• Published 5th May 2013
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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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Naturalism

It will be one of the happiest days of her life.

She is almost finished completely moving in (a process which has taken two moons), is as close to broke as she has been since fillyhood when her parents (who love her, who don't understand her, don't understand this) would give her a tiny portion of allowance to spend on diluted rainbows and candied cumulus, neither of which ever truly appealed to her. She would spend on fruit. Summer hay. Things from below, even when she was very young, long before she made her first (involuntary) visit. Foodstuffs she can now have all the time if she can just get things going to the point where she'll be able to pay for them -- or simply take advantage of what comes from being on the ground.

The place is truly her own. Her parents gave her the money to pay for it. It was the extensive savings of bits which were originally supposed to be used for weather college, now sunken into ground. They (care for her so much, sometimes look at her as if they can't understand how she could truly be their daughter) had such hopes for her, she knows. So much of her extended family has worked for the Weather Bureau, many high-ranking, some in charge of entire cities, a few even venturing out into the wild zones and trying to establish control before control, taming the worst portions before they can surprise pony lands. And so long before she was born, her parents began to save, for scholarships were hard to come by (although they'd been confident in her -- before she was born) and the best weather colleges were always expensive: even a full break on tuition and a possible legacy discount for board would have meant high expenses for food, books, and everything else that came with higher education -- everything except dating. She gave up on dating while she was still attending the most basic of flight camps, surrendered the idea long before the point of first inquiry to an attack of foal laughter and fled from it, never to return. She has known she would be an old maid of a mare from the age of ten. Nothing has happened to change her mind. She has nothing anypony would desire to be with. She is --

-- defective.

She knows it.

And maybe now it won't matter any more.

She looks around. The land was -- well, cheap, really. She got quite a lot of it for what she had to spend and understands that it's hers, although she's still trying to work out this thing called 'property tax' and hopes it won't come back to haunt her. Nopony else wanted to live here, and she does understand why. The reason scares her, has kept her from sleeping well on those occasions when she does sleep (averaging less than three hours in every day even when she was the tiniest filly, and then a little less after her mark appeared), and she is waiting for something to go wrong there. But in a way -- this is where she had to be.

Still -- she is living right next to a wild zone. The real estate agent had kept explaining that to her, over and over, as if afraid she might come back to sue him over claims that she'd never been told. The strange realm known as the Everfree Forest starts mere hoofsteps away from the edge of her property. He had told her she was barely within the zone of control. Said something she didn't really understand about background effect possibly not reaching her. That he wasn't responsible for whatever scented pony so close to the border and came out to get a closer look -- or worse, like the worse which he never quite discussed, the one which seemed to have happened to the prior occupant. He, in fact, nearly talked her out of it several times, and it was with shaking feathers and chattering teeth that she finally signed the papers (with signature not all that legible), just barely old enough to legally take responsibility on the contract, and she only managed it because she'd been waiting for years to do it and saving up that much courage over so very long had turned out to be just barely enough.

But -- this is where she has to be, isn't it? The animals are in that forest. Some of them may venture out to her. She may (it scares her, it terrifies, it makes all four knees shake) have to go in deep to find them. That's her job. She knows that more strongly that she's ever known anything, and all it sometimes takes to make lingering doubts go away is a glance back at her flank. It felt as if the mark spoke to her on the day it first appeared, told her what she was meant to do and be. And now she is old enough (if just barely) to do and be. She is here, on the ground.

She is home.

For the first time in her life, she is truly home.

And now she is making ready for her first visitor -- well, her first pony visitor, anyway. Some of the animals have already begun to find her -- and the reverse. Resting in her living room right now is a baby -- bunny? Yes, bunny: she's still trying to learn all of the names -- whom she found along the edges of the Everfree during her first cautious peek in. It had been under attack by something which -- well, which had every natural right to attack and eat him because that was how the bigger thing lived. She understands that, knows she'll have to deal with it over and over in the years to come, realized that so early. But it still hadn't made her happy, and she had --

-- done --

-- something.

Eye contact. Something in her stare. Something which makes her a little afraid of herself --

-- but it had worked, and now the tiny bunny (whose parents she could not find) is recovering in her living room. She pulled him out of the cycle when she did that, she knows, felt it on the level of the mark. But -- there's such a thing as pets, right? Pets who aren't birds and bats and the larger insects. Pets are outside the cycle, just a little. Maybe he'd like to be her pet. She'll have to ask him.

She sings to herself as she walks along the ground -- walks! Ground! -- and makes ready. The interior of the cottage has been cleaned, something which has already shown the signs of becoming a permanent struggle: few of her early guests are housebroken. She cleaned the exterior, floor to roof, and was amazed at the solidity against her hooves. Clouds always felt -- too soft. Tacky. Like she was sinking a few centimeters into slightly undermade taffy. Walking across the floors of her parents' house, the streets of Cloudsdale, watching all the pegasi going about their business as if strolling on vapor was the most natural thing in the world -- she never quite got the feel of it or the total feel. And now she knows why. Because this wonderful place was waiting for her, and all it took to make things right -- or at least create the chance for it -- was the arrival of her cutie mark.

That, ultimately, was what her parents had understood. The mark could not be denied. They love her, they wish her well, they did everything they could to help set her up in this new life. Don't understand her at all or how such a strange mark could manifest on their daughter. Still. And they love her anyway.

She checks the little stream. A fish pokes its head out at her, raises back fins slightly out of the water and splashes her face. She laughs.

And her visitor's voice is alight with wonder. "There were days when I never thought I'd hear that, Fluttershy. Never hear you happy."

She doesn't jump or start: he always comes like this, and she's been expecting him all morning. "Doctor!" she laughs again and gallops towards him, almost bowling him over when she makes contact. (She is thin still, just filling out along her body, the stretched-out appearance and overall gawkiness of an early puberty finally starting to fade, but she's stronger than she looks.) "You made it!"

His eyes twinkle. "Did you think I wouldn't come?"

She seems to shrink a little. "...no... just that... there are so many other ponies and..."

A hoof gently touches her chin, props her head up. "Relax, my eldest. I came to see you. My newest friend was two days ago and my next should be here in another three. My time now is for you."

"...but I'm not worth..."

He shushes her. She hugs him with her wings as best she can. And then she begins to show him around.

"A henhouse?" he asks, and his voice is -- amazed. "Were you also planning to take on tenants?"

"Not really," she tells him. "The big farms get most of the boarders, and I'm still getting used to having the ones who don't talk around. But -- I like the chickens, and they like me. A rooster came in two days ago... there's a couple in town who said they always need fresh eggs, and that's a few bits... I know it's going to be hard to keep this place up, but if I line up everything I can -- I did the math, I think I can manage if I just watch my expenses. Boarders wouldn't hurt, but..."

"They talk," he smiles. "Maybe in time --" and the words stop. He is staring. Looking at the ground ahead as if he might never blink again.

