• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,505 Views, 1,032 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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She sleeps.

Pain, even constant pain, unending cascades of lightning searing across the nerves, can only do so much to combat exhaustion. It is possible to hurt so much that sleep becomes impossible, twisting muscles and sudden fractures of bone proving there's still strength for one more scream. But it's equally possible for the agony to reach a point where it's almost numbing: everything hurts all the time, so you can't isolate any single part. The internal and external horrors slowly shift to background noise. There's nothing left to fight with -- after so many hours, barely anything left to understand why fighting was ever necessary. A perpetual wash becomes the tide which carries a mind too weary for resistance into Luna's lands -- or at least the tiny pocket she'd been given for her own, a place Luna knows nothing of.

In her dream, she goes back to the good days --

-- and on the good days, there were other ponies.

He didn't know everything, he would tell her (although he was always trying to learn). There were things she needed to know which he simply wasn't an expert on. And for some of those things, he would give her books and with others, he would not bring up the subject again for moons before suddenly returning to it with a will and a head full of facts he'd just finished acquiring -- but with a precious few, he would decide that she needed to gain her knowledge directly from a different source. She would have some warning (some anticipation, hours to days and weeks of waiting, barely restrained as she looked ahead to the sheer idea of other, somepony who was not he or she). And then -- there would be somepony new, somepony she would see but once. Those memories were recorded, preserved, kept safe where nothing could touch them, becoming clearer each time she went over them.

There were two performances. Each was rehearsed before the visitor arrived, every time, and he would not give permission for her to see them until he was satisfied that she was perfect on every detail. She always was. He always checked.

The more frequent role: she was one of his. He had been the first for her, as he was the first for so many. She was staying with him for a time, for he had taken an interest in her education: he felt she had great promise. (This was the tale of the summer and winter, the story for holidays, the one which explained why she had time to be on the estate.) As this new pony was an expert on a subject -- and there were so many subjects to study -- would his guest be so very kind as to take a day and teach her? For he knew that this was the pony who would give her the best information, the most thorough experience of the topic, and all the other persuasions which were hardly necessary because the guest had agreed to this long before arrival and was simply going through the necessary etiquette with him before proceeding. (She had learned about etiquette early.) And this role stayed the same as the years passed, with the only change coming from the costume department: as she aged, a simple country dress was added to her wardrobe, and then a pleasant come-calling gown for formal dinners. She knew every hue of both by heart.

But with others -- few enough that their faces took almost no room in her place of memories -- he would introduce her with open pride. Impress upon the visitor just how important this was, how they and they alone had a piece of the puzzle which had to be given to her so that she would, in time, finish The Great Work. Perhaps this would even be the last piece. (It never was.) She would thank those guests for coming herself, gracious and as elegant as she'd been taught to be, so very welcoming and grateful that this pony would give their time to her. And those ponies would --

-- look at her.

She would be looked at when she was playing the first role, of course. But those looks were different. For the most part, they were warm and gentle (she would be sure to remember the eyes in detail later: eyes were important), welcoming her as much as she welcomed them. Not as excited, of course, they could hardly be that and she locked most of it in -- but perfectly content to be in her presence for a day. With the second part --

-- pity and sorrow.

Disgust.

And once...

...that had not been a good day. It has no place in this dream. A memory to replay on a different night, after things have become still worse. For now, let her listen and talk in the protected places, ask questions of those who don't look like her in order to learn about the world she had never walked in, being educated by those who had been brought by the one she loved so much.

She knew she loved him, because he had told her so.

That had been the first lesson.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Mornings in Ponyville shimmer. The pegasi generally don't give them much of a choice.

This was a market day, and the open field was beginning to fill with those vendors who neither required nor wished a full-time shop in town. Some always arrived earlier than others. Applejack would show up in time, of course, but her time was at least two hours ahead, after she checked the fields, examined sick trees for signs of recovery and healthy ones to make sure they hadn't caught anything overnight, searched through her crop for choicest samples of the new harvest, polished and shined and verified that her personal money bag had a single golden bit to start with ("Seed money," she'd told Twilight, and refused to say more), oh, and then there were chores to complete and perhaps a stray animal to round up and Celestia only knew what kind of state Apple Bloom would be in should the youngest of the family have woken up in the middle of the night with a plan for yet another spectacular failure, this time of the Luna-witnessed variety. No, Applejack came when everything was settled at the Acres for a duration of at least one morning, which meant there were days when Big Macintosh was the one who pulled the cart into the field for a day of quiet bit collecting and the occasional piece of soft philosophical debate.

Lyra was already there, of course: it wasn't an official market day unless the mint-green unicorn was frowning at her instrument, making meticulous micro-adjustments to the tension of the strings. There was a price to pay for every gift: Lyra's gift was perfect pitch, the ability to tell exactly which frequency a note was vibrating on -- and the price was the horrific wincing and tooth grinding she went through every time she encountered a tune which wasn't exactly to scale. (Lyra didn't hang out around Pinkie much for fear of jaw fracture -- hers or Pinkie's was almost a moot question.) She wouldn't start a performance unless her lyre was tuned to a level of perfectionism which nearly scared Twilight. And as she worked, she unconsciously adjusted her body into positions which made Twilight's spine ache. There were days when it was genuinely hard to look at Lyra for any real length of time, and many ponies tossed bits with their eyes closed.

