• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,105 Views, 999 Comments

Triptych - Estee


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

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Craquelure

The past is frozen.

It cannot be changed. Nothing he can do will take back a single second of what was, and that alone is cause for hate. But ultimately, there are so many reasons for past to be his least favorite -- and high among them is the clarity of memory. He does not remember everything. He will not. But for what he does choose to remember -- it is too clear. He remembers things at an intensity just a single nerve below having it all happen to him again. Phantom pains are just that -- barely. And there are things which threaten to remove that last barrier, send him far too close to going through it all a second time. Past can be a horror, containing more than a millennium’s worth of --

-- nothing.

And that was not the worst of it.

The past is frozen. And in the past, that which he thinks of now (against his will), so was -- is -- he.

He cannot move.

He cannot change. Not himself, not anything else.

He can still sense -- somewhat. He can feel the world around him. Sight and hearing -- if he strains, concentrates nearly everything he has left in a single effort, he will sometimes get a picture of events taking place at a distance. It is almost all he does, when he can spare the strength. Raging against his prison, pounding his will against the encroaching calcification, hunting for any weakness -- that occupies much of his endless time. Hate takes up most of the rest. Despair... not that he will admit to, not even to himself. And survival -- simply trying to reach the next second, swim across a single droplet of forever's ocean without giving up and letting the stability have his core... there are days, moons, years when that is all he does. All he can do.

Before this was done to him -- so long ago, memories he tries to cling to, something to give him hope for any future -- he had his fun. He did so many things, and at this point in his existence, he still considers every last one of them to have been worthwhile amusement. He was amused: the opinions of everyone else involved do not count. And should he ever get free, he will do all of it again with no regrets or cares for the consequences -- but with two differences. The first is that he has been forming a plan -- an actual plan! -- to avoid being caught a second time. It surprised him when he began to work on it and still continues to as it's refined step by laborious step, the very concept of advance strategy almost anathema to his very being -- but he has so little else to do. And it touches on a secret he has yet to discover: that within the purest chaos always lies a touch of natural order.

The second: he will never trap any entity in stone. Change, distort, twisting of minds and things much worse, things he has been planning -- but not stone. Centuries aware while the world changes and he cannot do the same... no. He will not inflict that on anyone, ever. He has developed a standard. There are some things too cruel for any entity and that, amazingly, includes those who did this to him. If he does not do the same to them, then he is their moral superior, or so he tells himself -- and so much time spent saying it has rendered it locally true. No stone, no calcification, nothing that leaves any other entity frozen. That is his vow and he will keep it until all the possibilities have come true.

(It is, in a way, the beginning of empathy. He does not know that. He would have been horrified.)

He is also planning a vicious campaign of extinction against the cockatrice. One at a time, with each being ended in a completely original way.

But when he is not doing all of that, he is frequently trying to sense, get some idea of what's going on outside, take what little comfort he can from the natural chaos of life, even as the surviving Princess tries to enforce her brand of hated order on it. He needs to know that things still can change. And --

-- he needs to be aware of his environment.

He has to know what's coming.

Just lately (how much time? How much time...), there has been something -- new. And he would have thought that anything new would be automatically welcome, any sensation beyond the endless battle to keep the calcification from reaching his heart and rendering him into a perfect example of order. Where there is perfect order, tomorrow is exactly like today. Exactly. There is no change. There is no possibility of difference. There is only tomorrow, which is today, which was yesterday, and nothing distinguishes them. A future the same as the past. Forever. And a statue sitting in a garden which no longer has knowledge of having once been something more.

That is his terror (although he would never admit it, and there is no one he could admit it to anyway, no means to speak). That is what he struggles against second by eternal second. At this point in his existence, it is the one thing he is truly afraid of --

-- or it was.

Something -- new -- has entered his fears. Something -- recent. Something he tries to keep his senses out for, something he needs to know is coming.

It is change, yes. But...

...and it is coming. Now.

He can feel it. There has never been difficulty in finding his own, not even like this.

It is -- day outside? No, night: he lost time while he tried to focus. Sunset leading into the shadows which the survivor has claimed. So much time and she still isn't completely expert at it. He remembers the half-sense of the lost (displaced, submerged, buried, screaming to get out, trapped in a different kind of stone) one's efforts and she was frankly the superior, had the common sense to at least let the sky's endless variety and change shine through. This one is a forger trying to recreate a lost masterpiece from memory. Casual viewers can't pick up the little touches which show an inferior product. He has had the time to become an expert on her flaws and came to appreciate the casual artistry of the one who was lost. Not on his level, of course, but -- at least she made an effort...

...he is trying not to think about what's coming. He knows that.

This -- could be the last. Any of them could be the last. And it happens again, and again, and again -- unless it reaches the point where it can happen no more. He has so little left, just barely enough to fight and keep the core of himself free, but this...

It's getting closer.

He can sense it. Feel the movement.

...he could --

-- give up.

Let go. Let the calcification have him. There would be nothing left to resist. There would be nothing left at all. It would be a way to defeat this other, stop it from happening because there would be no reason for it to happen. Victory by -- suicide.

