was beginning to wear you out.
  1244. >"...You two do this often?"
  1245. >You blinked, and strained your eyes to focus on the pair ahead.
  1246. "Huh? No, why would you think that?"
  1247. >"Well it's just... you're not trying to shake her or anything."
  1248. >Oh. Right. You could totally squeeze your way out of this. Or, you could just ask the big mare herself...
  1249. "Reckless, there a reason why you're trying to compress me?"
  1250. >As expected, no reply.
  1251. >Not even a speck of movement.
  1252. "Fine, have it your way."
  1253. >Grunting, you coaxed a hoof forward.
  1254. >Reckless came with as you dragged yourself.
  1255. >Before you knew it, a small crowd had formed in the mess hall, and those still eating were visibly paying attention.
  1256. >Evidently, Reckless had sought to start up this grappling neck-grip dance to put you in the spotlight: you paraded around the edges of the hall while you stepped and swayed as quasi-violently as you could.
  1257. >You weren't entirely sure what the point was, but you could play along with her game.
  1258. >She chased each step with her own, and kept her head curled while you did your damndest to throw her off rhythm.
  1259. >You were putting on a real show. You 'bucked' at the mare curled over you, and almost-guard passerby watched on.
  1260. >There was some laughter, but you weren't embarrassed in the slightest.
  1261. >In fact, you found yourself smiling as you tried to lose her.
  1262. >Reckless dutifully maintained her position on top of you the whole time.
  1263. >Huffing to a stop a few minutes later, you relented in your efforts.
  1264. >You raised a foreleg and tapped backwards against one of her own.
  1265. "Alright, alright, I give. You're the big mare."
  1266. >She snorted.
  1267. >"Who in charge?"
  1268. >You rolled your eyes at the 'headmare' and her question.
  1269. "You're in charge, Reckless."
  1270. >A light rumble of mirth bounced through her throat, which was still firmly in place against your neck.
  1271. >"I in charge, here."
  1272. >And as she slid from your back, she dragged her teeth against you.
  1273. >Standing at the center of attention, you shuddered from the feeling, much to the joy of those watching.
  1274. >You gave Reckless a look, and she met it in full.
  1275. >You raised a hoof.
  1276. "You..."
  1277. >And quickly booped her.
  1278. "Are a silly pony."
  1279. >The hall went silent.
  1280. >Reckless stared at you for a long moment. Long enough that you almost felt like there was anger brewing in her flat stare.
  1281. >Then, she started a slow nod, and it quickly ramped up into a full nod and smile.
  1282. >"Yes, Recruit. We have fun."
  1283. >She raised her own hoof, and you braced yourself.
  1284. >She booped you right back, and with a thankfully low level of force.
  1285. >As the mess hall roared back to its pre-dance cacophony, you were left to your stand-off.
  1286. >She looked at you.
  1287. >You looked at her.
  1288. >"Wishseeker, see how he focus?"
  1289. >You blinked; you hadn't even heard the hoofsteps coming.
  1290. >A giggle accompanied the latest mare on the scene.
  1291. >"Yeah."
  1292. >Reckless' smile somehow managed to turn even prouder as the Wishseeker came to stand in her silhouette.
  1293. >"That how get stallion attention."
  1294. >You shook a limp hoof at her.
  1295. "Well, you've got me. Now, what's the next step of your master plan?"
  1296. >Reckless made no move.
  1297. >You shook your head, then wandered over to a nearby wall to rest against it. The mares followed up, leaving the three of you to the side of the open hall.
  1298. >"That /was/ pretty fun, Reckless, but I don't know if it would work for me."
  1299. >Wishseeker aimed her smile your way. You rolled your eyes, much to her amusement.
  1300. >"Only need make stallion carry. Always on him. Always in head."
  1301. >"But doesn't it make you feel... y'know..."
  1302. >Wishseeker stopped to finish with a sigh.
  1303. >"Nevermind."
  1304. >Reckless lightly bumped her, and the pegasus lit up again.
  1305. "Seems like you two are getting along just fine."
  1306. >"Wishseeker? Yes. Interest in me. Good listening, like you."
  1307. >You blinked. That felt out of the blue.
  1308. "...Thanks?"
  1309. >"And she good mare. You need be nice, Recruit."
  1310. >And there went the underhoofed comment.
  1311. "Hey, now. I am."
  1312. >"Truth?"
  1313. "Yes, Reckless, I'm nice to her."
  1314. >Was it just you, or was she getting a little bit of a sass-streak going?
  1315. >As Wishseeker laughed again, you turned to her.
  1316. "After all, I'm the one who sent her your way."
  1317. >Reckless, too, faced Wishseeker. The pegasus in question blushed a ripe tomato red. Her laughter died down.
  1318. >"W-well, what can I say? Reckless is... the big mare."
  1319. "I hope that isn't going to catch on. That's not a good look for you, Reckless."
  1320. >"Big mares lead charge."
  1321. >Fair enough: you conceded the point to her on that one. She even had historical precedence to back her up.
  1322. >"What's wrong with being a big mare?"
  1323. >Wishseeker paused.
  1324. >"I'm asking because I wouldn't know."
  1325. >Surprisingly, Reckless beat you in the race to answer (even though you had another well-constructed and perfect piece of satire in mind).
  1326. >"Marine rely on me. I rely on marine. From what see, pony group under big pony. Like 'princess'. Princess need Royal Guard. Royal Guard need princess."
  1327. >And well, she wasn't really wrong, was she?
  1328. "That's... kind of thoughtful."
  1329. >Wishseeker gave you a look. You shrugged back.
  1330. >"Maybe no. But I say what see."
  1331. "No, you're right. I'm just playing with you."
  1332. >"Yeah. Big ponies rule. Literally!"
  1333. >Wishseeker beamed up at Reckless, wriggling her wings across the top of her armor.
  1334. >How did she even get those wings through the slots?
  1335. "Yeah, well, size isn't everything. It's all about what's going on up here."
  1336. >You rapped a hoof against your head.
  1337. >"Of course you'd think size doesn't matter..."
  1338. "What?"
  1339. >You blinked at the pegasus, but she just cleared her throat (and blush), and moved on.
  1340. >"A-anyways, yes, I /have/ enjoyed my time with her, thank you very much."
  1341. "...You know, she's right there. You should be thanking her, not me."
  1342. >She smiled sheepishly.
  1343. >"I guess I just kind of feel like I've talked her ears off."
  1344. "I get it. Mare-to-mare conversations. All the rage."
  1345. >You nodded at Reckless.
  1346. "I'm glad you're talking more. You're gonna need to look good under the spotlight when they put you through for promotions. You'll be leading a platoon someday, I'm sure."
  1347. >She snorted, peeling back on her smile just a tad.
  1348. >"Think too much about charge. Not try take role. Just soldier, guard like you. No more."
  1349. "You know damn well you've got more under your tail than what you're flashing."
  1350. >You gave Wishseeker a glance.
  1351. "Little Seeker here might be the youngest of the lot, but not everypony, and that includes me, is as built for this as you are."
  1352. >"Why care? You think you not good leader?"
  1353. >You shifted your eyes back to Reckless.
  1354. "At the end of the day, I just want smooth sailing. And it takes a good leader to keep everypony safe, sound, and sane. And I wasn't born to lead."
  1355. >She muttered something in her non-Equestrian language again.
  1356. >You narrowed your eyes at her.
  1357. "I thought you said you had to learn how to speak?"
  1358. >Reckless' ears twitched and she gave you an odd look.
  1359. "Hey, your words, not mine."
  1360. >It took her a moment before she continued.
  1361. >"Not know how move mouth for talk. Learn shape, details."
  1362. >She put out a guttural groan.
  1363. >"It much work. But can think with word now, not thought. Much better."
  1364. >Wishseeker piped in.
  1365. >"What even is that language? I've never heard it before."
  1366. >Both of you stared at the warhorse intently.
  1367. >"Korean? No pony speak. Good for thought."
  1368. >You laughed broadly.
  1369. "And good for keeping secrets, huh?"
  1370. >She smiled, but then stopped: abruptly, and completely.
  1371. >"I did not tell you how I learn speak."
  1372. >"Wait... yeah. We were just talking about that earlier, weren't we?"
  1373. >Now, Reckless gave you her menacing brows.
  1374. >"Yes. See now we not alone, then."
  1375. >Shit.
  1376. >You stood up straight again, though now your back was to the wall.
  1377. "If you're thinking what I'm thinking, that's not true. I was with the colts in here talking about the living situation. Y'know, the shared barracks?"
  1378. >"That /you/ were taking advantage of?"
  1379. >Great. Now Wishseeker was taking on an accusatory tone.
  1380. >So what if you were eavesdropping on two mares pouring their hearts out? You were built for prying out secrets! It was too tasty an opportunity to resist.
  1381. >You weren't going to tell them that, though.
  1382. >"How much did you hear?"
  1383. >You were more than ready to continue your charade, but a quick look at Reckless had you feeling she was ready to show real aggression.
  1384. >"No like carry soldier."
  1385. >Yup. Abort the operation.
  1386. "...Everything up to the point where you went to leave."
  1387. >"E-everything?"
  1388. "Relax, Seeker. I'm not going to tell anypony. What's a little secret between friends, yeah?"
  1389. >"You mean 'secrets'."
  1390. >Wishseeker shared a look with Reckless, and they both gave a simultaneous, and full nod.
  1391. >Wishseeker added an extra little huff.
  1392. >"/Our/ secrets."
  1393. >She frowned at you, and her little sparks of snark fizzled away.
  1394. >"Why were you spying, anyway? I... I wouldn't have minded if you joined us."
  1395. >You breathed slowly.
  1396. "You know... I don't exactly know what I was thinking. I just wanted to give you both some space. But you're both just... such characters. And I wanted to hear your stories."
  1397. >As best you could, you dragged a finisher out from your cold, dead heart.