"...Doctor?"

"I," he softly declares, "seem to be rather hungry after my journey. Do you think any of those carrots are ready?"

"Yes!" she laughs, and runs into the garden to pull the choicest one out herself, lets his field take it once it clears the ground. "It was one of the first things I began working on when I started moving in two moons ago. It's an earth pony town, at least mainly, and with so many of them -- I just tried, and I could do it! It was so easy! And anything I grow is one less expense, some of it is food I can give the animals..." Her voice fades a little. "I'm still trying to figure out -- meat. I know I'm going to get carnivores. I asked around, and -- the places that make food for pets, they scavenge the wild zones and use magic to clean up -- remains. It's -- not a -- nice job. And I don't have the magic for it, and their needing meat makes those kinds of pet food so expensive..."

"You'll work it out," he tells her, his voice filled with more confidence in her than she ever feels in herself. With pride, "If you got this far, there are no limits to the horizons you can pursue. Just talking your parents into letting you come down... even with your mark, there were times when I thought they'd never let you descend, certainly not while you were still so young. And here you are -- with your own home, the start of your own business..." He is smiling at her, and his eyes are warm and kind. "Show me, Fluttershy. Show me what you can do down here, with creatures other than the ones you know."

She doesn't ask. She doesn't question. She is just happy, fully within the realm of her cutie mark, in the heart of her talent, standing on her own ground and about to do what she can manage better than anypony in front of somepony she loves. And she looks out at the border --

-- there. Most would see a hole in a tree. She sees a home. And she makes a sound, a noise she hadn't known she could make or was even aware of until that moment, a sound she's never heard before and one entirely natural to her.

The creature pokes out a nose. Then a head, and little paws that look as if they can grasp. The rest shortly follows, concluding with a tail large enough to drape across its entire body and provide shade for everything below. She laughs to see it, kindly. The creature doesn't mind: it runs up to her, nose twitching, makes a sound like a light squeal, the twin to the one she'd just created -- then runs up her left hind leg and stands on her back, upright on rear paws.

"What is it?" she softly asks. "I know it's a friend..."

"It's called a squirrel," he tells her. "You've never seen one before?"

She shakes her head -- then corrects herself. "I have, once -- that first day -- but I didn't know the name, and there's so many books -- I didn't speak to one until just now, not personally... Oh -- I think I upset..." It has jumped off her back and run to the tree, back into the hole -- but seconds later, it's returning to her. "Um... what do you think I should do?"

"Say thank you," he suggests. "But tell it --"

"Her."

"-- tell her you don't really need the nut right now, but you're grateful for the offer and will remember it."

She does. The squirrel chatters at her, looks pleased, and leaves. She glances back at her visitor.

There are tears in his eyes.

"...Doctor?" Has she done something wrong? The other pegasi -- her parents -- so many ponies who felt this was wrong, that it was even cutie mark as another sign of defect -- he can't be one of them, would never be, just can't...

He trots closer, puts his front legs over her shoulders, gives her the nuzzle meant for family.

"You are exactly where you should be," he tells her. "Exactly who you should be. Never forget that. In all this world, you are unique. Your gifts... you are a wonder, Fluttershy. My first, my eldest -- my special filly..."

She nuzzles him back. And she is happy.

The rest of the day will be spent with him. He will remain by her side as they finish the tour of the cottage and the surrounding grounds. He stays with her as she summons her courage (so much easier with company) and ventures a little way into the wild zone to meet new friends. He will be there in the late afternoon when a stranger with a sick pet comes down the approach road, disgusted by the town vet's inability to diagnose her companion's illness and willing to try anything new to give that friend a chance. (She works it out within minutes: eating the half-dried paint in the new colt's bedroom.) He helps her speak to the first of her clients, sets a pay scale, gives her still more books on animal medicine and a few bottles to get her private pharmacy started, along with tomes of herb lore and some exotic instruments reconfigured for mouth operation so she can start mixing some medicines on her own.

It is the warm spring day when she finally feels complete, with warm ground under her hooves, the smell of animals and fresh earth, and a kind voice guiding her through the first of what will be so many to come. The day she knows that she is truly -- exactly where and who she should be. And on days when she still has doubts, afternoons where her fears threaten to overwhelm her, or nights after being with the one who always believed she would find her way, she comes back to this place in her nightscape and lives through all of it again.

It is one of the happiest days of her life.

And then she hears thunder in the distance.

There was no lightning that day.

Fluttershy woke up.

It was habit, too deeply ingrained to break: growing up in a family grooming her for the Weather Bureau (generally in spite of herself) plus knowing how easily some of her animal friends could be spooked by lightning -- she always had the Ponyville weather schedule memorized and Rainbow Dash had made a permanent bolt strike exception for her cottage: lightning came down around her property -- there was nothing Dash could do about that -- but never on. It helped a little with the noise from the thunder, at least until an unnatural front blew out of her neighboring wild zone and startled everypony anyway. (There had been a major unexpected one two weeks prior, but it had gone over her and continued into the Everfree. Rainbow Dash claimed to have no idea how it had started in pony territory, was still searching for the culprit, and Fluttershy believed her -- especially after she'd seen Rarity marching across town in the affronted huff of the falsely accused.)

So almost as soon as she'd gotten into the castle, she'd timidly asked Mister Presence for a copy of the local schedule, which he'd kindly given her. There was a big storm on the calendar -- but it wasn't supposed to come in for a while. There was no lightning set up for this night, and her first thought was that Rainbow Dash had found somepony to prank -- but at this hour? Dash never saw this hour unless she was approaching it from the other side. The sound struck her as strange, and strange was what they were supposed to be looking for. She got up.

"...light?" she cautiously asked. The enchanted lamps turned on. Fluttershy exhaled and trotted to the window for a closer look. It couldn't hurt to check -- probably. Peeked outside, shaking her head a little to clear sleep-pressed mane away from one eye --

--- Twilight. On one of the sports fields. With a tall pegasus. The glow of Twilight's field around the stranger's hooves. And the pegasus looked up, saw Fluttershy's silhouette within the backlit window --

-- a window just large enough for Fluttershy to climb out of. She launched --

-- but it was already too late. By the time she reached Twilight's position, the stranger had taken off and put distance between herself and the two of them. Too much distance. There was no way for Fluttershy to catch up, especially given the speed the other pegasus had been moving at. Fluttershy could -- well, not barely fly, no matter how much the chorus of memory tried to insist on it. But her maneuverability was less than perfect, her typical speed low, and there were times when flight was the last option she thought of -- and that generally when it was already too late. She could fly well enough to get by, at least as far as the average unicorn and earth pony were concerned. Among other pegasi -- no. And against one who had just put on a burst of speed nearly suitable to Rainbow Dash, even if it had all been low to the ground...

