Chapter 40: Sunrise
Jackson stretched on the balcony, enjoying the warmth of the red sun of a new day rose lazily over the horizon. It was not long ago that Sumner had come flying from the vault with the news that both the Princesses were safe, having holed up in the underground chamber with Commander Sparks and two recruits. Now, Celestia was once again fulfilling her obligation to her world and letting the sun shine bright once more.
After the scene in the throne room, Garth had come running in, looking for battle. When there wasn't one to be found there, he excused himself and his four Lotkin brethren and fell upon the flanks of the Renegades still fighting at the gates, allowing the forces from the city to move in and overwhelm the invaders. Now that all were either dead or captured, Canterlot could begin the healing process.
The damage inflicted on the capitol was even more apparent in the sunlight. Several buildings in the city had collapsed. There were still countless casualties unaccounted for. The Palace was the spitting image of a royal mess.
Jackson felt a tug at his sleeve, "Chief Jackson?" He turned to see a recruit looking up at him with a cloth wrapped bundle. "Found this for you. Pulled it off the corpse of a Renegade." He removed the wrapping to reveal a Mk 43.
It was scuffed and dinged in some places, but Jackson was still happy to see it. "Baby came home to papa." He said, caressing its familiar weight. "Any news on the cities?"
"Yes Chief, almost all have been retaken, but there are still some pockets holding out."
"Does Sparks and the Princesses know?"
"First ones to."
"Good. Hey, you haven't seen Kaughn around, have you?"
"Who?" The recruit asked, showing confusion."
"Uh. Never mind. Listen, I'm gonna go walk around. Send for me if I'm needed." Jackson ordered.
"Sure thing, Chief."
Jackson slung the battered weapon over his shoulder. He made a mental note to give his weapon the proper care it deserved later. Now, he wanted to go find his elusive friend. Entering through the balcony door, he marched down the corridor now going under reconstruction. The bodies and blood stains had been removed and master carpenters and masons were hard at work to restore the Palace to its former glory.
After the whole scenario and things had gotten under control, Kaughn had snuck off somewhere, possibly in search of food. Of course, he was acting a lot differently now, so it could be anything. Jackson thought on this, wondering what had happened to his friend and if he would recover.
"Dammit, there's got to be something here."
James was rummaging through a small bar in the lower levels of the Palace. With clinking glass, he extracted a promising looking bottle from those among the cabinet under the bar. He frowned when he saw it only contained a few dregs and tossed it over his shoulder where it shattered against the wall behind him.
The whole bar was already a mess. The Renegades had come through during their stay and completely ransacked the place. If only he could find one they missed. The sound of hooves made him pause. They came closer and finally, he figured they were at the entrance of the room. Slowly, James stood up, wincing with the pain in his side. His ribs and lung, he had allowed a healer to tend to, but the rest he was letting heal on their own.
"Howdy!" Looked as a vested and Stetson-ed earth stallion with a poker hand on his flank stepped into view.
"Hi." James said.
"Lookin' for somethin' to drink? Kinda early for that, don't ya think?"
"It's also too early to talk in rhymes. Honestly, I don't care either way." James told him and went back to what he was doing.
"Well, if I can be completely honest, the rhyme was an accident. And you're goin' about that all wrong." He said, making his way to the bar. "Every bartender worth his salt has his own secret stash of the good stuff. By the way, the name's Blackjack."
"Hi Blackjack, I'm James and I recommend you keep your distance."
"Whoa, hey now, no need for any of that!" Blackjack said as he took a seat at the bar. "Just tryin' to be a friendly fella."
"I got enough friends. Now what did you say about that stash?"
"Yes, I saw. They seem mighty worried about you too. Also, check the bottom of the liquor cabinet, should be a false one."
There was a crash as James unceremoniously swept all the empty bottles onto the floor. Then a splintering sound as he smashed through the cabinet's bottom. "Hey, good call." He said, coming up and placing a large jar filled with a brown liquid on the bar.
"Oh yeah, look at that pretty thing, home brew."
"Just a shame I had to wreck the cabinet to get it."
"Oh, there was probably a latch or something you coulda opened it up with."
"Great. Now I have splinters in my hand." James said as he pulled out a couple of intact glasses and poured each of them a drink.
"Well, thank ya kindly!" Blackjack said with a smile.
That sat there for a moment, sipping on their drinks. James sat up on one end of the bar, staring at Blackjack. Finally, Blackjack feeling nervous under his gaze said, "Uh, somethin' wrong, partner?"
James downed the rest of his drink and poured himself another. "Not really. I was just thinking about how you look like a certain stallion one of my friends described to me once. As I recall, it didn't end well."
