• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,105 Views, 999 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Six Element-Bearers walk into a bar. Everypony else immediately becomes the punchline.

Until recently, most of Equestria's citizens had very little idea of who the Element-Bearers were. After all, some of their more important missions were just a little too much like news for the papers to report -- and a certain Princess might have been trying to keep a slight lid on things for the first two years, giving them a chance to grow closer without having cameras stuck in their faces every few yards: only the rumors claim to know for sure. Everypony knew Luna had returned -- but the parties responsible? Not so much. The majority of citizens had been dimly aware that something called the Elements was involved and there were those who Bore them. More educated ponies knew there were six Elements along with most to all of their Elemental names, and that there was a pony matched to each. Those truly in flow with current events might find out there were two from each race and that the Bearers lived within roughly a gallop of Canterlot, if not the capital itself. Insiders knew one of the Princess' favorites was involved, and those standing near her when letters came and went were aware that one was Twilight. And for pretty much everypony outside Ponyville, which had made a studious practice of ignoring the potential celebrity aspects of their residents (at least for anything pertaining to government work), that was just about it. A very few knew more -- and in one or two cases, much more -- but on the whole, the six remained more or less anonymous, much to Rainbow Dash's perpetual chagrin.

While that status quo had gone through a very slight change after Discord (although not enough for Canterlot's upper class to have any idea who or what a Rarity was), the true shift had begun after the changeling invasion -- or rather, after Shining Armor's wedding to Cadance. While the near-war was news and accordingly got stuck on Page Eight, the marriage was celebrity gossip and took nearly every headline across the continent. Having an Element-Bearer as sister to the groom? Certainly something to keep an eye on. The stories that she'd fought with the bride -- fighting with a Princess! And one who was her former babysitter! -- before the wedding? Never mind stories about the cause: circulate a few about divides in the new royal family, get a few quotes from her on why she hated a Princess so much (which had amounted to "'Get. Out," happily spun a thousand unfavorable ways), and who were those ponies she came in with? See if they have anything to say -- wait, what did the cyan one say they did?

From that point on, the six of them had been on the gossip map. Not a place which required much in the way of tourist traffic, since they hardly did anything real -- but at least worth the occasional peek-in to see if they'd been humiliating themselves lately in a way which would justify an article about having them deposed before blaming the whole thing on the Diarchy and getting rid of the Princesses right after. (Even Rainbow Dash had seen where things were going after the first interview and huffily refused to participate in anything where she couldn't see the final version before it went to press.) But it had meant Equestria was slowly becoming aware of who they were. Ponyville remained Ponyville and continued to studiously ignore the whole thing, at least until Twilight's transformation had overwhelmed the town's weirdness censor and replaced it with royal awe and pride in their homegrown Princess. The rest of the continent gradually realized there were in fact six Element-Bearers (even if the actual Elements got left out of the most recent stories: they only made certain ponies appear to have positive qualities). They were all mares. Every last one was -- well, attractive -- and that was at the minimum.

(Admittedly, they were physically appealing in different ways: Applejack's fans liked raw power in their fantasies, while Twilight's were attracted to the studious type and even more power. Fluttershy got those who were into the classics, Pinkie Pie drew in ponies who thought they could handle that level of energy, Rarity's fanbase ran from high society to those who considered sheet changing to be an unnatural event, and much to Dash's perpetual annoyance, most of her devotees were underage. (Incidentally, there are pinup calendars. Excepting a few leftovers from Fluttershy's modeling days, none of them are authentic, every last one is illegal, and most of the pictures are faked using badly-chosen stand-ins.))

And they were all single.

Oh, there were stories about that too. Endless speculation on who each of the Element-Bearers might regard as their very special somepony. A flood of tales circulated about their having hooked up with each other in pairs or triads or a six-pony group marriage -- all legal, but the last option was so rare as to barely exist. Ponies seemed to enjoy reading about those fantasy matchups, so a cottage industry sprang up in the gossip pages which had the Bearers switching off so often that every last waking moment would have been spent in having sex and every dozing one in sleeptrotting to their next conquest. The Bearers very carefully ignored all of them, with the exception of Rarity saving some of the most fanciful to a well-hidden scrapbook (kept in a cubbyhole behind a Sweetie Belle-proof security spell) for those times when she personally needed a good laugh.

But most ponies believed them to be single -- or at least so open-minded as to still be taking applications for the group. And so when six Element-Bearers walk into a bar... they will find a large number of ponies who suddenly believe that this is their chance at romance, at one night spent doing something other than just standing, taking part in something with a group, or possibly even becoming an emergency substitute Bearer and taking on the role of Rainbow Dash Number Three. Those with enough courage -- natural or liquid -- will then attempt to begin manifesting those fantasies into reality.

From the outside, it can look funny. From the inside...

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Like more than a few of their personal disasters (including, unknown to the group, the traveling incurable chaos plague known as the Cutie Mark Crusaders), this one had begun as Dash's idea, grown from the fertile pages of Daring Do's fictional conquests. Where do you find out about local events? The bar. Where do mysterious strangers hang around looking to spill their secrets? The bar. Where do you find the love of your life who happens to be in disguise, the pony you'll meet up with for seven pages in every four hundred before they're whisked off to their own next adventure and all you can do is wait for the sequel? The bar. And slightly less to the immediate point, where are dozens of Trotter's Falls residents going to treat Equestria's heroes to free drinks? Take a wild guess. Twilight had agreed to it because they still weren't completely sure of what they were supposed to be doing and hanging around the local watering hole was as good a way to pick up information as any.

What they got could certainly be filed under 'picking up'.