Which meant she had other priorities. "...Twilight? Are you okay?" Because her friend looked -- deeply shaken. Scared. Sick. No, she wasn't okay at all. "Is there anything I can do? Do you want me to get the others? Do we have to chase her?" Whoever that had been, it was a pony who'd upset Twilight as much as she'd ever seen her friend upset. Frightened on a level which a pre-reformation Discord hadn't been able to inflict. Shaken to the point where a moon's worth of letters would have had to go missed and every last one sent before that returned with a single word stamped across all of them: WRONG. "What happened?"

"...impossible," Twilight muttered, seemingly not fully aware of Fluttershy's presence. "That's -- impossible..." And a hard head shake: wind-blown bangs settled partially back into place. "I -- I think the mission just came to me, Fluttershy. I think she's coming back tomorrow night -- to talk. And --" She turned to face Fluttershy, and she was shaking "-- oh Luna, oh Celestia, Fluttershy, Discord was right -- something is so wrong, wrong like I've never seen or imagined -- wrong that shouldn't be -- but she is..." Blinking away tears of pain witnessed and not helped. "I want to -- wake up. I keep trying to wake up and make this not be and go to Luna, ask why she wouldn't stop that kind of dream within seconds. But I am awake, and it's all so wrong..."

Fluttershy had known Twilight was stressed, was more aware of it than any of the others. Had seen the worries settling in after the change, the fears she couldn't identify and still recognized as such. Fluttershy knew fear. How to recognize it, always: deal with it, hardly ever. Had been afraid for her friend without knowing how to fix it. Now she saw her friend on the verge of drowning in hurt -- both for the stranger she'd had a mere glimpse of and the personal piled-up agonies which Twilight didn't know how to deal with. And all Fluttershy could do was softly ask "...are you hurt?" Knowing the emotional status answer wouldn't come.

"...no. Not -- physically. She caught me in time."

"...you fell? But --"

"There was -- a miniature tornado -- I think it's called a dust devil -- just big enough to hold me, and she held me..." Large purple eyes looked at her as more tears fell away. "It's -- too late to follow her. Too late for -- I should have, I should..." Stopped. "We -- can't do anything tonight. The others -- need rest, and she won't come back. Not yet. I'm sure of that. We have an appointment. I..."

Twilight collapsed. Her legs gave way under her, head dropped, tail drooped.

"It's wrong... and -- it might be my fault..."

Fluttershy dropped down next to Twilight, did the only thing she could: pressed tightly against her friend and let the tears fall on her again. "...please, Twilight -- let me help... you have to let all of us --"

"-- not tonight," Twilight whispered. "No good to do anything tonight. How did you even know?"

"...I heard the lightning -- I knew we didn't have any on the schedule -- it woke me up... Twilight, please talk to me... please..."

Her friend took a slow, shuddering breath. "Tomorrow -- we can talk about all of it -- tomorrow. We should -- just get back to our rooms. Before anypony else wakes up and sees us out here."

And Fluttershy knew Twilight was lying. They would talk tomorrow, all of them. About the mission. About what had happened on the field and above it. But not about what was truly important.

The only thing Fluttershy could do was keep trying. Keep waiting. Keep being there.

"...all right. But... I'm staying with you tonight. Don't argue."

Which got a tiny smile. "I won't."

They went back to the castle. And in time, Twilight fell into a restless sleep, hooves pushing against covers and rendering blankets into a shapeless mass of displaced stress. Fluttershy knew because she saw all of it, curled up at the end of the mattress, watching. She'd had enough sleep for one night.

Fluttershy watched over her friend.

Guarding.

Helpless.

Guarding anyway.

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The early morning consisted of three conversations. The first was the quickest, and it began with words she'd been longing to say ever since the mission/disaster-potentially-in-progress had begun -- even if she couldn't follow them with the three which might have made everything better. "Spike? Take a letter."

The little dragon sat up straighter in his basket. "Really? Who am I sending to? Because 'Dear Princess Celestia' is kind of off the map right now."

"You'll know when I start dictating it." He shrugged, glanced at Fluttershy's tail as its end swished around the last bit of doorway, the pegasus heading for the bathroom. Visibly decided not to ask just yet, went into Twilight's saddlebags and fished around until he had the scroll and ink, stood at the ready. "Dear --"

Spike listened, wrote it all down without questioning the contents, let Twilight sign it herself, and then glanced at his older sister. "Okay, Twilight -- the next part is you. And I know you packed it because I just saw it. Do you think she'll be able to handle it?"

"I believe in her," Twilight replied. "She -- has enough skill to work it out. I just hope this works at all -- we haven't really tried it before."

("Failed. Broken.")

The little dragon sighed. "I don't believe you packed it. I just saw it and I don't believe it."

"It was a mission. It felt like a good time to try it out. Are you arguing the results?"

"Not until it blows up in my face," Spike grumbled. "Okay..." He went back into the saddlebags, rummaged. "Got it." The thin vial was hematite: carefully hollowed, just large enough to hold about an ounce of fluid -- or something else. "At least my part's easy..." A deep breath, he pursed his lips into the tiniest circle he could manage, looking exactly like he had the day he took (and lost) the bet about blowing up two hundred of Pinkie's balloons in a row -- and exhaled a single wisp of flame, jamming the jade stopper onto the vial a split-second later. "Your turn."

Twilight nodded and captured the vial within her field, let it float in front of her eyes. Concentrated -- then stopped. "Umm -- you might want to stand --" and he was already in the doorway. "Voice of experience, Mr. Spike?"

"Voice of painful experience," he corrected -- but wouldn't go any further than that, just in case she needed him. "It's all you, Twilight."

She focused. The edges of her vision started to fade into white as the second corona appeared.

Reach. Feel the dragon flame within the vial. Touch it. There is no burn, there is no heat: it's just imagination. It's just energy, and it's an energy I know. Diffuse -- but diffuse without losing strength. Let part of it blend into the vial, just for a few minutes. There's space available. Space within solids. A grid: plenty of room. Let the solids not just envelop the flame, but hold it. Move it delicately -- and make a cage. Temporary. It'll have to flow back out and she'll need all of it. Diffuse and suffuse, just for now. It's not paper or parchment, but it has to move like them, and the only way it can do that is if the magic considers it to be part of the flame itself. Have it be two things at once and keep it that way for just long enough...

She could feel it happening as the vial glowed, the green of Spike's flames shimmering throughout the hematite and adding extra highlights to the jade --

"-- got it!" She let the corona drop one stage at a time as Spike ran back in and plucked the vial from her fading field. "Quickly, Spike -- I don't know how long they'll stay united! It'll just harmlessly leak back into the vial, but...!"

He nodded, claws working furiously to tie the vial to the scroll. "On it!"

"And it's all you now," she told him. "Can you hit her?"

