(And here we are, folks! God-almighty, it only seems like yesterday when I started screwing around on my computer, trying to come up with an idea for a story to keep me occupied during the summer. And now we're at the end of that long road. I am proud to have been the source of all of your happiness and to have received such gracious praise. I'd especially like to thank all the commentors from Equestria Daily, whom I have not mentioned nearly enough. But, to thank my FF reviewers, I will now post this story's last round of-
But this time, I'm not going to simply nitpick through you all. I don't have enough time in the day to comment on just how much you all have said about the last chapter, and so I'm only going to say one thing;
My...God. You've all been giving me such good ideas and heartfelt praise, but I've seen at least a few of you not afraid to pull punches to critique me and catch my mistakes. And for that I'm most grateful, because if you can't be honest enough with your friends to expect them to catch your mistakes, then who -can- you trust? And I feel like you -all- are my friends after this.
*Twilight pops in*
T:"Are you stealing my thunder?"
WH: "Wha-no! Of course not!"
T: "You are! That was so a friendship speech! Get over here you-"
WH: "Ah! Not the transformation spell again! Please, I don't want to be a peace-loving hippie!"
Sugarcube Corner, Ponyville
1 month later
"-and we're very glad to be joined by today's guest, the 'Hero of Stalliongrad,' newly promoted Field Marshal Eagle Eye! You listeners don't wanna know what I had to do to get him on the program! Marshal, we're glad to have you here at the studio."
"Thank you for having me, Miss Scratch. It means a lot to me and all the soldiers around Equestria."
"Now, Marshal. We're all wondering which direction the Royal Army is moving in ever since you stopped that nasty invasion in Stalliongrad. Care to give us any details?"
"Well, first of all Miss Scratch-"
"Please, call me Vinyl!"
"Alright, Miss Vinyl. First of all, there has been no proof to suggest that the commander of those ships was acting on official orders from the Hegemony or if he was a rogue operative. Regardless, I'm afraid I'll have to dismiss any claims made about the political situation between Equestria and Canida."
"Awesome, secretive nature! Getting into some black ops, are we Marshal?"
"I'm not at liberty to say, Vinyl. Anyway, you can start referring to the military as the Equestrian Royal Armed Forces once again. I'm proud to announce that following last week's edict by Princess Celestia and a few amendments from Princess Luna, all branches have been restored."
"Oooh, how radical!"
"Indeed. Thanks to several recent factors and events, the Air Force and Magic Corps have been reinstated, and we already have several hundred applicants to go through, as well as several thousand new enlistees for the Army."
"Now, I've heard plans for a Navy to be constructed in case of threats from across the ocean. Any word on that?"
"I'm afraid I can't say much, Vinyl. What I –can- tell you is that you can expect to see a few more sailor ponies in and around the ports in the coming months."
"Rad, rad, radical! Marshal you're just awesome at suspense! Now, a few listeners have submitted questions over the phone, and I've chosen one for our Fans' Minute. It reads 'is being the commander of the Recon Commandos an exciting job?'"
"Vinyl, you and all your listeners should know by now that any information regarding RAIC troopers and their activities is strictly classified, as it has been since they were announced one month ago. But yes, commanding the Army is an eventful job, one I can't actually talk about either. I will instead say that in the aftermath of the Battle at Stalliongrad the Armed Forces are receiving more funding in the next year than in the last five centuries combined."
"And everypony will be happy to make the donations necessary to ensure that our country is kept safe, I just know it! This has been Vinyl Scratch, AKA DJ-PON3 with Field Marshal Eagle Eye, Equestria's newest hero! He'll be going on tour to all garrisons around Equestria with Princess Luna starting next week, so if you want to submit your application to enlist with the big shots themselves, look up your tour day, TO-day! Marshal, thank you once again for coming onto the show!"
"My pleasure, Vinyl."
Twilight reached up, smiling lightly as she turned off the radio set. It was good to hear that Eagle Eye had gotten the position. She'd recommended it for him herself to Princess Luna, who had been eager to find a real commander to take the vacant position of Field Marshal.
"So, that was the infamous Colonel-I mean…Field Marshal Eagle Eye. Came quite a long way in a mere month, wouldn't you say?"
Twilight glanced over her shoulder at Rarity, currently munching on a sugar-free brownie levitating in front of her, held up by a magical aura. The vain fashion mare had been on a bit of a dietary binge after weighing herself and finding that she'd gained two pounds since her last time on the scales three months ago. After that, she'd panicked and immediately switched her eating habits. But Twilight knew she'd eventually calm down, realize that her outfits were still perfectly sized to her and start eating normally again, albeit with a little more caution.