  1398. "I'm sorry. Seriously. I bucked up."
  1399. >In the background, the clamor of the mess hall was starting to wind down.
  1400. >It was about time to go.
  1401. >And not a moment too soon.
  1402. >Reckless shook her head, and turned away.
  1403. >"Okay."
  1404. >"Wait, you're just going to drop it?"
  1405. >"I not try understand stallion."
  1406. >She gave you a bit of side-eye. You bowed your head apologetically, and that certainly cooled her somewhat.
  1407. >"Better apology in future. Now, work."
  1408. >She tossed her head, and stomped her hoof.
  1409. >"Come, Wishseeker."
  1410. >The filly wordlessly moved closer to Reckless' right side, her eyes trained on you until the warhorse's body blocked her view.
  1411. >"Recruit, you too."
  1412. "Yes, ma'am."
  1413. >Joining up on Reckless' left, you squashed the pain grazing your back.
  1414. >She might've been heavy, but there was plenty of warmth emanating from her, perfect for the rainy day.
  1415. >You'd learned enough about her for now. It was probably time for you to loosen up on your approach.
  1416. >Hopefully you'd find a chance to bring the mood back up, and at the least, she was giving you the time to change.
  1417.  
  1418. >Reckless wheeled around the corner with a bright pegasus and stubborn stallion in tow.
  1419. >Ahead and behind them, the other recruits from the training company as a whole were on the same path. She hadn't exactly heard any orders, but ponies tended to herd up when somepony was leading. Reckless just didn't know who.
  1420. >Coming to the end of their journey through the corridors, the company roosted themselves in a wide room.
  1421. >It reminded Reckless of the building her retirement ceremony had been held in: decorated at no small expense.
  1422. >As they came in from the side of the chamber, the most chief feature was that of the rows of flat pews staircased up the one wall.
  1423. >Ponies flocked to and ascended the stairways: they were quick to find seating.
  1424. >There were just a few too many ponies for all of them to fit, though. Reckless stood solemnly at the end of one staircase as ponies came up.
  1425. >Shy smiles and acknowledging nods came her way as she stood her post.
  1426. >A little ways off, but still too far to speak privately, Wishseeker settled in.
  1427. >Reckless had unfortunately lost sight of her stubborn stallion, but she would find him later.
  1428. >The castle walls were thick with mortar and stone, but they still struggled to contain the sound of pouring rain as the grand auditorium fell still.
  1429. >From the pool of officers below, the captain stepped out. Reckless was surprised at his sudden appearance, and she wasn't alone.
  1430. >He stepped out to the center of the floor, alone, and with all eyes on him.
  1431. >His horn glowed, and he opened his mouth.
  1432. >"Recruits."
  1433. >Captain Shining Armor's voice rebounded across the filled hall, the magic causing his voice to echo in spite of the cramped atmosphere.
  1434. >"What I'm about to say is of vital importance. It regards your future in the Royal Guard."
  1435. >The silence of the assembled company somehow grew even quieter.
  1436. >"As I said a few weeks ago, after your graduation to active service, I will not be overseeing any further training on the garrison level. You are still set to be the last company under my supervision, but there will be one major change."
  1437. >His serious look carried a glint of light. He nodded firmly, raising his voice a tad as he carried on.
  1438. >"As you continue into the final half of your training, you will be given time to learn everything about your first post in the Royal Guard. Effective at dawn tomorrow, your respective platoon leads will have transferred their authority and responsibility for your training to garrison leads in active service."
  1439. >"This mixed on-duty and in-training program is something of a departure from previous companies. Those of you with family in current or prior service may find this a strange change. But rest assured with the knowledge that Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are keen on making this happen for good reason."
  1440. >"As for today's training, you will be taking a tour along your patrol path. This will be the same path you run tomorrow."
  1441. >Shining put on an easy smile.
  1442. >"But as far as everything else goes, nothing more will change. You will still eat, sleep, and train in the same place, though there will be some time for you to get to learn the layout of the upper-castle levels."
  1443. >"That's all from me. The lieutenant will be taking the floor now. Any questions about these changed are to be directed to him."
  1444. >The captain's magic came down, and with a nod to the lieutenant of Reckless' platoon, he trot to the side.
  1445. >The lieutenant didn't have the same spell that Shining Armor had cast, but even then, his voice wouldn't have been enough to overpower Reckless' thoughts.
  1446. >All the warhorse could think about was the fact she was about to enter active service again.
  1447. >If the trade-off of being young and alive for the second time in her existence meant serving another decade, then she would take it.
  1448. >A thought passed her, and she felt her heart swell with excitement.
  1449. >If there was a place for her here in a military outfit comprised of equines, she could only imagine what retirement awaited her in this next life.
  1450. >At the top of the staircase, her stoic visage broke just a little more.
  1451.  
  1452. "I can't believe they put us on the same patrol!"
  1453. >Well, maybe a part of her could believe.
  1454. >Still, the rainy day was looking bright again.
  1455. >Wishseeker tried to still her aching wings as they sprung up and down with excitement.
  1456. >And how could she not be excited? Her new big and bold friend was going to have her back!
  1457. >She didn't even remember what it was like to be so afraid on her first day: she'd worried about leaving training for almost every single day.
  1458. >Beside her at an even gait, Reckless bobbed her head affirmatively.
  1459. >"Yes. I happy work with you, too."
  1460. >Reckless really was everything in one package.
  1461. >"Stallion not with. Maybe for best."
  1462. >Wishseeker cocked her head. It didn't seem right for Reckless to be mad at him.
  1463. >Hay, the pegasus had already put the earlier situation out of her mind.
  1464. "What do you mean?"
  1465. >"He avoid me. Try look for after lieutenant finish. Gone."
  1466. "Maybe he joined with his patrol as soon as he could."
  1467. >"No. Can tell... hiding. Not sure if scare or no."
  1468. >Her muzzle cracked into the faintest frown.
  1469. >"I worry."
  1470. >Wishseeker snorted, and threw a look Reckless' way.
  1471. "He'll be fine. If you ask me, he's no better than a colt."
  1472. >"I not understand."
  1473. >The teenager stuck her tongue out, and made a face, before continuing.
  1474. "You know. Rowdy, stubborn, just a total pain in the plot?"
  1475. >She couldn't help but feel just a little bit hypocritical...
  1476. >But she was also right. The mare science said so.
  1477. >In response to the cold facts, Reckless hummed.
  1478. >"I see... I see stallion different."
  1479. "Huh?"
  1480. >Reckless shook her head.
  1481. >"Need think. Stallion different, think different. War not pretty, but he show interest. Interest in war, history, he respect tradition."
  1482. >Reckless muttered in 'Korean' (Wishseeker couldn't be sure if it was Korean, it could have been Griffonwhatsit for all she knew), before ending with a faint sigh.
  1483. >"Semper fi. Come, Wishseeker. Lieutenant say this way."
  1484. "Okay."
  1485. >She cleared her throat, and fidgeted nervously with her wings.
  1486. "S-semper fi. That's how you use it? Right?"
  1487. >Reckless nodded eagerly.
  1488. >"Yes. Good. And he will come back. I ready for him... then."
  1489. >With the way Reckless sank back into her flat tone, Wishseeker was /very/ happy to be the mare by her side.
  1490. "I hope I'll be ready, too."
  1491. >With a light, silent nudge from Reckless, Wishseeker felt her spirit uprighted once more.
  1492. >It was good to have a dependable earth pony to keep her pegasus-self on the ground.
  1493. >The pair ascended the final stairwell, meeting with their other patrol members from the training platoon.
  1494. >A vast plethora of new ponies were stood before them, though.
  1495. >Not just any ponies, but real, honest, veteran guardsponies.
  1496. >Wishseeker could tell from the colorful plumage on their helmets.
  1497. "Huh."
  1498. >Wow, she could actually think that with confidence! It looked like the training was working out.
  1499. >Reckless adjusted her helmet, and although it was unplumed, and not quite the same golden shine of the Old Guard, she was certainly quite the sight.
  1500. >Respect was thrown all about in a not-so-orderly fashion, and Wishseeker couldn't help but join in the laughter on both sides.
  1501. >The leading guardsmare of the Old Guard nodded firmly.
  1502. >"Welcome to the Guard, recruits. And welcome to The Wall."
  1503.  
  1504. >The Wall was a locked-tight sector, which would come as a surprise to any casual observer after seeing how loose the ponies here were.
  1505. >Located at the end of the rising slopes of the inner ramparts, the battlements protecting Canterlot Castle's rear were fitted with turrets and a patrol so thick that even a frontal siege was more tempting.
  1506. >It helped that the Canterhorn mountainside was only one half of what made it The Wall.
  1507. >Descending almost a full gallop down, the battlements very nearly extended to the underbelly of Canterlot's supports.
  1508. >Wishseeker wasn't slow by any means, but with just a look at the sheer drop over the edge of The Wall, she could tell it was almost a full minute of ascent.
  1509. >And that was without the added time of climbing alongside the mountain.
  1510. >Even now, with only a flock of pegasi performing some kind of maintenance on The Wall, it was evident that any reasonably trained guard would have plenty of opportunities to land a spear.
  1511. >The natural terrain was so dangerous and impractical for an offensive that it seemed unreasonable for there to be so much emphasis on the defenses employed here. Surely nopony would try and storm the castle from The Wall.
  1512. >But this was the only part of the castle where siege emplacements practiced daily operations. The only place where they were visible to non-castle members. The place where nopony but guards were meant to be.
  1513. >Wishseeker's wings shook... and she felt giddy.
  1514. >Tearing her gaze away from the ballista peeking over the edge of the nearby battletower, Wishseeker looked over at Reckless.
  1515. "Why do you think they keep the ballistas and catapults up?"
  1516. >Reckless was staring out at the northern lands beyond, locked in thought.
