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Auk-ward...

by Estee

First published

Fluttershy's mark gives her the ability to communicate with animals. Unfortunately, no matter what those ponies who own pets might believe of their companions, the majority of animals are really stupid.

Since the rediscovery of the Elements, the reputation of the Bearers has been slow to spread -- but it has spread. And so some ponies are now aware that if they ever truly want to know what an animal is thinking, all they need to do is go to Ponyville, approach the cottage on the settled zone's border, and request a consultation -- whereupon the pegasus who lives there will typically do everything she can to turn them away.

After all, most ponies really don't want to know that their favorite companions are, at heart, complete morons.

(A stand-alone, no-prior-reading-necessary part of the Triptych Continuum, which has its own TVTropes page and FIMFiction group: new members and trope edits are welcome.)

Now with author Patreon page.

Aukative

Two ponies came over the bridge which vaulted the cottage's little stream, just a few minutes apart, and Fluttershy was only happy to see one of them.

Actually, 'happy' might have been too mild a term, especially as it didn't incorporate the sheer amount of relief involved in the sighting. For it was rather early in the spring, a cool sort of morning which held either the last vestiges of winter air or a reminder that Rainbow had managed to sleep through most of the last Wrap-Up. And when it was early in the spring... well, winter was the calmest season for cottage and caretaker. Spring? Was not. In spring, all of those who'd been hibernating resumed a full level of activity and added their calls and cries to those from the ones who'd been fully alert all along and now wanted the world to know they were there. (Or at least select portions of the world, all of which they'd mutually decided could be found around the cottage.) There was fresh foraging, hunting (which inevitably meant Fluttershy would need to conduct a refresher course on what the rules of local hunting were, starting with 'no one you know'), and that was added to the other drive which took over that part of the calendar and made the period's signature image into something which couldn't be viewed directly under Sun's light.

But on the whole, there was a single topic in the air (one which came with a question, a query Fluttershy was already sick of hearing) during the early spring -- or curled up in small holes within trees, along with occasionally claiming her bedroom because she was far too busy galloping all over the property to actually be using the thing. Fluttershy's mattress tended to be rather active in the spring -- or at least the underside was, because it was cool and dark and safe beneath the bed, which would have made it a perfect retreat point for her if she'd just been considerably smaller and the area wasn't so frequently... occupied.

It had been a three-day gallop this time. Three straight days of doing just about nothing except taking care of her flock, with nopony coming up the path to request veterinary services, let alone grooming or temporary kennel hosting. Three days where she hadn't seen anypony and...

If asked to come up with a comparison by somepony she trusted enough to speak with at all, Fluttershy would have said that it was much like being a new parent, one whose first newborn had been immediately followed by several rather unexpected sibling reinforcements. After a while, you needed some adult company just to keep from going openly insane and even then, there was a good chance that your first few sentences would emerge in baby talk.

"...oh, thank Sun," Fluttershy breathed as a smiling Applejack crossed the stream. "...I don't think I've ever been so glad to see a pony in my life."

"Y'look tired," the farmer noted. "Y'hardly ever look tired."

"...it's -- spring." A small sigh. "You know what it's like."

A small nod, which forever failed to shift the hat. "Yeah. Ah jus' barely managed t' shift off the Acres mahself, an' --" half a growl "-- mostly 'cause Mac practically kicked me out. He wants me t' take --" and this shifted into the low tones of endless sibling frustration, especially because the next words had to deal with an eternal insult "-- t'morrow off. Says we've all been goin' t' the point of making ourselves sick if we keep going." She took a few hoofsteps forward. "'course, that means he'll still be roamin' the grounds, because Big Hypocrite jus' can't see when his advice has t' apply t' himself --" and stopped. "Fluttershy?"

"...yes?"

"Could you -- clear things out a bit?"

Fluttershy briefly glanced down. A circular border wall made of multiple species blinked back at her. Most of the eyes held the exact same emotion, and she was dearly hoping Applejack hadn't spotted it.

"...oh. Um... all right, you go over there -- and all of you, just graze on the roof for a while, some of the buds are starting to come up in the sod... no, having all the ferrets leave does not mean you get to crowd in -- oh... oh dear..."

It was something like working a sliding puzzle where every piece would try to move on its own as soon as it thought you weren't looking, and it took three minutes just to give Applejack an approach path. The majority had retreated somewhat -- but not too far. Her flock trusted Applejack, would let the farmer do more on the grounds before reacting than just about anypony. With her other friends... well, in those cases, the animals knew those ponies were friends, and generally (with the frequent exception of Angel) treated them accordingly. But...

"They're kinda lookin' at me."

"...I know."

"It's a weird sort of look."

She sighed. "...I know..."

"Kind of --" Orange fur rippled as the farmer searched for a word, didn't like the one she came up with, and reluctantly found herself releasing it into the world to see if it could justify its existence. "-- jealous?"

They were, in fact, looking at Applejack, and much of that was simply in the way they regarded a pony, as opposed to the way they typically acted around Fluttershy. With the farmer, even with their having some level of understanding that this was one of Fluttershy's friends, there was a permanent aspect of not us to the treatment. Of course, with Fluttershy...

...it was spring. And there were things Fluttershy had told her friend, had in fact told her more than just about anypony -- but it didn't mean she was comfortable with discussing everything.

There was a topic in the air, one which came with a question. And after having it echo it all around her, above and below her, towards her, for days, Fluttershy desperately needed to discuss just about anything else.

"...it's a little -- hectic around here right now. That's all."

Applejack looked directly at her, green eyes immediately focusing on Fluttershy's one visible iris, as if something Elemental inside the farmer had instinctively reacted to the lie of omission. That steady gaze waited to see if more words were coming, then increased in intensity to the point where it seemed as if she was trying to drive them out. But staring contests with Fluttershy just didn't work, and so the muscular body finally tossed off a shrug.

"Well, that's why Ah dropped by," Applejack stated. "Unless somepony comes t' you, we all kinda lose track of you for a week or two 'round this time every year. So Ah thought Ah'd better check on you, an' -- Ah figured y'might want somepony t' talk to."

And Fluttershy smiled.