Snowflake was pulling at a guide rope with his teeth, allowing the intricate layers of twine within the pile of fabric in front of him to tighten, lift, and eventually tautly shape an open-front tent with a simple sign above the entrance: Day And Night Labor: No Job Too Big Or Too Heavy. The huge pegasus had trouble keeping a steady job: not many ponies wanted to be on the receiving end of his special talent for long (strength training: done with precision and enthusiasm in a way which guaranteed results -- with the first one being two days spent shivering in an aching fetal position, wishing you'd never met him), which left him with long periods of bit-free time to fill before a new generation of unsuspecting athletes decided they needed that last crucial push before the Games. So he hired himself out for any acts of raw musclepower which might be needed and, to save time, let the employers come to him. Twilight had brought him in once herself when she'd had a sudden appointment in Canterlot hit on the day she'd been expecting a shipment of books. Thousands of pounds of books arriving on a day when the weather bureau had scheduled an afternoon downpour and Rainbow Dash couldn't be found to reschedule, all of them sitting helpless in front of the library and growing wetter by the second, defenseless ink blurring as pages began to soften towards disintegration... The thought had been unbearable: one maddened run to the market later, she'd had Snowflake heading towards the tree to move the huge bundles to safety, watching him fly away with relief, trying not to listen to the laws of physics as they wept.

Flower Wishes ('Daisy' to her friends and acquaintances, 'By Celestia's tail, would you stop panicking?' to everypony who had known her for more than a week) almost had her booth ready: flower arrangements were displayed on every possible surface, suitable for decoration, presentation to a very special somepony or, if business was slow, a pleasant light snack. The last also came into play when Daisy became bored or distracted. Twilight had never seen her consuming her own merchandise to get the energy for a phobia attack, but it was just a matter of time...

(Rainbow Dash, on one particularly insensitive day -- about a week before they'd climbed the peak to face the red dragon -- had proposed a fear-off contest between the friends known around Ponyville as the Flower Trio (or 'I swear on Celestia's mane, you three have no reason to be freaking out like this!' to anypony who had known them for more than a moon) and Fluttershy: last one to faint wins. Rarity had angrily declared the absent Fluttershy as the preemptive victor, pointing out that "Those three run from whatever's scaring them: Fluttershy would stand in place and tremble until she figured out how to deal with it -- which can certainly be more practical than just mindlessly charging at the world head-on and hoping to beat your problems out of the sky!" Rainbow Dash had looked surprised, about a tenth of a second's worth of something which might have vaguely approached a tiny semblance of guilt, then had hastily changed the subject to the Wonderbolts and kept it there until the others wanted to sit on her, which Applejack finally had.)

Those two seemed to be new... Twilight took note of them: one pale-pink unicorn with a somewhat oversized horn, a mane so deeply brown as to approach black and a field to match her eyes: deep grey. She was carefully arranging sculpture samples along a long table while nervously glancing from side to side as if expecting her selling rights to be challenged from every angle -- or worse, having a stranger approach who might have to be talked into buying something. A tall pearl pegasus with vibrant blue eyes and a pure white mane followed her, gently adjusting sculpture positions and rubbing against her nervous companion's flank. Cutie marks were -- the silhouette of a regal form for the pegasus and a flaming old-fashioned torch for the unicorn. Yes, definitely new in town, and Twilight had a moment of sympathy for the shy unicorn: it was hard to be socially retiring in a town with a Pinkie Pie. The poor mare had, at best, until the mid-morning break before she was Partied, whether she liked it or not.

Then again, it might be weeks before the actual party was thrown, even if the Countdown To Pinkification had less than two hours to run. Pinkie Pie's social calendar was starting to look like one of Twilight's more comprehensive checklists: there were a lot of new ponies in town these days -- and most of the current arrivals were Twilight's fault.

Like this one --

"HEY!"

-- and her field pulled the unicorn mare out of the bushes, lifted her one and a half standard Celests (an old measure of height: distance from the ground to the Princess' front left shoulder) straight up, and then rotated her until she was upside-down. Twilight was careful to let the field deliberately exclude the camera, which fell away from the mare's neck and thudded to the ground with a total lack of ceremony. She was getting really good at excluding the camera. There had been far too much practice.

The other most recent arrivals in town stared. A few ponies began to trot closer. Most of the merchants (and now, the majority of the earliest shoppers) ignored the whole thing. They had seen this particular play before and it always ended the same way. Two, with some anticipation, headed towards the nearest sound of propelled water.

"PUT ME DOWN! I KNOW MY RIGHTS! I CAN --"

"-- and I know mine," Twilight declared, trying not to let the frustration turn it into a growl. "Recite the law, please."

"I WAS JUST MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS WHEN YOU --!"

Twilight let a second bubble of field envelop the camera, levitated it to rest in front of the mare's inverted eyes before deliberately dropping it again. "Recite the law. Please." Three more ponies inched closer.