Currently the fashionista was watching Twilight carefully, blue eyes taking note of the mage's expression. Said unicorn grimaced, knowing what Rarity's scrupulous gaze would find; bags under her eyes, ruffled coat, messy mane. Maybe a nervous twitch every now and then, just to mix it up a little. In truth, Twilight knew how haggard she looked, and hadn't planned to go out today. Still, she knew that she had to leave the library at some point. Fortunately, she didn't have to face everypony as soon as she'd stepped out the door. Pinkie Pie was in the back room right now making a new batch of cupcakes, Fluttershy was out with Big Macintosh (the two of them made such a cute couple) and Applejack was busy working the fields with Caramel. But the biggest issue was with Rainbow Dash. Or rather, between her and Applejack. The blue Pegasus wasn't around anymore, having left a few weeks back. Not that she'd moved away, exactly, but things would never be the same…
"Darling, you simply look a dreadful mess. Why haven't you been out and about, it's been months since you got back!"
"-A- month, Rare." Twilight shrugged, taking her seat again, feeling her back slump a little. Quickly, she corrected that, sitting up straight. "I dunno. It's just been hard, readjusting."
"Twilight, you speak as if you were at war for years. You were only in Stalliongrad for two days. I know you had a hard time, but I can tell there's something else bothering you."
"Rarity. Please. Not now."
The white unicorn watched her dear friend, quite concerned, before she nodded and smiled sadly, brownie forgotten on her plate. "Of course, dear. I don't mean to push; I'm just trying to help."
Twilight sighed, setting her head on the table. "I know, Rarity. But please…right now, I don't want anypony's help."
Hoovsin Bay, Southeast Equestria
Naval Storage Harbor (Deactivated)
Housing the Hoovsin Bay Reserve Fleet
These ships were centuries old. It was a wonder, Luna considered, that their wooden hulls hadn't rotted out yet, but Hoovsin Bay was near Savanneigh, and the 7th Battalion had at least a few unicorns who kept the ships maintained, at least holding back the stresses of time until these ships could be properly scuttled and disassembled into Equestria's resources, the pieces probably ending up in an industrial yard in Seaddle or even in Fillydelphia. Stalliongrad certainly wouldn't be processing anything for a long time, meaning that Equestria had lost a lot of industry.
Luna huffed. She had her work cut out for her.
Still, she trotted forward down the pier, examining the ships she passed by. They were old steam galleons, relics of a time long past. Compared to the naval forces of today, they weren't even seaworthy, much less able to go to war. No armor, primitive cannons, engines of nowhere near the same efficiency as today-scratch that, she thought as she saw that most of the ships were missing their engines. Probably pulled for factory duty somewhere up north.
Yes, Luna knew these ships would never sail to war again. And yet there were so many pieces of history here, kept locked up in this barely maintained base, little more than an Army Harbor Watch outpost now. But, with the Royal Navy reactivated, they needed warships from somewhere.
"Your Majesty," said her personal bodyguard, a Pegasus stallion named Stormchaser, dressed in his golden armor with a captain's blue star on the breastplate. "Why are we here? I thought today's task was in reconstructing the Navy." Stormchaser was a grizzled veteran, a stallion who'd worked his way up the ranks. Though highly trained for most of their lives, most Royal Guards were reviewing battlefield procedures once more and updating their tactics based on the Army's experiences around Stalliongrad. They were the veterans now, the ones to call on when battlefield veterancy was needed, but Stormchaser had a small problem with humility. As such, he was bold and blunt, two traits Luna liked in a bodyguard. She needed someone to question her constantly and tell her she was wrong, or she was liable to not realize it herself.
"And we are, Storm. It's all here. The Oatlahoma, Neighvada, Ponyvania. Even the Marizona, once considered queen of the high seas." Of course, as Luna gazed up at the fearsome dreadnought, she knew that one torpedo to her copper-plated keel and the floating pile of matchsticks was done for. She was little better than target practice now.
"And so?" pressed Stormchaser, frowning under his plumed helmet.
"And so, Storm. We will finally scuttle these ships and make way for the new Hoovsin Bay Naval Yard. I hear there's actually a small job shortage in Savanneigh and the surrounding countryside?"
"We were planning to introduce some new greenhouses to make up for the deficit."
"Well, forget that. We need dockworkers, ponies who know how to work with their hooves. They may not yet know steel, but they'll learn. And we've got plenty of experienced labor from Stalliongrad up north. You see, Storm, this is our beginning. I've been doing endless reading on the naval ships of today, and I do believe I can resurrect Her Majesty's Royal Navy to once more become the most powerful in the world."
She glanced over at Stormchaser, who was, understandably, looking quite dubious and dumbfounded. Poor stallion, was probably wondering if he should call for a therapist for the moon princess. "Uh…beg pardon, ma'am. But how are you going to do that with these wrecks? And against the Canid Fleet?"
"It's simple!" And with that, Luna's horn glowed, a purple bolt leaping out to strike against the side of the Marizona. Where her magic touched, the wood seemed to shiver, slightly, before it began crumbling away, faster and faster, the countless years of sitting in the warm ocean air finally taking their toll as the unicorn magic was reversed, the cautious repairs made by the Harbor Watch being undone. In mere minutes, the ship listed to port, but then began to sink, slowly, as the hull began to shrink away, enormous holes creeping across the wood. Before the top mast could touch the water, it too was consumed by the spell as the Marizona simply faded from existence.