"...yes."

"So whatcha wanna talk about?"

Fluttershy immediately discarded the topic for which she'd mostly been talked at over the last several days and found there were multiple subjects waiting underneath. "...well --"

Which was when, for the second time that day, the birdsong erupted from the other side of the bridge.

There were things to be heard in that song: there always were. There was challenge, along with bluster desperately trying to mask nerves, and more than a few things about newly-built nests and why nopony should be getting too close. And because it was spring, there were -- other subjects or at least, there was one. But on the whole, the core message could still be made out: somepony's coming. Her friends had sounded the call for Applejack, because they just about always did. But that was a different sort of call (although it took Fluttershy to really tell the difference): her friends knew Applejack. This variant...

There's a stranger on the road.

Applejack, who'd been to the cottage enough times to recognize a basic alert, automatically turned. Fluttershy steeled herself as best she could, forced herself to look down the path, all the way to the bend. And in less than a minute, the second pony came into view.

The first thing which stood out about the unicorn mare (and that courtesy of Fluttershy's spending too much time trapped within Rarity's measuring tapes) was that the stranger was fully clothed: even on a chill spring morning, that was unusual for Ponyville. The quality of that dress was the next thing to register: a garment which Rarity would have been proud to sell if the designer could just get past the insult of having to carry somepony else's work. And the third aspect was that an elegant shimmer of pink dress was exactly the wrong thing to wear during a trot to the cottage, because one thing Fluttershy could never entirely talk her flock out of was their collective belief that in an emergency, the bathroom was located everywhere.

Fluttershy watched in horror as the mare approached, with every step seemingly bringing the stranger that much closer to demanding that the pegasus cover her dry cleaning bills.

But that mare (a little overweight, but in a pleasantly balanced way: elaborate mane and tail stylings, some twigs and grass snagged in the latter from the trip) just kept trotting, and her eyes never really scanned the path. At first, she was looking at the cottage, and Fluttershy saw something like a small smile briefly play across pearl lips. Then she started to notice the birds, and that smile settled down. By the time she spotted the mammals, the expression had made itself comfortable and when she finally came over the bridge and trotted up to farmer and caretaker, it was paying rent.

"You have," the mare smiled, "a lovely home." The weight of the Canterlot accent nearly flattened yellow and orange ears.

Fluttershy forced herself not to glance backwards at the fresh claw marks gouged into her front door by a new friend who had yet to figure out the concept of 'knock'.

"...thank you?"

"You would be Fluttershy, of course," the mare beamed. "Fancypants' description -- well, I knew the basics, but he quite failed to verbally capture your beauty!" An admiring gaze moved down Fluttershy's body, with a long pause at the mark. "And you --" this towards Applejack "-- well, I apologize, but he only talked about Miss Fluttershy when I mentioned my little problem. Are you a friend? An assistant, perhaps? Or if the relationship is somewhat stronger --"

" -- a... friend," Applejack said, her voice suddenly tight. "An' who are we bein' addressed by?"

Which brought a little nod. "Audu Bontemps. 'Audu' is perfectly fine --"

"-- of what House?" Applejack harshly cut the visitor off, green eyes flashing.

The unicorn blinked.

"House Orni," she answered, confusion lightly tinging her voice. "If it matters to you. At any rate, I was hoping I could ask Fluttershy for the favor of her help."

"...help with... what?" Fluttershy just managed to get out, and braced herself. Fancypants? I know Rarity told him something about us after the party, but after what we all did before... Her mane briefly sagged under the memory of improvised nests. He sent her here? And she's alone? Because without an animal companion in sight --

-- but the unicorn was talking again. "Well... I have some passing interest in birds. To wit, I am rather concerned with their protection. As our settled zones expand and new settlements are established, some species wind up being displaced. Or hurt." In a rather practiced rush, "And yes, I understand that other types of animals follow suit, but I try to focus on the birds, because somepony should. And recently, I found myself hosting a new bird." Still more quickly, "Temporarily, temporarily! I -- think. But I've never had one of his kind on my estate before, and... well, I'm concerned about him. He is, after all, a rather long way from home. And our naturalists haven't made many observations of his species in the wild, so they can't tell me if he's acting normally. I did everything I could to make him comfortable during his stay, but I have no way to know..."

She briefly closed her eyes, took a slow breath. The gaze which emerged when those eyes opened again had calm forced upon it, which wasn't quite enough to cover up the light touch of desperation.

"...except you."

Fluttershy was silent.

"When I mentioned my concerns to him at the party, Fancypants told me," the mare continued, "that you can speak to animals. Just about any animal. And I thought... you might speak to my guest. Because I feel his behavior has been turning rather odd and..." Another, deeper breath. "...please? If you could just -- talk to him on my behalf? And tell me exactly what he says in return? If I just knew that he was all right, or what was wrong..."

The unicorn looked at Fluttershy. Waited.

"...there's -- other ponies," the pegasus finally said. "Who have talents like mine."

"But none with the breadth," the mare quickly insisted. "Ponies who speak with cats, or those who can understand foxes -- but not both. Not just about every last species."

"...it's spring... it's really hard for me to travel in the spring, I can't just leave the cottage any time I want to --"

-- and the mare's horn had ignited with the lightest corona of soft white.

"Time away from your normal labors, travel expenses, hiring somepony to watch your charges for you, and of course, the efforts made on my behalf," she calmly said as a voucher was extracted from stylish saddlebags, shortly followed by a quill and the smallest ink bottle Fluttershy had ever seen. "Would this be fair compensation?"

The quill briefly scribbled, and the field bubble rotated the voucher to face Fluttershy.

That's my summer feed bill.

That... is my summer feed bill, plus all the expenses she mentioned, half of my veterinary journal subscription renewals, a replacement for my medicine scales, and I think I can squeeze out repairs for the door...

Applejack snorted. "Put another twenty percent on that." The mare immediately shifted focus. "Like you said, her talent's kind of a limited commodity, 'specially when you want somepony who can really talk. An' it's not easy for somepony else t' keep control around here when she's gone, so a little extra goes a long way in case one of hers goes off the property for a while."

