Warnings and Disclaimers:
Characters in this work are property of their respective owners, I do not own any of them, and do not intend to make any sort of profit off of this work.
This My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fanfiction involves shipping. If you don't know what that means, please go read up on it at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Shipping before reading.
If you are made uncomfortable by ANY form of romance between ANY two intelligent beings, this fanfiction may not be to your liking. Continue only with caution.
And now, on with the show:
Merely a Mare, Fifth Interlude:
The harsh light of the rising sun woke Applejack. Her eyes fluttered open, then clamped shut quickly. The farmer grumbled to herself, cursing the glare, but she trailed off into murmurs as her eyelids became accustomed to the warmth. She frowned slightly as she realized that there was bare rock where her bed was supposed to be, and that she'd have to get a late start on chores if she'd slept through the dawn, but as concern stripped the downy layers of sleep from her brain, her memory returned.
The earth pony opened her eyes again and sat up, looking down on the valley arrayed below. With a smile and a sigh, she took in the vibrant greens and blues and the striking greys of the mountainous landscape.
"It was always a magnificent view," Luna said
Applejack looked up at the princess standing beside her, an attempt at wit dying on her lips as she noticed the change in the other mare's appearance. Luna's mane billowed and danced in the still morning air, three lines of color running through it. The stripes kept their form and did not bleed together; not even a single hair lost its place. The earth pony turned her head and noted that the alicorn's tail matched. Finally, Applejack commented on the most important change in her companion's appearance, "Is that my hat?"
"Oh." Luna's eyes widened. She smiled sheepishly as she levitated the wide-brimmed hat off of her head and deposited it back in its rightful place atop the farmer's. "Sorry about that."
The earth pony snorted as she adjusted the fit with a forehoof. "All's forgiven, sugarcube."
"I'm glad to hear it," The dark mare stated. She hummed an unfamiliar tune as she watched Applejack stretch, working the stiffness out of muscles unaccustomed to so unyielding a resting place. When the mare finished, they merely looked at each other, the silence growing long and uncomfortable.
"So how'd it get all... Celestial... anyhow?" Applejack asked, gesturing at her companion's mane with a hoof. Her eyes moved nearly imperceptibly as she tried to track a single lock amongst the flowing tangle.
Luna's brows furrowed into a slight frown. "I do not know, actually."
The earth pony snorted. "An' here I was, thinkin' you were omnipotent."
"Even if I were all-powerful," the alicorn stated with a wry half-smile, "that would not make me all-knowing. I believe you were looking for the word 'omniscient'."
"Potayto, potahto," the farmer replied, her voice dripping with exaggerated derision.
Luna snorted before muttering, "More like apples and oranges."
"Hey!" Applejack shouted, punctuating her displeasure by pounding the rock with a hoof, "Are you comparing magnificent, delicious apples to disgusting, rindy oranges?"
The dark mare's jaw worked as she tried to process an answer. "The entire point is that you can't compare... ugh, never mind. I'm sorry? I guess?"
The other pony looked quite satisfied with her victory.
The rising sun had just cleared the horizon. Luna watched it for a moment, then looked to the hills and valleys below the ponys' perch. She surveyed the parts of the trail that she could see, then turned to look back at her companion, still laying on the warming rock. The orange pony's half-lidded eyes threatened a nap, and the alicorn was sorely tempted to join the other mare, but she spoke instead. "Come on, sleepyhead, we had better get started on breakfast. I wouldn't want to be late to my own birthday party."
* * *
The afternoon sun hung low in the sky when the ponies reached the top of the final foothill. Before them stretched a sea of grass, broken here and there by forested patches. In the distance, the ordered rows of Sweet Apple Acres waited. As Applejack surveyed the land, smiling, she took a final deep breath of the mountain air.
It came out in a silent rush as she noticed another stand of apple trees, just off the path at the base of the hill. The farmer's eyes widened, and she whispered a curse.
"Is something wrong, Applejack?" Luna asked.
The earth pony blinked, her gaze still locked on the trees. She whispered, voice hollow, "I forgot."
