• Published 22nd Sep 2012
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The Nightingale Effect - N00813



A griffon psychologist, assigned to help Princess Luna recover from her time in exile, develops feelings for his patient. [LunaxOC]

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Chapter 2

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I really didn’t know what to do. Poring over my psychology textbook had given me nothing. Schizophrenia remained an incurable condition; all I could do was to help with the symptoms. She would live with the risk of relapse for the entirety of her lifetime.

Besides, it didn’t look like traditional schizophrenia. She had the inability to distinguish between real and false, and the flattened emotion, but not the paranoia or the odd speech patterns. Truth be told, she was holding together remarkably well after a thousand years in solitary confinement. Hallucinations? The fact remained that I had only seen her for an hour yesterday. I’d need more time.

Was it even schizophrenia in the first place? It was possible that she still considered everything to be in the realm of her imagination. With a single thought, or a closing of the eyes, she’d thought she could do anything. That hadn’t worked, back when I was swarmed by guards.

I couldn’t remember how long I’d slept for. By the time I’d awoken, the sun was already travelling merrily along its path in the sky, seemingly ignorant of anything else. After kicking off the sheets, I groggily stumbled over to the desk, and reminded myself of my inability to cure her.

Antipsychotics would harm more than help, I’d feared. They were still an imprecise art, and had more than their fair share of side-effects. Furthermore, I wasn’t even sure they’d work on alicorns.

Groaning, I slammed my face into the pages of the open book, just as I heard the doorknob creak open. Just my luck.

“Uh…”

I heard the intruder speak, and tilted my head towards her. It was a female pony, by the sounds of it. Yep, it was.

“Sir? It’s breakfast,” she squeaked, upon seeing my face. “What would you like? I’ve got sandwiches –”

“Just give me a bloody piece of meat,” I said without thinking. Her face instantly took the shade of a green apple. Whoops.

“We don’t serve meat,” she stammered, slowly backing away.

I sighed. “Don’t worry, I’m just messing with you. I won’t eat you.”

She didn’t seem convinced, but then, I’m not that great of an orator.

“Butter and bread will do fine,” I continued, pushing myself up and away from the desk. That was mean, but I had to admit, hilarious. Looked like they didn’t know that the eating of sentients had been considered taboo and outlawed for over a thousand years.

Ambling over, I gave her a beaky smile. To her credit, she didn’t instantly faint, but her soft pink skin seemed to pale even more, if that was possible. She now resembled Celestia in terms of color.

With a gulp, she passed over a plate of bread, each slice with a dollop of butter on top. The plate was trembling so much I feared that the slices would slide off and hit the ground.

I sighed, and took the plate in a claw, keeping its contents steady as I turned and hovered over to the desk. Behind me, I heard the rapid clip-clop of hooves speeding away. Looking at the plate, I could see that the mouthgrip by the side was completely dry; the poor girl must have really been scared for her life. Maybe I had gone too far.

Nah. Had she known, she would have saved herself a lot of adrenaline. Was her own fault for being ignorant. Right?

Wolfing down the bread, I leaned back and stared at the city of Canterlot, spread out below me. Beautiful city, actually. On the outside, the spires made it look as if the wingless of ponykind were reaching for the sky; the clean construction, no doubt mandated through strict zoning law, gave it a sense of simplicity and elegance. Shame about the slums at the bottom. A pony would only see tiny splotches of grey and brown from here, but a griffon could see much, much farther.

I placed the empty plate on the desk, and went back to check on Luna.

Traversing the corridors of the castle was a bloody nightmare. I could barely remember which way back it was to Luna’s room, and whoever made this place deemed it unnecessary to put at least some signposts to point guests in the right direction.

Grumbling, I somehow managed to find a guard that didn’t give me the evil eye. He was young, I could see. His armor didn’t have any bells or whistles on it; it was just plain grey steel.

“I need to get to Luna’s room,” I stated.

“Identification.”

I shoved my documents in his face – figuratively, of course. You could see his eyes widen until they resembled saucers.

“Of course, sir,” he said, and quickly trotted away, leaving me to follow.

Sir? Well, that was one unexpected benefit. Celestia was efficient, if anything. I could see why, though. Her sister really was in trouble.

