• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,475 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


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

  • ...
39
 1,032
 11,475

Layering

Of course, as Discord would very carefully not tell you, the best way to destroy a marching order is having one in the first place.

The group initially stayed in single file as they forced their way through the dense forest, which a grumbling Rainbow Dash finally described as "Somepony trying to save room by cramming two acres of trees into one acre of stupid ground..." (Her temper was visibly soaring in the way she could not: being forced to stay on one level was always stressful for her, and the feeling of being enclosed wasn't helping. Claustrophobia is the second-most common fear among pegasi, right behind the terror of permanently losing the sky.) She was not in a position to see Applejack's face when she said it, and might not have wondered about the resulting expression if she had.

Every so often, somepony would move forward or drop back for a quick question or private talk: they're generally a social species (with a few exceptions) and long periods of silence are difficult for them -- difficult enough to build sporting events around. As they continued to encounter no threats beyond flank scrapes, saddlebag damage (producing small sobs from Rarity), and grumbling young dragons worried about where their next gem was coming from, gathering into temporary knots became more natural and inevitable, especially as there was so little else to do beyond moving forward.

No other ponies or signs of their passage. Certainly no trails showing where they might be found. No food, and that was worrying more than a single dragon. There seemed to be nothing about but grass, and that was a last resort no one wanted to touch just yet. Discord had teleported them with just the supplies they had planned on bringing to Canterlot -- and those had been chosen with the thought that they would receive anything truly needed before leaving the capital. There were some snacks for the expected carriage ride in (down one apple before they'd ever left), a couple of canteens to go with them, a few gemstones Rarity had been planning on using to finish outfits on the way, and an emergency ration packed in Twilight's bag for Spike. But as for fruits, grain stalks, anything they could use growing naturally beyond the sparse grass poking up between fallen leaves -- no. This was a wild zone, and not a fruitful one.

The Everfree is the best-known, perhaps because it's thought of as the worst -- and there are legends which claim it's the first, some of which go darker than others, more than a few blaming Nightmare Moon for the whole thing. But origins are of no concern here -- just results. In truth, ponies hold their country -- but control relatively little of it. Each city, town, and settlement represents a zone of relative safety, with weather and land tamed to their needs. Look at Equestria from above, spread the spell to detect all of the magics, and the continent will be sprinkled with sparse dots of shimmer, with the most frequently-traveled roads providing ley lines in the dark. Total all the surface area and it won't come out to more than six percent of the land (only reaching that with the most recent desert settlements) and a little more of the sky: their population doesn't add up to that of the other two races combined, but pegasi feel free to spread out.

Everything else is a wild zone.

Weather which can be controlled -- but it'll move itself when you're not looking and often tries to encroach on pony territory: part of the Weather Bureau's job is making sure pony areas only get the storms on the calendar. Plants which grow as they will wherever the climate and wars within the soil say that they should. The other sentient species, not all of which are known to the average pony, each carving out a parcel of territory in places they're sure the Princesses won't have call for, or with very little fear of pony intrusion on what they see as their lands. And -- monsters. There are monsters out there, and even Celestia may not know all of them.

For the most part, ponies stay inside the havens, thinking of everything else as 'unnatural'. Those who travel generally stick to the roads, land or above: the pegasi air paths exist for reasons beyond mere favorable winds. Very few wander the wild zones, and those who do rely on luck as much as skill. On the luckiest of days, they're no more dangerous than your average park. You can have a quiet trip with no disturbance other than the odd feel of natural mulch beneath your hooves, even when going through the worst places. It all depends on what's around at the time, and how hungry it might be. Some potential opponents have even learned to avoid Equestria's three pony races as a matter of standard policy -- after all, it's just not worth it. But you never know. Where ponies gather and take space for their own, there is an assurance that tomorrow at least has a chance to be much like today, and that still allows for Ursas of all sizes, parasprites, full-sized dragons traveling overhead, the previously mentioned invasions of bugs with codependency complexes, and other things which have yet to receive their own tales. The wild zones promise only one thing: that those who expect safety and control as a birthright will find only -- discord.

There are legends which blame him as well. He doesn't see them as being worth the effort to answer. After all, who would believe him?