Applejack ignored Luna's question. She set her teeth, taking a few hissing breaths between them before shouting, "I forgot!" The mare sprang forward, breaking into a downhill gallop. She threw caution to the wind, skipping switchbacks and leaping from rock to rock as she rushed downward.
Eventually, she reached her goal and slowed, gasping to catch her breath. Most of the trees stood in pairs, their branches intertwined, but here and there a lone trunk rose. Their placement was precise, separated at even intervals, but gnarled, untrimmed branches weighed many of them down. The bare dirt was littered with fruit that had fallen, unpicked and unbucked. Old, twisted limbs gave way to smooth growth and saplings as Applejack passed through the rows. Unruly tufts of grass were replaced by a lawn of short stalks, recently trimmed.
Near the end of the silent orchard, Applejack turned. She strode slowly, her eyes scanning. Beneath each tree, there was a cut stone. On the face of each stone, craftsponies had carved a cutie mark.
Finally, the earth pony stopped, looking up at branches that fate had woven together. The pair of trees were young, too young to take a good bucking, but their trunks nearly touched despite their stature. Applejack recognized them; she never forgot a tree she'd helped to plant.
The farmer dropped to her knees and looked toward the roots. Two familiar cutie marks, on two familiar stones, under two familiar trees.
"Who were they?" Luna whispered from behind Applejack.
The orange mare had not heard the alicorn's approach, but she was not surprised. "My parents," she replied. "They died seven years ago... seven years ago yesterday. Every year, we come 'round on the anniversary. Me an' Big Mac." She let out a weak shadow of a laugh. "Ain't no reason to bring Apple Bloom out; she'd scarce remember them anyhow. But this year...."
Applejack closed her eyes tightly and set her jaw as the muscles in her face tensed. She revelled in the pressure, almost convincing herself that enough of it could keep everything within her from spilling out. Through gritted teeth, she spat, "I forgot."
"I'm sorry," Luna said, though her companion could barely hear the words.
"''T'ain't your fault, sugar. You're not all-knowin'. I should'a been keepin' track. Besides, that every year thing was just... just...." Applejack choked on her words. "Sentimentality."
A breeze shook the branches of the apple trees. The earth pony heard hoofsteps; she looked up to see Luna standing beside her. The alicorn's eyes were fixed on the headstones.
"I didn't mean you forgetting," the dark mare said, "I'm sorry about what happened to your parents."
Applejack snorted. "That's even less your fault, an' ancient history besides." She looked back toward the cutie marks, but her eyes refused to focus.
The orchard was silent, for a time.
"How did they die?"
Applejack's gaze returned to the other mare; Luna was staring down at her. The farmer sighed. "It was a plague, somethin' the unicorns couldn't cure. A lot of families were hit. Granny Smith tried takin' care of 'em best she could, alone. Wouldn't let us kids anywhere near 'em." She paused. "I never saw the end. Prob'ly for the best."
Luna turned her head, hiding her face. "Then it was my fault."
The earth pony frowned. "What do you mean 'your fault'?"
The alicorn's ears folded back. Her head lowered. "I meant what I said," she whispered, "Old age, infection, disease. My fault."
Applejack tilted her head, "How can that be your fault? Old age? That ain't nobody's fault, 's just the way the world works. Those're just the rules."
Luna's gaze fell on the headstones once again. "The rules I made up."
The farmer's expression darkened. "If this is some kinda joke, sugar cube, I ain't gettin' it."
"It's not a joke. I'm just...," the alicorn paused. "I'm just trying to be worth trusting."
"So those are the rules you made, and you can't change them?" Applejack sounded almost hopeful, to her own ears. She was still trying to process the other mare's words, the statements that didn't seem quite real to her.
"I can change them. It doesn't have to be so. There wasn't always age and illness," Luna replied, "But it's better this way."
"Better? Better!?" Applejack's perception reeled, her vision blurring. The mare found that she had scrambled to her hooves, though she could not remember the deed "How can you say that? How could you think that? What happened to my parents is better!? Better than what? Do you know - no, of course you don't. The only family you have is Celestia." She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Her muscles trembled as her limbs tried to decide whether to run from Luna or buck her.