I won’t bore you with the details of the journey, but let’s just say griffons aren’t that common in Equestria. We’d turned a lot of heads, and by the time we arrived at the front of Luna’s self-carved stone room, the guard’s face was tinted pink.

“Thanks, mister…” I said, giving him a brief nod.

He simply returned the nod, before galloping quickly away. I rolled my eyes.

As usual, the assortment of guards stationed in front of the room quickly snapped to attention at my arrival. I didn’t really care. Checking out guard discipline wasn’t in my contract anywhere.

They’d left the door open, and I could see the shifting shadows of something inside moving around. Deciding to roll the dice once again, I chose to launch into the room, wings extended, like the griffons of old.

I could see Luna whirl around, eyes affixing on me. “Thou hast returned?”

“Yes,” I returned, deadpan. “Turns out, I had some free time on my schedule.”

We ended up staring at one another for a minute. Trust me, I kept count.

“Who art thou,” she said, after a while. I noticed that she seemed to have been standing in front of a reflective surface set into the side of the room, and that there was a brush tangled up in her mane.

“I am your psychologist,” I replied, foregoing the mysterious image. I had a gut feeling that she could have used the sudden influx of information. Saying ‘I’m here to help’ would just make her think that she was facing another part of her imagination, the part that wanted her to touch reality. But since it was delivered by her imagination, she wouldn’t trust those words.

Hey, maybe reality was imagination in her case.

“Call me Sig,” I continued, as she kept staring at me. I hoped that was a good sign.

She continued to stare, mouth open.

I sighed. Maybe I wasn’t getting to her. There was another way to shock her out of her head, but I wasn't looking forwards to it.

I quickly trotted up to her, and shook the brush out of her hair before I lost my nerve. She didn't seem to react at all; just sitting on the floor, letting me hold the brush.

“Did you feel that?” I murmured, no longer needing to speak up. Absentmindedly, I began to twirl the brush in my claws. It was a good one, I could tell. Tough and reliable, without being overly heavy. No bells and whistles that could break or go wrong.

Oh, right. The Princess in front of me was giving me the look; narrowed eyes, tight set mouth, etcetera. I sighed again, and flipped the brush until the handle faced her way, before prodding it towards her.

“Yes, we did,” she replied, slowly lifting a hoof to grasp at the handle.

Ah ha! I quickly flicked the brush around and upwards, and tapped the top of her hoof.

She winced, withdrawing the appendage, and glared at me. “What art thou doing?”

I shrugged. “You didst not expect such?” My studies had only taught me the most basic of Early-Modern Equestrian, but I hoped it was enough. I’d spoken normally the last few times I’d met her; hopefully, she wouldn't integrate me into her capacious mind. Furthermore, my slip-ups would kick her mind into rejecting that as her own thoughts; I’d like to think that she knew her own language, and as such, know that my words weren't of her making.

She shook her head, half-grinning. It was the first time I’d seen her smile. Hopefully, that meant progress. “Thy butchering of our language dost not endear thee to us.”

I sighed. “Got me there, Princess,” I said nonchalantly. Inside, I was doing wing-assisted backflips. She was happy to co-operate, instead of denying the problem. That meant that I could skip with the persuading, and get to the helping.

“Still, thou didst not answer our question,” she continued, walking closer, before plopping her rear down onto the hard stone floor. I noticed that she seemed rather uncomfortable, constantly shifting her weight around. Was she uncomfortable because of the hard floor, or what I said? More experiments, then.

“Making sure that you could not predict me,” I answered, again contradicting myself. Chaos was predictable after a while – everything said was a lie. To make it unpredictable, you had to mix in a few truths, at random times. Which was what I was trying to do. “The ultimate goal is to help you distinguish between reality and imagination.”

She blinked, and turned to me. “Thou art clever. However, how would we know if thou art a creation of our consciousness?”

I leant over, brush in claw. What I was going to do would have been a great breach of social law; even I knew that. But hey, it’s Equestrian social law. No one back home would know.

Gripping the brush tightly, I reached up, and sank the bristles of the comb into her purply-blue mane. She yelped, softly, her big teal eyes widening.

