• 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?

  • ...

En Plein Air

The stone would not wear away.

Applejack knew Twilight had a pacing problem, was well-aware of the deep-carved groove in the library basement. She'd never understood it. When you had too much to think about, you worked. When you were stressed to the point of snapping, you worked. And when you'd worked too much and should really stop before you started to do something stupid like trying to harvest the entire Acres all by your lonesome, you -- well, even these days, you still might take a few seconds for clenching your teeth and perhaps even worrying at your mane a little before you could make the words 'please help me' come out, but before that, you worked. Sure, maybe walking around in a circle gave you time to think, but what else was being done? Nothing whatsoever -- so in the end, didn't that make Twilight's idea of intensive thinking a waste of time, at least in the sense that the thinking was the only thing happening at all and not necessarily getting anything accomplished? Think, fine. But think while you work, because thinking without action hardly ever got anything finished in the farmer's world and she didn't really understand why it should be otherwise for anypony else. Even Rarity sketched while she considered problems, or tried out stitch patterns on sample patches. Maybe fancy dresses were ultimately pointless -- honestly, what was the reason for creating something which was meant to last a season before no pony would ever want to use it again? -- but at least Applejack could see where work was involved.

(She never really considered that ultimately, she was raising a crop to be enjoyed for a few minutes and then forgotten until the next time: Applejack saw her efforts as a drop within the generational bucket. There were a number of issues where Applejack was at least something of a hypocrite, but that one was more a matter of long-term perception. Refusing to recognize that Rarity was, in a way, her own Manehattan road not taken, and the willful disconnect which had come from that -- a deliberate blind spot.)

She even understood how hard Rarity's work was now. The rearrangement of the marks had left her with the urge to create -- and no ability to do so. Applejack had imagination and used it, but generally as a means of temporal projection: what kind of crop are we going to need for late fall? What's the potential cider traffic? How many pies do we have to throw together for the festival and how many can the cart even carry safely? She would imagine those futures and then work towards them. But weaving dreams out of silk and fancy -- no. Of the other five, Rarity had always been the most alien to her, the pony she had the most trouble even beginning to understand. Twilight's drive to improve her studies made sense to the earth pony. Pinkie was -- well, Pinkie -- but the baker's roots went back even further than Applejack's: she had to respect that and even understood the decision to break away from them. Rainbow Dash's laziness irked her even on the best of days, but the weather coordinator could exert herself when she really wanted to and like Twilight, she had that need to push. And Fluttershy -- she'd always felt connected to the shy mare, appreciated how love of land and nature could have drawn the pegasus down from the clouds and kept her at ground level: even at their first meeting, Fluttershy had practically felt like kin.

Rarity, though -- the unicorn, with her odd tastes and worries about what others thought (and there was a little of that hypocrisy, not that Applejack had noticed) and incredibly skewed priorities, had less in common with Applejack than the farmer had with the average minotaur. They had come to a truce during the slumber party and in the time since, had found some degree of bond -- but it was arguably the weakest connection Applejack had in the group. Or it had been until the transfer, when Applejack had found herself staring at endless arrays of fabric, colors and types forming an unbreakable wall between her and what she needed to do. A wall she couldn't kick through. All she had been able to do was stare at them until the tears came and try to dream, try to think of anything which would coordinate or drape or at the very least not fall apart when she was putting the horrible ugly results on the dress forms. Nothing had happened. She had tried until she could have sworn she was beginning to sweat blood instead of froth, and nothing had kept right on happening. She'd been crying when the others had finally brought Rarity in, buried instincts about to restore that piece of the puzzle. Crying because work was hard... no, never in her life until that moment, when she'd realized that dreaming for a living could feel like wounding her own soul to see if it bled diamonds.

In the weeks since Twilight's change, she had found herself growing closer to the designer, even spending a barely-able-to-spare hour in the Boutique just watching the unicorn weave visions from desire. Because it was watching work. Hard work. Unlike pacing, which just wore away the library's basement and Twilight was going to find herself crashing into an abandoned Diamond Dog tunnel one of these days.

But Applejack had a lot to think about. Too much to think about, and there was no work to be done. No Acres to maintain. No local gardens she could peek in on and offer a helping hoof with unless she counted the koi pond, and how was she supposed to do anything with fish? Couldn't clean the castle because there were servants for that and she respected their need to make a living. Certainly wasn't going to catalog anything in this small art gallery and barely recognized what the word meant. ("Inventory? Fifteen paintin's, ten sculptures, one of those 'kinetic' thingees with all the soft little bell noises, an' Ah think that over there jus' got left behind by the cleanin' crew -- what?") So after Twilight had vanished through the door with doctor and patient, she'd found the little display room to wait in and --

-- started to pace.

Because there was nothing else to do. Because her thoughts wouldn't leave her alone. Because her tail needed to lash and Luna, she wanted something she could kick. Her muscles were made of taut wire, her skin felt as if it had shrunken under Sun, and she was oddly aware of her teeth to the point where she kept wondering if they were about to grind. Did pacing actually work for Twilight? At all? Did it work for anypony? Was there any chance it could work for her, with no work to be done and no other alternatives on the horizon?

So far -- no.

Ah'm runnin' out of options...

The thought surprised her, almost made pacing into something worse than worthless on the spot because the idea was so stupid. She didn't have any options to run out of.

Pinkie was going to talk.

No -- Pinkie was going to betray. Greater crimes could be committed against a pony, but not against a race. Pinkie had every intention of going up to Twilight and -- telling her. Everything. And given Pinkie's background, her amount of 'everything' might even be more than Applejack's. The stories said what had to be done when somepony betrayed or even threatened to. All of it.

Pinkie had been right. She'd left the lasso out.

And, in the oldest stories -- the neck...