  1517. >A river stretched between the trees below, snaking out into the plains nestled further past the horizon.
  1518. >It was a beautiful sight, though the lingering dark cloudscape of rainfall diminished it somewhat.
  1519. >Regardless of her deep thought and intake of the fertile lands placed before them, Reckless heard and answered Wishseeker's curiosity.
  1520. >"Maybe big enemy. Armor. Maybe for smaller, overwhelming enemy. Hard say."
  1521. >Reckless paused, then lifted a hoof. She squinted, with one eye shut tight, and lined up on some arbitrary point in the sky.
  1522. >Suddenly, she vigorously shook her hoof.
  1523. >"F'sh!"
  1524. >She wove circles into the air, until two seconds later: her spiraling hoof shot upward.
  1525. >A mixed sound of epic proportions left her mouth: it was like a cross between a boulder being thrown off a waterfall, and a unicorn's spell gone terribly, terribly wrong.
  1526. >"Boom!"
  1527. >With her explosive exclamation violently expunged, the warhorse smiled.
  1528. >She made a pleased grunt as she lowered her hoof all the way back down.
  1529. "...Are you okay?"
  1530. >"Yes. Just... remember."
  1531. >Her voice faltered.
  1532. >"Ballista not quite rifle."
  1533. "What's a rifle?"
  1534. >Reckless looked at Wishseeker.
  1535. >"Weapon they name me after. M20. Recoilless Rifle."
  1536. "Y-you're named after a weapon?"
  1537. >Wait, and...
  1538. "I thought your name was Morning Flame?"
  1539. >A corporal of the Old Guard came sliding out the door of one of the towers placed along The Wall.
  1540. >Internally, Wishseeker cursed her rotten luck. She wanted to spend even more of the day getting to know Reckless, but she just couldn't catch a break.
  1541. >Reckless looked back at the approaching corporal, but turned around one last time to address Wishseeker.
  1542. >She spoke softly.
  1543. >"Maybe one day, earn old name. But while work undone, just Reckless."
  1544. >As the warhorse turned to greet the guard, Wishseeker fell back into her own thoughts.
  1545. >The mare really had been telling the truth.
  1546. >Reckless never was just a nickname.
  1547. >She was who she was.
  1548. >The younger mare's eyes flickered to the north. The vast reaches of Equestria peered back at her. The place she called home.
  1549. >And now, the place Reckless called home.
  1550. >Wishseeker wished for the chance to be half the warhorse Reckless appeared to be.
  1551.  
  1552. >The battletowers each had their own arsenal component to complement their siege weapons.
  1553. >A system of ropes and pulleys were used to raise and lower munitions between the three levels: the bottom floor was the main munitions stockpile, and included pieces of assembly to repair and setup ballistas or catapults, depending on the tower; the floor above that had a few boxes containing standard supplies an armed Royal Guard might carry; and the top floor was, of course, where the battletower's primary armament resided.
  1554. >Stony stairs wrapped up and around the inside walls, allowing ponies unfettered access, without the need of the central gantry.
  1555. >In a pinch, Wishseeker could see that a pegasus would be able to slip through the holes between the wooden and stone floors.
  1556. >Opening the top trapdoor would be a struggle from below, though.
  1557. >Left to mostly their own devices again (there were guards outside and at the top of the tower), the two silently worked.
  1558. "How much can go wrong with a piece of wood, anyway?"
  1559. >Reckless looked up, hauling what was likely to be yet another non-defective ballista bolt. It was probably in the range of the fourty-eigth they'd checked.
  1560. >"Rot always problem. It like hoof, rot or splinter? Bad. Not best when in fight. Or flight."
  1561. "But still..."
  1562. >Wishseeker placed the pristine bolt to the side, and slid Reckless another to check.
  1563. >"Can be worse. Ballista not hangfire. No explode in hoof."
  1564. >Wishseeker swallowed thickly. Her mouth went parched.
  1565. "Y-you're talking about your rifle, aren't you?"
  1566. >"No. Other rifle, too."
  1567. >She smiled.
  1568. >"M20 always well when I around. Take time to trust, but rifle, ammo, they take time trust me, too."
  1569. "So, you... um, /exploded/ ponies with rifles?"
  1570. >"I not shoot. Only bring ammo."
  1571. >She paused, stopping at the center of the room, surrounded by what seemed like all the ordinance in the world.
  1572. >"But ballista? Catapult? They not kill like rifle. Explode in different way. Not so different from rifle. More... primal."
  1573. >Wishseeker twitched at the word 'kill'. It was easy to forget just how different a life Reckless had lived.
  1574. >The warhorse thunked down the next bolt, and looked thoughtfully at their growing stores. She didn't go back for another.
  1575. "I don't understand. Explosions... unicorns cause them when they cast complicated spells, or mess them up. Wouldn't you hurt yourself?"
  1576. >"Rifle is dangerous. Weapon of man. No match. But they learn how make safe for hold. Use. Like lightning in hoof. Not careful, will kill you."
  1577. "So why do you use it?"
  1578. >Reckless looked at Wishseeker. A frown ever-so slightly tinged her muzzle.
  1579. >"Kill them before they kill us."
  1580. "But do you want to... y'know..."
  1581. >The warhorse waited.
  1582. "K-kill them?"
  1583. >Reckless breathed, her nostrils flaring.
  1584. >"Maybe one time, think no. But life simpler when war over. Whatever it take to end war. And when rifle shot well, it kill quick."
  1585. "But there's no war here."
  1586. >She looked away.
  1587. >"That why I worry."
  1588. "Why would that worry you?"
  1589. >By now, Reckless had stopped completely: she made no effort to return to her work.
  1590. >Her eyes roamed the floorboards, searching for something which had no form.
  1591. >"Too quiet here. Peaceful. No man, but Guard exist. Armed force, not just police. Training for war."
  1592. "Yeah, but... it's not like there are any wars to start or fight."
  1593. >Wishseeker scrounged her mind for anything. She wasn't well traveled, but it was clear she had more on Equestria than Reckless did.
  1594. "Aside from the buffalo, dragons, and yaks, there's nopony else ponies run into. We're on good terms with the buffalo. Dragons usually just pass by. And the yaks are all the way in the north. They do their own thing, I think."
  1595. >She elected not to mention griffons. They lived across the sea, and they were scary!
  1596. >But they didn't come across as ones willing to go to war with Equestria. They had their own problems...
  1597. >"But ponies fight other ponies, yes?"
  1598. "I mean, I guess... but that hasn't happened in like, a long, long time."
  1599. >Reckless looked back at Wishseeker. Her ears twitched.
  1600. >"Then war still exist."
  1601. "Nopony would go to /war/ with the princesses. Things are different, now."
  1602. >Reckless stared at her a moment longer.
  1603. >"You think yes?"
  1604. "Yes, I do."
  1605. >"How long you plan serve?"
  1606. >That made Wishseeker hesitate.
  1607. "I still want to work as a scout. An armored scout. And that takes a few years to really get into."
  1608. >Reckless nodded.
  1609. >"I serve until need serve no more."
  1610. >She breathed deeply, shutting her eyes.
  1611. >"Can serve different, now. Maybe when learn more, try more. Build strength."
  1612. >She opened her eyes, and nodded firmly.
  1613. >"But never relax all way. Before, I tell you have fun, yes. But war always there. Even when relax, need be... worry. Else, you make mistake. Mistake and... fatal mistake. Not just your life, others."
  1614. >"Job of soldier is worry. But we train carry worry. Carry burden for others."
  1615. >She smiled.
  1616. >"I not say no think... positive."
  1617. "I understand, Reckless."
  1618. >"Good. Just want you prepare."
  1619. "And you're really helping me with that. I... I'm thankful."
  1620. >Reckless nodded again for good measure.
  1621. >"Never have chance before, this... talk, with soldier. Learn much this way. Both us."
  1622. "I wish I could give you more."
  1623. >Wishseeker analyzed Reckless while they sat in amiable silence. She hadn't taken a more scrutinizing look at her than this.
  1624. >Reckless' looks were deceiving: she couldn't have been more than a few years older than Wishseeker. She had the mind of a pony who'd seen too much, but the facial features of a pretty, young filly.
  1625. >'Filly' didn't give her figure enough credit; even with the disparity between her age and her 'true' age, her form was grown out with muscle and flesh. She was fair and precisely built upon in all the right places. It wasn't the kind of build that came in time, it was the one that necessitated years of work and effort.
  1626. >Her distinguishing features, apart from her elevated stature, were the strips of white that ran across her. The socks stretching up her hooves melded perfectly into her brown coat. Her front left foreleg had the tallest of the white socks, reaching up over a quarter of her leg.
  1627. >The blaze trailing down between her eyes and just over the tip of her muzzle was by far the most attractive of the white landing strips: they sucked Wishseeker back in.
  1628. >They stared at one another.
  1629. >An understanding was achieved.
  1630. >"Wishseeker."
  1631. "Yeah?"
  1632. >Reckless scanned the pegasus' face.
  1633. >"Wishseeker. I have... birthed foals. Raised colts. But I never raise filly."
  1634. >Reckless soaked in the moment.
  1635. >"Always wish for filly. World... not let me. Stop me."
  1636. >She took a rapid breath, and her voice /almost/ seemed to shake.
  1637. >"I know strange, and I ask because pony, and not horse... but... if you could give me... this..."
  1638. >The warhorse seemed to lose her confidence. She trailed off into a frown.
  1639. >She started to tear her gaze away.
  1640. "Yes."
  1641. >Wishseeker whispered.
  1642. "You've given me a better chance at understanding the world than anypony else. I've only known you for a few days, but everything we've talked about has just... just felt /right/."
  1643. >She stood, her legs moving on their own accord. An accord she supported; she straightened her spine to meet Reckless' rich brown eyes.
  1644. "As far as I'm concerned, you're family to me."
  1645. >She paused, chewed over her lip, and strode closer.
