• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,096 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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Does he move himself within the world, or does he move the world to where he is? He would laugh at you if asked, and not kindly. He laughs at a lot of things.

It has been some hours since he last laughed, almost to the point of a personal (active) record. He is uncertain as to whether this particular jest of the universe is on him, and that's not something he deals with very well. Some pranksters can't stand being targets themselves, comedians refuse to be the butt of someone else's joke, and those who violate --

-- not him now, he would say. How could you possibly accuse? And there would be a pause before the laughter came forth.

There are many emotions which he still doesn't quite have a grasp on, or ways of relating to the feelings of others which are so new and raw that to exercise them for long threatens to become a strain. A weak grip has been placed around the whole empathy concept and it hasn't been dropped yet, but it's so very hard to hold onto. Fear... yes, but mostly just his own, and that was always rare: to be afraid of something, you have to believe it can hurt you in some way.

He's afraid of empathy. Just a little.

But anger...

...he knows anger.

This is the third site he has come to. The first one was where he raged. At the second, he plotted. And now... he is starting to move past anger. Much to his own surprise, he is approaching the outer borders of Thoughtful, and he had believed himself to be well on the way to a charming little city called Vengeance, where the weather runs to falling acid pelting against slowly regenerating skin. He was making plans for that at the second site, something he hardly ever engages in. Let things happen and eventually the screams will come, he would have said, although to whom would have been a question of some entertainment. The idea of drawing up an extended plan with detailed outlines and pre-scripted breaks for questions to which he would of course laugh at the answers before heading into the next designated stage -- well. Certain entities just must be rubbing off on him. He's not sure he likes that. At all.

But --

-- not him now.

Maybe.

He looks around. There is faint approval in his gaze. Branches everywhere, broken by the sheer random force brought to the scene. A dead dog -- well. To be frank (although you would probably never get it out of him), those? Were not one of his better ideas. If you like to dig in the dirt so much, then go ahead and live there. He could have put a lot more work into the actual execution of that one, but it wasn't his style. Let things happen as they happen, or as they're triggered, and eventually lots of things come. He does not think about how many they came to and what became of them, and would not on his own. He has too much present to deal with first, and he likes present second-best. Past cannot be changed, and that which is frozen is seldom of long-term interest, hardly seems worth bothering with unless someone presents a truly compelling reason. (The concept of that 'someone' -- or 'somepony' -- is one of the newest.)

Future, where anything could happen...

A dead dog, and broken branches, and animals which have retreated again. They still will not come near him, not most of the time, not without additional company. Something in the blood remembers.

The blood...

He looks closer.

There has been some trouble in tracking this. He can taste his own, of course: find the remnants everywhere he looks, no matter how much time has passed. The delightful sweetness of prior delights wrought and jokes played. (How many were truly funny? He does not think about that. He will not.) But he's always had trouble getting the sense of The Other. Opposing charges should not, sometimes can not touch, and while he can make contact if he absolutely needs to, he doesn't understand what he's touching and then you have the sheer burn of it, the wave which picks a single option before forcing all others to cease any existence they might have ever achieved, the calcification...

...never for long.

Once for too long.

...track his own. Trouble with The Other. This, where one of the tastes seems as if it should be stronger, but he's still having so much trouble connecting these hot spots with a trail... Is it because there's a mixture? Might there even be something in it which almost feels new?

Ah. There. Right against the wood, and would you just look at those fracture lines? Such beauty along the jagged edges (although it's a false beauty: natural fault lines are just that). Yes, that was where the dog hit. Such force. Such total lack of deliberate intent -- or was there?

Well, time to find out. He points at the dried brown crust, curls in a beckoning talon, and says "Show me."

And as the little animals retreat still more, the crust liquifies, peels off the bark in a glistening layer and spins itself into a red sphere which then obediently comes to him, hovering over a paw. He puts an eye on it. Then in it. Watches it drift around for a few seconds, battered by truly random currents. And when his moment of approval passes, draws it back out.

"Well," he tells the part of the world he has come to (or which has come to him). It's a thoughtful sound, yes, perhaps surprisingly so. "Well..."