"Well, that was easy. I'm surprised Tia didn't come down here and do that herself," Luna commented casually, flicking a forelock as Stormchaser stared on in alarm. "Anyway, as I was saying, once we scuttle this decrepit old group of sticks, we can resurrect it! Update and rebuild every ship! You see, despite all the centuries since the Navy has gone to sea, combat on the water has changed very little. Oh, there's new things to consider like anti-air, torpedoes, finding submarines with depth charges, but in essence tactics are the same. Therefore, once we rebuild we simply sail with the same methods we used generations ago. No need to study and rewrite. Of course, our new hulls will be steel instead of wood, but I do believe that once the yard is established, we'll have what we need to begin work on our first few capital ships." Luna turned to Stormchaser once more, an eyebrow raised. "And our first project; the dreadnought Marizona in her new form." Of course, finding the plans for a completely modern battleship shouldn't be too hard thanks to the assistance of a small nation of spies known as Viperia…
Cloudsdale, somewhere over Equestria
Campbit Air Force Base (reactivated)
7th Wing, Royal Equestrian Air Force (reactivated)
Basic Training, Day 24
Princesses, it hurt like hay.
Dash was definitely a physically adept pony, as she would be the first to brag. Long days spent training for her shot at the Wonderbolts had left her toned and muscular, nimble and fast. She'd prepared her entire childhood and adult life to achieve her dream and eventually wear the blue uniform bedecked in lightning bolts and fly alongside General Spitfire, Colonel Surprise and Major Soarin...
Of course, that was much more feasible now, after the demotions.
Thanks to General Spitfire's laxity and carelessness in ordering an attack that caused unnecessary casualties, she'd been slapped with voluntary manslaughter and criminal negligence. Her punishment? Demotion from general all the way back to Flight Lieutenant in the new Air Force, after sixty days in military prison. Soarin and Surprise got a lighter sentence, only being charged with criminal negligence and demoted to Flight Lieutenant as well. Every other Wonderbolt had received the same fate, whether they had been in Stalliongrad or not, and they all had to bow before the new Air Marshal; Gale Rush.
In Pegasi culture, names were a confusing issue. For example, there were no 'last' names, and families simply named their foals whatever they could think of. Oh, sure. There were exceptions as earth pony culture overlapped with them. That Wing Commander Leeroy Wingkins, for example, in command of the 9th Bomber Wing. But Dash's family was a proper Pegasus one, of course, and that meant that they mixed and matched their names so often that nopony knew -what- to call them.
"Hey! Are you lollygagging, maggot?"
Dash knew what was coming, and felt the blow to her back as she staggered, forcing herself back up again as she strained. Her wings were strapped to her sides, much like Applejack had done in the Running of the Leaves, and over her back had been draped a set of saddlebags with two enormous bricks of lead. Except here, fortunately, they weren't expected to run mile after mile in a marathon (thank Celestia for that...). Instead, this little jaunt was all about endurance in the hot sun, unblocked by clouds over Cambit AFB. So far, the other Pegasi recruits alongside her had been going at this for over an hour, and already they all looked ready to faint.
The Training Instructors (or TIs are they were called) were especially ruthless in this part of what had become Dash's new life. In the morning, before dawn, they were rousted from their cloud bunks and ordered into assembly in a set time. If they failed, they had to go without breakfast that day, and everypony went hungry (they'd gotten over that little problem fast, and were now practically in assembly in their sleep). Then came morning exercises...which was where they were today.
A whistle suddenly blew, and the TIs all stopped skulking around like a pack of wolves (that comparison was actually rather ironic at this point) and the Senior Training Instructor (no, not referred to as STI, they made a point of making that different) Flight Sergeant Lightning Squall let the whistle drop from her lips.
"Alright!" the orange Pegasus called out, looking over the gasping group of recruits. "Take five, lose the lead, get some water. But if I see -anypony- drop their bag through a cloud, they'll have to gallop around the fort -twice- while we watch."
Squall was a harsh mare, a sergeant in the Royal Army before the Battle of Stalliongrad. As one of the 89th who had survived, she'd actually enjoyed watching the Wonderbolts get deposed and turned into common soldiers again thanks to Spitfire's mistake, and her high performance scores and good record had gotten her fast-tracked to the Basic Flier Training Program. In the Army's words, it was boot camp for Pegasi.
Dash gasped as she felt the saddlebags being lifted from her back by two TIs, grateful at last for the chance to walk without effort and finally spread her wings again...but Squall never gave the order for the bindings to come off, so they didn't, leaving every recruit standing around on the cloud, waiting while another TI started down the line with levitating canteens, courtesy of the Magic Corps. Dash gratefully reached out, sipping at her own despite the fact that her throat roared with thirst. She wouldn't make the same mistake many other fresh recruits had made, in which they gulped and gulped and in the end just wound up swallowing a lot of their water without banishing the thirst.
After five minutes, Squall finally recalled the canteens with a single piping note from her command whistle, and all the magical vessels drifted away towards their collection bins. Fortunately, most of the recruits were now watered up and prepared for the next challenge.