"I think so -- I wish I knew where she was, but it's not like we ever know unless she's right on top of us... I'll use the aimfiz variant: that should target the pony instead of the location." Spike took another deep breath. "Here goes..." He exhaled a second time, and this flame had a faint purple tinge along the edges of the green.

The scroll vanished.

So did the vial.

Twilight laughed, the joyous mirth of having made a spell that much better, of having done something right -- and incidentally, the laugh of a pony who might be sending a missive to the Equestrian Magic Society in a few days. "It works! -- well, at least for just sending it along, we don't know if it got there yet, but it works!"

Spike took what he could get and grinned, gently hugging her front legs. "She got it. I'm sure she got it. It's not like Princesses, where I could mix them up..."

"You were stressed, we all were, and it's over," Twilight assured him. "So..." The momentary happiness had already begun to fade.

Spike sighed. "So -- now we wait."

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The second would come back to her later, and it began with a thin grey unicorn stallion leaning against the edge of a doorway, one who was looking vaguely bemused. "Twilight?"

Where did he -- wait... who is... Oh! "Good morning, Quiet," Twilight greeted her host. "Did you sleep well?"

"I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be my question for you," the noble-of-sorts replied. "Although I do have a few potential others, starting with this one: do you know where you are?"

Twilight was momentarily confused. "You said this was your main armor room."

He nodded. "Good. You have a location. You know it's an armor room and you're aware it's mine, if only by inheritance -- I never purchased any of the stuff and I'm certainly not about to try carrying that much steel on my frame. Your little head injury hasn't touched your memory. That's a positive sign. So next up would probably be -- and why are you floating so many of the pieces around the place while taking what looks to be some very extensive notes?"

She blushed. "Umm..." One of the helmets (a pegasus style: the back was aerodynamically low to the (currently absent) skull and there was no hole for a horn) dipped a little closer to the floor. "...I had trouble sleeping last night, and -- I was up pretty early -- and you said nopony had ever cataloged this, so I thought..."

("Failed. Broken.")

"Which at least tells me how you slept," Quiet dryly noted. "I'll try not to take it as a personal offense against my guest rooms." Then, with a little extra humor, "And is this what you always do when you aren't sleeping well and get up too early?"

"Well -- no. I usually just wind up doing some spell research, or checking in some new books -- reshelving, that's always a big concern -- getting letters ready for sending to ponies whose late fees are piling up, even when I know they're going to ignore them..." She sighed at that last. "I've been working on a spell which would automatically teleport overdue books back, but --" and for a rare once, stopped herself. "-- you probably don't want to hear about that."

He raised his left eyebrow. "A teleport spell that goes off on its own and brings something back to a preassigned point? Just because I can't do it doesn't mean I'm not curious about how it would be done. I'm already imagining what it would mean for security device sales. Valuables which could be stolen by any thief without the owner having to worry because they'd be back a week later... you could make me a much richer pony, Twilight, if you'd just allow me to handle the marketing..."

She couldn't repress a giggle. "It's dragon flame based. So far, it would probably only work on paper. It's the timed release that's the biggest problem..." Not to mention (and she wasn't going to just yet) keeping it from consuming the pages.

Quiet smiled. "All the better to safeguard my own library, then. I know I have some books I don't want to lose -- things I don't even like loaning because I'll never see another copy..."

Her eyes were sparkling. She knew it. She didn't care. "You have a library?"

"Did we miss that on the tour? Yes, but -- probably not entirely to your taste. I mostly collect tomes of unicorn history -- and your face tells me you're at least still curious. All right -- maybe later: I typically don't even get that far before the colts and fillies pretend to fall asleep... And you're -- actually a librarian? Truly? I saw that mentioned in an article, but..." He groaned softly, rested his head against the door frame. "...well, let's just say I was considering the source at the time. And in this case, the source was Murdocks and they also wanted me to believe you were conducting experiments to take over the world with a magically-created army of earth ponies who were, for some reason, pink. I've already dismissed the part about your keeping a dragon in abject slavery -- you're blushing." Surprised. "Dear Celestia, I know none of that tripe could have been accurate, but please don't be embarrassed by somepony else's rather stupid lies."

"It -- wasn't what happened," Twilight sighed. "Yes -- I'm really the town librarian for Ponyville."

Quiet looked as if there were about a hundred questions he wanted to ask: all of them were reshelved in favor of "Still?"

"Still," she confirmed. "The Princess never changed my posting -- and now you're blushing."

The shade deepened. "It's just -- not what I would have pictured you doing -- all right, after seeing this --" a nod towards the floating armor "-- it's exactly what I would have pictured you doing, but it's not what most ponies would ever expect from somepony of your new status -- Luna's mane, that's why you need to recover books, isn't it? Autograph seekers and sellers..." He spotted the wince. "Twilight, I know this is an odd thing to say and -- I know it's very personal, especially given that we've basically just met and spent most of our introduction titling each other but..." Softly, "...it hasn't all been coronations and dances, has it? Celebrity isn't a double-edged blade, just a single -- and the pony holding it is the only one who ever seems to get cut."

She blinked. Stared up at him as the armor pieces in her field threatened to dip into the stone. Couldn't bring herself to answer.

("Failed. Broken.")

"The funny thing," Quiet gently continued, "is that I think most ponies envy you -- on instinct. The mares dream of being a Princess and stallions -- well, I guess we'd need a precedent and some would probably think there was a mandatory gender switch involved, but -- there's envy there at the core for so many. To become a Princess and everything we think goes with it -- but what we think about is coronations and dances. Not having to be introduced to every pony at the dance and never getting to take the floor..." He shifted his position slightly, rotated an aching shoulder. "I have -- a little celebrity -- well, of sorts, although it mostly slips everypony's mind. I am the ranking noble for the area, although my family very happily granted over whatever authority we had to the mayoralty a few centuries ago because the generation at the time frankly couldn't be bothered -- and believe me, I have no desire to get it back. All being the reigning Lord and Heir to the House of Deluge gets me is some party invitations to events I don't want to attend, the right to get the entire town on my lawn a few times a year, and any number of charitable organizations asking me for donations when I have to think about keeping a group of servants in happy employment: I have enough bits, but..." A pained shrug. "My title is -- other than being boring, mostly an annoyance. But I can still go out and wander freely as -- just another unicorn. And you can't any more. I'm imagining what it would feel like to lose that, and..." He couldn't finish. Looked at her, almost helplessly, as if not knowing whether there were still words which could be said at all.

"Say it," Twilight whispered.

Quiet took as deep a breath as he could manage, his face twitching at the ache it brought. "...you have my admiration, Twilight. You would have had that without wings. But I can't give you my envy."

Twilight had been through awkward silences before. The one which had descended on the library after she'd explained the last part of Want It, Need It to the Princess: that was her all-time entry. It was closely followed by that which had resulting from trying to tell Shining Armor about her entrance exam -- and leaving a very deliberate gap in the tale. And then there was this one. Third place with a sling dart.

