Neither Twilight nor Discord were allowed to go into the testing chamber with Fluttershy; the equipment was magitech, and very sensitive to powerful magical fields, so no alicorns could be allowed in, let alone the Spirit of Chaos. Rarity, whose field was significantly less powerful than Twilight's, was in there with her for moral support.
Discord was refraining from using his powers, in case they might have an effect through the walls of the testing chamber. He sat in a chair in the lobby, twisting the digits of his mismatched paws nervously. "How long do you think this will take?"
"Probably not very long," Twilight said brightly, trying to maintain her cheer. "They've got really amazing technology these days. I'm sure they'll be done quickly."
Discord glared at her. "Do you have to be so perky? There was a reason Fluttershy didn't think it'd be good to have Pinkie here."
"Sorry. I just don't think it's a good idea to focus on the negative right now."
"How am I not supposed to feel negative? My wife has cancer. That's a very, very negative thing."
"I know. I know. It's... it's hard, it's really hard." She wanted to get up and pace, but she felt that any show of restlessness might set Discord off. "But we have to be strong, for Fluttershy. You know, the potions they have today are better than ever. It's going to be rough, I'm sure, but Fluttershy's strong. She'll be all right, in the end."
"How do you know? Ponies still die of cancer, all the time!"
"Yes, of course they do, but lots of them survive as well! If it hasn't metastasized, she's got an 80% chance of recovering and entering remission within the next five years." That wasn't quite how the statistic actually went. The 80% figure was the rate of survival for five years. But if a pony survived for five years, then they were effectively in remission, right? Almost all the time. And she didn't want to phrase it to Discord with a reminder that Fluttershy might die.
It didn't help. "Isn't that a 1 in 5 chance that she'll die?" Of all the times for Discord to muster up some math ability. "And that's assuming it hasn't metastasized." The finger-twisting grew more frantic. "Twilight, I've seen ponies die of cancer. In the old days – in the old days, it happened a lot. I saw them die. I couldn't do anything about it. Anything else, but not that."
"Right. Your powers can't restore harmony. But pony magic can! We're good at restoring harmony."
"And what if you can't? What if – what if it's too late?"
"Just stay focused on the positive. We don't have any bad news yet."
"Well, none of the news is good!"
Twilight flew up so she could put her hooves on his shoulders. "Discord. Calm down. I know you're scared. I am too. But we've all survived worse than this—"
"Rainbow Dash didn't."
Despite herself, Twilight winced, squeezing her eyes closed at the sudden spike of pain. "No. She didn't. But she died a hero. She won, even if she died to do it." She pressed down on his shoulders, squeezing them as much as she could with hooves. "I believe Fluttershy can beat this. I'm sure of it."
"You're naïve." He turned his head away, hanging it low. "The mass was the size of her hoof, Twilight. That doesn't happen overnight."
"Right, but they didn't see it anywhere else on the initial scans, so there's a good chance that's all there is." She swallowed. "She'll lose the teat, she'll have to take some pretty nasty potions, she'll need some intense magical therapy, but she'll be all right in the end."
"How do you know? She could die, Twilight. She could die."
Twilight swallowed again. It was true, of course, but she was working as hard as she could not to acknowledge it. It felt like, if she dwelled on the possibility, she might make it more real, more likely. "That's possible, but I prefer to focus on the positive. Let's focus on the possibility that she'll live through this. It's more likely, after all."
She landed. Discord stared down at his fingers. "Twilight... I'm so angry at her." He looked up. "Does that make me evil? She's facing the possibility she might die, and I... all I can think about is how badly she screwed up by not getting a medical exam earlier. She knew about this! For months! And she was in denial! She thought she was too busy to get checked out, and now..." His voice choked off on a half-sob.
"Does that make me a bad friend? Or husband? Or person?" He shook his head. "I know I shouldn't be mad at her, I should be sympathetic, and I am, I love her, I don't want her to suffer... but she did this to herself! She's known about this for more than a year!"
"So is this some disharmony thing? Friendship failure? I'm doing this wrong?" His eyes were sheened with unshed tears, making the yellow and red brighter than usual.
She sat next to him and took his paw in her hooves. "No, it doesn't mean that," she said softly. "I feel the same way."