...no. He will not. There has to be enough of him left to fight, to stop this if nothing else. If he truly tries this time, gives all his attention and strength to a single effort, if he can only --

-- change...

He is frozen. He cannot move. He cannot change. He is too late.

It has begun.

He tries to fight. He has been trying for -- how long has this been going on? How many times now? Dozens, at least that, could be over a hundred at this point in past. He would know if he thought about it, but he cannot think, not for more than a few seconds before even his thoughts are ripped away from him, torn and shredded into the chaos which is the essence of sentience, pulled out along with the bare scraps of strength he still has for his own, the power which lets him keep that core intact, pulled away and out, never to return. And it goes on and on until the eternal seconds become centuries, millennia, the unbearable time before there was time to keep, until he has been this way forever and there has never been anything different, his entire existence spent as a single atom feeling the electrons being torn from their shells and waiting for the nucleus to shatter. An atom which cannot scream.

It is more than theft. It is violation, reaching all the way to the core he has been so desperate to protect. It takes some of the last strength he has, the energy which allows him to still exist. And every time it happens, he waits for it to become complete. For the final dream of freedom to be rendered into its component energies and pulled away from him like everything else. For the calcification to reach his agonized thoughts and leave behind a perfect statue in a perfect garden, forever.

But -- it never goes that far. Or at least, it hasn't up until now (then). He will be left with just enough to hang on, and in time, his strength will rebuild as much as it can within this prison, bring him back to the state where he can struggle, try to sense and -- dread. Dread the next coming, the thing he cannot stop, that which his original surviving tormentor knows nothing of and in these moments of violation, of rape, he thinks that he would tell her if he could, surely she would stop this, never meant for this to happen, not -- not even to him. But then those thoughts are shredded along with the rest, and he will remember nothing of them until they come again. And they only come when it happens. And it happens again and again and again.

He can feel the calcification moving deeper. Feel what may be the next-to-last pieces of himself going away. And he screams within his prison, screams what he always screams and will continue to scream for years to come, always unheard. For to speak is to potentially change those who hear you, and that was taken from him long ago.

You're killing me!

And then even that is pulled away.


[/hr]

When each of the pony races construct buildings on their own, with no help from the other two...

Pegasus structures tend to be elaborate. After all, the building material is free, plentiful, and can be replaced with virtually no effort. Want a mansion? It's a few hours of extra work, mostly spent in the molding and application of those special touches which make the vapor resistant to future change from anypony except the owner. (Another pegasus can't casually break up somepony's home the way they do other clouds: taking apart an actual structure requires the same amount of demolition effort as it would take for the truly solid buildings on the ground. It's a simple and practical measure for a race which used to spend a lot of time planning siege warfare against everypony else -- and each other.) Even the laziest among them will typically wind up with something of multiple stories featuring vaulting curves and prismatic fountains. Why not spread out? It's not as if anypony charges rent for the sky, and one of the rudest shocks for those who emigrate to the ground is the concept of land ownership and everything that comes with it -- something which has sent a few flying back up, vowing never to return.

Earth ponies, who know all about land ownership (or as they generally think of it, long-term rental with no option to truly possess), are of necessity more practical. Their buildings take longer to construct (although some have rendered barn raising into a two-hour art form) and require much more effort. This sends some of them into practical streaks: you only put together what you're going to need because every nail is going to be hammered in by the tool in your own mouth and you will feel the vibrations in your skull for hours, so it had better be worth it. (Steel shoes for hoof-hammering exist and are used, but never completely came into fashion for those who follow the oldest traditions.) It doesn't mean furnishings tend to be spartan -- just that the structures containing them are typically more basic. If an earth pony goes for a major spin around the world of architecture on their own, it represents an incredible dedication to the final result. Blood, sweat, tears, musclepower, some very complex pulley systems, and a whole lot of headache to create what's yours. Other earth ponies look at such buildings with respect: the builder thought the result was worth it, and they will appreciate the effort -- if not necessarily the art.

Unicorns generally don't like to admit it, but the average strength of a typical field can't move anywhere near as much mass as an earth pony can haul. Oh, they can use earth pony techniques (but not pegasi ones) if they want to and some will supplement their field manipulations with more than a touch of old-fashioned horsepower, but there are always elitists who refuse to get their mouths dirty. For them, it's a magic-channeled build or nothing -- which, given the difficulty in combining strength, gives you a good portrait of the main builder's raw power. Thin wooden planks, small stones, normal bricks -- signs of an average field at work. Those with higher strength tend to -- show off. They won't necessarily go piling up the largest boulders in the area and calling the center hollow a living room, but there will be indications of power somewhere in the structure: heavy beams, major stone columns used as supports, with extreme cases displaying a single huge leveled-off rock turned into the base of the ground floor.

Twilight's first impression of Quiet Presence's castle was that the original builder had constructed a three-story shout of ego -- one which Rainbow Dash would have considered excessive. (And a short distance above her, the pegasus was doing exactly that.)