One eye blinks. The other drips blood. Light hits the liquid fall, makes it twinkle. His light. The Sun has been blocked here, just for a time. There remains a certain need for -- privacy.

He examines the plans he had made. They are, he feels, good plans. They are detailed. They account for variables and contingencies. They are in no way, shape, or form, him.

A wave of his paw returns all the blood to where it had been, restores it to the crusted film. Can't go destroying or distorting the evidence, after all. Certainly can't have that, which reminds him to put the ground an inch lower and allow his tracks to wipe themselves out.

"Shall we try this -- a different way?" he asks the air.

A babble of voices answer him, cheering, applauding. Yes, he absolutely should. Because a different way isn't what anyone's expecting, is it? And that -- is the point. Or at least part of it. And as far as establishing the city of Vengeance and using his governmental authority for permanently moving a certain party to the intersection of Payback and Bitch goes --

-- the mayoralty does not entirely belong to him, now does it?

The concept of sharing is still largely foreign. He thinks he has some idea of the meaning, though. This might even be the perfect time to try it out in actual practice. In fact, it might even be --

-- fun.

Although not for everyone.

The joke has to be on someone. Otherwise, where's the comedy?

The applause dies away. He bows low -- and then he leaves, or the world leaves him. In a way, the point was always moot. It's whichever you need it to be, or it's the one you didn't want, or it's both at the same time, or even a third option you haven't thought of and it exists solely because you didn't. But it's in the past now. Should it really matter?

The past has happened. No change.

The present is happening. So change it.

The future -- every bit of it, until the present catches up -- is his.

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Quiet Presence knocked. Even within his own home, in those sections of it open to the public, he would often knock before entering a room. There's only so many jumping, spinning, screaming, startled ponies a stallion can take in one day. This private place simply required a very soft knock.

Lightly bemused, "I felt you, Quiet." The older stallion sounded stronger than he had before: rest and good food were starting to do their work. "But your practice was being done elsewhere... you can come in. There is nothing you would be disturbing."

Quiet Presence entered the room -- his property, his territory, and still solidly belonging to his visitor for as long that one chose to stay. The room was small and, of necessity, difficult to reach: the passage which led to it required its own share of careful field-nudges if the traveler was ever going to see the other end. (It was fully possible to hurry and have one's eyes reach this section, but with no promise that they would still be attached.) There was a bed, which his visitor was still resting on -- but now up to knee level, semi-reclining with body having regained the same share of strength as the voice. Two light sources, which had been steadfastly shining on command for six centuries with no signs of slowing down. Food: anything which would keep well and wouldn't need replenishment more than once every six moons. Fresh water from an underground spring, carefully channeled to this level. Several emergency books: field-written copies, essential notes, just the core of what had to be taught. Two passageways which a dedicated searcher might eventually locate, designed to look like routes for getting that information out. And one more, much harder to find, which wasn't immediately fatal.

As a colt, he had often slept here. He liked the privacy, although the lighting was frankly horrible for reading.

"You have news," his visitor noted. "As do I... yours first, or mine? For some reason, I suspect neither of us is about to lift the spirits of the other."

Which told a shocked Quiet Presence just about all of what he was about to hear in results -- and surprised him to the point where the need to get a reason became immediate. "Then you take it," he wryly said. "I think I need to find out just how much larger this burden is about to become before I try carrying any more of it. You know how little I can haul."

"Physically only," the older stallion said, and favored him with a brief smile. "In spirit -- the weight of generations." Followed by a sigh. "I cannot find her."

What Quiet Presence had been expecting (at least for the last few seconds), and now for the "Why?"

"Her essence has changed." His visitor made a move as if to stand, but the injured leg slipped against the soft surface of the mattress: he let the attempt go. "I knew that it would, but -- I did not know how. I thought that once it happened, I would have time to learn her anew, but -- things which have happened but once --" ruefully "-- at least in my presence, do not have much in the way of precedent. I could have found her as she was anywhere in the world, given enough time to spread the spell. Now -- if there is a portion of her left unchanged within the new, I cannot locate it. And with that new, my experience was limited, brief, and -- there were a number of other concerns taking place at the time." A small, equally rueful shrug. "I plead distraction."