...no. Ah can't. Ah never could. Not -- not Pinkie. Maybe not anypony. Ah can't do that. But if Ah don't figure out how t' take care of this, jus' me an' her -- she's a walkin' breach, Celestia, any moment she's in that part of the damn cycle, she could be in front of somepony who scares her an' -- then it's all out. Nopony but Pinkie t' help hide it, an' she can't hardly feel. Can't help stop it. An' usually, that wouldn't matter. It would still jus' be me against her. One pony against one pony. A voice against a voice. We'd cancel. But...

...what she did...

...she's shoutin'.

Yes, fifteen paintings, ten sculptures, a kinetic thingee, and what had to be some kind of unicorn implement for tidying up. She hoped. The circle had brought her past all of it. Several times. She wasn't counting the circuits, didn't want to start. That felt as if it would lead directly to Want It, Need It all over again, only with her own eyes twitching and a lasso encircling --

-- no. Never that. Not her. But --

-- shoutin'.

Apple Bloom. Young. Innocent. And, she had to face it, not the brightest filly in the world. Oh, her little sister had her moments, but when it came to some of the most basic things under the Sun, stupid. The whole ongoing Cutie Mark Crusaders experiment was proof of just how willfully dumb Apple Bloom could be, and never more so than a few seconds after the cutie pox had been cured, just after Apple Bloom had finally seemed to understand the lesson of patience -- the moment she'd thrown that lesson away. Kids were idiots and in Applejack's opinion, Scootaloo made things worse. While Apple Bloom was more than capable of coming up with some great acts of stupidity on her own, the pegasus filly had a way of diverting the other two away from potentially safe activities (although when the trio was united, fabric samples tended to explode) towards the dangerous, the foolhardy, the outright idiotic and, in Applejack's worst nightmares, the ones she had at least once a moon no matter what Luna did, the deadly. The farmer had thought about ordering Apple Bloom out of the Crusaders a thousand times. Known it wouldn't work just as many. The bond between the three was too strong, even if it generally seemed to have been woven from purest idiocy.

But -- Apple Bloom was close to the other two -- three if you counted Babs. She considered them to be her closest friends in the world. The bond between them might be as strong as the sibling one. Could be -- she hated thinking about it, was coming to hate this stupid circle -- stronger.

What would happen if the others ever asked her?

No -- that was a stupid question. Virtually nopony ever asked, had certainly never asked Applejack before this mission -- although Rarity of all ponies was now trotting around the absolute edge of it, she'd worked out the existence of earth pony feel on her own, if not completely for what. (There were times when they all lost Rarity in Twilight's shadow, forgot there was a second fairly major intelligence in the group -- and there were days when Pinkie made it three.) But other ponies -- they saw the Effect and decided that was all there was. That was the idea, or at least part of it. And it wasn't as if the other Crusaders had their magic yet. Apple Bloom did have hers -- well, at least the basics. Her sister could bring the Effect with the rest of the family, although hers would need some more time before it reached full strength. Most earth pony colts and fillies had the capacity to at least pitch in a little before they started school and long after the lessons of the stories had been taught: Apple Bloom was actually right on pace, even if she insisted that even this was something for now. The rest would come. Sweetie Belle was just barely beginning to spark and Scootaloo couldn't hover for more than a second: they were the ones who were behind (even if Twilight claimed Sweetie was on pace herself), and they wouldn't really talk to each other about magic until those magics began to truly manifest. And Apple Bloom had learned her lessons: she would listen and nod and delight in the discoveries of her friends. Without talking. Without -- volunteering.

Except -- they were so close, that trio. So very close...

Applejack had been told all the stories. And how so many of them ended.

rope hangin' from a tree branch, deadweight at the end

It was getting harder and harder to keep walking. Her tail kept lashing on its own.

Such a thing had never happened in Ponyville, of course. The stories usually took place in far older towns and cities, and they were all set long ago. And it had seemed to Applejack even in the first times she'd heard them that sometimes ponies took a lesson and turned it into a story so the youngest would be both more willing to follow along and capable of truly understanding -- but also that there were times when something happened and those who witnessed it made a story from the results. A cautionary tale. Oral history, passed down from one generation of earth ponies to the next. Granny Smith to her parents, who had told her and Big Mac, and they, with mother and father lost, had been the ones to tell Apple Bloom. Stories. Echoes of the past meant to never fade. It had happened, somewhere and somewhen. It could happen again.

Pinkie had been told the stories. Might have been told more stories, ones which ran older and deeper. Stories only rock farmers passed along as the self-proclaimed purest among the earth ponies, the ones supposedly closest to the heart. Applejack had possessed cartloads of respect for rock farmers right up until the moment a much younger Pinkie Pie, voice nearly shredded by memory, had told her the most personal of truths. She still respected the profession -- but not all who practiced it. Certainly not after she'd met --

-- don't wanna think 'bout that right now...

Pinkie didn't know. Should never know. A secret which was easy to keep. But -- Pinkie was ready to talk. Applejack had never heard an earth pony say they were about to betray. It hadn't been a casual decision on the baker's part: the mission and the ravine had needed to team up before it had been enforced, along with --

-- don't wanna think 'bout that neither, stupid brain, listen t' me --

-- Twilight. Twilight and the change. But Twilight was a unicorn in her head and heart, even Rainbow Dash could see that. Maybe the Princesses would never tell her. It was possible that she'd never find the feel, certainly not on her own. Nopony had to be told anything...

Except that Pinkie was ready to tell her.

Pinkie. Her friend. Her traitor.

Maybe that had been part of Discord's intent in assigning the mission. To break the secret once and for all.

No earth ponies here. Nopony but me an' Pinkie. Nopony t' know but me if she -- does it. At least t' start. But if she tells once, she can do it again. Or Twilight could. Twilight, who writes things down, who never had a lesson she didn't want t' jus' turn around an' teach...

