The others headed back into the battle as Kabuto finished putting his burning head out and resumed trying to kill us. I tried not to think about how dangerous this was...How close to danger Gag was in...My fears we'd never see our wedding day.
I managed to grab the vials of chemicals off his desk (which still seemed protected to a degree by his circle), along with everything I felt I'd need, and retreat while Thunderchild used a lightning grenade to force him to lower his visor...but not doing much else considering Thunderchild just blew up a pegasus spell designed to destroy airship engines in the monster's face.
"Okay, here's the one he injected himself with...dang it! I'll need Changeling blood..."
I looked around to see if he had any samples. Come on! You're a scientist, you have to have some! The unconscious Changeling guards were all out of my reach (and thankfully not in pieces given the battle we were currently involved in) and I couldn't risk exposing myself to Kabuto.
"Here!" Weaver said, giving me a needle filled with green blood.
"Where did you-"
"Telekinesis," she explained, pointing to her horn.
I didn't have time to argue and began mixing the blood with small amounts of Kabuto's drug until I noticed a change in it (namely the blood changing to a darker green and displaying a magic aura). Next came figuring out which one was the metabolic booster and mixing it properly...ugh, can I skip the science talk and just do this?!
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Please do.)
After some trial and error and Weaver being my lab partner, I got something that neutralized the mutation and how much it'd take to do it given Kabuto's size (we'd not have enough for too many shots, I had to be as exact as possible)...but then I realized another problem as Gag and the others tried to shoot Kabuto again.
"How are we going to inject him?" I asked, noting how few true gaps in his armor there were as the crossbow bolts and darts just bounced off, and how fast his reflexes were as he blocked one of Thunderchild's lightning bolts with a limb and smacked him across the room with the broadside of it. Thank Celestia he got back up.
This guy had intentionally made it near impossible for anti-cavalry weapons to work on him.
"There isn't enough of this for multiple shots...we might only get one..." I muttered. "If only we had Audience here."
Ellis and Bombardier threw an entire bag of grenades under Kabuto and they blew...and still didn't seem to do more than singe his hide. Breaking through it wasn't an option unless we had a some real nasties like anti-armour weapons. This guy was designed to be a cavalry killer.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Not surprising, considering the size of a group he was expecting to fight.)
I felt...hopeless...there weren't any weak spots I could see to safely inject it. Even his eyes had that armored visor he could lower and his reflexes were too much. And we barely had enough for his size, I had enough for each of us to fire a shot, and we couldn't afford to waste any.
Please...Celestia let there be something we can do.
And then it got worse.
Kabuto used his gas again and managed to choke the others long enough to blast them with his slime. They were stuck to a wall nearby and couldn't budge, at least not in time.
I gasped in horror as Kabuto approached them. I grabbed a crossbow and fired bolts, trying to hit anywhere that mattered...but it didn't work, they just bounced off.
"Now now, Earth Pony #2, I'll be there as soon as I finish with a little surgery on your friends," he said, preparing his blades. "I don't need Pegasus #2's wings."
My heart stopped. Celestia, what was this horrible-like a ghost in my mind!
Please no...Gag...there's got to be something I can do!
I fired at his eyes, forcing the visor down, but he seemed to realize how desperate I was and ignored me.
"...Garnet...what would happen to a somepony that used that stuff he used without the modifications he said he needed?"
"Not now! Gag is-"
"Garnet, it's important! If you want to save him, tell me!"
"They'd probably be able to use it since the modifications just make it safe...but they'd probably die...He's lucky he survived."
"...I see…please tell Dive and Bomb I love them…Goldar too if you see him."
I blinked, taking my eyes off the others to see her-
"What?! Weaver no!"
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Weaver! That's insane! Don't do it!)
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Weaver, this could kill kill you!)
It's the only thing I can do. My team is in danger. My siblings are in danger...somewhere Goldar's in danger too. And more importantly, Equestria's in danger.
(Interviewer's Notes (Earth): Please no . . . Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, please no. Please?)
I hereby do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm to the Citizens of Equestria that I will faithfully discharge the duties of a Guardspony. I choose to place myself in harm's way so that those who cannot defend themselves are defended. Though service is a heavy cost, For Equestria, I pay it gladly.
Those spies and infiltrators may have been lying through their teeth when they said that oath, but I meant every word. And now it's time to pay the cost.
If that's dining with Queen Rosedust after this, then so be it.
She injected herself with Kabuto's mutagen...that's when I noticed a bleeding dot on her elbow...like blood had been taken...It can't be...
She shuddered like she was ill but shook it off and charged right at Kabuto.
"Kabuto! Get away from them!" she yelled, blasting away with her horn to keep his attention...then...Celestia, it's true...
"FOR EQUESTRIA!" she yelled, erupting in a pillar of orange fire and beginning to twist and change.
"What?! How did you-" Kabuto asked in shock as the pillar dissipated to reveal...
Weaver's lower body now resembled a spider's with eight legs that seemed to end in spear tips. Her upper body was like a Preying Mantis, with four arms, the top two having blades instead of hooves and the bottom two scorpion pincers. Her head was not unlike that of a wasp with glowing orange eyes. Her wings resembled that of a moth's, but remained folded behind her back.
Weaver...you and your siblings are...
Weaver collided with Kabuto, grabbing him with her lower arms and swinging him around into a wall. She motioned with her head towards the others...
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): She's been fighting by your side all this time, is now, when she's risking her LIFE to give you a chance to defeat Kabuto really a good time to doubt her?!)
I run to my friends and use my Earth Pony strength to smash them free from the hardened slime (they were making some headway on their own, but without Weaver...).
"Garnet!" Gag yelled, hugging me the moment he was free. I kissed him and nuzzled him. I'd been so afraid.
"Sweet Celestia," Ellis muttered, watching the two gigantic bug monsters battling it out. "I hope they don't bring the whole place down on top of us!"
Kabuto stabbed her several times with his blades, getting between the plates while Weaver used her weight to throw him across the room. She tried to stab him several times with her upper arms, but he managed to position his plates to block, though still ended up with some wounds. "What is that?!"
"Weaver," I muttered almost in disbelief.
"She-she injected herself with the same thing Kabuto did."
"But...that means..." Thunderchild muttered, giving a glare to the Changeling's siblings.
