[December 2nd, 2551
Royal Palace, Canterlot, Equis
Fluttershy had never been a fan of parties. Even royal ones.
The food was great. The dresses were beautiful. Sometimes there was good entertainment or even fireworks. That was all great.
It was everything else that she didn’t like. There were too many people. Too much conversation. On the whole, Fluttershy preferred animals to most people. Animals didn’t care if you were shy and didn’t know what to say or when to say it. Animals didn’t judge you for being unwilling to burst out of your shell or ask you to dance.
Animals just listened.
That was why Fluttershy had slipped away from the party and into the royal gardens, which housed many creatures and plants from around the world. It was her favorite place in the entire city.
She thought back to the last few times she had been to the royal palace. On one occasion – a royal party much like this one – she had gone somewhat stir crazy and caused a huge scene, drawing far too much attention to herself. On the other occasion, the wedding between Princess Cadence and Twilight’s brother Shining Armor, the city had been attacked by Changelings. She hoped this party would be much less crazy than the last few, for her sake.
Presently, she returned her attention to coaxing a shy Jackalope out from under a bush.
“Come on,” she murmured in her sweetest tone, stretching an open hand out towards the little creature. “You can come on out. I won’t hurt you.”
The small, horned rabbit gazed at her warily, tentatively peeking out from its leafy cover. Slowly, it edged out of the bush.
“That’s right,” she told it calmly. “Come here.”
She was a little surprised that the Jackalope actually listened to her and emerged from the bush, cautiously leaning its head forward to sniff her hand. Normally, it would have taken her much longer than that to convince a shy animal to warm up to her. Then again, she normally worked with wilder animals that were not used to Equestrian presence. Here in the Royal Garden, people were probably walking around all the time.
“There,” she said to the jackalope, patting its soft head, “see? I’m not so bad.”
“You have a way with animals.”
The unfamiliar voice made her jump half a foot in the air and startled the poor little Jackalope, which promptly darted back into the undergrowth and out of sight.
“Hey!” she blustered, scrambling to her feet, uncharacteristic anger flashing through her mind. Her wings flared out. Whoever this was, they had just scared the Jackalope away, just after she had coaxed it out of hiding. “What do you think you’re –”
As she turned, she saw one of the SPARTANs leaning against a white wooden archway, staring straight at her, its arms folded.
“O-oh,” she whispered, looking down. “I’m s-sorry. I . . . I didn’t mean. –”
“I don’t like crowds either,” said the SPARTAN in a femminine voice, uncrossing its arms and making its way over toward her through the garden. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here. But the brass insisted.”
Fluttershy didn’t say anything. She just cowered and watched as the seven-foot-tall soldier made its way over until it was standing right above her. In the dim light, she couldn’t make out any distinction on the SPARTAN’s drab green armor. Suddenly, it reached out one hand and held it out to her, offering to pick her up.
“I’m Spartan zero-five-eight,” it said. “Linda.”
“H-hello,” whispered Fluttershy, deciding that the path of least resistance would be to cooperate. “I’m F-F-Fluttershy.” She took the SPARTAN’s hand, feeling the – woman’s? – immense strength in the fact that it only took a light tug to get her to her feet. Not that she weighed much to a normal Equestrian; she was both short and petite.
The SPARTAN glanced around the area; a small, grassy patch hemmed in by tall hedges. All around the clearing were bushes and trees in full bloom, with flowers sprouting from patches of brown earth on a hill in the center of the place. It was a peaceful, quiet place. The woman reached up and removed her green helmet, which looked as though it had some sort of high-tech binoculars attached to the top.
The SPARTAN, Linda, was as pale as Rarity's fur. She had chin-length, ginger hair and intense green eyes that Sophie could feel analyzing her as they both stood there.
“What’s so special about you and your friends?” Linda spoke suddenly.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“Why does your princess hold you all in high regard? I understand that one of you is her student, but that doesn’t explain her interaction with the rest of you.”