It was, as the small stallion had said, not particularly large -- for a castle. The entire thing would have fit nicely in the party-hosting center of the Royal Gardens without touching a single border plant, or could be dropped into Luna's favorite (and private) bath without doing more than flooding two neighboring castle wings. But it still had more than a little size to it: the ground floor rang in at roughly a hundred and twenty percent of the dimensions for the base of Doctor Gentle's former residence, and it kept that up without inward slant all the way to the roof -- plus a single conical tower at the back left, which had -- she squinted -- yes! A telescope! But at the base level -- slabs of stone. Thick field-carved planes of rock levitated into place and then forced against each other into natural bracing positions which kept the smaller boulders above them well-supported while simultaneously screaming Look What A Really Big Rock I Can Lift! Can You Match This? I Don't Think So! And By The Way, The Only Reason I Didn't Keep This Up All The Way To The Top Was Because Some Idiot In My Family Really Wanted Some Stupid Windows! Which meant that at second glance, it came across as a castle -- and at the first one, as something sitting on a giant stone pimple. A pimple which had fortifications.

She looked at Quiet. He blushed, a tinge of faint rose within the grey. "I did say it was inherited, right?"

Twilight fought back the giggle. "You mentioned, yes..."

"Oh. Good."

Placidly, "Middle Period Neoclassical Self-Importance, right?"

"Actually, I think he was going for Early Canterlot Look What A Strong Field I've Got. And I know -- it looks as if I should be able to host all of you and your extended families without having to move a single couch, but the problem is that my family's been living here for centuries. And they all added their own touches to the interior -- none of which I'm permitted to throw away because it would disrespect my ancestors, plus Celestia only knows when we're going to need an armory again. Generation after generation of pony shopaholic hoarders. I've kept the corridors clear, but the place is still about one-fourth living space and three-quarters museum." A tiny, fully resigned shrug. "And I swore I wouldn't make it worse for anypony else -- until I discovered I liked furniture."

"An' playgrounds," Applejack grinned. "Ah've never seen so many little rides an' sports fields in mah life -- an' they're all new." She nodded at the extensive array of equipment, roughly a third of which was being used by a wandering tumble of unicorn and pegasi younglings. "That's from you, Mr. Presence?"

He nodded. "Given that we're several hundred years past worrying about needing the space to repel invaders, I thought I could do something a little more practical with it. Since we really can't get a park going -- well, the Doctor entertains those of his who come by and I take everypony else."

The farmer chuckled. "Ah don't even want t' think 'bout how badly yer gonna spoil the first one of yer own..."

The unicorn stallion looked away from her, turned his attention to the children. Listened to their laughter. Wouldn't look at any of the adults. And all of the Elements found themselves bearing a single piece of knowledge.

Applejack's voice was soft. "Ah -- Ah didn't mean --"

The softest of sighs. "No, Miss Applejack -- you didn't, and you had no way of knowing, and you are not going to apologize for anything because there's no reason to. But your guess is correct. I -- have a weakness in my blood. It's the reason I'm a lone foal, and I will not chance passing it to the next generation. But -- there is hope. There is work being done on a cure, and some of it is starting to show promise. I brought children here so there would be fillies and colts laughing on my fields -- but my own may still join them someday. We're closer to that than ever before." He turned back to face her, smiled a little. "Voice of hope."

Solemn, "Ah wish you all the luck there is, Mr. Presence."

Gently, "I'll take it, Miss Applejack, along with your keeping of my semi-secret -- and that is a koi pond. Miss Pie? They will look out of the water to see you. It's really not going to help them if you keep your head dunked..."


[/hr]

It was surprisingly easy to settle in.

There weren't many guest rooms left in the castle. (Quiet showed them a few which had once held that status, now stocked with paintings, sculpture -- and yes, an armory, which included a selection of pegasi tail-mounted razorwhips. Twilight just barely restrained herself from a full immersion in the flow of history, especially after their host offhoofedly mentioned that the collection had never been cataloged.) But the ones which were left were elaborate, with fine old furniture, soft (if slightly musty) beds, and a large number of very old and still functional enchanted conveniences. Rainbow Dash was rather taken with the automatic bookmark, while Fluttershy stared (but didn't Stare) at the timed animal feeder. "...and it drops a new ration every eight hours? Without needing anypony to trigger it...? and it can add a cherry to the top? ...where could I find one? ...oh, but it's probably really expensive..."

"I have no pets," Quiet had told her. "And I need the space more than a conversation piece which has had one pegasus mention it in four centuries, plus I'm sure there must be one ancestor who isn't paying attention. Please take it with you when you go. In fact, if you want to mail it ahead, I'll give you the directions to the post office right now..."