"Because she could have gotten checked out, at any time!" he burst out. "She could have taken time off and gotten this checked, any time, but she didn't want to think about it! And now—"
"I know," Twilight whispered again, and tears were stinging her own eyes. "We have to be strong for her, we can't tell her because she feels bad enough, and guilty enough, but... I'm angry too. Why did she take this risk? Why didn't she feel that her own health was important enough to take care of? She would never let an animal suffer like this, why would she... let herself..." She had to swallow back a sob.
Discord's fingers tightened around her hoof. "Doesn't she care?" he asked hoarsely. "Doesn't she know what losing her will do to me? ...To any of her friends?"
Twilight was sure that Fluttershy did care. But she wasn't sure that Fluttershy cared about preserving her own life for any reason other than sparing her friends the suffering of losing her. Ever since Rainbow Dash died, Fluttershy had seemed like she was... going through the motions. Everyone was devastated by Rainbow's loss, but Fluttershy had taken it especially hard.
She couldn't say this to Discord. "She cares, I know she does," she said. "But sometimes it's hard for her to remember how important she is to the rest of us, or to remember that she deserves to be healthy and happy, too."
"Did I do this?" Discord whispered.
"What?" Twilight drew back in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"In the old days... sometimes there was a pony I liked. Not a friend, I never had friends... more like a favorite toy. But I didn't want them to die of old age. So... I wouldn't let them. I used my powers to keep them young." The tears in his eyes spilled over. "I'd replace their aging body parts with the young versions, or I'd de-age them. But I was only able to give them twenty, forty years more at the most. Because they'd get cancer."
"Oh... because cancer is caused by mutations?"
"Right. Cancer is chaos in cellular form. It's why..." He swallowed down another half-sob. "It's why I can't help her. Any other disease and I could just—" he snapped his fingers. "Fix it. But not this. I can't do anything to heal her. I'd try, with the ponies who I kept from aging, and I'd just make it worse."
"But Fluttershy is aging like the rest of—" Us, she almost said, and checked herself. She was an alicorn. The only thing that happened to her when she aged was she got taller and her hair got weirder. "—our friends. You didn't try to extend her life."
"No, I didn't," he agreed. "But none of the ponies who got cancer lived with me. None of them spent time in my realm with me. And... I use my magic on Fluttershy. Just, not like keeping her from aging, but like... I turn her into things for a joke, or... other reasons."
Twilight was very sure she didn't want to know what those other reasons were. "It sounds to me like stopping a pony from aging is a lot more extreme, though. I mean, that's a spell that harmony magic can't do at all. I can turn ponies into things."
"You can also do age spells."
"I'm an alicorn and I'm not using harmony magic to do them. I could turn ponies into things when I was a unicorn, or a much less powerful alicorn." She patted his arm, since she couldn't reach his shoulder without flying. She was tall now, but not Celestia-tall yet, not tall enough to easily reach Discord's shoulder. "I'm sure nothing you did to Fluttershy could have caused this."
She was lying. There wasn't enough data for her to be sure of anything; for all she knew, constant proximity to Discord's magic could very well have been what made Fluttershy sick. But she wasn't going to tell him that. Keeping Discord from going off the deep end from grief and guilt would be very important – not because she was afraid of him reverting to his old ways and destroying Equestria with chaos; she knew better. Over the years he'd learned enough empathy and made enough friends that she knew he no longer even wanted that. She was concerned for him more as a friend, because she knew his emotions were volatile, and the protective layer his chaos and devil-may-care attitude had given him for centuries wouldn't apply to this.
"You really think so?"
"I'm sure." And if it wasn't true, so what? Fluttershy would be monitored for the recurrence of the cancer for the rest of her life, once she beat it, and Twilight could make sure that all the rest of their friends were checked, and she doubted Discord would let any other pony he spent time with fail to get tested regularly. Even if Discord's power had caused this, it wouldn't happen again.
Why hadn't Fluttershy gotten herself tested?
She wasn't lying to Discord about that part. She was so angry at Fluttershy... and so scared for her, and so sad this was happening, but she had to be strong. Discord could fall apart, everyone expected that of him – he loved her, she was his world, and he wasn't well known for controlling his emotions. But Twilight was the Princess. She might not rule Equestria anymore – she'd done that for ten years, long enough to get a democracy going, and then served as the first elected ruler of the nation, and then stepped down and let another pony be elected into the job – but she was still expected to be strong, positive, optimistic and in control. She couldn't break down crying or rant about how stupid Fluttershy had been for not checking this sooner.