"I --" she breathed, "-- don't want it..."

They stayed in their respective positions for several heartbeats. Armor dipped, rose, moved out of the way.

Finally, he trotted in, sat down next to her and began to read her notes. "So," he restarted casually, "have you found anything of particular interest? Such as why I have all these pegasus pieces around the place when I'm not sure my family hired a single winged soldier since we moved here?"

"I'm not sure they were soldiers to begin with," Twilight quickly replied. "The colors on this one -- I'd have to recheck my own shelves, but I'm pretty sure this is from a mercenary company. Rainbow Dash asked for the book a few moons ago and I paged through it -- see what looks to be spaces from missing feathers along the side plumes? That's not battle damage or age: that's deliberate -- it means the pony who wore it hadn't taken down enough of the enemy to completely fill it in yet."

Quiet winced. "Let me guess -- counting coup, right? A feather from each fallen enemy?" She nodded. "Do I really want to know what they took if they brought down a unicorn or earth pony? -- no, wait: I do. It's better that I get this over with than allow Princess Luna to clean up after my imagination tonight. Let's hear it."

She told him. And they talked about it and the natural tangents until Rainbow Dash finally struggled out of bed.

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The third brought the most immediate hurt.

They'd had breakfast (a mere three courses, with the Doctor fully absent this time -- he'd gone out to greet those arriving on the early train in the name of getting them home more quickly) and then made their excuse, which was a simple one: explore a little in Sun. Twilight had assured Quiet they'd be there long enough for the party ("You're holding me to that? Tartarus chain it, the entire town probably will too...") and that they'd be back by late afternoon, so please let the Doctor know she'd have Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie around in time to chat. He'd told them to be careful if they went into the wild zone because Coordinator had been all too full of himself for juggling so many search parties and the last thing he wanted to see was the speckled unicorn enjoying himself as it was done all over again. And off they'd gone.

Fluttershy seemed to have kept her silence throughout the morning, at least about what she'd seen and what a shaken Twilight had said to her -- Twilight thought. It almost felt as if the others were giving her some -- well, strange looks as they made their way out of town via the most secluded path Rainbow Dash had been able to survey from the air. Or maybe I'm just thinking about it too much. Reading too much into things. Going through too many emotions...

Spell experimentation (although with a planned letter). Cataloging. Talks. All self-distraction. She knew it. Nothing stopped her from knowing it. And she did it anyway, just about every time. Compulsive behavior. Denial expressed as action. What was sometimes obsessive action. Trying not to think about what had happened before the Sun had risen until she had to. Constantly failing. And now -- she had to relive it, tell the others everything...

So she waited until they had reached a clearing far enough away from the town, a hollow in the pines which looked as if somepony had been clearing land for a new residence and then changed their mind -- no, and left: they found the dirt-shrouded foundations of the former home as they moved closer to the center. Somepony had been here, decades ago -- and then departed. Nothing left but carefully arranged stone in a place the trees could not reclaim.

Twilight told them everything.

And in almost immediate retrospect, she had told them too much.

It didn't hit immediately. When she finally stopped and the last tears of empathy had fallen from pony eyes (along with one dragon who was looking with a little too much determination at his own feet), things began normally enough: with her own summation. "Let me talk for a few more minutes, everypony -- I know you have a lot of questions, but this -- well, it won't take that many of them away, but I might beat you to a few." They agreed. "At this point, I think she is the reason we're here. I think --" and this part was still hard to say, the words continuing to carve trails of near-disbelief across her sanity "-- the unicorn from the wild zone and the pegasus from last night are the same pony. I don't know how. But -- I didn't feel any magic last night. Not unicorn magic. There are ways to disguise a field, and some unicorns have one that's naturally hard to spot. You probably saw Quiet's while he was eating -- or barely saw it. He's one of the few whose field just operates on that level. It runs in certain families. But -- I could still feel him moving his food if I tried for it. Last night -- things got confused, and I know I'm still trying to sort everything out. I'm sorry about that, and I'll come back to something if I catch up with it later. But I'm sure I didn't feel a field at work. Because I don't think it was a field. Right now, I think it was pegasus magic -- something close to what Luna uses when she sets the clouds off at a distance."

Rainbow Dash was frowning, concentrating more deeply than Twilight had ever seen the pegasus focus when she wasn't figuring out a trick. Fluttershy was trembling. They all continued to listen.

Twilight forced herself to go on. "What she called The Great Work -- from what she said, she sees it as the process of becoming -- an alicorn. She called herself --" and it nearly took everything she had to voice the words which kept echoing in her head "-- 'Failed. Broken.' Like she tried to become an alicorn -- and what I saw last night was the result. She wanted to know -- how I'd done it. How I had managed it when she couldn't. And -- when she comes back tonight -- she'll want answers." She had to will herself to breathe. "Answers I don't have. And she implied it was about -- other ponies. 'Tell me so failures end. Others need.' Like there are more ponies who might try to -- change -- and she's what happens if they get it wrong. But -- I don't know how ponies try. How it works. How it -- fails... or if it's failed before, and she's just the latest victim, and..." She couldn't continue. Not at full volume. The last words were a whisper, the words she had to say because they were so probably true, and if she didn't, Fluttershy would bring it up, had heard them already and wouldn't keep them a secret, not those horrible words, what was nearly the only possible conclusion and lone truth. "...it could be -- my fault." Raised a hoof, stopped the babble of protest before it really started. "No. Think about it, everypony. I just changed a few weeks ago. Cadance -- I don't know exactly when she changed. Or even if she did." Why hadn't she ever asked? How many chances had she missed? "But I'm pretty sure she was around before I was born. Which means I was the first pony in at least a generation to -- change. Maybe -- depending on --" she forced herself to focus on Pinkie "-- whether -- " and it was still barely emerging "-- the Princesses were ever -- anything -- else -- maybe the first ever. So suddenly, everypony knows it can happen. Which means some of them are going to be thinking about how to make it happen -- how to become Princesses or even Princes themselves. And she -- didn't make it, and if I hadn't changed, then ponies wouldn't be trying, and -- there could be others. There probably will be others. She knows some, and... if they don't make it..."

It was all she had. All the self-hatred, all the blame. She stopped and looked at the ground. The lost foundation did not threaten to crumple beneath her. That was the job of her legs, and she laid down in the dust before it could happen. The others all laid down with her.

