• Published 6th Jul 2018
  • 869 Views, 91 Comments

Five Friendly Venoms - Tumbleweed



It was supposed to be a routine visit to Ponyville-- But, as always, things soon take a turn for the worse as Flash Sentry finds himself facing stunning news-- as well as a brand new mission.

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Chapter 1

Context is everything.

What may come off as an innocuous statement from one pony can be absolutely terrifying from another. Case in point: nearly anything Carrot Top (a.k.a. Special Agent Golden Harvest) has ever said to me. But, for all the many, many times that mare has nearly killed me, directly or indirectly, none of those were so harrowing as a single question she once asked me over breakfast.

“Sentry, how good are you with children?”

I choked down a mouthful of coffee somehow without drowning myself, and forced a wan grin. “I haven't thought about it very much.” I said, quite truthfully. Meanwhile, I immediately started running through my schedule from the last month or two, cross-referencing it with Carrot Top's moods and dietary choices. Over the years, I've blundered my way through the most miserable and dangerous environs Equestria (along with several neighboring countries besides) has to offer. It was almost novel, then, to feel my heart seize up while I was in my own humble Canterlot apartment.

“I'm not surprised.” Carrot Top said with a bemused grin. She put her hoof on my kitchen table and slid an opened envelope to me. “Here.”

“You opened my mail? Isn't that illegal?”

Carrot Top arched one brow, and took a deliberate sip of her coffee.

“Point.” I said, and picked up the letter.


Dear Flash Sentry,


Once again, I'd like to thank you for all your loyal service-- not to me, but to all of Equestria. After seeing your bravery and resourcefulness myself,* I knew you were the genuine article. Thankfully, I am not writing in regards to your martial talents, but rather to the strength of your character.

As I'm sure you're aware, I've recently started a School of Friendship here in Ponyville. As much as I'd love to have you as part of the faculty, I know your duties in the Royal Guard make a tenured position impossible. Still, we are having our first ever Friendship Festival soon, and I would like to humbly request your presence as a guest speaker. I know my students could learn a lot about bravery and loyalty from a pony like you.


Your friend,


Twilight Sparkle


P.S. While I know you would be happy to help no matter what the circumstances, I feel the need to compensate you for your time, and as such, I will be happy to provide a small travel stipend for your trouble. I might as well get some use out of this whole 'Princess' thing, right?


“Bloody hell.” I let out a relieved laugh, and slumped back into my chair. “She's got a school now?”

“It was all over the papers about six weeks back. Haven't you been keeping up with current events?”

“I think we both know the answer to that question.” I rubbed at the bridge of my nose.

“So you're going?” Carrot Top said.

*See: Octavia's Eleven

“Of course I am. You know how it works-- a Princess 'requests,' and the rest of Equestria obeys.” I downed the last of my coffee, and set my empty mug on the kitchen table. “Could be worse, I suppose-- Princess Twilight could start going on about a 'friendship mission' or somesuch and the next thing you know some irate dragon would be trying to eat me.”

“Come off it, Sentry.” Carrot Top said with a typically bemused grin. “This is an easy assignment, and you know it. All you've got to do is show up and look impressive. It won't be any different than a high society soiree.”

“It will be different.” I grumbled. “It's a school. Why, I bet Princess Twilight hasn't got a dram of liquor in the whole damn building.”

“Relax, Sentry. It won't be all bad.” Carrot Top said.

“Oh, I'm sure it'll be worse. “ I groaned. “I don't know how, but I'm sure it'll be worse.”

“You've just got to be an optimist about this sort of thing.” Carrot Top said with a little shrug that highlighted the firm, subtle musculature of her shoulder. She tossed her frizzy mane back, and favored me with a saucy wink. “While we're in Ponyville, we can stay at my place.”

“When you put it that way, I suppose it doesn't seem so bad.” I said. Still, I shook my head, and held up an indignant hoof. “But, if Ponyville gets invaded by some horrible mostrosity-- again –we're catching the first train out of town. Princess Twilight and her friends can handle themselves.” And then, a pause, as a terrible, terrible realization struck me. “Can't they?”

“They usually do.”


It all started innocuously enough-- which should have been my first cue to run. Then again, that's hindsight for you. Still, for better or worse, Carrot Top and I were soon comfortably ensconced in a sleeper car on its way to Ponyville. First class, of course; Princess Twilight had provided a generous travel stipend, and it would've been impolite not to make full use of it. And so, I sipped top-shelf brandy and watched the countryside roll by. Carrot Top leaned against my side and read the newspaper., occasionally stealing sips of brandy between articles. Outside the window, the bottom edge of the sun began to dip below the horizon, bathing the forests and farmland outside in a rosy, warm glow.