The green and brown unicorn groaned. In a tone which made it clear she considered everything bad in the world to be Twilight's fault and might just spend the rest of her life falsifying the proof, she rushed through "Any pony who finds somepony taking a picture of them without the subject pony's express permission may dispose of the picture and discipline the photographer in any way they desire as long as the photographer is not injured and any damage to the camera is paid for and that is a very expensive unit which you are going to compensate me for in full right --"

"It's a Bell & Hooffall, it is twenty-eight years old, it was the second cheapest model they made at the time, and the years have been slightly less kind to it on the secondary marketplace than a Jacked Chicklet tract." Twilight resisted the urge to spit as a recently-arrived Time Turner chuckled somewhere behind her. "There are more ponies willing to pay a tenth of a bit to read all about how Princess Celestia intends to bathe the world in eternal sunshine until we all catch fire than want this camera. Luna's shoes, has Murdocks ever spent a single second's income to outfit any of you?" A flicker of field opened the camera, exposed the film. "Better hope he's willing to hand over the smallest change he has, because I've been sending nearly all my compensations directly to him for distribution --" once a week by courier was just easier than carrying all those tiny coins "-- and before you ask how I knew, all eight of you have the same basic cutie mark. Does he hire anypony who doesn't show those broken scales?" One end would hold an image representing the pony's talent and the other would be empty, fallen, and rusty from neglect.

The mare either chose to ignore most of this or had been overwhelmed by the sheer flow of information. (The later wasn't exactly uncommon when dealing with Twilight.) She went with a simple, semi-stunned "...how do you know so much about cameras?"

Because after the first week, I thought I could save some time by just memorizing all the prices. Not that she had to go very deep into the catalog for Murdock's lackeys... But she didn't say a word, just watched the unicorn --

-- who was now starting to look a little dizzy: only pegasi were designed to deal with blood rushing to their heads. "Um... could you put me down now?"

"Will you leave town?"

"Look, I'm just trying to make a living..."

"I know. Off me."

The unicorn gave up on insistence and had never come anywhere near politeness: her next reply was half a species away from a hiss. "Everypony knows the Diarchy passed that stupid law just to protect you, Princess," and the last word was spat: Twilight's field caught the glob as it emerged. And she could feel the photographer's own field exert, pushing back, trying to get free -- but it was like trying to pollute a freshwater lake with a droplet of ocean: the visitor had just enough strength to carry her gear. Trixie could have turned her to powder without the amulet --

(her own field flickered, very slightly)

-- and Twilight's lack of sleep had been temporarily compensated for by muffins and long bread done in the Prance style. Keeping the restraint in place required about as much effort as blinking.

"You can't spot all of us --"

I can as long as I keep automatically probing every bush in town. Twilight raised the photographer by another Celest and added a rapid leftward rotation at the same instant Snowflake decided to take a personal interest, hovering -- somehow -- in front of one changing section of the twisting unicorn. He made a sound. It wasn't a happy declaration of support. It was more like an Ursa Minor who had just run out of milk.

"-- OKAY, FINE! I'll LEAVE!"

"Then I'll put you down." And before the photographer could say anything else, Twilight added "Fountain or compost heap?"

"WHAT? I --"

"Fountain it is!" Mostly because she wasn't sure of a location for the nearest compost heap.

Her field carried the photographer out of sight, the screams trailing away as her latest nuisance was carried with regretfully memorized precision. Twilight had a telekinetic route to the fountain from any outdoor site in Ponyville. Plus one for Sweet Apple Acres, where there had been a camera-carrier lurking in the trees.

She was so sick of this.

"Are you all right, Princess?" Daisy. Timidly. Of course. There was a splashing sound in the distance.

"I'm fine, Daisy." And that was just the eighth one from Murdocks. When she added the other so-called news agencies, independents, a few solo operators with a printing press and far too much time on their hands... "And it's Twilight, you know that --" Another splash.

"I'm sorry, Princess!" The earth pony pulled back slightly, nervously pawed at the ground with her front right hoof. "It won't happen again!"

Noteworthy now, sounding as if he'd just been launched out of a manual on courtly etiquette, somewhere towards the index, and Twilight knew which one because he'd checked it out of the library last week. "Princess, if we but knew she was within yonder greenery..." Ancient courtly etiquette.

"It's okay. It's over." Although the splashing wasn't. Valiantly, already knowing what the result would be, "And could you not call me --"

Pokey, who had just trotted over from his carnival stand: Pop The Balloons With A Thrown Dart (field or mouth-operated slingshot with a molded mounting) And Win A Stuffed Discord! "Don't worry, Princess. We'll get the next one for you."

"That's very nice of you, but could everypony --"

But they wouldn't. The small crowd just kept on apologizing for something they didn't know about, couldn't control, and they were so sorry their Princess had been bothered, that the Princess had to waste part of her morning on such things, they were just glad the Princess was all right now and could get back to doing whatever a Princess required of the first hour after sunrise before the Princess moved on to the rest of her Princessly schedule...

...and then they were blinking the dazzle out of their eyes, wondering what was so important that the Princess had to teleport off to it.

Some distance away, another scream broke the air as the photographer was dunked for the sixth and final time.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Under kinder circumstances, Grape Indulgence would not have been the first pony to see her. Grape Indulgence saw lots of things. Depending on what he'd been consuming at the time, roughly seventy percent of them didn't exist at all, twenty percent weren't what he thought they were, and the remainder would be asked if they could spare a few bits for a drink, which left him hitting up a lot of fenceposts for loans. (He had gotten a bit out of a stile once, fallen under the little bridge between pastures, and his subconscious had since decided the rest of the inanimate world was just holding out on him.) But he was the first, and after multiple attempts to refresh his memory -- it turned out his memory needed a lot of refreshment, all of it liquid -- what eventually emerged from him was this:

Heading home after a long day of work.

