"Hm? Is something the matter?" the unicorn guard asked Tommy as he lingered in front of one of the stained glass windows. The window depicted the Equestrian Princesses, a Zebra, a Minotaur and a human sitting around a table with a tiny griffon standing in the entrance to the room. "Did you have questions?"
"Yeah," Tommy said after a moment of hesitation. "You said that the griffons were attacked by the aliens and it sounds really bad, but I thought that--"
"Shh!" the unicorn interrupted quickly.
"But what about--"
"And when will--"
"My dear boy, I think you may be missing the point of a good story," The guard said as he stood up on his rear hooves and wrapped one foreleg around Tommy's shoulders while gesturing down the vast hallway of tinted glass. "When you read a book, do you skip to the end first? Don't answer that. A good story is as much about the journey as the destination. The Equestrians made this hall of glass to tell the story of what happened, not just to memorialize the climax of it. Understand?"
"I think so," Tommy said, and he cast one last look at the tiny griffon in the window. "It's just getting to be a bit sad."
"It's always darkest before the dawn, or so I'm told," the unicorn said as he released Tommy. "Of course, you're probably right. I tend to have problems with perspective when it comes to events like this. So, how about something different? How about I share a bit of the story that's a little less gloomy then?"
"A distraction is often described in the negative, as something that detracts from one's focus. This is a mistake preached by those seeking to excuse their tunnel vision. For a true battle mage there is no such thing as a distraction. They are aware of all events around them and prioritize accordingly."
--Quote attributed to Clover the Clever, used in Equestrian Guard unicorn training.
09:30, 11/10/2014, UPPER COURTYARD, CANTERLOT
Shaojie Zhang had elected to wear a hooded jacket over his casual uniform due to the chill in the air. His one lament was that it made him appear far too similar to Lana Jenkins and her far too casual uniform even at the best of times, but in the end the cold had won the argument. At least he could still take pride in his duties. He tried not to dwell too much on just how odd those duties had been so far since joining XCOM over six months prior.
Zhang passed through an archway and onto a balcony where two instantly recognizable figures waited. Alvar sat on a bench near the railing looking out over the city, while his silent guardian stood as still as a statue beside him. The guardian's helmeted gaze snapped toward Zhang and didn't release him for a single moment even as he approached and bowed to the young High Talon. After waiting for exactly one and a half seconds, Zhang straightened and introduced himself. "High Talon Alvar, I am Lieutenant Shaojie Zhang. As our peoples have not been properly introduced, you most likely have questions. I will do my best to answer any that you may have."
The introduction had been written by Firecracker and rehearsed several times before this meeting, as Zhang had expressed his doubts in his ability to handle this situation without causing an incident. "Stick with the brief and concise introduction and ask open ended questions," the unicorn had said. "No matter the culture, everyone likes talking about their people. If you ask the right questions, you won't have to do much talking at all!"
Alvar turned to address the human and his gaze went up, and up, and up to finally meet Zhang's neutral expression. "Ah, yes, of course!" the young griffon said as he rose quickly and motioned to the seat beside him. "Have a seat. I'm sure you must have questions of your own."
"Yes, I do," Zhang lied smoothy as he made a quick review of the exhaustive briefing Firecracker had given him. At this point I might know more about the griffons than the griffons do, he couldn't help but think as he took the offered seat. A quick glance over the balcony showed a modest gathering of griffons in the lower courtyard along with a half-dozen hatchlings playing some sort of high-speed game of dodge ball. The addition of flight plus a lack of established sides--
"It's a training exercise," Alvar explained, which brought Zhang out of his study of the younglings. "The one with the ball attempts to hit one of his peers, while they try and tag him and get away from it while not getting hit. Points are tallied for successful hits, tags, dodges and saving the ball. If the ball makes uncontrolled contact with the ground, everyone loses their points. The exercise encourages precision target acquisition in a chaotic setting for the griffon throwing the ball, and quick reflexes plus teamwork for all others. In the end they must operate as a team to prevent the ball from falling from the sky."
Zhang watched in silence as the exercise progressed below them. A black-feathered griffon squawked in an undignified fashion when his tag attempt was interrupted by the ball pegging him right in the beak. It ricocheted at an odd angle and it was saved from striking the ground by the same black-feathered griffon who made a dive for it. He was greeted with cheers from the others until he hurled the ball back into play. The two adults reclining at ground level didn't so much as bat an eye at the proceedings as they maintained their own discussion. "I do not see a scorekeeper. Who tallies the points?" Zhang asked as he looked back to Alvar.
The young griffon's expression took on a curious tilt. "They keep their own scores. These hatchlings have trained together since the moment they could fly and traditionally they would have continued to do so until old enough to serve their Talon. In the end the points are never tallied by anyone but in each individual's mind to track their respective strengths and weaknesses." Alvar gestured to the exercise with a talon, where the same black-feathered griffon put himself in the same position he had been hit in previously, only this time he managed to catch and return the ball. "The points aren't kept to determine a winner like in the games ponies play. They tell a griffon where they need to improve."