"There's no time!" I replied. "She doesn't have Kabuto's enhancements, she won't be able to survive holding that form for much longer!" I warned. Diver and Bombardier gasped in fear and almost ran to their sister's aid in a heartbeat if I didn't hold up a hoof. "We need to inject Kabuto with these to speed up his metabolism and burn out his transformation," I tell them, showing them the needles with the antidote. "And we can't miss a shot or it won't work."
"...Fine..." Thunderchild looked to Weaver's siblings. "Drop the facade, we'll talk about it later."
They sighed and erupted in orange flames and...wow...
I noticed two things. One, unlike every other Changeling, they kept their barding despite the transformation. And two...
She glared. "Save my sister and stop the psychopath first! Question my sex later!"
We charged the two gigantic fighting insects right as Kabuto began to get the upper...claw.
"You fool! I have experience with this form you don't have time to have!" Kabuto hissed, stabbing Weaver between her armored plates several times.
She looked back and saw us. She wrapped her lower arms around all of Kabuto's that were still stabbing her used her top ones to stab between his plates and pry them apart, exposing soft tissue.
We each fired a dart into the exposed area (all the rounds we had) with careful aim while she kept it exposed. The changeling siblings flew up to get a better shot, both now able to fly to do so.
Kabuto roared out as they stabbed into his skin and injected him.
"W-What did you..."
"Wait for it..."
Kabuto began to slump and flicker with flames like a dying candle. His body seemed to become unstable.
"This can't be happening! You're not supposed to know how to do this!" he roared in disbelief.
"Kabuto..." growled Weaver who looked weakening herself, bleeding quite heavily. She picked the sick buck up with her lower arms and slammed him into the ground with enough force to make a crater. "Don't buck with Equestria!"
Kabuto gasped out as his body cascaded with fire and he reverted to normal...then...
"Gah! What's...what's happening to me?!" he asked, flickering with flames and beginning to rapidly transform between various other ponies, griffins, and other species.
"Geez! What was in those needles?!" Bombardier asked.
"Just something to cancel his transformation," I defended. "If you had my guess...this is some kind of reaction between what I injected him with and all the alterations he did to himself...From the sound of it he's got more experiments in his body than Gag has bad jokes."
Finally, the transformations stopped...and Kabuto was left an Earth Pony with a violet coat and black mane. His cutie mark was an alchemy circle with a snake around the edge. He tried to transform again… there weren't even flames, or I think he tried to transform, given what he said next.
"What?! I'm...I'm trapped?!" he asked in disbelief. "I'm a pathetic, useless, dimwitted Earth pony?!" he screamed, trying to rub his fur to see if there was a carapace underneath. "This can't be happening!"
Ellis chuckled. "Thank you karma."
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Hehe...Rota has quite the sense of humor.)
"What did you do to me you little Earth Pony witch?!" he bellowed, charging me in a blind rage.
Gag stepped up next to me and we double bucked him into the wall, knocking him out cold. "Nothing, you sick buck...you brought this on yourself."
I was done listening to this sick freak.
Diver and Bomb looked sick and hugged themselves, they looked at themselves and little orange flames flicker across their bodies, their body language speaking self-assurance.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Imagine seeing an earth pony lose their life-link, and you'll get how they feel.)
I'd rather not.
(Dusk's Notes: It's strange, even with all the highly dangerous alterations he did to himself and suffering a cellular meltdown from them all going haywire at once, Kabuto shouldn't have simply turned into an Earth Pony.)
(Dawn's Notes: Uh, the mean bug, the stuff undid him transforming right? Maybe made him what he was before he was a changeling?)
(Noon's Notes: Kabuto was a convert?!)
(Dusk's Notes: It's not impossible, or he simply had a Earth Pony ancestor, or (Mother forbid) transferred his soul into a Changeling with those traits as Cocoon had done several times, and that was the only part of his mangled DNA not falling apart from the meltdown and that was how his body saved itself. I imagine only Kabuto knows.)
Gag hugged and kissed me, which I gladly returned, happy it was over...well...almost.
Weaver's transformed state vanished in orange fire and she reverted to what I guessed was her true form...and instantly threw up. Her siblings ran to her side.
She was shaking heavily. And bleeding from wounds left on her from the fight.
"I-I don't feel good..." she muttered, her siblings taking her aside as she curled into a ball. "I...I feel cold..." Cracks began to appear on her carapace.
Her siblings looked horrified.
I don't think any of us knew what to think...they were the enemy's species but Weaver had just saved us and they'd been helping us all this time...and she was hurt. In all likelihood on death's door. Because she'd done something I'd told her could kill her for our sakes.
And I was a medic. No matter their species, helping them was my duty.
I galloped over to them. "What's happening to her?"
Weaver looked at the spreading cracks sadly. "This is what happens when a Changeling dies," she said. I felt my heart sink. "I think even our magic knows how stealthy we need to be...when we die, we leave nothing behind."
"N-No...please don't die sis...please..." Diver begged her, he and Bombardier crying. That childish streak he had suddenly seemed a lot less endearing...He looked like a little brother watching his big sister die... I'm guessing the story they told us wasn't just a performance. "Please."
"...I knew when I injected myself this might happen, brother," Weaver weakly put a hoof to her brother's chin and gave him a shaky nuzzle. "Garnet warned me...but I did it anyway...I'm sorry...but I couldn't let Kabuto kill everypony...if someone had to die, I took the oath to pay the price gladly if that's what was needed. Just...promise me you'll tell Goldar I loved him, okay?"
Bombardier didn't know know what to say...So she just hugged her siblings and cried. How can I blame her? Her sister was dying.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Are you going to let that happen?)
No...not if I can help it. And no way is Goldar coming home to find his fillyfriend dead on my watch.
I looked to the others. "Guys...can you go free the prisoners and get them out of here while I try to save her?"
They nodded. "Should probably take them out another way," Thunderchild replied.
The triplets might have been Changelings, but we were ponies.
Gag stayed behind to watch though...considering what Changelings can do and that we have a psychopathic (though quickly heavily restrained) prisoner laying unconscious behind us, I couldn't blame him. We'd restrained Kabuto thoroughly as possible. He might have been turned into an Earth Pony, but he was still an extremely dangerous alchemist. Thankfully, alchemy wasn't entirely unknown, so we knew how to restrain him (primarily restraining his hooves and removing any capability for him to make alchemy circles). We'd also restrained his guards according to the normal protocol.