"I absolve," Quiet Presence adjudicated -- then, seriously "What are our risks?"

"Extant," the older stallion admitted, "but limited. She will not approach others. She would not speak to anypony who does not know about The Great Work -- if we should only be so fortunate as to have that encounter happen. She is -- faithful."

"And -- if somepony saw her?"

A long pause. "We would know. If it had truly worked, we would know within hours. The news certainly spread quickly enough the last time, and nearly arrived here before the royal proclamation. The fact that we have heard nothing means that she has either stayed hidden, been lucky enough to encounter nopony -- or that we are merely closer instead of there." A deeper sigh. "I know what I saw and I know what she did. It was a teleport, and that means we achieved something. But without her here, or being able to reach the site..."

Quiet Presence nodded: they were closer to his news, but there were a few more things which needed to be said. "Continue forward from the teleport. She did not come here afterwards. Why -- and what will she do?"

His visitor's response was not long in coming: something which had been worked out before he arrived. "The first teleport -- was not planned. The effort simply manifested in that form. But knowing how something works does not tell somepony how to achieve it." He smiled gently upon seeing Quiet Presence's look of confusion. "I can take any game the foals play and tell you all the rules and every move in it, Quiet, then place you on the field -- and you will still have no experience of deflecting the ball as it approaches. Theory has to turn into skill through practice. So -- she would first try to establish where she was: she knows teleportation without a full frame of reference for both departure and arrival is too risky..." He stopped. It took him a few seconds to get going again. "And for that, she is limited. The same problem: she knows the cities and towns, but not of them, and would need a major landmark for the lands between. She has no real experience of distance. But she would try to orient herself. When she succeeded, she would attempt to reach you or me, staying hidden as best she could. If she should master the teleport -- and that will bring us to you, in a minute -- one or the other. She would not risk flight. Otherwise, hoof -- and we have no idea how far she has gone." A long pause. "Stay concealed, stay safe, come to me if at all possible, come to you as the secondary option, come home. That is her plan."

"My news, then," Quiet Presence carefully checked, and received a nod. "The most important thing: her place is safe. I was able to get in and out through the emergency passage. There was no damage from the fire in that section --"

He had not quite been able to keep the lingering surprise from his face: the older stallion responded to it. "-- because it did not start there. We were -- outside when it happened." And that surprise must have really stood out, because it got an immediate "Not very far, and still in the protected places. But the seal would have blocked the fire and most of the heat. So -- they have not found it, and she has somewhere familiar to return to. The first crisis averted." Another inspection of Quiet Presence's expression. "And now your bad news, my young one."

"Your home -- is gone."

A sad nod. "I guessed as much. And accepted. Go on."

A deep breath: his weak ribs ached. "As per procedure, an arson investigator was summoned. She must have felt something was amiss, because they have sealed the area with a shield spell. I could see part of what was going on within it, but that was mostly just ponies standing around, seeming as if they were arguing with each other. I don't know about what: the barrier distorts the sound too badly. And I had to be careful: there are a large number of ponies along the border of the bubble. Some of the townsponies. More than a few of yours, and some more arrived while I was there." He forced a smile of his own, one with more than a little reality to it. "You are missed, first friend. A good portion of Equestria may be considering the fastest routes to get here, and the longer you stay out of sight, the more of them will be combing the countryside from here to the Empire and beyond. At some point, we have to consider when you're going back out there."

"We will," he was assured -- but he could hear the older stallion's concern. An ongoing investigation... "No hints as to what they were looking into?"

"We don't have anypony in the fire department --"

"A natural oversight. Don't waste any time regretting it."

"-- and all the crowd had was gossip. The usual rubbish, none of which reflected badly on you. Hidden treasure was the typical guess, and for any pony of your breeding, it's a logical one. But while I was there, the investigators remained within the field. I couldn't try to create a hole: the caster was present. And I have no magic to become intangible, or change my form into one of theirs and request entry, and my authority in this matter is limited to being another one of yours who desperately needs an update -- which would just get me assigned to a search party. And there are a lot of search parties." He gestured with his front right hoof. "I think this means we start considering whether and when they are going to find what they're looking for."

