• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,505 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


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

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Imprimatura

It was a trick Twilight could not do. And that was why she was convinced Rarity could.

The designer disagreed. "Twilight, I do appreciate that you think so highly of me, but I believe you're overestimating what I'm truly capable of..." There was just a little sweat in the white coat this time, and most of that was from frustration. It wasn't an exhausting spell -- just an incredibly finicky one that required a degree of field control which very few unicorns could ever hope for. Twilight had seen it accomplished all of once and had never been able to pull off the feat herself. But Rarity...

"It's not power," she reminded the unicorn. "It's control, Rarity -- that's all it is. You just have to push it a little off to one side or the other and then keep it there..."

The others were watching from a small distance -- what Spike had assured them was a typical safety zone for a spell which generally had no means of going wrong in a bad way, but he'd been with Twilight for all of her school years and seen too many students fumble things which should have been completely harmless in a very Cutie Mark Crusaders sense, so just in case...

(A large percentage of Ponyville lived in dread of Sweetie Belle starting that part of her education. A moderate portion had considered offering to help her parents pay for a distant boarding school. At least three ponies were simply getting ready to move.)

They were all still in the cave: Rainbow's lecture had wrapped up and it still felt too early to move out into their waiting positions (although some part of Twilight did realize there was a degree of luck-pushing in progress -- but this was still an hour when ponies were out and about, which meant she probably wouldn't be). Twilight had needed something to pass the time which wasn't obsessing about what might happen at the meeting, and she had promised Rarity classes in more advanced magic. Things which didn't require a lot of raw strength, but simply an amazing degree of control. In that sense, this spell was one of the most demanding she knew -- and she'd had to try and teach it without being able to demonstrate it. It was certainly taking time, and quite a bit of it.

"I don't even see why you would wish me to know this," Rarity said, brow furrowing -- and then visibly forced back: couldn't chance wrinkles, after all. "What use is there in such a trick? It only does one thing, a rather pointless thing at that, and it's so hard..."

"It's a test, Rarity," Twilight explained. At least in part. She knew what Rarity's school field dexterity scores had been (although she was still insisting to herself that snooping hadn't been any part of it) and what Rainbow Dash had explained made her think those numbers might have gone up over the years through constant exercise with the moving contents within a glow-filled shop. This would be the proof of it -- and if it worked, a sign of where she could take Rarity's studies in the future. "And it does have a use. Trixie would love this one..."

"Oh, her," Rarity just got out, managing to keep her tone polite -- barely: as far as the designer was concerned, that was a pony whom she might forgive -- eventually -- and Pinkie's soft muttering chorused those feelings. "And she cannot do this?"

"Not that I know of." Maybe not even with -- and stop.

"Well, I suppose I should try to demonstrate what somepony possessing restraint might possibly be capable of..." Rarity visibly redoubled her efforts, her corona staying at an intense primary level -- but with sweat and hoof-scraping against the cave floor increased, so focused on her attempt as to actually not be thinking about any residual dirt. "I don't understand... why does something which does so little have to be so difficult..."

...and Spike's eyes went wide, every bit as large as Twilight's. His exhaled words came out before hers could, with his sister caught staring in shock, awe, and delight, his own voice reflecting all of it and throwing in triumph for the pony he believed in second-most -- on the average day, with a perpetual option to move up. "Rarity -- you're doing it."

She blinked, false lashes meeting and parting again -- but did not stop concentrating. "I -- I am? I can't see it, Spike -- I don't think it's possible for anypony to cross their eyes that much..."

Twilight continued to stare. It was happening, it was actually happening... "Can you -- split your focus a little? Grab something and bring it closer?"

"Yes, that isn't a problem..." Rarity's field reached forward, surrounded a pillow -- Applejack instinctively moved into more of a defensive stance -- and brought it into view.

The glow surrounding it wasn't a soft blue. It was more of a blue-green, almost an exact match for Fluttershy's eyes.

"You're changing your signature, Rarity," Twilight breathed. A trick she personally couldn't do -- and it was happening right in front of her. "I had one teacher who could manage this... Keep pushing a little further in that direction..."

Rarity continued to concentrate. The blue-green slowly lost the aqua tones, moved to more of a verdant shade.

"Ah don't understand," Applejack softly said. "Ah've never seen anypony do this an' from what Twilight said, Ah know it's hard -- but why would a unicorn want t' do it at'tall? What good does it do?"