"Alright," said Flight Sergeant Squall, standing before the recruits with her eyes set, squinting under her blue duty cap at the uniformed recruits (uniform, sure. Training duds meant a one piece jumpsuit that covered everything from flank to neck. Dash was looking forward to when they would finally don their skintight flight suits). "Now, so far we've gone through three weeks of physical training, history classes and familiarity with regulations. Tell me, platoon, who was the second in command of the 7th Wing at the Battle of Crazy Horse Ridge?"
"Captain Thunderhead, Instructor!" the recruits all chorused back.
"Good! Let's go with some modern news, shall we? What is Canida's take on the Battle of Stalliongrad?"
This one was an individual question, and it was up to the fliers to take a step forward and announce the answer. Fortunately, Dash knew this one, and she moved faster than anypony else to answer it. "Ma'am, Canida announced in an official statement that, thanks to communication errors, they were not informed that the Howloween Night and the Seawolf had gone rogue and deserted to attack Stalliongrad. As such, they thank Equestria for bringing these pirates to justice!"
"Thank you, Recruit. Step back."
Dash did so, retaking her place in the line and resisting the urge to smile smugly.
"All you need to know, fliers, is that war is on the horizon. I know it, the Princesses know it, hay even the whole bucking -world- knows it. But I need to make sure that -you- know it. So today, we'll be hitting the target ranges and familiarizing you with your new service weapons! Let's go, hooves up! One two, one two! Hustle, fliers, you can't land without strong legs!"
Yes, Dash thought, basic training was killing her. But it was her new dream now, to replace her old, shattered one.
Stalliongrad, Northern Equestria
Ruins of the 71st Royal Army Battalion's Garrison (former)
One Week Later
The turnout had been incredible.
As well as the survivors from the battalion, several thousand civilians (most of whom were workers who had returned to show their thanks) and dozens of griffons had appeared for the service. That was expected of course, so many ponies were grateful for the time the 71st had bought with their annihilation.
But, most surprising of all, were the enormous amounts of other soldiers there. Most were from the Army, of course, but there were also several from the newly restored Air Force and Magic Corps, as well as a line of sailors and marines from the Royal Navy (who, lacking ships, had taken over the Harbor Watch's responsibilities for the time being).
Everypony who wore a uniform wore it crisp and clean, proud and respectful. Air Force flyers were bedecked in deep blue while mages from the newly reopened university of the Magic Corps had bright green jackets and the tall, stoic marines bore the royal red alongside their tight-lipped, white-clad Navy brethren. But even though this colorful rainbow of uniforms made a solid block of the crowd, they were literally swallowed up by the sheer mass of Army tan dress outfits, black caps and belts marking row after row, white sashes draped across shoulders and over chests. The entire 102nd had shown up, for they were the most accessible (made simple by the fact that they had taken over the duties of guarding the remains of Stalliongrad) and several other groups were represented as well.
But instead of socializing, the mass of spectators stood in silence, in the mud. Nopony offered a single complain about the wet ground, or their wrecked surroundings or even to the frigid air that still could not be tamed by Weather Control (practically slaved to work in order to clear up the smoke and airborne debris from the battle). They were all rigid, facing forward with solemn expressions.
It was an obelisk, what stood before them. A great, tall obelisk that stood before the garrison's gates, in the center of what had once been an ugly killing ground. Now, for the sake of decency, the trenches had been filled in, the bunkers cleared away and the barbed wire taken down. But the obelisk stood as an obvious testament to what had happened at the crumbling walls behind it. Made of rich, strong obsidian, it was protected by a powerful alicorn spell, which would preserve the stone and the words written upon it through the rigors of time and ward off weathering. Carved upon its flat, black surface were the names of every single trooper who had died in the Battle of Stalliongrad, as the engagement was being called. Almost fifteen hundred ponies had been confirmed as killed in action, with the last remnants crawling out near the end, once the diamond dogs had been routed and left the city.
But there was only one name that newly promoted Sergeant Short Stop was interested in, and he kept his eyes fixed on its location, near the middle of the list. Sure, he would never forget all those who had given their lives to defend their homes, but he was here to honor the stallion who had been by his side nearly his entire service.
Hanging from his uniform, the starburst and oak clusters of the Merit of Valor glistened. This was only the second time he wore it, the first being when it was pinned on him. Every other pony in the 71st wore it as well, for bravery displayed in the face of overwhelming odds and the courage to stand in front of sure death. But Short didn't want the medal. He only wanted his sergeant back.
Before the assembled crowd, Princess Celestia stood in front of the statue at a microphone stand, her customary happy smile and wise airs gone. In their place, a grim and resolved expression was left, making her seem far more intimidating than any other time Short had seen her on the television. She wasn't here to spread happiness or to bless a town with the rising of the sun. Her flowing mane and tail, which had flowed with light in all her other appearances, were softly waving, devoid of any glow whatsoever. To see the Princess down here, in the mud and the sludge of the garrison ruins was a shock to everypony, Short especially.