Overall, the place was astonishingly homey, especially given the forbidding exterior at that ground level and the slightly chill-feeling stone which made up virtually all of the walls. The furnishings could be somewhat overbearing, and Rarity pulled Twilight aside to make a slightly unkind remark about somepony who surely wasn't their host, somepony who'd had the sheer lack of grace to bring in anything from the Vorpidi era and not use it as kindling on the spot... (Twilight had spent a good five minutes examining the offending hoofbath before realizing she was never going to find anything wrong with it and moving on.) But the place had a real sense of having been lived in: perhaps it was at best one-quarter residence -- but for that portion, ponies had been doing a lot of residing. It didn't hurt that Twilight's room (towards the back, facing the falls -- their known presence was more a matter of hearing than sight, but she found the sound comforting) had a porch -- one which seemed to have been added a few centuries after the original construction.

The third-floor baths had been set up in the classic dual style: a single large shallow pool for groups (elevated: they had to climb steps to reach the water level) and smaller, partition-shielded miniature grottoes for individuals. (A number of ponies still regard baths as social occasions: get most of the dirt off in private, then join the family in a soak for half an hour or so before retiring behind the partition to rinse.) There was enough hot water available to keep Spike happy, and the seven took an extended time-out, letting the lightly-perfumed plumes of steam do their healing work -- or as much as they could before Twilight found herself on the receiving end of a lecture delivered by, of all ponies, Rainbow Dash. "Seriously, Twilight, your feathers are horrible! I know you just got your wings and it's not like your parents ever showed you proper preening techniques, but you should have come to one of us! If you let that get much worse... you are begging for some nasty parasite to take you on as a permanent lunch date! Get over here: Fluttershy and I are going to be the teachers for a change..." And then she'd had to hunch down low in the water while the two pegasi had systematically shown her how to properly clean her feathers, one at a time, including getting some of them dirty again so they could watch her new and awkward technique at work. Thirty minutes had become eighty before they were satisfied enough with her amateur efforts to release her, and Twilight silently swore at least a little of the lesson had been payback for the oft-repeated definition of an anemometer.

Her wounds had been tended to. The backlash's effect had mainly sent her into unconsciousness, and the extended soak shoved most of the lingering aches into the background. Fluttershy checked the head injury and pronounced it healing, but (pointlessly) advised Twilight to try and avoid having anything hit her for a few days.

There was talk of their host (although not of the mission). "A perfect gentleman," Rarity decided, "although I think I will have to do something about getting him to drop that 'Miss'. I appreciate the proper formalities as much as any lady, but to have him on a strictly casual basis with Twilight and not the rest of us... something may have to be said."

Pinkie was floating on her back at the far end of the pool, occasionally blowing small fountains out of a snorkel which might have been in her bags. Or not. "He's got really great taste in playground stuff! I've never seen a slide that high! You'd have to rig one off the side of the castle to beat it! -- say, do you think if we asked, he'd let me --"

"NO!" -- and after the group shout turned into a group giggle, Fluttershy awkwardly took it from there. "...I wish I knew what was wrong with him... I know how to stop a cough like that, at least until the next time -- but if it's something inherited..."

Applejack sighed. "Takes a big stallion t' hold himself back from makin' things worse for other ponies, even when that stallion is --" she frowned, as if a thought had momentarily slipped the lasso "-- a -- small one? Yeah. But -- Ah don't know. Ah kind of like him, an' Ah appreciate what he's doin', puttin' us up like this -- but Ah don't like bein' here. A town with no earth ponies but me an' Pinkie..." Another sigh, and she sunk lower in the water. "Now that's not natural. Ah heard what he said an' Ah understand it, but -- doesn't feel right. Not at'tall."

Twilight twisted in the water to face Applejack more directly, let the heat work into her withers. "Ponyville only integrated forty years ago, though?"

"Yeah," Applejack reluctantly admitted. "We started as an earth pony town, an' -- well, it's pretty much what he said. Once we were up an' running, the pegasi came in an' started the distance trade routes. After a while, a couple of unicorns showed up. Then we had families, an' -- the population started t' -- balance, Ah guess. It's still an earth pony majority, pretty much. But -- we're a young town, compared t' this place. They would have had lotsa chances t' mix up."

Rarity rolled onto her right side, let her mane stream out in the flow from the waterspout behind her. "But what about places like Appleloosa? Where just about everypony is an earth pony." There was a long pause before she continued with "I -- had some stares when we were there. And part of that was just for the rarity of my presence, and I know Twilight had her share -- but there were a few frontier ponies who..." She looked briefly, oddly awkward, as if the next words were being blocked by a dam of social graces -- and the water within was turning foul.

Applejack didn't take the cue: she simply lowered herself still deeper into the water and let her tail spread across the current.

Twilight finished the sentence instead. "...who looked at us as if we didn't belong there."

And that got Applejack's attention. "Two new unicorns in an earth pony town, y'two, with the Effect still bein' laid down -- of course yer gonna stand out. That's different."

"How?" Pinkie, oddly challenging. "How is that different from us being here as the only two earth ponies in a unicorn town?"

The farmer's increase in volume was small, but sharp. "Just is! Look, can we not compare apples t' oranges here? 'cause Ah ain't bringin' mah Manehattan family inta this. Ah just wanna get the rest of the dirt off an' go have dinner. An' after that, we've got -- other things t' think about."