"It's -- not you, Twilight." Spike: she felt his claws running through her mane. "The Princesses have been around for a long time. Princess Celestia -- you know there were attempts to seize the throne. You thought they would make good funny bedtime stories for me because some of them were so stupid. Like all the ones after Nightmare Moon was banished because some idiot ponies thought the Princess would be weak alone. Ponies have been trying to get power for a long time. I bet ponies have tried to become alicorns before this. Lots of them. We just didn't hear about it because --"

She cut him off. "-- because they failed? But if they failed -- you'd think nothing would have happened, Spike. Just a very frustrated pony who was still a normal pony. Because I don't know any magic which would do it. Just the Elements -- maybe -- and I don't even know how those work! Their magic is so powerful -- but it's also so subtle. I know each is connected to one of us -- now. When I gave you Rainbow's necklace -- I really thought it had a little chance to work. You've always been loyal: I thought it would feel that in you and activate. It didn't. It's tied to Rainbow Dash for -- the rest of her life. And I can't feel that connection: I only know it's there based on effect. I don't know if the Elements just transported me to that place where I spoke to the Princess and I did the rest from there. If I did do it myself -- can it only happen in that realm? Did the Elements prepare me, send me halfway and then I finished the process? And if I did do something on my own, I don't know what or how! But if it was the Elements to any degree -- she didn't use them. I know they haven't been out of the vaults at any time when we weren't using them, except for that brief time when Discord was hiding them -- and I really don't think he can use them. He can't connect." She wanted to blame him. She couldn't. "Which says they might be necessary, and she's as far as you can go without them -- or that there might be all sorts of different routes and she took another one which still failed -- or all they did was send me to the Princess for a talk first..." She was repeating herself, the circle back at the beginning of the groove. "I don't know anything, Spike! All I have are questions! And she needs answers. To keep other ponies from going through that. I don't ever want to see another pony hurting that way. But if I even knew how it worked and told her -- why did she try to change? What was she going to do as a Princess? Just -- be an alicorn and call it done? Take the throne? Find her own thing to be a Princess of? I don't know her. Just that -- she's hurting. And I -- want to make that hurt stop... but I don't know her as a pony. What happens if we fix her? Complete the change or even send her back to where she was? What's her personality? Is she a good pony? A bad one? I --"

Stopped.

Fluttershy sighed, scraped at the ground with wings and hooves. "...it's not your fault, Twilight. But... I know you want to help, I do too... but I understand what you're saying. All kinds of ponies might try to become alicorns, and some of them might not be... nice. Can you imagine -- the Flim-Flam brothers if they were --" trying out the word "-- Princes?"

Applejack groaned. "Yeah, Fluttershy, Ah can. An' thank y'kindly for puttin' that picture in mah head. They'd try it, all right, if they thought they had a way. Princes Of Rip-Off Businesses. Short-sighted ones, too. An' they would have been able t' keep the Acres that way..." A slow head shake. "Jus' for starters."

Rainbow Dash switched concentration for confusion. "Keep the Acres?"

Applejack blinked, looked at the ground as if the words she'd just spoken might be lying there and she could get them back into her mouth before anypony else noticed. Reluctantly, "Well -- y'know, they're -- unicorns. So if they hadn't gone an' ran -- well, we wouldn't be workin' the land any more. So the Effect would've -- gotten weaker. With Golden Harvest an' the other farmers around, it wouldn't have gone away completely. But Ah don't think there would've been enough left for them t' keep runnin' the Acres at full production with no earth ponies makin' a personal effort. Unless they spent a big bundle t' keep ponies on the place -- and jus' cider sales wouldn't pay for it -- Ah would have given it a crop or two before the Effect dropped too low t' keep goin'. Ah know we didn't technically lose the Acres in that bet -- jus' the cider sales rights. But without 'em, we wouldn't have had the bits to keep goin' ourselves. Probably would have sold 'em the land -- on purpose. Hopin' it would stop producin' fast enough to chase 'em off -- an' then if we were lucky and no other pony got there first, maybe we could've brought it back cheap. They were parasprites, Dash. Come, eat, ruin everything an' leave. Parasprites don't care 'bout what happens to the husks. They never could've made it work without a partnership... they were jus' too blind t' see it." A tiny shrug. "Y'know something? Before Ah saw what we could all do goin' full speed like that? If they'd said twenty percent them, eighty us? Ah would have agreed t' try it for a day an' see how it went. But -- parasprites. Never leave anythin' behind..."

"So how do they keep them if they're alicorns?"

Applejack didn't answer. Twilight did. "I guess because alicorns are part earth pony, too -- the Princesses could probably bring the Effect on their own if they wanted to. The palace gardens hold on really well given how big they are, how few earth ponies live and work in the city, and how much variety the Princesses put in. Maybe they're maintaining everything there almost by themselves."

"That sounds right." Pinkie, who wasn't looking at Applejack. "That's only common sense."

As if every letter had been dragged out of her by lasso, "Yeah," the farmer agreed. "Common -- sense. Still leaves us with the other problem? Look -- Ah don't know if y'all remember, but we can't get the Elements. That was one of the rules, an' Ah don't even wanna think 'bout what happens if we try t' break it. If the Elements could fix her -- finish it or send her back -- we can't use 'em. Can't ask the Princesses t' do it neither. Gotta take those two things out right now before we start countin' on 'em. Sorry t' be harsh, but -- some truths are hard ones. We're stuck. Maybe we can find out what she used an' fix that one way or another, but -- goes back t' what Twilight said. If we don't know how it works..."

Twilight sighed "...then we don't know where and how it can go wrong."

"It's not as if we don't have somepony to ask, though," Rarity pointed out. "She knows what she did to get -- where she is. She can walk us through it step by step. Every trick, every bit of magic. What concerns me is -- her cutie mark." It was her turn to dig a little trench. "I've been -- thinking about that. Not that -- hollow. The presence. And I would guess it's something none of us really want to think about -- but unfortunately, that apparently means it falls to me." And of all the possible subjects, she looked at Spike before she continued, her voice soft and gentle. "Twilight -- dear -- it may not be possible to fix her. Not at all."

It might have been something Twilight had been thinking about. Or something she'd been trying not to think about, succeeding for a rare change. Possibly an idea she'd refused to confront at all -- and here Rarity was dragging it out under the Sun. "What makes you say that?"

"Because -- it is the cutie mark." Cautiously, white hooves picking their way through a field of quicksand, "I was thinking about -- the shape you described. And the movement. Assume for a moment there is no conspiracy of sisters or magic Twilight couldn't feel -- an illusion strong enough to cover the mark and temporarily replace it with one that seemed to shift. Believe, if you will, that everything seen was the truth. I'm not trying to sound condescending, really -- we may prove otherwise later, but for this purpose, I just need everypony to accept that for a moment as an absolute reality." Slow, reluctant nods around the circle: some (including Twilight) were still hoping for a trick.