Weaver's siblings looked startled when I began bandaging up Weaver's wounds to try and stop the bleeding.
"Why are you helping her?" asked Bombardier, looking at me in disbelief. "We're...we're Changelings, you're a pony."
"I'm also a medic," I said, giving the most comforting smile I could manage. "And I don't care what you are...okay...I kind of do...but not when it comes to saving lives. In case you forgot I treated Digger Wasp's wounds before we moved him, and he was the enemy...I don't want to see anycreature die if I can help it...and besides...you've helped us a lot through this whole mess, the least I can do is try to save her life."
It wasn't easy stitching some of her wounds due to the exoskeleton and checking her for internal bleeding, especially since she'd bleed to death if I wasn't quick...but treating her, I realized something...biologically...despite the green blood and black armor...Changelings weren't that different than ponies.
"When you transform...your blood changes color, doesn't it?" I asked. They nodded.
That must be how they'd hidden so well. Their biology was pretty equine. Their transformations must have allowed them to hide the parts that weren't.
Patching up a stab wound on her hips, they even had the same vestigial hip shape as ponies.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): What?)
Ponies have a vestigial shape to our hip joint that, while we no longer make use of it, implies at some point in the past we may have walked on two legs comfortably more frequently. It's still somewhat useful for when we need to rear up on our hind legs, but most ponies don't do it long enough to build up the proper muscles to walk entirely bipedal, and it'd take time and effort to do it.
A shapeshifting species having that would make sense, but I wonder if our species have a common ancestor.
Is this how Kabuto was turned into an Earth Pony?
While Garnet was busy saving Weaver we had a few things to do.
...I'm not going to lie, I have no idea how to feel. They were Changelings, but Weaver had saved my flank twice now. There was no reason why she'd do that if she was the enemy. I wanted to know the full story before I chose what to do about the triplets.
We'd known about 'the General' as the Changelings called him from Gag's translated intel, and me and Captain Coke had already decided given the situation, he'd be detained and Captain Coke would remain in charge, but that I would play dumb when I found him...and the guy had managed to nearly break down the rear bars of his cell. He didn't seem to notice his hooves were bleeding.
Turned out he was a General named Lone Ranger. I didn't know him very well, just he was a higher up. But his name felt very familiar. We considered the possibility he'd be convinced to help the Changelings on false pretenses, and we wanted to see if I could figure out the exact reasons why he did this before detaining him...well, detaining him better than he already was.
I kind of wish I hadn't.
"Good, you captured that lunatic?"
"Yes sir," I said simply, trying not to give away what I knew about him.
"Good, kill him."
I barely kept my composure. The...the look on his face. It was just unhinged. Like something had broke in there a long time ago. And there was just how...simple he put it.
"Sir, he's been rendered harmless. We've removed any ability for him to perform alchemy and he's too weakened from the battle to pose a threat. And we need to interrogate him for information."
"Doesn't matter," he replied. "The Changelings are a threat that must be eliminated. That's an order."
"...You want me to order all the prisoners of war executed sir?"
"Exactly. It's time we buckled down and started stamping out threats like them before they can bite us. The farmer should have cut the cockatrice's head off before it could petrify him."
"...No offense sir, but we haven't needed to kill a single Changeling this entire campaign."
He looked at me like I was the crazy one. "Well, I say you should have. We need to get rid of all of them. It's to protect Equestria!"
"...Just the prisoners of war or the civilians they have back at the hive?"
"Yes, I said all of them. Every last one."
"...Sir...I believe what you're ordering violates several international laws and are serious war crimes. Particularly since the captives are safely contained and harmless."
It was pretty hard to keep my cool at this point. Here was a stallion telling me to perform genocide. A pony telling me to. A pony traitor telling me to do that.
"So? You're a guard, Sergeant, your duty is to protect Equestria. To Tartarus with the international laws. We need to take care of our own. Instead of having to rely on school fillies armed with the true meaning of Hearth's Warming Eve to protect us."
"...Is that why you lead them here, sir? To make that point?"
He looked like allowing a hostile species to invade the capital was a completely logical move. "Yes! Exactly! To show the Princess that we need to buckle down! And to lure these dangerous bugs to their destruction! The Guard was supposed to wipe them out! How have you not possibly done that already?! I guess I underestimated them, but we can still-"
I thought of the triplets. If they were on our side, these bugs weren't all evil.
"What was that?"
"I said no. I'm not giving that order, sir. These aren't monsters, they're just another species, just like us. I believe there's a peaceful solution to all this."
He looked at me like I'd just suggested having tea with Tirek himself. His eyes just looked crazy. Like talking about setting up the Guard to perform genocide via an invasion of our capital was a rational, correct course of action.
"I'm your superior, Sergeant. You will obey orders."
"You've allowed a hostile force to invade our city. Both myself and my superior officer have decided you are unfit to lead because you have betrayed Equestria. I now add clear insanity to that list," I said, struggling to remain professional. Even if he wasn't talking genocide, his face and posture showed he wasn't in a sane mind.
He looked more like an animal than a pony. This was something chillingly familiar about his features, like a friendly face twisted in a funhouse mirror. Or like everypony on the day of chaos. "Insane am I?! I'm insane for trying to protect this country?! For trying to get the guard up to defending ourselves instead of relying on a bunch of civies and hugs?! They'll forget the Guard is there for a reason!"
"No! You're insane for betraying this country!" I finally yelled back, unable to take this traitor anymore. "You think we should be the ones to defend this country?! I agree with you! We're the guard! We defend this country every day! It's our job! You want us to buckle down and be able to handle more threats? Fine! Give us weapons, give us new tactics! We'll use them if we need to! You're not crazy for wanting those things! I agree with you they're a good idea! You're crazy for talking about genocide and proving a point with an attack on your own capital!"
I paused as I said that word...it felt...just wrong.
"...Genocide...that's a word that should never come out of a pony's mouth..."
"It's not genocide! Don't be absurd! It's no different from defending pony civilians from monsters! I'm doing what's needed to protect Equestria Sergeant! How dare you-"
"No, you're being a crazy, traitorous zealot!" I yelled back. "And if you were doing what was needed to protect Equestria, you'd have told the Princesses about the Changelings the moment you discovered them."