Fluttershy’s mind raced and her wings twitched. What was she supposed to say? It wasn’t exactly a secret that she and the other mares were the Elements of Harmony. That together, they had faced many dangers, like helping Princess Luna return to normal after many years of darkness, saving Princess Cadence and Shining Armor’s wedding after changelings tried to crash it, and most recently, helping save Crystal Empire from being taken over by an ancient evil. But how much of their special bond should she tell the SPARTAN?
“Well,” she started, lamely, “you s-see, we . . . we’re each s-s-special i-in our own way. And, well, together, we can create a special kind of Magic t-t-t-that can’t be called upon o-otherwise. We’re, uh, we . . . we’re called the Elements of Harmony. It’s, uh, Ancient Magic.”
“I see,” said Linda, clearly not seeing. “You and your friends can come together and work powerful magic. So the princess is interested in you all because you’re powerful and she could use you in her military?”
“Wh-what?” Fluttershy blabbered, astonished. Her? In the military? “Oh, no. N-nothing like that! We only use the Magic when there’s no other choice. If there’s something powerful and evil trying to take over.”
“That’s happened here more than once?”
Now Fluttershy really wasn’t sure what she should say. Were evil takeovers something that should be discussed with aliens?
“Uh . . . sometimes?” she said, not meeting Linda’s shrewd gaze. Luckily, she was saved the necessity of having to come up with anything more by a new voice coming from somewhere else in the gardens.
“Linda? Linda are you out here?”
Linda glanced over her shoulder, then back at Fluttershy. “I have to get going,” she said, sliding her helmet back over her head. “It was good meeting you.”
She looked back up at the SPARTAN that was towering over her. “Uh . . . y-you too. See you a-a-around.”
She watched as the soldier strode away, calling out. “I’m over here, Kelly. I’m on my way.”
_ _ _
“Princess Celestia,” said Hood. “This is someone I’d like you to meet.”
SPARTAN John-117 stood beside the admiral and eyed up the two alien princesses. Celestia, the one Hood had referred him to, was just a few inches shorter than him and had a serene, knowing expression. The shorter, darker one had her eyes narrowed as she gazed up at him, as though she were sizing him up as well.
“Another Spartan,” Celestia remarked, holding out one hand. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance . . .”
“Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan one-one-seven,” he said, shaking her hand. “John.”
“It’s good to meet you, John,” the princess said.
“He’s the leader of the Spartans,” Hood told them as John shook the other princess' hand. “He’s served in the Human-Covenant war since it started, and he’s been awarded almost every single medal the UNSC offers.”
“Impressive,” remarked Princess Luna, looking directly into John’s visor. “Tell us, Master Chief: what do you think of all this? Of our possible alliance?” She gestured at the room around them. At the fancy suits and dresses. All the drinks, the dancing, the peace.
John was silent for a moment. What was he supposed to think?
“If you don’t mind me saying, ma’am,” he said. “I think you could be serious danger if the Covenant were to come here. I think an alliance between us could be beneficial on both sides.”
He didn’t know enough about the Equestrians yet to say much more than that. He wasn’t exactly chatty in the first place.
“We’ve been told consistently that this ‘Covenant’ could easily destroy us if they were to ever appear here,” Princess Celestia said. “Could you tell us why you believe that so vehemently?”
Now they were asking him questions he could actually answer. He knew plenty about the Covenant.
“They come in force,” he said. “They invade worlds by the thousand. They hit fast and hard. They don’t take prisoners and they don’t show mercy. Their weapons can cut through ships quicker than they can be evacuated. If they don’t have any strategic interest in a planet, they’ll just glass it from orbit. Something you wouldn’t have any defense against.”
“You’re telling us we should be afraid?” Princess Luna asked. John couldn't read her expression.
“Ma’am, I’m telling you that you would be foolish to not be afraid.”
“I see,” Celestia said, nodding. “Thank you, Spartan. I appreciate your honesty. I hope that by allying with you humans, we may avoid such an outcome.”