I ran the brush down, as quickly as I dared. If her sister were to pop up – or anyone, for that matter – it would have been exceedingly awkward to explain what was going on.

She hummed softly, but as the brush ran out of her hair, stopped.

“Imagined that?” I asked brusquely, raising an eyebrow, and going back to my former position. Shit, that was even more embarrassing than I’d thought. It was cute, but at the same time, I wondered if I was going to get fired over this.

She furrowed her brow, mouth working in quiet movements, before starting to hum contentedly again. “We do not know.” Narrowing her eyes, she leant into the brush I was holding, and then closed her eyes and – I swear – started to purr.

Well, that was a new development.

Grumbling in my head, I continued to brush her mane. This wasn’t on my contract. At all. Still, if it was going to help… why not?

“Why dost thou help us so?” she asked, murmuring quietly.

I paused in my strokes, the brush hanging awkwardly off a claw, bristles still deep in her hair. Good question. Griffin society told each of its members to make a mark on the world, for they’d be on it for only a brief time. I’d always wanted to do so by helping others; leave my effect in the lives of others, so to speak. The main reason for choosing the field of psychology was simple: mental scarring may not have been as visible as physical ones, but were no less damaging. The wars in griffon history had told us that much. Medicine tended to be a blunt subject, in terms of the mind; chemicals had all sorts of unintended side-effects, and I was always of the opinion that the drugs only relieved the symptoms, not cure the source. Delving into the inner workings and the wondrous chaos of the mind was a great deal of fun, too.

Or maybe she was asking why I was brushing her mane?

“I thought you might like it,” I said, before stopping, and handing her the brush. No tricks this time. “You looked like you needed it.”

I meant that last sentence both in terms of appearance, as well as sensory stimulation. Being stuck in exile, deprived of any sort of light, touch or smell, it was no wonder that she’d started to imagine those sensations herself. That was the most probable explanation to all this. Still, without knowing the exact details of her exile, I was fumbling in the dark. And asking her about it seemed like a bad idea; her sister had told me that it wasn’t exactly a brilliant time for Luna. Worst case scenario was that the recollections could get her to retreat back into her head, undoing all my progress.

Was she suffering hallucinations? She’d concentrated intensely upon me, both times that I’d seen her. As if I was a specimen under an invisible microscope.

Just one more experiment. Couldn’t hurt, right?

Oh, shit. She’s looking at me. Think of something, quick.

I backed off, nonchalantly heading towards the open doorway. No sound, just a look of what I guessed was confusion. “So, I’ll be going now –”

“Wait.”

I whirled my head back around, one claw still raised in the air, like in the crests. She had spoken softly; normally, I wouldn’t have heard, but the silence of the room carried any sound well. The brush hung limply in her hoof, forgotten, as she continued to stare at me. Was that a note of pleading in her voice? She looked… desperate.

As if I was the only stable beacon in her world of darkness.

I didn’t sigh this time. She was making an honest request, and this time, I had a gut feeling that she really needed what she wanted. She needed more than what she’d asked for, actually.

I walked back to her, claws clicking solemnly on the smooth stone. “Yes?”

“Don’t go.”

The way she said it – as if it was a plaintive call for help – broke something in me. It must have been the natural care response we all get when faced with a helpless hatchling; triggered by what seemed like a member of another species, and one breaching adulthood at that.

Trying to give her a genuine smile, I lifted a claw as if to ‘hoofshake’ her. She just looked at it, and then back at me; at a loss to what to do.

“Follow me,” I murmured, lowering my claw. As she slowly got to her hooves, I couldn’t help but sigh softly, letting the escaping air whistle through my beak. What I needed to do was to slowly reintroduce her back to society. The problem was, how.

I decided upon a simple plan. Since I had broken through the veil of her mind, so to speak, she trusted me. I remembered how awkward sitting had been for her. Now that I thought about it, it was clear that she wasn’t used to the new sensations her nerves were firing.

Which meant that I had to get her used to them.

By hiding away in that dark room, she’d essentially isolated all her senses except for touch. Her hearing seemed alright; she didn’t appear to suffer from auditory hallucinations when I was there. There was always that caveat – when I was there. Was I becoming a cure for her, chasing away her demons? I don’t know. But if it worked, it worked, and I could use it to help her.