Rainbow Dash looked up from her own feather preening. "I want to go into that bar we passed."

"Why?" Applejack asked with just a little too much residual challenge.

"Because Daring Do says you're always supposed to go into the bar! Okay, and -- maybe that turns into a fight most of the time, but it's the seven of us! We can handle it!"

"Six," Twilight firmly insisted. "I am not bringing Spike into a watering hole."

The little dragon pushed himself away from the main hot water spout, sputtering. "Twilight!"

"No, Spike. Not a bar. Mom and Dad would be in my mane for moons. You are years away from going in there on your own, and after what happened the last time you got ahold of firewhiskey..."

"Nothing happened!"

"I know. Nothing happened to you. The pony you got into the drinking contest with didn't wake up for two days!"

"But what if you need me? What if you need a little fire, or -- you have to send a letter, or -- Rarity needs to adjust a dress and has to use a backup pincushion, or..." It might have seemed impossible for her brother to reach more than that, but he gave it a try anyway. "...there's a migration coming through here by accident and you need somepony who can give them directions..."

"No. Means. No." Some of the water around the little dragon flashed into steam: she ignored it. "Not a bar. I promised our parents and it's more than my life's worth to get Mom that mad. You're going to hold down the home base. That's it."

"So we're going?" Rainbow Dash enthused. "Cool! I haven't gone bar-crawling with you guys since we closed Doughnut Joe's after the Gala!"

"Yeah," Applejack darkly muttered. "An' there's a reason for that."

"Aw, come on! The Princess got all the charges cleared!"

Twilight sank so low in the water as to nearly have the warm flow washing into her mouth, which at least might have gotten rid of the last lingering bits of aftertaste. "Arrested," she muttered, still feeling the residual humiliation. (Which actually tasted worse than the grass.) "Arrested because some of the Gala attendees called the Lunar Guards and we didn't know about it until they stormed into the bar." The Princess hadn't known about it because she'd been with them through the closing of the doughnut shop -- and had then headed to bed. "And then you resisted..."

"Because all I did was catch a statue!"

"Yes," Rarity dryly agreed. "Badly, Rainbow Dominoes."

"Thanks a lot, Cake Makeup Of The Moon Club." Assorted giggles, including from the insulting parties. "Look, if it'll make anypony feel better, I won't start anything."

"...you said you didn't start it last time either," Fluttershy reminded the other pegasus. "...just that you were finishing..."

The cyan one treated her fellow to a timber wolfish grin which suggested the only thing she personally might have liked more than loops was loopholes. "Let's dry off and go eat, okay? I really want to see what our host is going to do for Element-Bearers and a Princess." Her tone suggested the food would need to be coated with edible gold. "Besides, Twilight has to teach the Doctor all about how his own trick works. Good thing he doesn't have feathers to clean..."

And that did leave a fully sunken Twilight with a snoutful of water. (It did nothing for either aftertaste.)


[/hr]

Dinner was -- interesting.

No servants had worked at Doctor Gentle's residence. Quiet seemed determined to make up for it. Their dinner was cooked by unicorns, with empty plates whisked away by fields within seconds and new courses floated in directly behind. There were foods Twilight had never seen, pastries the Princess might not have gotten to yet, actual Saddle Arabian grass -- oddly light, somewhat flavorful, with a burn which only kicked in ten minutes after you stopped eating it -- and sorbets to cleanse their palettes between dishes, which finally got rid of the lingering wild zone grass. The long low table (which was Neoclassical: they were essentially lying down to eat) was continually being filled and refilled without pause -- or, after the fourth course, mercy. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie managed to keep up with all of it. Twilight and Spike, who both had experience with Canterlot feasts, saw it coming early and went into portion control mode. Fluttershy politely begged off after the fifth round. Applejack, used to farm meals and the hearty amounts of calories required to keep her roaming across Sweet Apple Acres for far too long at a stretch, spent an awkward minute carefully asking their host about which items within a single course were meant to be eaten first before he cut her off with a smile and freed her to just eat. And Rarity, who was determined to match this new form of courtly table manners, did her best to keep the empty plates flowing away from her -- at least until the whites of her eyes began to flush green.

"You can't always eat like this," she told the thin stallion. Her face briefly assumed the expression of somepony who was assuredly not swallowing back a burp. (There was at least no fear of offending Quiet's spouse, who was in Manehattan and was expected to remain there for the next three days.) "Nopony could without needing even more servants to carry them everywhere they went."

Quiet smiled. "I confess -- I'm showing off. I don't even have this many ponies on my staff, but with the Element-Bearers staying with me and the promise of a Royal Voucher for all my costs -- well, I just had to bring in a temporary or two from town. You're having some of the best of what Trotter's Falls has to offer -- which means the best of Equestria and beyond. You have been enjoying your food, yes?"

"Yes, of course," Rarity quickly admitted. "I just hadn't been expecting to -- enjoy so -- much of it." The expression came and went.