His job? Drinking. No, really! An expert wine taster, with an exquisite sense of taste which could identify every ingredient in a fifty-element blend after only one sip -- no, two sips -- eight -- give him another bottle: he wanted to be sure. Almost been certain where home was, at least that time. And surely would have gotten there on the fifth attempt instead somewhere -- somewhere -- well, just call it somewhere and leave it at that for now, okay? They'd get there, right?

Why had he been anywhere near the area in the first place?

Silly question. Local wine-maker. Wanted an unofficial review of the product before he sent it to market. Little sneak preview of what the experts were going to say about it. Invited over with a payment of some bits and a few bottles. Been cheated out of the bottles. Must have been. Knew hadn't signed on for empties. Get that guy later, and get more bottles, which would be full until they mysteriously turned empty too, guy wasn't even a unicorn and he was magicking bottles empty from feet -- gallops -- fields -- something or other away, away, away down south...

What was the question?

Oh, what had he seen.

How about seeing that bottle again first?

Very gracious. Anyway... been -- somewhere -- and it could have been a farm, you know, one of those Apple family outposts you get all over Equestria. Make excellent cider. Most excellent cider. Did you read the review on their crop from two autumns back? No? Pity. Saved a barrel, but some unicorn jerk made the contents of that one go away too. Anyway, there were apple trees. Lots of them. Big and healthy, that's how you knew an Apple family orchard, plus might have tried to get a handout from the No Trespassing Sign once, which was really mean two autumns back. Come to think of it, there weren't any signs around this one: maybe they were wild trees. Which the Apples would claim soon enough for cider. And not give him any more free samples. Jerks. Market-monopolizing bastards --

-- hey, why are you so upset? Just said --

-- really?

Got any of the stuff on you?

Fine. Just have some more of this.

Okay. So --

-- there was this mare.

Absolutely sure about no cider, right?

What about her? Oh, her. She was -- tall. Sure of that. Been some distance away, behind a bush and don't ask about things done back there and don't go and step in it either. But measuring her against what a drinking contest would need, she sure looked tall. Could take lots of pints before falling behind and down, easy. Oh, and her coat was blue, her eyes were tan, and her horn was purple. Remembered that for sure because it was so unusual. A unicorn with a horn that didn't match her coat?

Did that mean she had the power to make liquid vanish out of barrels? Did anypony know?

Really?

Then why was this bottle empty?

Cutie mark? She -- had one. Can't describe it. Been trying to describe it for -- can't. Maybe later. Maybe never. Hard to look at. The center...

...

...anyway... she wasn't moving well. Looked tired. Sort of like she was hurting. Made a few little noises, kind of stuff you get from somepony who's had more than they can take when their stomach starts fighting the rest of them. Yeah, definitely hurting.

What was that? Why hadn't he helped her?

Look, she was all the way over there, all right? Across some -- distance -- which was -- distance -- and --

-- hey, did they want to know what was seen or not?

So there she was, and she was looking at the apples hanging off this big old tree. Really old tree, takes five, six ponies to stand around the trunk. Looked hungry. And she looked kind of like she was trying to --

-- you know when maybe you've had a few, and you get this really brilliant idea that's going to change the world, but you don't have anything to write it down on, nopony can understand what you're saying and you can't keep a quill steady in your mouth anyway plus it blocks the drink? And then maybe later, two, three, five days, you wake up and you want to get that idea back, but most of it went out with the, you know what the stuff is, you're mares of the world, and you sit there and maybe you pace back and forth and you just know that somewhere in your brain is this great idea, if you think about it long enough it'll come to you, but it just doesn't happen, and no matter how much more you drink, none of the liquid ever washes it to the front?

She looked like she was trying to remember something she never knew.

And there she is, twitching a little, hurting, and staring at the apples.

There's this glow. You know the one. Yeah, that one. Good glow you've got going there. Real prime glow stuff. Keep it away from the bottle. Only it's a really shaky glow, okay? Throwing off lots of sparks. Like a filly who's working on that very first spell. Got a cousin, really cute, remember when she was just starting, prettiest copper cascades of lights... And it sort of reaches forward from her horn and then it goes around one of the apples. Just like that first real spell. Little weak, little uncertain, but maybe it'll get the job done, you know? And she's pulling at the apple, but she can't quite get it down. Wasn't one of those silver apples either, the ones that go rainbow if you find them at the right time. Just a really weak pull. Or -- like she didn't know how hard to pull. You there, you got any fillies? Too young for that? Sister, then. Yeah, figured you for something with that look on your face. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Some of them get so excited just to grip and then they're not sure how the next part works. How much force they have to use. They don't have the feel yet. Old as she was --

What? Maybe a couple of years older than you.

-- she didn't have it.

So she doesn't know how hard to pull and the apple's just kind of trembling at the end of the stem, same way her knees were shaking. So naturally she must have --

-- one more, okay? Last one, promise.

No. Now.

You need this. Need... need this ship to sail. And it doesn't want to. Just got to have one because this has to get some tide behind it. It wants to stay in dock. It...

...please.

Okay. So naturally, she must have decided she wasn't pulling enough, right? First thing anypony's gonna think. And the glow gets stronger. Thicker around the apple. Applying more force, right? You two know how that works. Feels. Wishing for that feel, sometimes. Never going to wish that again.