Pinkie was in the room, watching her pace. Keeping an eye on the endless circle as the stone floor refused to wear away under Applejack's hooves. The baker's expression hadn't changed since they'd entered: placid, patient, ready to talk if Applejack was. The look of a clock which knew its ticking had accelerated -- and then started the gears turning on another. Turning faster.

Either Applejack fixed everything (and how could she? How could any single pony against this level of horror?) or Pinkie talked. And the consequences from there, oh Celestia, the things which could happen -- or the things this nightmare of a failed transformation could do, the things Applejack couldn't stop...

"What are you thinking?" Pinkie, warm and caring, seeing her friend in pain and wanting to help. Even though she was a source of the pain, one of many. She still cared. And she would still betray.

"Y'see that paintin' on the wall?" Applejack inclined her head towards the ornate frame. "The one with what Ah think is s'posed t' be a stallion on some kind of bridge, with the sky all red an' somethin' wrong with the water an' two strangers approachin'? An' he's jus' screamin' at the air?"

"I see it."

"Ah know jus' how he feels."

As it turned out, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie missed their appointment with Doctor Gentle -- or rather, had it postponed. The birth itself hadn't taken all that long: less than an hour for happening to become happened. But there were follow-up activities to go though: cleaning up the birthing room led it off, followed by watching a proud Shining Sky show her newborn to all of the Element-Bearers while gushing about the blessing which the Princess had bestowed -- and that quickly segued into the others staring at Twilight as the mortified (and something more, something which added still another layer of stress to the tally Fluttershy was continuing to keep) librarian tried to invent an invisibility spell on the spot. There was cooing to be done towards the innocent face of Dawn Sky, with Rainbow Dash as the filly's biggest (and first) fan. "Will you just look at that rib cage? That is the rib cage of a courier. She's going to be an endurance flier, I know it! And a metallic -- better buy her a date calendar tomorrow and start taking reservations, I kind of wished I was a metallic for a while -- um... at least until I realized how much cooler prismatics were! ...not to say she isn't totally cool or anything -- or that you aren't -- hey, did you check out her tail hairs yet? How cool is that color?"

But Shining had just kept beaming through all of it, the happiest pony any of them had ever seen. And there had been a first nursing, Doctor Gentle had realized no pony had brought in the paperwork he needed to fill out for a birth and sent for it before the town hall began to stress ("Either I get it in before the Sun sets or Coordinator will charge the poor filly taxes," and they couldn't tell if he'd meant Shining, Dawn, or even somehow both), Pinkie played the first game of peek-a-boo and somehow managed to lose, Rarity took a few minutes with some of her samples and created a newborn bunting while doing more than a little cooing of her own and making sure Shining had the Boutique's address because metallics were such a wonderful challenge to design for -- oh, there were things to do with a newborn in the castle which took time, including Quiet insisting that Shining pick out something from a room as his birth gift for the filly, something without an edge, please, or at least something with a safety cover for practice... which inspired Spike to hand over a loose scale as a keepsake.

It all took time -- more than enough time for the second near-future mother of the day to arrive. And after Shining had gushed in that direction, the newly-arrived panting unicorn mare had virtually dragged Twilight back into the birthing room to get the second Princess-issued blessing of a new alicorn's life, with helpless purple eyes staring back towards the group, silently begging for a rescue which couldn't come...

...and then with new mothers and children (the second had been a colt and that parent, not to be outdone, had named him Dusk) departed, they were having dinner, which was thankfully back to a more typical courseload.

Rarity was in a teasing mood. "So, Twilight -- how did it feel, attending while your brother birthed?"

Slightly more normal than anything else which happened since this started? "Names repeat, Rarity -- you know that." Although hers no longer would. There was a reason no fillies were named Celestia or Luna, a tradition which had solidified into invisible law -- and now 'Twilight' was apparently being added to that list. "'Shining' by itself is gender-neutral."

The unicorn giggled. "Yes, I know... it was simply the image. And it's possibly the only way you could get him into the birthing room at all. Should Cadance become pregnant, I simply cannot picture him attending. The valiant defender, all knees buckled and being pushed in with horn prodding his rear, perhaps..."

Twilight was about to take offense -- then considered it. "No -- field-carried. And kicking all the way."

Doctor Gentle chuckled. "Some fathers do make it in, young ladies. But they are very much the minority. So, Princess -- did you learn anything from watching me work?"

She sighed. "Not really, sir." The honorific had ridden back in on the knowledge that the Exception would not be anything close to an instant copy. "Not in the sense of how you're achieving it. No pony's ever been able to duplicate you, have they? Or has anypony managed it since that last article five years ago?"

He shook his head. "I try to teach, Princess -- I keep trying, and there is no shortage of midwives and physicians who see the value in having such a tool. But nopony has ever mastered it. Happily, it's not exactly a requirement for the job. I would say I use it for less than one in every ten births, on average, and some of those are simply minor positioning adjustments. You saw Dusk's arrival -- perfectly normal."

That much blood is normal?

The Doctor took a sip of his juice. "But -- if others could learn it, then more of those on the edge could be saved. So I keep trying -- and..." He sighed. "Believe me, I would give much to have a full corps of graduates benefiting from my tutelage. But it simply hasn't worked out that way."

Quiet gave his guest a reassuring look. "Some tricks always remain unique, Doctor. Twilight can probably think of a dozen unicorns or more who developed a personal spell which never appeared again in Equestria's history."

"Thirty-seven," Twilight automatically filled in. "Not counting the current generations. And those are just the ones who demonstrated their tricks and had them recorded... I always thought there was a lot more lost. Of course, Star Swirl's one of them and I hope pretending to fall asleep in that sauce stains your coat, Rainbow Dash..."

