• Published 5th May 2013
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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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Angles

There are a lot of things 'right now' is not, and the most typical is right now.

First thing on the checklist: gather everypony and make sure we're all set up to be away for a while. There was no telling what might result from an emergency summons to Canterlot, not to mention how long that summons (and the results thereof) might last. So given that, Twilight had to start with --

"-- Spike, you too?" The little dragon nodded. Definition of 'all' confirmed. Okay, so much for her first choice for substitute librarian. "Do we have any time? Apparently so. "Can I see the letter?" He held it out: she enveloped the scroll in her field and unfurled it. (For a moment, there seemed to be a strange lingering feel to it -- but then it was just the scroll's texture: she decided it had been nerves.) All right -- typical -- a little time to play with -- that's kind of unusual, but fine -- and here we go, I have no idea if I'm even remotely ready for this, no I do, I am not, but it's the Princess so here we go again... "Fluttershy, you know the drill. Let's get to the market: we can pick up Applejack there and you can see who's available to take over for your animals -- Snowflake had his tent up today: maybe he hasn't been completely booked yet..." If only: the huge pegasus was incredibly gentle with anything smaller than he was (which meant just about everything) -- and almost as much to the point, he was one of the few creatures in the world Angel Bunny wouldn't try to pull too much with, just in case Snowflake decided to make one exception.

"...but I can't afford..."

"Fluttershy. Royal. Summons."

"Oh!" The yellow pegasus briefly beamed. "That's right! Let's get going before he's all taken! Oh, I hope he still has time free..."

Good enough. "Spike, clear a path, then start putting my emergency saddlebag together!" He threw the door open, roared something about a Royal Extreme Emergency, Element-Bearers only, everypony get out of the way!, and managed to get enough of the waiting crowd moving for Twilight to gallop out (hoping no pony would think about why she wasn't flying), Fluttershy a little ahead of her, heading directly for the market field. And other than Twilight stumbling a little as she failed to completely vault a freshly-fainted Lily Valley, they were smoothly on their way...

...a state which typically lasted until she found the next Bearer.

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"Did she say anythin' 'bout why she needs all of us? Twi, y'know Ah love the Princess and Ah'm proud ta serve her in any way Ah can, but Ah need t' know how long Ah'm gonna be gone."

Twilight shook her head. "Just that we've got to get going. Fast. I'm sorry, Applejack, but she wouldn't send for us if it wasn't important..."

"Ah know," the farmer grumbled through a mouthful of brass latch: she had started to close the stand the instant she'd seen the other two rushing towards her. (There's common sense, there's Pinkie Sense, and then there's the internal voice of repeatedly battered experience.) "But sometimes Ah swear, Twi, it's like we're the only six mares in all of Equestria..." Her tail swished with badly-repressed frustration as she eyed the baskets of apples which were going to go unsold. "At least there's The Fund now."

(The Fund had arguably sprung directly from Applejack, who had approached Princess Celestia just before they'd originally left for the Crystal Empire and had a few private words with her -- words so important that her hat had actually been draped over the end of her tail as she spoke. Twilight hadn't eavesdropped, but had gotten the essence from the results: they were six ponies without much in the way of personal wealth and while being the kingdom's apparent continual first resort was well and good and necessary, it didn't pay anything and every one of these trips left them with bills piling up at home and no way of earning the bits to pay them. The Princess had looked surprised, then embarrassed -- and knelt down in front of Applejack to whisper gently into the earth pony's ear. They had returned home from the Empire to each find a bag full of bits in their homes, compensation for the funds they had lost and spent on previous missions along with the most recent one --

-- and ever since, any official summons opened The Fund: a royal exchequer which paid for replacement labor at Sweet Apple Acres (and lots of it: it took at least three ponies to replace one Applejack), multiple substitutes for Fluttershy (or one Snowflake), a typical week of sales at the Boutique, got a student baker into Sugarcube Corner, put overtime in for one of Rainbow Dash's fellows, supplies needed, expenses incurred, and now had to cover somepony who could hopefully tell one end of a week from the other and not take any guff on late fees. At best, the six of them broke even -- but it beat the alternative.)

"I've got to line up somepony myself: Spike's coming along again," Twilight told her. "How does Fluttershy look like she's doing?" She could have gotten a viewing angle herself if she could have moved five feet -- straight up.

"Ah think she's got him... yeah, he looks all happy. Oh, Angel's gonna hate this..." Applejack managed a chuckle, and her tail slowed down a little. "An' she'll get back t' find every last bag o' feed stacked exactly where she needs it. Stallion doesn't stop workin'." A strong note of approval in her voice: it was no secret that Applejack liked the huge pegasus -- in a distant admiration sort of way. "Okay, Ah'll see who's available. Would have liked t' get him --" and again, only in that laborer way "-- but she needs him more. Jus' let me close up here, take some ponies on, get Apple Bloom back from wherever she ran off to, an' tell Big Mac an' Granny Smith 'bout the incomin'. Don't s'pose y'saw her when y'ran in?"

"No, we didn't pass her --"

There was a crash somewhere off in the distance.

Applejack closed her eyes, tilted her head so that her hat slid forward to shade them. "Y'wanna bet...?"

Twilight repressed the urge to groan (again) and went with a simple "It'll be over soon." Oh, if only. From all reports, there were now two cities under siege, and the movement was threatening to spread. Cluelessness bred in every junior schoolhouse and, before Pinkie Pie asked, was known to produce exactly two things: more cluelessness and a very large trail of wreckage.

"Ah hope so. Ah truly do." The earth pony sighed. "But some days, Twi, Ah swear, Ah think there's a cutie mark for causin' disasters. An' Ah think it's invisible..."