But the more time which passes without an encounter, the more ponies will revert towards acting as if they were in a safe place, even those with experience. They want to talk and in this stressful situation, they almost have to. So as the spaces between trees finally began to open up a little, once they could walk next to each other, the conversations really began. Still attentive to the wild zone around them, still alert for trouble -- but there had been too much trotting ahead in near-silence to stand any more.

The shuffling began, continued -- and after a time, the six ponies found themselves temporarily grouped by (original) race: three pairs traveling together (and one of those with a dragon), with enough space between each discussion to let them speak without the others overhearing. Casual, considerate, automatic respect for privacy.

They could not hear each other. They might have been better off if they had.

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

"I said I was sorry, dear. I've said it several times already, and you can see I'm fine. I went far enough in school to hear the same stories you did, and no pony's ever proven anything beyond a unicorn taking a rather abrupt nap. Again, I'm sorry for moving towards the dramatic in my speech, but..."

"But that's just you." A sigh. "There's a reason you dig them out of the dirt, you know... or why you have Spike do it... Why did you drop out after fifth year? Some of your test scores were amazing."

Surprised, perhaps a little affronted. "...how do you know what my test scores were?"

Without picking up on a hint of the above, "I wrote the school and the traveling tutors on your circuit to ask --" and a little too late, "What?"

Ladylike irritation. "Doesn't that feel rather like snooping to you?"

Now just a little embarrassed, "I was curious. Rarity, I know your field strength is pretty -- average --"

"Better than the below, Twilight."

"-- but your field dexterity scores are just about off the charts." Sincerely impressed. "Sure, I can move a hundred items at once -- if they're all the same kind of item and they're all moving in roughly the same formation or for the same purpose. A hundred books reshelving, a hundred scrolls curling up. But once you start mixing sizes and types, I get in trouble. That trick I was trying to do with some of Fluttershy's animal friends? A dozen or so smaller species with their weights not too far off from each other looping in an infinity symbol? I did it. Combined, they didn't weigh a thousandth of what the Ursa Minor did. And just the practice nearly put me in bed early. A dozen assorted animals instead of one big one and a water tower, and the weight didn't matter -- just that the coverage didn't match. I wasn't exactly in great shape when Trixie showed up again, but -- she would have clobbered me anyway, with that -- amulet. But you -- I've seen you affecting needles, patterns, cloth, ribbons, buttons -- more than a hundred things in your field at the same time, different shapes and sizes, and sometimes with multiple movement patterns. I can't do that. Not one unicorn in a thousand or more can. You could have gone farther than fifth year just based on that. So -- why didn't you?"

After several more steps, "There's more to magic that just being able to lay out stitch guidelines while keeping the stitches coming behind them, Twilight: you of all ponies know that. My strength is -- average. There are tricks I simply cannot do and frankly, had no use for learning. The one trick I've picked up since leaving is one I should arguably never use again. Honestly, when was I ever going to require some of your more spectacular spells? I was going into fashion: there's only so much I needed to learn of magic. In that sense, even five years was too deep in. I would have been better off at an art academy in their clothing design school, if only..." A brief stop, and then, "Why study offensive spells or defensive measures or any of the rest of it? I was going to have a spectacularly exciting life -- in the fashion sense. And for that? I had all I needed. I never expected..." Hoofsteps slowed for a moment, were forcibly accelerated back to normal.

Softly, "...you never expected your life to be like this."

A sigh. "Rather not. But Twilight? Please don't blame yourself for it, or the Princess, or anypony else. Maybe we were all connected from the moment of that first sonic rainboom on -- or even before -- but we didn't know. Had I known I had an Element coming, I might have pushed on for a class or two, certainly. But none of us knew. I hardly mind giving the Princess my service: it is my duty. And if I see any sign of you taking that on yourself..."

Hastily, "I don't blame myself." No reply -- and harder, faster, "I don't." Before any answer could arrive, "But -- Rarity... as long as we're the Element-Bearers, and that's potentially something for -- life... we are going to be away from the spectacularly exciting field of fashion every so often. There's a technique which lets unicorns try to combine their fields and merge strength for a spell. I know it. You don't. And if we both did, you could have found that gem and we both would have pulled it from the river."