"And what then? She'd 'make friends with them?'"
"...Yes, that's exactly what should have happened. Peace. Not a war in our capital city. I've spent the last few years spreading peace to species other than ours. I'd prefer that a million times over what's happening now...These creatures, they're the enemy, but they're not monsters anymore than the Griffins were. They need to be defeated, yes, but killed off? No way. I want no part in that. I'll take making friends over genocide any day."
I don't think he even heard me. "Or send Twilight Sparkle and her playmates to deal with it! I was trying to wake this country up and show them the guard is this country's protectors! That this is just an insane delusion!"
I felt sick. "So that's what this is? Jealousy of six good Samaritans?"
"This isn't jealousy! Doesn't it bother you that six civilians are considered the go to-"
"Yes, it bothers me that they've had to save the world three times. But not because they're 'taking our work' or 'the guard should do it.' And certainly not because ponies praise them instead of us. It bothers me that they're civilians and shouldn't be in harm's way in the first place. But...they've still saved this country three times, and right now are out there, risking their lives to protect Equestria. Just like us. And I respect them for it. They're treated like heroes because they are heroes! Just like each and every member of the Guard. Whether it's them or the guard, Equestria was saved and that's what matters. Whether Chrysalis ends up rotting in a dungeon for war crimes or in the statue garden with Discord, I don't care. I don't care if those six get the stained glass window or we do. So long as this fighting ends and Equestria is safe, I'll be a happy pegasus. It's not about who saves Equestria...it's about Equestria being saved."
"You can't talk to me like that! I'll have you court-marshaled!"
I glared at him. "I can because while you've been betraying Equestria just to 'wake up the populous', I've been actually helping make sure there's peace so it's safe. You're not a guard, Lone Ranger...you're a traitor and a disgrace to your rank you no longer deserve. A real guard wouldn't care how Equestria stayed safe or who made it safe, just that it was. You've gotten so caught up in the 'thanks to' you don't care about 'the day is saved.' You're not a General, you're just an old gloryhog that can't stand the thought of six heroes being treated like it. The guard's job is to be competent protectors of Equestria, not to get the limelight. Some parts of the guard aren't even seen by the public but are still protecting Equestria because it's RIGHT, not because they get a pat on the back for it. Think the Night Guard decide to look like bat ponies to get praised by the ponies sleeping while they're on duty? No, they do it because now Equestria has a nocturnal guard that can protect the ponies while they sleep. When this mess is over you'll be speaking with the Inspector General and Princess Celestia. "
He snarled in rage, but I just turned my back on him. "Ellis, sedate Lone Ranger and prepare him for transport," I ordered...then heard the bars smash. We both turned to see the general slam his full body weight against the barred window, knocking them out (and probably breaking some bones) and escape before we could open the cell door.
I prepared to go after him...then stopped and looked at the citizens currently crammed into the cells.
"We going after him Sarge?"
"...No...he's not worth it. We've got citizens to get to safety. Lone Ranger's got no one and nothing left to fight his stupid war with. We don't know how long we have before they notice Kabuto isn't checking in. Protecting civilians is the priority."
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Thunderchild, I know Shining would be proud of you. Putting Equestria before fame? That's what a real guard would do.)
Thanks. The Guard isn't about who gets cheered. It's about saving lives. It's about protecting ponies. If he can't see that anymore, he's lost his place in the guard. Here's hoping he can find it again. He can't have always been that way or he'd have never become a general to begin with. I'd rather save the world and no one know it than set up a disaster just to be praised for stopping it.
I was reminded of the old legends of fairy ponies with insect wings from story books back in rock farmer days when I met Pinkie Pie. Looking at Weaver's condition...I felt like I was watching Pony Pan when Sprinklebelle is fading away. That's what it felt like, that she was just fading physically as the cracks spread.
"I stopped the bleeding," I finally said. The cracks slowed, but didn't stop. She was still dying. "I should have stopped it before she lost too much...Am I missing something about Changelings here?"
"...She's running out of love," said Diver. "Changelings can't restore our own mana and...its not just for magic, it's our life...using that must have drained all of hers."
So...love was what fueled their magic...but their magic was what fueled their life...In other words, they didn't feed on love just to give themselves power, they did it because they wanted to live.
"...Is there anyway to give her more? Me and Gag are in love..."
"Not without me stealing it," Weaver said, cringing as the cracks continued to spread. "And I'm not doing that...that's not me anymore...It hasn't been me since I was thirteen years old...Unless you already have love for us, I'd have to turn into Gag and brainwash you, and I'm not doing that...not that I'd be able to, if I don't have enough love to live, I don't have enough to use my magic..."
"Stop talking so much, please save your strength." I shuddered at her words. I was thankful they weren't like some of those racist horror stories you hear about Griffins not being able to control their instincts when they're starving...but I admit, I might have gone along with it to save her life. I'm a medic, saving lives is my duty and my job. "What about you two? You love your sister, don't you?"
"We do, but a Changeling can't feed off another Changeling's love...it's not how it works, it'd be like a snake eating its tail. The only way we can feed each other is from our own stockpile, and that's how the Gatherers worked. We're Warriors, we don't know how to do that...all females normally know how to do it for babies though," said Diver, looking worriedly at his sister as she continued to crack.
I looked at the group and realized it. "...Like Bombardier?"
Bombadier blushed...then looked determined. "...I guess that could work...Only because it's my sister...And we never speak of this again." She moved her horn towards her sister's.
"Bombardier...I don't think you'll be able to recharge, you've had the hardest time of all of us when it came to feeding, save your love," Weaver pleaded. "I won't be much help even if I live, you need it more..."
"I don't care...I'm not letting you die, sis."
"No, Bombardier...I'm not leaving my own sister so weak she might die in my place!" She used what energy she had to push her sister's mouth and horn away from her. "I knew I was probably going to die when I did this!"
"And I'm not letting my sister die! Open wide sis!"
I then got an idea that was either just crazy enough to save a life...or just plain stupid.
"...Bombardier...this brainwashing of yours...can you turn it off as easily as you put it on?"
"...Easier...Our mind-magic requires the victim to let us in before it kicks in, we can just break the spell at will."
"And you don't need to take it all, right?"
"No, that's the kind of gluttony Chrysalis would do. The three of us would never do that, but this doesn't seem like the tim-"
"...Is brainwashing the only way?"