The mare seemed to be thinking about that last part. With just a hint of tremble, "Fancypants -- mentioned a bear..."

"Bear's a visitor," Applejack stated. "Real problem comes with the rabbit. Twenty percent."

Several varieties of confusion passed behind the mare's eyes, then redirected themselves towards the quill. "Twenty percent more, then," and made a few adjustments as Fluttershy watched in slow horror, followed by initialing the changes and signing off on the whole thing. "Your bank should honor that after communicating with mine. Tomorrow morning at ten?"

"Works for us," Applejack replied before Fluttershy could even think about summoning any portion of the strength required to get a word in. "Address?" The mare levitated a calling card across the gap. "Thank y'kindly. We'll see you then."

The mare smiled. "It's a small price to pay for peace of mind."

There was a different sort of smile on Applejack's face. It was slightly twisted, and more than a little mercenary. "Well, if it's a small price --"

Which was cut off by a hasty "-- so until then!"

The mare turned, trotted away before renegotiations could formally begin. The friends watched her go, each noticing how her head kept turning to follow every new source of birdsong, along with how that movement completely kept her from any awareness of all the things she was stepping in. And the unicorn, spirits lifted and now-stained dress beginning to sag, went around the bend, moving out of sight.

"Horse apples," Applejack muttered, still facing the bridge. "Ah coulda gotten her for another ten percent on top of that if Ah'd had one more minute..."

Fluttershy blinked.

"...Applejack?"

"Maybe thirteen. Desperation drives the price up." A small snort. "An' she sounded like she really wanted t' know what that bird was thinking."

"...you -- didn't let me talk to her. Not about whether I wanted to do it, whether I wanted to go... you said yes for me..."

"Y'need the money." A plain statement.

"...yes." That part could never be denied. "But... she's asking me to -- translate. To tell her exactly what that bird thinks... you didn't even let me find out what kind of bird it was, and you said yes for me..."

"Talkin' to animals is what you do. An' little miss House Orni, who's probably got that poor bird in a cage jus' barely bigger than it is an' wants t' know what's wrong, is payin' you t' find out instead of jus' takin' a moment t' think." Another, harsher snort. "Typical Canterlot noble: Ah could tell that from the moment she trotted into sight. Wearin' that dress out here... She's got money. All she's got is money. It's practically a duty t' take a little of it away from her. So now you've got some of her money --"

"-- but it's my decision, whether I want to --"

"-- an' better you than her!" Which was when Applejack finally glanced back at Fluttershy. "Why wouldn't y'wanna use your talent t' get some bits?"

"...it's..." The hesitation was longer than usual. "...the translation..."

"Y'speak animal. Y'speak Equestrian. One t' the other. Now Ah know you're busy, so how 'bout when Ah leave, Ah take the voucher t' the bank for you? An' I'll drop by the market, see 'bout hirin' your substitute."

"...but..."

And now that smile was spreading. "Y'know, now that Ah think about it -- how 'bout Ah go with you t'morrow? 'cause if Ah've gotta be off the Acres, might as well make sure everything goes okay in Canterlot. Like guaranteeing she doesn't try t' give you any extra work. Because extra work? That costs extra. An' gets negotiated separately. No pressurin' you into a little eight-hour gabfest without payin' for it!"

But you said yes for me... I didn't even get to ask what kind of bird it was before you said...

"So," Applejack went on as her expression started to shift into something a little more natural, "meet you here or at the train?"

The farmer stayed for a while, trotted around the cottage grounds with her, spoke about things which were going on with their friends and events taking place in town. And finally, Applejack took custody of the voucher (without double-checking to see if that was what Fluttershy wanted) and went off to see if the usual fill-in pony was available (without bothering to see if Fluttershy wanted to go at all), leaving Fluttershy with her charges -- nearly all of whom came rushing back to her at the instant Applejack was out of sight. Surrounding her. Staring up (or down) at her with a certain look in their eyes, a look which they never would have given any other pony.

A day in Canterlot would be a day away from that look, and the question behind it. But...

She said yes for me.

The second-worst part was knowing why. The harshest was not being able to do anything about it.


Most of the train trip into the capital was conducted in silence. Fluttershy was still more than a little desperate for somepony she could truly speak with, but... she was also still more than a little miffed with Applejack, and couldn't seem to find the words which would explain why. She couldn't think of a way in which those words would not need to have some degree of force within them, and -- well, that was easier now, at least a little. But this time, those words would be directed at a friend, and she didn't even know if Applejack truly understood what she'd done. Fluttershy wasn't sure the farmer recognized it. So the small talk sputtered, gossip died on the vine, and Fluttershy found herself looking out the window a lot.

Applejack didn't really pick up on her mood. Fluttershy hadn't expected her to. Anypony who hung around Fluttershy on a regular basis rapidly got used to long periods of quiet.

The verbiage picked up somewhat once they left the Canterlot train station: they had an address, but not directions. It took a few queries (just about all Applejack's, at least for the ones which were fully audible) to both get them pointed towards the right path and keep them on it, especially as it required six tries just to find anypony who'd vaguely heard of the destination. It produced a winding trail which took them into the most expensive shopping district, past the most expansive of the homes, with Applejack snorting derision at the ridiculous prices and borderline-insane tastes expressed in every window --

-- and then they were in academic territory. Schools, colleges, several buildings which each hosted their share of the Canterlot Archives...

"Hang on," Applejack said. "Ain't that Twilight's old tower?"

Fluttershy took a careful look ahead and quickly spotted a familiar ramp, along with the sculpted tree at the base -- and a never-completely-filled sharp indentation in the ground, just a few body lengths away from the trunk. "...yes. The Ancient History department of the Archives."

"Ah thought the first part of the directions sounded familiar." Applejack frowned. "Except there's more directions. Isn't this about as far as Canterlot goes? Y'hit this portion, an' then if you keep goin', you're practically in a wild zone. Ah didn't think anypony lived past this point."

"...she said she had an estate," Fluttershy reminded her friend. "Maybe she just needs more space." The heart of the city was densely populated and some portions seemed to exist in a near-Manehattan state of crowding, but once you reached the outskirts...