The earth pony's words came in a torrent, heavy with vitriol. "You wouldn't say that if you knew. If you knew what it was like to lose your family, if you knew what it was like to see them lowered into the ground and buried. Can you imagine there being nothing left of your sister but a tree and a stone and fading memories? My pain is 'better'? My loss is 'better'? How can anythin' be worse?"
Applejack opened her eyes and saw Luna staring back at her. She could find no emotion in the alicorn's face. "What," the farmer spat, "do you know 'bout loss, anyhow?"
For a moment they simply looked at each other. The only thing that moved was the princess's hair, billowing in the still air. Luna was first to speak. "I'll show you."
There was no sound, no flash, no feeling of motion. The world simply changed. In one moment, Applejack was standing in an orchard lit by the bright summer sun. Then, in that same moment, she was standing in a field under the dull gray of an overcast sky. She looked around, gaping at the change.
They were in a clearing, a huge field surrounded on all sides by the drooping, twisted trees found only in the Everfree forest. On a nearby hill, Applejack could see the crumbling ruins of a castle. Her eyes flicked to the astronomy tower, where Twilight's spark had awakened the Element of Honesty within her.
The clearing was filled with grave markers. Most were worn to unrecognizability; they looked no different than any other stone. A few had been preserved, seemingly untouched by the elements. The ordered rows disappeared into the gloom of the forest proper. There were far more stones than Applejack could have counted, thousands upon thousands of them.
The earth pony turned, and saw a few rows of perfectly preserved obelisks, most of them black marble with shining inlaid metal cutie marks. None of them bore signs of wear. The closest one to her was marked with a rose in leaf-of-gold. A bright bouquet of yellow flowers lay at its base.
"This is part of my loss," Luna said, "but far from all of it."
Applejack spun to face the alicorn, who had begun to walk among the small worn stones.
The dark mare spoke slowly. "My sister and I built this castle here because it was the location of one of the original alicorn tribes. The graveyard was placed around the burial ground of that tribe. Every pony that died in our castle was buried here. Four thousand years of death in the most populous city in the world at the time. I knew most of them. I know them still. My memory does not fade; I recall where each is buried, headstone or no. The only thing that I have forgotten are their names."
Luna bent down to rest her forehead against a stone worn smooth by rain and age. "This earth pony was the first palace head cook. He loved spicy food; his cutie mark was a pepper. He made my meals with extra heat, and I helped him grow exotic herbs. He died when his heart failed him. It was considered 'natural causes'. That means that it's my fault."
The alicorn walked to the next stone and stopped. "This unicorn was our first seneschal. She wrote poetry in her spare time. It was beautiful, but she said that it was better when my voice was the one reciting. Her cutie mark was a blank page. She died of a tumor. Natural causes. My fault." She continued to the marker after that. "This pegasus was a gardener. We played chess every day. Sometimes I even won. He died in bed, surrounded by his family. It was my fault."
Applejack merely watched the other mare, her mind a blank. Barely an echo of her anger remained.
Luna strode past marker after marker, her pace increasing as she spoke, "Unicorn. Invented a spell to make beards grow. She never did get rid of her first try. A long gray beard on a mare! Her lungs filled with fluid, and she drowned in her sleep. My fault. Earth pony. Carved a statue of me, once. Fell down a flight of stairs. Not my fault. Pegasus. He was a royal guard. Plague got him. My fault. Unicorn. The music she played was... haunting. Illness. My fault. Earth pony. Brewed the most delicious mead. My fault." The alicorn paused, gazing down the line of headstones. She turned and stepped over one, crossing into the next row.
The princess locked eyes with Applejack and began to return toward the farmer, her narration confident. Luna did not look down, but she paused at every stone to say a few words. "Unicorn, illness, my fault. Pegasus, age, my fault. Pegasus, heart failure, my fault. Earth pony, seizure, my fault. Pegasus, lightning, not my fault. Unicorn, age, my fault. Unicorn, murder, not my fault. Earth pony, tumor, my fault." Luna stopped as she reached her companion.