Pinkie nodded -- after her eyes were open again and her head was off the table -- and continued from there (while an unabashed Rainbow Dash licked most of the sauce off her own face). "And some are so rare that ponies just think they're unique. I knew Twilight wasn't the only unicorn -- unicorn at the time -- well, Nightmare Moon was technically an alicorn, or at least in the body of one -- who could teleport, because I saw Doctor Gentle do it before that. But she did it, and Twilight did it, I'm pretty sure Princess Celestia can do it, which means Luna can do it, so that's sort of five right there, or maybe four and a half, which is still a lot more than one..."

Doctor Gentle was clearly used to it. "About one in every three hundred, Pinkie. Uncommon, but most towns with a significant unicorn populace will have their share. The range of travel is a bit trickier... and because recoil is such a concern, most of those who can do it still only make line-of-sight jaunts or simply return to their homes, so courier duties remain the realm of the pegasi. Having such variance of magic among unicorns is sometimes seen as an advantage -- and also an issue."

Fluttershy looked slightly confused. "...I don't understand, Doctor... how can being able to do a lot of things be a problem?"

"Well -- most unicorns can't do a 'lot' of things, my eldest. The typical unicorn has their field and can manipulate the world around them with it to some degree through telekinetic movement. Most will have a personal spell or two, the majority of which do repeat in time over the centuries, and some of which can be taught. But -- not all can learn. There are a number of unicorns -- the majority -- who will always have their field, a personal spell, a few basics picked up from study -- and nothing more. Some have less than that. So if you need a given spell, you must typically seek out a unicorn who can use it -- and as the Princess said, some spells have never appeared a second time. Furthermore, even if you find that spell, the unicorn in question may not be strong enough to use it as powerfully as required. It is difficult for us to combine our strengths: the technique for doing so is incredibly advanced. Two who know it can merge fields with some care. Perhaps three. More than that -- the stuff of legend. So there are many wonderful magics out there among my race, Fluttershy -- but finding the magic you need at the intensity you require can be the search of a lifetime."

Twilight had to agree with that. "Part of what the Canterlot Archives does is track the rarest talents and strangest spells, just in case they're needed -- and we're still missing a lot. Some unicorns don't know their spells are rare or unique -- they don't have the education or haven't met anypony who would recognize the frequency."

Doctor Gentle sighed. "In my own case, I'm registered as a 'valuable resource'. Possibly part of why the news of my absence seemed to spread so quickly... Princess, with the topic raised -- I have a favor to ask, and it may seem an odd one."

It's not as if Equestria doesn't owe him a favor or several hundred... "Doctor?" Waiting.

Hesitant at first, words picked carefully, "Should Princess Cadance ever be with foal -- I would truly love to attend the birth. No midwife in recorded history has ever been present when an alicorn brought a next generation into the world. If she ever comes to be expecting -- would you ask her on my behalf?"

'Where do alicorns come from?'

Doctor Gentle didn't seem to have given up on his foal questions either. But as favors went, it wasn't only minor, it wasn't even ultimately hers to grant. "I can ask, Doctor -- but I don't know what she'll say."

"Asking is enough," the Doctor smiled. "And Princess -- I do apologize for helping to put you on the spot earlier. I am aware of how uncomfortable that must have made you, but -- Shining came to me because her family has a history of hard births. Her own parents -- failed twice before she came to Sun. She was hoping I would be what she needed to break the pattern. And then, with you here -- you gave her confidence, Princess, and Exception or not, there are times when that extra bit of belief can make all the difference in the world. You may have felt you simply stood, watched, and spoke -- but you did help her in a very real way. What happened after was more -- upponyship, I suppose -- but for Shining, you mattered."

I did nothing. I meant nothing. I can't mean anything. I shouldn't... But a nod was required at the absolute minimum -- and after a great effort, it was all she was able to give.

Doctor Gentle accepted it and then changed the subject. "Young dragon, are you feeling any better?"

Spike looked like he really want to grumble. Or worse. But all he could manage was an abashed "Yes..."

"And do you now understand why I said a sentient who emerged from an egg might not want to see such a thing just yet?"

Doing a remarkably good unknowing imitation of Fluttershy (one that made the pegasus giggle), "...yes..."

"Are you going to peek into the birthing room a second time?"


Kindly, "Very well -- and incidentally, does your species always scorch the landing site after fainting?"

Sunset. Dusk. Twilight, although the disgruntled and shaken former unicorn was wondering if anypony would be allowed to keep using that term. They'd made a fresh excuse -- checking out the cottage to see how Applejack and Pinkie Pie were being hosted, along with giving Twilight a chance to discuss the births in more detail than anypony should go into over food -- and had gone right out the back, making their way towards the falls. She wasn't due until full night, and they had no to-the-minute idea when within that rather wide range. So there was (probably) still time to plan (and some was done on the way) -- but for now, it was time to learn.

The path to the falls was entirely within pony territory, and that included the side detour. Curious, they followed the rising trail until they found -- a hollow.

At first, the trail widened so that three ponies could walk next to each other comfortably. The ground became more even as the sound of rushing water intensified -- and then the falls themselves appeared, a tumble of white foam directly in front of them. They were about halfway up the drop, with the trail slanting sharply behind the water, far enough back so that keeping to the cliff edge would leave a pony no more than very mildly damp. And in the shadows of that edge -- a small cave, one with smooth walls and a clean floor, oddly so for each -- at least until Twilight and Rarity simultaneously picked up on the residue which said the place knew more basic shield spells than a typical home safe and Fluttershy, blushing, spotted the lover's nest of carefully maintained blankets at the back. Everypony's romantic getaway, even with the horrible humidity from being so close to the water: the blankets had clearly been added to by generations of ponies, with those couples (on up) who would go on to marry stitching their names into the patterns. Others had brought pillows. Snacks were left behind by silent group arrangement and steadily replaced after each tryst. There might have even been an availability schedule posted somewhere in Trotter's Falls and they'd just neglected to sign up, which meant they couldn't be sure when somepony new would be arriving. But cave occupants couldn't see anything on the other side of the falling water, hearing beyond it was equally impossible -- and there was only a tiny portion of approaching trail to check the land and water below from before all vision was lost. Still, they could use the cave to talk for now, and Twilight set up the shield (easy: the cave was -- used to it) plus a little patch of field on the path which would theoretically signal them if somepony was coming up -- should they step directly on the very visible glow.