"Very well," Rarity continued. "It seems to me that she's essentially bearing -- a clock. Each loop represents one of the three main pony races. The white is clearly pegasus. Given the color of her field, gold would be unicorn. Green then becomes earth pony. You can all see that, yes?" Agreement, just as slow as the first round of nods. "Think on what Twilight said. The silver is near the top of the pegasus stage, but it's dropping. The white loop is pointing nearly straight up -- but it moves back as the silver drops. And the gold is coming around to the top. So as the silver moves down, she becomes less and less pegasus. The white -- moving away. The silver simply shows how much of her is pegasus at the time. When it's at the absolute ascent or close to it, she is completely a pegasus -- or as close as she can come. Based on what happened -- complete. As it drops -- less. At some point, the silver would have to cross loops -- and then she would start to become more and more unicorn, until that descended -- and so on. Over and over -- and --" She shuddered. "-- that is the pain. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy have muscles the rest of us do not. Bones. Feathers. I know pegasus anatomy: I must in order to design for it. Their musculature around their rib cages -- and even through them, to an extent -- is completely different from that of an earth pony or unicorn. To truly transform oneself into a pegasus -- bones would have to grow. Muscles rearrange. Joints simply appear. You can all see that, I trust?" They could, and the looks of discomfort and empathy aches showed they had anticipated the next part. "Now -- imagine how that would feel. And then how it feels to have all of it go away. How do the new bones vanish? Do they simply become nothing? Do they break? And pushing against the skin from the inside, constantly..." There was an underlayer of green beneath the white. "I can imagine it. But I never want to go through it. Cosmetic magic -- all the kinds I've heard of -- only affects the outermost parts of a pony. Change the color of a coat or mane. The wings Twilight gave me -- an artificial construct: no part of my actual body, just made to respond to my thoughts. Anything deeper than that..." She looked to Twilight.

"The Princesses." Twilight gave her that. "I've heard stories that they can completely change -- at least to the shapes of other ponies. Rumors that they -- well, go out in disguise sometimes. I don't know if it's true, but you'd have to think if any pony could -- just them."

Rarity nodded, resumed. "And there is her agony -- or at least part of it. As we discussed in the Hall, Twilight and I have a sense that the rest of you lack: our feel of magic and its use. And -- Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash -- I am sorry, I know this may be somewhat personal -- you have a sense we lack, do you not? Something within your sense of touch, at the very least, to feel the density of a cloud? Or within feathers for the flow of wind?" Rainbow Dash slowly nodded. "Applejack and Pinkie Pie --" (the farmer tensed, held her breath) "-- perhaps you can tell how promising soil is with a single glance and have a feel for what would grow there best?"

"Ah -- think that's -- safe t' say," Applejack just barely got out. "Sure. A feel for it. Each of us with one of our own -- an' she would have all three, wouldn't she? One at a time, comin' an' goin', not understandin' 'em, an' --"

She went pale as her tail gave one mighty lash. Her hat slipped.

Rarity misinterpreted it. "Yes. Chaos in her mind to go with that in her body." Sadly, "The poor mare must be struggling moment by moment to simply exist -- or even want to. And -- she may have been doing so for years." A little faster, "Twilight -- there may be ponies who try to become alicorns because you did. That is possible, and if it happens or threatens to do so and go wrong, we will deal with it if we can, as best we can. But she? Is not your fault. Because -- it is the cutie mark. Please, all of you -- think. About what that means."

They did. And Twilight (who might have been thinking about it in her subconscious all along, who refused to remember her dreams from the previous night) got there first.

"It means --" oh no "-- her talent -- is for transformation." With sickness rising, "The focus of her personal inherent magic -- the unalterable destiny of her cutie mark -- is change. It's -- built into who she is. She's been this way ever since her mark appeared. By the Princesses -- how does that happen? How does a pony wind up with that on her flank? How can that kind of talent even exist?"

"I don't know," Rarity said, her voice the tiniest break from weeping. "But -- you see the problem. One cannot cure a cutie mark. One cannot change it. Not even the Princesses could manage such a feat. There is a spell to block access to one's talent, if I remember my final year of school correctly -- but only the best casters in the world can do it, and it lasts but for seconds. It might be possible to transfer her mark by using Star Swirl's spell once again -- but to whom? What pony would bear that curse? We would give one a life by destroying another -- at best: with us, only the mark moved -- not our talents. What if we somehow wound up cursing two ponies that way? She is -- what she is, Twilight. And given the typical age when a mark appears, she was like this long before you even heard of the Elements. Her attempt to become an alicorn... likely took place when she was a filly. The years -- spent in that kind of -- I am going to be sick..."

She got to her hooves, ran off a short distance down the approach path and into the bushes, left them all to the company of thoughts which refused to leave. Thoughts that went unvoiced.

Finally, Rarity returned and took her place in the circle again. "I am sorry," she told them. "I pictured it -- too clearly, I suppose."

"...I was almost right behind you," Fluttershy whispered. "You can't cure a cutie mark. I've heard of parents who -- hated the talent their child had and tried to change it after the fact... stories I never wanted to hear twice..."

Twilight shuddered. "There's just as bad on the other end. Ones who try to stall marks indefinitely if they feel the 'wrong' talent is coming. If you ever wanted to see the Princess furious..." She had attended a few trials during her school years: the Princess had wanted her to see how parts of the legal system worked. One of them... "But if I had a filly and knew that mark was coming -- Luna's shoes, I would try to stop it with everything I had." A child of hers in that much pain and is that what happens when alicorns have children? No, please, don't let that be it, anything but that... She just barely managed to push the thought aside. Let it torment her later: other horrors had the floor. "You're right, Rarity -- you and Fluttershy both. I hate that you're right -- but you are. A cutie mark has no cure. It just is. That's going to be her for the rest of her life. We might be able to work out what went wrong with her and stop it from happening to somepony else, but -- it can't be fixed." Fluttershy was softly crying, empathic agony for a patient beyond cure. She wasn't the only one. "Is there anything we could do for her?"

"...painkillers?" Fluttershy faintly proposed. "...strong ones? But -- anything that strong would have long-term consequences, and -- I don't know if anything is strong enough... I can check the pharmacy in town, or try to mix something suitable for a pony, but... I don't know..."

"Meditation techniques?" Rainbow Dash wondered. "Like the stuff those fictional monks use so they can walk on hot coals and -- fictional. Right. ...never mind."

"I don't know of any magic that blocks pain," Twilight said. "I would have used it." An automatic glance at Pinkie Pie as certain memories replayed. "A lot."

Pinkie thought it over. "I -- wish I knew." And that was all she had.

"I don't know anything," Spike said heavily. "Just -- if she'd been like that for years -- what you all told me about her with the orchard -- why would she have trouble with a spell? She would have been going through the unicorn part for a long time -- more than long enough to start figuring out how the magic worked. I think -- I think we're missing something..."

The silence spread around the circle, made a partnership with the thoughts which would not leave, gave birth to nightmares.

"...I don't know," Twilight finally said. "I don't know what we're missing. But I'm going to see her tonight, and for every question she has for me, I'm going to have at least three going back. We'll work out what we're going to do when she shows up. But for now -- let's go see where she broke the tree. That was magic -- maybe there's some residual feel or something..." She stood up. "Come on, everypony -- maybe we'll think of something on the road."