The exercise began to increase in pace as several high-speed volleys launched back and forth through the swirling chaos of the younglings. With each pass, successful dodge or save their cheers grew louder and louder. A quick glance at Alvar showed the young griffon on the edge of his seat as his wide eyes tracked progress. Is that anticipation in his eyes? Zhang couldn't help but ask, before the realization struck him. It's envy. "Perhaps you should join them? They appear to be your age." Zhang suggested.
Instantly the emotion Alvar projected switched to annoyance, then just as quickly switched to forced aloofness. "I am High Talon now. I have greater concerns than participating in such an exercise." Alvar turned slightly away from Zhang and looked in the opposite direction as he spoke.
After several long moments where nothing was said and Alvar did not move from his position, Zhang took it as a dismissal. He stood, bowed, and left.
The moment Alvar dismissed Zhang, he regretted it. There was so much I wanted to ask of him about his people but I had to get ruffled over a simple question, the young griffon chastised himself. A second look at just why the question had bothered him revealed the truth of the matter. Zhang is not to blame, there is no way he could have known that I had already tried participating before now.
A small amount of bitterness entered Alvar's thoughts as he looked down at his talons. They were a light charcoal grey just like his coat and feathers, which was apparently something he had inherited from his father. That inheritance was something that had never factored into Alvar's life in any meaningful way until just over a week before. He was seventh in line for High Talon, behind his six older siblings. At most, Alvar expected to rise to the rank of Talon under whichever of his siblings inherited the title of High Talon, and he would serve honorably until he eventually fell from old age or an enemy.
Then the aliens came, and Alvar found himself being whisked away by one of his father's Myrmidons while two of his elder brothers fought off what he could only describe as a floating metal fish that spat fire from its spines. Everything was different after that.
The bitterness grew as he again saw the griffons running through the exercise at a frenzied pace. They had been his clutchmates; his brothers and sisters if not by blood then by bond. They had all been happy to hear of the group's survival and escape from the massacre at High Peak but when his friends had been informed of Alvar's status they became distant. Any attempts Alvar made to join their exercises resulted in pitiful exchanges that were a pale shadow to what he now saw before him. At worst, they now treated Alvar like some glass statue that might be broken at the smallest provocation. At best, they all treated him like they felt a High Talon should be treated; with deference and respect and catering to his whims.
It was infuriating.
Can't they see that I'm the same Alvar that they knew before all of this happened? Why can't we stay the same like we've always been? Alvar asked himself, and he spared a glance at the Myrmidon standing still as a statue over him. The elder griffon simply looked down at the younger and the helmeted head tilted sideways. Alvar could only look away and grumble. That's about as expressive as any Myrmidon gets. 'What do I do now?' Head tilt. 'What was my father like?' Head tilt. 'What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?' Head tilt.
Alvar sighed as he banished those useless thoughts from his head. He raised his head high and rested one talon over the other, mimicking the few pictures he had seen of his father. Alvar had to be regal and commanding to maintain the dignity of his new title, even as he worked out just how he would apologize to the human Zhang for the rude end to their conversation. Perhaps he should speak with the orange-maned unicorn on just how to--
Despite his position in repose, Alvar leapt up and spun in the direction of the warning, only to catch a rubber ball squarely in his face. He lurched backwards and off the bench with a squawk but his instincts took over. His eyes had snapped shut out of reflex but they opened and caught sight of the ball as it passed over him and threatened to fall to the marble floor behind him. His body moved on reflex as one of his back paws connected with the ground and kicked off to spin him into a position where he could dash towards the ball's destination. A dive and a slide along the polished stone brought his outstretched talons just within reach of the ball for a last minute save.
For one brief moment Alvar held out hope that one of his clutchmates had tossed the ball but those hopes wilted and died as he inspected the projectile in his talons. It was a ball, of that there was no doubt, but it was a bit bigger than the ones he was familiar with. It also was filled with nothing but air, which was a far cry from the sand or water filled training projectiles he was familiar with.
The second thought that occurred to Alvar was that the Myrmidon that was supposed to protect him had done precisely nothing to block the projectile. A flat look was shot at the armored griffon and was rewarded with a silent head tilt. This gesture though was in the direction of two galloping Equestrian younglings that came to a screeching halt the moment they laid eyes on the Myrmidon.
A long moment of silence passed as the two foals looked up at the elder griffon, but the mood was punctured when a purple and green dragonling staggered into view. "Girls--" the newest arrival huffed as he struggled to catch his breath, "If you kick the ball that hard indoors then you might break something or hurt someone."
"You would have to try very hard to hurt a griffon with one of these," Alvar said with as much aloofness as he could fake. For a brief moment he considered rending the ball to pieces with his talons just to prove the point, but a nearly forgotten memory stopped him.