"I've heard of it," came the careful admission. "It's frightfully advanced, Twilight. And as you said, my strength is -- average."

"But you can manipulate your field more finely than anypony I've ever met outside the Princess," came the response. "You could match another unicorn, and -- probably more easily than I can. It's not always a question of strength, Rarity -- it's control. You have control. It's just a question of what you know how to do with it." A carefully premeasured pause. "I want to start teaching you some more advanced magic. Offense, defense, and that combination spell."

The frown was audible. "Unicorns like me usually don't go that far along no matter what our educational paths are, Twilight, not unless we're going for research duties or becoming one of the Guards -- and I'm not strong enough for either. I admit it might be good for all of us if I was a little more handy in a fight with something other than words and a touch of hoofticuffs, but... sixth and seventh year spells?"

"Maybe even a little past that."

"I'm sorry, dear, but again, a unicorn -- like me..."

And the sincere words of a young dragon, "Rarity, you're the one and only Element Of Generosity. There is no other unicorn like you."

Which got an amused giggle. "I suppose I can't really argue with that, now can I, Spike? Oh, very well... I suppose a private tutoring session or three won't particularly hurt, at least not after I get that headache remedy from Zecora again. But Twilight -- please don't expect too much of me. Not every unicorn reaches those spells -- and some of us simply can't handle them. I'm willing to try, but I cannot promise to succeed."

"I think you could do more than you believe you can."

"Yes, of course. But generally with tail loft patterns. Dear Celestia, Fluttershy is more work than any three other ponies put together... So when do we begin?"

"Now."

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

"...are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I know when somepony's avoiding me. Twilight's been dodging me ever since we got back from Canterlot. She doesn't want to see me, she doesn't want to hang around with me -- her coming out to get me for the summons? That was the longest talk we've had since she -- got her wings. Whenever I came by the library, or ran into her in town, or anything -- any chance to make a new appointment -- she dodged. She's been pushing me off, Fluttershy. She doesn't want to go flying with me. Every time I try to get her up in the air, she has an excuse. Even today. I kept giving her all these chances to take off, and it never happens."

"...so... why don't you ask her why?"

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"...by -- going up to her and asking?"

"Like it's that easy -- what's wrong?"

"...I was just thinking. That... it's kind of the one thing we all have in common."

"What's that?"

"...none of us are very good at talking to other ponies about our problems."

"I'm talking to you!"

"...but I'm not the pony you have a problem with."

"So? It still shows I can do it! And if you think that's a problem everypony else has, including you, then --"

"...I know I'm afraid -- of a lot of things. I know what all of them are. I even know why I'm afraid -- for some of them." Almost a whisper, "...and I'm still afraid. We're all friends. We all talk to each other. But not always about... the important things. We put the lesson in the letter... but we're still learning it..."

"-- look, this is about me and Twilight for now, okay?"

A waft of a sigh. "...all right."

"She won't fly with me." A tiny drop in volume. "I think -- maybe -- I know why."

In a tone that gently suggested getting the 'maybe' was the rarer event, "Why?"

"Because..." A long pause, time enough to gather every last bit of strength. "Because she's an alicorn now, and -- it makes her better than me."

Surprised, "...Twilight doesn't think of herself as better than anypony... sometimes it's just the opposite..."

"No. Not thinks of herself as being better. Is better. She's a Princess, Fluttershy! You know how strong they are! For unicorn magic, they're the strongest there is! And they have wings. So why shouldn't they be stronger fliers than anypony else, too? Maybe --" hesitant, the words pulled away from layers of Crusader-scraped tar. "-- they can do a Rainboom whenever they want to, and they just don't because -- they don't want to make everypony else feel like there's nothing left to try for. Or they can do the quintuple helix, you know I've never managed more than a triple. Or even a shadowfount."

"...that's just an old pony's tale, Rainbow. And --"

"-- yeah, right. It's an old pony's tale because they did it hundreds of years ago in front of a really old pony and she told somepony about it. Twilight can probably do everything now, and she doesn't want to go up there with me because she's afraid I'll see it and..." Her friend gave her the silence, let the little ear flicks and tail swishes finish the sentence. "I just wanted -- to break her feathers in. Flying's the greatest thing in the world, Fluttershy. I could never imagine anything better for any story. I was so happy that another one of my friends got to really do it. No spell tricks and worrying about magic evaporating if you went up too high -- just wings. Real ones. And -- she doesn't hang out any more. She doesn't come and see me." Volume cut by half, "She won't fly with me."