"Oh, well that is a damn shame." Blackjack chuckled nervously. "Y'know, in my particular line of business, I often travel a lot and not everypony is happy with the deals they get, so—"
"It wasn't about business. At least, not entirely."
"Well, there's a lot of fellas out there like me, but a tad bit more unsavory. Say, tell me this, if it's alright but, why are you down here hidin' from your friends?"
"Who said I was hiding?" James asked in a low tone.
"Nopony, really. It's just that they're all lookin' for you up there and you're down here in a servants' rec room gettin' drunk with an old rogue like me."
"I just wanted some time to myself. I honestly don't know what they'd make of me right now. I did some things I'm sure they wouldn't approve of."
"Nonsense." Said a kind voice from the doorway. "You've helped bring back my subjects from the brink of abject misery."
Blackjack jumped up from his seat and immediately bowed. "Y-Your Highness, I had no idea you were there!"
"Rise, my subject. I'm told you had your own hoof in this countries salvation." Celestia said. "We owe you many thanks."
"Oh well, much obliged." Blackjack responded with a tilt of his hat. "Now, I hate to bring this up, but... I kinda lost my boat in helpin' out your boys. Then of course there's expenses. . ."
"I'm sure something can be arranged. For the moment now, would you kindly excuse us? I would like to talk to James."
"O-Of course, Your Majesty. I'll just see myself out." Blackjack said as he quickly left the room.
James didn't stand up. He didn't bow or salute. He just sat there, sipping on his drink. "I see you've found Olive's personal reserve."
"I'll pay her back later, it's good stuff."
"Yes, she's quite the brewer I'm told." She moved closer, stepping carefully over the broken shards of glass strewn across the floor. "James, I'm sorry you got dragged into th—"
"Save it. I did it because I wanted to. I also noticed you never carried out my will."
"You were never dead. I'm sorry, James, I'm not exactly accustomed to being spoken to this way from one of my soldiers."
"Then I guess it's good I don't exactly work for you anymore."
For a fraction of a second, Celestia's face seemed to harden, but it soon resumed its kind features. "I suppose that is true in a way."
"Listen. I got some questions of my own, if you don't mind." James said.
"For the moment, my time is yours. What would you like to know?"
"First, how is RD doing?" He asked, fingering his glass.
Celestia smiled, "She's fine. Still a little shaken up, but of course she would never let anypony see that. It would help if you were there for her however."
"Yes. I would like to see her again, but I'm not ready yet. Still covered in blood and all."
"You might also do with a bath as well." Celestia suggested.
James chuckled a little, "Yeah, I guess I'm pretty ripe. Definitely the next on my list to do. But I need something else." He said, becoming grave again. "A death squad was sent to my home. I can tell you it didn't end well for them, but I didn't get back in time to help my friends."
"Yes, as I recall, your actions helped to liberate the whole of the town of Ponyville."
"'Liberate' is a tame way to put it. Any way, Blueblood said it wasn't him that sent them. In fact, he seemed pretty surprised that I was even alive in the first place."
"I'm told by the detail I set to question him that he was quite terrified by your display."
"Once again, you're putting it tamely." James chuckled humorlessly. "What I want to know is... if he didn't do it, who did?"
"James, i must warn you that revenge is never the best action to take."
'I won't lie, that's part of it. I wouldn't have thought of it before, but now... I need to put an end to this. I need to do it for her sake as well as mine. I don't care if you help me or not, because either way, it's going to happen.'
Celestia thought for a moment, the sighed, "Very well, if that is your wish. I can not talk about this here. We will meet in the vault, I will send for you when it's time. For now, I urge you to rest and spend some time with your friends and loved ones... it is something you sorely need."
"I will, but you better follow through."
Celestia dipped her head, "You have my word."
The airship pulled into the final approach pattern, easing into the descent onto the tarmac used by the RSTG forces. Below, a small group waited, staring up at the battered ship anxiously. "Ya think that's them?" Applejack asked, eyes turned to the sky.
Between her and Rainbow Dash, Sparks chuckled, "I'd know that old rust bucket anywhere. Of course it is."
As gently as a ballet dancer, the craft touched down fifteen yards away from them, its engine almost immediately beginning to spin down. The side door flew open and a young colt shouted, "Daddy!" as he came bounding out into the sunlight, all smiles.
"Flicker!" Sparks said happily, beaming with equal radiance, as he galloped to his son and picked him up in a tight hug.
Back at the ship, four more mares and a small dragon stepped out into the bright sun. Aria finished her post flight checks then ran to join Sparks and Flicker in reunion while Spike, Rarity and Pinkie rushed forward to embrace their friends. Only Fluttershy lagged behind, still feeling numb.
"Oh, how absolutely dreadful the two of you look, having been through Celestia knows what!" Rarity said as she pulled back and examined Applejack and Rainbow Dash's dirty fur and mussed up manes.