The Princess began her speech with a deep sigh and a shake of her head. Her horn glowed, and from the stand's top a sheaf of paper flew off it, cast to the winds. "I can't do this," she said aloud. A murmur began in the crowd as the various ponies began muttering to each other, shocked beyond belief. Was the monarch refusing to do the speech?
Fortunately, Celestia continued. "That speech that my advisor wrote, it isn't me. I can't go on pretending this was some hour of glory and there were angels descending from On High with trumpets behind our bold soldiers as they fearlessly held the line. I may not have been here, but I know that's not what happened, and I can't say that." She shook her head again, slowly, stepping out from behind the pedestal and projecting her voice quite naturally as she paced across the platform. "So I'm going to speak quite frankly. I've heard that soldiers tend to prefer that. This unprovoked attack wasn't a diamond dog uprising like Canida is calling it. It was a deliberate action that has dragged us into conflict. It's already cost us three thousand soldiers, seven thousand police officers and twenty-four thousand civilians, all dead. This city is in ruins and the majority of the civilian population have been evacuated while reconstruction and insurgent sweeps occur. And all for what?"
The princess paused here, gazing out on the stony faces of the silent crowd with something akin to pleading, as if begging them to tell her that the victory had been worth the lives that had been paid for them. But Short had no answers, and neither did Corporal Azure Cobalt next to him, as the two glanced at each other before looking back. Azure, like him, had recovered from her wounds thanks to unicorn magic and a lot of bedrest, but she'd also received the Purple Heart for sustaining wounds in a combat action. Before today, she hadn't even taken it out of the box. They both hated their medals.
"These ponies gave their lives to buy the time needed for reinforcements to arrive. Any other unit would have fled, but because they were disciplined and dedicated to their duty, they held the line despite the savage losses that were inflicted upon them. They were outnumbered ten to one with nowhere to go, but they did not retreat. All to save the city and keep the rest of the civilians safe. Now, instead of the entire city destroyed, only a single district has sustained large ruination. We will rebuild. But this attack served as a wake up call to us."
There we go, thought Short, smiling a little as Celestia's head rose, her expression going from depressed and pleading to hard and authoritative.
"Ask yourselves for a second, everypony. If we had kept a fully active military and continued our long history of dominance instead of disbanding the armed forces, would it have happened like this? Would it have happened at all? I got lax, and the ponies of this city paid for it. It will -not- happen again. Don't forget those who sacrificed themselves to give Equestria a chance here," and Short could have sworn Princess Celestia had looked over straight at -him- but he may have just been imagining it "And above all do -not- forget the living."
The cafe's name was the Brass Saddle, he saw now. Interesting how Stalliongrad's metalworking industry was so deeply integrated that it stretched across the entire city, even here in the Residential Sector.
Short glanced down at his salt lick, sighing as he leaned down and gave it another taste. Despite the sharp, stinging bite of the salt rocks on his tongue and the sour taste melting in his mouth, it didn't make him feel any better.
"Good speech," said Azure from next to him, nursing her own salt lick. "Nice and short, but she was sincere about every word." After the ceremony, the soldiers had all gone their own ways, heading to socialize and have one final lick before they were forced to go back to their bases. With the military in full swing to wake up again, it was all hooves on deck to try and catch up.
But Short and Azure would be waiting for quite a while. They were one of the few heading out towards Canterlot, as it turned out, and Colonel Di'ac had arranged for a train to come pick them up in a few hours. The 71st didn't exist anymore, of course. There were too few survivors to try and reform it, and the soldiers left had been further split apart by the dismantling of the various branches to reform their own services. The Sky Corps fliers became Air Force, the Section Five battlemages went to the Magic Corps and those few surviving Harbor Watch troopers were inducted into the new Navy. Of course, the Army stayed the Army, no changing that. But some ponies had been selected to become Marines, and so their pool had shrunk even more, until it was just a few dozen left. Too few to build an entire battalion out of.
And so, they were drawn into the 105th, based in Canterlot. Their own colonel had retired just before war had come to Stalliongrad, so they were in need of a new commander, and with new war preparations they needed more recruits as well to swell up to the necessary regimental size of seven thousand, even after they'd activated their reserves. But word was, there were so many troopers signing up, even more regiments may need to be formed, and Canterlot already had five of them in the city. Rumor had it that the 105th was being reassigned to a border posting.
But Short didn't care. After the battle, everything had fallen apart for him. His mentor was gone, his battalion was practically nonexistent and Twilight had even gone home without ever sending him another letter. He had gone home for a week, of course, but Savanneigh didn't feel like home anymore. He took another lick, a hard one.
"Watch it, Short," said Azure, her neck displaying the large bullet scar she'd received. She'd become his ASL (assistant squad leader) for Victor squad, and as such remained his voice of reason and restraint, keeping him rooted to reality even in his time of grieving and self doubt. She never called him 'Sarge' either, and while it may seem that they were getting too familiar, they couldn't stomach being formal with each other. So, she called him Short and he called her Azure and nopony complained.