“I agree,” Lord Hood said, entering the conversation once more. “And if anything were to happen, you’d now have allies willing to step in and defend you. We could even help augment your defenses with some of our own technology.”
“You know,” Princess Celestia said. “Perhaps that is a good idea. I ran into a colonel earlier tonight who seemed interested in the same thing.”
“Really?” Lord Hood asked. “Who was that?”
_ _ _
“Ah, splendid! You two know each other.”
“You could say that,” Catherine said to rather bouncy Princess Cadence, who stood between her and a certain Jacob Keyes. “How are you, Jacob? How goes the war?”
The man stood in his crisp, white military officer’s uniform; hands clasped firmly behind his back, posture ramrod straight. Catherine knew that look, and she wasn’t sure what was making him the most nervous: her, all these aliens, or this whole party situation.
“I’m fine,” Keyes said, nodding to her. “As for the war . . . well, I’m sure you’ve managed to read between the lines and the black ink on ONI’s latest report. It’s not going well.”
The princess glanced between the two of them for a few moments. Her eyes seemed to flash momentarily and a strange look of what seemed to be . . . understanding slid onto her features. She grinned.
“Oooh,” she said. “I see what’s going on here. I’ll leave you two be, then.”
And just like that, she brushed passed them to meet up with a tall Equestrian Unicorn just a few feet away, clad in an ornate uniform.
“That was . . . strange,” Jacob remarked, staring after the young princess.
“Yes . . . as are a great many things about this planet,” Catherine said. “Speaking of that and the war, it seems we would not have found this place if not for our latest defeat at Concord. It seems one of our ships, the Pony Express – ironically enough – made a random jump to escape the planet and ended up finding this one.”
“Luck of the draw, I suppose. And very lucky at that, if they really intend to support us.”
“But there’s certainly something off about this planet,” Catherine went on. “It’s populated with various creatures of myth, many of the cities and towns I’ve heard people mention have names similar to those on Earth with the only difference being that they are all horse puns, the Equestrians are some kind of human-horse hybrid, and then there’s this ‘magic’ to be considered. There’s something bigger at play here. I can feel it.”
“I know that look, Catherine.”
“Yes,” she said, looking up into his tense, blue eyes, “I suppose you do.”
“A long time ago.”
“How is Miranda?” Catherine felt inclined to ask about their daughter. She wasn’t sure when the last time she saw her, and she hadn’t heard anything about her in a long time. Perhaps that was good. With the war going on, she wasn’t sure when she was going to see her again. Maybe never.
“She’s a Lieutenant Commander now,” Jacob told her. “She was promoted last year. She’s in command of her own ship now – the UNSC In Amber Clad. I’m not sure where she’s stationed now, but I know she wasn’t able to be recalled for this gala.”
“That’s too bad,” Catherine lamented. “It . . . would’ve been good to see her.”
“I wish she were here too,” Jacob said. He glanced away. “I wish we were all here.”
Catherine raised her eyebrow. “Come now, Jacob. We decided this wouldn’t work. Everything is just too difficult. And we’re too different.”
“I remember,” Jacob said. “I just wish things were different.”
Truth be told, so did Catherine from time to time. But there really wasn’t anything to do about that. She could wish all she wanted, but it wouldn’t change the way things were. She wasn’t naïve. This wasn’t a fairy tale. The time for settling down had long passed for both of them and they knew it.
Jacob had his military service and the war. So did Miranda. Catherine had her research and her curiosity. And she had her SPARTANs.
“Ah, here comes Staff Sergeant Johnson,” Jacob said, turning away from her.
“You go on, Jacob,” Catherine told him, placing a hand on his arm. “I’ll see you some other time.”
_ _ _
Twilight stood beside Rainbow Dash, holding a glass of cider in one hand and shifting uncomfortably.
Rainbow had been in a sour mood the entire evening. Applejack had just stalked off after giving her a scolding for being so aloof. Twilight remembered phrases like ‘what’s your problem?,’ ‘just give them a chance,’ ‘you’re being difficult for no reason,’ and ‘why do you have to be so stubborn?’
