John fell to his knees, cracking the pristine marble as the 1,000lb suit came down with him. He felt the piercing stare of the Solar Princess boring into the back of his hanging head.
“Good to see you again, John.” She said, her voice betraying a hint of sarcasm.
He kept his mouth shut, his anger already starting to bubble up again.
“Well, I apologize for the… seemingly exaggerated treatment… I couldn’t having you, a lethal super-soldier, running rampant around my country. After what I saw you do to Big Macintosh, I was unnerved by your raw power. I hope you understand.” She waited for a response. When John gave none, she continued. “I was surprised that you didn’t try to escape again, John.”
He ground his teeth at her using his name so callously, but said nothing.
“The guard reported that the door was left open after my pupil, Twilight, visited you, although I have a feeling she wasn’t the only one…” The Princess explained. “At any rate, I wanted to ask you why you didn’t try.”
Out of anger, John chose to remain silent.
“You were so eager to get to that crash site before. But it’s almost as if you couldn’t find something you were looking for.” The Princess stood up, starting to descend the steps that led up to her throne. “My guards had searched the ship from top to bottom, finding nothing but ruined machines.” She brought forth an item with her magic. John recognized the pistol that he had salvaged from the wreck earlier. “However, I’m quite familiar with what this is, albeit a little different from what I’ve encountered before.”
John’s head rose slightly. “Encountered?” He blurted out.
The Princess’s mouth curved into a smile, obviously glad that she had his attention. “Yes. I’d be happy to share those details if you would be willing to share just what is aboard that ship.”
John bit his lip inside the helmet. “It’s… There’s… There’s a ship there that’ll let me get home.” He felt himself ease up. It technically wasn’t a lie; he really was telling the truth.
The Princess smiled. “As I thought.” Her smile disappeared. “However, I don’t think you’re being completely honest with me, John.”
John resisted the urge to grind his teeth, his own name now grating on his nerves.
The Princess sighed. “Look, John. I’m very sorry to say this, but you might leave me no choice.” She turned to face her throne. “I’ve already been told by Twilight that you almost killed her. That was a dirty trick, throwing a knife while she was off-guard.”
"I gave her a warning to release me." John explained.
The Princess's horn glowed for a moment. John felt a sudden migraine blossom in his forehead, the earth seemingly shaking around him momentarily before the quakes subsided. The migraine withered to a gentle throbbing in his forehead.
“Had it not been for her counsel, I would have turned you to stone as soon as I set eyes on you.” She said, her voice quivering with rage. “First Big Macintosh, and then my very own student.” She turned to face him again, her eyes serious. “You’re already treading on very, very thin ice, John.” She smirked, although John could sense no goodwill behind it. “If you refuse to loosen your lips, it would be too easy for me to simply turn you to stone as of now, and be rid of you.”
John couldn’t believe his ears. Didn’t she tell you that I carried her out of that forest? His thoughts began to buzz with activity, his mind trying to churn out a solution to get him out of this situation. If he was going to give information, she would give him something in return.
“I’ll make you an offer, then.” He stated boldly.
He withheld a chuckle at the Princess’s confused look. “Excuse me?” She asked.
“A compromise, ma’am.” He said.
She narrowed her eyes, glaring at him. “Well, speak up, then.”
“I’ll give you the information you need.” John stated flatly. “You ask, and I answer. Nothing off the table.”
He paused. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired effect, as the Princess knew he wasn’t finished. “And the catch?”
He scowled under his helmet. When she said it that way, he sounded like a wily merchant trying to trick her out of her money. “I’m free to wander as I please. Specifically in and around the crash site.”
The Princess recoiled, obviously strictly against what he would gain from this. “That’s a bold proposal, John.” She said warily. “And as I said before, I’m already having a hard time trusting you. What makes you think—”
The doors to the palace burst open to reveal a very-distressed Twilight Sparkle pushing past two Royal Guards. “P-princess!” She cried.