Even now, all these years later, I look back on those few hours as one of my fondest memories. Just two ponies on a train, each silently enjoying the presence of the other. No missions, no monsters, no murders.

All of that would come later.

The train chugged into Ponyville Station ahead of schedule, announcing itself with a squealing of brakes and a venting of steam. Carrot Top set her paper aside, leaning past me to peer out the window with a spy's professional paranoia.

“What are you worried about?” I said, even as I leaned back against my seat to give Carrot Top a better view. “Don't you live here?”

“Princess Twilight's waiting for you.” Carrot Top said. And, sure enough, the Purple Princess of Friendship stood at the station, waiting for yours truly. She tapped me gently (at least by her standards, which means she didn't break anything) on the shoulder. “It's probably for the best if the Princess doesn't see the two of us, ah ... together. Cover stories, and all that.”

“Do I detect a hint of jealousy?” I said, even though Carrot's tone was nothing but professional (which, honestly, was far worse).

“Hardly.” Carrot Top shook her head, neatly folding her newspaper and laying it to the side. “It's ... just been a long trip, that's all. Be careful, Sentry. Try not to burn Princess Twilight's school down.”

“I make no promises.”

“I knew you'd say that.” Carrot Top leaned in for a gentle, fleeting kiss-- and before I could so much as reciprocate, she had slipped out of our cabin. I followed, only a few steps behind, but by the time I stuck my head out into the hallway, Carrot Top had disappeared into the bustling stream of disembarking passengers.

I ducked back into the cabin, taking a moment to finish my brandy and smooth out a few wrinkles in my dress uniform. This done, I braved the crowd. A few shoves and insincere apologies later, I exited the train, glad for the chance to stretch my wings out.

“Flash! There you are!” Princess Twilight Sparkle waved one hoof at me, all nervous, girlish enthusiasm. If one could look past the combined horn and wings, she could've passed herself off as any other Ponyville bumpkin. “I'm glad you made it!”

“I'm glad to be here.” I said, and sketched a gallant bow.

“So, um-- there may have been a sliiiiight mix up in scheduling. Nothing major! But ... um, I don't suppose you'd mind giving your speech a little early?”

I blinked. “Just ... how early, exactly?”

“As soon as we get back to the school?” Princess Twilight said with an embarrassed grin. “I don't mean to impose, but we've run into a ... few snags, that's all. Rainbow Dash waited 'til the last minute to get the right clouds into place for her stunt flying demonstration, and then Fluttershy had that problem with the basket full of weasels, and long story short is we need somepony to talk to the students to fill in the gap in the schedule. Which is fine because I know you're a responsible pony and you've already used all that time you had on the train ride over to write your speech out on little notecards, haven't you?”

The corner of Princess Twilight's eye began to twitch.

“Of course.” I lied with a charming smile.

“Great! Then there's no time to waste!” And before I could squeal in terror, Princess Twilight's horn glowed-- then flashed –and once again I felt the none-too-pleasant sensation of being magically teleported from one place to another without crossing the distance between. The light faded, and I fought down the urge to puke. Once my head stopped spinning, I managed to register my surroundings: a small, curtained-off room with green-painted walls.

Princess Twilight peeked through a gap in the curtains, and then nodded to herself. “We're just in time-- c'mon!” And then she pressed on, leaving me no option but to follow, seeing as of how I had no idea where I was.

Blazing, blinding spotlights greeted me as soon as I walked past the curtain, and onto the stage. I squinted against the harsh light, and peered out at the packed auditorium, with a good hundred or so young, eager faces looking down at me. Twilight trotted over to the podium at the center of the stage, and immediately launched into a lengthy (and unknowingly fraudulent) listing of my so-called accomplishments and virtues and the like. Her praises and accolades echoed through the auditorium, amplified by the little microphone that arched above the podium like a tiny fishing rod.

On the one hoof, it was entirely gratifying to see my overinflated reputation being promulgated by the likes of the Princess of Friendship herself. On the other hoof, it didn't look like I was going to score any free drinks out of it.

“--which is why I'm proud to introduce Lieutenant Flash Sentry!” Princess Twilight swept a hoof over my way, and I took my cue to trot up to the podium as heroically as I could manage. I set my front hooves on the lectern, waiting a second for the polite applause to die down.

“Ahem.” I cleared my suddenly-dry throat, causing the microphone to squeal in protest. I winced, leaned a little away, and tried again. “Hello?”

Somepony at the back of the room coughed.