"...she has so much new in her life right now... the press, all those ponies coming to her for advice or just trying to meet her..."

"So why doesn't she stick with us? Do things with us? Do things with me?"

"...she has a lot of stress... I can see how much stress she's under, Rainbow..."

"Flying makes stress die."

Silence.

"...you should talk to her."

Even more quietly, "I don't know if I want to hear her say it... or the other thing."

Which explained that elusive 'maybe'. "...what's that?"

"That --" A slow breath. "-- we're drifting apart."

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

"Y'know how close y'came back there? Do y'have any idea what y'nearly did?"

"I don't understand --"

"Tartarus, y'don't understand! 'This ravine is new!' Ah know it's new! Ah could feel how 'new' it was from the second mah head stopped spinnin'! An' there y'go an' jus' say it in front of her! What were y'thinkin'? Were y'thinkin' at'tall?"

"I -- I didn't..."

"Y'didn't what, Pinkie? 'cause Ah was right there an' Ah heard every word --"

"...I didn't feel it."

"...what?"

"You know -- you know how weak it is, Applejack. You know -- I can hardly ever feel anything. I didn't feel it. I saw it. I saw how new it was. I tried to get away from it as soon as I saw your face, you know I did..."

A long pause, and then, with all the anger gone, "Pinkie -- Ah'm sorry. Ah forgot that y'can't..."

"I'm used to it." Bitterness under the sugar. "I'm really really used to it. So you're right, Applejack. I wasn't thinking about what you felt because I can't. So I didn't think about what I could or should say in front of the others. In front of Twilight and Rarity. And guess what? I still want to go say it to Twilight!"

Tightly controlled danger under a thin veneer of civilization. "...y'wanna run that by me again?"

"It's a mission!"

"Yeah. For Discord."

"Which doesn't mean something isn't really happening! We all talked about that back there! And Twilight's our friend, you know she is, and she's kind of the leader most of the time, so if this is connected to whatever the mission is, she has to know!"

"No, she doesn't! She doesn't have t' know anythin'!"

Slowly -- and now there was a second undercurrent of danger, just a trickle of water below a pebble, "She's our friend."

"She's a unicorn."

"She's an alicorn! And she's still our friend!"

"Yeah? Y'wanna hear the stories again, Pinkie? Stories 'bout earth ponies who thought unicorns an' even some of the pegasi were their friends? Ponies who decided they could tell their friends anythin'? Ah grew up on those stories an' Ah know y'did too. Remember how they all ended? Twi's got wings now, but she's a unicorn still, all the way down t' her heart. The one chance she had t' act like an earth pony at that first Wrap-Up, she cheated inside a minute. An' even worse? She writes things down. She sends letters. Y'know the best thing 'bout havin' an oral history? Bein' able t' decide who y'don't tell it to. Sure, maybe there's this tiny chance y'could tell her. And she'd be all surprised an' amazed an' jus' thrilled t' learn an' guess what happens then? She writes it down. An' maybe she never tells a pony or shows anypony the book. Jus' maybe. Maybe somepony has t' steal the book, or grabs the letter, an' then it's all out there..."

"She's an alicorn. You think the Princesses don't know?"

"...'course they know. No way they couldn't know. Doesn't mean Twilight knows. An' Ah'm bettin' they haven't told her. We weren't there hardly near long enough -- an' she would have been all full of questions for us, y'know that. 'What's it like?' No, she doesn't know. An' Ah'm not gonna be the one who breaks the code and does it. They wanna tell her, let 'em. Ain't gonna be me."

The trickle had been joined by a few raindrops. "Maybe I will. I think she needs to know. The Princesses can't write us now, you know that. How are they supposed to tell her?"

"Ah'm sure they've got ways..."

"Not this time, they don't!" There was a dam behind the pebble. It wasn't particularly solid. "No interference, we both heard that! They can't tell her! It's you or it's me, and this is important! What if not telling her is what makes things go wrong? What if not telling her is what's wrong?"