  1646. >Reckless watched with high ears, and bright eyes.
  1647. >Wishseeker stopped a few hooves away, then looked down. An idle hoof scuffed the floor.
  1648. "I-is that enough?"
  1649. >Silence.
  1650. >Wishseeker closed her eyes.
  1651. >She heard Reckless shift.
  1652. >And then warmth descended upon her.
  1653. >The warhorse dug into the exposed part of her neck, left unveiled by her armor. She rested her neck against Wishseeker's own, pressing earnestly into her, but not so much as to push her.
  1654. >She was gentle, so very gentle with this motion.
  1655. >Wishseeker didn't say a word.
  1656. >She pressed back against her, tilting her head back up.
  1657. >Wishseeker peeked through one eye.
  1658. >The warhorse was breathing deeply as locks of Wishseeker's mane flowed over her.
  1659. >Wishseeker led her eyes back to darkness.
  1660. >She'd never been hugged like this.
  1661. >And it felt like the part of her she'd missed in a lifetime.
  1662. >It took all of the effort in the world and worlds over for Wishseeker to draw herself away from the embrace.
  1663. "So, um... what happens now?"
  1664. >Reckless looked over her. There was a predominant flash of fondness in her eyes.
  1665. >It tore down the barriers Wishseeker had erected around herself, and dove deep into her tender heart.
  1666. >Reckless bowed her neck, but her eyes never left Wishseeker.
  1667. >"Now... you are mine."
  1668. >Her voice was soft and melancholy.
  1669. >"I teach you. I protect you. I not lose you."
  1670. >"Semper fi."
  1671. >Wishseeker let her wings drop loosely. They grazed against the cool surface of her armor as they fell.
  1672. "S-semper fi."
  1673. >"Wishseeker..."
  1674. >Reckless rose again, and crossed the distance.
  1675. >"No like see tears."
  1676. "I-I..."
  1677. >Reckless silently slid under one of Wishseeker's wings. She laid down beside her, and the pegasus leaned over.
  1678. >Slowly, Wishseeker's rump descended, until she too was rested against the floor, albeit with shaky forelegs to hold her up.
  1679. >Reckless' head curled under her own.
  1680. >Wishseeker completely gave into gravity.
  1681. >On the wooden floor of the battletower, Reckless and Wishseeker lay before the pile of munitions, intertwined, and interlinked.
  1682. >Against the stone walls, a dull misting of renewed rainfall failed to breach the state of peace inside. Transient as it was, the veil of quiet held.
  1683. >Nopony opened either door to disturb the room. Not even the guards at the top of the tower retreated down the stairwell.
  1684. >The only thing Wishseeker recognized was the steady, pulsing thump of Reckless' heart, each beat passing from neck-to-neck.
  1685. >She thought to say something. Anything.
  1686. >But words couldn't bring enough meaning to match just how much Reckless had given her in return.
  1687. >Wishseeker nuzzled into the warhorse, her tears drying, but her broad smile unerring.
  1688. >The filly received a comforting hum.
  1689. >Maybe, just maybe, this /would/ be enough.
  1690. >So Wishseeker held fast, and for the first time in a long time, she felt home.
  1691.  
  1692.  
  1693.  
  1694. "Precipitation."
  1695. >Wishseeker, propped up against her spear in the standard watch position, reversed her slouch.
  1696. >"Huh?"
  1697. "New word for today. Corporal say 'precipitation'. For rain."
  1698. >Reckless held a hoof out, letting the raindrops splatter against the white of her foreleg.
  1699. >"Oh. Neat."
  1700. >It was a light early dawn drizzle. Hardly anything to fret about. But their manes were crowned by helms, and their tails banded through the armor: they didn't sag low enough to reach the ground.
  1701. >Not that Reckless would have been bothered by even that. A little mud hardly hurt.
  1702. >Well, it probably would've been an issue for Wishseeker.
  1703. >Reckless' armored hoofshoe (decidedly /not/ a horseshoe, as she'd been told) clopped against the stone of their wall. She turned away from their northern watch, and gave Wishseeker a once over.
  1704. >The gray filly was sagging underneath all her armor, but it took a keen eye to notice.
  1705. >Reckless had been around her enough in the last two weeks to know as much.
  1706. "You sleep poor again?"
  1707. >Wishseeker nodded numbly, shuffling on her own armored hooves as she tried to get comfortable with her spear again.
  1708. >"Yeah. Sorry."
  1709. >Reckless knew the feeling all too well: adjusting from naps throughout the day to one long sleep was something she was now physiologically capable of, but psychologically, it had taken a fair bit of adjustment.
  1710. >That wasn't the same reason Wishseeker struggled, however.
  1711. "No apologize. I understand."
  1712. >Wishseeker yawned. She covered her mouth by tucking her head into a wing, before laughing with her best attempt at vibrance.
  1713. >"You always understand, Reckless."
  1714. "I try."
  1715. >Having pulled service on the dawn and afternoon shifts of their patrol path, Reckless found herself with a rare case of preference: the dawn was /far/ nicer.
  1716. >Unlike the shifts in the afternoon, they actually had a proper chance to move along the patrol path, rather than be relegated to a non-rotating position on the wall.
  1717. >Both the warhorse and the pegasus preferred to be on the move.
  1718. >Shouldering her spear as well, Reckless returned to her stoic watch of the damp northern skies, and the surrounding mountainside.
  1719. >Greens and grays. But no opposition to speak of.
  1720. >Another day on The Wall.
  1721. >"Hey, Reckless?"
  1722. >She turned her head.
  1723. "Yes?"
  1724. >"You looking forward to the trip?"
  1725. >Reckless shrugged.
  1726. "If must be done, will be done."
  1727. >Wishseeker made a pouting face. Reckless wasn't entirely sure why.
  1728. >Water splashed across the filly's muzzle. She shook it off, and continued on.
  1729. >"We're talking about The Tartarus Gallop. That's not just any exercise. It's /the/ exercise."
  1730. >Reckless had spent the better part of the last week overhearing many of their platoon ponies. The Tartarus was allegedly aptly named. But despite the constant talk, she had no idea what was really involved.
  1731. >Thankfully, she had a bubbly teenager all too willing to help fill in the gaps.
  1732. >"We're going to be heading through the Everfree Forest, across Ghastly Gorge, and down to the borders of the Appaloosan plains. All in three days, and all while up against mock enemy elements. Doesn't that excite you at all?"
  1733. >Unfortunately, Reckless had heard all of it before.
  1734. "Not see why so excite. Glad. But not see."
  1735. >"Everypony who's headed for the Royal Guard knows about it. Why don't... you..."
  1736. >Wishseeker didn't finish the question.
  1737. >"Oh. Right."
  1738. >Reckless didn't mind the mistake; she could almost say she found her overwhelming excitement... endearing.
  1739. "Could share why look forward to trip."
  1740. >"Well, the thing is... nopony /actually/ knows what happens. We're supposed to swear an oath when we start, like some kind of promise of secrecy. And no ex-guards have ever been right about what it is. So, they must change it every year."
  1741. "But it is exercise?"
  1742. >"That's what they say."
  1743. >Wishseeker lightly kicked a hoof against the ground.
  1744. >"But for me, it's that surprise. Not knowing what we're going up against. Just that when we come out, we'll have completed the ultimate challenge the Guard has to offer."
  1745. "Ah. I see."
  1746. >"You do?"
  1747. >Reckless nodded.
  1748. "It is achievement, yes? Wear like medal. Know you are not just soldier, but soldier who go above and beyond."
  1749. >"I mean, the policemares I used to talk to in Filly never had anything like it. So... I guess you're right."
  1750. "But still achievement."
  1751. >"Well, yeah. I think it's one of the last things we do for training. I just don't know what happens in the couple of weeks after that."
  1752. "Work."
  1753. >Wishseeker laughed. Reckless cracked a slight smile at the sound.
  1754. >"You love to work, don't you, Reckless?"
  1755. "Give purpose. You think same."
  1756. >Wishseeker settled down, signing pleasantly.
  1757. >"Yeah. I do."
  1758. >A peaceful silence filled the rain-soaked air. The only presence on The Wall were the droplets and guardsmares. No foreign invaders, or sneaking saboteurs. Just another scheduled rain to mist the Canterlot heights.
  1759. "I find strange. Time like this."
  1760. >Wishseeker said nothing. Both of their eyes bore down on the horizon.
  1761. "Always move in Korea. Camp, yes, but not long. Always on field. In battle. Sometimes, caught in fighting."
  1762. >She paused, then took an audible breath.
  1763. "No like carry soldier."
  1764. >"Carry others?"
  1765. "Yes. Not purpose, but they see, hold on. I take them safe place. I save."
  1766. >Her mouth took on the taste of copper.
  1767. "But not all live."
  1768. >"You mean...?"
  1769. "Wounded."
  1770. >"Oh. I'm so sorry."
  1771. >Reckless shook her head.
  1772. "Nature of war. Loss... inevitable. Non-negotiable, they say. Acceptable casualties."
  1773. >She stopped again, thinking.
  1774. "I not say exercise not exciting. But for me, war is war."
  1775. >"...Reckless, I... it's just an exercise."
  1776. >She gave Wishseeker a stony look.
  1777. >"I know you've gone through a lot but... it's just practice. /Interesting/ practice. I'm sure it's not going to be a problem for us. As long as you're here, we can take it."
  1778. >The words kicked at her from within.
  1779. "Together?"
  1780. >Wishseeker gave a nod for clarification.
  1781. >"Of course! I can't even imagine going through all of this without you, now."
  1782. >She stopped, faltering.
  1783. >"I'd hate to lose you. And I don't want to think about that for even a second."
  1784. >Reckless nickered, softened up her muscles, and gave a tender reply.
  1785. "Been worse, Wishseeker. Worry more for you. I can take weight."