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"To Canterlot? Now? But I haven't gotten to read the latest trades! What is in fashion? It's been three whole weeks, Twilight! You don't understand the pressure! There's every chance my onsom from your coronation has -- completely slipped off the map!" The last five words came perilously close to a Fluttershy level of squeak. "And even if it hasn't, I would be wearing the same thing -- twice!" The mere concept nearly forced Rarity into a swoon: she settled for leaning on a stack of convenient fabric rolls. Rolls she had been next to at the exact moment her familiar mode of panic had brought her to the time she might consider swooning. (Common sense, Pinkie Sense, experience, and drama.) "Even an extra two hours, I could throw a little something together..."

"No."

"One hour?" The white unicorn forced open one falsely-lashed eye, visibly summoned all her strength to bat it at Twilight. "I can have some basics packed in an hour -- some works in progress I could throw together on the way..."

Along with half the contents of the shop, every single seasonal piece you own, a few things you were hoping to parade around in on the streets to gauge public reaction, possibly Sweetie Belle to serve as an assistant if Applejack can get the tar off her and the other two in time and if I give you sixty-one minutes, the actual Boutique. Twilight put her hoof down. "No."

"Forty-five minutes, Twilight, just forty-five tiny little insignificant minutes... there's something I want you to have and I'm so very sorry for springing it on you like this, it was going to be your complementary outfit for when the Princesses are flanking you, something to highlight your coat and set off theirs the next time you were at the palace, it was going to be a surprise, it's not quite ready yet and that next time is today..."

"No."

"But -- Twilight...! ...thirty minutes? The train doesn't leave for at least thirty minutes."

"We're not taking the train," Twilight told her. She wasn't sure what they were taking: she just knew the train wasn't it. She was expecting a royal express air carriage pulled by the Solar Guards. She was dearly hoping she wouldn't be asked to help.

"We're not? Well, I can leave my train hat at home -- fifteen minutes?"

"N -- fine."

(Twilight had budgeted twenty.)

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"Yes! The Heroes Of Equestria are summoned!" Rainbow Dash hoof-uppercut her napping cloud: it shattered. (The pillow fell. Twilight dodged. The pegasus didn't notice.) "Enough of this boring weather plan and just waiting for the next round of academy lessons -- hey, you think we'll be back before the next round of academy lessons? Because it's like totally okay if we aren't because we're just going to be doing spinouts again and I've done more than enough spinouts myself. I mean, you've seen me spin out all the time -- but not on purpose! Just for, you know, practice. Lots and lots of -- practice. Yeah. So -- no idea on how long?" Magenta eyes blinked at her in anticipation of an answer which the pegasus was almost certainly going to talk over.

"No, it just said --"

"That's cool. Because the longer we're out there, the better the chance we're gonna get another window pane! We should really each have one of our own, you know. I've been writing up some designs to show the Princess the next time we get there. I can't draw, but I can sure describe the awesome colors they can put in mine, and Pinkie told me about some crystals they can use for my mane and tail -- which reminds me: those crystals are kind of on the pricy side, I want a full-sized version to use as a window in my place, and I sort of just got an autographed Daring Do hat, signed by the author -- I'm going home! I am so totally gonna wear that on our adventure! Rainbow Dash And The Heroes Of Equestria, Volume Four!"

"...Volume -- Four?"

"Oh, yeah --- that's right... I could -- kind of use an editor on Volume One. The whole -- paragraphs thing. And -- sentences. And -- those fiddly little bits you're supposed to put at the ends of sentences. Those rules are just weird. When we get back -- won't take more than two or three moons of your time, I swear, maybe I'll bring the first batch with me and you can start on it on the way... why do you look so down, Twilight? We're on an adventure again! Wanna race back to my place?"

"I still have to go get --"

"Cool! And after I beat you there, you can tell me all about that stupid asp-asked-trophy thing. I have no idea where those bucking things are supposed to go. See you there, flying buddy! Bring my pillow! In three, two, one --!"

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"It's nice to see you, Twilight, but --"

"Pinkie."

"-- I'm kind of in the middle of packing right now because --"

"Pinkie."

"-- I have someplace really really important to go and --"

"Pinkie!"

Three was normally the target number -- but this time, the prime hadn't hit the mark: Pinkie Pie was still racing back and forth around her attic room at Sugarcube Corner, grabbing things in her mouth and throwing them halfway across the space towards the saddlebags on her bed. Some of them went in. Most didn't. Several were draped over Gummy, who blinked, yawned, showed off the interior of his toothless mouth, and patiently put up with it. And one had just been field-flicked away from Twilight's horn. None of this had been noticed by the earth pony, who was still determined to get everything together for wherever it was she needed to go -- something she couldn't pause long enough to explain to anypony: according to the Cakes, she had stopped in the middle of talking to a customer, thanked her, apologized to them, and run upstairs. This hurricane of packing was the result, and precious little of it seemed to be streamers.

"-- I'm sorry, but you don't know how important this is, this is just about the most important thing ever and there's only one or two things which could interrupt it so I really really have to go and I'll see you when I get back in a few -- bird! Bird made out of paper in front of my face! Hey, did you know birds could be made out of -- wait. Is this a scroll? -- oh."

And she stopped. Collapsed to her knees, stared at the words which were still hovering, adjusted to remain in front of her. Her expression had fallen ahead of her body. She read, quietly, sad eyes going from beginning to end and back again.

"...Pinkie?"

"It's okay, Twilight," she was falsely assured. "I mean -- this is one of those one or two things which could interrupt it, right? It's maybe even more important. And besides, I'm probably not needed anyway. I just really wanted to go. The Princess needs us and she needs all of us. So we'll get my Element out of the vault and do what she needs us to. That's what we're supposed to do. And maybe I'll even be back in time to go anyway."

