At lunchtime Pound entered the cafeteria and grabbed a tray of food. As he was heading to a seat he spotted Pumpkin and Masky heading to the back of the line. Masky had a cool, cocky expression on his face. He tried to imagine how he would feel in the land of dragons, surrounded by the majority of their species.
The only dragon he knew on a personal level was Spike. While Spike was nice he was a product of growing up around ponies. He didn’t know if he would have the guts to go there if he was offered the chance. It was no wonder Pumpkin had fallen for Masky.
He turned his eyes to her, walking right next to the colt and occasionally nuzzling his face. He didn’t know much about love, but even he could tell Pumpkin had the bug. “Ugh,” he muttered, put off by the display.
He put her out of his mind and took a seat, digging into his mashed potatoes and corn.
“Hey, Pound,” came the voice of Pumpkin a minute later as she sat down across from him, Masky sitting next to her.
Pound had some mixed feelings. Of course there was the issue of her frame-up, but he also remembered the previous day.
As if reading his mind she said, “I’m really sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t have been so rude to you. I was just so excited about the cool new student we had that I didn’t want to share him yet. And then with both of us being in the nurse after lunch you never even got to be properly introduced to each other.
“Pound, this is Masquerade Ball, but he prefers to just go by Masky. And Masky, this is my brother Pound Cake.”
Pound was caught off-guard by Pumpkin’s actions, but he recovered enough to put out his hoof. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, little stallion,” he replied casually, meeting his hoof.
Pound dropped his hoof. He was conflicted about Pumpkin, but this was the perfect opportunity for him to gauge Masky, and he couldn’t pass that up. There were two things that he had to determine, if it was possible: whether Masky really loved Pumpkin, and whether he had played a part in Pumpkin’s actions the previous day.
Even if Masky’s feelings weren’t real, Pumpkin’s certainly were. She would get mad if she felt he was insulting her crush. It would be for the best if he could get the colt alone, but that didn’t seem likely. The only place Pumpkin would likely give him privacy would be the colt’s bathroom, and that would be an awkward place for a conversation.
Of course he was curious, but he couldn’t just open up with such heavy topics. If he went and accused the colt of anything he would grow defensive and angry, and there would go his chance to learn about how the colt actually was.
For the time being he thought it prudent to simply talk with the colt as a new friend and put all his suspicions aside until the colt proved he deserved such negative thoughts.
“I heard that you went to visit the land of dragons. You got anything else?”
Masky smirked. “Just name a location.”
“Canterlot,” Pound replied, the first one that came to mind.
“Oh, that’s easy. We got to observe the Summer Sun Celebration as well as one of the most fun events ever.”
“What was that?”
“Well, the Royal Guard is there to protect Princess Celestia and other ponies, right?”
“While they try to prepare for every eventuality there’s always a few gaps here and there. There’s things that are hard to predict or prepare for. For some ponies they don’t have strength or genius intellect, but wit and cunning. And those are the types of ponies that are the most dangerous.”
“I’m gettin’ to it,” he said cockily, rubbing Pound’s forehead. “Keep your non-existent pants on, kid.”
Pound rolled his eyes, but quieted down.
“So Princess Celestia held a ‘contest.’ A number of ordinary ponies would get to ‘invade Canterlot.’ The goal was to see if someone, anyone at all, could get to Celestia’s throne room without being caught by the Royal Guards. The goal of that was to see if there were any weaknesses in their defensive patterns that your everyday pony might find.
“A mix of unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies started at several different locations, and the goal was for them to work together and complement each other’s strengths in an attempt to breach the castle’s defenses. We started in the castle gardens.
“Of course, ordinarily a kid like me wouldn’t be allowed to participate in this sort of thing, but since it was just a simulation and no one was actually going to get hurt during it they let me join in.”
Pound frowned, biting his lower lip. That did sound super fun. He tried to imagine him, Pumpkin, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Twilight, his parents, and the rest of their friends all on a team and seeing if they could infiltrate the castle. It would be really cool.
“So how’d it go?” he asked.
“The guards played it like a real invasion. At first they just went through their normal patrol cycles, but every time someone was caught security would get a little tighter. It wasn’t just because of our group. Each group lost members along the way.