His visitor nodded. It was clear he'd been considering the answer during the last part of Quiet Presence's report. "Coming out gets me access to the site and allows me to see what's being investigated. But I would prefer to know what I'm walking into rather than having to create excuses and stories on the spot. Let us take a little more time and see if we can harvest any actual information from the rumor fields. A day, perhaps, or a bit longer. And then I will pick up the pieces of my life and begin to rebuild --" his head dipped: the horn nearly touched the bed's railing "-- for the second time."

Quiet Presence saw the old sorrow and immediately knew how to deal with it: he laughed, and the pain in his sides was a welcome sacrifice. "You'll have to shove a hundred fields and a few dozen wings out of the way first! Let me tell you about some of the architectural fantasies ponies were tossing around on your behalf..."

If it worked, it only did so for a moment. The older stallion smiled -- and then simply looked at him. "We will find her." A statement.

"We have to," Quiet Presence replied. A fact.

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A pony's nose is not as sensitive as it could be: something which applies to all three of the main races. For most ponies, the brain prioritizes in this order: what can I see coming, what can I hear, what can I feel (the exact 'feel' depends on the race and doesn't apply with every individual) before finally getting to what can I scent? But it's still more acute than that for some of Equestria's other sentient species -- griffons in particular, who have very good olfactory detection for blood, fresh meat, and just about nothing else until it's either directly under or actually within their nostrils. You can get sneezing powder within two inches of a griffon before they start to realize there just might be a problem, and their chefs tend to work beak-to-griddle. For the male cooks, cultivating and keeping facial hair is a mark of skill: they can tell exactly what they've created without burning their decoration off. Older griffons tend to mutter darkly about younger generations who won't do their own hunting before pounding on the table and demanding to know why such a talented chef didn't have the entree ready twenty minutes ago.

Twilight's sense of smell was a little below average -- 'feel' will soon be coming along nicely -- but it was still enough to, with her lightly snoozing deep within a protective cocoon of blankets, still pick up on the following, in turn.

Sheets. Cotton. Warm. Nice warm sheets. Don't want to get up. Been up. I buck at 'up'. Was up, left, right, down, and then tried for up again and hit a bell. No more up. Sleep.

Pancakes. Lovely velvet pancakes. With maple syrup. Don't care. Ate already. Was having this horrible dream where I was an alicorn and didn't know what to do. Maybe had it because I ate too many pancakes. Pancakes are evil. Wanna sleep some more.

Ink. Open bottle. Should seal it before it all dries out. Should write a letter to the Princess. With another bottle of ink 'cause that one can die and I can always get more ink. Davenport doesn't sell ink. Free ink for me. Too much free ink. Not. Getting. Up.

Singed hair. No -- burning hair. Smelly. Somepony's hair is on fire. Smells like a tail. Scorched special tail conditioner, like that one time Rarity was in the spa way too long and then Spike had the hiccups and they ran into each other when she was coming out and oh dear Celestia it took five hours before he'd stop apologizing and then he cried himself to sleep for a week. And there's shrieking. Female shrieking. So there's a mare shrieking because her tail, which had way too much conditioner in it, is on fire. Figured it out and never even had to get up. Gonna go and slee --

-- as it turned out, one of the few things her wings were good for was standing straight out from her body as she flew (with a regrettable lack of literalness) into a panic, the new limbs exploding the cocoon from within. After that, it was a matter of dashing down the stairs (perilously close to the edge because her wings would once again not fold back down and the tip of the left one kept scraping against the wall), closing in on not the scent, the source of which was already out the door with the scream of anger just behind it, but rather the cause...

"Spike! The law said no injury! You're not allowed to hurt anypony just because they're taking a picture of me!"