"...Right now...yes..." Bombardier said, as if admitting that fact was like going against a personal code. "If there was any other way, I'd be the first to say it."
"...Save enough of your magic so you can brainwash me and feed off some of my love for Gag, that way you can survive saving your sister. Or feed off some of my love first and give it to her."
"What?!" asked everycreature.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): This is going to be such a bucking headache.)
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Garnet, are you sure about this?)
"I'm a medic, I'm saving a patient, that's my job, just do it..."
I won't let somecreature die if I can save their life, especially not one dying because she was trying to save my squad. If the only way Weaver will let herself live is if I do this, then I'm going to.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): You never have been willing to let somepony die, even if they're the enemy's species.)
What was that?
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Nothing!)
Gag approached protectively.
"Garnet, if she steals enough of your love to save me, it will weaken you," Weaver said despite me holding her.
"Weaver, you took an oath to lay down your life if you had to, I took an oath to do whatever I have to to save a patient if it's in my power. You two could die, that's worse than me being a little weak."
"...Garnet, I don't like this," Gag stated, looking scared.
I kissed him to try and calm him. "I know...But Weaver saved our skins...and I trust them that they're guards like they say...please trust me."
I looked at Weaver as she kept cracking. Kept dying. "And there's no time to argue."
"...If you drain her dry, I'm going to make you wish you died," I heard him growl, looking to Bombardier.
"If I did, I'd take a form I KNOW you could stallionhandle and let you," Bombardier replied with the most sincere tone imaginable.
I held Weaver steady as she pathetically struggled. "Do it. Brainwash me then save her. And Gag, go explain it to the others so we don't have a misunderstanding...please trust me, okay?"
"...Okay...Only because you're you, Garnet...If I come back and you're a zombie..."
"I know...but that won't happen...I gave my heart to you forever, I'm just lending it to her for a little bit."
Gag hugged me and kissed me before backing out of the room and keeping an eagle eye on them the whole time. He sent Thunderchild back to keep an eye on them. He'd also reported to Cherry we'd beaten Kabuto and handed over most of the civilians and captives to him, but I wasn't sure if he'd told Captain Coke about the triplets yet, he didn't say...and he seemed clopped off, but not at the triplets.
And yes, I had to quickly explain things to him again and convince him to let me do this. He was the one calling the shots when Captain Coke wasn't here.
"So how's this work?"
"Again, are you sure you want to do this?" she asked, looking worriedly at her dying sister. I think they were surprised she had lasted this long.
"You've done this to ponies WITHOUT asking their permission just to stay alive, so suddenly when a pony is offering it to you, it's wrong?"
"I didn't say it was ever right and it's been a decade since I've done this. I haven't stolen love since I was thirteen...Normally the pony isn't AWARE they're being brainwashed, that's the way it works best. But here...lower your defenses, don't think too hard, just let whatever happens, happen, don't question it, I'm just...not used to being GIVEN love this way."
"How long will this take?" Thunderchild asked, dead seriously.
"...Probably about five minutes tops if I'm safe about it."
"You have five minutes, one second more and I fry your flank, understood?" Thunderchild asked protectively, letting his wings crackle a bit.
"I'll put the bulls eye on it myself."
"Just do it," I finally said.
"Garnet, don'-" Weaver started.
"Weaver, do you want Goldar to come home to find out you died?" I finally asked, causing her to gasp. "...If you don't let me do this for you, let me do this for him."
She stopped struggling of her own free will.
I looked to her sister. "Do it, Bombardier."
No, I didn't worry about her taking advantage of me...her sister had almost given her life to save my fiance and defeat Kabuto, the least I could do is give a little bit of my love to keep a patient alive.
"Fine." A flash of flames, and Running Gag was standing before me.
"Sorry I had to come back so soon Garnet, but some of those prisoners were real gorillas, like ya know, at a zoo?"
I rolled my eyes at the bad joke, and then I looked...I looked...I looked into his eyes...his eyes...I couldn't look away, I didn't WANT to look away, I WANTED to keep looking, I felt some part of me go under, I WANTED it to go under. I wanted all of me to follow it! I felt his wings around me, it was perfect, it was wonderful. Canterlot, my squadmates, what did any of them even matter? He was here, he was all I needed, I was all he needed. Yes, I was needed by him, that's all I needed to be...all I could be, all I wanted to be, just his, just loving him, what else could I want? Just love him...Just love him...I was a good little pony, just loving him was all I needed to be.. just love, don't need to think, just need to feel, and I am good, for him.
I...then I felt like ballast tanks suddenly blew and I was being propelled to the surface at lightning speed, I felt like my mind was getting the bends, feelings and perspectives became wider scope, thoughts and ideas popped into my head again, I felt reality come crashing down on top of me as I was rushed up to meet it.
I gasped out loud, shuddering. I felt kind of lightheaded and weak...like I'd just given somepony a blood transfusion.
I looked around, there was Bombardier looking sad, disgusted at herself, not able to look me in the eye. Thunderchild literally had his eyes on a watch.
"Four minutes thirty seconds..." he said out loud, seeming relieved as he came over to check on me. "You okay, Garnet?"
I nodded. "Yeah...Just a little dizzy."
Bombardier went straight to feeding her sister the love I'd given her. Changelings sharing love was...interesting to say the least...kind of like a mother bird throwing up food for its young...in fact it kinda looked exactly like that...only with mana instead of food.
But considering the cracks stopped and began to reverse though, I assume it worked, but Weaver still seemed to be in rough shape, and Bombardier seemed a bit weakened, even after taking some of my love before hoof. Her sister was probably right that it would've drained her dry without it.
Weaver looked at me in shock. "Garnet...I..."
"You saved my fiance and my squad-mates, saving your life was just doing my job," I replied, giving her a smile.
Thunderchild then asked me a ton of questions to make sure I was still myself and took a close look at my eyes. In general, he followed the Guard handbook's protocol when a teammate has been brainwashed and liberated. Yes, we have one of those.
And so did you.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): It never hurts to double check, Garnet.)
"Is it always like that?" I whispered to Bombardier after Thunderchild had given me a clean bill of health.
"I haven't exactly been on the receiving end. And I've done my absolute best to not use it since I discovered it's easier to just...let ponies love me instead of making them."
