• Published 22nd Sep 2012
  • 3,598 Views, 132 Comments

The Nightingale Effect - N00813



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

  • ...
7
 132
 3,598

6

Chapter 6

--

Friend.

That was what she had called me. In the first person, too.

It was a good sign; a sign that she was coming back to reality, back to the plane where we all existed. At least, I hoped it was so.

Odd, that. I hadn’t come to Equestria with the express intention of making friends. I had arrived, fully expecting to simply help a client regain her mental sensibilities, and get paid. All this was strictly business; even back then, when I saw her sleeping how a hatchling would, our relationship was professional. Wasn’t it?

Those desires back then were out of line, I knew. Some latent feelings, the kind a father had for a daughter, had somehow sprung up from some hidden wellspring. I’d always resigned myself to life of solitude. It wasn’t an uncommon life choice for medical professionals; we were the knowing martyrs, the ones who’d give their life to save those of strangers.

Ironically, soldiers were almost exactly the same, and yet so, so different. I suppose that’s a part of the reason why we griffons all undergo our four years of mandatory military service. We need to understand the meaning of sacrifice, to know that we and our civilization were the product of constant strife and struggle. How it feels to have bits of you stripped away by war or work, or both, for the sake of someone else. It was a pretty sobering experience, from the ten-year-old memories of my time there.

Catching another sigh in my throat, I flicked another gaze around, updating my mental list. Celestia still hadn’t spoken yet, besides some soft mutterings that I couldn’t catch. Her plate lay in front of her, empty save for a few crumbs. Luna was still nibbling on her food; about four-fifths of the meal now rested inside her stomach.

It had been just about an hour since we started eating, judging by the rudimentary watch I wore. Apparently, we’d set up an unspoken agreement to wait for Luna to finish her meal in her own time. Despite the colossal waste of time that this might have seemed, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Seeing Luna actually attempt to do something besides suffer let me think in relative peace.

I pressed my long talons together, and slouched forwards to gaze at the tip of the steeple that they formed. The hospital scene showed that her mental state still wasn’t the best, although it was by no means the worst case I’d ever seen. Remarkable, that. When she got better, I had to ask how she’d kept herself in relatively good care all those years.

Stealing a glance at her, I noticed the soft, dull strands of matted blue hair covering her body, a far cry from her sister’s sleek grooming. Comparing the two, I had to say that I liked the Luna’s overall look more. She was honest with her appearance, and I respected that. It would have been a lot more unsettling had she looked somewhat well-groomed, with her mind still shattered.

Hang on, what was that? Her throat quivered like a beating heart, in sync with her hooves, of which the wrist muscles clenched and unclenched with alarming regularity. A nervous tic? Or a symptom of something worse? I knew for sure that this wasn’t something normal.

Celestia didn’t appear to have noticed. Truth be told, I didn’t expect she would. Luna’s dark coat allowed her muscle movements to remain relatively well-hidden.

I waited for the bulge that meant the onset of peristalsis before speaking. “Is your throat alright?”

Celestia kicked her cushion-chair thing back, standing to her full height in a matter of milliseconds. “Luna!”

Although her voice was full of concern, obvious even to me, Luna’s eyes shrank to pinpricks and she followed her sister’s lead, skittering backwards on four unsteady hooves. Coughs burst from her mouth like the rattle of a machine-gun.

Celestia stopped mid-step, her hoof still in mid-air, and I rushed over to Luna’s side. The coughs had grew in size and force, until one that almost sounded like a retch ejected a small spray of fine hay suspended in saliva solution.

I twisted around to dodge out of the way, but alas, I wasn’t entirely successful. Just one more thing to wash off, counting the cobwebs and dust I’d picked up from the dungeon.

A muffled thump from the door told me that the guards had entered, and Celestia’s rapid words flattened into a tuneless noise as I focused on the task at hand.

I reached onto the table to pull off a napkin, before pausing. Would she want me to do this? She definitely had the magical power to levitate something. It was time to give her some responsibility, some control.

“Clean yourself up,” I said softly, holding out the napkin.

The flare of magic from her horn almost tossed the thing across the room, but luckily she managed to bring her own self under control, and she smashed her face into the cloth.

Well, that was unexpected.

I leapt backwards, landing on all fours. Luna had sandwiched the piece of cloth between the side of her head and her shoulder joint, and was scraping her face against it.

I winced. That had to hurt.

She tossed the napkin away, mouth set and eyes tightened in grim determination.

She had some steel in her spine. No doubt her neurons were firing like crazy, sending jolts of pain shooting straight into her skull. Despite all of that, she managed to maintain a reasonably calm expression. “It is difficult to eat.”

I raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t a lethal complication, but it was still an obstacle. One more step to overcome. “How so?”

Luna shot me a flat stare, which I reciprocated. Truth be told, I had something of an idea.

Have you ever flown in the fabled Hold mountain range, back in Gryphonia? Biting cold, but what a view. Now, imagine doing an entire scouting flight with your mouth open. If the cold didn't kill you, you'd wish it did by the time ice starts crystallizing in your throat.