“I saw that with the rate that ponies were being captured that getting to Celestia was going to be near impossible… but it wasn’t.” Masky’s smirk grew even wider.
Now Pound was really curious. “What happened?”
“Well, every adult around was a potential threat to the empire in the game, but there was a critical weakness that could be exploited, right?”
Pound’s eye’s narrowed thoughtfully, before they widened. “No way,” he muttered. “You?”
Masky nodded. “I was the only child among the groups, and no one would expect a child my age to be a threat. Even if they knew any pony was a potential enemy in the game they would still drop their guard.”
He put a leg around Pumpkin. “I already told her and the rest of the kids in the unicorn class, but my dream job is to be an actor, and I’m really good at it when I try.”
Pumpkin beamed at the contact. “He really is, though. After he introduced himself he put on a little performance for us.”
“Anyway, I disengaged from my parents to put my plan into action, choosing a spot somewhat out of the way but near some guards, and I started crying.”
“Crying?” Pound asked curiously. He gaped as Masky’s whole attitude suddenly shifted.
Tears welled up in Masky’s eyes, and though he did it quietly enough he wouldn’t attract the attention of the teachers he was still perfectly audible. “Heeeeelp! Someone! Huh? M-mr. Royal Guard. I-I-I lost my parents! I don’t know where they are! We got separated.” He capped it off with a wail as he rubbed his eyes.
Pounds expression slowly grew more incredulous. He believed it. Tears were actually coming down the colt’s cheeks, his expressions and tone were spot-on to someone in distress, and so was his body language.
Masky wiped the tears from his eyes before resuming his previous demeanor as if he hadn’t changed it at all. “So, yeah, something like that.”
Pound was definitely impressed, and understood even more why Pumpkin liked him so much. The rapidity of the shift, and how good he was at it, only increased his misgivings, though. If the colt could change his whole personality so easily how could he know what Masky's true thoughts toward Pumpkin were?
“It worked like a charm,” Masky continued. “In an actual emergency a guard couldn’t have a small child just tagging along, or I might get hurt if there was an attack. Either that, or I could be used as a hostage, which is also why he couldn’t just put me in a random room and tell me to keep quiet. So he brought me right to the throne room.”
“Why?” asked Pound. “If someone was after the princess wouldn’t that just put you in more danger than putting you in a random room?”
“It was the spot that was the most heavily guarded. If someone was powerful enough to blow past all the guards and get to the throne room do you think they’d pay any attention to a small child compared to the alicorn? Focusing on me would force them to take their eyes off of the super-powerful princess, who would take full advantage of the distraction.
“The guard informed the other guards of my situation, then returned to his position.
“I saw her then, not on her throne but more towards the front of the room. I was still putting on my act of being scared and upset, and I caught her attention. She reassured me that the test was almost over and we would find my parents soon.
“I really was awed to be in her presence. She was one of the tallest ponies I’ve seen, her rainbow colored mane sparkled and moved like a breeze was constantly on her, and she had such a kind and compassionate demeanor.”
“We’ve never met her,” said Pumpkin. “Even though Twilight was Celestia’s student back in the day we never got the chance to see her personally.”
“Well, it was something, all right. And I got to see quite the look of surprise on her face when she realized I duped her. I lit up my horn and shot a little sparkler at her. Nothing that would hurt. It’s more like a static shock. I told her that if I had been a bad Changeling, or just an unusually small pony, that I could have taken her down right then and there. And then I proclaimed victory for our team.”
Pound had to give the colt credit for boldness. He had been disrespectful a few times to Twilight, but he had always been mad when he’d done it, and he had a good grasp of her character. Masky would have no idea how Celestia would react to even a non-painful attack.
Pumpkin was similarly impressed. “That is so awesome! Showing up the ruler of the whole continent and making her look foolish in front of everyone? You’ve got guts!”
Masky snickered. “Well, the whole point of the exercise was to discover a weakness in their ranks, and I had accomplished that. She couldn’t get mad at me for it. In fact, she thanked me for showing that caution must be employed with everyone during a siege. And with that she brought the exercise to a close.
“After a little while all the ‘prisoners’ were released and brought before her, and I reunited with my parents. She thanked us all for our participation, and said some boring inspirational stuff, and my parents praised me for our success.