The little dragon spun on a single claw and stared up at her, eyes defiant. It was a familiar pose, the one which said I May Only Be Your Little Brother, But I'm Not As Little As You Think. "Photograph, yes, I know what to do with that, Twilight: I burn the camera and nothing else, they yell, I throw them out of the library, and we just do it again two hours later! Steal is something else entirely! She was trying to get your notebooks, Twilight. Your personal spell research! And when I caught her, she just started ranting about how information wants to be free and all data belongs to the people, she wouldn't drop them and just tried to run with them instead -- so I made her drop them." He pulled himself up to his full height, which meant a lot less than he thought it did. "Your notebooks are safe. She's gone. I'm not sorry. And -- maybe you'd better look around?"

Twilight blinked as her still quarter-dozing brain considered whether or not it really wanted to catch all the way up with reality -- then slowly, slowly rotated her gaze.

The library was full.

Again.

Ponies with piles of books they wanted checked out -- but only by her. (The shelves were, at best, two-thirds full. At the current rate, she had less than a moon before it was just her and that lonely eight-pound economic fable no pony ever got past the first two paragraphs of. And she wasn't sure about that last part, because it could still be signed out, if for the very first and possibly last time.) Ponies who had been waiting for an audience with her. Ponies who were staring at her in startled wonder now that they were in the presence of a Princess. Luna's mane, possibly even ponies who had been watching her sleep...

...and a butter-yellow presence cowering in a corner near the atlases, trying to hide behind a coral-pink mane with absolutely no success. It was very clear that horrifying things had been happening to her, and those things were known as Other Ponies, Immediate Presence Of. One stallion with a craned neck still had a camera pointed in that direction, must have been eager to get his very own personal picture of the former supermodel, and Twilight knew what would have happened there. The law said you had to state your desire not to be captured on film. And other ponies had to hear you.

Twilight sighed.

"It was only the tail -- right, Spike?"

"Dragon's honor!" her reptilian assistant -- familiar -- newly self-assigned bodyguard -- and, let's face it, Little Brother From Another Very Large Mother -- huffed.

And what a very frequently challenged honor it had been over the last three weeks. "Then thank you, Spike -- again." He beamed.

She had, at best, seconds before the crowd found its mental footing. "And now I think I'd better start seeing to all these patrons." Most of whom are going to be on the receiving end of my automatic recovery spell in a week or so. I hope. It should be a lot easier since I don't have to recreate all the notes... "Starting with --"

-- and she headed directly for Fluttershy, passing a box full of temporarily confiscated cameras on the way. Missed one, Spike. Of course, there was every chance the stallion had gotten his back by sincerely promising to photograph Fluttershy and only Fluttershy, on pain of flaming mane.

But she had to walk: no room near the pegasus for a teleport arrival, still couldn't fly, and her friend wouldn't try to come to her, not cornered as she was. It meant she had to pass through some of the false patrons. And that in turn led to --

"-- Princess! Princess, I need a few minutes of your time..."

"-- for my fashion column, that dress you wore at that Gala --"

"-- get a look at the Elements?"

"-- picture for my family --"

"-- needs to be in a museum!"

"-- and it's my yard, it's been in my family for generations and she --"

"EVERYPONY STOP!" The roar (which was starting to get some real volume behind it) was punctuated by a little burst of green fire. Given the incident Twilight had just missed, the crowd's attention collectively decided to consider itself as gotten and swiveled towards the little dragon.

In his best Hearth's Warming Host voice, "The Princess --" (and she knew he had just done that for her benefit, would apologize later) "-- has made a royal decision to consult with an Element-Bearer. If one of Equestria's valiant defenders --" and dear Celestia, Fluttershy was shrinking into her own withers, but there was no other way to do this "-- requires the attention of the throne -- " virtual throne, anyway "-- she naturally has priority." Spike paused, looked as if he was searching for one more theatrical flourish, found one. "For who knows what trouble might have visited our fair land at this hour?"

Twilight wanted to applaud.

"-- errr..."

"...she's an Element-Bearer?"

"-- I guess if something might be happening..."

"-- run away!" She hadn't even seen Roseluck over there.