"Right," Applejack snorted. "Noble. Estate. Gotta have all the land she can grab."

About twenty hoofsteps later, Fluttershy softly risked "...you have a lot of land."

"It's workin' land. For workin' ponies. What do most nobles do?" The blonde tail lashed. "Ah'll give you a hint: it ain't work."

"...Twilight's a noble," Fluttershy eventually offered.

"Yeah," Applejack shrugged, working the movement into her trot as they passed the tower. "But she don't care. Ask her t' say who and what she is and Ah bet it'll take about five hours before she brings up her House."

"...and --" No. She knew Applejack went to Ratchette's fix-it shop every so often: the Acres used very few devices, but the mechanic was trusted to keep the ones it did have in working order. But the pegasus who performed the tweaks (through using the steel spider attached to her snout, which wasn't easy to watch) had told very few ponies about who her family was: Fluttershy only knew it from Rainbow, and she wasn't sure Rainbow was supposed to have told her. Another example, then. "...Fancypants works."

"At keepin' the other nobles from turnin' their little fights into things which hurt ponies." Another snort. "An' that's a full-time job if ever Ah heard one. It's one thing t' have a title, Fluttershy. Lots of ponies have titles."

Orange legs slowed in their trot, almost stopped moving entirely. The hat shifted, three tail strands to the right.

"But..." Motion began to resume. "...if that's all you have -- if that's the only thing in your life, a title which you kick in ponies' faces 'cause y'don't have skill or smarts or care enough about anythin' which ain't the title, if you jus' enjoy seeing the kicks hurt... Fluttershy, most of the time, 'noble' is a joke. They call it on themselves without acting like it. Fancypants? He's an exception. Twilight? She don't care. An' most of the rest? Ponies who ain't worth the soil they'll be buried under. Ponies who need t' be reminded that the rest of us even exist, ponies who need some shaking up..."

One more snort, and now Applejack was just about at half-gallop: Fluttershy nearly took to the air just to keep up.

"...Applejack?"

"What?"

"...the party..."

Which got a small chuckle. "We're friends with Pinkie. You've gotta be a little more specific."

"...the garden party. The one where we met Fancypants, and Rarity was going back and forth most of the night..."

"What 'bout it?"

"...did you do it on purpose?"

Applejack stopped, all at once, hard enough to jar the rope loops on mane and tail: Fluttershy nearly went past her.

"Did what?"

And Fluttershy knew it was a stall. "...the gardening. When you were weeding, and soaking down the dirt to make mud. You're not stupid. And maybe you know something about different kinds of parties, because you've been friends with Pinkie longer than any of us. So... did you decide to... shake them up?"

No answer. Just two ponies standing under spring Sun on a cool spring morning, with a road ahead which was beginning to narrow into more of a path.

She can't lie.

But not lying doesn't mean she has to answer.

Which meant the silence told Fluttershy all she needed to know.

Finally, "You're bein' silly. Come on. We've gotta move if we're gonna make it by ten. Would've helped to know just how far out we were goin' in the first place..."


The answer to that one was 'all the way'.

The heart of Canterlot was more or less level, and it had supposedly taken centuries of effort to make it so. But once you got to the outskirts, the natural tilts of the altitude reasserted themselves. In this case, they wound up climbing a moderate uphill, one which left them facing a small dip in the land. This led to a small flat area, and that hosted a house -- one which seemed to have its back to a cliff.

But it was a house. It was a well-constructed one: age had touched it, but only to add highlights. It was just about large enough for one pony to live comfortably: a single level, and not all that wide. There were no fences, gates, or signs which indicated any sort of border. And there certainly weren't any grounds. Just -- a house.

"Maybe we're lost," Applejack quickly decided.

"...it's the only thing out here."

"Maybe that pony never heard of her in the first place and was makin' up directions t' sound important."

"...or maybe that's her house?" Fluttershy tried.

There had been a lot of snorts involved in the day. "House. It ain't an estate. But it's somewhere we can try for directions. An' if we're lost, then we're gonna be late no matter what we do, so we'd better ask quick. Don't want her tryin' to get any of your money back."

Applejack trotted down the slope. Fluttershy followed.

I don't know if I want to do this. I need the money, I know I do, but -- translating... I've got about five heartbeats to say something before --

-- Applejack, who was faster on hoof, knocked on the door. (Fluttershy, out of immediate sight, winced.) And after a moment, that door opened.

"Oh, good!" the unicorn mare beamed. She was fully clothed again: this dress was mostly green, with hints of iridescence -- and the style was completely familiar. "Practically on the tick of the clock, too! Come on, come in -- no, don't worry about wiping your hooves: I bring worse than a little dirt in every day, I'll be cleaning later anyway..."

Applejack blinked.

"Y'live here?"

"Well -- yes," was the confused reply. "Obviously. Alone. Pony-alone. Also, my apologies for not providing you with directions yesterday. Fancypants also happened to mention that Ponyville had a darling little dress shop, and I wanted to reach it before all of the best pieces were gone! I didn't think about your not knowing the way here until I was already halfway into the trot home."

"...you trotted home?" Fluttershy managed, for it was just about a day trip on hoof --

"-- I need to drop a bit of weight," Audu blushingly admitted. "The exercise does me good. And should it succeed, would also put me in the market for adjustments to dresses. Or new ones, as I tend to go through dresses rather quickly in any case. It's a hazard of -- well, come and see. Yes, through the kitchen now..."

The friends briefly stared at pots full of bubbling concoctions --

-- the scent hit their nostrils, and Applejack instinctively reared back. (Fluttershy did not.) "That's meat!"

Audu's blush deepened.

"Yes. Zaru rib ends, being boiled down. My apologies. I generally don't have visitors at this hour, and --"

"You're cooking meat! What kind of pony --"

The unicorn looked past Applejack.

"You understand, don't you?" Audu asked Fluttershy. "You of all ponies -- you must understand..."

Fluttershy took a slow breath. (The smell of boiling blood didn't bother her. Not any more.) "...is it for -- your bird?"