That was probably what Luna felt when she ate. Like her skin, the inside of her mouth had nerve endings. If I was right, then there probably wasn’t any way besides dissolving her food into a liquid solution for her to drink, like baby food.

So much for ancient goddesses.

“We cannot swallow,” she said, finally, drawing the attention of the now silent guards. More than a few jaws unhinged at that.

I lifted the plate of food off the table, planting it in between the two of us. On the plate, a few stalks of hay, half-chewed, took center stage, with some greens layered haphazardly here and there. I reached up again for some sort of cup.

Luckily for me, there was still some water in it.

“What art thou doing?”

I flashed a beaky smile at Luna. In hindsight, that might not have been such a good idea. She raised an eyebrow, clearly confused, but it wasn’t that which drew my attention.

Celestia and the guards had materialized by my side, and formed a circle around us. At that moment, I knew how it felt to be a street performer. The stakes were high, but the rewards even more so. If she got used to eating slurry meals, it would make her acclimatization a lot easier on me.

“Making porridge,” I replied, settling the cup of water down next to the plate. All I needed now was to grind the hay and greens into a powder, before mixing that with water. Sure, it wasn’t real porridge, or even gruel; more like a suspension of nutrients. In the end, though, I hoped that she’d be able to swallow it better than the dry hay.

Well, there was the problem. There didn’t seem to be any sort of mill or grinder in the room at all. “Anyone lend me a pestle and mortar?”

Everyone stared at me, expressions of befuddlement on their faces. Yes, even the guards, although they hid them well. Celestia must have figured out what I wanted, because she quickly stomped a hoof. “You’re not serving my sister gruel.”

“It’s only until she gets used to eating,” I muttered. “You’ve –”

“She deserves much better than gruel.”

I paused, twirling the words over in my head. She was right; both in her view, and in mine. Still, very few people got what they deserved.

I sighed. “Do you have any alternative?”

The Sun Princess stopped for a moment, and I took the time to glance back to see how Luna was faring. She stared at us, silently judging, observing.

“Gruel,” Luna muttered, jolting every other pony out of their thoughts. “A peasant’s meal.”

As far as I knew, feudal classes had been removed quite forcibly from Equestrian culture. There were still hints of it, sure, but it was much less pronounced now compared to what it used to be like, according to the history books.

“We have never eaten gruel before,” Luna murmured contemplatively, prodding the plate of dry food with a hoof.

“At the very least, porridge,” Celestia said evenly, firmly. “Nothing less.”

I shrugged. I only wanted Luna to be able to eat in relative comfort. Right now, the methods didn’t really matter that much, compared to the end results.

Celestia ordered a guard to go out and pick up some wheat and veg slurry from the kitchens. While we waited, she folded her legs underneath her, and simply glanced between us.

“Why gruel?” Luna asked, lifting her head from its resting place at her hooves.

I waved my claws around vaguely. “Couldn’t think of anything else at the time.”

The Night Princess shook her head. “Why not this?” She prodded at the plate with the hard part of her hoof. The ceramic disc gave off a soft clang.

I slapped my forehead. “Your throat tells me you can’t swallow dry foodstuff well.”

She stared evenly at me, pausing for a few long moments. “True.”

She looked back at the food. “If we do not try, we will never acclimatize.”

“Small steps, Luna,” I said, clicking my talons against the hard floor idly. The guard was taking ages. It was just a small bowl of porridge, after all. “Can you drink water in comfort?”

“We drink water equally well on a pillow or off.”

It took me a few seconds to realize why Celestia’s face suddenly broke into a small smile, and when the revelation finally hit me, I groaned.

“Bad choice of words,” the Sun Princess remarked.

Luna didn’t show any sort of expression at all. Her face was still blank, impressively so. If anything, she seemed confused.

“I meant: does it hurt when you drink liquids?”

Luna blinked. “Yes.”

Her sister sighed. “You have to eat, Luna. You’ll die if you don’t.”

Even as I tried to play devil’s advocate, I realized she was right. Luna would simply have to trade one sort of pain with the other. The bit earlier with the cloth showed that she was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

I hoped her resolve would not falter in the long months ahead.

-&-

I signed off the report, and handed it to the nearby secretary, whose squinting eyes and taut face glared out beneath the black fringe of her mane. This was the fifth one; Luna’s condition had improved immeasurably (both figuratively and literally, for psychology was a qualitative subject) since I arrived about eight weeks back.

Luna huffed audibly as she glanced around the room. I could hear her step to the side, but I ignored it for the time being. She was probably simply exploring.

The secretary’s face didn’t lighten up at all. Maybe this was her normal face, one she’d developed after years and years in this job. The line between who she was and who she had been had blurred, until she was simply her job.

I nodded an acknowledgement, before turning back to find Luna tapping the sides of the wall experimentally.

“You good?”

She nodded once, before pressing the side of her head to the marble.

My eyes widened. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Celestia’s arrangements for me to become a constant mentor, companion and friend for her sister was to reduce the chances of a relapse. We even lived adjacent to one another nowadays. Thank the Maker that the Sun Princess didn’t go so far as to have us cohabit in the same room.