"Ain't like that --"

"-- how do you know?"

"Doesn't matter. If that's it, we'll solve it, you an' me. We can keep it quiet. You know that's how it's done."

"Maybe not this time."

"Pinkie, don't you dare --"

"Is Twilight your friend or not?"

"...she's mah friend. Y'know that."

"No, she's more than that. You told her she was family. You told all of us we were family. What if one of your family wasn't an earth pony, Applejack? Would you tell them?"

"Doesn't happen. We've married pure from before the time the first Apple planted a tree."

"That's not the point! You said she was family, Applejack! All of us were family! You told me that once before we ever met Twilight at all, when you found out I -- could barely feel. You told me I was still family anyway. And --" oh so slowly "-- you know what that meant to me, because -- it was you who was saying it. Because -- nopony else had said it for a long time. And now you're saying Twilight isn't family, because you would tell family anything -- and so every time you told her that, you were lying."

Taken aback, scrambling to recover, "Ah wasn't --"

"Liar."

"Y'know Ah care 'bout --"

"Lies!"

And now there was a second dam cracking. "Don't -- you -- say -- that -- again."

"Why not? I'm telling the truth!"

They had stopped moving. The others hadn't noticed yet, had never heard a word.

"Twilight -- is mah friend. Ah love her like kin. An' y'know what, Pinkie? Ah can answer yer question. She's mah family, all right. Mah unicorn family. An' Ah am not gonna be the earth pony who talks 'bout it t' a unicorn -- family or no. Y'wanna be the next name in the stories? Y'wanna go betray your entire race? An' that's not figurin' for the one who gossips. Want t' go with the other two? One who brags too much an' the other you could pressure with one of her own feathers?"

"I understand."

"Ah'm glad t' see yer comin' t' yer senses --"

"I understand that you never thought of four of us as friends at all -- no, five. Because you don't trust my judgment. You don't trust family. Not without blood. And without that, we're nothing to you. Nothing at all."

The dams had vanished and taken their water with them.. Now there was just a line in the dirt.

"...y'take that back."

"Make me."

And a pair of hooves reaching towards it, one from each side.

"Pinkie, y'know how Ah feel 'bout all of you, y'know yer all mah -- Pinkie, don't walk away... Pinkie -- please..."

"Why? I'm not Loyalty. I was going to betray our race, remember?" Pink tail curls beating at the trees.

"Look -- jus' give me some time..."

"Time for what? Getting your lasso out to pull me back if I try to say anything? Maybe catch me by the neck? Or did your grandpa leave that part of the story out?"

"...t' find other earth ponies. Discord said -- we could ask for help. Gotta be other ponies where we're goin', right? Somewhere, sometime. So when we find some, we'll go t' them an' ask 'bout the ravine. Maybe somethin' happened out there with them, got nothin' t' do with this. Let's jus' -- make sure first, okay? And then we could work with kin, y'know that's the right way..."

Without a trace of mirth, "You're stalling."

"Ah'm investigatin' -- why aren't you givin' me that hat?"

"Because you're also stalling. If the Princesses haven't told her yet, then they will sometime."

"Let them decide, then! She doesn't know -- she didn't feel it -- Pinkie, don't look at me like that, Ah didn't mean t' -- Ah jus' need some time."

"...fine."

"Thank you."

"But if we don't find anypony -- or this turns out to be the problem and they're not enough -- I will tell her, Applejack. I swear I will. Twilight's my family -- no matter what she is to you."

"Pinkie? Come on, Pinkie, please don't -- y'gotta understand -- it was so strong, an' it was -- off..."

Hoofsteps moving away over soft ground, nearly covering the final protest.

Nearly.

"She's a unicorn..."

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

The foal would not arrive.

He is dreaming now, resting in that safe haven. He wrote down everything he could remember, wrote down everything he could formulate, state, or put together through conjecture. Theories, so many theories -- none of which can be verified without her. It was an exhaustive effort and in time, that's exactly what it did: exhaust. He sleeps so that his body can heal a little more and slips into his own protected place. In dream, he goes to the past --

-- and the foal would not arrive.

