Chapter 19: Natural Born
James stood there, massaging his jaw with one hand. He hadn't exactly expected that kind of welcome from a friend and neither did he expect what came immediately after. Before he knew it, Jackson pulled him into a big bear hug, almost lifting him off the ground.
"I am so glad to see you again, man, but if you ever pull some bullshit like that on me again, I'll cap your knees myself." Jackson said gruffly.
"Alright, alright!" James grunted as he was being squeezed, "I'll try not to, promise."
He put James down and stood back, though he left a hand on his shoulder. "Everyone thought you were dead. There was no way anybody could have survived that assault and yet we never found your body. I mean, I know why now, but what happened?"
"C'mon," James started with a step back, "let's go inside and I'll tell you everything. Who's your friend?" He asked, looking at Mayfield who had since holstered his weapon.
"Hi, I'm Sergeant Mayfield, SAS." Mayfield stepped forward and extended a hand, which James shook, "Nice to meet you. Your pal, Jackie Boy, has been looking for you for far too long."
James led both of them over to the house, opening the door and ushering them inside. The interior wasn't bad. It was spacious enough and well furnished. There were a couple of couches and some chairs, how his friend had gotten those so far out into the forest, Jackson didn't know. He was also surprised to see electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. They were off at the moment, but that was fine since the room was lit by large bay windows that over looked the falls.
"Nice place you got here." Mayfield remarked.
"Yeah," James responded from the kitchen where he was retrieving some things for his guests, "It was a pain in the ass to build, but I had some help."
"Lemme guess, about five or six individuals from Ponyville?" Jackson questioned.
James walked back in with some cups and a couple of bottles. He looked at Jackson with a look of interest with just a pinch of surprise added. "You met them?"
"Yeah, I did. I was trying to find you, but they kept dodging all my questions. And then this one pegasus with a crazy colored mane actually threatened me."
"You talking about Dash?"
"Yeah, I think that was her name, Rainbow Dash. What's up with all that?"
"Oh brother," James said with a roll of his eyes, "Here, come with me, its a pretty long story."
He gestured to the two men to follow him and they all went outside to the large balcony. They sat at a table out there, James poured water into two of the cups, in the third he poured a dark brown mixture. Jackson glanced at the label and saw it was rum, the same brand he'd found in the room back at Flash's house. For a moment, they just sat in silence, the only sound being the faint rush of the falls some distance away.
James gathered his thoughts and then dove into the story of how he'd come to this world, starting with the fateful morning in that desert so many years ago. He covered his arrival into the strange land, making friends with the locals and eventually ending up working for the royalty and founding the Royal Special Tasks Group. ". . . I woke up at the triage, they said Dash barely caught me in time. They also said I should have been dead, given the amount of serious injuries I had, but some how I pulled through. After that I just decided that I'd had enough of it. I was tired of killing, it just got too exhausting ending so much life like that, sending others to their deaths. So many died. . ." He said somberly, taking a swig of his drink. "I quit right then," he continued, "I wasn't really needed anymore. Dash and the girls helped me disappear. We found a place out here where I could just live out my days in peace and I've been here ever since. How'd you find me, anyway?"
"Shit." Jackson said as he processed the whole thing.
"Yeah. How'd you find me, anyway?"
Jackson smiled, "You aren't all that good at disappearing. In town, you are famously known as 'The Demon of Everfree Forest."
"Ugh." James sighed, "You save a few dumbass travelers from dying horribly and the next thing you know, you're some kind of mythic creature. Meh, as long as they don't know who I am though, paparazzi here is just as bad as back home. Enough about that, though. Tell me, how in the hell did you get here?" James asked with great interest.
"Honestly, I'm not sure." Jackson told him. "I was in a joint training exercise up north, Bellis paired me up with Mayfield as chasers."
"A blizzard hit in the middle of it," Mayfield put in, "and everything just went tits up. Took refuge in a cave."
"Then the cave entrance collapsed, we thought we were fucked. But then I found a way out through the back, only instead of Earth, we ended up here." Jackson finished.
"Damn, that sucks." James said with a chuckle. "How are things back on the old blue marble?"
Jackson exhaled sharply and leaned back in his chair, wondering where to start, "Well, we're finally out of Afghanistan. Al Qeada and the Taliban are still around, but they don't do much of anything anymore. No more money and the drones keep killing all their leadership before they can plan anything."