Look around the Suffolk Downs Vineyard for a moment. It can legally hold eighty ponies at maximum capacity and with that number present, has just enough free floor space to let them all move around each other -- barely: a lot of flanks get rubbed, and not always unintentionally. The tables are set at a bit below shoulder height, and every last one of them is at least four hundred years old and brought in from the oaks in the wild zones around Fillydelphia. Recessed magical lighting tends towards soft blues, mostly to make the extensive wine display behind the main bar look a little more exotic. (It's also flattering lighting for most ponies -- at least for those whose coat doesn't clash and the occasional pony who just goes nearly invisible against the background illumination.) There are a few booths for the patrons who want the illusion of privacy and two side rooms (both currently occupied) taken by those ponies who prefer more of a reality. Two unicorn mares tend the bar: two more wander the floor and take orders. Crystal mugs hang from the ceiling and are fetched by fields. Very few of them have the hoof loops used by pegasi and earth ponies: there's little need. A couple of steel tankards are kept around for those drinks which -- do things to crystal: one to a customer please, and that's one per moon. Ponies talk, ponies drink, the ponies with more bits than sense hand over the former for all-night access to the communal trough and keep it up until they completely lose the latter. (Twilight never goes near those ancient holdovers: in a word, 'backwash'.) The trough holds whatever beer the Vineyard has far too much of: other drinks tend towards the imported, the exotic, the enchanted, and oh dear Celestia, the next-morning hangover which should have stayed chained in Tartarus.

The place legally holds eighty ponies. With so many of the Doctor's still in town and locals spotting the Element-Bearers heading out for the evening, following to see where they were going -- well, the Vineyard was packed from floor to pegasi-crammed ceiling. Many of the occupants were already drunk. Several were trying to get there in a hurry because surely the next drink would provide the ability to approach the former supermodel without fear -- or maybe the next one -- could be the one after that -- well, now there was a choice of three identical pegasi, so go with the one on the left...

Try to trawl for information in that kind of setup, with the group being broken apart by the crush of the crowd, and it's the other ponies who learn things they didn't want to know -- starting with why those six are all still single.

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Yes, there were ponies who were drunk, bold, egotistical, or social-climbing enough to try and get their very own night with a Princess. But Twilight had always been skittish about dating: too many fellow students who wanted to attach their tow rope via binding social contract. The years most ponies spend in beginning to explore their sexuality had been used by a once-unicorn for delving ever-deeper into the library and the safe privacy of her own head. A pony who needed to learn lessons about friendship is not going to have a natural talent for relationships. Before her transformation, anypony who tried to pick her up in a bar would have found somepony only too happy to use the chosen small talk subject as either the launch point for her own lecture (because she frequently knew more about the topic than they did) or the start of a precious new lesson with those things she hadn't really learned about yet. (Or, with some of the more blatant drunken skip-the-preliminaries proposals, the other pony would have received free instruction in how long it takes to blink teleport flash away.) She was about as competent in the dating wars as she was at ice skating, random shelf arrangements, and slumber parties without benefit of guidebook: a former self-determined social outcast who had never learned the appropriate cues or responses and was just barely able to spot a few of the more subtle danger signs. And that was before the change had added an extra level of uncertainty to her psyche. Try to pick up Twilight with a line about how dazzling her eyes were in this light and --

"-- because it's the refraction of the light, really. When you have this exact frequency of blue arranged along that kind of grid and directed with just the right angle, you're going to get some degree of dazzle. Plus there's the optics in play with your own lenses, and did you know that different eye colors receive light in slightly different ways? For example, green eyes are better at spotting movement! It's absolutely true! A lot of ponies don't know that. Anyway, back to light studies. This particular frequency of blue is supposed to be calming, although I really don't think it's doing anything --"

-- on the plus side for the hosting bar, ten minutes spent on the receiving end of that will drive most ponies to drink -- more.

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Go ahead, try to pick up Fluttershy. Just try it. Oh, there were ways to get into a conversation with her -- for starters, you could bring your pets (although that's not an option at this bar) or just bring them up. If your animal companion happened to be sick, you might even get her to go home with you -- all the way to the front door, where she'd wait patiently for you to bring your pet out so she could look it over and start working on a diagnosis. But any overt attempt to coax her into bed -- or dating -- or any social relationship beyond her typical business ones or a light touch of merchant-customer exchange -- would bring, at best, an "...eep!" and at worst, a full-scale rush for the exit which wasn't particularly concerned about the amount of damage being done along the way. (Blocking is not encouraged: she's stronger than she looks.) For Fluttershy to find a very special somepony would first require her to find the mental strength to

A. look.

B. be looked at.

C. talk.

D. feel she was worth talking to in the first place.

E-Z. forget it: we never even got to A.

And in this overpacked, overloud, and overstimulating environment, where she'd basically inserted herself into the most defensible ceiling corner available and was steadfastly trying to pretend all comers didn't exist, with those blue-green eyes almost squeezed shut?

Good luck.

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Of the six, Rarity spent the most time in bars of her own accord. She firmly believed that a single drink -- just one, mind you, carefully chosen for taste, fragrance, point of origin, reputation of the winery, and the elegant contour of the bottle -- helped open the floodgates of creativity. A few sips and ideas begin to flow: too many and the ideas were all about how far it was to the door and how she couldn't possibly make it: would somepony please hold back her mane? (Surprisingly, Rarity was the lightweight in the group: one mug happy, two dizzy, three semi-coherent, and four meant a day of traveling around Ponyville desperately trying to find somepony who would tell her why her tail was now dyed fluorescent green.) And as she did have a certain appeal even for those without scales and was in the right environment more than the others, ponies would try to pick her up. A lot. In fact, it happened so often that she'd become an expert on methodology.