“After everyone had left and it was just me and my parents Princess Celestia asked me what I would like as a reward for my victory. I was only five then, so I didn’t want anything extravagant. I only asked for two things: to ride on her back and go flying together, and for a picture of us together for my photo album, both of which she accepted.”
“That must have been fun,” said Pound, thinking of how he had experienced being high up in the sky with Scootaloo.
“It sure was. And I even got a bonus out of it. Around the time I returned from flying it was starting to get dark, and Princess Luna was waking up for the night shift. So I got a picture of me with both the Royal Sisters.”
Pound felt a little jealous. “So you’ve flown with Princess Celestia, and traveled to the land of dragons, and that’s just a small taste of the adventures you’ve been on.” Masky nodded. “Thinking of that, school must seem pretty lame by comparison.”
Masky’s cool attitude slipped a little. “It’s not that bad. It’s nice to have some down-time. Sometimes I wish we weren’t moving around so frequently. New things are exciting, but I wouldn’t mind things being ordinary for a while.”
Pound’s eyebrow rose. What was with the attitude shift all of a sudden?
Pumpkin heard the shift in his tone too. “Hey, what’s wrong, Masky?”
Masky blinked, and then like a flash he was back to his old self. “Eh, it’s nothing. I’ve lived a very fortunate life, after all.”
Pound dug his spoon into his tray, putting a spoonful of mashed potatoes and corn in his mouth. Something was off about Masky, but he couldn’t tell what. Had he just been pretending to be sad like he had earlier, or was that what he was really thinking and he was pretending to be okay now?
“Oh, right,” said Masky, observing Pound chewing. “It is lunch time, isn’t it? We better hurry up and eat or we’ll completely miss out on recess.”
The three of them finished their lunch, putting their empty trays in the usual spot. As they headed towards the door outside Pumpkin suddenly stopped, shaking a bit.
“Excuse me, guys,” she said awkwardly. “I need the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” And with that she trotted off.
“Well, why don’t we wait for her?” said Masky, heading toward the table they had just been sitting at.
Pound followed, the two sitting down. This was his chance. Since he didn’t know how much time he had he decided to cut right to the chase. “What do you think about Pumpkin? She obviously loves you, but what do you think about her?”
Masky looked intrigued. “Heh heh. How long have you been waiting to ask about that?”
“Pumpkin would have gotten mad if I asked before. Tell me the truth. Do you love her?”
Masky crossed his front hooves, leaning forward with a cocky expression. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters! I don’t want to see her get hurt.”
He shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid it’s too late for that. It was too late the moment I got assigned to her class.”
Pound’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “What does that mean?”
Masky pushed further forward, so their faces were a few inches apart. “You want the honest truth, then fine. No, I’m not in love with your sister.”
Pound’s stomach dropped. So Pinkie was right. He was too concerned for Pumpkin to get angry. “You’re just using her, then? To inflate your ego? Because you like the attention?”
He shook his head. “Not at all. I did it to make her happy.”
Now he grew a little angry. “You’re LYING to her!”
Masky shook his head, as if he found Pound beneath his attention. “And so long as she doesn’t know that it can’t hurt her, can it?”
Pound’s eyes narrowed further, a sense of dread in his stomach. “How can you say such a thing? If you don’t like her then you should have said that at the start instead of pretending to.”
Masky rolled his eyes. “You misunderstand. Pumpkin is fun. I have nothing against her. I actually like her a lot. I just don’t love her.”
“So why are you pretending to?”
“As I said at the start there was no way for Pumpkin to avoid getting hurt once I was assigned to her classroom. She fell in love with me before I even said a word directly to her, and I could see it easily. Given how she didn’t even realize it was love until I brought it up I’m assuming it was her first crush.”
Pound gave a quick jerk of his head, but didn’t respond.
“Well, how would she have felt if the first pony she ever loved had rejected her? She would have been devastated. So I gave her what she wanted to avoid that. In a few weeks she’ll get bored and go back to her normal life.”
Pound tapped his hoof on the floor. “And if she doesn’t? I’m sure you’ll get bored before she does.”
“If she doesn’t then it doesn’t matter. We’ll part regardless when my parents decide where they want to travel to next.”