The answering smile was one of purest relief. "No -- well, yes -- actually -- it's not for the bird you've come to see. But --" Applejack, whose instincts were still ordering her to run, was urgently trotting in place. "-- actually, it's just easier to show you. Through the kitchen and down the ramp."

"Down," Applejack said -- and immediately regretted, because speaking meant a compensating inhalation.

"Yes."

"What's the basement? Meat storage locker?"

"No. I don't have a basement, so the storage locker is in the back," the unicorn replied. "I go to Mr. Gristle's shop once a week. He's kind enough to save the leavings and scraps for me. Of course, a griffon understands about using every last part."

"...so if you don't have a basement," Fluttershy tried, "what are we going down to?"

"To see my birds."

"Birds," Applejack checked.

"Yes."

"Plural."

"Well -- yes. But I'm only asking you to talk to the one. Please, if you'd follow me..."

The unicorn trotted ahead. It gave them some breathing room, if not any particular desire to do so.

"We can take her," Applejack whispered. "Anything goes weird -- okay, weirder -- wait for a spell an' as soon as y'see a corona, go straight for the horn. Kick it hard. Y'hear me?"

"...Applejack --"

"She's cooking meat!"

"...I -- well, I don't usually cook it, but I use it, Applejack. I have carnivores, remember? And you... Winona can't live on sweet potatoes. Dogs need meat. I've seen you feed her, and I know you feed her enough of it because I see her coat when she's being groomed..."

"But that's pet food," Applejack protested. "It's packaged. An' Ah -- hold mah breath. A lot. This is the pure stuff."

"...if she has birds --"

"Ladies?" Audu called back. "Is everything all right?"

The friends looked at each other.

"Ah kick," Applejack whispered. "You -- well, you jus' kick more."

They went forward, and found the unicorn waiting at the back door. A door which opened onto a cliff, and a ramp which slanted over the drop.

It took ten body lengths worth of trotting to descend into paradise.


There was a cliff behind them, but not much of one. The house was on the edge of a precipice, and the precipice simply indicated the sharp drop into the valley. Stone rose around them on just about all sides -- but most viewing angles for the grey rocks had been blocked by leaves.

Sun shone into the valley. The light dappled through the trees, put odd patterns into their coats. And all around them, birds sang alert and challenge, demands for the strangers to stay away from the nest mixed with bright welcomes to the newborns chirping within.

Fluttershy could hear them all. Every song, and most of the meanings within. Most: there were definitely species she hadn't met yet in this mix, quasi-languages which would need a little time to learn. So many species...

...that's a Esmeraldas Woodstar. It has to be. I've only heard gramophone recordings and now I'm hearing one in that tree just ahead of me...

She thought about all the things she'd put herself through to reach the Gala, all the stress which had built simply through putting herself so close to the huge gathering and -- the way all that stress had come out once things had gone wrong. She'd done it to meet the animals on the palace grounds, birds included. And when it came to birds, the palace didn't have anything near this kind of cross-section.

She breathed in birdsong. She bathed in birdsong.

"...the trees," she softly said. "...you've got a lot of different kinds. And there's grass patches over there, with just as much variety. You're -- trying to give them all something close to their natural homes. The right trees, and the right grass... How are you doing all that? To have this many..."

"Earth ponies visit regularly," Audu proudly said. "To keep my soil in a place where it can support all of their homes. And I have pegasi maintaining the climates. That's always been a little hard: some portions can be left alone during the winter, but those same places need to be cooled in summer... well, it all manages. Eventually." Which was followed by a brief, rather abrupt glance backwards. "And I left the door open again! Oh, well -- I can generally shoo them out after a while, and it's not as if I don't need to clean. It's part of why I go through so many dresses, of course. They don't -- well, they don't aim. Or perhaps some of them do. Shall we?"

Applejack was still trying to pick one direction to stare in. "Then why wear dresses at all?"

"They have their plumage," Audu announced, "and I have mine."

She trotted forward. Fluttershy followed, at least after she finally managed to stop admiring the toucan. Applejack slowly brought up the rear.

"Multiple climates?"

"Yes. I'm told it's rather tricky. Those techniques are usually reserved for performances or zoos --" the last word was almost spat "-- and with so much magic in a relatively small area, the pegasi need to be very careful to avoid a tangle. So this way, past the eagles -- that's the reason for the meat, of course, along with the hawks, and I just sent a peregrine home..."

"Ah..." Applejack blinked, tried again. "Ah gotta ask, with the dress on an' all. Is this your mark?"

Audu sighed.

"Regrettably, no. My mark is for wealth management. A fortunate thing in some ways, as it lets me stretch what remains of my House's resources and continue on. It's certainly a mark the previous generations would have benefited from, to keep them from squandering most of what we had. A mark for this... I probably wouldn't have needed to call upon your friend."

"Then -- why are you doin' this?"

The unicorn stopped. Turned.

"I told you," Audu said. "They get hurt. Not just from our encroachment: that's usually the minority, because most ponies try to have a care. But there are other sources of wounds. Other things which rob them of their homes. And I -- have a passing interest in birds. Now if you'll listen up ahead, you'll hear the splashing. We're almost to him."

Fluttershy stared at the unicorn, and the gaze was one of pure admiration.

"...I -- didn't get a chance to ask," the pegasus breathed. "What is he?"

Audu smiled.


He was diving.

The sleek body went under the water in a flash of black, emerged with glints of white and a silver herring gripped in the grooved beak. The bird swallowed its meal, then went under again.

"Let me guess," Applejack just barely got out. "Y'dug out a whole little lake just for --"

"-- no," Audu smoothly cut in. "It's a natural stream. Of course, I did have to expand it a bit, along with stocking the fish. And the temperature regulation for the penguins is --

"-- so that ain't a penguin? Ah see black and white, with divin' -- he can't fly, can he? Ah barely got a look at the wings before he went under, but he didn't look like --"

"-- not a penguin. Although they have been confused for each other. He's a Great Auk."