Glow gets stronger. Thicker. And then, kind of all at once, it goes up the branch and all around the other apples and down the trunk, this rush of glow, don't know if she even realized it was happening, it was too fast, and she's still pulling and --

-- the whole tree breaks in half.

...

...said that would be the last one, right?

Horse apples.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Time passes during a teleport. Not much -- a tiny fraction of what it would take to cross the same distance on hoof -- but time.

Time enough, in the place between, to remember.

The party was drawing near its end. It might have even been past it. Any party which saw Pinkie Pie asleep in a corner (on top of two other ponies) was probably due for an official closing ceremony. Any party which had Luna openly staggering about and yawning needed induction into some sort of Hall Of Fame for parties which had gone above and beyond the call of partyhood. She'd lost track of Princess Celestia, who was probably off to raise the Sun, potentially for the second time.

And yet Twilight was still wide awake. Still felt like she might never sleep again. Still as happy (and confused, just a little -- then) as she'd been in her entire life. She had pioneered the official Yes! Yes! Yes! royal dance earlier in the evening. It must have been a pioneering effort, for everypony had copied it.

An alicorn. Wings. A princess.

What did it all mean?

How much joy would there be in finding out, her friends beside her to share in every wondrous discovery?

She pronked in place, just a little, and hummed to herself in delight.

"We -- I do not know if I said it to you." The soft voice, the one she liked best from all of Luna's many tones, the one she privately thought of as a new moon timidly considering whether it could wax. Twilight pronk-spun for a direct look. Bleary dark eyes were gazing at a spot somewhere above her horn. Dipped, focused on her. Went off-target. Focused again. "But I am happy for you. I truly am. At first, I was..." The Princess of the Night trailed off. Made an effort. "...afraid."

Which stopped both pronking and humming on the spot.

Afraid -- of me?

It had reached Twilight's face: Luna shook her head. "Afraid -- for you." A long pause. Too long, long enough for Luna's large eyes to blink several times, for tiny bits of moisture to accumulate at the corners. "Promise me something, Twilight Sparkle. As a -- friend."

Twilight waited, saying nothing. She had known how to respond to Luna's pain on Nightmare Night, seen how to deal with a single darkness' worth of rejection. But the only way she could currently think to answer a thousand years worth of isolation contained in a single mid-sentence break was -- to wait.

"Promise me," Luna whispered, "that if the time comes -- you will not be me."

Her left front hoof came up, the silver shoe touched Twilight's shoulder. Slowly, each word forced past a millennium of weight, "The voices come, you do not listen. The temptations are offered, you laugh. They hold out everything you had ever wished for, and you say you have all you will ever need. That you yourself, and those around you, those who love you -- are enough. Forever." She leaned forward, eyes closed, touched horn to horn. "Promise me, Twilight Sparkle -- to be Twilight Sparkle, and be content."

Slowly, so very carefully, Twilight tried to raise her right front hoof to touch the alicorn's -- the other alicorn's shoulder. It wasn't easy: Luna was taller than she was, she had gained no height in the transformation (and was that right? Cadance was taller, Celestia a giant among ponies...), and the length of the day and night and possibly day again had just caught up to her in a flood of royal anguish.

To her knowledge, Luna had never talked about what had happened. Would never talk about it. This was as close as she'd ever come. A 'they' somewhere in the world, an offer...

What would they offer Twilight?

Nothing. I have everything I need. And everypony.

"I promise, Luna. I promise..."

They remained in that position for some time, long enough for Twilight to realize that, factoring out those asleep, unconscious, or dozing in chandeliers, they were the last of the party. Finally, Luna dropped her hoof, pulled back, managed a tiny (and sleepy) smile. "I will believe you," she said. The next pause was somewhat less awkward. "'Tia --" and then a hasty recovery to "Celestia is sending you back tomorrow. Or -- the day after today. Today may be tomorrow. I am -- not quite --" A long blink. "What time is it? Should I be lowering...?"

Twilight was only too happy with the relief from the resulting giggle. "I think Princess Celestia has it. She must have wanted to let you stay at the party. You were having so much fun --" and then it penetrated. "Tomorrow? But -- I have to ask so many questions! All we did today was celebrate! I need to learn about how to be a princess! You two --"

Luna shook her head: the stars in her mane twinkled. "She feels the transition will be easier for you -- if you do it at home. Among friends instead of isolated in a castle. And I -- did not feel like arguing." And with that, the younger of the Diarchy looked at her --

-- and Twilight dropped it. Because she knew that look. Luna had not felt like arguing because Luna did not see a need to argue. Princess Celestia had come to a decision, both thrones had passed the newest of laws, and the ruling held for Sun and Moon. Twilight was going home. Without lessons. Possibly even without books, although that was just Twilight kidding herself, surely there would be a whole new shelf waiting in the library for her private study and every last word in them written by one of the three...

Really, how hard could it be, being a Princess? Just being? She was a good student. She would learn.

She changed the subject. "It's been so strange today, just having all these ponies -- well -- obey me," she told Luna. "Even with the ones who just wanted my attention before this because I was her student -- they wouldn't treat everything I said as an order. It's been hard not to see it as a game, having everypony give me what I want." She had, in a moment of weakness, ordered fruit that was half a year out of season. It had arrived five minutes later. She had no idea where it had come from.