Spike nodded, rather imperiously. "Right. So everypony clear out, leave your books where they are, I'll push the camera box outside and you can all sort it out from there, the library will be open again once Equestria is well and truly safe from the dangers within and without and sometimes underneath and above or..." Twilight lost the rest of this under the sound of many dropped tomes and shifting hooves, but the end result was on its way out the door. All of it. Including, naturally...

Twilight sighed and let her field gently tug on a single yellow feather. "You stay."

"...okay," Fluttershy whispered. Even more softly, "But I don't want to bother you... you have so little time to yourself right now and really, I can get what I need on my own..."

Luckily, this had been too soft for the departing crowd to hear (which included one vaguely depressed stallion). Twilight picked up her own volume. "Yes, that sounds if it's going to be crucial to national security. You can tell me the details once we're alone."

Spike hustled, pushed on a few flanks here and there, ponies yelped and grumbled and shuffled towards the exit --

-- and then, with the sound of a clicking lock, they were alone. Twilight's wings finally went down.

Fluttershy blinked a single visible eye at her. "...sorry..."

"Fluttershy, what do you have to be sorry about? How could any of this possibly be your fault? You haven't done anything wrong!"

"...I could have asked some of them to leave..."

No. You couldn't. And I am not going to take any of my life's turmoil out on you. Twilight put on the gentlest smile she had, the one which said everything was all right, had been all right forever, and there wasn't an event which could take place anywhere in the world which could be blamed on a shy pegasus who had come calling. It was almost enough to make Fluttershy's wings stop trembling.

And it never worked before, either. "Come on, Fluttershy -- we'll talk away from the door."

"...right here is fine, thanks."

I can't get her to move now? Very carefully (not that it was probably going to matter), "Why?"

"...the atlases are what I need. I just don't know -- which one. Or the best flight routes. Rainbow Dash has a collection of air paths with labeled streams and currents, but she's not home and I know you have a collection, so I thought... but your time is so important right now..."

And this she could say with complete sincerity: "Fluttershy, right now, nothing is more important for spending my time on than you."

The rose-tingled blush got deeper. "...okay."

Silence.

A longer silence.

The exact amount of silence required for Twilight to realize the pegasus, with approval for the meeting finally understood, still needed permission to begin it. "So where are you trying to get to?"

"Umm... it's a town called Trotter's Falls. I have a friend out there -- a really old friend... and I think he might be in trouble. I wanted to go there... and see... if there was... anything I could maybe... do?"

Twilight searched her memory. Geography wasn't her strongest suit (although it had at least gotten a couple of cards into the deck), but that name sounded vaguely familiar. Trotter's Falls, Trotter's Falls... hadn't there been some kind of big discovery made out there within the last generation? Something medical, she was fairly sure of it, but how far... "Well, that shouldn't be a problem!" she cheerily declared. An easy problem to solve for once: one map, one flight path with labeled air currents, check-earning in progress! "Let me just start looking that up for you..." Her field exerted: the thick volumes of maps began to march in order, earning a startled eep! from Fluttershy as one passed above her head. "I'm sure your friend will be thankful to have you there, no matter what the problem is." And she would be down one pony from the small circle she could still deal with normally, but Fluttershy had her own life to live and that life...

...stop. "This looks promising..."

Fluttershy moved closer to get a look at the flipping pages, seemed to consider whether there was a personal space rule she was on the verge of violating, backed off, realized she didn’t have a sight angle from her retreat point, flew a couple of feet up and hovered there so as not to be in anypony's way. "You think so?" Her voice was beginning to brighten with hope. That particular crisis over, then. Or at least postponed.

"Yes, there it is in the index. Now we just need the right page..." Skimming, careful around the corners, she didn't want any creases... "And there it --" The blink was hard enough to almost hurt. "Fluttershy, that's a fifteen-day gallop and three by train! Even if you fly, it'll take..." She stopped herself right there: even after Fluttershy had won some praise from the water transfer operation, the pegasus' normally slow flying speed remained an especially weak spot in her forever-fraying confidence. Although it was more than Twilight could manage. As was the hovering...