(Twilight preferred to think of it as an 'Occupied' sign and hoped nopony would come closer after seeing it. All the gossip columns needed was for somepony to find all seven of them in here. Spike had thus far managed to escape notice in the impossible relationship carousel, but if anything might do it...)

"O-kay..." Rainbow Dash carefully marshaled herself. She'd been a teacher of sorts before, of course, she'd made a point of telling Twilight that -- but coaching Fluttershy in cheering... "So. Pegasus magic. Yeah." She checked the field-covered cave entrance, then looked at the back of the cave, and finally moved to the ceiling. No replacement instructor appeared from any of those places. "Um... everypony comfortable?"

"Since somepony does seem to be keeping this nest clean, yes," Rarity assured her. "Normally I wouldn't consider lying down, but since the sheets smell of detergent and nothing else..."

"...it's a nice pillow," Fluttershy decided. "...there's something in the middle, though... I'm right on top of it..." She worked it forward with her hooves, pulled it out with her teeth -- and then hastily stuffed it back in before Spike could get a look.

Pinkie jumped in the air as high as she could, came down in a storm of feathers and flung cases. "We should totally have a pillow fight in here later! We've never all had one together!" She looked around for the most likely easy victim. "I call dibs on Rarity!"

Which finally got a completely inadvertent honest laugh out of a still-stressed Applejack, "Pinkie, Ah would love t' see y'try. All set here, Dash."

Spike nodded. "Ready." (He had originally tried to bring a fresh scroll with him, but Twilight had asked him to leave it behind. It hadn't seemed to fit the cover story and besides, Rainbow Dash was probably going to find things hard enough without anypony taking open notes.)

Twilight agreed. "I don't think she'll come too close to sunset, Rainbow -- she'll wait for full dark and for ponies to fall asleep: less chance to be seen." (Spike had taken a long (if unintentional) nap, so was ready to be awake for a while.) "Don't rush anything because you're worried about deadline. I'll peek out every so often and see if I can spot her."

Rainbow Dash nodded, and the uncertainty was actually visible in the movement. This wasn't her usual role. She was a good coach and strong coordinator when it came to group efforts, but had a certain tendency to overlook problems like a rapidly-spreading flu. And she assumed no student could ever be as good as the teacher, especially with the teacher being her -- but her leadership was still for things physical, not intellectual. And so, "Fluttershy... you were kind of on track for Cloudsdale University for a while, and your family --"

The yellow pegasus shook her head. "...I dropped out of school, Rainbow... you know that... and my family is -- my family. They aren't me..."

Which made the cyan mare bite back a sigh. "Fine... so... okay, pegasus magic..." Visibly searching her recently-traitorous head for words. "First -- what the Doctor said over dinner, about it being so hard for unicorns to work together? It's not like that for us. And we don't have spells to learn -- just techniques. Not everypony knows every one, and -- there are some tricks which are more rare than others, things a few ponies can pull off where others can't. I can -- only do -- two or three." Almost immediately, defensive, "My cutie mark is for speed more than anything else: weather is secondary. But any pegasus who knows a technique can work with another -- or a group. It's not always easy to coordinate -- you remember the waterspout, Twilight: with so many of us there, it wasn't simple to keep things under control. And it takes some practice. Technically, I guess it's kind of possible that any pegasus could learn every technique if they worked at it long enough -- but some are just better than others at making them happen, you know? But there's no ultra-fancy twenty years of school spell to make it all work."

Rarity frowned. "Wait -- tricks? Other than flying ones? How so? And what?"

"Well -- okay, none of this is secret, but -- we mostly just show off for each other... Like, I don't need a cloud factory. Not all the time, not if there's a lot of moisture in the air. A place like this -- hang on..."

Rainbow Dash took off, hovered a little bit over the cave floor, brought all four hooves together under her body. Began to do something which made it look as if she was operating an invisible loom, all of her legs weaving in and out, the motion constantly repeating --

-- and a vaporous substance which was not cloth began to appear, although there was some resemblance to cotton...

(Twilight reached out, tried to feel. Nothing there. Not a trace of magic at all, or not one her senses would recognize as such. And it was happening anyway.)

A single strand of white fluff at first. Then more, rapidly spreading out from under her body as the weaving drew in more mass. And the air was getting -- drier. Easier to breathe...

...Rainbow Dash was standing on top of a freshly-made cloud, just large enough to take a nap on. "See? All it takes is -- well -- I sort of collect the water that's already in the air and -- move it in a little more... If I keep gathering, I can increase the size of this one, or make it denser and get fog. Or I could just add to the moisture and really get it ready to rain. But it's not my specialty, guys -- I need a lot of moisture around. Other pegasi can do more with less. Or charge a cloud, especially when there's lots of different weather patterns in an area. They sort of take the conflicting energies and store them -- inside. Lightning on demand, and more than an average cloud holds. It was an old military technique... what?" Because with the exception of Fluttershy, they were staring at her. "Okay, okay -- I know you haven't seen it before, but come on! It's a basic trick. We just keep the cloud factories around because they're faster and not everypony picks up this technique anyway."