'Do not seek to make enemies, Little Talon, for enemies tend to present themselves of their own accord; allies are far more useful.'
Alvar gave one last look at the ball before tossing it to the dragonling and the two foals. It would be beneath me to act in such a petty fashion, he told himself as he resumed his perch near the balcony. I am High Talon now. Such a trifling thing should not concern me.
Alvar nearly didn't register the question as being directed at him until he spared a glance at the trio of non-griffons. The one who had asked the question was a pegasus with an orange coat and purplish mane who was trying her best to smile at Alvar and ignore the looming presence of the Myrmidon.
The pegasus wilted somewhat under the scrutiny before she continued. "W-well, you look a little lonely up here without anyone else to play with." She spared one glance towards the Myrmidon and was rewarded with a head tilt in return. "My name is Scootaloo and these are my friends Apple Bloom and Spike," she introduced the other foal and the dragonling in sequence.
"I am--" Alvar began to announce out of reflex but the words 'High Talon' stuck in his throat. The moment you say those words they'll treat you as High Talon and nothing else, he told himself before adjusting his introduction. "Alvar. My name is Alvar."
"Nice to meet you, Alvar! Who's your friend? Does he have a name?" Scootaloo asked while sparing another glance towards the Myrmidon.
"No, he doesn't. He's--"
"Oh, oh! A secret agent? Is that why nopony knows his name?" Apple Bloom exclaimed.
"No way, he's totally a suit of enchanted armor!" Scootaloo contributed.
"I bet he just never introduces himself," Spike added with a deadpan tone.
Alvar couldn't find a reasonable response to any of those assertions, so he snuck a glance to the Myrmidon. The only help he got was a head tilt. "Yes," Alvar finally said, which started a new argument between the two foals while Spike simply slapped his face with his claw.
The somewhat heated debate came to an end when a third foal, this one a unicorn, came sprinting out of a nearby corridor and panted to catch her breath. "Girls! Girls! It's horrible!" She explained as soon as she could speak, "Princess Twilight has been brainwashed!"
Before he could question the declaration or even protest, Alvar was swept up by the three foals while Spike and the Myrmidon trailed behind them. Ten minutes later, the impromptu group were crouched behind a landscaped hedgerow that ran the perimeter of one of the many balcony gardens in the castle. The Myrmidon followed behind but made no attempt at hiding as his helmeted head continued to scan their surroundings.
The target of their surveillance was across the way, as Princess Twilight Sparkle and a human in a wheelchair sat out on the balcony. The alicorn was wrapped in a scarf and dress while the other was clad in similar clothes as Zhang had during their brief meeting. One particular detail that Alvar noticed was that the left sleeve of the human's jacket appeared to be filled only to the elbow.
"Rarity told me about how much time Princess Twilight has been spending with this human. I've been watching them very closely over the past few days and it's totally true! Anything he asks for, she gets for him," the recently introduced Sweetie Belle explained in a rush. "Whenever he isn't looking, Princess Twilight just stares at him and her face gets all red too! She's clearly trying to resist his evil mind control! I also heard that the human is the leader of a secret organization called... something that started with an 'X'. If that isn't evil, I don't know what is!"
"Girls, don't you think this whole situation sounds a little too much like a comic book?" Spike asked slowly, his tone still deadpan.
"Of course not! We haven't given him an evil villain name yet!" Sweetie Belle declared. "As I was the first to uncover this conspiracy, I name him 'Mr. X'!"
"That's too bland. What about 'Sinister X'?" Scootaloo contributed.
Apple Bloom shook her head. "I think that one's taken. I think 'Doctor X' is best!"
"You're missing the obvious choice, girls," a fourth voice explained from directly behind them.
All three of the foals screamed and whirled around while Alvar twisted in place to address the interloper that he had somehow failed to notice. Sloppy! You must be aware of your surroundings, hatchling! Alvar chided himself before a quick glance to the Myrmidon revealed something shocking.
Just as the younger griffon had turned reflexively to face the unexpected contributor to the conversation, so did the Myrmidon. The featureless helmet jerked to the side and locked on to the interloper and his 'at attention' stance vanished as he turned. Steel claws dug into the well manicured lawn as Alvar's guardian prepared to charge before he stopped and resumed his previous position.
Myrmidons can't be caught off guard! They see everything, they hear everything! Alvar nearly said aloud as he mimicked his guard by fixing the interloper with what he hoped was a piercing stare. It was a human, smaller and more slender at the shoulders than Zhang. Raven black hair was tied back into a tail behind its head, and a pair of blue eyes surveyed the gathered Equestrians and griffons with what could only be amusement.
"Hi, Miss Jenkins," Spike said with a wave of a claw. "I hope we're not interrupting anything. The girls were having fun with this but if you want we can go play somewhere else."