"Earth pony. She was too quick to forgive. Probably mortality. Probably my fault." The alicorn gestured with a hoof, an arc that encompassed the graveyard. "This is what I know of loss, Applejack. Four thousand years of friends. The vast majority of them died because of me. Your loss is to forget; my loss is to remember. Every pony, every cutie mark, every funeral, every death rattle. My memories never fade. Only the names, which I can never learn in the first place."
The farmer tilted her head. "You learned my name."
"Yours is the only one," Luna whispered.
Applejack looked out across the clearing. "Why?"
The alicorn's lip twitched, a hint of a smile that disappeared in an instant. "I am not all-knowing, particularly when it comes to names."
The earth pony shook her head. "No, I mean... why would you let everythin' turn out this way? You said you could change the rules."
"They are changed," Luna said. She pointed past Applejack. "Those are the original rules."
The farmer turned. The obelisks formed a graveyard within a graveyard.
The princess strode past the other mare, stepping slowly among the spires of stone. "My sister designed the bodies of the alicorns magnificently. No illness, no age, no imperfection. Each one could have lived forever. I still hope that a few will, somewhere out there. It's probably a vain hope." She stopped in front of the smallest stone spire, in the center of the field. It was blank.
"The first alicorn that died did so before my sister and I started to take an active role in the society of ponies, before we called upon magic to grant cutie marks, before the alicorns taught us about language. We were only watchers, then, but it was clear that they didn't understand." Luna fell to her knees and tilted her head back to stare into the slate grey sky. "I remember the tribe gathered around her broken body, trying to wake her up. They didn't bury her until she started to rot."
Applejack approached the other pony, but stopped short a few paces away. "Why are you telling me this?"
The alicorn looked over her shoulder, meeting the earth pony's gaze. "So that you can see the choice I had to make. So you know who I am, without omission. Because I want to be worthy of your trust."
The earth pony nodded once, slowly.
Luna continued. "When a pony dies, it is tragic. The pain of loss is excruciating, and though it dulls, the scar never truly goes away. This is how it is with mortal ponies. For the alicorns, however, it was somehow worse.
"It could be the fact that with alicorns, death was never a certainty. They knew that barring violence and accidents, they would live forever. When somepony died, it was a loss of something that could have lasted until the end of time. Perhaps that realization caused alicorns to see their own possible mortality in the death of their fellows. Those theories do not satisfy me." The princess stood. "They never did. I was and am convinced that the cause of it all, the ever-escalating blood feuds, the murders, the suicides, was the alicorns' greatest flaw. Memory. Most alicorns lived for thousands of years, but they remembered no more than you do, Applejack. A couple of decades of clear memories and a few scattered fragments of what came before."
The alicorn turned and walked a few steps toward another of the standing stones. She put her hoof against the smooth face and looked at the shadowy reflection in the polished marble. "They enchanted these grave markers to last forever. Even so, they forgot. Their loved ones would die, and in time, in a few short centuries, they would forget. Names, faces, events, personalities, all gone. But the scars never faded, and they felt the need, the primal urge practically etched onto their bones, to mourn. To mourn ponies that they could not remember ever having met. It weighed on them, and as scars built upon scars, one by one the alicorns went mad, and most did so violently. In the tenth millennium after my sister created the first tribe, the problem spiraled out of control. Murders and suicides happened by the scores. Wars were fought over minor slights as the whole race seemed to go mad. For each alicorn born in a day, a dozen were buried. My sister could not find a way to stop it."
Applejack sat on the grass, and ground one of her front hooves into the dirt. Her voice rasped in her throat, but she forced her words out. "And you did?"
Luna's head dropped, and her eyes closed. "I did. And I've had to live with it ever since, even though the ponies that I was trying to save, for the most part... they have not."
* * *
Applejack pushed the barn door open with a hoof, staring into the darkness within. She frowned. "It was supposed to be in here. D'ya think we're early?"
Luna walked past the other pony. "Nope," she said with a wink that the orange mare could barely see in the gloom.
The farmer let the barn door go with a shrug, the squeal of rusted hinges giving way to a dull boom as it swung closed. The pair stood silent in the darkness for a few moments.