"Yes, I am quite aware of how my mane looks in this light. And if you had truly wished to have a chance, you would have much been better off trying something a little less -- trite. Seriously, dear: there are dozens of mares in this bar and while you were within my hearing, you have spoken to all of them about their manes. So either you are into manes to a degree which some might find a touch frightful or you simply have no other approach to offer. So while I do appreciate the fact that you are making an effort, don't you think you would benefit from some variety in your attempts? There are a thousand disguises in the social wardrobe and you? Are wearing the same outfit to every occasion. And that's without getting into your using a disguise in the first place, Baron... I did see you polishing the fountain on the way in, you know, and you would have been so much better off admitting that to begin with..."

Oh, Rarity still believed in True Love -- or rather, she believed in it again once the Blueblood nausea wore off, which had been two moons after the Gala. And she no longer felt her chosen prince had to be one or come from high society at all: a very special somepony could climb out of a ditch, although that pony had better try to find a bath rather quickly. But she still insisted on manners, the polite approach, romance, being swept off her hooves, and everything else which could be found in the lesser class of romance novels, also known as 'anything where the cover image has the dress strategically ripped over the cutie mark'. And that meant --

"Really. You're being serious. You truly think telling me my hooves look like marshmallows is going to get you somewhere. Let me tell you something: I have had more refined attempts to win my favor from Diamond Dogs. And quite frankly, their breath? Smelled better than yours."

-- she was a little fussy.

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Contrary to popular opinion, Rainbow Dash could talk about things other than herself. Or herself and flying. Or herself, flying, the Wonderbolts, adventure novels and just lately, tortoise care. Admittedly, she would tend to drag the topic over to one of those five given any cue and the first was her favorite thing to discuss of all. Rainbow Dash would happily sit down with anypony who wanted to talk about her and provide an epic-level dissertation on the subject with footnotes, references, ponies to check her sources with, and no more than twenty-five percent exaggeration. And she would listen to the other pony -- mostly for those verbal cues which would allow them to get the focus back on her. For the casual pony on the social approach, conversation with Rainbow Dash was actually a lot like being talked at by Twilight, only without the chance to pick up a few incidental school credits along the way. The more determined ones tried to ride out the verbal flow and hoped to reach a calm spot in the rapids which would allow them to drop anchor and hold fast until the current slowed down. It never slowed down. She could talk about herself for hours. She could go for moons without repeating herself, keeping a side glance out in self-defense to see if any of her friends were about to sit on her. And part of it was --

-- a test.

She would never admit it, of course, and the odds were something less than even that she was aware of it. But the test was there regardless: are you so interested in me that you're willing to put up with this? After all, only the truly -- well, loyal -- would stand by her side through all that and still be there when she ultimately decided to finish. If you could stick it out through Dash's barrage of self-interest, then you just might be a pony worth getting to know. Stay by her side, stay interested, nod at all the right places, and pay actual attention because there would be a test later -- that was the way to get the pegasus curious about you.

Nopony ever made it that far.

Seriously, there's only so much talk about shell cleaning anypony can stand.

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You'd think Pinkie would be the easiest to pick up: after all, she'd admitted that she has sex. (Discussions of 'with whom?' are not going to take place here.) But most ponies would consider her priorities to be -- skewed. Pinkie didn't think of sex as part of a relationship: she didn't even really see it as working into dating, and one-night stands ("Stand?" she'd giggle. "You think we're supposed to be standing the whole time?") didn't come into it at all. To Pinkie, sex was -- therapeutic. It was something she did when a friend really needed that last possible boost to raise them out of the emotional dumps. It could be for giggles and good times and just having fun, sure -- but she took her role as Laughter seriously and recognized that there were times when there was just that one thing which might make somepony happy -- or rather, pull them out of deep depression. She had sex with no emotional commitment beyond that involved in 'I am your friend and I'm doing this because I care about you'. And with six deep friendships and hundreds of casual ones plus new ponies to meet every day (especially lately) -- well, how much time did a single pony have to use? Especially one who had to bake, host parties, run her greeting schedule, keep up with everypony's birthdays, and so on down the eternal line? Twilight had never recognized it, but Pinkie had a knack for time efficiency which not even certain obsessive once-unicorns could match -- and even then, the baker was perilously close to being overbooked at all times. Pinkie didn't have enough hours in the day or night to have a very special somepony because there were so many ponies who were already special and they all needed her.

(It would not have surprised or offended Pinkie to discover there had been a very small betting pool around Ponyville -- four participants -- wagering whether and when she would finally attempt to befriend Cranky through a last resort. She would have simply (and patiently) explained that it was something to be done for those she already knew and had a strong friendship with. You couldn't make or keep friends through sex. And she would have explained that after getting somepony else to bet on her behalf and walking off with everypony's bits.)

Yes, she was in her element (but not Element), or at least a subset of her cutie mark, which manifested here as the ability to keep up with the best of them. Party with some of the new ponies in the bar? Done. Beat them all at every bar game offered? Easy. Pull out the little tricks and mini-cons which show a drinking crowd that you know all the angles and aren't going to be fooled by anything? Of course. Make new friends? Perhaps. But as for leaving with anypony other than the ones she came in with... not going to happen. Because she didn't know anypony here well enough to understand whether they really needed her and there were much more important things to do anyway. She was listening to the babble of the crowd, subtly reaching in for the social cues and gossip flow which were part of any mass party --

-- but she couldn't attune herself to this group. Not completely. Because while those of the Doctor's were happy to talk to her and she was having a good time with them, most of the locals were avoiding her. Several were ignoring her. Some were acting as if she didn't even exist and as Octavia might tell you, that's the performance of a lifetime. And she wasn't going to be picked up for a one-night not-standing -- not now, and especially not when most of the ponies in the bar didn't care to try.