"So you basically learned this so you could make your own beds wherever you went?" Pinkie innocently asked, batting her eyelashes.

Dash fell for it. "Of course! Wherever there's enough water in the air --" The cave rang with laughter. "-- hey! There's lots of uses for this, okay? It's one of the only ways to dry out the air: you make clouds so you can make rain and get the stuff back into the rivers. We can't destroy water -- and we can't create it. And with lightning, we can't create energy. Same thing with heat -- okay, not quite for either. There's always a little potential lightning in a cloud just from the energy involved in making it -- and when we exert ourselves, we generate a little heat and we can use that. But mostly, we just -- move things. From one place to another. Concentrate or dilute them."

Why didn't I ever think about this? Even after the switch and seeing Rarity's fumbles, I never considered how much magic would have to go into weather manipulation. How fine the changes would need to be, on a large scale or a small one. Just making a cloud -- that's an act of telekinesis on a microscopic scale. And moving heat...

It was a field, it had to be. It was another kind of field, one which worked on a finer level than even Rarity could dream of. It was possible that the only reason a mark-switched Rarity had been able to do anything was because the designer operated on a plane of field refinement well beyond what most unicorns would ever achieve -- and, because it was still nowhere near what Rainbow Dash had just casually done, hadn't been able to make things work right...

"So," Twilight tried carefully, "when you start or end winter -- what are you doing?"

Rainbow Dash shrugged as she made herself comfortable on the cloud. "Move heat out, move it back in. There's always heat somewhere, or a place which needs it -- most of the time. But you need the heat so you can move it in the first place. I couldn't keep warm when we were on the way to the Empire because there was nothing to use. And I'm better with cold than the rest of you: most pegasi are -- and I was still freezing. All I could do was keep my own heat closer, and -- I'm -- not so great with that. And when it's too hot, you need a place to shift things to -- there's always the upper atmosphere, but that can sort of backfire if you do it too much..."

Rarity looked at Twilight, then at Dash. "I -- almost remember some of this," she breathed. "As if it was a dream I had and woke up in the middle of... that there were classes I took at some point in another life..."

Rainbow Dash, still trying to get on a roll, ignored it. Half a memory wasn't enough to let Rarity take over anyway. "Wind -- is putting your own energy into the air. That I'm good at. You've seen me make funnels all by myself, like with the parasprites." Carefully ignoring how that had ended and probably still (with some accuracy) blaming Pinkie for it. "It's harder to stop wind than it is to get it going, though. The energy still has to move somewhere. You can -- kind of try to make it go -- inside, but it's hard to hold and you have to use it up or redirect fast or you get in real trouble. Breaking up a tornado -- usually you just try to unwind it. It takes an idiot to try and absorb it and -- most of them don't last long. Mostly you try to cancel force with force, you know? Equal and opposite? But if there's too much wind and you don't have time to counter it or enough pegasi for a big one... sometimes you've gotta try and absorb..."

"Can y'do that?" Applejack, fascinated in spite of herself.

Reluctantly, "Yeah. It -- kinda sucks. Honestly, guys -- clouds, making wind, and moving some heat. More than that usually takes a team. Setting up seasonal changes always takes a team -- I guess maybe the Princesses could do some of it on their own for a city or a region, but they don't... Canterlot's team is good, though. Really good."

"And -- lightning?" Twilight, who was now wishing for a new wing (no pun intended or probably extant) of her library and planning a raid on the Cloudsdale book exchange program.

Dash shrugged. "Oh, anypony can trigger that. It's the aim..."

Images of a ruined Town Hall flashed across several minds.

"Okay," Dash continued without bothering to ask for questions. "Flight -- that's something I want to talk about with Twilight later in private: the rest of you don't need that. We know she can fly, but -- I don't think she'll go too high. Fluttershy said that when she made a break for it, she stayed close to the ground. I think -- she's worried about the pain and her cycle, both at the same time. That she'll have a spasm and lose control, or her wings could -- shrink -- too much and send her down. What that mostly means for us is that she'll probably do anything to not go high. That would usually keep the clouds away from her -- but after what Twilight saw..." The pegasus took a visibly deep breath, probably one deeper than she'd wanted the others to see, didn't notice. "This is where we -- get outside my range. I know Luna can trigger from a distance. But for pretty much all of us, our magic is -- like unicorn magic. In that it's in -- specific places. Wings and hooves, mostly. And eyes. I guess there's a trace in our skin so we can lie down on clouds, but -- wings and hooves to manipulate with, and eyes to see what you're doing. But because it's wings and hooves, you almost always have to make contact. I knew one pegasus in flight school who could set off lightning from about a body length away. He was really proud of that, because it meant he could prank without being suspected -- in theory, y'know? But the reality was that it tired him out like he'd just done a Las Pegasus to Manehattan run in half the normal time and when the teachers saw him panting next to the cloud... "

Twilight suspect it was more than that: a field which didn't project away from the body in most cases, one that stayed in and just outside the skin, hooves, and feathers. Tactile telekinesis -- except in that case, how could the weather coordinator reach out to gather in more water for her cloud? Maybe it stayed closer for some things than others. And Dash's classmate had figured out how to extend his reach for lightning, but at a horrific cost to personal reserves. Incredibly simple -- and at the same time, complicated beyond belief.

She's moving things too small to see. Casually. Only there's something in her eyes and she can see them. Princesses, what does the world look like through pegasus sight? And she talks about it like every pegasus in the world could do all of it if they just wanted to practice enough. Not all with the same talent or strength because fields are always going to vary, but -- every trick potentially in every pegasus pony... Celestia and Luna, why didn't I study...

Because -- she'd been a unicorn. And unicorn magic was a subject which she could study for a lifetime without ever completing it. She didn't have any need for pegasus magic because she was never going to use it. Something in the background, a part of everyday life which she took for granted because somepony else was handling it. Magnificently basic -- and simultaneously, incredibly complex.