Luna smiled happily, suddenly, and I found myself awkwardly mirroring her soft grin. Her feelings were quite ‘infectious’, as they say. Her first real display of actual emotion; a soft, small grin during breakfast, a week ago, had Celestia breaking out one of her own. Back then, her happiness was enough for me. I’d known that we were finally on the right track – the planning was done, and the flight could begin.

I’d dared hope that, with my constant presence, she would be reminded of the ‘real world’ that we all inhabited in one form or another, rather than lose herself in the fantasy inside her head. Still, I supposed that we all needed escapism in one form or another, at the end of the day. A coping mechanism, and nothing more.

“Come here!” she whispered, with her ear still flat against the wall.

The secretary back there hadn’t changed her expression at all. Was she a golem? Celestia’s magic certainly allowed for that possibility, although I was sure golem production was outlawed in this region of the Known World. Still, power let one bend the laws until they broke.

I shook out my unruly thoughts, and tried to mimic Luna, placing the feather covering my ear-hole against the wall as well.

Nothing. Griffon ears were insensitive, to say the least, and I wasn’t going to pretend to hear something I hadn’t. “Luna, I –”

She tapped the marble, her hoof clicking off the stone.

I shut up on instinct as the clack magnified in magnitude, reverberating off the wall straight into my eardrums. Regardless, it wasn’t impressive.

“What was I supposed to hear?” I asked, repositioning the bones in my neck back to a nicer, more stable conformation.

She frowned. “We doth not know. The other wall doth contain no such acoustic anomaly.”

I shrugged. “It’s an old building. The blueprints show rooms that aren’t used any more, and the castle now has buildings that weren’t there in the blueprints.”

She blinked, once, twice, before sighing. “Time doth pass us by.”

Too late, I realized how I’d said those words. To someone who’d lost her entire past life, who’d had to adjust to a new way of thinking, a new society, even a new language; it was like she was an alien in her own homeland. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

“Luna, listen,” I said, automatically, before clamping my beak shut. So much for impartiality. Now, with the way I was acting, I could tell that there was a personal stake in this job. Luna had become more than simply a client; now, she was an
acquaintance at the very least, a friend at the most. All that time together did mean something to me. To her, though?

The blue pony shot me a stare. It was like that stare she gave me when we first met; now, however, I could sort of tell that it was much less intense, much less hungry. A good sign.

“It’s alright. We all have times like this,” I finished, somewhat lamely.

“We art not unhappy,” she said, starting to walk alongside me. Eye-contact was more of a challenge, as we devoted some time to our conversation partner, and some to the path ahead of us. That was a subtle coercion to get Luna to become less reliant on me as an anchor. Back when we’d started, she’d hit everything in front of her hooves, and after the first worrying wobble of a heavy vase, I’d simply moved to the center of the hallway.

She was right, though. She didn’t sound unhappy, and I was pretty sure of my ability to detect self-delusion. She simply sounded tired. Like an old soldier, she had the tone of someone who’d undergone much more than their age would suggest.

“It was simply an observation,” she remarked, rather calmly, as we went around a corner, ignoring the set of guards that were positioned outside one of the doors. Celestia had made it clear that she only wanted her sister to be around the safe-zones of the castle, and she’d even thought of putting up guards to make sure that happened. I was pretty sure that this was simply a way of saying that she didn’t want me snooping around and reporting back to the komitet. She was thorough, for sure.

“I understand now.” Truly, I did. At that moment, she simply accepted the fact that she was going to be seen as an outsider. A foreigner, in her own country. Perhaps with more time, she’d become an iconic figure, a representation of Equestria like her sister. Only question was, did she want to?

“Good,” she said, as we passed under the transition into the rough stone that she, and now I, called home. Honestly, I’d have preferred open sky. The walls threatened to squish me into a pulp, like a mouse under the wheels of a cart. With the sky, I could see my death approaching, and face it. In the dark, surrounded by uncaring rock, I would die – just like that.

Still, for her. I could do that for her. I owed that much to my friend. May he rest in peace.

We stopped before the doors to our respective rooms. Mine was carved out hastily by the Sun Princess herself, and given a magical door-curtain thing that was supposed to stop intruders. Back at home, we used a door with a lock. The fabric, waving slightly despite the lack of any breeze (kind of like Celestia’s mane, to think of it), didn’t look like it could stop a fly. Yet, we all knew looks were deceptive.

“Must thou insist on sleeping in a separate area? We desire company,” she said, somewhat suddenly.

“Wha?” I spluttered, filling the empty, soundless gap with a low hum of errs and umms as my brain processed her request. “Wait, what?”

“We said, must thou –”

I raised a claw. “I heard. Still, didn’t you think it was awkward?”

She blinked. “No.”

Well, I did. Celestia had been on the cliff at that point; she’d wanted her sister to get well, but at the same time, this just wasn’t done. Above and beyond the call, I was going.

I still didn’t know how I felt. How I should have felt. Somehow, something bright and burning had sparked up a fire inside of me, and I could empathize with her plight. In the dark, listening to her irregular breaths, whilst she clacked her horn against the stone wedge that was her bed during her short muscle spasms; that was something sobering.

“Very well,” I said softly. “For tonight.”

She smiled, and we entered her room side-by-side.