I thought... What? That the mysterious, untestable, ungraphable, and frequently-targeting-her-future-injuries Pinkie Sense had told Pinkie she was going on a long journey before Twilight ever arrived -- but not that the journey was being done with the group? And all she was doing by showing Pinkie the scroll was giving her confirmation of the premonition and a direction to move in? No, Pinkie had been on the way to somewhere else. She was interfering with her friend's life, something important was going on and she was stealing some more of Pinkie's time...

...stop. It was a royal summons. The Princess needed them. No matter how much some of them occasionally groused about it in public (and all of them, even her, had at least had the thoughts once in private), they had been called and they would come. Every time, Fund or no Fund, no matter what the reason. It was the Princess. That was enough.

"And I'm already mostly packed," Pinkie told her. Glanced at the bed. "Sort of. Maybe. Anyway, I can be in front of the library in a few minutes. I just have to get somepony in for me plus a backup babysitter and I'm set." Perking up a little, "Say, my Element is okay, right? I mean, we never tested it after it hit you. Or after the colors got switched. Not that we usually play around with them or anything, but maybe we'd better be sure they're working right before we head off. I don't want to go firing off a Honesty beam when nopony's expecting it!"

"We're not taking them," Twilight told her. That had been spelled out in the letter: the Elements stay in the vault. It had to mean the problem wasn't at the worst end of the scale. "Pinkie, where were you going?"

Either Pinkie hadn't heard her, decided to ignore it, or it didn't matter to her now: she let that one rest where it landed, a new foal question delivered solely by adults. They were going to Canterlot. Issue over and dropped. "Oh... well, we should really test them sometime anyway. Just to be safe. Why are you carrying a pillow?"

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And they were gathered.

So was the audience.

It was something else Twilight wasn't used to considering full-time in the days following her transformation: ponies listened to her now. Listened for words of wisdom, inadvertent gossip, anything which might be turned into a newspaper story by ponies forbidden to photograph, but still perfectly free to write. Words she had said to Fluttershy on the way had been recorded by twitching ears and repeated into eagerly-turned ones. Repeated into a lot of ears.

The instructions in the letter had been clear: get everypony together in front of the library, and you will be picked up there. It was just that 'everypony' now numbered more than eighty ponies.

Rainbow Dash was basking in it. Fluttershy had just about vanished -- behind Spike, which really counted as an achievement. Rarity tried to pass out fliers (she had packed fliers, Twilight had gotten her down to a mere two balanced saddlebags through threat of force, apocalypse and ultimately, not wearing the new outfit, and Rarity had still found room for fliers...), Applejack was busy with a near-endless verbal track running along the lines of "An' you put that hay-twisted camera away, too! An' you! The one over there with the stupid-lookin' scales on your flank, don't think Ah don't see you! Yer gonna find out just how well Ah can reach you inna minute!" with regular threatened stops at Clobbering and Beatdown, and Pinkie Pie had stepped into Fluttershy's usual role: apologies. Lots of them.

"...and I'm sorry, but it's going to be at least a day and that means I can't throw your welcoming party on time, or yours if it's two days, or one for the two of you if it's more than a week, but I talked to three of the local fillies, you don't know them, but they're very interested in getting their cutie marks in party throwing so they kind of made me promise that if I was gone that long they could throw yours for me and if that happens? I'm really, really sorry..."

None of this did anything to stop the questions, from established locals, press, and new arrivals alike. Where were they going? What was so important? Did the Princess have any news? Did the Princess have anything she needed to tell the public so they wouldn't panic? Was the Princess aware that three mares had been found fainted dead away together an hour ago and it was all her fault?

"Twilight, dear?" Rarity shouted to her over the babble. "The next time I tell you I want to be surrounded by ponies everywhere I go, please be certain I'm leaving the word 'entourage' out?"

"What's wrong with you guys?" Rainbow Dash gleefully questioned at the top of her lungs. "This is awesome! We've deserved this since Nightmare Moon! The world is finally playing catch-up -- let it give you everything you want! Okay, who wants my autograph?" And that got her an immediate flood of you're-not-the-Princess, who-are-you-anyways, and one what-for-opening-another-jar? "Jerks... hey, Twilight! Get up here and take a look down the street! I think there's more coming!"

Spike groaned. "Twilight, I don't want you to worry or anything, but dragon flame? I can't do it forever. If I don't get some gems pretty soon, I'm going to run out..."

"Do not even look at my saddlebags, Spike!" Rarity called out. "At least not until you're down to twenty percent or so! And then start with the spicule emerald!"

"-- an' you over there? Fine!" There was a very loud splat. "One cheap camera, one free apple! We're even!"

"...oh, where's the carriage?" Fluttershy whimpered. "Please, please tell me the carriage is coming..."

"Can't see it from here!" Rainbow Dash called down. "Twilight, what time did the Princess give you for pickup?"

"She didn't!" Twilight yelled up. "Just that we all had to be in front of the library, and then --"

As it turned out, and then was right now.

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It was Twilight's first night back, and she had a 'flying buddy' appointment in the morning. Rainbow Dash wanted to see what kind of 'moves' she had come into her wings with, along with "Showing you some things -- you know, just rookie stuff, pure filly food, nothing I won't teach Scootaloo once she gets up and going, except that she's got all that midair experience on her scooter and you don't, so maybe a little below that... or more... But we've got to get you up there for more than a little sightseeing! Besides, you've never seen me work from close up -- if you can keep up with me -- which you can't, but we'll work something out..."

Twilight knew what this was about, of course -- the same thing it was so often about.