"This isn't PLAY! This is serious investigation, Spike," Sweetie Belle snapped once the panic of being caught subsided. It wasn't long before she turned on Spike. "You seem awfully comfortable speaking with an evil minion of the X Organization. Are you a spy? Did you have a claw in helping cast this mind control on Twilight!?"
"A point of clarification, if I may," the human, Jenkins, interrupted as she raised her left hand and extended one digit. "If Spike were working with the evil X Organization, he would be a counter-spy, since he's spying on you and you are spying on us. Also, the only person casting a spell on Twilight is Twilight. It's the kind of spell that all young girls cast upon themselves at least once in their lives."
"We will never fall to your evil plans!" Apple Bloom declared boldly.
"If you truly intend to resist, then you already know that wrapping the top of your head in tin foil is the only way to block our evil powers," Jenkins said seriously, and the corners of her mouth twitched as the three fillies bolted past her spouting plans for tin foil armor. Spike waved before letting out a sigh and running to catch up. Alvar didn't know enough about humans to tell their emotions but he was quite certain of the mischief in her eyes as she caught sight of something behind the two griffons. "Ah! There's trouble."
Alvar couldn't help but glance slightly to the side to try and catch just what the human was looking at before his discipline reasserted itself and he looked back towards Jenkins. The human had vanished as though she wasn't even there. A quick glance to the Myrmidon was rewarded not with an expected head tilt but the sight of the elder griffon panning his head slowly in the direction of a shrubbery that had a conspicuous light cyan and white tail sticking out of it. The vegetation shook violently and a unicorn with a harp cutie mark came screaming out of it and into the castle corridors.
The young griffon arched an eyebrow before he caught sight of the human called Jenkins standing beside the shrub that the unicorn just vacated with a silly grin on her face. She then walked over to stand behind the human in the wheelchair. Alvar's eyes began to ache as he struggled to keep them open before they fell prey to the inevitable blink. When his eyes opened, Jenkins was gone.
"How does she do that?" Alvar asked as he turned to the Myrmidon. His answer was a silent head tilt, and the younger griffon covered his face with a talon for expecting any other answer.
Matt did his very best to ignore what was becoming an increasingly embarrassing amount of surveillance on Twilight and himself as the pair made their way into the center of one of the balcony gardens of Canterlot. It really is a bit embarrassing to have her taking care of me like this, but it seems to be helping her, he mused to himself even as he tried not to remember the state he had seen Twilight in earlier. His train of thought became a bit self deprecating as they came to a stop and Twilight took a seat on the bench next to him. She said she had lots of friends. I just wish they all would stop watching.
The slightest hint of a cyan coat and two gold-shaded eyes peeking out from the bushes to Matt's right were strong indicators to the other kind of surveillance that the humans had been under since their arrival and announcement in Canterlot. Once the initial fear and shock about those revelations had passed, a timid form of curiosity had made itself apparent in the Equestrians living in the city. For a rare few, that curiosity was far more aggressive than timid. The unicorn hiding in the bushes was named 'Lyra Heartstrings,' according to the most recent security briefings, and she had an uncanny ability to slip past the stringent security measures around XCOM's compound. The trespasses had been mostly harmless... save for the engineer who fell out of bed and gave himself a concussion when he saw Lyra watching him sleep.
It had taken an order from Princess Twilight to prevent any further infiltration into the compound, but that hadn't stopped Lyra from stalking any humans that left the safety of their designated area.
"Is something wrong?" Twilight asked when she noticed Matt's attention seemed to be wandering. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine, Twilight. I'm fine," Matt reassured her. It's a bit chilly though and my left arm aches. I can't tell her that or she'll worry herself to death. "So, what is this place? Since it's getting close to winter I would have thought the trees and other plants would have shed their leaves by now," Matt observed, knowing full well what was going to come next.
"This is the Summer Garden," Twilight explained as she launched into lecture mode. "Princess Celestia worked with several earth ponies for many years to cultivate several species of plants that maintain their lively appearance through all seasons." A bit of hesitation entered the young alicorn's voice as she continued. "It's certainly an amazing achievement but when I asked Princess Celestia what inspired her to create this garden, she said that she didn't particularly like the winter. She seemed sad afterwards so I never brought it up again." An awkward silence began to stretch between the two as Twilight began to fiddle with the hem of her dress.
God damn it, Jenkins, Matt thought reflexively as his last conversation with his subordinate came to mind. When Matt had finally noticed the fact that Twilight never went anywhere without clothing on while also appearing uncomfortable around any of her species that wore less than her, he had asked Lana just what was going on. Lana had explained in her oh so helpful manner that Twilight had studied human cultural norms and was worried about Matt getting ideas. She was also self conscious about being 'locked in a dungeon while naked for two months', according to Lana.
Focus, Harris! Plot your revenge later, Matt mentally slapped himself before awkwardly reaching into one of his pockets. "Twilight, there was something we wanted to give you earlier but with everything happening it was kinda delayed," he explained before finally fishing out the item in question. It was a flat wooden box about the size of a large wallet, and with a hinged lid on the top. The lid itself had the XCOM emblem carefully engraved in it. With a little bit of difficulty, Matt was able to open the box and present the contents to Twilight.