The Princess in question frowned. “Twilight? I’m sorry, but I’m currently trying to negotiate with your…” The Princess sized up John with a disapproving glance. “Your guest.” She spat.
Twilight took a step forward. “Shining Armor told me that you planned to turn him into stone!” She shouted. “Please! Tell me that it’s not true, Princess!”
The Solar Princess’s frown deepened as she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but it cannot—”
“It is a he, Princess!” Twilight said. “He means us no harm! If he truly wanted to destroy this planet, I’m sure he could’ve killed me and my friends long ago!” She turned to gaze right at John, her expression somber. “But he didn’t. When Rainbow Dash tried to attack him in the depths of the Everfree Forest, he hesitated to do just that!”
She looked back at the Princess. “And you’ve seen his potential. He could’ve easily… killed her. You want to know why he held back?” She asked, taking another step towards the Princess.
When the Princess didn’t answer, she continued. “He told me himself. He recognized that she was simply fighting out of fear, and not aggression! He held back just because he saw her intent was only to help her friends, and not to bring him down!”
“Twilight, that’s enough.” John said.
Both the Princess and Twilight looked at him, their looks of surprise mirroring the other’s.
The Princess coughed politely. “Yes, Twilight, I think you’ve actually helped me arrive at a decision.” She said.
Both John and Twilight looked up to the Alicorn, curious at just what executive decision she had made in her head.
“As judge and jury to the Royal Court, I grant you your freedom, John.” She said.
John felt relief flood—
“As long as you retain one of the Elements at your side, you’re free to wander where you please.”
Hm. Still sounds like freedom… Element…?
“However, in the following session, and in the times to come, you are to answer any and all questions proposed to you. As you said, nothing is off the table.” She said. “Anypony who notices a break in this decree shall immediately report to me, and I…” She narrowed her eyes again. “I will make sure that I take the appropriate measures.”
John shivered unconsciously, although the armor hid it fairly well. To his relief, the Princess turned around, facing the throne once more. “Twilight. Can I trust you to escort John to his previous quarters in Ponyville?”
“I will, Princess.” Twilight replied gratefully.
John felt something tug on his hand, forcing him to stand up as Twilight’s magic pulled his arm away from where he was kneeling. Making their way to the exit, John yanked his hand free from Twilight’s magic, standing up to his full height. He looked down at the purple unicorn. “Why are you helping me?” He asked, his voice firm.
“Because…” Twilight started. “I don’t want you to be alone.” She looked back at him, her eyes somber. “When I was fighting that draconequus, Discord, he turned my friends against me. Isolated me from my closest friends and companions.” She blinked back what appeared to be tears. “That feeling nearly tore my very being asunder… And if that device you put to your head is really what I think it is… I realized that you were going through something similar to my previous predicament.”
John’s anger blew a gasket, escaping from the iron confines within his mind. “What I’ve gone through is nothing—” He started.
“Just listen to me!” Twilight yelled. “I know you’re a soldier! And that you’ve lost comrades that are practically brothers and sisters to you! And now you’ve lost the only friend that’s survived through it all, leaving you truly alone!” Her voice broke. “It’s just that I don’t want to see someone that’s as kind as you are to fall apart! I can’t just stand by and watch!”
John’s anger retreated like heat leaving a hot poker dunked in a vat of water. When he didn’t respond, Twilight continued.
“You saved me from those Timberwolves, and you went through the trouble to get me to my feet and piggyback me out of there. That’s proof you’re a good person.” She turned back to him, eyes brimming with grim determination. “Just give me this. If you lose all hope in life, I’m going to lose hope in my potential as a pony.” She finished, giving a small smile before looking down at her hooves.
John looked down at the pitiful creature, sizing up his options. It seemed genuine; her concern for him. The knot of regret returned, making his gut feel like it was full of stitches the longer he gazed at her sullen expression.
“Okay.” John said simply.
Twilight looked up. “W-what?” She asked.
“If it means that much to you.” John added quickly.
Twilight gave a little smile. “Thanks, John.” She cocked her head. “It’s okay if I call you John, right?”