"That's good at least." James nodded.
"Yeah, but but some freaky global death cult took their place. It's a weird group." Mayfield interjected, "No demands, no agendas announced and they attack anyone and everyone. All the big governments got together and set up an international operations group to counter it, that's what we were training for up in the arctic. Almost all the countries pitched in their best; the US, my own lovely UK, France, Russia, Israel, Germany, Canada, China, Australia, even the bloody Arabs are working with us. Great to see everybody getting along for once."
"Bellis is one of the US officers in charge of the whole thing. He made Commander." Jackson mentioned.
"He's running it?" James asked.
"Naw, just part of it. Him and a bunch of other high ranking officers from every other country. It's a nice group effort, we're kind of our own little micro military, not really tied to any one nation."
"That's pretty cool. What about the old team, how they holding up?"
"Nix is doing good, been working with him a lot. Feng bought the farm though. Few years back, jumped on a grenade."
"Fuck" James whispered. What about your family?" He asked, trying to switch to a cheerier subject, "I think you had a kid coming, little girl, right?"
Jackson's head hung low, his expression becoming strained. He slipped a hand into his pocket, feeling for the photo he always carried with him. He briefly considered dismissing the issue and moving on, but James was his brother, even if not by blood. So he extracted the photo, slowly pulling it out and placing it on the table.
"Yeah, we named her Sophia. You woulda liked her."
James took the photo and looked at it. It was a little girl, smile beaming brightly on her face, even though she was missing her two front teeth. She was standing by a tree, wearing a nice Sunday dress. James smiled himself at the photo and looked back up to his friend to pay compliment, but faltered when he saw Jackson looked to be on the verge of tears.
"She, she uh. . . She was diagnosed a while back. Leukemia, doctors said it was pretty bad, that she had only a few months to live. But she proved them wrong. Held in there just over a year." He Jackson said with a faux smile, his voice shaking as he spoke. "Then she. . . Well she was just gone. . ."
"Oh shit." James muttered. He reached over and out a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, man. Goddamn."
"Afterwards, Vanessa left. She couldn't handle it anymore. First I was gone all the time, and then Sophie. . ." He reached over and grabbed James' drink, taking a swig for himself. "We divorced, about four months ago."
"Holy shit, mate." Mayfield said. He just sat there the whole time, astonished at the scene happening before him.
James snatched up Jackson's glass and tossed the water out onto the deck, replacing it with rum. "Thanks." Jackson said as he did. James looked at Mayfield and jiggled the bottle. Mayfield shrugged and poured his water on the deck before leaning forward to let the man pour him some as well.
"So what 're you gonna do now? I'd tell you how to get back home, but I really don't know if you can." James said after a moment of silence.
"Yeah, we've thought about it. I met that one pony, I think Twilight, while I was going around looking for you. She said she was investigating the whole thing." Jackson replied.
James nodded, "If anyone could figure it out, she could. She's real friggin' smart, that one."
"Can she?" Mayfield asked. "This place is real nice, but I've some unfinished business back home."
Jackson picked at something on the table, "Yeah. This place is real nice. Honesty, I think I wanna—"
"YOU!" Someone shouted from overhead. Everyone looked up. A cyan blue pegasus mare zoomed down to the deck and landed with a loud thud on the wooden planks before aggressively advancing on Jackson. "I thought I told you to stay away!" She shouted angrily, "I oughta—"
"Dash!" James stood up quickly, seeing a situation about to get out of hand, "Calm down, it's ok, they're friends!"
She rounded on him with an incredulous expression, "But if they can find you, then—"
"Hey, hey, relax," James said, moving to her side and placing an arm around her shoulders. "These guys are smart and well trained for that sort of thing. They're not here to hurt me and they aren't gonna tell anybody about me. Here, I want you to meet an old friend of mine, he's like a brother to me. This is Darius Jackson."
Dash didn't look convinced, "So? I don't know 'em and I don't trust 'em!"
"Dash," James said crossly, "I trust this guy with my life. In fact, he's saved it a few times."
"But what about the other guy? You don't know him at all! What if he's an evil jerk?"
"Hey, I'm right here y' know. . ." Mayfield mumbled.
"I'll vouch for him." Jackson said confidently.
"Good enough for me." James smiled.
"But- but they have guns!" Dash protested.