“Ah, right then.” I said. “As Princess Twilight so kindly told you, my name is Flash Sentry. It seems like, not so long ago, I was in your position. Well, not your exact position, given this school didn't exist when I was a lad, but ... you get the idea. The gist of it is, I remember being corralled into assemblies like this one, in which somepony with a resume as long as your tail would go on about how you could be just like them, with enough hard work. But-- let me tell you this, children-- I hope you never, never grow up to be like me.”

I heard Princess Twilight's gasp from the side of the stage, and took it as a good sign. Before she could cut my microphone, I continued. “I don't like talking about what I've done to earn these medals--” I puffed out my chest a bit, letting the light glint from the ribbons pinned to my dress uniform. “But I will say that each and every one of them was earned through my own sweat, my own blood ... and my own love of Equestria. I never set out to become a 'Hero of Equestria,' as the saying goes-- rather, I'm just a simple soldier, doing his job. Doing a job that, with any luck, none of you will have to do in the future, as you go on to make the world a better, brighter place. In the meanwhile, though, I'll still be out there, standing between you and the sort of thing that would make your blood run cold. So keep studying, and keep working for a better future, and hopefully you'll never have to worry about an angry dragon trying to take a bite out of your--”

“Uh, thank you, Lieutenant Sentry.” Princess Twilight trotted over, at which point she gently but firmly pushed me away from the microphone, lest I start terrorizing her students even further. “That was a very ... unique speech.” She said with a forced, polite smile.

“I'm glad you liked it.” I said, offering a guileless grin.

“Anyway!” Princess Twilight turned back to the microphone. “Class, if you have any questions, you can ask Lieutenant Sentry during the friendship reception in the cafeteria. Don't dawdle, everypony! We've got a schedule to keep!”

And with that, Princess Twilight bustled me off to the reception-- thankfully not bothering with the teleport, this time. As for the cafeteria itself, it certainly didn't look like one. It reminded me more of a decent (or at least pretentious) restaurant than anything; nary a hairnet or scoop of green slop in sight. Nary a dram of alcohol, either.

The place at least had the chaos of a proper cafeteria, as Princess Twilight's students gossiped and galloped from one end of the room to the other with that nigh-infinite energy of the young and optimistic. It wasn't just ponies, either-- I spotted a griffin, a yak, and even a tiny dragon (well, two, if you count Princess Twilight's secretary). It took me a moment to realize why they were there-- but once I did, I couldn't help but look at Princess Twilight in a new light. To think, the literal Princess of Friendship, taking political hostages? I wondered if I'd somehow been a bad influence.*

*Here, Sentry puts forth a somewhat common (if inaccurate) view of Princess Twilight's School of Friendship. In truth, the non-pony students Sentry mentions were exchange students, not hostages. The ultimate confusion for such a matter comes from the fact that friendship is not a phenomenon exclusive to ponykind. causing certain cynical historians to argue the inclusion of non-pony students (who were in turn related to various figures of note-- most notably King Thorax of the Changelings) was a political decision, rather than an educational one.

The key difference, it's worth noting, is between friendship, and friendship magic. The latter, of course, is Princess Twilight's particular specialty, and her willingness to share said magic with any and all creatures of the world is just proof of Princess Twilight's benevolence, even in her younger years.

I sipped my punch (sadly unspiked), ate my cake, and otherwise kept out of the way-- Princess Twilight had her hooves full trying to keep her students from tearing the place apart, which left me free to lurk at the periphery.

“Mister Sentry?” A tiny, quavery voice said from somewhere behind me. I turned-- and nearly bolted, then and there. As there was a changeling, of all creatures-- a bug-eyed, beetle-winged thing with the sort of bright coloration that's indicative of deadly venom.

Somehow, I kept myself from bolting out the nearest window, and reminded myself that we were supposedly allies with the bugs (in no small part due to my own efforts).* Even still, looking at a juvenile changeling made it somehow uglier, and had me fearing it was going to try to latch onto my face and start shooting acid down my throat.

*See: Sentry at the Charge.

“Er, yes?” I managed through a close-lipped smile.

“My name's Ocellus.” She (I at leased assumed it was a she, given her voice) buzzed her wings in what I hoped was just a nervous gesture in changelings. “King Thorax told me a lot about you.”

“Did he?” I said.

“And, um ... I just wanted to thank you for saving our hive from the gnolls.”

“Oh.” I said. “Er, you're welcome? But really, there's no need to thank me--” Especially since I would've let the whole damn place burn if it weren't for some very extenuating circumstances. But then again, even I'm not enough of a bastard to tell a child 'well kiddo, I've made a career of killing your family, so try not to invade Equestria or else I may have to dismember you.'