She's prettier than me, she deals with the wild better than I do, any flying she pulls off is superior to my aerial flailing. And she is my friend and I love her for all of it and more. I am not jealous.

Twilight resolved to say it a few more times in private until it sunk all the way in. "How did one of your animal friends get all the way out there?"

The sound from above was exactly halfway between a whisper and a squeak.

Twilight kept the sigh internal. "Sorry, didn't catch that."

"...pony friend."

"You have --"

The overhead eep! told her she'd gone too far. Again. Yes, Twilight, she has a pony friend who is not you or one of the other Bearers. Fluttershy's existence did not begin the day I came up behind her while she was rehearsing with her bird chorus. Somehow, the single most shy and retiring pony I've ever seen steeled herself to the point of making a friend without my having to be a direct witness to it, I hope it happens again someday, and I truly hope things stop slipping out of my mouth really soon now.

Pick up the shattered pieces of the fragile conversation. Examine edges for possible fit. Apply adhesive and hope to the Princesses (hope to herself?) not to wind up with even smaller pieces. "So -- a pony friend outside of Ponyville?" She was trying to keep it casual, might have been within a kingdom of it. "Mare or stallion?"

After far too long a version of 'eventually', she finally got "...stallion... but not like that." Just the smallest emphasis on the last word. "...he's an old friend, really... I've known him forever. He used to come to Cloudsdale to see me every year or so, just to make sure I was okay. Made the trip just for me. He's so nice to everypony, and he always has so many ponies who need him, but he would take the time for me..." Twilight automatically looked up: sure enough, the blush was deeper than ever as Fluttershy struggled with the idea that anypony would consider her worth the effort to cross a street. "And it wasn't easy for him to come there, either... but he would... for me..." She stopped, looked directly at Twilight. With that firmness which surprised the others almost every time it emerged, "If he's in trouble, I have to go help him. No matter how far it is. Even if I have to go all the way there on hoof."

An old fillyhood friend. Somepony who clearly cared about Fluttershy (and Twilight was guessing unicorn or earth pony if just getting to Cloudsdale was a problem). A pony who had managed to win her trust to the point where she would drop everything at a moment's notice just to go and see if he was in trouble...

Twilight wanted to meet this pony, and one of the first things she wanted to do after pressing his hoof was ask him how he'd done it. "He sounds very special, Fluttershy."

"...he is. But... I might have to... I'm so sorry, but my bits... the train all the way out there... I don't know if I can really... my stipend hasn't..."

"I can loan you a few if you need it to make up the difference," Twilight assured her, and waited for --

-- sure enough. "...I'm sorry for being so poor..."

Applejack was forever worrying about the farm, but the family survived and even threatened to thrive during the weeks when they didn't have to rebuild any barns. Rarity had to anticipate (or create) the tides of fashion or drown in a sea of debt. Rainbow Dash spent freely and frivolously, generally on herself. Pinkie Pie had very little money, but somehow managed to make what she had stretch to fit one pony, one alligator, and fifteen tons of party supplies, some of which Twilight was sure hadn't existed until the moment they were pulled out. For her own part, she had her research grant plus a small award from the Equestrian Magic Society every time she improved a spell and got to add her librarian's salary to that: if she kept the little boosts in casting efficiency coming and didn't let Davenport rake her over the coals, she was typically able to get by. (She had yet to recalculate for 'royally free', a factor Davenport hadn't wiped out -- yet.)

But Fluttershy... a little agreement with the Cakes for her extra eggs, some pet grooming plus kennel hosting services when ponies had to travel away, a small stipend with associated tax break from the Weather Bureau that she'd never quite explained in detail, some under-the-bridle veterinary services from those ponies who trusted her more than the official vet in town (and no wonder when it was a choice between her and somepony who couldn't recognize a dragon) -- and most moons, that was about it. Given the amount of animal feed she needed to buy, the frequent repairs to the cottage after a new animal visitor hadn't quite calmed down immediately, and the few ponies who tried walking out on their bill in the certain knowledge that Fluttershy wouldn't want the stress of dragging anypony into small claims court, some of whom had kept coming back for more freebies because they were equally sure she'd be too skittish to send them away...