"And if they really wanted to hurt or kill me, they would have done it many times since now. Now please, calm down." James chastised.
Rainbow Dash flicked her ears back in anger, but she couldn't argue with that logic. "Fine." she said in a huff. "But I still don't like it!" She stomped off into the house, slamming the door behind her.
"Well, that was a nice little scene!" Mayfield chuckled awkwardly.
James rubbed his face with a palm, letting his hand flop onto the table, "I know, sorry about that. Don't worry, she'll warm up to you soon. She's just a bit over protective."
"That's way too protective for just a friend. Almost sounded like she was kind of jealous." Gears turned slowly, but then something clicked in Jackson's mind. "Wait. . . Are you. . .?"
"Yeah, I know, it's kind of weird." James admitted.
An uncomfortable silence settled over the trio. Both Mayfield and Jackson gazed at James with a funny look on their faces. Finally, Mayfield broke the quiet between them all.
"Hey, I ain't gonna judge. Honestly, once you get past the different body structure, they almost seem human in mind. Except that they walk on all fours. And some can fly. Or or do weird magic tricks with their heads. And also—"
"Cut it out, man," Jackson interrupted, "that's not helping!" He turned back to James, "It's cool with me, brother. I might've done the same thing if I was stuck here for over six years."
"Four." James corrected.
Jackson rubbed his bald head, "Oh, yeah. The time difference thing."
"Time difference!?" James shouted in astonishment. "Wait, you mean six years have gone by back on Earth!?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Another thing, you look like you haven't aged a damn day. The hell's up with that? It looks like not a single day has gone by since I saw you. Well, except for the new scars. . ."
"I don't know, I never really noticed. Actually, now that I think about it, I kinda feel younger. Maybe it's the air here."
Just then, the door to the house swung violently open, revealing a still ticked off Rainbow Dash, "Hey, Zecora's here to see you." She she announced dismissively before leaving again.
James checked something in his pocket, "Oh, it's that day already?"
"Who's Zecora?" Jackson inquired.
"She's another friend of mine." James answered. "Lives here in the forest too. Every month she stops by and we have tea together." As if summoned forth by the use of her name in conversation, a zebra let herself out onto the deck, a bag hanging over her side. "Oap, and there she is now! Hey Zecora, how are you today?"
"Very well, my human friend. It's certainly nice to see you again." She walked over and stood by the table. "And what is this, my eyes do see? Only one human has now become three!"
"Yes, meet my friends, this is Darius Jackson and. . . Mayfield, right? They're from where I'm from. Would you mind making some tea for them as well?"
"Not at all, it's easy to do. I'll brew for four instead of two." She trotted back to the kitchen, leaving them alone on the deck.
"Does she always speak in rhyme?" Mayfield asked half seriously. "It's like being in a Dr. Suess book."
"It's something you just get used to." James replied.
"So, Kaughn." Jackson started delicately.
"You know what's been going down around here?"
"A little. I got a contact, keeps me informed. Still having some trouble with a splinter group. I take it you've been handling all that?"
"That and then some." Mayfield said. "Did some research of my own since I been here. When you fought them, they just used crossbows and swords and such. I don't know if you know, but they've graduated to rifles."
"Really?" James said, troubled and intrigued. "My source failed to pass that on to me."
"Anyhow," Jackson said, "they could probably use your help. They got a good set up, but their forces just don't have the same experience that we do."
James considered his friend's words. He had quit the business for a reason. The RSTG had been trained, its operators equipped with the best the country's minds could produce, they had even more to work with now than they did three to four years ago. He wasn't needed anymore. Still. . . "I don't know, man." He said. "I mean, I just got my own little paradise here. I got a ton of friends that care about me, every day, or nearly every one, is peaceful. . . and I don't get the nightmares anymore."
Jackson looked down at his drink. He remembered those days. The kinds of things he would mumble in his sleep, waking up in the middle of the night to fend off an attacker that wasn't there. The screams. "You know I won't force you. I won't even tell about your location. Just. . . Just remember, brother, blood is thicker than water."
Zecora soon returned, now balancing a tray of hot ceramic mugs on her head. Carefully, she slid it onto the table and took her own seat and drink, pensively sipping the warm beverage. Everyone else took a cup, the heat of the drink warming their hands. James took a gulp, exhaling a breath of contentedness. Jackson looked into his own mug, it was filled with a murky green liquid, not at all like the tea he was expecting.