  1786. >The drizzle was little more than moist mist by now. It kept the air light as the pair of guardsmares in training lapsed into a peaceful respite from their talk.
  1787. >Even more, their thoughts were quiet, reserved. An implacable plateau of warmth kept them held above the stress that came with the rigors of the work they'd gone through to get them this far.
  1788. >The Wall was locked-tight, but the ponies who learned here were far from opaque.
  1789. >Reckless was roused from her trance by the approaching steps of the corporal.
  1790. >Both Wishseeker and Reckless curtly greeted the corporal, not quite in unison, but synchronized enough to elicit a laugh at the otherwise standard display.
  1791. >The corporal nodded, ending her laugh in a smile.
  1792. >"Recruits. You two are like peas in a pod."
  1793. >She glanced back as the door to the battletower opened, and a guard hurried toward them at a worried canter.
  1794. >Reckless didn't understand his rush. She put out a neutral snort his way, and he bobbed his head.
  1795. >The corporal cleared her throat, dragging Reckless and Wishseeker back to her.
  1796. >"Sarge... or er, the /sergeant/ wants you to take some more time on the path. You remember the way, Recruit Flame?"
  1797. >Reckless nodded.
  1798. "Yes. I know way."
  1799. >"Good. Nothing special, just the usual rounds until I, or somepony else, comes for you. And we will."
  1800. >Wishseeker piped up with another salute.
  1801. >"Yes, ma'am."
  1802. >Clicking their spears into the mounting brackets of their armor, Reckless and Wishseeker started for the nearby stairs leading down to the base of The Wall.
  1803. >As they passed through the shadows on the battlements, then under the watch of the battletower, Reckless took the lead.
  1804. >The stairs sat snugly beside The Wall and battletower, and were large enough to accommodate four ponies walking alongside each other. There were no railings, but the soft green grass beside the barren-brown walking paths was an ideal substitute to stone brickwork.
  1805. >Here at the base of the stairs, the route was straightforward: they'd patrol along this outer-courtyard path, which looped all the way to the mountainside, across the back of Canterlot Castle, and connected to the other end of The Wall.
  1806. >They were unlikely to run into many on the same patrol path, but they would be seeing plenty of the castle's 'backyard' activities.
  1807. >And while they were nothing quite like the inner-castle Canterlot Gardens, the grove out back grew a variety of plants and fruit-bearing trees from all across Equestria.
  1808. >Reckless liked seeing the familiar plants, but the stranger flora had its own appeal.
  1809. >But she still had something greater to care for.
  1810. >She looked over the filly by her side, and pushed her neck across hers briefly.
  1811. >She picked up her voice. For her.
  1812. "Are you ready?"
  1813. >Wishseeker smiled back.
  1814. >"For you? Of course."
  1815. >Even on a standard cycle like this, just the act of being with another made her feel at home. It helped that Wishseeker was faintly...
  1816. >She shook her head of her thoughts.
  1817. >"Something wrong?"
  1818. "No."
  1819. >For the moment, this was all she was: a guard amid peaceful times. Not a marine, or a warhorse. A guardsmare, and a filly on wings.
  1820. "All okay. Just ready work with you on Tartarus Gallop."
  1821. >"Wait, really?"
  1822. >Reckless meant it. It was all starting to come together.
  1823. "Yes. Help you achieve. Want you at best."
  1824. >Nuzzling the teenager brought out a giggle.
  1825. >"Thanks, Reckless."
  1826. >Wishseeker sighed, then smiled earnestly up at her.
  1827. >"I really can't do it without you."
  1828. "Not yet. I get you there."
  1829. >Reckless wasn't going to let her second chance be wasted.
  1830. >"I really mean it."
  1831. "Of course, Wishseeker. Come. We work."
  1832.  
  1833. >"How do you put up with this stuff?"
  1834. >Wishseeker followed up on her complaint with a grunt, shouldering her laden saddle and bags with a concerted jostle of her diminutive frame.
  1835. >The armor nestled snugly around her only added to the encumbrance she was certainly feeling.
  1836. >Reckless felt a pang of pity, though she was sure she'd have felt totally apathetic had it been any other pony.
  1837. "Training. But you are little pony. Still, not so bad. Not all horse load-bearing. You do well."
  1838. >"Gosh, thanks."
  1839. >After successfully stabilizing her load and weight for the umpteenth time, Wishseeker flicked her eyes back behind them.
  1840. >"I guess you're right."
  1841. >The more exhausted recruits were a clear sign that she was at least off on the right hoof.
  1842. >Above them, the thinned outer canopy of the Everfree Forest had been hacked away by gnarling branches and vines. The trees about them grew jagged and laced with unsightly scars from distinctly non-equine activity: there were the signature claw marks of timberwolves on the hunt, chunks of petrified wood from nesting cockatrices, and even hints of squashed brush and felled trees from something larger.
  1843. >The briefing given before the trip to the edge of the Everfree had covered a lot, but the sheer amount of unknowns lurking here had many of the recruits on edge.
  1844. >Reckless was proud, then, that Wishseeker's sole complaint thus far had been easily quelled.
  1845. "How far we travel?"
  1846. >This time, it was a genuine question; Reckless was hardly a sight-reading navigator, and she wasn't going to get a chance to memorize any environment they came upon.
  1847. >"Well, I'd say at least a gallop. We're doing good on water, but I'm pretty sure the COs are going to bring us to a stop soon. I'm a quarter through my canteen."
  1848. >They both turned to the front of the moving platoon. Overgrown as it was, a path had clearly been carved through here before.
  1849. >It was still a tight corridor of woods and foliage to work through, however.
  1850. >"I'm glad we're not up there. I'm not sure I could do so well with those cutting swords. Machetes. Have you seen those things? They're huge!"
  1851. "Yes. Bigger, better. Good for clearing brush. Don't want get snag."
  1852. >"Yeah, well... I guess it wouldn't be a problem for you. A big sword, I mean."
  1853. >Wishseeker reached up, and nudged the side of Reckless' neck.
  1854. >"You're a strong mare."
  1855. "And you as well. One day, maybe big like me."
  1856. >Wishseeker laughed. Reckless simply smiled.
  1857. >Semi-distantly, a bold voice called back from the frontline.
  1858. >"Hold!"
  1859. >They both immediately stepped to the side of the trail, and stilled as if they were hiding from a hydra.
  1860. >All around them, the columns of guards split across the path, leaning up against the treeline.
  1861. >Reckless scoured ahead to spot the CO who'd made the call to halt.
  1862. >They were stood still, but holding in the middle of the path. It was hard to make out what exactly what they were doing.
  1863. >"You think he saw something?"
  1864. >Reckless squinted, but these new eyes didn't quite have the range of depth and detail she'd spent her last life with.
  1865. >Or it was just too shady to make anything out.
  1866. "Maybe hear."
  1867. >"They wouldn't spook the COs, you don't think? The lieutenant was listening to the captain as much as we were."
  1868. >Reckless could see where Wishseeker was going.
  1869. "Lieutenant need briefing?"
  1870. >"I think so. Maybe not even active-duty guards know what we're up against."
  1871. >And there weren't many more with them beyond the officers they'd been training under since the start of hoof camp. For the most part, the ponies on the Gallop were recruits nearing the end of their training.
  1872. >Reckless spoke slowly, lowering her voice.
  1873. "Unknown enemy elements. More than one. Maybe more than lieutenant know."
  1874. >"Right."
  1875. >The captain had mentioned this exact scenario.
  1876. >Expect the unexpected.
  1877. >Hardly anypony on the path knew more than the basic dangers of the Everfree, and those who did were just as clueless as to what the 'enemy combatants' looked like, or had as a goal.
  1878. >All the guards and guardsmares had to do was make it down south.
  1879. >They could win this.
  1880. >Wishseeker, half-crouched, shuffled for Reckless' attention.
  1881. >"Do you see anything?"
  1882. "No. Stay. No move."
  1883. >The forest fell to an unnatural quiet. The stomping of hooves had tamped out all the sound for so long, and it was only in this moment that the sheer magnitude of the guards deployed was revealed: they'd scared off the usual denizens.
  1884. >But somepony was watching them. It was just a matter of where they could be hiding.
  1885. >And just how long they could maintain their cover.
  1886. >Reckless mutely scanned the trees with the others. Her eyes stuck close to her and Wishseeker's position, but no matter where her gaze landed, the depths of the forest that peered back appeared nigh endless.
  1887. >The tension was plain to see on the faces of the surrounding recruits; there were ever-so slight cracks of fear in their armor, but nopony was on the verge of panic.
  1888. >It was a strange sort of calm. The kind Reckless could attest to from both sides.
  1889. >Something could happen at any moment. They just had to be ready.
  1890. >The guards and guardsmares waited.
  1891. >A minute later, the leading CO called back an end to the alert.
  1892. >And then, they continued along, slogging deeper into the eastern Everfree, unafraid, and undeterred.
  1893.  
  1894. >They made camp at the northern end of Ghastly Gorge.
  1895. >The first bends of the treacherous ravine stared at them, tempting them to try it.
  1896. >They'd be hugging the eastern side as they turned southward, but it was a terribly terrific offer nonetheless.
  1897. >Reckless could appreciate the enthusiasm of the pegasi boasting about the various techniques they'd use in flying the gorge.
  1898. >"Don't listen to them, Reckless."
  1899. >Turning back to their own corner of the platoon resting grounds, Reckless' ears tweaked toward Wishseeker.
  1900. "Why?"
  1901. >"They're all full of hot air. Nopony can fly Ghastly Gorge and get through without hurting."
  1902. "Even you?"
  1903. >Wishseeker shook her head fiercely.
  1904. >"Heck no! If I wanted to twist my wings, then I'd be better off trying a sonic rainboom. At least /that/ I could survive."
  1905. "How you twist wings?"