Pinkie had things other than good times on her mind, and most of them involved frequent checks on the departing-and-returning Applejack.

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Ask around Ponyville after Applejack's conquests and you'd get the complete list: none. Applejack generally didn't date. Applejack didn't have time to date. She had an apple farm to run, a sister who kept trying to destroy the town and most of that seemed to be by accident, a grandmother to support and brother to ignore, friends who needed her during moments when all of the previous wasn't happening and sometimes when it was, and every so often a Princess or chaos entity came recruiting. Applejack only had time for a social life when her work life let up a little, and that mostly meant during the winter. Once the snow came in and the Acres were put to bed for a few moons, the farmer might venture into town to see what the local selection had to offer. And the answer to that was 'ponies who'd had the previous misfortune of being approached by Applejack'. She was very much the aggressor in her potential relationships, choosing which ponies she'd go after with exacting standards followed by (should she come up to somepony) an even more exacting quiz. Her standards were well-known: she wanted an earth pony within a few years of her own age, strong, durable, not needing much in the way of sleep -- somepony who was a hard worker and willing to commit hours upon hours to seeing if they could sort things out together, mostly by waiting until spring and then doing that relationship work right beside her on the farm -- while incidentally working on the farm itself. The general opinion around Ponyville was that Applejack wasn't looking for a very special somepony so much as she was after free live-in labor and a way to create the next generation of seriously underpaid help. It was unkind, unfair, and more than slightly accurate.

Applejack hardly had any objections to love and wanted an emotional connection with whoever she wound up with -- but romance would pretty much have to fall on her if it was going to have any hope of getting her attention, and the idea of getting a next generation to keep the farm in Apple hooves was very much on her mind. She didn't trust Apple Bloom to take over for her, mostly because any cutie mark showing a talent for running the place would have surely manifested by now no matter how much the other two tried to distract her sibling from those duties. The youngest Apple was on track for something else: Applejack recognized that and was preparing to deal with it when the time came -- but that meant the farm was going to need a next generation, and getting Big Mac out into the social wars was more difficult than launching Fluttershy into the battle. She had a chance to lasso and drag Fluttershy. Big Mac? Not so much. So she put herself out there -- and found, much to her surprise, that nopony was willing to work a fourteen-hour day alongside her in the name of seeing if they were compatible. At least, not for more than a week's worth of them, and typically much less. Some of them didn't even make it to lunch -- and frankly, she was running out of ponies. Twilight's ascension had done her the favor of a population increase, and she'd been looking forward to winter just to schedule another series of future tryouts.

But Trotter's Falls found her on a different sort of prowl. Relatively few ponies were looking for her (although many were looking at her, especially as she insisted on staying in the rough area despite the increasing number of stares) and none of them fit her standards anyway. But she was still looking for earth ponies. They could be of any age or marital status as long as they were earth ponies. She needed somepony to talk to -- badly. Somepony who wasn't Pinkie Pie. And there were a few -- a very few, and most of them left quickly after grabbing a single drink to nurse on the train. Those who'd come to check on Doctor Gentle had already departed. What remained were the ones Quiet Presence had mentioned: merchants who'd come in to deliver food. They were mostly willing to step outside with her and get to an isolated spot so they could speak earth pony to earth pony. But once they understood the topic (or at least what she was willing to cautiously suggest of it)...

"I'm sorry, Miss Applejack, but -- I don't know about anything odd happening anywhere near these parts. It's a four-day haul for me just to get here, and I only escort my goods because I want the bits to come back with me. I drop off, I get paid, I leave -- and I have a big family to get back to, which is what these trips pay for. Why? Did you hear something?"

And then came the art of lying without lying. "Naw... nothin' I want t' bother y'with... Ah'm sorry, it's jus' stupid stuff. Y'know -- Ah don't want t' spread any rumors. Wanted t' make sure they were stupid an' if y'ain't heard of them, then stupid they've gotta be. Ah won't spread rumors, that's all... Get back t' yer kin. That's what's important."

And that was the best of it.

"Live here? And risk having other ponies come in after me? Too many of us laying the Effect down, they'd have their own food supply and prices would drop. Any pony who moves here is ultimately just betraying those of us with business contracts in the area, and I'm not going to be the first to drop that horseshoe. I need the money: I commute. Besides, who would want to live -- here? Geez, lady -- I don't know where you got that idea, but get rid of it fast before the stupid thing pulls your hat over your head."

"I can get paid here and make a living or I can stay here and not get paid enough to live. Guess which one I picked."

"I don't stay overnight. I have never stayed overnight. I am not going to start staying overnight now. Not for a vaguely dropped half-hint with no details in it. Better luck next pony."

"...oh. I thought you wanted to... well... no, I don't know anything. Sorry. And -- you know, your legs look really strong in this light, I bet you bring down apples like -- um... I'll go now..."

"Right. Me. First earth pony in Hornville. Buck you very much."

Until, finally, "Something weird? Well -- that private room in the back, the one on the left? There's an earth pony in there. Grape something or other. He was trying to get drinks out of the patrons before you came in by offering to tell this story about some mythical super-powerful unicorn to anypony who'd buy him a mug, or just access to the trough -- but only one-on-one. The older bartender finally threw him into the back room just so he'd stop bothering everypony. I think he still might be nursing a drink in there. If you're really looking for something strange, you might want to try washing his lies out of him until he finally passes out and clears the place for somepony else. And now if you'll excuse me, I am getting on that last train out tonight before this crowd goes ugly. They started as happy drunks, but -- that doesn't last. It never lasts. And I have no intention of being here when it inevitably goes the other way. Good luck, Miss Applejack. If I hear about anything strange, I'll send word back -- but I don't expect to. Just take care of yourself. You're a good mare, I can see that -- and I'm not sure this is the best place for a good mare..."