Books could be written about Rainbow Dash's ego. (Twilight had thought about it. Four volumes' worth of 'about it', which would come back to haunt her about three weeks later. She had finally dismissed the idea as insulting to her friend.) Dash had to be the best at the most important things there were -- speed, racing, coolness, awesomeness, radicalness, and presumably being able to tell those last three apart. Having the top position in her chosen fields was an absolute. And as for everything else? Ponies could outrank her for skill in anything -- as long as that thing was 'lame'. How did something become 'lame'? In Twilight's view, it happened by having anypony be better at it than Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy could do things with animals which Twilight had never seen matched and might even be a better herder than Applejack if she could just force herself to do something so forceful as group direction -- so hanging around with critters? Was 'lame'. Rarity -- and to some degree, Pinkie Pie, although it didn't manifest as openly or often -- could work out the social dynamics of a group just by walking in and listening for a few minutes: who ranked and where, sometimes who owed what to whom and how desperately. 'Lame': just impose your own personality on the place instead of reading everypony else's! Dresses? Slowed you down in the air: lame. Apple farming? Any job where you couldn't sleep in (even when you shouldn't) was lame. Parties? Not lame, but geez, Pinkie, get a few new themes, I could do this better than you if I really wanted to! And Twilight, sure, you've got magic, but where does that magic come from? Books. And books? Are lame. Do I need to say more? And then she would. For hours. It was easy to get sick of, and Twilight often thought that the Mare Do-Well hoax had truly come about because five ponies had collectively, almost silently decided they needed to show the sixth what it was like to be on the receiving end of the 'lame' for a change by forcing her to come in second.

But...

...shortly after it had happened, she had watched Rainbow Dash flying back home. The cyan pegasus had been moving more slowly than usual, looking down at the passing ponies below. As if looking for somepony to glance up and declare joy at her presence -- while knowing it wouldn't happen. Might never happen again. And then she'd put on a burst of speed and vanished before anypony could catch her checking -- anypony she knew about.

Twilight had watched that, and thought about how she'd been in school shortly before Nightmare Moon. When her studies were all. When she'd shifted much more towards treating Spike as live-in labor than the little brother she'd helped raise for years. When nothing was as important as the next book -- in fact, nothing else was important at all. When the mere concept of making friends was stupid, pointless, a total waste of her time, absolute frivolity which could never have a purpose to it and only hurt the real thing in her life. If you had pressed that particular Twilight for the lowest-level vocabulary she could use on the topic, that unicorn would have ultimately said that friendship was --

-- lame.

And if you looked under all the protests and excuses, she would have said that for one and only one true reason: because she was terrified she would have failed. Known she'd be no good at it. That any attempt would have ended in laughter directed at her, and she would have earned every peal.

She had been Dash's friend for over a year at that time. She hadn't started to understand the pegasus until she'd seen that rainbow trail vanishing across the sky. And she still wondered what had happened in Dash's life to make her treat everything as a case of first place or no point. Another question unasked -- this time on purpose.

Rainbow Dash had changed, slowly. Books had entered her life (although non-fiction was so totally lame -- oooh, wait, is that a book about pegasus military tactics across the ages? Maybe there's some awesome maneuvers in there which everypony else forgot about! Any way I could maybe have that for two weeks?), and suddenly writing wasn't lame. She had opened her heart to Tank, and now animals were sort of not lame and there was one tortoise who was so totally cool that only she could properly appreciate (and see) it. Is that outfit really going to cut down on my wind resistance? Awesome! And so on down the line. And Twilight had changed, too -- she had learned that there were times when she should let Rainbow Dash show her up a little. At least on one or two subjects. (The placement of the asp-asked-trophy would not be one of them.) Twilight had acquired wings. Rainbow Dash had to be better at using her own. So it would go.

But it didn't mean she was above a little late-night practice in the name of giving the expert a little 'yes, and I took fifth place that time too' surprise...

Twilight had unfurled her wings, flapped a few experimental times, and calmly stepped off her porch.

Once the pain had died down to a background Day Of The Pinkie Sense level, she had forced herself to go back up and try it again.

And again.

By morning, she was sending Owlowiscious up with a note saying she couldn't make it, had to postpone, Princess stuff, they'd reschedule for later, and she hadn't been sure when 'later' would manifest. All she knew was that --

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-- she was in trouble.

A single whimper. A lone shout. Two exclamations of delight: Pinkie and Rarity. Spike sitting down heavily, with a few of his scales smoking. And a moan from Applejack. "Ah think -- oh, Celestia, Ah think Ah'm gonna be sick and Ah can't do it here..."

Typically, Rainbow Dash had recovered faster than anypony. "Twilight, that was actually cool! -- just don't get into the habit because couriers need jobs, okay? Wow! All seven of us over that distance? I thought you might get a few extra tricks when the wings showed up, but I didn't think any of your old ones were gonna get a boost!" She paused halfway past a brilliant rock crystal mounting, one which was adding extra rainbows to her coat. "Did anypony else have any weird memories in that middle there? I was at that one lunch... hey, see that blank spot over there? That? Is where my picture's gonna be! I'm going to go measure it out!" And she did, having some visible trouble keeping her hat in place.

Fluttershy had managed to uncurl and immediately flew over to Applejack. "...is there anything I can do?"

The farmer shook her head, looked even more queasy after the motion. Applejack cautiously brought a hoof up, made sure her hat was still there. Its presence seemed to reassure her. "No, it's okay, Fluttershy. Ah just -- Ah can't explain it, but Ah'm better now. Or Ah will be if Ah can jus' stay still... Twilight, Ah appreciate that y'can do that now and y'kind of want to, Ah can even understand it with that crowd an' all, but some warnin' first would have been nice..."