The worst part was, how even with my wits back, a part of me had liked it and wanted more of it. If it'd been to the real Gag, I could understand, but to a fake? I shuddered, feeling sick at the thought. "So what was that...exactly?"
"More or less, I made it so your love for Gag was the only thing your brain could process, sorry, that's not exactly right, but I've never had to explain it to a non-changeling before. There are...many varieties, what I gave you was the quick-fix feeding method. It wouldn't have worked as well if I didn't already look like Gag. It works best when they think I'm their loved one instead of that just being what I'm brainwashing them to think."
"So I guessed...so you can feed passively?"
"Long term, and undetectable, yes, which is how we're still alive at this point, but, it gets complicated, and I think we've had enough confusion for one day."
I nodded slowly. "Yeah..." I stumbled a bit, feeling a bit weak still. Thunderchild helped steady me. I recognized it as a minor mana drain. I'd be recovered shortly.
"...Garnet...your love for Gag was really strong...that wasn't the brainwashing. That part is you."
I blushed a little, taking out my engagement ring. I couldn't help smiling. "Thanks, Bombardier."
"You saved my sister's life, Garnet, it's the least I could do...You're...I don't-"
"We got the prisoners to Captain Coke, but more Changelings are coming," Ellis said, poking his head in. "Is she safe to move?"
I nodded. "She seems stable..."
"...And are you alright, Garnet?"
"Yeah...just a little weak...And I really want to see the real Gag right now."
Me and Diver helped get Weaver to her hooves and the triplets put their disguises back on as we retreated to a safe location. And of course I hugged Gag the moment I could, kissed him, nuzzled him, and told him I loved him...Bombardier was right, that love was mine.
And now came the hard part...Finding out what was really going on.
"Alright...Garnet saved Weaver's life, and we're grateful she risked it to save our flanks," Thunderchild said, looking at the Changeling triplets once we were safe. "But we need to know the truth. No excuses."
Weaver sighed, still looking a bit ragged. Seeing as she just almost died and had several stab wounds, that was understandable. Gag didn't leave my side for a second once, even if the triplets had sworn to Celestia, Luna, Cadence, and 'Queen Rosedust' (apparently some Changeling deity) I was safe. And that if I wasn't his love would have already broken the spell.
Gag also did a few Shinobi tricks he said he picked up that were supposed to dispel brainwashing, just to be on the safe side. I'm not sure if it'd have worked or if he was doing them correctly, but it comforted him and that's what mattered.
I'd also had to patch us all up a good bit, including getting Gag to give me a hoof patching up my burned back (which might scar). Kabuto hadn't gone down without a fight.
"Well, for one, our full names are Weaver Beetle, Diver Beetle, and Bombardier Beetle," Weaver explained.
"Why do Changelings all have bug names?" Gag asked.
"Why do most ponies have names relating to their special talent?"
"...The story we told Thunderchild earlier wasn't a lie...it was just not the complete truth," Weaver explained, the triplets assuming their true forms, Weaver now wearing some spare guard armor we'd found to replace the set that was destroyed by her transformation. "...We did want to be Changeling Guards when we were young...we believed the whole 'ponies are cattle' horseapples as hard as everyling else...But one day...I met one of the 'freshstock' brought in and saw that fear in their eyes before they were brainwashed...I was just a kid at the time, barely in my teens...there's no time to go into everything right now, but...one thing lead to another and it ended with three little thirteen year old Changelings fleeing the Hive, knowing ponies were people, not cattle...we found our way to a little orphanage and passed ourselves off as refugees from one of the now defunct groups causing conflicts that Equestria and Columbia ultimately ended...hehe, looking back, even then I respected the Equestrian royal guard for being able to bring peace…”
She gave a smile. "We were hungry, but didn't know how to go about getting food. We were willing to use our mind magic if we had to, but we didn't want to after realizing ponies were no less people than us. But...despite what stories tell you, the orphanages we know are really loving places...the ponies there loved the orphans like their own children...and that was more satisfying and more filling than any love we ever stole...It kept us full. And it felt good to be loved like that."
"That's how we found out sharing love with ponies wasn't...wasn't insane like the Hive told us it was..." Diver explained.
"Wait," I interrupted. "Changelings treat sharing love with ponies as a mental illness?"
"...Yes...In the time before Chrysalis it was punishable by death," Bombardier replied. "...They treated it like you would a pony loving an apple tree."
"Uh, mah cousin's family actually does that for real," Ellis replied. "They name them."
"...Considering our situation, we're in no position to call that crazy," Weaver answered with a blink. "But yes...by our species' standards, we're clinically insane for loving 'livestock.'"
"When a relief group allowed refugee orphans to move to Equestria and be adopted by foster families, we took it," explained Bombardier. "We came to Equestria entirely legally, and obtained citizenship the legit way, minus lying about our species."
I remembered what she'd said. "So...Goldar and Faline?"
"I love Goldar with all my heart," the female changeling replied with complete sincerity...then looked worried sick. "I hope he's alright."
"I hope my little doe is too," her brother continued. The look in their eyes was one I don't think can be faked. Believe me, I'd had the same look in my eyes most of this mess.
"...So that's how you two feed?" Thunderchild asked. "They love you and you love them?"
Weaver nodded. "...We do use a little mind magic to make the love flow better if we've used up a lot of love and need it...but that type is like a mosquito's saliva, it just makes what's there flow better instead of taking something that isn't ours…we'd never do that to them and Goldar is even aware I do this particular spell, but he thinks it's a unicorn erm, 'bed-room spell' instead of a Changeling one. My brother has me pass it off as the same thing to his fawnfriend. It's part of why my default pony form is a unicorn...other than the fact I like being one."
"We're trying to do everything legally," Diver explained. "We wanted to be guards after all...and prove we didn't have to break the law to co-exist with Equestria."
That actually wasn't as far fetched as it sounded. Considering magic was something the majority of sapient species in the world were capable of in some way shape or form, it wouldn't surprise me if there were certain spells designed to get a spark going between couples. So long as there was informed consent and it could be confirmed to have no long term harmful effects (and both parties were of age), they'd be legal. In fact, I'd heard of unicorns having their partners use mind magic on them as a trust exercise. It takes a lot of trust in somepony to have faith they'll take the spell off.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Not the same thing, but it takes a lot of trust to have that faith in a teammate too.)