And then she went back into the bar (pushing her way through an increasingly drunk crowd, one which seemed more reluctant to let her in) and told her friends about the earth pony in the back room. Because it was something -- at least, it was something she could tell them. Because they were her friends. No matter what Pinkie Pie said...

...she had to keep an eye on Pinkie.

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After Grape Indulgence had finished his story -- collapsing into a snoring single-pony pile almost immediately after -- they waited a few more minutes while Rarity casually checked the location-based details with the bar's staff. After that, the Royal Voucher in the amount of far too many bits was presented to the younger bartender and the group left the Vineyard, wandering down magically-lit streets to try and find a private place to speak. It took some work: several ponies tried to follow them out, and some managed to keep the stagger moving in their general direction for several yards. The town was celebrating. The town was getting drunk, and not all of them had done it in a formal setting. There were some half-understood calls from house windows made in the group's direction. Twilight recognized that some of them were trying to hail her in her status as Princess. Others were too slurred to make out.

Weaving ponies bumped into them. Some of the bumps were on the hard side. Applejack was nearly knocked off her hooves twice, visibly strained not to retaliate. Pinkie, legs and tail twitching to her private beat, dodged them all.

Eventually, they reached the soft white glow of the gazebo in the town square and found nopony there. It was a warm night and any similar structure in Ponyville would have been a temporary home to dating couples and romantically-inclined married pairs (and, very rarely, trios on up) -- but the parties were in bars, and homes, and wandering up and down the streets in search of fresh recruits. For now, the cane-woven walls formed a suitable barrier to intrusion, and a check for eavesdroppers came up empty.

Rarity led the way. "Our hosts for the evening deal with the winemaker in question -- and they said he's a four-day gallop to the north." With very little effort to disguise her distaste, "Mister Indulgence was clearly wandering around in the wild zone for days. Celestia protects children and drunks, indeed... he's lucky to be alive. Unicorns making his liquid payment vanish -- I believe I know where every last drop of it wound up."

Pinkie nodded. "But at least we know what she looks like now! That's weird, isn't it -- having your horn be a different color than your coat?"

Twilight mustered a sigh. "It would be unusual -- and no, I can't think of any other unicorns I've seen with that color differential -- but at the same time, he was drunk. Drunk when he was talking to us, maybe drunk when he saw her -- I know he saw somepony, but it's hard to trust the details."

"I trust him." And that was from a completely sober (in more than one sense) Rainbow Dash, camped out on one of the gazebo's benches, voluntarily staying on their level for a very rare once. "What happened -- it shook him up. Some ponies lose details when they're afraid -- and some focus. When you're going through a triple helix, trying for a quadruple, and things don't -- quite work -- you start paying attention to everything. When I -- hurt my wing that one time, went to the hospital -- I remember everything that went wrong and -- every second leading into the ground like they were taking a year each. I think -- it was like that for him. That seeing her was so intense -- he almost had to drink so remembering it would scare him less. You see some old fliers..." She trailed off, stared at the gazebo's roof for a few seconds. "I say he was telling the truth and his memory was good."

"Breaking a tree in half..." Rarity mused, looking disturbed. "Applejack, the way he described the trunk -- how large would that typically be?"

"Big," the farmer flatly replied. "Gotta be that same orchard everypony raids. We'll get directions an' go check it out when we've got some Sun t' work with."

"...it could really be her, couldn't it?" Fluttershy whispered. "She's hurt, she's hungry -- she needs help."

"Which brings us back to why Discord would care," Twilight very carefully didn't snap. "I'm still looking for motive, Fluttershy... he might ask us to help you --" forcing herself to fully believe that for the duration of one sentence "-- but somepony out here..." Some random pony we don't know anything about except that she's strong and doesn't have control... strong enough to break that leash?

"...he cares more than you think... he's trying to care... Twilight? About the sparks from her horn...?"

"It is what he said there," Twilight conceded. "Everypony does it when they're just starting: the field doesn't focus and you just send little bits of energy everywhere. But -- he said she's a couple of years older than you, Fluttershy -- maximum. Most unicorns start to get control when they're a little older than Sweetie Belle: some younger, some older -- but not that old. Even if you aren't taught, you get the basics on your own. For somepony to be showing first spell signs at her age... Well, we were looking for strange..." A tall mare. Blue coat, tan eyes, and that strange purple horn. In pain. Hungry then, lost in the wild zone. But -- not visibly wounded, at least not that their witness had seen. What was wrong with her?

Pinkie had been visibly bothered by a missing part of the description when it wasn't made, and was still trying to deal with it. "He remembered so much else -- why couldn't he tell us about her cutie mark? That's one of the first places I look when I meet a new pony! Everypony does, because it can tell you so much about who they are! How can a cutie mark be hard to look at? I've never seen one that was ugly or even had really clashing colors!"

It had been bothering Twilight too -- but the line for that stretched all the way back to Ponyville. "I don't know -- maybe he just didn't get a good look and was making an excuse..." She sighed. "Okay, everypony -- I'm not fully convinced that she's the mission, but I'm hoping she's at least part of it. So much for our being out here on a wild antelope chase..." (They weren't fully sentient. They still loved to race anything they encountered, ground or sky. They loved winning slightly less than Rainbow Dash and in their way, gloated just a little more.) "We should go out to the orchard. Maybe we can find something he missed."