He tapped his hoof harder, trying to remain polite. “And you think THAT won’t break her heart?”
Masky waved his hoof dismissively. “You’re missing the point, Pound. If she gets over me before I leave we can part as friends. If she doesn’t she’ll be upset, yes, but it won’t be her fault. She’ll have nothing to blame herself for. We were split apart by circumstance, because my parents like to travel, not because I thought she was ugly or she was too clingy or any other reasons she might come up with. Either way, her first romance will have ended successfully in her mind.”
His eyes clouded over a bit. “And then she’ll forget all about me and move on to someone else.”
Pound stopped his tapping, feeling torn. “I know… I know that you’re doing this because you think it will make Pumpkin happy, but what about you? Your whole relationship will be built on a lie, and you’ll have to pretend to care when you actually don’t.”
“You don’t get it, do you? The world is full of lies. For some of us, clinging to them is the only way to survive.”
“And what does that mean?”
“This whole confident act is a bluff. Do I look like I think I’m better than you right now? I can assure you I don’t. However, acting this way does help me to feel like I’m a little bit more than I am.”
Pound felt odd and uncertain.
“Does it confuse you? That’s no surprise. I’ve played many a part over the past year or so. Lies, and pretending to care when I don’t, have become a part of my life.”
“Every new place we visit has something great and fun to do, but once the adventure is over real life takes precedence. We didn’t spend all our time in Canterlot hanging with the princesses. My parents have to work, and when they do I’m pretty much in the way.
“Since we never stay any place too long, and we need to travel light, the pictures are really all I have to take with me from place to place. We usually sleep in hotels, so I have no room of my own. And once we’re gone we only take the essentials with us. A few toys, a few books, maybe, but that’s it. Everything else is left behind… even friends, never to be heard from again.” He chuckled like he had just told a joke, but a tear came down his eye.
Pound felt a stabbing pain in his heart. He was starting to understand Masky. The kid was lonely, and was afraid to make real friends, so he squashed his real feelings behind a persona that everyone would admire.
Masky closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had felt the tear come down his face, and saw Pound’s resultant concern. He had to fix that.
“You want to hear something interesting?” he asked, leaning forward again.
“What?” Pound asked, sympathy welling up for the colt.
Smugly he said, “I was the one who told your sister to do what she did yesterday.”
“After she rudely pushed you away during lunch yesterday she told me about you, about how you were teased and bullied, and how they always got away with it. I told her she should be sticking up for you as your family, and if they didn’t listen then she should set them up to get them in trouble. Of course, the whole hitting herself with a stick bit was her idea. I told her she should only pretend to be hurt.”
Any empathy he had for Masky’s situation was tempered by his concern for Pumpkin. “So it was you! I knew Pumpkin was acting real strange, and I wondered if you had something to do with it. You took advantage of her feelings to make her do something she never would have otherwise.”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Masky asked cockily. “Tell a teacher on me? To do that you’d have to admit that Pumpkin was responsible for falsely getting another student suspended.”
Pound glared at him. He had a point.
“Come on, Pound. What’s there to be angry about? You telling me you’ve never told a lie for your sister’s sake? I certainly don’t see you sticking up for your bully. You’re lying right now to keep the truth secret, hmm?”
Pound groaned, picturing himself last night when he was begging Pinkie to keep quiet about what Pumpkin had done, and then being excited when Pinkie came up with a lie that would get Drill Bit off the hook while still not getting Pumpkin in trouble.
“Truth be told, this wasn’t about standing up for you. Pumpkin could have done it or not, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me.”
Pound squirmed guiltily, still thinking of how he was just as bad as Masky in terms of lying. “Then why tell her to do it at all?” he asked to distract himself.
“I just wanted to see if she would. There’s no point in caring about school life anymore. I don’t want to care about others that are just going to disappear, that’s all. So why not explore a bit? See what I can talk others into doing? See how rotten I can make them act? After all, in a little while it won’t be my problem, so what does it matter how much trouble they get in?” He snickered.
“That’s horrible!” Pound said, slamming a hoof on the table.
Masky only laughed harder. “I’m just kidding. If I really didn’t care about Pumpkin getting in trouble I wouldn’t be doing this whole fake love story to begin with, would I?”