"It wasn't me."

Rarity froze in the middle of what was going to be a congratulatory pose. "...it wasn't? But the teleport is your trick. And darling, not to be unkind, but you've done it without entirely meaning to before."

"I'm not the only pony who can do it. I've seen Princess Celestia do it, I've heard of plenty of others -- and I've never tried to move that kind of mass over that much distance," Twilight insisted. "And I always try not to teleport with Spike unless I absolutely have to: something between doesn't react well with his scales and if I don't remember to shield him first -- well..." Her horn inclined towards the little dragon, who still had little curls of black vapor coming off his shoulders. "Plus I know when I've cast a spell. That -- wasn't me."

"So the Princess brought us in?" Spike asked. "This must be really important."

"No, she didn't." -- and the words came from Rarity and Twilight at the same moment. They looked at each other, decided to postpone the jinx.

Fluttershy, of all ponies: "...but... how do you know?"

Another awkward look between the unicorns (one current, one sort of former): the white one took it. "It didn't -- feel like her," Rarity said. "There's a certain -- feeling... I'm sorry, Fluttershy, I don't mean to sound insensitive by talking about an ability you lack, but there's a sense you get with a horn, at least with some of us. I'm hardly anywhere near the best with it, but I've been near Celestia a few times when she's been working magic, and she's so powerful that I can't help but feel her. And she feels like nothing else in the world. I thought it was Twilight bringing us because she'd never done anything on that scale before and what with becoming an alicorn, I thought her -- feel had changed."

"...I'm not offended..."

Twilight was looking around. "There are times I've known it's about to be morning just because I can feel her raising the Sun. Mostly when we're in Canterlot overnight. I attended one Celebration when I was young, and I've always been able to pick the Princess out when she's working, ever since... This wasn't her." There had been this strange -- underlayer...

"Luna, then?" Rarity proposed.

"It's possible -- I'm not as familiar with her work and the one time I felt her teleport, she was -- you know -- wasn't Luna yet. But it still didn't feel like her..."

"So..." Rarity cautiously asked, "where are they?"

"I don't know..."

Pinkie was pronking about. "Look! There's the first one of us, and -- that's you, Twilight! And we're with you! Kind of small, though..."

Guess who heard that. "What? Twilight has one almost all to herself? That's it: I'm going to demand some equal time! What's hers showing, The Invention Of Eggheading?"

Pinkie didn't bother answering that: she'd already moved further down. (Although Spike did, shouting out, "No, but there's one of you after that trick you tried three moons ago. It's The Invention Of Traction!") It was left to the others to close in on the newest stained glass portrait in the Hall Of Legends.

Me. Me in the middle of them and yes, noticeably larger than they are. I'm being hit with rays of light from them, and my wings are unfurling. Transformation. Change. Ascension. Mistake --

"And here's the one with Discord," Pinkie cheerfully called down the Hall with its portraits of heroes and horrors, events which had changed Equestria, some now known only by those portraits to the casual viewer, a few which Twilight had never gotten the chance to research and kept meaning to catch up on, giving every figure in the Hall its rightful name. "And here's the other one with Discord..."

"You have no idea how annoying that is. It's like being released from prison and stepping out into a room full of Wanted posters. Oh, you may have changed, you may have reformed, but here's every reminder of what we consider to be your crimes, and they get shoved in my newly-innocent face every time I enter this Hall. It's the permanent record. It never goes away. And yet there is no portrait showing my reform, and I? Have to question why that is, I really do. Is it because no pony thinks it's going to be -- permanent?"

Six of them froze.

No...

"Oh, yes," Discord said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome -- to you and you and you -- and most especially you, Fluttershy." The stained glass peeled off the window, gained dimension and weight as the sunlight streamed away from it... "The only pony here who moves towards me. Everypony else has their muscles and wings and horns and all three for you completely lock up, but the one among you whom you see as the weakest comes directly to me..." He reached out a now-solid talon, scritched the coral mane. "...without fear. There's a lesson in that, if anypony has the courage to write a letter about it."

Fluttershy looked up at him, eyes welcoming -- but a little uncertain. "Did you..."

"Oh, yes." Sounding amused. He so often sounded amused, and the joke was always on them... "That was me: I brought you here. Really, I'd think you'd have enough experience with my style of magic to have the feel of it -- but then, it's always hard, getting a sense of The Other, isn't it, Twilight? I can create a scroll without issue and the little loops a certain Sun-raising killjoy puts into some of her letters are no trouble at all, but I'd think you would have learned to tell when I make something -- or apparently not. Well, you'll have time to work on that, I suppose. Potentially lots of time... oh, don't give me that look, Fluttershy. This is a perfectly acceptable means of gathering. It's a tradition. A letter gets sent from the palace and you all? Come. And here you are. My good and only friend, Fluttershy. Twilight Sparkle, new limbs and all -- how do those feel, by the way? Any cramps in new muscles? Rarity, looking stunningly underdressed for the occasion. Pinkie Pie, who has yet to throw me a welcoming party. Applejack, who wouldn't dream of catering it. Rainbow Dash, so upset that I get more picture space than she does. And -- the other Rainbow Dash. Don't get greedy for my attention, young one: we all know how that works out. Welcome to all of you, whether you want to believe it -- or not."

Spike was bristling: his normally even-lying scales were beginning to angle up just enough for Twilight to see. Rainbow Dash was angry enough to be searching for a target. Twilight herself was trying to remember every offensive spell she knew at once. And he made us leave the Elements behind! Rarity's visible tension would have normally resulted in a six-hour spa visit with the option to overnight. Applejack had been caught searching for something she could kick: right behind Rainbow Dash on that option and with no thought to clamping the other's tail. Pinkie Pie didn't have a laugh in her. And Fluttershy --

-- was patient. Not completely trusting? Arguably -- but trust was there.