Beside him, Mayfield cringed. "Ulgh, what is this, it's all thick and goopy. Oddly pleasant aftertaste though. . ."
"It's not for your taste on the whole, but mostly good for heart and soul." Zecora said.
"Yeah, I've tried to get her to change it up," James said, "but she always insists that I drink this. It's not so bad after a while."
"Uh, why? Can I ask?" Jackson quandered with confusion.
Zecora smiled, "Only this way it must be, in order to ensure the destiny." She said cryptically.
Jackson looked at James with a questioning gaze, but he only replied with a shrug that said, 'your guess is as good as mine'.
James looked at the slowly setting sun and drank the rest of his drink before standing up, "Looks like it's getting late, you guys should probably get back to where you came from before anybody gets suspicious."
"Already? But we just got here!" Mayfield exclaimed.
"No, he's right, we should go." Jackson said defeatedly. "If we stay any longer, Flash is bound to go looking for us at some point. Wouldn't want to ruin this nice little set up." He stood and followed James around the side of the house. Mayfield reluctantly got up and walked with them.
At the front, James quickly gave them some directions to get back to town faster. Jackson raised a hand up, which his old friend grasped in a firm shake, "You change your mind, just come by Flash's place and we'll get you in gear," the big man said, "it'd be great if you had my back again."
"I told you," James replied firmly, yet gently, "that's not my job anymore."
"But you're one of the best at it." Jackson countered, looking him dead in the eye, "Natural Born Killer, Ghengis Kaughn. You can't escape that."
"Maybe not," James laughed, "but I can damn well try. Good luck, hope you and Sergeant Mayfield get back home safe."
"Yeah, not looking forward to explaining my absence to Bellis. Good-bye, brother. I'll try to visit again soon."
"I'll be here."
At that, they released, Jackson turning around and marching off with Mayfield. James watched them go for a minute before returning to his house by the cliff. With Mayfield by his side, Jackson walked grimly through the underbrush, eventually coming out onto a used, but well concealed path.
"Your reunion go as great as you wanted it to be?" Mayfield asked him. "Don't think he's gonna come back, seemed perfectly content there."
"He's not the kind to just sit around while his friend's out in danger somewhere. He'll come around. Maybe."
A bright moon hung in the sky, lazily drifting through the night while the stars twinkled all around it like a lone ship sailing across a sea of light. Illuminated only by the moon beams, a lone man sat out on the wooden deck behind his house, listening to the rush of the waterfall, staring down at the metal object glinting in his hand. A cool breeze blew by, teasing the growth of hair on his head.
James couldn't sleep. Jackson showing up out of no where had rattled him a little on the inside. He had never expected to see him again. Especially after he had opted to stay in his new adopted home, even after Twilight had offered to try and create a way back to his old land. Now the thought of his friend, his brother, getting mixed up in the trouble of this land worried him.
Behind him, a door opened, the sound of hooves walking softly on the wood deck approaching him, coming to his side. There was a ruffle of feathers and he felt a wing extend across his back and gently rest on his shoulders. "You should put that away and come back to bed." A scratchy female voice suggested. "It's getting chilly in there without you."
James ran his free hand through the shag of hair on his head, noting that it was getting long enough to trim again, or maybe cut. "Yeah, sorry. I'll be in in just a minute."
"I heard what that man told you." Dash said softly. "You're not gonna go back, are you?"
James sighed, his expression torn, "I don't know. I know I don't want to. But—"
"Then stay, it's that easy!" Dash asserted, moving around to face him. "We got a good thing going here. And I don't want. . . I don't want what happened last time to happen again." She said sadly, "I almost lost you. . ."
James' expression softened, like it always did when he gazed into the big rosy eyes that stared back at him. He moved his hand forward and cupped her cheek, "I don't want to, but I'll do what I have to do regardless, if I have to. Hopefully, I won't. Jackson's a competent guy and his buddy's from the SAS, they don't fuck around." He explained kindly.
"Ok, but right now you don't have to do anything." She said decisively. "So put that thing away and come back inside with me."
James chuckled, "Alright, you're right." He lifted the revolver he was holding and placed it back in a case on the table, closing and locking it before picking it up. "Let's get back to bed. I could do with some warmth from my fiery girl."