Luna smiled -- but this bit of mirth carried a touch of sadness around the corners, and her voice sounded like she was quoting another.

"'They will give royalty anything desired,'" she said, "'except the desire not to be royalty...'"

And Twilight hadn't understood.

She did now.

Twilight opened her eyes.

The teleport had brought her in under the library, in the room she used for research (and had spent far too little time in lately -- so much dust, meters which were no longer calibrated, mixtures which had to be thrown out before they changed to that last, brief new hue on their own. Spike outright refused to clean this section, citing a very strong dragon code dedicated to Not Dying). She was standing in the circular track Spike had suggested she dig out here instead of wearing away the wood of the tree's ground floor. Twilight's Pacing Place, used for when she really had to think. Or, more realistically, for when her thoughts were going around in a tighter and somewhat more inescapable circle than the one she was about to walk in.

She had made herself head into the market rather than coming home immediately -- why?

Maybe -- because she'd needed a distraction. She'd been thinking about Pinkie's question. (Everypony's question, and now hers again.) She still hadn't completely wanted to. Had she been looking for a reminder of her other problems instead, going back to the most recent emotional turmoil rather than failing to wrestle a new storm from the sky? Was she that desperate?

...actually, that sounded like her all over. New crisis arrives while others are still in progress. First response: check schedule of all current crises, see when they have a free moment, ask Spike to send a few messages and arrange for a group outing in order to save time and effort. Find out if any crisis would be interested in solving another. Tell the compatible ones to consider dating. Going to the marketplace had been a way of not thinking about Pinkie's question, an attempt to remind herself of how much else she had to think about.

Well, this was the place she used for thinking about things she couldn't solve or get away from...

Twilight started walking.

Dear Princess Celestia,

Today, Pinkie Pie asked me about how alicorns breed and whether they -- we -- give birth to other alicorns or a unicorn, earth pony, or pegasus who might one day become an alicorn. I think we need to set up an experiment. As there are four of us, two will become the experimental group while the others become the control. The experimental pair will have sex with members of all three races (and possibly the crystal ponies, depending on how they fit in) in order to become pregnant. Should the foals not be alicorns at birth, they will be typed for the frequency of how often each race emerges and followed throughout their lives to see what percentage, if any, achieve alicorn status. Naturally, I will need a list of all your past sexual partners, a comprehensive breakdown of your family tree from three generations before your birth, whenever that was, to the present day, along with all previous data you might possess, so I can see how our current study compares to the historical record. (Incidentally, if Cadance is any kind of twentieth cousin to you, this would be the time to mention it, plus this would be a great time to explain Blueblood so I can pass it on to Rarity and watch her laugh. And yes, I understand my brother is going to complain about this. Tell him that if he wants me to consider his feelings, he shouldn't tell me he's getting married and to whom just before the wedding.) Of course, in order to work with a proper sample size, the two mares in the experimental group should expect to be pregnant at every possible moment over several decades. The needs of science insist. Now, you may be wondering what the control group is supposed to do. It may come as some surprise to learn that I know all about The Most Special Spell in the Adult Mares Only! section of the library because I snuck in there in my third year and read it, even if I didn't understand it until my seventh. So as the experimental pair breeds with a carefully-selected pool of volunteers, the control group -- and by the way, this would be a really good time to tell me if I'm on your family tree, how many generations are between the two of us, and similar details relating to Cadance -- will of course be --

No. Just -- no.

More circling.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I just wanted to thank you for throwing me back into Ponyville after my transformation without so much as a By My Own Royal Leave and with absolutely no information on how to be a Princess. It's been three weeks and I have no idea how my alicorn powers, if I even have any, work. My unicorn magic feels no stronger than usual. I can't access a single pegasus ability and my flying, to borrow a word I'm certain Rainbow Dash has been just dying to use during all the 'flying buddy' excursions I keep putting off, bucks. It bucks, you will forgive the term which I'm halfway certain I'm now entitled to use, royally. I do not think any of this has been helped by the fact that you conveniently forgot to tell me what I'm a Princess of. I suppose 'friendship' would be the expected answer, but this begs a certain number of questions about how you, Luna, and Cadance became alicorns (presuming you weren't such to start with) because you said Star Swirl didn't transform due to not understanding friendship like I do and you can't all three be Princesses of the same thing, right, especially when I know you're all Princesses of other things? What would he have been an alicorn of, had he changed, since you pretty much implied it can happen to males? Or does friendship just power the change, in which case, see previous parenthetical statement and who helped you three with the Elements the previous times? -- and I think I'd better save some of this for another letter. The point is that you pushed me out here with absolutely no idea of what I'm supposed to do or how to go about doing it, and I am, I believe, understandably irritated by this. On the other hand, you originally threw me into Ponyville with instructions to go out and make some friends while giving me absolutely no information on how to do that either, so at least you're consistent...

Not for the first time, it occurred to Twilight that she became sarcastic when she was tired.

The circle groove seemed to be getting deeper.

Try again.

Dear Princess Celestia,

In the days when you were a unicorn...

No.

A pegasus...

Still no.