None of this had gone on to change Rainbow's mood for the better. If anything, it just made it worse. The thin mare was leaning against one of the room’s many pillars, arms folded over her rainbow-colored dress, and scowling at the humans around the room.
“Er . . . Rainbow Dash?” Twilight said, deciding to try and break the uneasy silence between them.
“What?” she asked, her voice tight, not looking at her.
“Why are you so against the humans allying with us?”
Rainbow Dash rounded on her, her face a mask of what looked like shock. “Can’t you see how risky this is? These guys show up outta nowhere with crazy weapons, have a standoff with Princess Celestia in the middle of Heartsville, ‘warn’ us about some dangerous alien race, and are suddenly our official allies a week later? We don’t know anything about them! We shouldn’t be so quick to trust them.”
Twilight took a step back. She knew Rainbow was often hot-headed and took a while to really trust new ponies, but this was something else.
"Uhh . . . I don’t know, Rainbow,” Twilight said. “Don’t you think that’s a little paranoid? We should always give others the benefit of the doubt. They seem like a good species.”
“I just think we’re moving to fast,” mumbled Rainbow Dash, who was notorious for rushing through everything. “I don’t want us involved in some . . . some ‘space war’ that we’re not prepared for.”
Twilight didn’t get a chance to respond, because at that moment, all three princesses stood up at the front of the ball room. Princess Celestia held up one hand, which suddenly glowed with a bright, golden light that emanated from her palm. It shone upon her similarly colored dress and reflected the bright glow around the room.
“Honored guests,” she called out, waiting for the chatter to die down before continuing, “As I am sure you all have noticed, Equestrians are not the only species in attendance at my party this evening. Earlier this week, another race, known as the humans, discovered our planet in their space-faring travels and made diplomatic contact with me. After many meetings and discussions, our two species have agreed to pursue a formal alliance.”
Murmurs flooded the room. Some excited, some fearful, some curious.
Near where the royalty had assembled, the crowd parted, allowing two figures to step forward. The first was an older human man dressed in an officer’s attire. The other was one of the many hulking SPARTANs. Princess Celestia gestured to the pair.
“This is Lord Admiral Terrance Hood and Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan one-one-seven,” she said. “My sister and I have been with them for much of this evening and can vouch for their authenticity. As respected leaders within the world of humans, they likewise agree that an alliance with our kind shall be beneficial to us both.”
She and the man called Hood both stepped toward each other. Princess Luna, who stood tall with her hands clasped behind her back, addressed the crowd.
“My sister and Admiral Hood will now perform the ancient rite of The Pact,” she said. “They shall gasp each other’s arms, say the vow, and our species will from then on be officially and symbolically linked.”
Twilight watched as Princess Celestia held out her right hand, which Lord Hood gasped with his left. The princess placed her other hand upon their entertained ones and Hood placed his remaining hand upon hers. Princess Celestia began to speak the ancient words.
“I, Princess Celestia of the Equestrian ponies, do solemnly swear to look after your kind as if they were my own, to make sure that you always have a place in our hearts and at our tables, and to always help you if ever you have need of our wisdom or blades.”
Princess Luna turned her gaze upon Lord Hood. “And now you may speak the words.”
The man nodded, then took a moment to clear his throat. “I, Lord Admiral Terrance Hood of the human race, do solemnly swear to look after your kind as if they were my own, to make sure that you always have a place in our hearts and at our tables, and to always help you if ever you have need of our wisdom or blades.”
“It is done,” Princess Luna called. “Our destinies are now as one.”
Twilight studied the darker princess' face. The mare looked as though she were less than thrilled at the prospect of the newly made alliance, but perhaps that was just her formal demeanor masking her actual feelings.
The room erupted in clapping, though Twilight could see that not everypony was doing it. As far as she could tell, all the humans had gotten into it. It seemed as though only some of the Equestrians were much more reserved about their new alliance. Perhaps it was just due to how sudden everything was. Once they got used to the humans, they should warm up quickly.
At least, she hoped so. . .