He nodded, pushing the lick away. Already a third of it was gone, and he sighed as he felt the burn of dehydration already beginning to set in. "I'll get some water," he muttered, but he didn't rise. He didn't feel motivated to, didn't feel the drive like he used to when Gunn was still around.
When Twilight was, too...
"Excuse me? I'm looking for Private Stop," said a voice nearby, and Azure glanced over, a look of surprise on the blue draft mare's face. Oddly, she didn't correct whoever it was, and Short groaned, turning his head and snapping "That's -Sergeant- Stop, for your informa-...oh."
There stood Twilight Sparkle, an amused look on her face as she looked Short up and down. He was still in his uniform, of course (sans cap, laying on the counter) but she was dressed in a tasteful purple dress, a short affair that wouldn't look out of place in a formal affair but fortunately kept its elegance in check with no excessive decoration. A simple silver chain hung from her neck, dangling a moon charm, and her eyebrow was raised.
"I think I see Sergeant Sunbeam over there," Azure said quickly, leaving her own salt behind as she quickly moved into the crowd of uniforms, disappearing in the colors.
Twilight stepped over, glancing at the salt lick. Short suddenly felt embarrassed and ran a hoof over the back of his neck, chuckling. "A little, uh...celebratory lick."
"You don't need to explain," said Twilight, not bothering to order a lick herself. She smiled at him again before glancing around the cafe. "Hard to believe this is still Stalliongrad, isn't it?"
"Hard to believe this is still the same year," Short replied, sighing softly. "It feels like ages since that day."
"I know what you mean..." Twilight murmured. Short heard her, as he suspected. "And I need to apologize, Short."
He frowned, looking back at her. "For what? You didn't do anything wrong."
"I never replied to your letters."
Short winced. He'd sent her three letters, using the address she'd given him. The public library, Ponyville, out in western Equestria. He'd always sent two copies, just in case (Twilight had warned him that Ditzy, the local mailmare, had a habit of accidentally mixing up the letters, thanks to her tweaked eyesight. She was a good carrier, it seemed, but had a case of dyslexia). But there had been no reply.
"Hey, it's alright."
"No, it's not."
"You were probably busy. Celestia can't count on just Luna to help her out, and her Grand Adviser is a sentimental romantic idiot." Blueblood, of course, had no idea just what the problems of the lower class were, and the rumor was that Celestia had only granted him the position simply to keep him out of trouble. Luna, of course, now held the dual role of both ruling the kingdom alongside Celestia and being Grand Marshal of the Armed Forces. Thanks to her, Equestria was reacting to the attack quickly, its military gearing up and the industry knuckling down to make up for the loss of Stalliongrad's factories.
"I wasn't," Twilight replied, smiling sadly. "I was...I guess you could say I was lost within myself. Ponyville didn't feel the same anymore, and my friends have tried to support me, but they don't understand. And everything's falling apart."
Short nodded, taking a gamble and placing a hoof on her shoulder, which she didn't react to, either positively or negatively. "Hey...if you need somepony to talk to, you know you can come to me."
She nodded again, absently staring into the crowd. It had swelled with civilians as the soldiers left to go back to their postings, and now there were fewer uniforms than there had been even five minutes ago. What few remained were mostly Army soldiers from the 102nd and their supporting fliers in the 9th Bomber Wing and the Navy Harbor Watch (most of whom were getting retrained in combat procedures). But the 102nd didn't have any battlemage support, as they had been a mechanized infantry battalion before the battle. Unicorns had only just begun to stream into the Canterlot Acadamy of Magic Combat (CAMC in military shorthand), and there was a short supply of unicorns who weren't retaking the basic training.
"How's it going with the 105th?"
Short nodded slowly, looking out at the crowd as well. "Alright, I guess. The colonel hasn't actually given me my own squad yet, but I suppose we need to wait for the first platoons to get out of basic training before we actually get some new recruits."
They fell silent after that, not dancing when music came on, not licking salt even when the disgruntled cafe owner came by and took the two unfinished ones. They didn't move from where they were, but they did look at each other. Little peeks and glances that quickly ended with blushes and both parties staring at nothing in particular extremely hard. The party went on into the night before the cafe finally closed, forcing the two of them into the streets again. Nowhere was truly safe in Stalliongrad anymore, even though the 102nd had annihilated the diamond dogs. Small packs still roamed the city at night, hiding from the Army and police as they tried to eke out an existence in the abandoned streets. But neither really cared.
Twilight glanced up at the sky, squinting at the full moon.
"Looks like Luna formed it early," she remarked. Short looked as well, frowning. The moon wasn't supposed to be full for another week, but the Princess of the Night must have completed it for tonight to guide the spirits of the fallen soldiers in the city home. Or so the legends went, anyway.
"Yeah..." he replied, then sighed. "Twilight, when are we going to stop this?"
She halted, a frown on her face. "Stop what?" she asked, in a tone that told Short she knew exactly what he was speaking of.
"We're dancing on eggshells around each other. Look, I know what happened has changed us, but it's not something we can't overcome. After everything we went through, everything we shared about ourselves, we can't go on pretending like it didn't happen."