  1906. >"Well, just look at it. And this is one of the wider parts of it. Not only is it practically a maze with all the dead-ends, but it gets beyond cramped. It's, well, a death-trap."
  1907. "Briefing not cover this flying."
  1908. >"Yeah, but any pegasus worth their wings knows about the infamous Ghastly Gorge. So in other words, it's not important."
  1909. >She laughed lightly at her little quip. Reckless soaked in the sound.
  1910. "Okay. I see. Thank you."
  1911. >"You're welcome."
  1912. >Coming down from her short bright flight, Wishseeker gave the pegasi her own look.
  1913. >"Anyways, I think we'll be too busy for anypony to even consider trying it."
  1914. >They both turned back to the rest of the camp.
  1915. >The command tents, as quickly as they'd come up, were already on the way down.
  1916. "Trail get thicker. More work for machete."
  1917. >"Not to mention normal scouting is out of the question. Not with the new canopy-level flight limit. Enemy airspace my flank."
  1918. "It important you be careful. Aware."
  1919. >"I know, I know."
  1920. >Wishseeker shuffled her wings, and inched a little closer to Reckless. With their bellies in the dirt, and hooves folded beneath them, it was obvious what she was trying to do.
  1921. >Reckless watched her without a word.
  1922. >"I'm just wondering when we're going to see some action. It's... it's been a long day already, and we're not even at sunset yet. Kind of makes me think how much better off everypony else is than me."
  1923. >She shuffled another hoof closer.
  1924. >"I know nopony's supposed to get hurt, but I don't want to be sitting in training triage, and possibly not get a second chance at this. They wouldn't throw me out if I failed, would they?"
  1925. >Reckless took a good look at the lithe pegasus. Her knowledge of pony anatomy was hardly the best, but...
  1926. >She rolled slightly, throwing her back into Wishseeker's wing. The filly squeaked, and the apprehended appendage unfolded as she laid across the earth sideways.
  1927. >The wing came to rest across Reckless, with a little pony foreleg pressed to the crest of her head.
  1928. >"Um..."
  1929. >Reckless thwacked Wishseeker's leg with her ears.
  1930. >As the camp wrapped up the last of its field rest operations, Wishseeker caved into the affection with a tender sigh.
  1931. >A few minutes of merciful peace passed.
  1932. >Then the Everfree, being a fickle and feral mistress, decided that it was too perfect a moment to not grace them all with rainfall.
  1933. >The ponies left the camp wishing they'd stayed to set up all the tents.
  1934. >Reactions were mixed across the board, but the vast majority were vocally abundant in expressing their displeasure for the new mission parameters.
  1935. >The rain was 'bad' for sure, but Reckless couldn't even begin to see what about it had ponies so riled up. She /loved/ rainfall, especially on a tiring, ceaseless summer trek. The fresh cool liquid dripping through her coat, leaving her a soggy mess, and ripe for a good galloping splash in the mud around basecamp...
  1936. >It could be a typhoon, and she'd still find more pleasure in the circumstance.
  1937. >Though, in this instance, she was perhaps most bothered by the way Wishseeker joined the others in casting wary eyes to the grayed-out sky.
  1938. "What wrong? Not scared, no?"
  1939. >"No, of course not."
  1940. >She set her head straight.
  1941. >"I just don't like unscheduled weather. Ponies are supposed to control it. It's not supposed to... do its own thing."
  1942. "But what if this pony storm?"
  1943. >"Huh?"
  1944. >Reckless gave the sky a critical eye. Water slid down her helm, but she didn't lift her neck enough for the rain to sock her in the eyes.
  1945. "Enemy are pony. Enemy airspace, pony controlled. Pony could make storm, yes?"
  1946. >Wishseeker seemed to process this for a moment.
  1947. >"Do you think we should tell the CO?"
  1948. >Some of the other platoon members behind them bubbled in.
  1949. >"There's no way they'd try and do that. Everfree's notorious for fighting any weather manipulation. It'd dissipate within the hour."
  1950. >"Well, she still has a point. It wouldn't last long, but it'd last long enough for a skirmish."
  1951. >Wishseeker chimed back in.
  1952. >"We haven't even seen any evidence that they're around. But who's to say they wouldn't strike us in an ambush right now?"
  1953. >The hesitation in the responding platoon pony's voice was palpable.
  1954. >"I guess that'd be up to them. Problem is... we don't know who exactly we're up against."
  1955. >Wishseeker turned back to the front. Reckless could see the muscles in the back of her neck tense as she spoke up.
  1956. >"Hey, pass along the word that this weather might be enemy work."
  1957. >And from one recruit to the next, Reckless watched the advisory be passed along.
  1958. >Wishseeker hedged her withers and spoke just loud enough for Reckless to hear.
  1959. >"For once, I hope you're not right."
  1960. >The next few minutes were near-silent: the chatter had been low to begin with, but when a NCO had come down with the word to hold extra caution, the recruits listened.
  1961. >Reckless was watching, too. Loaded down with some extra gear that the logistics officers had seen fit to give her, however, her range of motion was slightly hindered. But she did keep an eye on the occasional breaks in the canopy.
  1962. >They all saw it before they heard it.
  1963. >Far at the front of the platoon, an explosion of light lit the path.
  1964. >The voluminous display extended almost the full length of the platoon; even from its placement at the front of the rallied columns, it reached far past Reckless.
  1965. >As ponies dove to the sides of the trail for cover, Reckless saw a pony keeled over, their armor and coat glowing with red.
  1966. >"CONTACT!"
  1967. >The first spear had flown.
  1968. >The real exercise began.
  1969. >Pulling on her gear's 'ditching' straps with bared teeth, the burdensome load fell to the trail's wayside.
  1970. >On the opposite side of the trail, Wishseeker had already retrieved her throwing spear.
  1971. >Without the advantage of a fortified position, she only had one additional spear: an aerial lance clamped into the battle mount on her armor's right side.
  1972. >She flit into the air, chasing up ahead into the ensuing fight, her wings stretched wide like diverging rivers.
  1973. "Fight well!"
  1974. >Wishseeker's ear swiveled her way. Despite her focus, the young mare waved her hoof-held spear, and then she was off.
  1975. >Reckless didn't bother to keep her weapon mounted like the others: she'd been told to expect a typical arsenal in a real combat scenario, but going into The Gallop, she'd been downgraded.
  1976. >Even with the safety precautions of 'hit-spells' and soft-side training spears, the higher-ups felt Reckless was still capable of dealing serious bodily harm.
  1977. >Reckless didn't care to make much sense of that; she'd use what she was given, and she'd use it to the best of her abilities.
  1978. >Alongside the other grounded members of the platoon, and with her unique quarterstaff clenched in her maw, she galloped.
  1979. >By the time she was halfway to the front, the opposition was clear; they were ponies, armed and armored like the platoon, save for one major difference: instead of the gold and blue Royal Guard standard, their weapons and armor trim were hued in bright red and black.
  1980. >Reckless got to work.
  1981. >Whether or not these active-duty guards were under orders to hold back, Reckless put in her all.
  1982. >Her first target was a block-breaking earth pony bearing down on a dazed platoon-mate.
  1983. >She stomped in from behind so quickly that neither had a chance to react.
  1984. >From one hindleg to the next, Reckless swept and flipped the armored pony in a single motion.
  1985. >The friendly from the platoon looked up in awe as their huge savior slammed her quarterstaff into the freshly downed opponent.
  1986. >The defeated opposition managed a tight whisper.
  1987. >"S-sweet Celestia, filly."
  1988. >Their red-and-black armor blinked with a yellow aura.
  1989. >Reckless settled back slightly, but her dominant hoof stayed on the pony's side.
  1990. >This /was/ still a fight, after all.
  1991. >"Ow, ow. I'm wounded-yellow, c'mon..."
  1992. >They moaned, and Reckless nodded, satisfied.
  1993. >Stepping away, she gave the friendly a parting glance.
  1994. >She chose not to speak, though the wood in her mouth didn't help: she tightened her grip on the quarterstaff, and turned back to the fight.
  1995. >A veritable gallery of opportunities presented themselves to her.
  1996. >She decided to try a unicorn. That could be fun.
  1997. >As Reckless galloped back into the fray, the friendly in her wake looked at the flashing pony.
  1998. >"Are you okay?"
  1999. >The pony coughed.
  2000. >"Command didn't tell us Canterlot had earth ponies that big."
  2001. >In this moment, Reckless was a storm of her own.
  2002. >The rain fell slick across her, and the occasional lightning bolts from wayward pegasi surely put her in a fearsome light.
  2003. >Not quite artillery, but a boom that brought her back to the battle that had made her.
  2004. >Of course, she hadn't been a spearhead of the Marines: she'd been a simple munition mule.
  2005. >But with a proper weapon in her vice, she was truly a warhorse unleashed.
  2006. >Unrelenting with her strikes, she delivered blow after blow to the ponies scattered around in the commotion.
  2007. >She didn't always open with a surprise from behind, but those who did attempt to put up a fight were quick to give way from the support she rallied behind her.
  2008. >For a mare so large, it shouldn't have been a surprise that more than a few found their place in working in her literal shadow.
  2009. >Soon enough, the ambush turned in their favor: Reckless hadn't noticed it at first, but her platoon friendlies had been going down in appalling numbers.
  2010. >Now, though, her companions drove back the fight in fervent droves.
  2011. >The fight had lasted maybe five minutes so far, but as flares lit the trees, and red-and-black ponies retreated into the eastern woods with the wounded they could, Reckless was left standing, a steady fortress amid a sea of ponies in blinking armor.
  2012. >Wishseeker came down from above, her armor equally unflummoxed. Her aerial lance had gouged through several leaves, and her throwing spear once again rested on her left side.
  2013. >But a great big beam was stretched across her muzzle, and that said it all.
  2014. >Smiling slightly at Wishseeker's landing, Reckless stretched her neck, returning her quarterstaff to its mount with a satisfying click.