A common theme for his nightscapes, too common. His memories hold many such occasions, sometimes far too many, and not all with happy endings. The very first -- he has gone back to the first many times, but never in dream. A simple spell cast just before sleeping keeps that away, and he has cast it every night for years, starting long before Luna returned. He thinks of it, yes. He will not relive it, not unless it is absolutely necessary. That is an absolute -- statement.

This was the second. And it was also the first, the first of something new.

He remembers very little of the parents. Parents tend to blend into each other after a while: they all have the same worries, all act as if they're the first ponies in all of Equestria to go through this. But he remembers every single foal. All of them, every name, every color and race and birthplace and situation. Because this one was a new first, he remembers her so very clearly, and often goes back to her on those nights when there is so very much on his mind and he cannot return to the true beginning.

The mother was a pegasus, as was the father. They had been traveling -- because they had to travel, even so late in her term. He does not remember why, for it is not important to the dream. But they had been forced down. Labor had forced them down. Given any choice, all pegasi will invariably give birth on the ground.

He remembers two unicorns bringing the mother to him.

She had been in labor for hours. Too many hours. Her water had broken long ago: the foal was dry in the womb. She strained and pushed and screamed in her agony, but she had no strength left, none at all. The foal had to emerge or the foal would die before it could ever see the Sun. Crisis. The point of decision. Nopony else to help. Just him. And this was only his second -- and his first. He had just received the license, hung out the sign and placed a somewhat larger one on his roof. The parents knew nothing of him. They had come down some distance from the town, been found, been brought here because he was the only pony available.

He had told no pony of what he had discovered. There had been no demonstration: there had been no opportunity. In that sense, this was a true first, the trial of the foal's life.

And if he did not succeed, the foal was going to die.

Might have already been damaged by all the dry time in the womb. The mother was weak, so very weak, hardly had any more pushes in her and those she had managed even at the start hadn't done the job. Even if he succeeded, there was no telling what the foal's health might be, if it could survive long enough for that first breath. If it was even breathing now.

It was time.

"I'm going to try something," he had told the mother. "This is magic. It's -- a new magic, untested. I am going to bring the foal out for you if I can. You'll have to help as much as you're able. I'll do everything I can, I promise that -- no matter what."

"Magic?" she had gasped, froth sliding down her distended belly. "What -- kind..."

"The last kind we have left to try," he'd told her. Gently, "Please -- for your child..."

"Yes," she had said. What else could she have said?

He had concentrated. The second corona had come within seconds, and the mother had gasped again when she saw it -- which, as another contraction hit, turned into a scream.

"Push!" he called to her, squinting against vision that was blurring as it tried to take in close and distant shadows. "I'm trying -- push!"

He cannot. He cannot. He was failing. Once again, he was --

-- there was a wing.

He could feel a wing, and a tiny hoof, and a mane, a full mane already, and --

For the first time in two years, he almost laughed. "She's a filly!" he told the mother. "I can -- I can feel -- I --"

The words reached her within the pain, forced her eyes wide with hope. Made her push harder --

(a double corona, only a double corona and it was happening, the filly needed her chance, she would be so weak, he reached deeper and for the first time ever, channeled, the rush going through his spine and down his horn and into the womb)

-- as he pulled.

Pulled.

It was happening --

-- and then it had happened.

He had cleaned off the tiny filly, gently separated and preened every miniature feather with his field. Did all the tests. Weak -- but not as weak as she should have been after all that time. Breathing steadily. Would live.

Alive.

Alive.

And that was when he did laugh, when he placed the world's newest resident in front of her mother.

He cannot remember the mother's face. Only the filly, so small and perfect and alive, the tiny yellow wings stretching for the first time, a tentative flap which turned into more of a small vibration, and the blue-green eyes looking at them both, not understanding this new world or her place in it. Not yet.

"She didn't want to come out!", he had laughed at long last -- and then smiled at her. "Hello, little one. This is your mother..." he said before the words emerged, the words he would say so many times over the following years. They were always said, for they were always meant. "...and I am your very first friend."

The mother had smiled weakly, crying with relief as she watched the wing movement, saw the filly struggle to stand up for the first time. Watched her succeed.

"Hello," she had whispered. "Hello, my little Fluttershy..."