Fluttershy, even in the middle of entrancement, was capable of conducting visual measurements. The wings... no, there was no way for the bird to fly: too short, too curled in towards the body, and the shape was just about finlike in any case. For maneuvering under the water, they were perfect: for anything over it, useless. Land movement wouldn't be much easier: the bird had almost nothing in the way of (extremely thin) legs, and those ended in closed-spaced webbed feet. Propulsion in liquid with quick, hard movements: an awkward slow waddle on land. Standing, it would be somewhat shorter than a pony. The beak was sharp enough to do some damage, and the somewhat genial default expression on the avian face said most of it was usually done to fish.

"...I've never seen one. Not outside of pictures..."

"Few ponies have," Audu quietly said. "Does that affect your talent, not having met one before?"

"...no. It'll just take a few seconds to -- focus. Why is he here?"

"See his right side? No, under the wing -- there it is. Yes, it's just about completely healed now. But he couldn't be on his own in the wild, not when the wound was fresh. So some ponies who knew about me decided he was worth more as a resident than as a source of feathers."

"He's got beautiful feathers," Applejack attempted to contribute.

"Yes. That's part of the problem." Audu sighed. "But he's here now, and will probably be for at least another two moons. That wound is almost healed, but -- I want to give him some extra time. And I'm reluctant to send him back because as I said, his behavior has seemed rather odd of late. And with no naturalists who've truly watched them, with him out of his habitat..." She nodded to Fluttershy. "Please?"

And Fluttershy took a step forward, towards the little lake.

It's not quite right. It couldn't be. She'd never seen an auk, but she'd read what few paragraphs existed in the books. The birds favored rock, and so the soil had been removed from the border -- but they also liked salt water. Oceans. The climate could be micromanaged: a stream was considerably harder. Still, Audu was clearly doing everything she could...

The bird saw her, and reacted exactly as it would to an unfamiliar pony: no innate fear (because they didn't know ponies, the species had only recently met), but a sort of vague confusion. It didn't know why she was there, but it felt it could swim faster than she could chase. The idea that there was relatively little swimming room available hadn't penetrated.

Fluttershy's one visible eye briefly closed, all the better to look within.

The mark is the visible manifestation of talent.

The talent is part of the soul.

A mark is the soul made visible to the world.

Listen...

Wings curl in. Just so. Minimize the visible surface. Stay on the ground.

Leg movement becomes somewhat awkward. Bend at all four knees, enough to visibly shorten leg length. Don't trot. Shuffle.

Lower the head. Project the jaw a little.

Step forward. Slowly.

She opened her eyes at the moment her left forehoof shifted, looked directly at the auk.

The bird blinked, twice. The head tilted, left to right.

She took another hoofstep, and it slowly began to swim. Coming towards shore, her side of the water.

It took a few seconds, and then a few more, because it had to stand up. That was a decidedly rough process, and ended with the bird shuffling its weight from one webbed foot to the other in a rough dance, because land was a rather minor part of its life and it could give the place up any time it liked.

It was still looking at her. But the nature of that look had changed.

Fluttershy's mouth opened, and to the mares behind her, the sound which emerged would have, at best, a nodding acquaintance with any noise produced by equines. The tones: those were always pure pony, the rise and fall of emotions. But the dominant vocalization... to them, it would be half-squawk, with a little bit of squeal, a tiny amount of burble, the smallest hint of hiss...

To the auk, it was something else entirely.

"Hello."

It blinked at her.

"New...?" the bird said. "New."

"Yes."

"Are you..." It sounded as if Audu could barely speak at all. "You're doing it. You're doing it right now..."

"...yes." "Do you know her?"

"Not-predator. Not-fish. Not-me." A long pause. "Feeds. Feeds me. Diving hurts and she feeds me."

"She's been trying to take care of you. After you were hurt. What hurt you?"

This pause was very long. Birds... they had memory. It was possible for them to learn from experience, although some species were better at that than others. Something like a parrot could sometimes come very close to thinking like a pony -- but the majority of avians lived and operated on instinct. (Rainbow had been known to openly envy that.) They typically didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the past because it had already happened and reaching the next minute was far more important than reflecting on the last. Being asked to remember something was a rare experience, and understanding that request...

It took a while. But it came.

"Orca."

Fluttershy shuddered.

"What is he --"

"...we're just getting to know each other. I asked how he got hurt. It was a whale attack."

"I had guessed, from the shape of the bite," Audu shuddered. "Does he -- like it here?"

Which brought Fluttershy to the hard part.

She just barely managed not to sigh. "Do you like it here?"

"No orca."

"Is it fun? Relaxing? Do you -- feel good just for being here?"

A long pause.

"No orca."

And that was part of the problem.

Audu wasn't the first pony to request a translation from Fluttershy. Many ponies wanted to know exactly how their companions truly felt about them, or wanted somepony who could relay exactly why that companion was being punished and make them stick to it. Some were curious as to whether their animal friends had witnessed certain -- indiscretions. (She refused to do detective work. It wasn't that animals couldn't tell when a stranger had been in the house: it was what happened when the pony found out.) And more than a few simply wanted to know what it was like. To spend a lifetime in hearing the words within the songs.

Animals were many things. They could be loving: with most pet owners, Fluttershy could truthfully relay that their friends cared about them (although in many cases, particularly with cats, it was an 'I have to protect this non-hunting incompetent' sort of love). They understood something about pain. So many would recognize sorrow and do their best to offer comfort. Fluttershy could hear all of that -- but so could just about anypony who paid attention. Fluttershy got the actual words. And when the words came... they came with a fundamental truth.

Animals had instincts. Reactions. Learning which seemed to be within their blood at the moment of birth. But they didn't have much in the way of thought. Oh, some were brighter than others, and the one who had been fairly intelligent for their kind to begin with and spent a lot of time at the cottage... Fluttershy had wondered if a minor aspect of her talent was to briefly gift those she spoke with just (barely) enough intellect to try and respond on a slightly higher level. Those who stayed seemed to retain that gift, even improved over time. Angel, who had been with her longer than just about every other companion, who was closest...

But with a typical first meeting, there was a simple, fundamental, unstoppable truth.

"The not-me who feeds. She's worried about you. She says you've been acting in odd ways. Is something wrong? Do you want to go home now? Does the water need more salt? Is it the wrong kind of fish? How can we help?"