She believed in Discord. More than anypony. And she had been the one he had attacked directly, gone into her head, Applejack had used the lasso because Fluttershy (or Flutterbitch, as they'd joked later -- painfully) had attacked them, sent her animal friends in a wave which the farmer had been unable to herd away, too many targets for Twilight to field-effect at once, she had nearly taken them out before Applejack had gotten the rope through the swirling mass of birds and pulled her out of the air. The effect had gone so deep...

She trusted him.

Celestia trusted him enough to let him stay loose.

Twilight didn't understand why. And frankly, didn't want to. "You have no authority to summon us!" she yelled. (Her own volume surprised her: it echoed off the stone, the glass, touched her own portrait and changed to a deeper note.) "You counterfeited a royal sending, and you are not royalty!"

"I used to be," Discord calmly replied. A crown flickered into existence on his head, took on a rakish angle across the antler. "Ruler of all ponies, and so much else besides. What -- no great-great-great-don't-bother-counting grandfather clause for the old prince?"

"We took you out once!" Rainbow Dash declared. "We can do it again if we have to!"

Fluttershy glanced back, and her eyes were hurt. "...Rainbow Dash, he just called us -- and... um..." She looked up at Discord again, then back at her friends. "Would any of you have come -- if you knew he was calling you? Even after Celestia said he's okay?"

The other six stopped. Looked at each other. Almost tried to look anywhere that wasn't the Celestia-freed and declared-reformed Discord.

No. Fluttershy would have. They would not.

"And they say Twilight's the smart one," Discord groused. (The grouse in question was rather surprised to find itself existing, took a second for evaluating the matter, and then took off down the hall at its best possible speed before its creator changed his mind.) "All the things she can't figure out, they still say she's the smart one -- and yet Fluttershy beats her to it again. I say let this one wear two Elements: see how that works out for the group. Twilight's so busy, anyway... Yes, I tricked you. I'm Discord: hello! A harmless jest through the infinite between space, I knew it, Element-Bearers. And here you all are -- unhurt, in a place you know, with your precious rulers a yell for help away. If I had wanted to, I could have pulled you to much more interesting places. This land has volcanoes, you know. The heat -- nothing to me. I can have a meeting on top of lava if I want to. You? Well, I suspect Rainbow Dash Number Two would rather enjoy the soak under normal circumstances, but swimming through your ashes might put a certain taint -- on the experience?"

"So yer expectin' us t' thank you -- for not killin' us?" Applejack got out with significant effort. Her teeth were clenched, her fur raised, tail lashing in all directions...

"A little appreciation for the common courtesies is of course welcome," Discord replied. A small gold star attached itself to Applejack's hat: she angrily hoof-scraped it off. "And I will take that as thanks regardless of whether it was meant as such. I know your limits, earth pony -- but does anypony else?"

Applejack's nostrils were fully flared now, all legs spread, ready to kick or charge. Pony tails were flicking all over the Hall. All but one.

"...he wouldn't have called us without a really good reason... not just for a joke... not with what the Princesses would do..."

And Discord -- nodded.

Just nodded.

Nothing appeared. Nothing vanished. Nothing changed.

A simple nod.

"Yes."

Twilight had no response. Five others found no words of their own.

Fluttershy looked up at him again. Back to the others.

"...I think... we at least have to listen."

More sunlight streamed through the hall. It never quite reached Discord, moving away from him in visible rays to break up into rainbows of shadow and sound. And yet there was still light.

He was standing. Still. None of the mismatched parts were moving. He wasn't talking. The red eyes gazed at Twilight, the blinks coming normally. No staring contest here, just --

-- Discord.

Waiting.

"Let's say -- just for the bucking Tartarus of it..." It felt good to curse. Twilight had never cursed in the palace. She was a Princess: she had to at least get that from the word. "...that I'm willing to give you a few seconds before I do yell for the Princesses and they summon the Elements here before you can get a single chocolate milk cloud going." (Pinkie softly moaned.) "If the others agree."

Rarity. "I had to put up with Blueblood for hours. I can give him two minutes. Possibly three."

Fluttershy. "Yes."

Applejack. "Only, and Ah mean only, if the stone option is back on the board!"

Pinkie Pie. "I..." Her effect had gone nearly as deep as Fluttershy's. "I... not for long."

Spike. "Say the word and I'll burn him, Twilight. I swear I will..." His voice was shaking, his knees and spines and everything was shaking, he knew it would do no good and he was still holding his ground...

Rainbow Dash. "Fine, but I get to blast him first."

"It seems," Twilight said slowly, "that we have a consensus. So why, Discord? Why did you summon us?"

"For the same reason she would summon you," Discord told her. "I have a mission for you."

"No. You. Do. NOT!"

And the fear broke, the tension began to drain away, they were saved, everything would be all right, they had held out for long enough...

Discord sighed, looked as put-upon as his features possibly could have managed, manifested a KICK ME. KICK ME HARD! sign on his back, front, and sides. "Of course," he sighed again. "Naturally. Perfect timing. I finally get them to the point where they're willing to listen to me for a few precious seconds and what do I get? The namby-pamby Grimcess. Well -- one of them. The pambier. Dear sweet you, Celestia, do you have any idea how hard it is to get through those skulls? Especially with the orange and blue ones? You could have given me two more minutes, but no, you just had to come in and ruin the party just when it was truly about to get started. I'm learning new habits: a thousand years and you haven't even picked up one. Can we just rename 'Equestria' to 'Dullsville'? Here, let's try it out..."