(That part had mostly stopped after Iron Will: in addition to no longer being walked over quite so badly in the marketplace, Fluttershy could now manage the occasional "You never paid me the first time" -- and would then sneak onto the pony's property to treat the animal in secret and for free, because "I just can't leave the poor thing to suffer." In the event that the creature needed home care, she would heed the lesson of Philomena -- by leaving a note. Possibly signed with the animal's name.)

Fluttershy generally teetered along the absolute edge of an economic chaos curve with bankruptcy on every side. Having to travel so far for so long would be a financial hardship she might not be able to endure. She had to know that. And she was still going to throw her entire life into a holding pattern in order to go help her friend.

Twilight really had to meet this stallion. And before she did that, she had to speak to the others about a sudden need for a full round of pet grooming. Although getting Fluttershy to charge very much for friends was difficult, and a full bill on Tank was just about impossible. ("...I cleaned his feet, I polished his shell... and there was still fifty-seven minutes left...")

"You'll pay me back," Twilight told her. And I will forget the debt. The problem: you won't. But that was an old problem, something else she couldn't find a solution for and incidentally, one more thing where being an alicorn meant nothing. "So what's your friend's name? Anypony I might know?"

Surprisingly, she got a shy nod. "...you might... so many ponies do... he's --"

Lock. Click. Door flying open. Spike running in, any chance of having Fluttershy finish her sentence shredded under the pressure of pounding clawed feet. Holding a scroll, an official scroll which was crackling with fast-fading flame -- and an odd underlayer of energy, almost gone. (There would be times Twilight wished she had taken a closer look at that vanishing field, and there would be many of them.)

"We're needed in Canterlot!" Spike gasped. "All of us! Right now!"

And all the crises had to be pushed aside to make room for a new one...

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

It had begun to rain, and every drop had been like a little hammer slammed into her skin.

She had found a hollow of sorts. This was the base of a hill (her first hill), one covered with greenery and thin trails she was unable to use. But there was also a boulder, about two Celests higher than her mane, protruding from the side of the hill. She knew it was a tiny part of the internal structure, pushed out over the course of centuries by tremendous unseen pressures. (She did not question how she knew that. The knowing had very little pain associated with it, and most of that could have been misdirected nerve firings.) She could see that the rock had not been anywhere close to complete extrusion and collapse to ground level yesterday, and she knew it would not fall today or tomorrow or the day after or for many days and nights to come. It was shelter. So she huddled under it and trusted it more than she trusted anything else in her environment, including herself.

The hunger was still with her. When she had run from the wreck of the apple tree, a single fruit had trailed in her wake: it had not been enough. She had been taught about which things grew and where, but she couldn't find any more of them. And then there was the grass. She knew a pony could live on grass if they were desperate enough. But there wasn't much nutrition to it: tremendous amounts were needed for more than make it to tomorrow, and she was using far more energy than that. Chewing the grass, swallowing the grass -- her jaw trembled and lost half the mouthful, her throat ached and tried to push it back up. It had been that way for the apple too, but at least the taste had been normal. There was still that. Her senses worked, even if new ones pushed in, faded out, gave her information she couldn't always interpret. She knew the rock -- because she always would have known the rock. Nearly everything else was a blur of synesthesia, and most of it was twisted by the pain.

But that pain was just physical. Agonizing, fire and lighting and cold and sources she had no names for, all searing her without respite -- the least of her hurt. The one which would never heal lay within her soul, and the wound wept words in endless litany.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

The pain was building again. Soon, she would start to lose her feel for the rock. She would try to hold onto it, use it as an anchor to keep her from being lost. She knew she would fail at that too.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

It felt as if her ribs were trying to shift under her muscles. And soon they would, and the muscles would tear to let new bones through, the skin distorting but never quite breaking -- at least, not the first time. This would be the second pass coming, at least this way. And maybe it would tear this time, let the blood rush out, end the litany of her failures in a single liquid cascade --

-- or maybe it would simply stretch.

Over and over and over.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

Please let me die.