Doctor Gentle smiled down the table at her. "I'm afraid that along with a desire to impress, my young friend is prone to the relaxed sort of jest, my dear. It would not surprise me if he had also wanted to see who could manage to set a pace. And even with my having missed seeing half the dinner --" he had arrived three courses in, citing extended discussions with many of his who had needed to hurry for the train station, needing to get back to their lives but refusing to do so before they spoke with him "-- the part I did witness saw a certain stallion revisiting his youth by smuggling some of the food off his plate when nopony was looking..."

Quiet chuckled a little. "All right, all right -- I owed a certain somepony for making me recite my title. But unfortunately, she's managed to keep up. Canterlot training strikes again... and I understand you're going out after this?"

Twilight nodded. "Just to the local bar."

Rainbow Dash took over. "I saw this vintage in the window which we just don't get in Ponyville. I kind of talked the others into it. Besides -- when else are we going to be hanging around here? I want to see what this town's really got to offer!"

"In the case of the Suffolk Downs Vineyard? Enough foreign tannic acids to change the color of one's coat for days," Quiet dryly said. "But I'm assured the taste is worth it... Well, if that's the kind of local color you're after, you're all grown mares." (Spike pouted.) "And it's not as if I can tell any of you what to do -- but Celestia's shoes, avoid the peanuts and at least half the patrons."

"Only half?" Doctor Gentle calmly asked. "Well, the locals have calmed in my brief absence..."

Twilight smiled at him. "I think that's your cue, sir -- especially since we're on dessert."

The older stallion nodded. "It's not much of a story, Princess. If you're looking for a daring escape from a blaze chasing after my tail, I can't offer it. I wasn't at the house when the fire came. I --" he hesitated, then continued "-- well, it's hardly a secret: I have my own skill at teleportation. It's what helps me arrive in time when I can, although I still have to travel normally to some of my clients and most cities first. You know the procedure."

Twilight wasn't surprised. "Learning the environment and establishing a safe arrival point," she said.

Another nod. "Exactly. And I've still been through recoil, thank you... more than a few times." And a small sigh. "Unfortunately, nesting future mothers have a tendency to rearrange furniture... well, in this case, I had an appointment in Las Pegasus, or at least below it. A friend and actual physician who insisted that I and nopony else attend at the arrival of her first."

Twilight blinked. "You -- can go that far?" She'd never managed that kind of jump -- not even an appreciable fraction of it! "I've barely even read about those kinds of attempts!"

Doctor Gentle shook his head. "Yes -- and no. I have safe points along the way -- some of mine maintain spaces for me so that I can travel in a series of shorter journeys through the between. In stages, it's much more manageable. So I arrived to find that her prediction of her due time had been accurate: she was in labor. And as she had feared after checking her family history, the foal was not in a good presentation. So I invoked the Exception and began to turn her newborn -- a colt, by the way -- but as soon as I'd finished, she..." A long, embarrassed pause. "Well, she was in labor when I arrived. There was no time to get her to the table, so I was unable to strap her hind legs -- and between the moment I finished turning the colt and the one where I would have released the field, the pain hit her and -- she kicked. I think you can guess where her hoof landed."

Rarity and Twilight -- along with a freshly-educated group of friends -- winced. "Oh dear," Rarity breathed. "A Stage One, I take it?"

"And not a kind one," the doctor verified. "It could have been much worse, actually -- when Fluttershy came to us, I needed a double corona just to establish a grip. It's become easier over the years -- but it hasn't been that long since I managed to get it down to a single. As it was, she wound up doing the rest of the work on her own and then had to tend to me immediately after checking on her son. And she kept me in her home until she was sure I'd recovered enough to travel -- which, combined with a new mother's reluctance to leave her foal and my own less than ideal condition, kept us both out of the rumor loops for some time. I didn't know about what happened until her husband was finally released from caring for both of us and ventured outside. But --" looking around at all of them "-- the leg will heal, my home can be rebuilt, and nothing has truly been lost. I am simply sorry to have caused so much of a fuss. It has been wonderful seeing so many in a short time -- but the reason, and the time some of them could not afford to give... I will be a long time making amends."

Pinkie shook her head, and the force behind it sent curls bouncing everywhere. "You gave us our time! All of it! Why can't we give some of it back? Without you -- some of us wouldn't have had any time at all. And me..." More softly, "I had to come."

"...we all had to," Fluttershy softly added. "...all of us. Please, Doctor... you should never feel bad because friends want to help... and you were our first friend..."

He managed a smile. "I understand, my eldest and my most determined. It's just -- the quantity, I suppose."

"You've touched a lot of lives, first friend," Quiet told him. "I think you lost track of just how many until they all began to show up. Remembering every name is one thing -- seeing every pony is a little more overwhelming. And that was still only a fraction of them -- and there are those in transit who won't get the news until they arrive here, and they'll insist on seeing you before they turn around -- your social calendar is going to be busy for some time. If you could just manage a small kickback from the hotel..."