"Not so fast, Twilight."

Rainbow Dash stood up. Trotted up to her, stopped inches away. Magenta eyes fully open. Angry. The others stared, but did not intervene.

"...Rainbow Dash?" What did I do? Why is she mad at me this time? I thought -- we were all okay after the ravine... "What's wrong?"

Solidly, a furious tone which would take only two answers. "Fly. Take off and land. Right now, Twilight. No excuses. I want you in the air now."

oh no oh no oh no... "Dash -- I don't have time to race right now..."

"You think this is about racing?" The pegasus laughed. "This is about your nearly dying! She caught you. I don't know if she saved you because she's a good pony at heart or she's evil and just needs you alive to get her answers, but she caught you. Slipped up, Twilight: should have watched your wording a little better! You were falling and she did a pretty good save. You? Just fell."

She's not supposed to pay attention like that! She's not supposed to analyze! Oh, Rainbow Dash had been changing since Twilight had first met her -- and for the first time, it seemed as if she'd changed too much. "I couldn't think! I was trying to -- keep it together after seeing a cutie mark move!" Better to admit that. "You would have had the same problem! You don't know what it's like, seeing that -- you won't until you do! It goes deep, Dash, deep like Discord! And I was trying to save myself! I was going to try a teleport before she caught me! You of all ponies know how fast a fall accelerates: I didn't have the time to focus my field for a push, that works best when it's a greater distance and I can think about it, and I'm not about to reverse gravity when there's nothing above me! I'd just wind up falling into the sky!"

Rainbow Dash -- grinned. Viciously. "Slipped again, Twilight! I believe you about your field: I know you don't always block because you're thinking about blocking and don't do --" She stopped. Eyes widened -- then focused again. "But not reversing gravity? You would have fallen up, all right -- to a safe height, because then you could have let the spell go and flown down. Or just stopped and teleported after you got your bearings -- while you hovered."

"You weren't there!" It was nearly the only protest she had left, the only one she could come up with which wouldn't give more away. "I don't have to prove anything to you!" She probably should have stopped there -- but halting her words in time had never been her strength. "The dust devil -- I was disoriented! I couldn't focus, I told you that! Couldn't think!" And still the others weren't intervening, not even Spike, they were letting the two of them have it out here and now and she didn't understand why...

"It's a neat trick, I'll give her that," Rainbow Dash allowed. "And we're going to talk about it later -- and maybe a lot of other things. Guess what, Twilight? None of those things change what I already asked. Here and now."

She knew what the next word would be. None of the others would stop it. Twilight couldn't stop it. And with the inevitability of Sun and Moon, it rose over the horizon and turned her world into fire and frost.

"Fly."

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He slipped away for a moment.

In a way, he had been enjoying seeing so very many of his. It had been a reunion, and these -- only the ones within a few days' travel, those old enough to go on their own. The younger ones, those too young to be without their parents -- so many more of those. If he had the bits to bring them all to a single place -- a total reunion once per year, or even once every five -- that would be something to see. He found himself hoping he could do it one day.

But he still had other things on his mind. And when he could get a moment, he slipped away -- to her place.

It was, as Quiet said, intact. And it was silent.

He had been thinking about -- the darker possibilities.

She had teleported. He knew that, had seen it: no other interpretation was possible. But teleportation without destination came with consequences. She could have arrived within an object so large that the recoil acceleration resulting from the exit would have sent her materialized form into the nearest solid object with enough force --

If she had arrived safely -- based on percentages and sheer geography, she would have been most likely to appear in a wild zone. Something she had no personal experience of. Could have met one of the other sentient races, or -- one of the monsters. Something much less than friendly. All the power, yes, but with no idea how to use it yet. If something had confronted her with violence --

Or -- flight. Forgotten a rule (although that was the least likely possibility), tried to reach him in a single mad rush through the air before she was truly ready to do so: flight camps existed for a reason. Run into conditions she couldn't handle. Wind dashing her against the ground, lightning through her body, all so very possible to see for a mind wracked with worry --

There were so many coming to check on him. So many more too young to try. And then -- there were those who would never come. Those who could not. The ones where he had taken the walk.

Too many years doing this. And as he had told the new Princess, there were times when he had lost the battle. Foal dead. Mother and foal -- Pinkie, so close to the absolute edge, to being an absence on his grounds. Sometimes foals in the plural: multiple births had their own terrors. Sometimes...

mother dead, foal might still be alive, mother dead

...that.

And he would have to take the walk. If there was a father or Second Mother or any of the other possibilities Equestria's many means of love created pacing about his waiting room. He would have to go out and -- tell them. That one was lost, or both, or many, and there was no way to take it back. No way to return them. And sometimes he would stand still and let them weep against him. Listen as they raged. He had allowed himself to be kicked without retaliation: he understood. Twice, when all had been lost, he had found himself stopping a suicide as a devoted partner decided the only course left was to follow.

He had come to her place to see if she had returned. And it felt as if he was talking the walk -- for himself.

He called out into the empty halls again. Received only echo.

He had done what he had to do. He knew that. It had been necessary -- not just for her, but for so many. Every part of The Great Work, every step they had taken together along the seemingly endless path -- doing the needful. Given the chance -- and at the same time, given no ability to change the beginning or full understanding of the future -- he would have accompanied her a second time. But that knowledge was no comfort -- not now. He didn't know where she was. He didn't know if --

-- he had to face this...

With his having openly returned, he and Quiet were free to do more. But it had never been four eyes and ears searching: it was simply Quiet to whom he could speak, always had been for his most devoted. With Quiet, there was that extra measure which brought him closer than the others. His hope. His pain. From deep into his friend's youth, he had been able to tell Quiet anything -- and had. No other pony outside of he and she and perhaps the Princesses knew as much about The Great Work as Quiet did. And the young stallion wanted no part of it for himself. He was almost unique that way among those who knew even a little bit more.

In Quiet, he confided, nearly every last detail -- but not every last thought. He had not told his friend about this one. Suspected it had appeared independently, and the young unicorn simply did not wish to make him confront it just yet.

There were more looking now. That was spreading. He could openly contract a few, they would tell others, and it moved out from there, as quickly as the news of the fire.

But he could not find her with magic. Nor could they. And she would try to stay hidden: that was the rule. So ultimately, all they could hope for was signs. Some kind of indicator. Or -- return...

...or a body somewhere in Equestria's wild zones.

Possibly beyond.

He didn't know if she was alive.

Finish The Great Work -- and lose her to its completion.

Irony.

He should have set up more places for her to go. Safe zones. He should have...

"Please," he whispered. "Please be alive..."

He could not stand to be there any longer, and the flash of light took him away.

Twenty feet below his departure point -- with all sound blocked by stone -- she slept.