  2015. >The sound was enough to set off a wave of celebration.
  2016. >The platoon ponies in blinking, 'wounded-yellow' armor stood, shaking off burrs while the others whooped.
  2017. >It was a different kind of fervor, but one Reckless could relish with its distinct familiarity.
  2018. >A few ponies even came right up to her, appearing inclined to hoist her right up, but nopony was foolish enough to try.
  2019. >But it was clear: she was back at the center of attention, a place she hadn't stood since her retirement years ago. Even if it wasn't the same kind of attention a man could command, the respect of her comrades was more than well enough.
  2020. >Reckless couldn't be more pleased to once more fight in the service of the military.
  2021.  
  2022. >Wishseeker pulled away from the stream with a gasp. A great torrent of water dripped down from her drenched muzzle, and she shook her head with a determined fervor.
  2023. >The wet mare sighed, then turned back to the camp.
  2024. >Stepping past the perimeter patrol with a nod, she strode among the crowded tents and purposeful ponies.
  2025. >The city of guards and guardsmares wasn't too loud on the edges of the encampment, but as she delved deeper still into their territory, enthusiastic rancor swelled up and out over the evening sky.
  2026. >She found her target near the epicenter of the prideful corral.
  2027. >Reckless was sat near the 'prisoners' of the enemy force. Around her, other friendlies had gathered to listen with her; one of the enemy prisoners had ironically captured them all.
  2028. >Their bright smiles and prickling ears swayed with each word the de-armored pony uttered.
  2029. >"...and I know I've already said it plenty, but you lot put up some of the best fighting Tall Tale's seen in years. We thought we were the only ones trained to fight with max gusto."
  2030. >Wishseeker grinned as she slunk around the central bonfire, approaching the flame-lit group from the side.
  2031. >"Or maybe Tall Tale's not so tall."
  2032. >Some laughter went up at the platoon pony's comment.
  2033. >Wishseeker stopped on the edge of the firelight, her armor clinking enough to draw the look of one pony in particular.
  2034. "Either that, or Reckless is big enough to carry everypony else."
  2035. >A cheer wound up from the friendlies.
  2036. >The corners of Reckless' mouth twitched upward just enough for Wishseeker to notice.
  2037. >Wishseeker winked back, then giggled.
  2038. >The ponies once more resumed their praise of the battle, with a renewed interest in Reckless' role.
  2039. >Of course, everypony had done their part, but she had been the foremost pony needed to turn the tide in their favor.
  2040. >Without a doubt, the ponies would be remembering her when the time came for active service.
  2041. >After all, it had been the first battle for them; the first of many.
  2042. >The consequences had been an overnight stay in the medical tents for those struck 'red-dead', and reduced rations for the wounded-yellow.
  2043. >But mock as it was, it was still a taste of the things they'd face after training.
  2044. >Not every conflict they'd face would end in such a positive way.
  2045. >Wishseeker spotted one such conflict lurking on the sidelines.
  2046. >She squinted, looked both ways, then crossed behind the attentive crowd. She could feel Reckless' eyes on her, but she had a feeling they'd speak soon enough.
  2047. >Pulling out behind the crowd, she tread quietly.
  2048. >"Hey, Wishseeker."
  2049. >Feathers! How did he know?
  2050. "...Hey yourself."
  2051. >She tried to play off her sneaking as she sidled up alongside the stallion.
  2052. >"Your armor gave you away."
  2053. "It did /not/."
  2054. >She huffed, then gave him a once over.
  2055. >His armor was spotless, and even shined in the light of the prevailing moonlight; they were far enough from the fire and celebratory guardsponies to be isolated.
  2056. >He said nothing while her inspection continued.
  2057. "Haven't seen you in a while, you know."
  2058. >"I figured I'd give you both some space."
  2059. "Both of who? Me and Reckless?"
  2060. >"Nopony else worth talking to around here."
  2061. >She snorted.
  2062. "You're full of it."
  2063. >He raised a brow.
  2064. >"Full of what?"
  2065. "Full of... you know..."
  2066. >The stallion smirked as she trailed off, causing Wishseeker to let out a remarkably heavy sigh.
  2067. "On second thought, maybe you need a little more space."
  2068. >He laughed, low and broad.
  2069. >"Always full of emotion, aren't you?"
  2070. "Hey! You try living in my wings for a day, and see how you feel after /that/."
  2071. >"Tempting, but I think I'll pass."
  2072. >Wishseeker rolled her eyes.
  2073. "You're as dense as a brick, you know that?"
  2074. >"I'll take that as a compliment."
  2075. >Ugh. Stallions. Reckless was right about them.
  2076. "What's your deal?"
  2077. >And yet, here she was, trying to understand him.
  2078. >"What do you need to know?"
  2079. >She hesitated; her confidence faltered.
  2080. "Uh..."
  2081. >"I can guarantee you're not going to like whatever answer I give you."
  2082. >This was as blunt as he'd ever been: his voice was suddenly as dry as a desert gulch, and his green eyes had shifted to a darker stance.
  2083. >Gone was the stallion who'd bust quips, spy on fillies, and wrestle Reckless. It was as if he'd never smiled a day in his life.
  2084. >He was being serious. /Deadly/ serious.
  2085. "...If it's too personal, you don't have to answer."
  2086. >He blinked, and just like that, color surged back into his body.
  2087. >"It's just a little warning, that's all. I'm not exactly trying to... make friends."
  2088. >Wishseeker inspected his new facade. He was still being serious, so far as she could tell, but it was as if she'd somehow cracked into his tough-colt shell.
  2089. "Why not? Don't you think we're your friends?"
  2090. >His eyes danced across her. Wishseeker took note: he was definitely choosing his words carefully.
  2091. >He eventually turned back to the fire. Still, they remained in the unlit shadows, but she could see the light flickering in his eyes.
  2092. >"I don't think so."
  2093. >Wishseeker let a moment of silence pass, even though she knew he wouldn't continue.
  2094. "Don't make me do circles around you. If you don't have anything you want to say, then just tell me."
  2095. >"It's less a matter of what I want to say, and what I can say."
  2096. >Wishseeker's ears flopped back.
  2097. "But /why/? I don't know how you don't see it, but you've done a lot for me and her. Then, we jostle you up a little bit, and then you wander off and act like we never met."
  2098. >Wishseeker's next words hung on her tongue.
  2099. >But then, she finally relented in her pursuit.
  2100. >Shaking her head, she looked to where Reckless was: she was looking her way, but still sat at the center of the crowd.
  2101. >Tentatively, Wishseeker smiled at her.
  2102. >"I've been working. We'll be running into several more ambushes tomorrow. I recommend not flying."
  2103. "What?"
  2104. >She half expected him to have disappeared.
  2105. >But he was looking at her with intent.
  2106. "How do you...?"
  2107. >"Believe me."
  2108. >Her muzzle scrunched.
  2109. >"Goodnight, Wishseeker. Try and get some rest."
  2110. >The stubborn stallion turned, and trot toward the unlit tents.
  2111. >For whatever reason, Wishseeker's mind was racing. She watched him slink further into the dark, her body stilled as if she were encased in a block of ice.
  2112. >And then, he was gone.
  2113. >She let loose her breath; her withers slouched with it.
  2114. >Dimly, the conversations around the fire reached her ears. The whoops and shouts were like soft murmurs as she honed in on the darkness before her.
  2115. >There was something about that stallion that bothered her. Clearly.
  2116. >But for the life of her, she didn't know what.
  2117. >"Wishseeker."
  2118. >Her head jumped slightly, and she leaned her head to the back and side.
  2119. "R-Reckless!"
  2120. >"Where recruit go?"
  2121. >The warhorse stood beside her, peering into the darkness.
  2122. "To sleep, I guess?"
  2123. >"...Sleep is good."
  2124. >Wishseeker felt Reckless muzzle her. She blushed, feeling the eyes of the platoon on them both.
  2125. "Aw, c'mon... not in front of everypony."
  2126. >Reckless huffed, blowing an airy kiss through Wishseeker's mane.
  2127. >"Should sleep, too. You fight best. But fight better tomorrow."
  2128. "About that..."
  2129. >Reckless waited.
  2130. "He was saying we were going to run into more ambushes. But I don't know how he'd know."
  2131. >"Is safe to think, no?"
  2132. "But he seemed confident. He wasn't fooling around. How does he know?"
  2133. >Reckless was silent, quietly mulling through her thoughts.
  2134. >"Stallion poke muzzle where not belong. Should not follow."
  2135. >Wishseeker had a retort on her tongue.
  2136. >Reckless was faster.
  2137. >"Stay. I go."
  2138. >What?
  2139. "What?"
  2140. >Reckless gave her the sternest look she could muster: her brows furrowed ever-so slightly.
  2141. "O-okay, okay, mom."
  2142. >They both stopped in their tracks.
  2143. "I..."
  2144. >Wishseeker's voice broke.
  2145. >Reckless leaned back, her brows having reversed direction completely.
  2146. >The warhorse's nostrils flared. Tracing along the filly's muzzle, she stopped between her eyes, then closed her own.
  2147. >Reckless took a body-shuddering breath.
  2148. >When she opened them again, Reckless' eyes relaxed, and the brightest smile she'd ever had lit her muzzle.
  2149. >"...Seeker."
  2150. "Y-yes...?"
  2151. >"Stay. I come back. We talk... history."
  2152. "I'd... really, really like that."
  2153. >Reckless nodded, her face hardening with resolve.
  2154. >"Be safe."
  2155. >Fearless, Reckless turned, and trot into the dark.
  2156. >Seeker watched her go, her heart glowing with joy, and stomach set aflutter.
  2157. >She knew she'd be back.
  2158.  
  2159. >Reckless moved along the faint trail of her query. It was paper-thin, but the scent was something she'd always found... alluring, in a curious way.