The box contained a medal that Matt and Lana had both earned, and so had Twilight. The face of the medal depicted a closed castle gate flanked by two medieval turrets, with the latin phrase NON ERIT TRANSIENS around its border. The underside of the lid held a small metal plaque that Matt could recite almost from heart even as Twilight read the words.
"For displaying unparalleled courage and skill in assisting humanity's last line of defense on the evening of May 22nd, 2015. The planet Earth owes Twilight Sparkle a debt which cannot be repaid," she finished, and Matt couldn't help but take note of the small quiver in her voice as she no doubt relived the events in question. "I don't think I deserve this," Twilight muttered as she drew back from the offered award.
Matt's first thought was to state--in no uncertain terms-- that she had earned it, but he hesitated. She doesn't care about medals or glory or the number of bodies she racked up. She cares about her friends, and not all of them survived that night. "I suppose I understand, Twilight. It's hard to see the heroism past all of the people who fell in the process, but hundreds or even thousands of people are alive because of you. You might not think you deserve it, but I think you earned it." He set the medal on the bench beside the alicorn, who simply stared at it.
"Four hundred and seventeen," Twilight said before looking up at Matt. "I turned four hundred and seventeen aliens to stone, and that doesn't count whoever was killed when I lashed out of at their ships in the sky. I didn't just transmute their bodies from flesh and bone into rock like the little tests we did. I don't know how I did it but there's no magical draw that's maintaining the transformation. Whatever I did is permanent. I shouldn't get a medal for having the blood of over four hundred living creatures on my hooves. I thought I had been able to put it behind me but with everything that's happened it just keeps coming back. I killed them, Matt. I killed them all."
You killed them all.
Matt had to suppress a wince as the nightmare he had came back to haunt him. I want so much to tell Twilight that they're all monsters and she shouldn't feel a thing killing them. She might make an excellent asset for the war if she realises this, but what would it cost Twilight Sparkle?
"There was a soldier back home that fought in a war about seventy years ago," Matt started after a long moment. "He was by all accounts a war hero. Fought and killed hundreds of enemy soldiers by some accounts. He also earned every award for valor that could be given. He might be considered the gold standard for what any soldier should be. What many people did not know is that he was haunted by what had happened during the war. He played a big part in ensuring that anyone who suffered what he had would get the help they needed. People who did terrible things so that others might sleep well at night." Matt was silent a moment before putting a hand on Twilight's back even as a startling realization hit him. Does this world even know what PTSD is or how to treat it?
"You did what you had to, Twilight. Noone blames you for that. As much as it hurts now, it is a good sign that it still bothers you," Matt continued, and Twilight gave him a searching look. "You'll only be a monster when the lives of others mean nothing to you. The fact that you feel guilt now means that you're still a good person." Matt ruffled her mane and tried to ignore how her expression went from pale guilt to blushing embarassment. "When this is all over, I'll talk to some of my old Army friends back home. There are people who can really help with this kind of thing. They can help you." And me, Matt nearly added at the end.
Twilight simply nodded and looked down at the medal again before giving it a curious look. "What do the words mean? The characters are the same but it's not English," Twilight asked, and she latched on to the subject change like a drowning person to a life preserver. "I've seen some other bits of language that doesn't make much sense either. Lana's dress uniform had a small patch that said something else. 'Spiritus Ex Machina', I think," she sounded the unfamiliar words out. "What language is that?"
"It's Latin, but I don't know the language. The motto on your medal means 'none shall pass,' which might be a reference to another book series you probably would like. As to Lana's patch, I'm afraid I don't know that one," Matt explained, and he felt the smallest amount of guilt for lying. She's too sharp for me to tell her what it means, and I don't want to be the one to explain just what her gifts to us have created. Ghost in the machine, indeed. He continued to watch Twilight but when she simply continued to stare at the medal, Matt reached for it again. "If you want, I'll hold onto this for you. We all agreed that you earned this, Twily, but I suppose I should have considered how you would have felt about this."
"No, no," Twilight quickly slapped a hoof down on the lid to close it shut before slipping it into her saddlebags. "It's just that it brought back some things..."
As Twilight trailed off, Matt gave the alicorn a meaningful look. "Have you talked to your friends lately? I really do appreciate you helping me as much as you have, but I think you might--"
"It's fine!" Twilight interrupted quickly. "It's all water under the bridge and I don't want to burden them with more of the same problems."
Matt's sympathetic look didn't relent. "I'm sure they did their best to help you when you came back home. But they might need you now. They've just had their peaceful lives up-ended by all this, you know? You survived something horrible and you're stronger for it. I think that they could use your strength."