The bird tilted its head, right to left. Thought it all over.

"Mate?"

A pony who walked through a forest which was filled with birdsong would hear music. Fluttershy could do that -- when she concentrated enough to block the words. Do that and she could direct her avian friends into a chorus so perfect that nopony ever suspected the nature of the actual lyrics, which typically went "Have sex with me! Yes, me! Don't think about having sex with him! I have the best nest! I lay the most eggs! Look at how bright my feathers are! SEX!"

Survive. Reproduce. Master those two concepts and you'd have about eighty percent of the vocabulary. Oh, there were softer moments, more refined emotions -- but for the most part, it was about getting to tomorrow and creating a next generation which would see the year after that. Those species who'd been taken in as pets... they began to recognize new concepts, such as the one which said that 'Survive' was now partially being taken care of by somepony else. It freed them to think of other things, because there was suddenly time in which to do so. But with a fresh meeting, in the wild...

Companions were precious.

Animals were stupid.

Fluttershy moved through a world in which the most constant topics of discussion were food, sex, fear, and slaughter. It was very much like being around musically-inclined griffon teens, only with somewhat less vulgarity. And it was almost impossible to make a companion's pony believe that you could have a real conversation -- but only as long as you really enjoyed talking about hunting. Or hiding. Or...

"Mate?" the bird repeated as it looked at her in a certain way. A way it never would have looked at any other pony. Because when it came to Fluttershy's talent, there was a certain built-in problem...

This time, the sigh almost made it all the way to her lips.

"Are you looking for a mate?"

"Mate?" Still looking at her. It puffed out its chest. Bobbed its head. Opened the beak to display a yellow interior, closed it again.

"Did you leave a mate behind?"

"Mate?"

Actually, once you took out the constant struggle for dominance, it was exactly like being around griffon teens. "...he's -- lonely. It's not just being away from his habitat. He just -- it's spring. And in spring... he wants to be with a female auk."

She looked back just in time to see the embarrassment coloring the skin under Audu's fur. "I should have spotted that! I just -- well, nopony's really had that much time around them, so we don't know their courtship rituals, and I couldn't be sure about his season..." The unicorn was practically radiating red. "And I -- don't -- think about that much. You just see -- the eggs. Not the before."

Most ponies who lived with birds didn't think about it much. Fluttershy got to hear the play-by-play every spring night until she finally went for the earmuffs. "...yes."

"But if I ask for a female," Audu considered, "I'm pulling her out of the natural habitat. I don't want to displace another auk without a very good reason, and I'm hardly going to wish for another to be wounded. Can he -- get along?"

The bird was still looking at Fluttershy. Its chest was currently puffed out to the point where individual pinions were forming miniature ridges.

"Mate?"

"...he'll have to." She stepped back, and the bird's eyes never left her. "...if you do get another one, a female, for any reason, and she's healthy... then things should settle down. But until then, he's just going to be a little -- odd. It might be -- worse for a while, actually."

"Because it's his season," Audu said.

No. "...yes. I'm -- sorry. I know it's a lot of bits to pay for -- very little." (Applejack was starting to blanch.) "You would have figured it out on your own, probably in a few days. So..." She forced the words. "...as long as I'm here... if there's anyone else you need me to talk to..."

Applejack, visions of forfeited 'second consultation bits' floating in her eyes, began to open her mouth. Fluttershy stared at her. Applejack closed her mouth.

"Please," Audu smiled. "If you don't have to rush for the train. I recently brought in a Woodstar, and I think she's feeling a little outclassed..."


They had been trotting down the path back, one which had a long way to go before it became a road, and a stop had been made. Applejack had asked to pause long enough to unpack a rather late lunch from their saddlebags, as she'd outright refused to try eating so close to the smell of meat. So they'd crouched down at the side of the trail and as it turned out, they'd been munching for rather longer than intended. Quietly.

"She's -- all right."

Fluttershy looked up from the traveler's feedbag, arched the one visible eyebrow.

"Ah mean -- she's doin' something. Lots of 'em ain't. Maybe it's birds, but --" more hastily "-- well, it's like with you. There's jus' about always a pony for everything which needs doin'. Some birds need a little extra help an' a touch of sanctuary, so now there's a pony for that."

"...yes," Fluttershy softly said. "...I'd -- like to come back sometime."

"Well, given what she paid the first time, Ah figure any follow-up should go for at least --"

And somehow, the words were there.

"-- when I want to. When I say." Quietly, "It's hard for me to get away, Applejack. Maybe it always will be. But I decide if I visit. As a -- fellow professional. Maybe even a little more. I should decide that, and yesterday -- you decided for me. You said yes..."

The farmer was starting to look uncomfortable. "...yeah."

"...why?"

"Because -- y'need the money. Y'need it more than any of us. Your crew, everything they eat, everything they need -- meat ain't cheap. None of it is cheap when it's yours, and Ah saw your door when Ah came over the bridge... Fluttershy, the bits were right there an' if Ah didn't say yes right quick, Ah was -- afraid you were gonna say no."

And Fluttershy had known every last tenth-bit of it.

"But that's wrong," she softly stated. "It's my decision."

"Y'don't make 'em. You hem an' haw an' tuck up all small. Y'won't take charge, y'don't try to dominate the negotiations..."

The next part came out with a smile: "...I'm dominant enough already." Applejack stared at her. "Applejack, I couldn't manage nearly any of what I do if most of the animals it matters for didn't see me as dominant. It's harder with some of them, especially the ones who've been there long enough to know the -- real me. But my talent does whatever it can, and... it's usually enough. I have to dominate every moon, just to keep part of the flock from seeing the rest as a meal. But that's part of the decision I made when I came to ground. And... I made that decision. You can't think for me, and -- it helps, sometimes, when my friends speak for me. But I'd like you to ask first. Please."

A long moment of silence under Sun, with no chill in the air at all.

"Pinkie made a promise for me once. Fourthhoof. Not really direct, but -- she lassoed me in. By speaking for me, more or less."

"...really?"