  2160. >The stallion had a tendency to fulfill that characteristic role to a significant extent.
  2161. >It didn't take her long to find the tent. She wasn't surprised the least to find him in waiting: having quickly shucked his armor, he was leaned over it with a rag, but his hooves were still, and his green eyes glued to hers.
  2162. "Recruit."
  2163. >"Reckless."
  2164. >He pat the armor, and it clinked beneath his rag.
  2165. >"Feel free to take a seat."
  2166. >In most cases, Reckless would have stayed where she was standing.
  2167. >Instead, she moved close to him, twirled, and placed her rump right in front of the tent's back wall.
  2168. >If he was planning on leaving, she was more than ready to stop him.
  2169. >Recruit gave her a wry smile, then went to work on his already-gleaming armor.
  2170. "You avoid me."
  2171. >"Eh, that's a bit too dramatic for your tastes."
  2172. >He shrugged.
  2173. >"I knew you'd show up before too long. Well, one of you, at least."
  2174. "You not cause trouble. Why run?"
  2175. >"I didn't run. Like I told your little Seeker, I was just giving you both your own space.
  2176. >Reckless shuddered invisibly.
  2177. "You send her to me. You know. Know more than should."
  2178. >He raised a brow.
  2179. >"And what might that be?"
  2180. >Reckless furrowed her eyes at him. To his credit, he didn't flinch. But it did provoke a reaction.
  2181. >"Just... entertain me, here."
  2182. >She snorted, but followed through regardless.
  2183. "You show her me. She talk. I listen. She show more, real soldier. She more close than believe."
  2184. >His silence gave Reckless the time she needed to process the bits of truth fragmented before her.
  2185. "Have foal. Four. But... one filly. She not live."
  2186. >Recruit took a sharp breath at that, but Reckless wasn't done.
  2187. "Seeker... see me... mother. See her... mine."
  2188. >She honed back in on him.
  2189. "How you know she mine?"
  2190. >Reckless eyed him with no small degree of scrutiny. He'd completely stopped what he was doing, and stared back with a look that scraped at the edges of the universe.
  2191. >"...I guess, I kind of have a thing for the otherworldly. And... I know what it's like to be... alienated."
  2192. >He was quiet. Briefly.
  2193. >"I saw the bond you two could form. I just helped you make it happen. That's all."
  2194. >Reckless looked down. Her ears slowly crept back.
  2195. >"I... Reckless."
  2196. >She didn't move, but she cocked an ear his way.
  2197. >"You don't have to believe me. But you can believe that the love you share is real."
  2198. >Maybe Seeker was even more than just hers to watch over. Maybe, just maybe...
  2199. >She supposed it didn't matter if she was the same soul. They needed each other, and that was all Reckless needed to convince herself.
  2200.  
  2201. >A content silence floated between you and Reckless.
  2202. >You started rubbing away with your rag again, but it was a half-minded effort.
  2203. >She could just /feel/ your presence.
  2204. >And you could certainly feel hers.
  2205. "...If you'll have me, I'd like to spend more time with you two again."
  2206. >Reckless sat up, then looked over you.
  2207. >You chuckled, and allowed your coat to flush in the low light.
  2208. >Maybe you'd gone too far. Maybe she wouldn't say 'yes'.
  2209. >She leaned toward you.
  2210. >You stared at her.
  2211. >She brought her neck down against yours. You froze. Your coat was cold, so very cold, but not quite dead. You'd been trying to avoid her finding out.
  2212. >Then, there came the rush.
  2213. >You warmed immediately as she pressed in, her emotions flowing through her, and her actions.
  2214. >Reckless didn't need you to say anything.
  2215. >You reciprocated the motion by leaning back into her neck hug.
  2216. >And that suited you just fine.
  2217.  
  2218.  
  2219.  
  2220. >An aching stiffness sat in the air, neither dead nor lively. By all means, creeping through the eastern borders of the Everfree Forest should have promoted some level of anxiety and tension.
  2221. >After the previous day's victory, however, spirits were high, and heads held higher.
  2222. >The Canterlot guards and guardsmares in training had won over their Tall Tale adversaries, and they were bound and determined to spread that fact to every tree they passed.
  2223. >Despite that, positivity wasn't everything; not all of the ponies were prepared to divert their energy to keeping the company's momentum.
  2224. >That responsibility was upheld by a sole few.
  2225. >"Woods are thinning up."
  2226. >Reckless peered over Seeker.
  2227. "Yes."
  2228. >Creeping close as if they were one single pony, the bunched pair kept their eyes on the brush, branches, and sky.
  2229. >"You two are really something else."
  2230. >Reckless pushed out a short huffy snort. She didn't give him more of a response than that.
  2231. >Seeker drove her eyes to look at her.
  2232. >"What did he mean by that?"
  2233. >Reckless nudged her lightly.
  2234. "No give Recruit attention. Keep watch."
  2235. >Seeker nodded, and steeled her look into an intensive stare. She spoke seriously.
  2236. >"Right. Try not to understand a stallion."
  2237. >Reckless could practically feel the grin plastered to Recruit's muzzle.
  2238. >Knowing better than to feed into his desire for attention, Reckless continued to watch the woods with Seeker.
  2239. >All the while, the company continued to pave a way south. By the end of today, they'd be one final day's waning from the end of the Gallop.
  2240. >The longer they watched, the idea of further ambushes became more and more plausible.
  2241. >Even if nothing in particular was 'going down', as it were: the trees were remarkably quiet, and soft birdsong trilled distantly.
  2242. >Still, Recruit's words and presence loomed. To Reckless, he'd been right with her since they'd met, avoiding behavior aside.
  2243. >Seeker was the more curious of the pair. Maybe /she/ could get him to talk more.
  2244. >"Don't forget to look up, Reckless. Not everypony fights from the ground."
  2245. >She followed Recruit's advice. Beside her, Seeker rolled her eyes.
  2246. >"She knows that."
  2247. >"She was a little caught up in her own world. I was just giving her a leg up."
  2248. >"Maybe you could do some watching yourself. You don't seem too concerned."
  2249. >"Nah, you're doing that part well enough. I think I'll just keep walking."
  2250. >As the banter devolved back into silence, Reckless nudged the simmering filly.
  2251. >She whispered a short thanks.
  2252. >But she could hear the question rising in Seeker's throat.
  2253. >"Do you think about your world a lot, Reckless?"
  2254. >"When I said 'her world', I was speaking metaphorically."
  2255. >Seeker snarked back to Recruit.
  2256. >"I didn't ask for your commentary."
  2257. >She went back to Reckless. Her eyes softly glowed.
  2258. "I remember, yes."
  2259. >That response alone was enough to get Seeker visibly excited.
  2260. >"What was it like living there?"
  2261. >The warhorse didn't immediately reply; this was one of those big questions nopony had asked yet. She'd spent so much time in the specifics of her world, but had only just begun to take her feelings into account.
  2262. >Really, it all had started when she'd first opened her mouth in Equestria.
  2263. >How could Reckless adequately put her feelings to words she scarcely knew?
  2264. "World was..."
  2265. >Reckless hesitated.
  2266. >"It was?"
  2267. >The world just was.
  2268. "...Yes."
  2269. >And it no longer had a role to play in her life.
  2270. >That's what she wanted to believe.
  2271. "But not think much. Life better, here. Already tell you."
  2272. >"Yeah, some things the same, some things new."
  2273. >Reckless nodded.
  2274. "But only close, even when seem same. Korea forest, America valley. Not like Equestria. No... magic."
  2275. >"So, it was all less tamed?"
  2276. "Less tame, more... controlled. Not so nature."
  2277. >Still lurking behind, Recruit supplied the words she was looking for.
  2278. >"Dominated. Unnatural."
  2279. >Reckless snorted her thanks.
  2280. "Yes. It... feel... difficult. Sometimes city reach far. Even when only tree, mountain, river, still feel it struggle."
  2281. >She lowered her gaze back level, and flexed her neck. She continued to follow the platoon's rhythmic gait.
  2282. "When war come, and blood cover tree, mountain, river, it almost feel... better."
  2283. >She paused on the grim visual. Grim for Seeker, that is.
  2284. >Recruit's silence said a lot, too.
  2285. "Sorry."
  2286. >While she'd been thinking, Seeker had slowed to move by her side. Her face was curled into a wrinkly scowl.
  2287. >"N-no, it's fine. Don't be sorry."
  2288. >The filly took her moment to suck down a breath.
  2289. "No. It make me different from soldier."
  2290. >"How do you mean?"
  2291. "You are soldier. I am marine. Blood my nature."
  2292. >"But you weren't always a marine. I think you just got used to all the violence. You at least know it's not right."
  2293. "Not right for you. I carry war. You carry Equestria."
  2294. >Reckless' tongue didn't slip: the name of her filly's nation came through clear and true.
  2295. "That why you soldier."
  2296. >"You don't have to carry it alone."
  2297. "Princess say same. Make friend, she say. But princess not marine. Friend here not only friend. I remember my friend all time. Doc. Gunny. Lieutenant. All marine."
  2298. >Reckless looked back up, staring into the low cloudscape like her gaze could pierce the sky.
  2299. "I make friend happy. I work. I fight. I bleed. Bring canister. Take wounded. Roam free. And when see me, they happy. All I need."
  2300. >She licked her lips, and heard the echoes of the world that was.
  2301. >Incoming, incoming.
  2302. >Her forelegs twitched, but she didn't drop to the forest floor.
  2303. >There were no mortars and artillery in this world, just as there had been no enemy armor for the rifles and shells she once ferried.
  2304. >And yet...
  2305. "I still fight for friend. Friend I make."
  2306. >Recruit added on, though his voice was distant.
  2307. >"And family you find."
  2308. >Leaves crunched underhoof.
  2309. >Reckless' thoughts didn't take so long to process, now.
  2310. "World was not so different."

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