Twilight glanced away. "Short, I can't. I'm too muddled up, too confused. I..."
"You're having nightmares, right?"
She nodded, still not looking at him.
"I did too, after my first fight. Cave skirmish, had to drive out some sirens who were sinking cargo ships and eating the crews. I couldn't sleep for weeks, was afraid to go anywhere without a little be of light."
Twilight finally looked back at him now, illuminated in the snowy street, tan uniform stretched tight over his frame, black cap perched between his ears and a dead serious look on his face. "Really? You?"
"Of course. True bravery isn't a lack of fear. It's the ability to act in spite of it. If you don't fear things, you make stupid mistakes. I was absolutely horrified by what I saw down there, afraid something was going to jump me everytime I turned out the lights. I still am, to some extent. It won't go away completely, but there is a way to make it better."
Here, the purple mage finally turned to face the grey soldier, an inquisitive and hopeful look in her eyes. "There is? What is it?"
"Having somepony there to help you through it." Here, Short reached up, lightly trailing his hoof along her jaw. "Gunn saw that I was having problems and sat me down one day. We talked for hours, well into the night. When we finally stopped, I suddenly realized how dark it was and how tired I was. But I wasn't afraid at that point. I went to sleep and I stayed there for hour until reveille." He smiled, his hoof ceasing its motion. "I'm not asking for much, Twilight. I can't really. We're an hour's flight apart and I'll be going who knows where soon-"
"I know where," she said softly, fortunately still smiling, eyes glittering in the moonlight. Short raised an eyebrow, pulling his hoof back and studying her closely before the pieces came together, and he risked his guess.
She blushed a little, glancing away for a second. "The Everfree Forest is a bit dangerous, and so is Froggy Bottom Bog. The mayor requested a military presence in the region for security, since we're also a bit close to the border and...well..."
"No. You didn't!"
"I did," she said, grinning sheepishly and letting a little giggle escape her. "She OKed it almost instantly. You're shipping out as soon as you get your new recruits!"
Short's jaw was hanging open in disbelief, and he glanced at the cobblestones with wides eyes. "Dang...but what about fortifications?"
"Already built. You'll be stationed in Glass Grass Fields, just a few miles outside of town. Nopony uses the place, and the wide expanses are perfect, so I called in a little favor from Lieutenant Conway-"
"Conway's a -Lieutenant?-" Short blurted out, staring at the student with wide eyes. She burst out laughing at this point, holding her sides as she chortled, so amused by his astonishment.
"Yes, he is! Anyway, I asked him to spare me a few of his experienced unicorns, and the palisade is already set up. All we need now is-"
Whatever the regiment needed, however, was a topic left for another time. But it would be a long while before Twilight and Short got over the shock of the kiss that he had abruptly pressed to her lips. It had been a reaction, completely unintentional, but as soon as he'd done it he knew it felt just right. And Twilight, once she'd realized what had happened, went along with it, pressing back against him.
The two kissed under the moonlight, both of them feeling more alive in the last few minutes than they had for an entire month.
Parliament, Prime Minister Mation's Office
"Mister Prime Minister, I have no excuse or explanation. The operation's fault lay with the issues in the chain of command, not personal grievances."
"That's what you keep telling me, Captain! And yet, the Howloween Night is in pieces at the bottom of the harbor in Stalliongrad, the diamond dogs have been utterly annihilated by the Royal Army, and the Seawolf is now in enemy paws...hooves…hands! Do you realize what a catastrophe this is?" Prime Minister Dale Mation, already exhausted from the lack of sleep over the last few weeks, fell back into his chair, drained beyond belief.
"Ulrich...I know you tried your best, and things got complicated. But the point of the matter is, I -cannot- give you back your rank. Someone had to pay for what happened, and you were the only one to return. I'm sorry for all the negative attention that's come your way, but its out of my paws."
Captain Ulrich Boxer, feeling the stinging burn of shame coursing through him, simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The entire mission had gone pear shaped, and the Admiralty had pinned him with six or seven different charges, each one that could potentially see him executed. But, he'd simply been demoted to Captain and put on official reprimand and report. At this point, anymore screwups would definitely see him getting a bullet.
A little harsh for a single mission gone wrong, but everyone in the higher echelons of the Hegemonic military was freaking out, trying to keep everything together even as the prospect of war loomed on the horizon. Fighting Equestria by itself in a conventional battle would have been easy enough, even with their witches and warlocks. But the fact that two demi-goddesses were rulers of the Kingdom was enough of a terrifying prospect that even Chewchill was beginning to balk at the thought of war. Add to that the fact that every other nation not in the Hegemony was announcing their loyalty and allegiance to either Equestria or Hippogryph, and it seemed like the entire world was out to spill some canine blood.
Yes, Boxer knew why he'd been demoted. But he also knew that he could still redeem himself.
"Well then, Mr. Prime Minister. What happens now?"
Mation nodded, slowly, leaning forward and pressing the button on his desk intercom. "Luise, send him in."
Boxer raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.