"But what about your wheelchair? Won't you have trouble moving around?" Twilight asked after a moment, but both her tone and expression were clear signs that she was giving Matt's suggestion serious thought.
To his credit, Matt managed to maintain a reassuring smile without letting too much annoyance come through. "Oh, I'm sure Lana is lurking somewhere nearby so I can bug her about it," he said, and he did his very best to ignore Lyra bolting from her hiding spot like a monster was chasing her.
"Well, if you feel any pain or if you need anything, just tell one of the guards and they'll find me immediately," Twilight said as she hopped off the bench. She made her way towards the exit before giving Matt a small wave and leaving the garden.
Matt let out a long, drawn-out sigh before leaning back in the wheelchair. "Lana, you're behind me, aren't you?"
"Yep," came the expected answer.
"And I imagine you've been there the entire time?" Matt asked rhetorically.
"Oh no. I was doing a perimeter check around the garden earlier to scare off the usual suspects."
"Mhm, right," Matt agreed, his tone completely flat as he imagined the mischievous smirk that was no doubt on Lana's face. Anything else that he might have said was lost when his stomach growled loudly followed by a groan from Matt. Guess I should have asked Twily for a snack before she left. Man, I could use a--
The moment the thought entered his mind, Matt felt a weight drop on his lap unexpectedly. The weight belonged to a plate of still steaming chocolate chip cookies and a second later the smell of the cookies hit him and his stomach growled again. He looked up to try and find the source of the baked goods only to find a bright pink pony staring at him from the opposite side of the balcony railing.
"You're already fed," Pinkie Pie said ominiously while pointing a hoof before smiling widely and dropping out of sight.
"Isn't it a fifty foot drop off the side of the balcony to the cobblestone streets below?"
"I think so."
"Should I be concerned that an earth pony just fell off the side apparently?"
"Not for that particular one, no."
"Ah, just checking."
"On the other hand, we've got an interloper to starboard."
Matt turned to the right and caught sight of a unicorn mare making her way towards him. A flicker of movement caught his eye as Lana moved to intercept the newcomer. They stopped just outside of his hearing range but he did note the unicorn pulling out a pencil and notepad. Lana was apparently peppered with a rapidfire series of questions and Matt couldn't help but raise an eyebrow as his subordinate's body language went from relaxed, to tense, to defensive, then to shocked as the unicorn passed her.
"Can I help you?" Matt asked cautiously as he caught Lana's disbelieving stare at the mare, or more specifically her flank marks. A trio of burning question marks were there, and Matt came to the uncomfortable conclusion that this might be a reporter of some sort.
"Oh I imagine you can help if you intend to or not," the mare said quickly before flipping to a new page on her notepad. "Princess Luna has done a stellar job in introducing you humans as a group to Equestria and the world but there are many questions about all of you on a personal level. The humans who knew Twilight on Earth are a particular hot topic. Would you mind answering some of Equestria's questions?"
"Wonderful!" the mare said without missing a beat. "Your full name is Matthew Patrick Harris, and you maintain the rank of Captain, correct?"
"Prior to your work with XCOM, you served in your nation's army at the rank of Corporal. May I ask what prompted the move to XCOM?"
A small nod from the mare was the only break Matt hd before the next questions were fired. "Prior to your time in the Army, you lived with your family in a place called 'Iowa', which is a rich farming region, right?"
"You also worked part-time at a farm dedicated to preserving the means and methods used in the past. More specifically, you helped care for the work animals at the farm. Is it true you used horse rides after hours as a method for attracting young women for dates?"
"That's-- what?" Matt had almost answered the question with an affirmative, since it was technically true. What gave Matt pause was the fact that he had never told anyone about his ulterior motive for working that job. "How in God's name do you know that?"
"And that's all of my questions. I thank you for your time, Captain!" the mare said as she turned and walked past the still stunned Jenkins before disappearing into the corridors of the castle.
Lana recovered slowly and stalked over to Matt. "We need to follow her, I don't think she is what she appears to be," she hissed in a low whisper.
"What do you mean? I'm more concerned with how she had those questions. If she's capable of digging up those things from my past, she can dig up anything," Matt answered, but a quick look to Lana showed her shaking her head.
"Did you notice the flank marks? Three burning question marks? Firecracker has that same mark," Lana said before looking over her shoulder as though she expected the stallion to appear when his name was spoken.
A small amount of confusion wormed its way into Matt with that revelation. "It's not exactly uncommon for Equestrians to share a flank mark, Lana. In the three days I've been awake I've seen a baker's dozen of pegasi, unicorns and Eart Ponies with an hourglass mark."
"It's the mark itself!" Lana snapped. "Why would any Equestrian have a flank mark that is based on a written language that they haven't been exposed to for more than six months?"
A chill went down Matt's spine as the logic of Lana's words hit him. That is a damn good point, and I really should have realised it sooner. Damn it! "Lana, tail that unicorn and get back to me. If you see one of the guards on the way out, tell them Captain Harris needs to talk with Major Fujikawa and Princess Luna immediately."