She then blushed a little...somehow, considering she had an exoskeleton. "Um...he's...already kinda asked me to do it if we...well...get busy."
And that is also not surprising, and actually explained a bit. Stallions who had trouble...performing were known to do such things if they knew a unicorn. From when Bombardier did it to me, I can see how something similar might make for a fun night, even if it wasn't the same thing.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Speaking of which, what about-ow!)
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): Sorry about my sister, Garnet, sometimes she can ask perverted questions. It's gotten her nose broken before.)
It's no problem. And no, we haven't. We won't until we're married. Not that we've had a chance, given we've spent so much time on an airship on active duty and then Fake Cadence kept us separated after we got back. So even if we didn't want to wait till after our wedding, we haven't had the opportunity.
(Interviewer's Notes (Earth Pony): What are you talking about?)
Nothing...nothing, little filly.
"...So that's why those two act so emotional sometimes?" Thunderchild asked, apparently knowing those two a bit better than me.
"...That's a side effect...but I swear by Celestia I don't put any memories in my little doe's head that aren't already there," Diver said defensively. "I love her."
Weaver nodded in agreement with her brother.
"...If Weaver hadn't nearly killed herself saving our flanks from Kabuto, I wouldn't believe a word you say...but...I'm going to trust you because there's been two times you could've let the Changelings beat me but saved me instead," our Gifted Pegasus replied.
Gag looked to Bombardier. "So...the reason you seem like you like stallions..."
"Is because I do," Bombardier stated bluntly. "It's hard to meet the stallion of your dreams when...well...they think you're a stallion and if they swung that way wouldn't like finding out you're a mare...I couldn't lead a stallion on like that."
"Then why do you...um..."
Bombardier sighed. "...Look...Changelings don't really care if we assume a form that isn't the same sex as ourselves," she explained. "Chrysalis herself has assumed male forms. Don't think of our transformations as changing ourselves, we're confident of the essence of who we are inside regardless of how we shape ourselves. That's what it's like to a Changeling. Think of it like how Dragons consider being what we'd call greedy a virtue, it's kinda the same thing. And my favorite alternate form besides my real one happens to be male. And . . . I kinda didn't know this form might cause problems when I showed up with it at the orphanage when I was thirteen."
"Right...we'll take your word for it..."
The Guard handbook actually did defend her right to do that, even if Changelings weren't a known species at the time. There are Diamond Dogs in all three branches (including a few in Misfit platoon) and while extremely uncommon, dragons had joined at points in history, and their morals and beliefs differ sharply from that of ponies as a species trait. There were naturally provisions protecting species like that, so if it was a relatively harmless racial trait, it was protected by law.
"Wait a second," said Ellis. "If yah don't have yer special somepony, where do you get yer food?"
"...Well...now my squad's love for me as a teammate. My siblings feed the same way...and yes, we do love them back," the Changeling explained. "But before those formed, mainly our parents love to us. But...I was also a foalsitter."
-One Misunderstanding Later-
"...Ow..." Bombardier muttered, rubbing her black eye...I'm not even going to ask how compound eyes can get blackened.
"Sorry for jumpin' the gun, just I have a baby cousin I'm worried about..." Ellis muttered, rubbing his head.
"It's alright...I'd be more surprised if that didn't get me a punch in the face. But like I said, I never used brainwashing, I just visited our parents to top myself off until the foals started loving me as their foalsitter. It helps that genuine love given willingly is a lot more filling than stolen love. Believe me, the three of us did not want to brainwash anypony. We wanted to do everything as legit and legal as we could...we wanted to prove our species was wrong and we didn't need to be that way. If we 'cheated' and made somepony love us, then we'd go against what we were doing our best to be."
"I see...And becoming Guards?"
"Exactly like I said before. We wanted to balance the Hive's evil with some good," Weaver replied. "We were never infiltrators or spies. We didn't even know infiltrating the guard was part of Chrysalis' plans. We became guards because it was what we wanted to be."
I looked at her horn, remembering the fires. Something occurred to me. "...Why is your magic color like Princess Celestia's?"
"A changeling's magic matches that of their 'Queen,'" Diver explained, showing his. "Our magic matches Celestia's because we've sworn our loyalty to her and broke loyalties to Chrysalis when we left the Hive. It's the biggest give away to our magic, the one thing we can't change. Digger Wasp knew a way to do it, but he was unique. He was the Spy Master like Kabuto was the Alchemist Master, and they're normally a lot different from the norm."
"...Okay, I think its time for the big question," Thunderchild asked. "Did you know this invasion was coming?"
The trio looked guilt-ridden. "...We knew Chrysalis wanted to do an invasion...but not the when, how, or where, or even the scale… We thought she'd just put a shadow-web in place like she has in other kingdoms to let the changelings have a safety net if discovered," Weaver explained. "...Changelings are raised from birth to believe if ponies ever saw us in our true forms, all they'd see was a monster and kill us on sight...We've been afraid of that our entire lives...until today...
"Not only that...we intended to make ourselves an object lesson for the other Changelings. We wanted to prove Changelings and ponies could co-exist by living life here following your laws and doing everything right. "
"Basically," Bombardier continued. "Imagine knowing someday, a storm is coming, and wanting to tell the ponies in its path...but knowing if you did they might burn you as a witch."
"And even if we had," Diver picked up. "Chrysalis would have made it so all we did was make ponies paranoid...and had us assassinated without a second thought...so our plan was to wait until we saw the starts of an invasion, if it happened in our life time, then try to warn Celestia before it happened, at a point when Chrysalis couldn't just retreat into the shadows and wait for another chance to strike in a century or two, then...at least we might stop the invasion even if she killed us. It'd be too far along to pull back, so she'd be caught with her hoof in the cookie jar...but we didn't see the writing on the wall...I'm sorry...I'm so sorry."
"We were just three stupid little nymphs who thought they could pick up on a masquerade before it was too late," Bombardier explained, punching the wall in anger. "That was the problem with us leaving at thirteen, we didn't know what Chrysalis' plan was, just that she had one. We were nymphs, we didn't know a thing."
All three looked down in shame. "We failed as guards...if we survive this...we're going to res-"
"Don't even think about it," I finally said, sternly. "...Weaver, you almost sacrificed your life for Equestria, and thought that was exactly what you were doing....I think that's the definition of a Royal Guard."