Dear Princess Celestia,

When I first came here, the other ponies in town understood that I was present as your royal representative, and some of them treated me the way I was often treated in school -- as somepony to be sucked up to, because I was a gateway to you. But my future friends didn't. And once I moved here and became town librarian -- after that, even with all the things you kept giving us to do, all the things we accomplished, most of the ponies here still treated me as just that: the town librarian. Because they'd gotten to know me, which admittedly didn't always wind up with a good reflection on me. (I know you remember the Smarty Pants incident. I still kind of wish I didn't.) But on the whole, they accepted me as a pony. Not a key turned in a door to unlock the palace. A sometimes-neurotic unicorn with obsessive tendencies and what I still too often feel are limited social skills. And somehow, those citizens accepted me anyway. And my friends -- were my friends.

But now I'm a Princess.

My friends, thankfully, remain my friends. Nearly everypony else seems to think they're my subjects.

Ponies keep trying to do me favors. I have a hard time paying for anything anywhere in town except the bakery and at the quills & sofas shop: the Cakes seem to understand and Davenport will only be happy when he has every bit I've ever possessed. (He has instituted the Royal Price Increase: I think he's decided that royalty must be rich. I am two additional percent over margin away from ordering under an assumed name.) And I know some of those ponies are doing so because they feel it's their duty: you can't charge royalty, right? Others feel that if they do me favors, I will return them and more using royal authority which I'm completely certain I don't have. You offer me the first pick of your garden and I have seeds from the royal private greenhouse brought in. A free lunch today and I rezone the town to get rid of the competition across the street tomorrow, or at least so Mister Flankington has firmly convinced himself, possibly because that's the only way he'll ever sell any of the week-old fungus-spotted grass he keeps trying to pass off as a gourmet appetizer, Saddle Arabian delicacy, please recommend it to all the friends you will no longer have after you force them to eat the horrible stuff too.

I know you're aware of the newspapers sending ponies to stalk me: the new law proves that, and thank you for passing it. There's a lot of other grateful celebriponies out there too, and I know you and Luna may gain more than a little incidental benefit -- although unleashing Luna with nothing more than a 'not injured' as a guideline might be a license for entertainment more than anything else. But the press is still free, and giving me the power to legally stop unwanted photography neither keeps ponies from trying nor halts the flood of stories about how I keep stopping unwanted photography and What Does Equestria's Newest Princess Have To Hide?

(They're going to find out about the Smarty Pants incident, I just know it...)

Ponies come from cities away to use the library -- no, to get my autograph on the book when I sign it out. (Incidentally, I am losing books at a frightful rate and would welcome suggestions on stopping it. Research into an automatic teleport spell which will recover any book that has become overdue began last week.) Ponies ask to have their picture taken with me. Some are moving here because they believe Ponyville will become the next Canterlot and they want to get in on it early before the land boom really hits and home prices begin to soar. Ponies think I have wisdom they need to hear and ask so many questions hoping that somehow, I can solve all their problems with a single answer. All I have is a collection of letters I've sent to you over the last few years and the lessons they contained -- lessons I learned so much later than many, simple things which I'm proud to say I now understand and embarrassed by the amount of time I needed to realize their truth. Surely most of those ponies already know those basics, learned them as fillies and colts. I don't know what I can say to them. Most of the time, I just come up with something from Bark Leaves' Book Of Quotations: the ones who don't recognize the source seem happy, while those who visibly do think I'm dismissing them, pushing them away because they were wasting my time.

They were knocking on my door at all hours. After the first week, I used a shield spell as soon as the library closed. You probably saw the story about Elitist Princess Feels She's Too Good For Common Ponies, Locks Out World. I did.

I could go on, but I think you have the essence of it. I might never have been a normal pony, not really: not with being your student, and an Element-Bearer, and with all that my friends and I did. Sometimes, just what they did, with me playing a small part or none. But once I left Canterlot, Ponyville treated me as if I was, with all the good and the bad which came with it. (It took me moons to live down Want It, Need It. Three days to personally apologize to everypony by name, with Pinkie Pie following me because she had them all memorized.)

But now I'm a Princess. I am not normal.

And with every day that passes, I wonder more and more if what I gained can ever replace what I've lost.

I'm starting to wonder if there's a way to go back. I'm starting to want to go back.

I don't know what to do.

Please help me.

Your faithful and increasingly shaken student,

Twilight Sparkle

It was a nearly true letter. It wasn't everything she was feeling, but it contained enough that the Princess might guess at what had been unsaid and gently bring those subjects up on her own. The words were some of the ones she needed to say, things which had been haunting her. It might start the dialogue which brought her to some kind of solution --

-- or told her that across a thousand years and more of experience, there had been none to be found.

To send the letter and learn the only answer was no answer at all...

She had originally been sent to Ponyville -- to deal with things. With her friends (but how could they help her?) and sometimes briefly alone (and how could she help herself?). And she had, some with more success than others, some as crashing failures where others had to save her from herself... but was she expected to keep going in the same way? She and her friends, trying to find solutions where none might exist? And given enough time...

She stopped. Looked at the last composed letter in her head, the nearly true one. Realized she wouldn't be sending it. She didn't know if she was strong enough to send it. Because when she stripped away the careful phrasing and reports of minor incidents and little jokes, it all came down to one basic statement.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I'm scared.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The fire had been out for hours.