"We'll have to be careful about time, though," Pinkie pointed out. "Doctor Gentle is expecting Fluttershy and me sometime tomorrow, and you wanted to speak with him later -- and if we're here long enough, there's going to be a party."

That got a small, weary smile out of Twilight. "I do want to talk with him..." (The weariness was focused on the inevitable party.) "Let's get some sleep." With slight (but real) mirth, "I might even let Spike sleep when we get back in and give him the bad news in the morning. Grape Indulgence might have missed a cutie mark somehow, but I don't think he would have missed wings..."

Rainbow Dash looked up at that. "We should really go out together tomorrow morning, Twilight! Get the overhead view of the area -- see if there's anything weird we can spot from above! I can even -- get up -- early -- and meet you at the front --"

"-- we'd better just concentrate on the orchard for now," Twilight quickly interjected. "Back to the castle, everypony -- and anypony who's had drinks, sleep them off!"

"I had one, dear."

"I know. You're still upright."

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Five ponies were in bed. One dragon was curled up in a basket (although Twilight's sheets looked suspiciously straightened). One pony was still awake.

Applejack was asleep. The cottage was pleasant enough, reminding Applejack of an only slightly overdone earth pony building -- at least when compared to the other residences they'd passed. And the bed had been comfortable. Too comfortable, really: Applejack was trying to half-sleep, keeping an ear out for movement. She hadn't hauled her temporary bed to block the front door for only one reason: there was also a back exit. So she was trying to practice the delicate art of resting with awareness, something she'd only had scant experience in and that had led to something less than wondrous success: Apple Bloom had gotten out to wreak havoc anyway. The farmer was trying regardless.

Pinkie was asleep one room away. She had known why Applejack had made sure they were in the cottage together. She was, in her way, more than a little -- angry -- about it. But she wasn't going to make her move. Not just yet. And when (if -- no, at this rate, when) she did, Applejack could do everything up to and including diving into a mirror pool and creating a horde of single-minded earth ponies to block every way out. It wouldn't matter. Pinkie had made her own decision and was just waiting to see if -- when -- she would have to enact it.

Rarity was out cold. The sheets were slightly musty. They were also heavenly.

Fluttershy was having a perfectly lovely dream, reliving one of the happiest days of her life.

Rainbow Dash -- well, it wasn't as if anything short of a -- floor -- was going to slow her down.

Twilight was staring at the canopy bed's fabric roof.

She wasn't sure what time it was. (There was an enchanted clock on the wall which would have told her if she'd asked. She didn't want the voice to wake Spike.) Just that it was too late -- and, given how long she'd been doing this, also too early. Her thoughts had been going around in circles again, and it would have been impossible to wear out a track in the stone. All she could do was stare at the linen ceiling and think. There was too much to think about, and none of it ever seemed to go beyond the original groove.

The breaking of the tree -- nopony had asked Twilight if she could have done it. They probably already knew: she could -- but not casually. Not without at least a double corona, and not by seeming accident. The story's conclusion had shaken all of them -- Rarity and Twilight most of all. Especially Twilight, who was still hoping Grape Indulgence, watching the apple and glow, had left an extra layer out somewhere. But if he hadn't... yes, this one was strong. Strong on a level which kept trying to terrify her. Strength without control. The waves in the wild zone might have been the best of all possible results. Power without restraint or knowledge of how to temper it...

Not an alicorn. But -- the power of one? Strength beyond hers, a field which might operate somewhere between her level and that of the Princesses? Or --

-- no. She's not an alicorn. Unicorns existed who were stronger than me. I've read about them. Star Swirl -- I finished one of his incomplete spells, but I still can't do everything he did and he never -- changed. She's just -- strong. But there's seven of us. We have the numbers, we have practice and tactics and strategy and she --

-- just breaks huge trees in half.

By accident.

It wasn't a thought which encouraged sleep.

She'd almost gone down to the largest of the armor rooms and started cataloging just to have something to do.

The bar. She had seen the potential value in going and in fact, Rainbow Dash had been right: if this strange unicorn was their mission, then they had that much more information about her. But -- well, with limited exceptions, it hadn't been a night of being Princesssed into oblivion. Instead, it was ponies trying to add her to a private list of lands conquered -- a list which wouldn't have remained private for long. She had wondered -- before the change -- how many ponies who claimed to look at her with romantic intentions were really seeing her for herself. That thought came more often now. She was sure all the ponies from this excursion truly saw were wings. Lectures were her automatic reaction to so much -- sometimes too much, and she knew it -- but now they were turning into self-defense. And there were still ponies who would have listened for far longer than any of Dash's failed suitors managed to hang on if it had meant the chance to be with her. It sometimes felt as if the only chance she really had now was --

-- well, that was just silly, really. No matter what some of the gossip columns tried to say.

Quiet... he'd been nice. No -- not just nice. Casual. As if meeting a Princess was just another part of an ordinary day, happened all the time. He'd greeted her with a tease about her status, the best way to say that it meant nothing to him whatsoever except as a chance to joke around a little and watch her squirm, she'd done the same to him...

...married.

Figures.

What are we doing here? What does Discord want? If it is her... then should we even be helping? Is that what would help him? But she's in pain -- so much pain... how can anypony get even a hint of that and not want to help? (She was still mad at Grape Indulgence for his lack of effort.) But if...

'But.' 'If.' Words she was coming to hate.

She couldn't write the Princess -- or Luna -- but could she contact the Canterlot Archives? Ask about horn-coat differences? If it meant anything?

But -- there's other ways for a unicorn to be that powerful...