A glowing sign appeared over Celestia's head: PRINCESS OF DULLSVILLE: POPULATION: YOU.

It caught fire. Turned to ash. The flames didn't even last long enough for anypony to feel the heat. The Princess glared at Discord. That raised the temperature of the Hall. "I gave you a lot of freedom, Discord --"

"You gave me a very long leash. I am perfectly aware of who's holding the other end."

"-- but you have no authority in this matter. None."

"I have not gone where I wasn't invited. Oh, I'm sure there was a lovely coronation which I completely missed, with lots of musical numbers and something vaguely approaching dancing..."

A long pause.

He stared at her. "You let me come out -- for a reason. You gave me a chance -- for a reason."

"Yes," Celestia agreed. "I did." Her left front hoof came down: the marble underneath discolored. "And is this it?"

The fallen prince and ruling Princess looked at each other across a millennium and more.

"...no. It is not."

Furiously, "Then --"

Softly, oh so very still. "It is -- important."

The Hall went silent.

"Important to you," Celestia said after several long seconds, "is not necessarily important to Equestria. If you wish to talk to me about this --"

"-- no." And that was petulant. "Important to me. My mission. It is for the good of Equestria, it is necessary, but -- mine. You have no part in this. You cannot have a part in this. You don't understand..."

"What I understand," Celestia told him, her voice molten fire, "is that you have no authority over any pony, and even less over the Element-Bearers. I am sorely tempted to put you back where you came from, Discord. You do not rule here, and I will not let you hurt them. You cannot assign missions. You will not put them at risk. I will not let you send them into danger. And I can stop you..."

"No, sister."

As one -- Discord included -- they all turned to face the other end of the Hall.

Luna's arrival had been silent. Nothing else about her was. "You are wrong. There is a way he can do this, and you are not thinking of it. Perhaps you do not wish to."

The glow which had been building around Celestia's horn dimmed, the flowing colors of her mane twisted against their borders. "Luna, this is not the time --"

"This? Is the perfect time, sister." The other ponies might as well not have been there. Even Discord seemed to be ignored, which might have been the reason he momentarily doubled his size just to see if anypony would notice and, when no pony responded, shrank back down again. "I hold half the throne. I am the night: you are the day and the day alone once again. I have more than a right to be heard: I have a duty. He did bring them here where we would see and hear what was done. Everything out in the open, and we both picked up on every word. You simply waited until you decided you could stand no more. I waited until I had something to say."

Discord spread out his mismatched arms towards her. "Ah, Luna -- listening to the voice of reason instead of the other --"

"Shut up."

He shut up.

Luna looked down the long Hall at her older sister. Dozens of yards separated them, and that was the least of it. "If I had called them -- would you be here, supervising to make certain I said or assigned nothing you would see as wrong?"

"Luna --"

"Would you?"

They all heard the lightning, high overhead and still seemingly only inches away, saw Luna's eyes go white.

Celestia's tail was flowing faster now as well. Her voice gave no answer. The eyes seemed to plead.

(Discord was inches high, pretending to hide behind Fluttershy's mane.)

"A matter for another time," Luna softly said as the dark blue returned to her gaze. "You are right, sister -- and you are wrong. Discord has no authority over the Element-Bearers or any other pony, not until you let the last of the leash go. He cannot assign them a mission, certainly not with conjured scrolls and faked words. But he has a way. He can ask them -- as a friend. And if he does, and they should say yes -- how could you stop them? It goes against everything you believe, everything you teach. All he has to do is ask. They can listen and say yes or no as they like. Or you could order them not to listen, or send them away before they could hear a word -- and then what would you be?"

There were no words for the silence which descended on the Hall. It was the not-sound of thought, of a logic trap snapping shut with jaws which would never be pried open, of a very old mare looking back at the philosophy which had ruled her life and considering whether it was time to violate it.

"Discord." He took his full size back, looked at Celestia. "Speak. Quickly."

The draconequus turned to face Fluttershy, dropped to one knee, took her left front hoof in his paw. Looked at her soft blue-green eyes and nothing else.

"I -- need your help," he said. "There is something -- which needs to be done. You are the ones -- who can do it. Will you?"

She trembled. She shook. Wings half-unfurled, vibrated, curled back in towards her body.

"...yes."

He looked back at the rest of the group. Luna's wings spread, covered them in protective shadow. "And will you," he asked softly, "leave her to do it alone?"

Twilight wondered if her mane was on fire. Oh, he learned about friendship, all right! He learned how to grab one link in the chain and use it to pull all the rest along! If we had her alone, we might be able to talk her out of it, get some sense into her, get out of this, but she's going to go for him, she's going to risk everything and this stallion she's missing out on seeing, he probably bucks just as much, Fluttershy has the worst taste in friends ever and I am one of her friends and I am going to stop this train of thought right here.

The Element-Bearers, caught without Elements, caught without a response -- five ponies caught, in fact, by the short hairs plus one small dragon by the smallest scales -- looked at each other. Looked for a way out.

Found nothing.

"We go?" Twilight asked the others. Saw what she needed to see. Everything she wished she hadn't. "We -- go."

"Excellent!" And Discord was back on his uneven feet, beaming, light coming off him in waves. "So Celestia, Luna -- I believe this would now be my show. Feel free to keep listening -- in fact, even if you should for some unimaginable reason leave, I think you'll find a very nice transcript going on right in front of your eyes. I've gotten so good at your writing: it's a shame not to keep it up... Now, let's see -- the rules. Since we're doing this the pony way, there have to be rules. And here's the first one -- the one I already gave you: no Elements. -- oh, wipe that look off your face, Celestia: consider it advice if it'll give you any comfort. They will not solve this. They would, in fact, only make it worse."