Firefighting in Equestria tends to be a team sport. Pegasi bring in every water-bearing cloud they can find (plus a few more made on the spot by those with enough talent) and dump their contents over the external portion of the blaze. Unicorns catch some of the deluge in their fields and direct it to the interior sections. Earth ponies wearing special full-body suits bring out any victims. It's one of the professions which doesn't work anywhere near as well when done by a single race: unicorns typically can't conjure the water (and never in large quantities), pegasi are unable to precision-direct it, and earth pony bucket brigades sometimes do more damage to the brigadiers than the fire. There are emergency measure available, but -- those tend to make the fire look like the better option.

(High-pressure hoses exist, but given the typical strength of mouths and the average field, generally turn into exercises in extremely unintentional comedy.)

This particular fire had been put out fairly quickly by the nine-pony team, largely because there wasn't that much left to burn. The house in question was so far away from the rest of the town that the smoke hadn't been sighted for what the firefighters were guessing had been just a little too long, and most of the initial plumes had been shrouded by the suddenly-too-frequent trees which hid most of the property from above -- thankfully, few of those had even come close to catching ablaze.

The isolation was only geographic. Ponies went out there all the time, of course, and at all hours: the owner's occupation guaranteed traffic which knew no temporal ties to the patterns of Sun and Moon. His clients had been temporarily linked to Right Now, Oh Dear, Oh Please, Oh Celestia, It's Happening Right Now!, and that's the sort of thing no pony can schedule in advance. So they all ran there, or flew -- or in one extreme and frequently recounted case, had teleported in while inadvertently dragging a small portion of their bedroom, outer wall, and rock garden along -- because he was the one they needed, the one who would make things all right when no other pony could. Of course, they were doing so in the belief that he was actually at home and not helping somepony far away -- but even when that happened, he would somehow get back in time. He was legendary for being there just in time.

So it came as no surprise (and a welcome, heart-saving relief) to the firefighters that there was no body to remove from the ashes. Somewhere, somepony had been going through that forever-dawning emergency, and he had gone to make things go as best they could. He was all right, wherever he was --

-- but the house was mostly gone.

Some of the team openly wept at that, stallions and mares alike, started forming plans for a community building project to make the replacement. Not that the occupant couldn't afford to do it himself, of course, but -- they owed it to him. Some of them owed everything to him, the ponies who could say the same were all over Equestria and once they all heard about this, there would be more hoofpower gathered in one place than anypony knew what to do with.

A few of them started planning the routes for pegasi couriers. Others drew up replacement home designs in their heads (every one of which started with a larger waiting room). Several citizens of the somewhat-nearby town were sent out to try and find him, tell him what had happened to his home and comfort him in his newest hour of grief. And three bored ponies waited for the arson investigator to arrive and confirm that this was clearly an accident and not any kind of arson at all, because no sane pony would have ever tried to burn this house down, the resident certainly wouldn't have done it (and the thought itself went right past sarcastic and came perilously close to heresy) -- but there were rules. Arson had to be definitively crossed off the list and the sooner that impossible ugliness was eliminated, the better.

(Arson is rare in Equestria, but it does happen -- and there's only so many times a criminal can straight-faced claim 'previously unknown dragon migration patterns' before the authorities facehoof themselves into real injury. Burning down one's own home for purposes of insurance fraud is unknown, partially because the concept of 'insurance agency' lasted about fifteen moons before repeated claims from Ponyville residents bankrupted the fledgling industry while throwing the basic idea into the 'You knew that would happen, right?' cabinet under Idiots, Equestria's History Of. Princess Celestia currently maintains a public disaster relief fund which is roughly estimated to use eight percent of the national budget. In a slow year.)

So they waited for hours while the specialist was notified and flown in via emergency carriage from Manehattan, and then prepared to wait for more as she performed her exacting task: check for the telltale chemical traces of dragonfire (because it did happen every few years, although mostly when some idiot with a fast-approaching file didn't bother wondering why the land he'd just purchased along the trail of mile-wide scorch marks had been so cheap), check for more common incendiary agents, check for magic --

-- and her field flared as the spell picked up the traces of power, changed color to reflect intent.

But not from her own steady pink to the typical angry red displayed by a dedicated arsonist. Shimmering gold, slightly metallic with just hints of sparkles around the edges, nearly invisible in the warm gleam of soft yellow. A color she'd never personally seen before, one she didn't associate with a deliberate burn.

She searched. Now that she had the flavor of the spell, finding the actual source was a matter of minutes -- especially since the spell was still active. Head for the harshest part of the fire, pick her way through settled ashes while using spot castings to detect and avoid the last of the danger zones, and then --

-- well, after she finally nudged the fallen paneling aside to reveal what lay beneath, it wasn't as if it could have been any more visible.

She tried to analyze it, failed. Called other ponies in (more hours, and now the firefighters were desperate to get home), and they failed. Tried to find other ways in: the pattern maintained. The spell was somewhat transparent, she could see there were no survivors waiting for rescue or bodies awaiting removal -- but for the sake of the former home's owner, it had to come down eventually. And if that one had been the origin of the spell (and who knew he was capable of this?), then he still had to be found. In fact, if he'd cast it, then when had it happened? And what had happened to him afterwards?

More search parties were sent out, this time with extra urgency. Word was passed from pony to pony, the express route moving at the speed of rumor. Inevitably, the news began to spread across the continent, heading directly for Canterlot --

-- with a stop and reroute to Ponyville.