"Yeah, Ah'll tell ya, it weren't no picnic." Applejack said.
"But we won, it's all over now!" Dash said with confidence.
"Woohoo!" Pinkie cried as she bounced all around them. "You know what that means. VICTORY PARTY!"
"Uh, yeah, I'm sure we'll have time for that later. Y'know, after everything's been cleaned up. The place is still a mess." Spike said. "Hey, RD, AJ, you wouldn't happen to know where Twilight is, would you?"
"Sure thing, sugarcube. She's talkin' with Princess Luna right now. Ah don't know 'bout what, but it sure must be important if Princess Luna is still up to speak with her. Oh yeah, hey Fluttershy!" Applejack yelled to her introverted friend. Fluttershy looked up dolefully, blinking slowly. "Guess who's here?"
"Your big pal Garth, that's who!"
"H-h-he is!?" Fluttershy exclaimed, perking right up.
"Yup! The big lug took out a bunch of baddies himself." Dash told her. "All while only getting a few scratches t— Hey, where're you goin'!?"
Fluttershy had suddenly taken flight, wobbling unsteadily through the air as she flapped up towards the castle. "I-I gotta go see him, make sure he's ok!" She said by means of explanation. "And then I'm gonna ask why he left without telling me!" She said, a hint of anger creeping into her voice.
"Oh boy." Dash said, starting to flap her wings as well. "I'm gonna go with her, make sure nothing bad happens."
"Yes, that's probably a good idea, she still hasn't been eating well." Rarity informed her cyan blue friend.
"Actually, I'm more worried about Garth. See ya guys later!" RD told them as she chased after the butter yellow pegasus who was already half way to the castle.
"Well that's great, Applejack, but what about James, did you find him?" Rarity asked, returning he attention to the ground.
Applejack was hesitant in her answer, "Yeah... Jackson said he's here, but none of us have seen him yet. Actually, Ah don't think anypony has. He hasn't been 'round all mornin' and Nopony's seen 'im since last night. Ah tried lookin' fer him earlier, but Ah jus' can't find 'im."
Much to the farm mare's startlement, Pinkie Pie suddenly materialized beside her, "What are you talking about, he's right there!" She said, pointing to the air field's entrance with a hoof.
Much to their amazement, there he was. Bandaged up, in torn-up filthy clothing, but still standing tall to his credit. Gingerly, he raised a hand and waved. Smiles broke out as Rarity, Applejack and Pinkie rushed at him and pulled him into a large hug. "Woah, hey, glad to see you guys too." He said with constricted breath. "All of you are un-hurt, right?" He asked as the gently let go and retreated half a step.
"Well, of course, darling, all of us are fine, really. Besides, it seems you are a little worse for the wear, if your current attire is anything to go by, and— is that the pair of pants I made especially for you!?" She cried out in shock as she lunged forward to inspect the tortured garments.
"Uh, yeah." James chuckled nervously. "Sorry they got a little messed up. If it means anything, they did their job beautifully." Although, by the look on Rarity's face, she was still furious. "Hey, I'm sorry, but I hit a couple of rough spots. Uh... you guys haven't happened to see Dash, have you?"
"Ya just missed her." Applejack told him. "Poor thing's worried sick about'cha, y'know." She said accusingly.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I couldn't find you guys and sort of... lost my head."
"Well you should go see her. Right now. She went with Fluttershy to check in on Garth. If ya hurry, you can catch up with 'em."
"HEY YOU!" An angry voice shouted, interrupting them. James looked over and was bewildered to see a very tired looking Sparks now making his way over. James stepped away from his friends and walked slowly over to where the unicorn was standing by his family. Behind him, an equally surprised Aria waited with her foal. Sparks looked about ready to hit the human, but just raised a hoof instead. They stood there for a moment, but then James grabbed the appendage and Sparks pulled his old friend into a rough hug. "You son of a nag, you got a lot of explaining to do! But it's great to see you again."
"Language, sweetie!" Aria scolded as she covered Flicker's ears.
"Sorry honey!" Sparks apologized.
"Kid looks great man, just like his father." James said.
"Yeah, but fortunately he's got his mother's brains."
James scratched his head, "Hey, I'm sorry I hid from you guys. I just needed to get away."
"It's ok, I'm sure you had your reasons."
"I'd like to tell you all about it, got a nice little house set up in the forest. Well, it was nice. I heard Flash is in medical, but he should be out again soon. How about we all get together later, swap stories over some drinks like the old times?"
Sparks looked like he wanted nothing more than to do just that, but her looked back to aria for approval. "Fine." The unicorn mare sighed. "But not too much! I heard about what happened in Ponyville the last time you three got together."