Pound’s head was spinning with uncertainty.
“Hey!” Masky said, placing a hoof on Pound’s. “Calm down, now. I’m being serious. Pumpkin really wasn’t supposed to get hurt yesterday. And while I can’t bring myself to truly care about her I don’t want to see her get hurt, either.”
Pound stared into the colt’s eyes, trying to discern the truth, but it eluded him. “Why should I believe you? You’ve been a fake this whole time. Why should I believe you're not lying now?”
“Because I know pain,” he responded. “At least as worthless as I am I can still make someone happy.” He shrugged, releasing Pound. “I guess that’s enough, but I guess I have to wonder if it would hurt less to have just crushed her heart at the beginning rather than ripping it out later on when she’s got an attachment to me and we’re forced to leave one another.
“Oh, well. I’ll leave it up to you.” He pointed with his hoof. “Your sister’s back.”
Pound glanced behind him, his mind feeling scrambled.
“Well, Pound, I don’t care either way it goes. Tell her the truth, or don’t. As I said at the beginning your sister’s pain was inevitable. You pick which one you think will hurt the least. You’re her brother. I’m sure you know what’s best for her.”
“Hey, you guys!” Pumpkin said as she walked up to them. “You didn’t have to stay in here. I would have found you outside.”
“Come on, it was only right,” said Masky, standing up and nuzzling noses with her.
“Let’s go, then!” she proclaimed. Her head tilted as she looked at her brother. “You alright, Pound? You’re looking a little sick.”
What should he say? What could he say? The only thing he knew for sure was that ten seconds was not enough time to make such a choice.
Standing up he forced a smile. “Eh, I guess the food today just didn’t agree with me. I’m alright.” His smile cracked as he registered telling another lie.
“Don’t push yourself,” Pumpkin said with concern. “I don’t want you barfing on the slide.”
“I’ll be careful,” Pound replied.
“So you two find anything interesting to talk about?”
“You bet!” Masky said excitedly, grabbing Pound around the neck and giving him a noogie. “He’s a real character, your brother.”
“Hey, be gentle!” Pumpkin replied. “He’s not feeling good.”
“Oops!” he replied, releasing Pound. “Sorry about that.”
Pound didn’t respond. He really did feel sick to his stomach. He had never met a kid like Masky before, and his ability to switch personalities at the drop of a hat made him very confusing. He had no idea if anything Masky said was the truth or just another lie. Even his excuse and the tear he shed may very well have been a fabrication, given he had demonstrated being able to cry on command earlier.
How could he know if Masky was actually trying to make Pumpkin happy, or he was just building her up so it would hurt even more when he left her? Maybe he was a cruel pony that was just toying with her for his own sick amusement.
It was that uncertainty that killed him inside. If he took Masky at his word about doing it for Pumpkin’s happiness that still left the large issue of having the responsibility thrust upon him to decide whether to tell the truth or not. ‘You pick which one you think will hurt the least.’ He had no idea which was better, or, rather, which one was the least worst. The only positive outcome he could see would be to do nothing and just hope that Pumpkin got over her feelings for him before he left Ponyville, but there was no guarantee it would happen.
This made two big secrets in two days he wished he had never heard. It was too much, too large for him to handle alone.
Pumpkin tapped him on the cheek, really looking worried now. “Pound, I think you should go to the nurse. Your face is all pale, and you look like you’re about to pass out.”
His mind was going in hundreds of directions at once. The nurse couldn’t help him with this. Being stuck alone, with nothing but his thoughts, would destroy him. He needed to move, to do something, to act.
“No, no! I don’t want to go there. I think I just need some sun.” He wobbled a bit on his first few steps, but he steadied up as he walked past them.
Pumpkin let out a thoughtful “Hmm…” She debated on whether she should get a teacher and force Pound to go to the nurse.
Masky interrupted her thoughts as he put a hoof around her. “I can see what’s going through your mind, but there are two of us. We’ll keep an eye on him, and if his condition worsens then we can get a teacher involved, okay?”
He flashed a smile at her, but she was too worried about her brother to think of love. “Okay,” she said quietly as she nodded, pulling away from Masky as she trotted to catch up with Pound, hoping he'd perk up.