"How can you be sure?" Rarity just barely managed to demand.

"Again: hello! I'm Discord!" He laughed. It was not kind. "I'm the living embodiment of chaos and you're the unicorn with the rock and hoof fetishes along with an accent more put-on than your eyelashes! And now that we know each other again -- no Elements, ladies -- and gent. Oh, and that brings us to Rule Two, which I also already gave you, generous deposed prince that I am. It's the seven of you this time. The poor little lad hasn't gotten out much: I think it's well past time to change that." Spike was still trembling, still trying to draw himself up to his full height. It still wasn't doing much. "Rule Three: it is just the seven of you -- to start. You may recruit any help you like when you get there from anypony you choose. In fact, you may recruit any help you can. But you think locally to act globally. You do not call back to Canterlot. Lady Light Of The No-Party and The Darkness Which Dares Not Brush Its Mane are staying home." He looked to each sister in turn. "Because you would never interfere in the missions you gave, would you? So for the favor I have asked as a friend -- one which was granted -- you will kindly keep your wings and horns out of it. This is a one-alicorn operation."

"Discord," Luna said, her voice now too soft for anypony's comfort, "you presume."

"No," he replied. "I ask. Because -- it is necessary. And besides, I am playing this your way. You do not interfere when you do this. I have not interfered since I was -- 'freed' -- now have I? Shall we pretend to consistency?"

The Princesses looked at each other. "Continue," Celestia said, and more of the marble discolored around her.

"Oh, Celestia, so gracious of you. Of course, judging by what happened during that whole changeling fiasco, you could use the rest, seriously, beaten by a bug with a codependency complex..."

Blasphemy, he speaks blasphemy in front of them and they allow it...

"Well," Discord said, rubbing paw and talon together. "That would be all the rules! See? That didn't take long. Now -- shall we get started?"

"...um... Discord?" He looked down at the yellow pegasus. "...you didn't say -- what we're supposed... to do."

"Oh, right! Silly of me! Well, we're doing this the pony way, so..." He leaned in, his size increasing as he did so until his head was large enough to loom over all of them at once, allowing a true group false whisper. "You're going to go do something that I, with all my power, could seemingly accomplish all by myself with practically no effort on my part. But instead, I'm sending a bunch of considerably lesser strengths out there for reasons which I will not explain and allowing my quasi-omnipotent self to take a nap while everypony else deals with all the trouble." He glanced back at Celestia, adjusted the lampshade resting on his head. "That's about right, isn't it?"

The Solar Princess said nothing. There was no white marble left within a radius of ten feet.

Luna's wings spread wider: darkness and stars began to swirl around her horn. "There are many things my sister is which I am not, Discord. Such as -- patient. Reach your point."

"Oh, the point..." He returned to his normal size and snapped his talons: no white light bloomed. "The point of arrival! Very well. I will not send you to the beginning. You'll get there at the start of the middle. It will be your job to find the beginning on your own and then use it to help reach the end. Everypony's clear on that?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Good! Now, mission supplies... one earth pony, one pegasus, one unicorn, one dragon. Also one Pinkie Pie, one Fluttershy, and the one and only, thank goodness, Twilight Sparkle. That should about do it. So if we're all ready to be on your merry ways..."

"...we're not... getting anything?" Fluttershy's eyes seemed larger than usual: the moisture from the tears served as a magnifying lens. "That's all you're going to tell us, isn't it? You're not giving us any help, or any information, or anything at all -- not even for a friend..."

He knelt again, took her left front hoof in his paw a second time. "I can't," he said simply. "This is the instruction, dear Fluttershy: there is something wrong, and you will go and do your best to fix it. You will know something is wrong. It may take more looking for some than others, but in time -- you'll all see it. I can't give you anything more than that. Not if we're playing it this way."

"...you're -- sure?"

"Certain..." And then he blinked. "But! Wait! Yes, let's try the reverse of it! I will give you nothing, Fluttershy, nothing for any of you -- but I will take one thing away."

And that brought back a flood of horrible memories to join the ocean already washing about the Hall.

"Don't even think about grabbing my wings again, freakface!"

"My horn..."

My -- and Twilight found herself wondering if she would try to stop him should he reach for her wings.

"Again, because it doesn't seem to have sunk in: reformed! Seriously, Princesses, do you see how hard these skulls are?" The KICK ME signs came back. "No, this is something -- different." The talons snapped against each other.

A tiny blue bubble appeared just over the claws. Drifted like the most fragile soap film down through the air, came to rest against the nape of Fluttershy's neck.

"That," Discord told her, "will be invisible in a few seconds, and no power known to unicorns will detect it once it fades. It can't be seen, felt, or confiscated. But it will stay where it is until you decide to use it. And when you do, you may make one thing --- go away, never to return. Any one thing of your choosing. I'll know when you want it, and I will make it so -- or unmake it so. Your decision, Fluttershy. I trust you to make the right one."

"...but... if I made a pony go away..."

"Is that something you would do?" Another look at the others as Fluttershy began to tremble again, the shivering beginning to approach the point of spasm. "Oh, you would, I know... you would hate yourself all your days for it, you would cry yourself to sleep on those rare nights you could sleep at all. If it was the one thing you needed to do in order to save somepony, you would do it..."

"You're hurting her!" Pinkie Pie, breaking her own personal silence record. "You know she can't --!"

"-- she can. She will. The responsibility is hers alone."

And not even the Princesses could speak.

"Something has happened," Discord softly said. "More things will happen. Unless the seven of you stop it. That is the mission. Now go do something about it."

The talons stretched out, raised up.

"Good luck -- my little ponies..."

Two of them made contact.