She got up to her hooves slowly, as if she was still discovering them. Personally, I’d expected that that was what she was doing in the downtime between today and yesterday.

As a pair, we slowly made our way to the entrance. At the far end of the stone hallway, a rectangle of light stood. Milliseconds later, my eyes had adjusted, and I could see that it was just a wall inside Canterlot Castle.

Luna couldn’t, though. She shied away, eyes shut tight, before blinking them open again in a glassy gaze. I sat down, before spreading out a wing in front of her nose, and ignoring the looks of curiosity on the faces of the guards. As I expected, she didn’t even ‘see’ it was there. Her eyes were open, but I bet that she’d told her brain – somehow – to reject the signals.

I flicked the feathers her way, just to see, and she yelped as the fluffy material connected with her nose. Yep. She didn’t even try to dodge it.

“Open your eyes, Luna,” I said, folding the wing back.

“The light hurts our eyes,” she muttered, scowling. I noticed that her eyes were shut once more; as she opened them again, they seemed much more alive.

“Sit with me,” I sighed, doing so myself. She complied, but cowered behind the doorframe, so that the miniscule amount of light spilling into the room didn’t touch her at all. Rather, she looked at the spray of light falling on the walls and floor.

There was really nothing I could do. She needed to adjust naturally; any attempt to make it faster would harm her, I feared. As my patient, she was my responsibility, and I wasn’t going to make it tougher on her than I had to. She was on a knife edge, and the fall back into insanity was far.

We simply sat there for who knows how long. I’d lost count after 100 seconds, and dropped into a prone position. And after that? Nothing, for a long while. We simply waited, and got ourselves comfortable. Time flew by as I silently juggled my next few moves in my head.

The next thing I knew, a heavy weight had settled against my side, where my left wing was. I twisted my head back – and instantly tried to suppress a screech of surprise.

You see, Luna had fallen asleep. Her head lay on my wing, eyes closed, and she breathed in and out in a regular, peaceful pattern. Her horn was almost scratching at my left shoulder, the nasty point moving tantalizingly closer until she breathed inwards. Smiling at the sight, I began to withdraw my wing from beneath her head. She deserved some happiness and peace, after all this. Exile wasn’t a happy fate, I knew; but insanity was even worse.

Struck by a sudden bolt of tenderness, I eased her head back onto her crossed forelegs, before extending a wing –

No. Stop there. She was simply a client, and this was a strictly professional relationship.

I retracted my wing, perhaps a bit too hastily, and the shock of the motion almost sent me rolling onto my own back. I knew I should have bulked up.

The sleeping Luna next to me had started to drool; a line of spittle hung down from the corner of her open mouth, which slowly got longer and longer the more I looked at it. Worse, it was close to my fur.

I shifted sideways, attempting to get away before I was caught in the splash radius. Her head, along with the string of saliva, was still leaning dangerously close to me. Propping her head in place with the flat of my wing, I started to shuffle until I had gone as far as I could without breaking a joint.

This – this was awkward. To say the least.

The drop of saliva freed itself from the embrace of Luna’s mouth, and dropped straight down onto the floor. I could actually see the thing explode outwards, like a blooming flower, when it hit the ground, and I swear that some of the stuff actually hit me.

Swearing in screeches of Griffon, I started to shudder; the sticky fluids latched onto my coat, my feathers, and I could almost hear the squelch as I started to shakily hunch up. Bloody germs everywhere –

Oh. Looked like the Princess was a light sleeper. How long had she slept whilst in exile? Probably every single second, judging by her hypersensitivity.

She didn’t speak. Rather, she simply stared shamelessly at me, and by extension, the awkward position I’d put myself in. At that moment, I thanked the Maker that I had been blessed with grey feathers. They were much better at hiding that red flush slowly rising above my neck.

“Yeah?” I asked, slowly bringing my left hind paw down from its position above the patch of dirtied, stained fur on my side. Granted, the splotch wasn’t that big – only a millimeter at the most – but that was no excuse for not cleaning it off. Decay bred in neglect.

She didn’t reply, choosing to continue staring. Fine. If she wasn’t going to complain, or anything, I might as well get on with it.