“But there is!” Ocellus said, and threw herself at me, wrapping her little insectoid legs around one of my hooves in a hug. I didn't shriek, but it was a close thing. “And if you've helped other ponies out as much as you've helped the Changelings, there's no way anypony can thank you for all the hard work you've done.”

“I ... didn't do it for the thanks.” I said, and waggled my leg to dislodge Ocellus, if in vain. “I was just doing my job, that's all.”

“That's what I like about you, Flash.” Princess Twilight stepped up behind me, smiling and bearing a crystal cup full of punch. “No matter how much you've done, you're always so humble about it. I see you're making friends, though.”

“Er, friends. Yes.” I said, shifting awkwardly on three hooves, while the fourth still had a changeling clinging to it.

“You can let him go now, Ocellus.” Princess Twilight said in a matronly, teacher-worthy voice.

“Oh! I'm sorry!” The bug-girl released my hoof, and dropped down to the ground again in a flutter of wings. “I didn't mean to--”

“I know. It's sometimes easy to get ... carried away when you're with somepony. Isn't that right, Flash?” And, so help me, Princess Twilight winked. From a regular mare, it'd be flattering, but from a princess, it was enough to start setting alarms off at the back of my head.

“It ... happens from time to time.” I said, and then-- for lack of a better idea, I feigned a stretch and a yawn. “Mmmf. Excuse me, ladies. It's ... been something of a long day. As much as I'd love to stick around for the festivities, I'd better be going.”

“So soon?” Princess Twilight said.

“Er, well-- I have been awake since before sunrise. Royal Guard business, you know.”

“Oh! Right.” Princess Twilight said, and then paused. “Where are you staying, anyway? I can have Spike prepare the guest room--”

“No need!” I said, perhaps a little too quickly. “You've been a wonderful host so far, and I'd hate to impose further. I've, er, already made some arrangements with a ... friend of mine.”

“Are you sure?” Princess Twilight took a half-step forward. She no doubt would've gone further, but her little purple dragon assistant came trundling up. Between the scroll in his hand and the concerned look on his face, the whole thing stank of Official Princess Business, which I, of course, wanted nothing to do with.

“Good night, Princess. Thanks again for your hospitality.” I gave another quick bow, and then slipped out as quickly as politeness allowed. Princess Twilight waved to me even as she stuck her nose into the scroll, leaving me to make my escape.

Once I was out of the school, it was a short glide over to Carrot Top's house: a cozy, two-story cottage along Ponyville's main street. Humble as it was, the sight of the house was enough to brighten my spirits. I'd pretended to be responsible for far, far too long-- and I figured I'd earned myself a pleasant drink. Carrot would have cider in her liquor cabinet, at the very least. Or, she might have picked something up while I was out and about-- provided Carrot Top hadn't been suddenly attacked by ninjas or something.

The front door was unlocked, which wasn't surprising, given how peaceful Ponyville was (between monster attacks, at least). I barged right in-- and nearly tripped over a footstool, dark as it was. I grit my teeth and rubbed at my shin.

“You know, you could've at least lit some candles. Mood lighting.” I said, glancing around.

Silence.

“Carrot Top?” I said. “Hello?”

Nothing.

I fumbled around in the dark until I found a cord dangling from the ceiling, and gave it a gentle yank. Immediately, a lamp set in the ceiling flicked to life, revealing the utterly normal looking interior of Carrot Top's abode. What caught my eye, however, was the pristine white envelope resting on the kitchen table. And, just to show it wasn't junk mail, there was a single word written on the paper.

Sentry.

I unfolded the letter.


I'd be lying if I said I hadn't enjoyed what we had. But we both knew this couldn't last-- to pretend otherwise would be dangerously naive. I wish I could have told you this face to face, but maybe, in the end, I'm the cowardly one. I don't have much time, so I'll make it simple:


I'm leaving you, Sentry. It'll be better for the both of us.


Don't look for me.


-Carrot Top.


The kitchen chair creaked under my weight as I sat down. I read the letter two, three times-- looking for some clue, some hidden code, some chance that this was all part of some convoluted, cloak and dagger plot on Carrot Top's part. There wasn't anything to find, of course. As best I could tell the letter was genuine: it even had a thin strand of kinked orange hair stuck to the back.

Once I decided on the letter's veracity, I pulled in an unsteady, shuddering breath. There was no time to sit there and blubber away like some broken-hearted teenager. No, there was only one thing to do:

I was going to get very, very drunk.