"On it, boss," came the short reply, and Matt could already here Lana's voice receding into the distance even if he couldn't see her.
On second thought, perhaps it might have been prudent for Lana to have pushed me over to someone who can help me get around, Matt through ruefully before letting out a sigh and spared a glance at the cooling cookies in his lap. He picked one up and began to chew slowly as he savored the flavor. These are great, but I would kill for something with meat in it. Maybe a bacon cheeseburger fresh off the grill. I can almost smell it now.
--the smell of burning flesh simply made the moment more glorious.
Matt's jaw locked shut as he set the half-eaten cookie down on the plate while doing his best not to reflexively look down at what was left of his left arm. All thoughts about hunger were gone as he tried desperately not to throw up.
The moment Twilight left the gardens, the more sense she saw in Matt's suggestion. I really haven't spent much time with my friends because Matt needed my help at first. I didn't think I needed to talk to my friends about this since he's helping me now. I didn't even think for a second that they might need me, she thought, and her thoughts took a darker turn. You're a bad friend, Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight wallowed in those dark thoughts for several moments before she finally reached the wing of the castle that was slowly being taken over by medical bays and the wounded. A few moments of weaving through the corridors passed before she reached the door she was seeking. The room inside contained a half dozen beds, with three untouched and one occupied while the others showed signs of use. Fluttershy was tucked in tightly into the bed nearest the window with Rarity sitting beside her. Applejack and Rainbow Dash sat at the foot of the bed though both were still wrapped tightly in bandages.
For a long moment Twilight considered stepping back out of the room rather than breaking up the tranquil scene but Fluttershy spotted her before she could make an escape. Rarity caught the glance and by then the others had picked up on her presence. With no reasonable excuse to back out, Twilight made her way over to the bed.
Fluttershy had clearly been sobbing for some time as the coat around her eyes was matted and wet though no new tears appeared as she spoke. "There was nothing in them. Nothing! All the animals in the forest could tell me something with their eyes about what they want. But those... things had nothing! All they wanted to do was hurt everypony and nothing else! How can something be so-- so--"
"Cruel, darling?" Rarity asked as she patted Fluttershy on the head. "I really don't know."
"No! Cruelty is a conscious choice by a being that knows the difference! Those things had nothing in them. Nothing at all!" Fluttershy cried before her sobs eventually overcame her ability to speak. Rarity could do little more than hug her friend and provide a shoulder to cry into.
Applejack caught Twilight's eye and gestured to the other side of the room, and the pair stepped away from the bed with Rainbow Dash in tow. "She's been like that since she woke up yesterday and that's all she says when we ask her what she saw. I don't know what happened to her out in Everfree, and truth be told I don't want to. I imagine knowing would just make me angry."
"Chryssalids," Twilight said, and both of the other mares gave her a questioning look that she couldn't return. "And you're right. You really don't want to know."
"These things are evil, and I'm one hundred and twenty percent certain nopony will argue that point, but..." Rainbow Dash started before she looked down at her hooves. "Twilight, how much do you trust these humans? I mean really trust them. I know they're helping us now but I don't know if they're as good as they say they are."
Before Twilight could object, Dash blurted out, "You weren't there, Twilight! I mean, yeah, that human saved my life but I saw him surrounded by bodies and blood and when that airship blew up and he was grinning like he just won the lottery! There's something wrong with that guy."
"I'm afraid I'm forced to agree with RD," Applejack said. "Do you remember Miss Jenkins and her visit the other day?"
"That was awesome!" the pegasus exclaimed with a somewhat manic smile. "They took over an alien airship like sky pirates!"
"And do you remember what she said about her dad?" Applejack asked reluctantly, and guilt was clearly apparent on her face when she saw the fake cheer on Dash's face disappear. "I've only got my gut to go on, but she wasn't exactly truthful through her story. I'm certain that she told the truth about her dad passing on but when Miss Jenkins talked about how it happened it threw up all kinds of warning bells for me. Then she completely avoided talking about it by bringing up that tall tale about sky piracy."
Lana's father is dead? Twilight asked herself as she reviewed every conversation she had ever had with the woman. I had simply assumed he wasn't living with his family or perhaps they were separated. She suppressed a wince at the realisation of just how insensitive she might have been to Lana when she had asked her to speak with Rainbow Dash. "Girls, I know it might be suspicious for Lana to tell the stories that she did and how she told them. I didn't even know her father had passed on until you told me just now, AJ. What I do know is that Lana loves her family dearly and it probably hurt her a lot to tell you as much as she did."
"I-I can agree with that," Rainbow Dash agreed with a stutter as she looked down at the floor.
Applejack chewed her lip before speaking again. "It's not just that story, Twi. Every time she smiles, she lies. Every time she smiled while she was visiting us, it was fake. Wasn't anything she felt guilty about either. Horseapples, I doubt she's even aware that she's smiling anymore. There was no happiness behind it."