Which got a little laugh. "Yes, some of them did mention the conditions. You can't ask pegasi to sleep in chandeliers..." (Rainbow Dash looked away and tried not to whistle.) "I suppose I can try to think of it as a very intensive reunion. Which reminds me -- tomorrow, could I have time with the two of you, if at all possible? I'll take my own rest tonight while the younger seek out their fun, but hearing about the most recent adventures of the Element-Bearers... I have yet to reach the Empire on my own: I would love a firsthoof account." Fluttershy and Pinkie immediately assented. "Thank you -- and now I believe you all should save some room for drink? And the young dragon will surely need to sleep some of that meal off. I know our local garnets look beautiful, but I have no idea what they do to a dragon metabolism when consumed in bulk."

"They... make you sleepy," Spike yawned, and shot a brief glare at Twilight, who had loaded up his plate herself. "And some ponies know it... fine, I'll get some sleep, Twilight." That with a distinct undertone of I Will Have My Revenge, But It Will Take Some Time To Figure Out What It's Going To Be.

"You do that," said the older sister in the certain confidence that she would see it coming (when her actual record was closer to seventy percent). "Once again, Quiet, thank you for the meal --" and thank goodness the Princess would be hoofing the bill: free food and Dash was a dangerous and expensive combination with normal prices "-- but if you can continue trusting us to take care of ourselves, we should probably be heading out."

"And what could I do if I didn't?" Quiet asked, bemused. "But be careful, even so -- the town is in a celebratory mood, including its visitors -- and celebratory is going to turn into drunk before the night ends."

"We'll manage," Applejack assured him. "So thank y'kindly, an' let's send all these other ponies back t' their own homes..."

Within three minutes, the Element-Bearers had cleared out -- with Twilight levitating a sleepy dragon back to their temporary quarters -- and the servants, both hired and borrowed, had left the room. It was just the two stallions remaining, and they both took their time making sure that was absolutely the case before continuing the conversation.

"So what do you think of them, Quiet?"

"They're -- a strange group, in their way," the younger stallion conceded. "So many backgrounds, so different in their personalities. And yet they all manage to stay together and achieve some form of Harmony. I normally wouldn't believe you could keep that kind of assemblage together for more than a single task at best, but -- there they are. Not what I had expected. I've heard stories of Twilight's skills and of course I remember what you said about yours, but -- in a fashion, they're almost ordinary. Certainly not the egos I would expect from those who've done so much -- well, with the one obvious exception."

The doctor chuckled. "Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie are anything but ordinary. Our new Princess is extraordinary. I've heard of the pegasus and her achievements in flight. I suspect the other two have their hidden talents as well. But yes -- it's an odd collection, but a pleasing one. I suppose I'm simply satisfied to see mine with such good friends. Especially Fluttershy. When last I saw them both, they were full of stories about what they had all done together, but -- I had no time to meet the other four. Well, with them here..." He trailed off, glanced at Quiet. "I will admit -- it was something of a shock to see a success."

"For me as well," Quiet confessed. "She's beautiful -- she truly is. And I'm completely certain she doesn't realize that..." A sigh, and a pained shrug. "But you are the lucky stallion here. All this time when we couldn't approach her, not with her under the wings of the Princess -- all those missed chances to have some of ours speak with her -- and now? She has come to us, arguably right when we need her most of all. And she wants to talk with you about magic. She loves to learn, I can see that -- no matter how Coordinator tried to twist it in his description. And I think she loves to teach just as much. If you ask your questions carefully..."

"I intend to," Doctor Gentle assured him. "It may take some time to find the right phrasing, but -- she is probably used to being quizzed on it, given how new it is: everypony must be asking her. I will just -- take more care." His field surrounded a pastry, brought it up for a touch of sweetness. "If they'd only brought the Elements -- but then, why would they, just to search for me? They have no finding powers -- at least, not that I've ever discovered."

Quiet paused, gathering his slight strength. "My -- condition came up." The older stallion looked at him with open curiosity. "A coughing fit on the way in -- your Fluttershy is quite the skilled emergency medic. And after that, there was an opportunity to disclose -- another part of it. A natural outflow of the conversation."

"And yet a painful one." There was no argument. "How did they react?"

"With sympathy."

"I would have expected no less. Quiet -- do you feel they like you?"

He gave the question some very visible thought before starting to venture around the curve of the punctuation mark. "Casually. The earth pony is reluctant to -- I think it's my title as much as anything else, along with a possible nod towards my horn, but she at least has some respect for me. The others have no objection to my presence, and Twilight --" he smiled "-- does like me. I'm sure of that. You don't put somepony through a title unless you're looking for a war or a friendship. I'm certain it's the latter."

"And you like her." A simple statement.

Quickly, "I'm married. And even if I wasn't, she's an alicorn: so far above even my station as to -- and nearly every stallion or mare she encounters is going to feel that way, aren't they? At least most of the sober ones and those who aren't using romance for climbing to the highest tier or just want to say they spent the night with a Princess without lying... oh, what a mess her dating life is going to be. But yes -- I like her. More than I expected to. She's this delightful blend of eager and awkward added to knowledge and power... an amazing mare."