"I don't know what I'll do, Twilight," Discord said. "If – if she dies—"
"She's still young enough," Twilight said. "She's only fifty. There's a lot they can do."
The door opened and Rarity and Fluttershy came through. Rarity was talking animatedly about a new fashion trend, something about pleated skirts. Twilight had been friends with Rarity for near-on thirty years and still didn't understand 70% of what she said when she talked about fashion.
"Fluttershy!" Discord made it rain confetti as he teleported to Fluttershy and hugged her close, no longer restricted from the use of his powers. "What did they find?"
"They said they had to analyze the findings, and they'd be out to talk to all of us in a few minutes."
Part of Twilight wished Pinkie had been able to come. Part of her was glad Pinkie wasn't here. Pinkie was no alicorn, but her natural levels of magic – chaos magic rather than earth magic, mostly – were high enough that they thought it best not to risk it. Twilight had also secretly thought it would be best not to expose Pinkie to this, since Pinkie's reaction to things that were sad and depressing was generally to ratchet up the cheer until it entered the uncanny valley and became inappropriate. Judging from how Discord was reacting to Twilight's own efforts to keep things optimistic, she still thought Pinkie would have been a bad choice here, but she missed her.
And Applejack couldn't be here, either. Twilight especially missed her strength of will and her ability to be honest and gentle at the same time. But Applejack was, currently, the second democratically elected Executive of Equestria – Twilight herself had talked her into running on the grounds that they needed to establish from very early on that earth ponies were truly co-equal and worthy of running the country. Too often, in the past, unicorns and pegasi had had disproportionate influence because no one could look at Celestia and see her earth pony heritage; they'd seen wings and a horn and a delicate long-legged build that was normally only found in unicorns, and it had produced the psychological effect that ponies had thought of their princess as belonging to the unicorn tribe and the pegasus tribe, but not the earth ponies. But earth ponies had the oldest tradition of democratic rule – Chancellor Puddinghead had been an elected official.
"How long can it possibly take?" Discord melted into a puddle. "I'm dying of suspense here!"
"Let them do their jobs, Discord," Fluttershy said. "I'd rather have the right answer than something they got from rushing that turned out to be wrong, wouldn't you?"
"How was it?" Twilight asked.
"Oh, Rarity kept me company, so it wasn't too bad. It might have been boring without her."
"I wish I could have been with you," Discord said. "I'd have kept you entertained."
"I'm sure you would have, but it's best this way. We know that powerful magic can throw off the readings, and I'd rather they be accurate."
Then the door opened, and the doctor came out to speak to them. "Hello, Lady Fluttershy?" She nodded her head at each one of them as she spoke, acknowledging their presence. "Lord Discord? Lady Rarity? Princess Twilight? We have results."
"Well, don't hesitate! I'm all ears," Discord, covered in ears from various species, said.
"The news could be better," the doctor said soberly. "Lady Fluttershy, we've seen four additional sites where we believe we're seeing cancerous masses. That makes this stage 4 metastatic teat cancer, and I will be honest with you, beating cancer in this stage is going to be very tough, but it can be done. There are new treatments being developed every day."
Discord's eyes were as wide as saucerplates, literally. "Stage... 4?" he whispered dramatically. Twilight half expected to clutch his chest and collapse into a faint.
"What kinds of treatments are available?" Fluttershy asked firmly.
"Well, there's a new treatment that hasn't been widely publicized yet that I'd like to talk to you about," the doctor said. "We have a treatment that involves forcibly re-harmonizing the body, so you'd be subjected to intense harmonic magic about once a week every week for three to four months. It has a lot fewer negative side effects than the traditional potions therapies, but for pegasi there's a serious potential side effect in that a good number of ponies who undergo the treatment lose their wings, or the use of their wings, so we don't usually recommend it."
"That's horrible!" Rarity said.
"I'd consider it," Fluttershy said. "I'd rather not lose my wings, but if it's necessary... What are the other possibilities?"
"They've been improving the traditional potion therapies," the doctor said. "We'd have to be very aggressive, given the number of masses we're seeing, and that can be hard on a body. The potions work by attacking fast-replicating cells, which is what cancers are... but that will also affect your mane and tail. Thankfully, not your coat, that doesn't grow nearly as fast. It'll also affect your stomach lining, which can cause nausea, and it can affect your mouth and other mucous membranes as well. We'd want to cast health spells on you frequently for sterilization, and you wouldn't be able to work with animals in any capacity that involves waste during the therapy, since your immune system would also be negatively affected."