John shrugged. “I would’ve had to give you my real name anyways, with that decree your ‘teacher’ laid down.”
Twilight’s smile disappeared. “We also still have to ‘reveal’ you to ponykind.” She kicked the cobblestone. “And I’m not sure you’ll be accepted by all.”
John looked ahead. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Twilight’s smile returned. “Speaking of that royal decree earlier…”
John turned to face her, only to nearly leap out of his armor when she had closed the distance between each other in an instant. “I have several questions for you…” She said, eyes gleaming in childish (or fiendish; John couldn’t tell the difference) delight.
“So you’ve somehow managed to access this… Slipstream space?” Twilight asked as the carriage rattled to a stop. They had arrived at the very farmhouse that John had escaped yesterday.
“Well, just a way to get in there. The drive that does this only manages to simply ‘tear’ a hole in this, and squeeze a whole ship into it before shutting door behind it.” John explained, obvious fatigue in his voice. He stepped off of the carriage, glad to be on solid ground again.
Twilight smiled. “Thanks for giving me a chance, John.”
John could only nod as they both approached the farmhouse. Twilight looked up to John. “I believe you and Applejack have already met, so I think I’ll take my leave.” Twilight said, trotting away towards Ponyville.
John turned to watch her go. “Did you tell her what happened?”
“Yes, I did. You’ll be fine! You’re a super-soldier, remember?” She teased.
John gritted his teeth under his helmet. She sure warmed up fast. Turning to face the door, he raised a fist, pausing for a moment to steel himself before he rapped twice on the door.
There was a quiet scuffling inside, as well as a few panicked whispers. The door creaked open, and a small, younger equine answered the door. A pink bow that seemed a size too large for it sat on the back of its head, contrasting to its mane of darker red hair. It stared up at him with large, curious eyes. “…N-no way…” It squeaked.
John simply stared at it. This one sounded no older than a young child. “Uh, hi.” He said.
The small horse leapt up at the sound of his voice, squealing and slamming the door in his face. A sheepish-looking Applejack opened the door again. “Ah’m sorry; Apple Bloom has problems showin’ her manners in front of strangers.” She said, eyeing him curiously. “I’d say it’s good t’see ya again…” She said, trailing off.
John simply nodded, knowing where she was going. “Twilight left me here; she wanted—”
“Yeah, Spike dropped a letter off earlier explainin’ the situation.” She said dismissively. “The Princess let you off the hook; said somethin’ about Twilight sayin’ you were a good guy.”
John was about to downplay it humbly when Applejack narrowed her eyes at him. “She also said I could ask anythin’ I want, and YOU would hafta answer me.” She finished.
John simply stood there, jaw partially open. Twilight had already barraged him with a plethora of questions about UNSC technology on the entire three-hour flight back to the farmhouse. He wasn’t exactly eager to answer any more.
After a short period of staring, Applejack broke the silence with a laugh. “Never thought I see a super-soldier get all flustered from somethin’ as little as a question!” She said, chuckling.
John couldn’t help a shit-eating grin, but it quickly faded.
“I guess I’ll start by askin’ what you wanna eat.” Applejack said simply. “We’ve got corn chowder an’ biscuits tonight; care for some?” She asked, smiling.
“That…” John started, catching himself. He felt somewhat embarrassed; the first opportunity he got at getting hot chow and he was already champing at the bit.
However, he found himself mentally shrugging. If he was going to be staying here, it might be smart to at least get himself fed. The last way he wanted to die was of something as trivial as lack of food.
“That sounds delicious, ma’am.” He finished.
“An’ call me Applejack! No more o’ that ‘ma’am’ and ‘missus’; ya make me sound like an’ old lady!” She said, turning to go inside. “Wait out here, and I’ll bring you a platter.”
John took a seat next to the door, reaching to the back of his helmet. He removed the chip, thumbing the metal fondly.
He couldn’t help a sad smile before replacing it into the back of his helmet, staring up at the moonlight.
Suddenly, even with the thought that hot food was on the way, John felt very cold.