The others took a moment to think, then gave a nod after a moment. "And you've done your best to help us through this even with your own people knocking at our door," Ellis replied, though he seemed a bit more uncertain.
"We might not like everything you've done, but...I think you've done a pretty good job as guards," Thunderchild admitted, trying to act professional. "So until the invasion is dealt with, in my mind you are, but once it is...it'll be the Princesses' call...but I owe you my life twice over, so for what it's worth, I think you've done your best. You're more of a Guard than some ponies I've met today. And if you're telling the truth, the only thing you've really done that might be wrong is withholding information you planned to give and lying about your species. So given the current circumstances, your contributions seem a lot more important than punishing you...that and lying about your species isn't technically against the law, since it's normally obvious what species you are."
"Look...I don't like the idea that Garnet needed to let you brainwash her," Gag stated. "Or that you did. But...you wouldn't have needed that if you hadn't almost killed yourself to protect us."
"...Weaver, I think what you did deserves a medal, not a resignation," I said, putting a hoof on her shoulder. "We'd be dead right now if you hadn't done something you knew would most likely kill you...But you never needed to be afraid ponies would hurt you...that was a lie."
"...Thanks," the Changeling said, giving us a smile. Her siblings nodded. "...Maybe we'll stay and keep doing what we love, Princesses willing...And maybe with our true faces instead of masks...But for now, lets just worry about surviving this mess."
Thunderchild explained things to Captain Coke. The choice was more or less the same: there would need to be an investigation, but we needed every hoof we could get and they'd proven trustworthy, and laying down your life for your squad-mates was an admirable action.
I think we were a bit more accepting of them because...well, Changelings were probably the only sapient species on the planet that we'd never met before, which included several former Hooviets. Reznov had probably broken more laws before his turn than those three.
I was just glad we all made it out of there alive.
"Hey, look what I found," Ellis said, looking through the objects we'd gotten from Kabuto's lab, not exactly having time to look through everything. From what he bragged about, I didn't WANT TO look through his things, as a medic, I'd likely appreciate how wrong it was EVEN MORE.
I blinked, looking at a now familiar mutated bug, thankfully in a glass cage. "Huh? That weird mutated bug? I thought we gave that to the science folks..."
"We did, apparently Kabuto wanted to study it," Gag replied, reading a paper on it. "...And apparently, the Changelings find it really, really freaky."
I blinked, looking at the triplets, who all three seemed to be a little freaked out by the giant, semi-sapient bug. "...Yeah...I wonder why."
"Imagine it was a tiny, semi-sapient more animalistic equine," Diver replied, though gave the bug a look like he'd poke it with a stick if he had one. Big kid.
I imagined the suggested image and suddered. "Point...I suppose this would be creepy for an insectoid species."
"Wow, here's something else creepy," said Gag, looking at another letter. "'Please bring me that little foal in the infirmary. I wish to have a look at her unique condition.'"
"Little foal?...Neatly Spell?!" I asked in horror.
We all shuddered at the thought.
"Did he-" I can't bring myself to ask.
"Nope, thank Celestia, looks like he never got her."
"...We don't tell Arcane about this," Thunderchild said simply.
We all nodded.
"...And can someone please put the weird giant bug away?" asked Bombardier, looking at the bug with a shudder. The bug simply huffed, crossed its front legs, and turned its head.
(Interviewer's Notes (Unicorn): The following events happened shortly after Applejack was freed.)
Gag went to go get us some more intel on the Changelings' positions. Garnet was busy asking Weaver about Changeling biology or something and Thunderchild was getting everything from them they hadn't been able to tell us without revealing themselves. To their credit, they didn't complain and just spoke. Captain Coke was on the radio listening in and asking questions of his own, though apparently they'd had to sedate Kabuto a couple times. Getting turned into an Earth Pony apparently made him pretty hysterical. Sorry, that's a understatement, he tried to kill himself, we had him on constant watch.
We were also supposed to find some food supplies if we could. Us guards had taken to eating grass and saving the food for the civilians, but we still needed to keep them fed.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Wait. You're eating grass?)
Yeah, survival training. If you don't have a lot of provisions, eat the vegetation if it's safe. It's keeping us fed, but I think the gardener is gonna be pretty angry at us.
Guess I know now why Weaver and her siblings were the first to volunteer to do it to preserve provisions.
I admit, I'm not quite okay with Weaver and her siblings being Changelings...it isn't that I'm speciesist or anything, it's that...I just don't have time to process things just yet...but I do think they've been good Guards and I'm grateful she saved our flanks...I'm proud to fight with them, but I just don't know exactly how to work this through it...
That witch is a changeling, and most of the changelings I've seen are all working for her, and they're doing it with a smile, or see hurting ponies as stacking hay from everything Gag's said.
But this is Equestria. Giving chances is what we're known for. And if nothing else we owe them one.
I think I was having mah mind on AJ and Applebloom most of the time too...I was worried about them, AJ was that witch's slave and Applebloom was out there somewhere in this whole mess... what kind of Apple would I be if I weren't worried for them?
Am I gonna have ta fight AJ? Mah own blood? First staying with your mom's family instead of Ponyville in Manehatten and then saving the world? AJ, why did you always have to be the adventuring sort?
"Hey Ellis," said Gag, coming back into the room with a big smirk. "I've got some good news."
"What?" I asked him, still a little distracted.
"The Bearers saved another of the witch's slaves..."
I gasped and looked to him. "Y-You mean..."
"AJ's safe, Ellis. She's free."
"AJ's free?...AJ'S FREE!" I shouted...before getting shushed a little...since, you know, stealth. But Applejack's free! Mah cousin's free!
"Where is she?! Did ya see her?! Is she with you? Is she coming? How'd she look?"
"I don't know. And no, no, no, and I have no idea. The troops were just told to have a look out for her, to avoid eye contact, and to wear reflective glasses when talking to her."
"Oh." Well, cousin, I'm happy to hear you're finally out of it. I'm so happy. Apple Fritter and Peachy Sweet are gonna love to hear it too. Applebloom, I can only pray that you're safe too.
(Interviewer's Notes (Pegasus): Glad to see you back in higher spirits, Ellis.)
So I am! I haven't felt this happy since that one Apple Family Reunion...Hey! Did I ever tell you about that? You see, me, AJ, and two of our cousins...