"I'm sure you can have some of the sanctuary employees take over that duty," Twilight said.
"And at home, I can just magic away the poop," Discord put in. "But listen, doctor, what about surgery? If you can see four masses—"
"Five total, actually," the doctor said.
"Okay, five, but... you have the Lord of Chaos at your disposal. I can snap new organs into existence! Can't you just go in and remove the cancers?"
"Not really," the doctor said. "We can remove the central mass in the teat, and I would recommend doing that, but the fact that it metastasized... think of it this way. One cancer cell is microscopic. They're invisible. We can only see large masses. Surgery is very, very hard on a body and we've seen evidence that the rapid healing response that occurs after a surgery can spread cancers. So we'd be putting Lady Fluttershy through a great deal of physical stress, risk her health and safety, and in the end what it might do is spread cancer even further."
Given what he'd just told her a few minutes ago, Twilight didn't think that would be a good idea anyway. "Why does the harmonic treatment involve the loss of wings in pegasi?"
"Pegasi are chimeras, technically. We believe their original existence, like most chimeras, may be due to some kind of magical intervention. The intense harmonic treatments are intended to restore the body to their natural state, but for pegasi it seems that the 'natural' state is to be without wings."
Twilight was an expert on harmony magic and that didn't sound right at all. "Do you have any literature on that treatment? Something intended for an educated layperson with a lot of experience with magic?"
"Sure." The doctor levitated a thick packet of papers over to Twilight. "I expected you might want something like that, Princess, so I brought it with me."
Twilight speed-read through the packet while the doctor continued to answer Fluttershy's questions, and went cold. "I... don't know if this would be the best option for Fluttershy," she said.
"Oh?" the doctor asked.
"It looks like the form of magic being used isn't so much harmony as order," Twilight said. "It's connected to platonic forms, which isn't generally a thing harmony does. And the levels of harmony slash order magic involved... Fluttershy, you might be actively poisonous to Discord, at the level of 'turn his skin to stone when you touch him'."
"If it would heal her—" Discord started.
"Doctor," Fluttershy said. "What would my odds be with the harmonic treatment?"
"Well, we usually calculate odds in five-year survival rates, and the treatment's too new to have much data for the five-year mark, but we see the absence of visible cancer on scans in about forty percent of cases."
"And with the potions?"
"The five-year survival rate for a mare your age with metastatic teat cancer is about thirty-five percent."
"Then no. I'm not going to risk Discord's well-being and have to be parted from him while we're both going through this for just an extra five percent. I don't think I'd want to do that unless it's an almost certain thing."
"Fluttershy, I'd take the risk," Discord said desperately. "Anything to keep you alive."
"And I appreciate that, and I love you for it, but I am not willing to risk harming you even if you are."
"But what if my chaos magic caused this?" Discord burst out. "Don't you think I deserve to have to face a risk myself, if my powers might have been what gave you cancer? You don't have any in your family!"
"That's true. But I've been exposed to dark magic, transformed into multiple other species, spent a few months caring for an entire cave full of baby dragons trying to breathe fire and mostly producing smoke, kidnapped by aliens, transported to the moon, and the only part of that you had anything to do with was some of the species transformations. I've faced a lot more threats that could have damaged my cells and caused cancer than anypony else in my family. There's no reason to think it came from you."
"But what if—"
"Enough. We don't need to waste the doctor's time with what ifs." She turned to Twilight. "I think the potions sound like the way to go, don't you?"
"It's your body and your decision," Twilight said. "But if it were me, yes, I think I'd go with the potions."
"Then it's settled. Potion therapy. Will we be doing surgery also?"
"For the teat, yes," the doctor said. "The other masses, we'll try to shrink with the potions treatment. None of them are in a good position to be operable without risking further metastasis."
"Darling, as soon as you're able, I want you to come by the boutique," Rarity said. "I've been thinking of some lovely ways to hide your tail, and some beautiful headdresses we can use to minimize the visibility of a wig if you decide to wear one."
"Thank you," Fluttershy said. "When will we get started?"