"Surprise!" The barn shuddered with the deafening shout of dozens of ponies as the glow of unicorn horns and flash of lighting candles lit the room. Pinkie Pie, literally bouncing with energy, was the closest to Luna among the partygoers, and the others let her take the lead as they rushed to surround the newcomers.
"Welcome to your party, Luna!" The pink pony shouted as she hopped in a circle around the princess. "I hope we have enough candles. I brought like a dozen cakes, and some stuff for the guests to eat too. This is going to be the best billiondy-whateverth birthday party ever. Did you like your surprise?"
Applejack frowned and tilted her head. "How's it a surprise, Pinkie? It ain't like she didn't know there was gonna to be a party. The whole point of a surprise party is that the birthday filly doesn't know there's going to be a party, right?"
Pinkie stopped and turned to look at her friend. "That's a common misconception," she replied with a self-satisfied nod, "But I could see how you might get confused. See, the most important part is the surprise; it doesn't matter how it happens. So Luna, you were surprised, weren't you?"
The princess smiled to herself. "I suppose I was. Your mission was successful."
"Hooray!" Pinkie Pie whirled and began to call out directions to the crowd of ponies that filled the barn, conducting their actions with exaggerated waves of her hooves, "Begin the celebration, fire up the big candle, wrangle the balloon animals!" As music and the dull roar of conversation began to fill the room, she turned to Applejack and nodded with satisfaction. "See? Best surprise party ever."
"But she wasn't surprised by the party," the farmer objected, "she was surprised by the surprise!"
Pinkie Pie giggled and rushed toward the orange pony, stopping just in front of the other mare. "Exactly! That's the true genius of my nefarious plot. See, a pony would have to be absolutely loopy," she said, her eyes rolling freely in opposite directions, "to not expect a party on their birthday! So if I try to throw a surprise party, they won't hear about any party, but they know their friends will throw them one, so they won't be surprised!" She latched onto Applejack's shoulders, shaking the orange pony as her voice filled with horror. "They won't be surprised at all!"
Applejack raised an eyebrow, her mouth working, "So you throw a surprise party but tell us it's gonna be a regular party 'cause if you didn't tell us about the party, it would have been a surprise party that wasn't no surprise, but this party is a surprise because a surprise party that's supposed to be a regular party is a surprise?"
"Now you're getting it." The pink pony nodded sagely.
"I am?" The farmer asked, incredulous.
Luna rubbed her chin with a hoof for a moment before agreeing. "Makes sense to me."
"Eeyup," a third voice chimed in from amongst the crowd.
"Nopony asked you!" Applejack yelled to her brother.
Big Macintosh snorted with amusement before wandering off into the swarm of party-goers.
The orange pony muttered something about fancy mathematics as she watched him go. Luna managed not to laugh at the exchange.
"Now, what is there to do?" Luna questioned idly, "It's been a long time since I've attended a party. I assume ponies still serve...." her eyes darted to meet Pinkie Pie's. "Refreshments?"
Pinkie Pie opened her mouth, but the reply died on her lips. The barn shuddered as the door flew open with a tremendous crash. A light-blue blur of kicking legs and flapping wings hit the floor, rolling to a stop in the center of a crowd that had fallen suddenly silent.
Rainbow Dash leapt to her hooves and surveyed the scene, her head and eyes darting from pony to pony. "Where's Princess Luna!?" she shouted.
Applejack stepped forward, putting herself between the pegasus and the alicorn. "Dash! Calm down. You ain't gotta ruin this party on account of some grudge. Luna isn't Nightmare Moon. Tryin' to fight her isn't gonna help anythin'."
"I'm not here to fight the princess," Rainbow Dash said, pushing past the earth pony, "I'm here to ask her for help." The rainbow-maned mare's eyes met Luna's. "Twilight's in danger. She was kidnapped by an alicorn. Celestia won't do anything about it. If you help save her... well... you'll have my loyalty. And my forgiveness. That's what you want, isn't it?"
Luna frowned. "That's not important right now; a pony's life is. Tell me where I can find the alicorn. I will save your friend."
"Not without us," Applejack stated as Rarity and Fluttershy emerged from the crowd to stand beside the other Elements of Harmony.
The princess opened her mouth to object, then sighed. "Very well. Let's go."