One lifetime to not even come close to full and true mastery of one -- now there's another -- and as for lifetimes...


Rainbow Dash kept going. "That -- I guess kind of brings us to what she could maybe do as a pegasus. We know she's good with wind. Better -- than me -- for some things. She isn't flying around to create and maintain funnels. I could make a wind gust by flapping -- but not what she's doing. I can -- maybe -- counter a dust devil or two if I move fast enough -- I know I can do it for a normal one, but I'd have to see how strong hers really are. Or -- feel it. I think wind is our biggest problem right now -- it's what she might have the most practice with, especially given that stunt she pulled on Twilight. That was an awesome trick -- I'm not praising her or anything! I'm just saying that -- inner core stable, outer layer twisting -- it is awesome, and it's a great way to throw off a new flier. Just not -- who she used it on, okay? But I don't know how she's managing that. It's like she's got -- I don't know because I've never seen them do more than stand on clouds or just trigger lightning -- but maybe she is -- strong. Strong -- like them."

"...like that part worked," Fluttershy whispered. "...not an alicorn -- but as strong as one..."

Hearing her own fears echoed from the others didn't make Twilight feel any better about them. "She's not all of us," she told them with a firmness she wasn't quite feeling. "She's not every Element-Bearer put together. Keep going, Rainbow."

The pegasus forced a nod, again just a little too visibly -- and didn't correct for it. "Lightning -- I can stop that. I checked the weather calendar and talked to some of the local Bureau members at the bar last night: they don't do much in the way of night runs. I can clear out every cloud around the falls for a good distance without anypony noticing. No clouds, no lightning. I can't stop moisture, not with the falls right here. But if we see her weaving, we break it up." Visible relief from the group: it had been one of the biggest concerns. "Heat -- we haven't seen her do it yet and it's one of the trickiest techniques. Again: no clouds, no rain -- and no snow or hail. I can kill that before she ever gets started. But if she can move heat -- it's a warm night and if she concentrates a lot of it in one place..."

This was Spike's territory. "Could she start fires, Dash? Or -- put heat into a pony?"

Rainbow Dash frowned. The thoughtful expression was becoming increasingly familiar. "Not into a pony, Spike -- putting heat in a solid is just about impossible: it bleeds off too fast. I guess you could make somepony sweat or maybe faint, but that's about it. Starting fires -- it's easier with lightning. Getting a whole lot of heat into a little area of air around something really small and dry and keeping it there -- it's a party trick, and it's a pretty boring party unless you're using it for a hothoof." A subtle grin suggested she'd seen it done. "But -- you'd usually notice. It would take heat away from everywhere else. I'm -- more worried that she'll shift heat out. Do it fast enough, get it cold enough, and it's almost instant hypothermia..."

"What keeps the heat in the surrounding area from pouring in to equalize things?" Twilight asked. Physics was one of her oldest friends and often read her bedtime stories.

That got her the 'duh' look. "Magic. It's not easy magic, but -- magic, Twilight." With a distinct of-all-the-ponies-to-ask air, "That's why heat transfers aren't easy. All the other heat keeps trying to, you should excuse the words, horn in."

Ask a stupid question... She got up, peeked outside at the deepening darkness (which wasn't too bad: the Moon was coming out and heading with wonderful predictability towards full). Nopony yet, and back to start.

"Sugarcube, what's the worst case here?" Applejack carefully checked. "It feels kinda like you're givin' us middle of the road things, Dash, holdin' back -- other than the major distance lightnin', stuff some pegasi could maybe still do on their own. If it goes as far wrong as it can, what are we lookin' at?"

The pegasus winced -- and looked ill. Day Of The Baked Bads ill. "I -- Applejack, this is deep college stuff, I didn't go that far, but..."

She couldn't continue.

Rainbow Dash couldn't talk about something --

-- so somepony else saved her.


The group refocused, stared.

Fluttershy whispered on. "...real ones, full size. Hailstorms with ice bigger than your head. Or even blizzards -- we can't get a hurricane, it would have to start over the ocean... things out of the history books, when pegasi -- attacked earth ponies and unicorns almost every day..." The others looked at her: she blushed -- but the fear was still prevalent and dominant. "...before the Hearth's Warming Eve Accords -- we weren't -- nice. And... even after... it took time for everypony to -- change. Sometimes I want to believe that -- Private Pansy was a real pony... that somepony among us really did make part of the first try and she isn't just a character in a holiday story... I want to think one pony was different because -- somepony had to be... We were horrible once, almost all of us were horrible. We didn't care about anypony else... or each other, we fought each other. It was all about who could hold the most sky, and take the most from the ground. Like we could own sky... and steal everything under it... You read the book, Rainbow, you talked to me about it and -- how sick you felt after. I know you don't want to scare everypony, not like that, or make them think of us like that... but they have to know... If it went as far wrong as it could, everypony, we'd -- be fighting for not just our lives, but the whole town. If she can do... all by herself... what the old armies and mercenary companies could do together... ponies die..."

Pinkie got up, walked over to Fluttershy, lay down next to her, pressed close and tight.

"...I hate who we were," Fluttershy trembled. (Pinkie held steady.) "Hate it. But -- that's not us any more. We're not like that. Ponies change. I don't want to remember... what we were either, a long time ago, Rainbow... but if she can do it... they have to know..."

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. The cloud under her seemed to vibrate slightly. "If -- not knowing how strong she is, just guessing -- like if, absolute worst case, the Princesses ever..." And another breath, just as deep, but slower. "If it goes all the way wrong -- as bad as it could go -- Fluttershy and I won't be able to stop it. We could weaken it a little together, and maybe all the pegasi in town could unweave it, but -- without the Elements..."