"Soon is good," the doctor said. "Why don't you talk to the receptionist and see when you can get scheduled in? You're going to want to take a few days to make sure you have proper coverage for the work you do... I'll be honest with you, the potions treatment is likely to make you feel pretty bad."
"I'm not looking forward to it, but I know my friends will support me, and my husband is always there for me," Fluttershy said. "I'll manage."
They flew back to Fluttershy's house, Rarity with temporary butterfly wings because now Twilight could cast that spell without even thinking about it, talking about things that had nothing to do with Fluttershy's diagnosis. Talking about politics, because Fluttershy, Twilight and Rarity were all on Applejack's Friendship Council just as she had been on Twilight's, and because Discord had developed a keen interest in politics ever since Equestria became a democracy on the grounds that democracy was the most chaotic form of government possible. (Twilight had asked him about anarchy, and he'd gotten into a debate with her for a few hours about whether anarchy had to turn into feudalism or if there was some way to keep it anarchy. It was his opinion that anarchy required constant vigilance and pressure to keep ponies from spontaneously forming a government around powerful figures who offered protection, and since he'd performed the experiment for around a thousand years or so, she couldn't deny his experience, but she wondered if modern technology might make it possible.)
She left Discord and Fluttershy at their home, which was now located solidly within the Everfree as Discord's chaotic influence had caused the Everfree to expand in the direction of Fluttershy's cottage, and returned to Canterlot to tell Applejack and Pinkie the news. Pinkie had been working on some bill regulating open-air performances like the ones Trixie had done, all those years ago, but she dropped it to return to Ponyville and visit Fluttershy immediately. Applejack figured on giving them some privacy to digest the news and visiting tomorrow.
Then she returned to her school, the School for Gifted Students (she'd expanded it from unicorns a decade ago), and tried to do some paperwork. It was impossible. The thought of Fluttershy dying haunted her. Thirty-five percent. Surely Fluttershy would be part of that thirty-five percent. She'd beaten greater odds than that, her whole life.
But what if she didn't?
She turned. He hadn't made one of his dramatic, eye-catching entrances, so she hadn't even noticed the moment Discord had teleported in. "What's wrong? I'd thought you would be with Fluttershy."
"I was, but she's sleeping, and I..."
There were tears welling in his eyes again. Twilight put her hooves around him. "It's going to be all right. She'll make it. I'm sure."
Discord wrapped himself around her – literally, coiling around her – and started to bawl hysterically, his face buried inside her wing. "I tried, I tried so hard to be strong for her, but I can't, how do I keep this up, how do I deal with this, what if she dies, Twilight, what will I ever do if she dies?"
"I – I don't know, Discord, I'm just trying to focus on hoping she makes it through this, because I don't know what any of us will do if she dies. I really don't." She held him tightly. "Rainbow Dash was terrible, but at least – at least it was in combat, and when we go into combat we know we might die, and we know it'll mean something, we know we're saving ponies. But this... I don't know what to do with this either."
"Don't you know any spells that can help her?"
"I don't think so. I started looking when I heard she had a lump."
"But you didn't hear about that harmony thing before, did you? So maybe there's something. Maybe there's something you missed." He disengaged himself. "Let's go on a book quest! Like in the old days! We'll get your friends up and we'll all go to Starlight's castle and we'll take all the books and then we'll go to the Canterlot library and get all those books and then we can get all the books from the Crystal Empire, and we'll read them all!"
It wasn't a bad idea. Twilight hadn't put all of her research chops behind studying cancer, because she hadn't yet known that Fluttershy's had metastasized. She fluffed her wings. "I'm not in favor of waking our friends up. I'm an alicorn and you're the Lord of Chaos. We can both go without sleep if we have to. Let's do it ourselves. We can bring Sunburst in on it tomorrow, and I've got some promising students—"
"Luster Dawn, and yes, but she's not the only one. Plus, there's Meadowbrook's apprentices, and they specialize in healing magic. We'll put the best minds in Equestria on researching every magical book and artifact we have access to." She looked up at him. "I know the Chaos avatars probably didn't consider curing cancer a high priority, but... maybe one of them might have known something?"
"Anansi and Coyote did a bit of healing, in their day," Discord said. "I can't access them very well."
"Do you think maybe hypnosis would help?"
"If it might help Fluttershy, I'll try anything."
"Let's start with the books I have here. I'll read as many as I can, and you have a pile of them read themselves to you on speedread, and we'll see how many we can get through before morning."