Doctor Gentle smiled, adjusted his position to let his injured leg have more freedom, took another bite of pastry. "Are you willing to use that connection?"

"You know I am."

"I know." Another statement. "And -- will you?"

"If I can."

"Good."


[/hr]

She was home.

She did not intend to stay for long. She had barely gotten in: the emergency passage had been almost impossible to find from the outside, and had remained so until she had thought (with some embarrassment) to simply ask. And it had still taken hours to reach the place where she could ask, along with working her hidden way around so very many ponies, waiting for the Sun to set and allow her an unimpeded search... one where sight had been no good at any point and only feel had worked in the end. But for now, she had a place to hide where no eyes would find her -- not even his, for she had no intention of allowing him to see her until she had her answers to give.

There was no damage here, at least to the rooms. (The irreparable harm she had done to herself and him did not count.) So she had cleaned herself -- the washing had been still more pain, but so was everything else and at least the scents of the outside were gone for now. The food supplies would last her some time: as he tended to take long absences, there had been care taken to assure she could survive for extended periods without his presence, and she doubted she would need all of it before reaching a conclusion. Her notes were intact and after a time spent reviewing, she began to add new ones.

Her memories were out of reach -- for now.

She had begun to -- experiment. It was necessary. She hated her failure, wanted (almost) nothing more than to reach the end of both it and her wasted life -- but now she had to understand it. There would be a success facing her, and that would have been an intimidating prospect at the best of times. This was anything but. She did not feel she had a single advantage going in, no edges over what she might be confronting -- but the more she knew about her horror, the better she might be able to withstand it long enough to use any edge it might somehow offer.

In a way, she knew more about two of her twistings than most of the ponies who lived in them. But that was just knowledge, studies made with the idea that when The Great Work was complete, she would finally be able to put those facts to use. She had failed. Not been The One, not united into a coherent whole. There were just -- stages. States of being in near-perpetual transition. But she knew those stages and when she was fully in the heart of each, the magic inherent to those states functioned. To that degree, the failure had not been total.

But -- she only understood those magics as knowledge. The practice -- she had learned to grasp, but managing force was so very difficult to master. (The idea that simply getting a grasp that quickly would have been an immense achievement for somepony else never reached her.) Flight... yes, somewhat, but it was as much a matter of getting the atmosphere to stop responding, and that was a problem she continued to have with the here-and-gone-again horn. Things happened, and she controlled very few of them. However -- things were happening, and some of them had been controlled. With time, more control might come.

(She had killed. She knew she had killed, knew what and understood that they were threatening her, would have done the same. They were still deaths. Still unintended. Still her fault.)

As for the third -- she was managing. Somehow, apart from the pain, she was managing. But it seemed as if the feel was everywhere, especially in her place, and there were times when her own voice seemed so very --

-- loud.

She could not stop the changes: nothing she tried had slowed the endless cycle by so much as a single heartbeat. She had wondered about the opposite, and it almost seemed as if it might be possible, but -- it was the agony of the twisting. To accelerate -- would it mean going through all of that at once? She didn't know if it was possible to survive that. As a final means of ending, there was a certain irony to it: as a tactic -- no. Not unless there was no other choice. For now, she would simply have to be very careful about her timing, venturing out when she was closest to each center stage in order to take best advantage before one state began to fade so another could ascend. Literally ascend.

Being seen... that was still a concern. But her appearance was changing. She only appeared as something close to herself in one of the three. (There were some small differences. She could not ignore them. She had tried.) Did it count as being spotted if nopony could recognize her a few hours later? She wasn't sure about that. And she knew she would need to be out there if she was going to have any real chance of making this work. The true core of the rule, she felt, was not being tied to him. That might make it more a matter of caution about words than appearance...

...no. The rules were still the rules, and she would follow them as best she could -- but ultimately, if it came down to somepony other than her target potentially seeing her, with that sighting meaning the difference between solving the puzzle of The Great Work and yet another failure -- then let her be seen. Ultimately, she knew what had to take priority. The goal remained the goal, even if she could no longer achieve it. This was still about everypony else, and her disaster might bring them that much closer to their own successes. She had failed him. She could not do the same for the thousands of unknown others.

(Thousands of ponies. She could almost picture that now.)

So -- if she had to be out in public -- the key might be in keeping other ponies from realizing something was wrong. It wasn't just venturing outside during the (literal) peaks: it would be allowing no signs of her pain to escape. Could she manage that? Was it even possible? If she had the right medicines -- painkillers strong enough to at least coat the sharpest edges in dull earth, turn slicing stabs into grinding bruises... but there was nothing in her place: he had treated her on the rare occasions when she became sick, and she knew better than to trust leftover drugs which had aged far past their prime. Still -- something to be considered for whatever amount of later remained. For now, her next concern was being able to travel. And for travel...

...all she had to do was wait.

She had listened to the ponies from her hidden places, and there had been a second topic roaming through the air. There was him and the relief she shared -- and there was Twilight Sparkle. Who would be staying at the castle for some unknown period of time.

She could find a castle.