She blinked, turned slightly to the left. The wall held no more answers than the ceiling had. Still -- I will send a letter tomorrow. No point to waking Spike: this is going to be a hard target for him and he'll need to be fully refreshed before he tries. But it's a question I can ask, and there might even be answers...

...I can't sleep.

Carefully, she got out of the bed, slid her hooves across the carpet and chill stone rather than allow the tapping to wake Spike, carefully opened the doors to the outside and stepped through, closing them behind her.

The porch was -- calming, in its way. Twilight had always liked porches, appreciated a view from overhead gained with something solid beneath her hooves. Liked being able to see and study so much at once. Even though there wasn't much to see here, really: the Moon was waxing towards full -- another four days and it would be there -- but the light didn't reflect on much other than a lot of playground equipment and some sports fields. From here, she could see the river which Quiet had told her formed the town's border. The falls themselves were out of sight -- but she could hear them, and the sound was more relaxing than anything else. He'd mentioned that portions of the landing pool were shallow enough for swimming, although the water was so cold that most ponies only went in on a dare.

Twilight was enjoying what bit of view she had. Probably would have enjoyed it just as much from fully overhead, from flight. But...

...I have to get this right. I have to fly. I have to fix one thing. She's not going to stop asking me. She's...

A quick look at the sky. Partly cloudy: the Moon was showing through a large hole in the layer, one which wouldn't last long: there was a breeze whipping up in the upper layer of atmosphere and the clouds were beginning to shift east in something of a hurry. It didn't look like there were any rain clouds in the group, at least not in this lighting. She wondered if Dash or Fluttershy would have known at a glance. Tried to figure out why she didn't.

Back to the ground. The edge of the porch. The railing...

...no. This is higher than my porch at home. When I fall here -- if -- no, let's face it, when, it's going to hurt a lot more. That might be a hospital fall. This isn't the time or place to practice. Stepping off into air gives me more of a chance to catch the wind with my wings and get the right airflow pattern going, but...

She wanted so very badly to do something right...

...she was being stupid. It was too high up, it was too late at night, and the wind gusts (which were moving lower) were frankly too strong for her to think about going out in. A warm wind, at least: she didn't have to retreat from the chill -- but enough to move the end of her tail and send her bangs swishing about in an uncomfortable manner.

Couldn't fly. Couldn't touch the clouds. Couldn't do anything but fall.

She felt stupid.

A bare whisper. "I hate feeling stupid..."

"Then. Teach!"

And the wind had her.

There was no time to react. No field to push back against, no grip to break or magic to counter. No chance to think. There was just a howl of wind as the air surrounding her spun, faster and faster, lifted her from the porch, taking her up as she spun around and around within the dust devil, barely able to breathe in the twisting atmosphere, raised into an involuntary form of flight, uncontrolled --

-- no. Not under her control. Under --

"-- who are you?"

She had been raised to be on a level with the roof of the observation tower -- but not in contact with it. Three body lengths away and four stories above the ground. Hanging within the air, wind still twisting, keeping her up -- but with the air pressure somehow rendering her stable inside the dust devil. She was no longer turning, even with the wind buffeting her and her tail being whipped into her right flank. And her words had not been taken by the wind, not completely. They had been heard by the tall pegasus mare standing on the conical roof.

A tan coat. Blue mane and tail, both short. Deep purple eyes. Incredibly dark purple wings, large and unfurled in a posture which, on Rainbow Dash, would have been challenge. And -- she noticed it, wasn't sure why it of all things registered -- a touch of that same purple at the very bottom of her hooves.

That voice -- but...

The pegasus had heard her question, yes -- and responded to it with a sound. A sound Twilight had heard twice before and still never wanted to hear again.

"...no."

Her thoughts spun faster than her body had, would not come together. illusion disguised field shapechange on that level impossible for anypony outside of the Princesses sisters from the same family faking not that can't be that can't be... And her own wings spread, pushed -- but all it did was start her spinning again as the dust devil caught them: she just managed to bring them back against her body.

She could hit the pegasus with a spell. But she couldn't fly, and the dust devil was the only thing holding her up. And if she knocked the other pony out, or her opponent chose to drop her...

Teleport? Try to reach the ground? Do I have a clear enough image of the bedroom to go between with? Can't just aim for the roof: can't stay out in the open...

And the pegasus trembled, feathers vibrating. Clenched her jaw as her eyes narrowed, bit back most of a moan. "Not -- stupid. Finished. So -- teach."

The voice was the same. Exactly the same. Torture rendered into words.

"Teach what?" Twilight cried out, fighting against inner and outer confusion. Could anypony hear her? Her friends scattered about the castle and grounds, too deep into night for anypony to be up, and any signs of a signaling spell...

Another moan: the dust devil seemed to vibrate in sympathy. "You -- finished. The -- Great Work. Complete. How?" Anger, challenge -- and desperation, with the wind now moving faster than ever.

"I don't -- understand!" Twilight gasped, still trying to find a plan. "The Great Work -- what is that?" Sisters, it had to be sisters, some kind of family conspiracy, she needed the complete identifiers, had never met or heard of a pegasus who could do this, somepony would know her, she had to see --

-- looked at the pegasus' flank. At the cutie mark.

And her mind almost broke.

The mark was present, a icon she had never seen before. It consisted of three Möbius strips linked to each other: she could see the twist in each of the loops. They were arranged a hundred and twenty degrees apart along an imaginary circle: the one facing almost straight up was cloud-white, with the next clockwise loop bright gold and the back-facing one forest green: the colors were most intense at the outermost parts of the loops and began to fade into each other as they came back around. But that was not what struck the blow against her sanity, nowhere near the factor that sent her thoughts cascading on top of and around each other with all order momentarily lost.