I began to slowly scratch at my side, somewhat self-consciously. I could hear the sound of my own soft, rapid breathing, increasing in frequency –

Wait, why was that happening? Was I actually getting nervous? Bloody Tartarus. I forced myself to close my eyes, letting the sound of my regulated, slower breathing wash over me, feeling my lungs expand and contract in rhythm, and sighed out my worries.

Nothing was wrong. Everything was going to be fine.

I scoffed.

The mind is a feeble thing, really. It can be driven to sublime heights or harrowing depths by a single whimsical thought.

I opened my eyes, and met Luna’s glassy eyes with my own. In them, I could see the reflection of dim light coming from the doorway. It looked quite a lot like the moon, actually. Worst of all, they weren’t moving. Her eyes weren’t flicking about at all. This was bad.

“Luna,” I stated, snapping into the tone of my old drill sergeant. That old bird was tough, but fair. That was all I could really ask for, in hindsight.

The Moon Princess didn’t move at all, but I could see the minute change in the dilation of her irises. Good, she was waking up. I hoped that she had no dreams. She didn’t really need them at a time like this.

“Follow me.”

The both of us stood up; I did so steadily, she shakily. As we walked – or, in her case, hobbled – the short distance to the open doorway, I could hear rhythmic thumps behind me. Focusing on the sounds did nothing but bring notice to the fact that they had stopped. Odd. I looked back, and noticed the brush that had been wrapped in my prehensile tail. Wait… that was Luna’s brush. How did it get there?

She must have dropped it when she’d fallen asleep. Oh, this was going to be awkward.

Luna hissed as the light from the doorway, dim as it was, fell onto her face. I was in front, so I snapped around, shielding her from the rays of light. She was squinting – a good sign –

Oh, too soon. Once more, the muscles around her eyes relaxed, and I could see the deadened expression take root in them once more.

I stepped forwards, placing a claw on Luna’s shoulder. The pony’s head whirled around, and her eyes refocused back onto the bridge of my beak. There were clinks just to the right of me, but I ignored that for the moment. Luna’s welfare was more important. Someone had probably just dropped a metal plate or something.

She blinked, for a few seconds, before closing her eyes once more and falling to the floor. “The light hurts our eyes.”

I nodded in understanding, and knelt down in front of her. She would keep her eyes open for a few seconds, and then shut them again, sighing as she did so. It must have been similar to how a griffon feels after staring at a pony painting for too long. A headache and an urge to rub more water into your eyes would be the least of Luna’s problems, though. Glancing around, I noticed the spears retreating into the sides of the guards’ sets of armor. So that had been the clanking…

I tried to smile. Even from my completely unbiased viewpoint, I could feel that it wasn’t a happy one. The muscles above my mouth drew it into a grimace, and I felt my face slip into a soft scowl as I continued to look at her. My squinting eyes completed the set, and that happy expression had soon morphed into a grim one.

There wasn’t a magic bullet for this. The only ‘cure’ for this would be a long period of therapy, and even then, I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t relapse. If she did, that would mean a failure on my part. And I wasn’t going to fail. Not again.

Did I have the guts, the resolve and the skill to carry this through? I sure hoped I did. It wasn’t too late to transfer –

No, it was too late. She trusted me. I’d have to be the one. The liason between her slowly recovering mind and the real world.

Was this the only way? Sure looked like it.

I sighed, letting my expression fall, before glancing back at Luna. Her eyes were open now; no longer blinking or watery.

“How art thou?” she said, staring blankly up at me. The look would have been comical in other situations, but now? Now, it just reminded me of how far down the rabbit hole she’d gone, and how far I had to go to bring her back.

“I’m fine,” I returned, closing my eyes for a moment. I didn’t feel fine. Luna… she would understand if I told her the truth. Wouldn’t she?

Well, here went nothing. Be unexpected, be quick, and be sharp.

“No, I’m not. I’m worried about you, and I don’t want to leave you alone to struggle with whatever remnants of sanity you have left. I want to help, but I don’t know how. All I can do is to go alongside you on your travels. And that last thing is the worst. For all my education is worth, the only thing I can do is to act as a guide.”

Silence reigned after that.