They waited. Waited for the words they all knew would come.

"...the fastest way to keep it from building would usually be to knock her out -- and if we couldn't do that, or we did and it didn't work --"

And like the Moon waxing towards full, they came.

"-- to stop it -- we might have to kill her."

A peaceful evening of reading at home.

Quiet felt -- well, not completely relaxed: he wouldn't be able to manage that as long as her fate was unknown. He was carrying the Doctor's stress along with his own, and while it was a combined burden which his weak body could carry, keeping his guests from seeing the effort was an extra exertion in itself. But discount that -- as nearly impossible as it was -- and he didn't feel all that bad. He had, in fact, been enjoying the last two days on a very real level. Having the Element-Bearers in his home had turned out to be a treat, and the fact that the bit cost of every last treat would eventually be reimbursed had added icing to a suddenly-free cake. He was enjoying their company. A strange group, yes, an odd assembly, but -- personable. At least a degree of pleasure to be around across the board, even for the pegasus, once you got past the boasting -- which had taken an incredible effort. And Twilight...

...he did like Twilight. And she liked him...

Quiet chuckled wryly to himself as he turned the page. "'But for time,'" he quoted to the empty air. "'But for the cruelty of when, who could know what we would have been to each other? Another time, a sooner one, and there would have been nothing in the way, no obstacles but each other, and those cleared with eyelids raised so we could see into each other's hearts. But alas, when is cruel, and we cannot take it back...'"

Donkey stories. Well-written, some of them, if you could get past the fanciful, flowery, and frankly overblown language in the older tales, but there was nothing as depressing. And the quote didn't really sum up his feelings. He liked Twilight, yes. She liked him. But if they'd known each other when they were younger, before his marriage began to loom on the horizon -- well, certainly things would have been changed: his parents would have been thrilled by the idea of his forming a connection with the Princess' protégé, done everything they could to help. Except that -- he knew something of Twilight's school years. He'd heard Coordinator speak enough times to not only sense the lies, but the pattern in them. Quiet had a very good idea of the real reason Twilight had been alone throughout her terms, and he suspected it pretty much ran the town hall.

Quiet didn't like Coordinator. Not in the least. He was necessary -- but he was necessary in the same way that a cesspool was necessary. You had to have one. You never wanted to touch the contents.

Would he have been that strong? Could he have made herself approach and stay close, knowing what would have been coming? He wanted to think so -- but that was just want. He'd never been tested, and you never knew if you would pass or fail until the test was upon you. There was no way to tell.

Still -- the current when was now. And in this now, she did like him, and she was wonderful company. Not just for any answers she might be able to provide for The Great Work: simply a joy to be around. They were becoming -- friends. Quiet liked that.

He was worried for the Doctor. Kept hoping to find her -- or (and he had faced it early on, deliberately not spoken of it) her body. So much had already gone wrong: her vanishing, the loss of the house, Doctor Gentle's injury... and all of it still weighed on him, forced weak knees to make extra efforts before straightening. And he would never have wished for any of it to happen that way, would have stopped it given a second chance. But the events as they had unfolded had brought Twilight into his life.

It didn't pay for all that had occurred, not for him and certainly not for the Doctor: even if Twilight could help them complete The Great Work, the potential damage to his first friend and that friend's loss -- irreversible. But it was still something, a little light in the darkness, a --

-- sparkle.

He smiled.

"Lord Presence?" He looked up. Softtread, the head of the night staff, who had been with the family before Quiet's birth and thus still insisted on Lord. Quiet had long since given up on trying to break that habit. "The police chief to see you in the -- secondary study. With a -- guest."

Quiet nodded and got up, carefully marking his place before leaving the room. The primary study, of course, was the one below ground level and -- well, not a place to receive a guest without a name. And it was odd for the police chief to visit him for anything other than social occasions and full-scale meetings...

...which meant it could be news.

He accelerated as much as he dared.

Chief Copper looked over as he entered the cozy secondary study, took too long to place him. "...Quiet?" The answering nod was appropriately weary. "I'd like you to meet somepony."

But Quiet had already noted the other visitor. Coat the color of a fine white wine, unruly mane, tail and eyes all the same rich burgundy-red, although that last area unfortunately had some of the color currently showing within the whites. Cutie mark showing two tankards being pressed together. Steel tankards: probably not a good sign. Middle-aged and with all the years to follow prematurely rushing in. Listing slightly to one side -- and then the other side -- back again. And an earth pony. He'd been setting records for earth ponies in his halls of late.

"And who am I meeting?" he asked.

"This is Grape Indulgence," Chief Copper told him. "You said you were looking for interesting stories. Well, this one's been hanging around looking to bum drinks and trainfare off the locals with limited success -- so I brought him in for vagrancy. And I was going to send him on his eventually sober way, but he offered to tell me a story. After I heard it -- I thought you should too. And that you should hear it first." And that was clearly just about all he could risk with the earth pony in the room. "So here's the trade, if you want to take it. He tells you the story, and you pay him what you think it's worth. If there's anything -- interesting in there." Taking a chance on a little more, "I'm not sure it's what you want to hear -- but it is interesting."

Was it something? Anything at all? Or a drunk who'd somehow managed to figure out ponies were searching and decided to sell them something they could search for?

It wouldn't hurt to listen, other than from the harsh fumes pressing into his nostrils. "All right, Mister Indulgence," Quiet said. "I'll risk a few bits for your tale."

"...somepony -- somepony there?" the earth pony said as he jumped a little, peering in every direction but the right one. "Somepony in here with us...?"

Quiet didn't even attempt to repress the sigh. "Yes, Mister Indulgence. Somepony is here." He watched the bleary eyes slowly focus. "In your own time."

It took six drinks to get it all.

The last one was for Quiet.