"Yeah. It was -- well, core of it was time: she said she'd keep me doing something for a while, so Ah couldn't go back before that or Ah'd make her a liar. An' it worked out, but -- when she told me what she pulled and how, Ah was angry fit t' double-kick. It nearly... well, it didn't break our friendship: we worked everything out before the end of that day." She paused. "Ah was still angry, though. Ah should have remembered that."

We're both parents.

It was a strange thought. But in a way, it was true. Applejack had taken over half the duties for raising her sister, and Fluttershy... well, some ponies said having a pet was like adopting a foal who would never grow up. There was a truth to that. But...

Applejack was tied for the oldest in the group: the same age as Rarity. It didn't mean much: there was a rather narrow spread of years between the Bearers. But Applejack was a parent -- and when you were a parent, it could become hard to see the world as anything other than a group of foals in need of guidance.

For the most part, Applejack treated the others as equals, or nearly so. Mostly. But Fluttershy... she often felt as if she was treated like the baby in the group, even when she was a year older than Pinkie.

Because I'm shy. Because I don't put myself forward. Because I'm... me. On the bad days, they foalsit me.

Applejack having to drag me halfway up Dragon Mountain probably didn't help.

"...you know I'm an adult, right?" It was only half a joke.

It triggered a small smile. "Seen your filly pictures. Y'went straight for 'adult' before any of us."

It had been a very early puberty. "...yes. So -- let me be one, once in a while. I'll let you know --"

There was a sound, off in the distance, and it was the first one: something which made both ponies turn towards the noise. A noise which was half-squawk, with a little bit of squeal, a tiny amount of burble, the smallest hint of hiss...

"-- oh no..." Fluttershy softly finished. "He didn't..."

The source of noise, now just barely visible as a black-and-white speck, awkwardly waddled slightly closer.

"Is that..." Applejack swallowed. "...that's the bird, ain't it?"

"...yes," Fluttershy sighed.

"Why?"

"...other than her leaving the door at the top of the ramp open, and probably the front door too? Do you remember when I got sick? When Marian was pregnant and I couldn't leave the cottage?"

Applejack hesitated. "Yeah. Y'asked t' sleep at the Acres after, if you got sick again an' there weren't any more badgers way overdue for labor. Because y'didn't get any sleep at the cottage, not with every animal --"

The words stopped.

"-- trying to make me better," Fluttershy quietly finished. "They don't think, Applejack, but... they have instincts. Some of those instincts are for medicine. Feed the sick. Make sure they're near water so they can drink. Cool them off or warm them up. It's just -- a little rough when they all do it at the same time. When I'm being cooled and heated, and the food they're trying to give me is fresh-killed meat provided by one of the hawks. But they all try. They all treat me as -- one of their own. Because..."

Green eyes widened, and the orange jaw slowly dropped from the weight of horror.

"-- is that how they see you? The hawks look at you an' see -- a hawk with fur? The ferrets think you're the tallest ferret ever? Is that part of how your talent works?"

"...I think so. It explains a lot about how they behave..."

"An' --" Applejack swallowed three times. "-- what happens when it's mating season?"

Fluttershy silently nodded towards that slightly-larger speck.

"You're joking." It was half a plea, and the remaining percentage had been reserved for the next sentence. "Please tell me you're joking."

"...I'm the dominant one," Fluttershy said. "So they just... ask. Well, make proposals, really. The males of breeding age. About how they're the best to be with, can provide for the children... But those are the ones who've known me for a while. He wants a mate, and -- we didn't really get a chance to establish boundaries."

With volume decreasing by the word, "But -- but -- ain'tcha a little... big? Or a little... small..."

Calmly, "...some of them prefer that. But the really important thing to them is producing the kids. From the best possible mate. And since I'm dominant..."

Applejack, eyes now wide with that same horror, stared back down the road.

"He's moving -- really slow."

"...he's not meant for land. Not for long travel. But we've been here a while."

Another squawk reached them.

"What's he sayin'?"

"...it's about mating."

"Fluttershy, this would be a really good time t' tell me you're kidding --"

"-- it's usually about mating. When it's spring." Fluttershy sighed, forced herself back to her hooves. "It'll take too long to herd him back and he shouldn't be walking that far to begin with. I think I can carry him in a leg press. It'll help if you lasso him first."

"What makes y'think Ah brought mah lasso?"

"...because you're you." She paused. "Did you do the 'garden party' bit on purpose?"

Silence.

"Applejack --"

"...yeah. Saw what everypony else was pullin' off, there were all those stuffy ponies around who needed some shakin' up, Ah didn't know it was important t' Rarity, an'... Ah thought it was a good line. Are you gonna tell Rarity?"

"...no. You will. When you apologize."

Applejack carefully turned her head back, going for the left saddlebag lid -- paused. "Y'know, we've talked 'bout you a few times, when you weren't there. The rest of the Bearers."

"...really?"

"We're mares," Applejack observed. "Any group of mares is gonna talk about the one who ain't there. Bettin' it's been done t' me a few times, including by you." (Fluttershy fought back the blush.) "Anyway, one of the things we talked 'bout was your talent. An' the funny thing is, when we were all talkin' -- we all said it's the one we'd most want t' try, jus' for a day or two. Twi's is kinda scary if y'don't know what you're doing. Pinkie's takes a lot out of you, Ah've heard too much 'bout Rainbow's t' want it for mahself, and Rarity... well -- Rarity." The final snort of the day. "Yours, though... everypony would have liked a chance t' give it jus' one go. Which includes me, because Ah said the same. That's what Ah used t' think."

"...and -- now?"

The speck projected a hopeful squawk in their general direction.

"Ah think," Applejack said, "talents don't come t' ponies who can't manage 'em. An' that's why Ah'm glad yours ain't comin' t' me. Ready for a roundup?"

"...yes."

Fluttershy took off, hovered. Applejack got the lasso out, set it to twirling with expert neck movements. Both charged.


Most of what the very confused auk said all the way back to its temporary home worked out to "Mate?" But at one point, he did work in something which came very close to "Put me down!", and she got the impression that it wasn't just because he wasn't comfortable with the idea of mating in the air.

On the whole, Fluttershy considered Mister Aukster to be making progress.

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