"Girls, I think you're forgetting the perfect counter example," Rarity whispered as she joined the group before looking back at Fluttershy, who had worn herself out enough to fall into a fitful sleep. "One of the humans has visited Fluttershy every single day since she came back from that dreadful excursion into Everfree. I'm fairly certain he was the human that went with her, and anypony can see he's clearly wracked with guilt over what happened."
"Well, there is that," Applejack agreed reluctantly. "I feel a bit bad but I have some problems keeping the human names straight. What was his name again?"
"Spangle? Sparkle? Something like that," Rainbow Dash shrugged as best she could past the bandages. "Did you know he used to fly human airships against the Aliens? That is so cool! He told me a bit about them so he's great in my book." The pegasus looked to each of the other ponies in their little huddle before gradually looking down again. "Well, now that you're all here, I suppose I should apologize for how I acted after we came to the castle. I thought I had lost everything, and I might have taken it out on everypony just a little bit."
"Just a little bit?" Applejack asked with a tinge of good-natured sarcasm before bumping shoulders with her. "Apology accepted, RD. I'd hug ya but these bandages make things difficult." The group shared a quiet chuckle as they all came together to rub shoulders in lieu of the hug they couldn't have. "If you ever want to really talk about it, you can rely on us."
"Thanks," Rainbow Dash answered, and she quickly looked to each of the mares in the circle but was unable to maintain eye contact. "I don't-- I don't think I can talk about it right now. I just have to keep busy, okay?" She looked up again and forced a smile. The effort to maintain it seemed genuine if not the expression itself, and Twilight took it as a good sign.
"Now regarding those other humans you were discussing, I have the perfect plan to find out their true natures," Rarity stated with a sly grin. "Twilight, do let me know when your good friend Matthew is ready to be discharged from your care, as he will be instrumental in the process. I'll have use for those broad shoulders of his, among other things."
And in the blink of an eye, Twilight's concerns about her old friends not liking her new friends was turned on its head. What--Rarity? WHAT? I still don't know how I feel about things for sure and she's already stating her intentions? "What exactly are you planning, Rarity?" The alicorn asked, and she tried not to imagine too vividly the answer.
"Tut tut, Twilight, a lady never reveals her secrets before she's ready... Twilight, are you all right?" Rarity asked, and her tone went from playful to concerned. "You seem quite flush, and you're short of breath. Perhaps you're coming down with one of those dreadful colds that are going around. I'll go get the doctor, since its best to catch these things quickly." Rarity took one step but stopped when the door opened. "Ah, Mister Spiegel! We were just talking--"
SLAM! Before Twilight could swivel around to see the new arrival, the door snapped shut.
"Well," Rarity said after an awkward moment. "That was unexpected I suppose. He took one glance into the room and he looked like he had seen a ghost. Perhaps he forgot something important? It would be a shame if he couldn't spend time with Fluttershy today. I worry that she'll become too withdrawn because of this..."
Twilight barely heard the unicorn mare as a small nagging suspicion that she was being avoided entered her mind. That suspicion was quickly overrun by plans on just how she could keep Rarity's hooves off of Matt for the foreseeable future.
It was quite simple for Lana to flag down a guard and pass along Matt's request, then catch up with her prey. The 'journalist' continued an easy trot through the castle without giving a single indication that she knew she was under surveillance. Not that Lana ever allowed a single hint of her presence to be known in the first place.
I might not be the jack of all trades that Matt is for certain skills, but if there's one thing I excel at, it's Wallflower, Lana thought with a smile as she trailed behind the mare with the impossible flank marks. Thus far, she had done absolutely nothing suspicious and the guards paid her no heed as she passed and exited the castle grounds to enter the city itself. We're normally not allowed outside the castle, but if my theory pans out then we might have a bigger security risk than Lyra acting like a stalker.
The mare led Lana down a winding series of paths before stopping at a baker's booth on the perimeter of an open air market that did business despite the chill in the air. Lana's target glanced over the baking booth's goods before one of the baker's assistants trotted in with a plate full of still-steaming cookies. Gold bits were exchanged and the mare walked off with a bag full of delicious-smelling cookies.
In the second it took for Lana to stop and take one deep breath of the bakery's scents, her target vanished into the crowd. Damn it! She thought as she ran in the last direction she had seen the mare only for no sign to make itself apparent. She had nearly given up at that point before a voice carried over the crowds towards her. The voice wasn't particularly noteworthy but for the fact that Lana had made it her mission to avoid the voice's owner at every opportunity. A few careful steps to the corner of the market showed an open square with a small herd of foals following behind a unicorn stallion.
"Alright, everypony! I think I have just enough cookies so that each of you can have one," Firecracker explained, and his smile was positively shining as his magic delivered a cookie to each of the younglings from the bag that the 'journalist' had carried not one minute earlier.