The Prime Minister turned to the captain, his face set in stone. "The President has issued me a challenge, Ulrich. He knows the risks that fighting a multi-front war could impose, not just the chance of defeat but also victory with a ruined economy. He -was- a Fleet officer, after all, he knows something of tactics. He wants to ensure that when war -does- break out there will not be an allied front in the south."
Boxer raised his other eyebrow. Cause a split between Steelclaw and the Princesses? That was a tall order.
"To assist you, I've called in another operator. I'm aware that you're acquainted."
Before the disgraced commander could ask for clarification, there was a rapping at the door, light enough to not be intrusive, but loud enough to make its presence known. Mation called out "Enter."
The door swung open to reveal a wide, inquisitive face, dressed in a plain uniform like Boxer himself, alert and aware eyes dancing back and forth between the captain and the Prime Minister, and as the Catahoula Cur shut the door behind him, Boxer felt his hackles raise and let out a sharp snarl.
"You!" he snapped, his teeth now bared. Dirk Frost simply nodded stiffly before he turned, saluting crisply to Mation.
"Major Dirk Frost, reporting as ordered, sir."
"MAJOR? You promoted this idiot?" Boxer snapped, astonished, shocked and betrayed at the same time. He was usually able to hold onto his emotions relatively well, but this was just crossing the damn line!
"Captain! You will settle down! Major Frost's team accomplished their mission perfectly with few slip-ups and light casualties. The residents of Hoofington are even now being relocated to Ottapaw as we speak. You, on the other paw, lost two ships, thousands of crewmen, hundreds of Marines, your entire team and tipped off Equestria as to our plans-yes, I KNOW it's not your fault!"
Boxer snarled again, his ears pinned back. There was nothing he could say, it seemed. The Prime Minister's mind was already made up.
"Now, gentlemen. If you'll kindly take your seats, we can get started."
Dirk Frost glanced at Boxer coolly, reminding the disgraced dog of when they'd both served in the Marines. The bastard was always the perfectionist, the goody-two shoes, the factoid book. In other words, a REMF's dream. No wonder he'd been promoted.
"So, Berzerker. I guess we'll be working together again."
Frost extended his paw, and Boxer stared at it for a second, feeling the urge to bite it off.
In the end, he simply clasped his own paw around it, staring Frost in the eye.
"Indeed, Ice Dagger. Just like old times."
Canterlot, Royal Palace
Royal Labyrinth, Statue Collection
What was this?
Was it finally time? It WAS, it was finally time! The spell around his prison was finally shattering, about to let him go free! And it was now time to go and spread so much chaos and disorder through the world-
What? Oh no, this wouldn't do at all. Looks like Celestia went and screwed up, and badly too.
The world's already in Discord.
The stone cracked before him.
But it could always use a little more.
(Wow. Here we are, at the end of this tale of intrigue and fabulous settings. And now, I find I must close this tale at last. But not forever.
On that note, unfortunately…
Tomorrow, I will go with my friend to the US Army National Guard enlistment office. I'm signing up. And that is where I am in my life now. But fear not, I will not depart for basic training quite yet. I will still be around for at least three more months, as I refuse to leave my family for Christmas when I have the choice. But that does mean a whole three to five more months where I am not writing at my computer.
But fear not, my friends. For when I return, I shall once more pick up my keyboard and type again. I say this will all humor and ridiculousness aside, for I am actually being sincere, and you have my sincerest apologies for my not informing you, my faithful fanbase.
For this, however, I give you an ultimatum; I can potentially complete the second story in time. A chapter a week, every Friday morning (West Coast time, of course). This will, however, mean shorter chapters, which will definitely be easier for me to type in the time I have here.
Or, I can keep at the longer chapters and the unknown schedule, getting as much done as I can and resuming on my return. It is all up to you, my readers.
I know this may seem incredibly unfair to you, and I do apologize for that. If you wish to stop reading after this, I don't blame you in the slightest. But I still stand by my decision.
To ease your pain, on the otherhand, I can give you a small treat with the official summary of Ceasefire, which is posted below. It will be posted along with the story, but this will give you some idea of what is to come, whenever it does.)
Six months after the Battle of Stalliongrad, the world is teetering on the brink of all out war. As Equestria scrambles to rearm and readjust their weapons and tactics for modern warfare, the Hippogryph Matriarchy begins eying up its neighbors, trying to decide who would be more delicious to take a bite out of; dog or horse. Meanwhile, up north, Canida is on the verge of complete civil war, so panicked are they in going up against two powers, one of which is ruled by goddesses. Prime Minister Mation, however, has a plan to tip the scales with the help of disgraced and demoted Captain Ulrich Boxer, mad for revenge. Twilight Sparkle has been irrevocably changed by her time on the line, and is plagued by visions and nightmares, distancing herself from her friends, which is destroying the close bonds of the Elements of Harmony and their friendship. To top it off, Sergeant Short Stop is assigned to Ponyville with an entire battalion to defend the town, and everything in the world just seems to be spiraling out of control. Who will suffer when it all comes to a head, and who will finally come out on top?