It wasn't the center -- or the lack of center. In the place where all three loops should have met was -- nothing. Not only no mark, but it almost seemed as if there was no flank. No view of space beyond or the interior of a hip, just an overwhelming sense of vacuum against her eyes, almost impossible to look at for more than a second, painful to keep coming back to. A total absence. It should not have been, and it was not. It kept right on not being no matter how hard she tried not to look at it, and it was always not there when she returned. Still not the part which nearly shattered an orderly universe into purest discord as a screaming fragment of her mind wondered if her own coat had begun to grey.

What nearly broke Twilight was the movement.

There was a silver fizzle on the white loop, just beginning to dip below the uppermost ascent of the curve. And it was shifting, slowly, visibly getting lower as the entire mark moved in turn, the loops rotating counter-clockwise oh so slowly, just barely enough to see. White dropping, gold ascending.

Transfer, yes. That had happened, and the undoing of it had undone Twilight's entire life. But cutie marks did not move. Could not move. Had never moved in Equestria's history. The images were stable. They did not change in any way, not color, not iconography, not ever. The mark was permanent, fixed forever from the moment of appearance. No magic known to the three races could make it move.

impossible impossible impossible impossible

The Twilight Sparkle who hadn't faced Nightmare Moon would have broken. The one who hadn't been inverted by Discord's influence would have screamed. The young mare from years before seeing Sombra's shadows flowing towards her would have curled up sobbing as the last bit of predictable order in her universe shattered.

The Twilight who had lived through all of it made the effort of her lifetime -- and thought.

"I --" and she gasped again, tried to get her breath, tried to keep her focus, "-- haven't -- heard of it! Maybe it's what you call something I know, but --"

The pegasus stamped her left front hoof: whether in frustration, anger, or pain, Twilight couldn't tell. The air spun faster, made it harder to catch the words -- but catch them Twilight did. "The Great Work! Alicorn! You know! You! Finished! How?!?"

And the impossible flashed across Twilight's mind for the second time, an idea which could not exist, a concept too insane to face, a leap of intuition born from the purest discord...

It couldn't be.

Could not. Should not.

Voicing it would prove it wrong.

"You --" Her bangs whipped as the dust devil vibrated again, her feathers trembled as her wings seemed to try and uselessly unfurl on their own a second time, as the fizzle moved lower on the loop. "-- from the wild zone, you can't be the same, you're not a unicorn! You're not the same pony!"

The laugh, the scream of internal agony expressed as the darkest of humor. "Not -- unicorn. Not -- pegasus. Not -- anything. Failed. Broken. You -- finished. Tell me. How. Tell me -- so -- failures end." And a little softer, the pain coming out more clearly, almost destroying the words, "Others -- need. You -- other three -- finished. You are -- here. Need answers --"

The silver shifted. And the wings -- involuted. They shrank, just slightly, the pinfeathers becoming a little smaller, the wings themselves diminishing just enough to notice. The pegasus screamed, a scream which went no further than Twilight before a new wind ripped it apart, the dark purple-black eyes squeezed shut against the fresh wash of internal acid --

-- the dust devil dissipated.

Twilight fell.

She tried to reorient, tried for the teleport, make it to the roof if nowhere else, but she hadn't been able to get a fix during her time within the wind, too much else to think about, didn't know if she could make it to her most local truly memorized spot within the ravine, had to try --

-- and there was another rush of wind and the sound of wings --

-- but not her own.

Downward momentum went angular, bled off along a new pattern as the pegasus caught her, rushed inches above the ground with Twilight's small body pressed between outstretched front legs, going across most of two fields before the stranger had managed to slow enough to safely drop her. The former unicorn landed on all four hooves, tried to reorient again from the sudden motion. It gave the intruder precious seconds.

"You -- didn't... Fly," she said. "Why. Didn't you --"

Another spasm. She dropped two feet to the ground just as Twilight got her head up again, saw the wings involute just a little more. The white was rotating away. The gold was getting closer to the top. And under the moonlight, there seemed to be just the tiniest purple spot on the pegasus' forehead.

Twilight had the edge: back on the ground, the pegasus distracted by the pain. She marshaled her field, grabbed the intruder, held her hooves against the dirt. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What's wrong? If you --" can't be, can't "-- are the same pony, then let me help you! Nopony should hurt like this!" Pleading, "Please -- if you just give me a chance..."

"A -- chance..."

The wings, just a miniscule percentage smaller than they had been seconds ago, flapped.

Twilight saw the lightning the barest fraction of a second before hearing it, saw the bolt hit the river. Wasn't willing to believe coincidence. Managed to keep her field in place. "How can you do that without contact? How? You weren't even flying around me to create and maintain the funnel! What you're doing isn't thaumaturgically possible! Not for --"

Luna in the Hall Of Legends, with no clouds in sight

It almost made Twilight lose her grip. "-- almost anypony! Just talk to me, and --"

"-- talk..."

The pegasus looked up, seemed to check something behind Twilight. The pained eyes widened with panic. And the wings flapped again.

It was a blast of wind this time, moving playground items which hadn't been put away, lifting them from the grass. Twilight, too close to her last backlash, saw the objects moving and released the field before thinking to track them. The pegasus lifted off, hovered a few feet over the grass.

"Talk," she said. "Talk -- tomorrow. Night. Falls. Tell nopony. Don't -- tell --" A spasm: she nearly fell again. And now there was a new note in the tortured voice: begging. "Don't..."

The wind surged. Dirt and dust were kicked up, went into Twilight's eyes.

And by the time she could see again, the pegasus --

pegasus?

-- was gone.