"Think about how Trixie operates," Twilight said, too distracted by Rarity's achievement for a full lecture, confident the farmer could work it out for herself from a hint or two, and also caught up in, if not the feeling of a tiny piece of her own burden dropping away, then at least that from having helped a friend. "What she might use it for... Rarity, I want you to practice this whenever you get some spare time. This also works as a pure field refinement exercise: it'll make everything that comes after that much easier." Smiling, "And Rarity? I never want to hear you say you aren't capable of something again."

"I will never be able to levitate an Eastern Red Giant, not even a sprouted sapling which Applejack and her family have been working on for a mere season," Rarity grumbled, "but I am no longer allowed to say it..." But she was smiling too. "Oh, very well... you know, this would add a certain something to a fashion show all by itself..."

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And then Twilight was waiting by the pond.

She had learned to ignore the sound of the rushing and splashing water during her time in the cave. It wasn't working for the cold, a chill which seemed to radiate from the liquid and cancel the effects of the warm night. A trick for pegasi, to move enough heat in or out in order to stay comfortable in nearly any environment. Not something she could do -- and even if it was somehow within her eventual potential reach, flight would have to come first: there had been cyan-tinged insistence on that.

Rainbow Dash had already made the planned move, taking a few techniques out of her potential arsenal: the clouds over the falls (and for a good distance out) had been cleared away, allowing the waxing Moon to light up the area with a little more strength. That side effect had been a problem in itself: her friends and sibling had concealed themselves all over the area, and those hiding places had taken more than a little consideration to begin with. They'd had to think about the possibility of being sighted from overhead, or that their visitor could come from any direction on the ground -- although Twilight expected her to avoid one. The extra illumination hadn't helped. Still, they seemed to have managed the job -- at least, Twilight couldn't see any of them from her own spot.

She'd been waiting by the water for what felt like hours. It was getting late, had to be midnight or close to either side of it. Spike had brought along an emergency yellow diamond -- they affected him like coffee. Twilight hoped he would suck on it instead of biting into the jewel: they didn't need the crunching noise right now.

Twilight was still trying to figure out what she was going to say. What she could say. How to keep the focus on her. The adventures she'd had with her friends and sibling had taught her something about bluffing and making up stories in a hurry -- but she was no expert at running the long con or keeping a conversation fully steered to a single side. At some point, their visitor was going to ask for answers to questions Twilight wished had never been asked at all and was trying not to blame Pinkie for. Answers Twilight didn't have.

Well, it was like this. I got hit by several beams of light from the Elements. They sent me to a place which was a lot like the between while simultaneously being nothing like it whatsoever. I talked to the Princess. A little burst of energy came out of me and split up into pieces, which then started swirling around me while I levitated and I'm completely sure I wasn't controlling that last part. And then I was back in Ponyville, I had wings, and my life started to go seriously downhill from there, although not as badly as I'm guessing yours did. Which is not only pretty much all I've got, but I'm starting to believe it's all I'll ever have. So how did your attempt go?

...no. Just -- no.

And if Twilight couldn't keep the talk focused... if she became upset...

It was the cold coming off the nearby water which made her knees want to shake. Twilight kept trying to tell herself that. It wasn't working...

...her hyper-attenuated senses picked up the sounds of breaking twigs. Tiny pieces of wood cracking under approaching hooves.

Twilight turned slightly, faced what she thought was the right direction. If it was her, then they'd actually gotten lucky: she would be coming in on an angle which didn't come near any of the hiding places, and Twilight had believed she'd avoid the path and come in through the trees -- if she came by land at all. And a land approach likely meant she either wasn't within the pegasus part of her cycle at all or just not so far into it for managing flight. It removed several options for disaster --

-- and added others.

Possibly not a pegasus right now -- but that leaves two options, and one of them is --

She stepped out from the trees, came into sight under Moon. And for Twilight, the worst-case scenario was a mere fourteen body lengths away.

It was as Grape Indulgence had said. The blue which had been in her mane and tail was now in her coat. The tan had gone to the places where the blue had fled and additionally manifested in her eyes. And the horn -- deep purple, reaching towards black.

Unicorn. Oh, no...

Twilight had thought about it. Done everything she could to plan for this. But ultimately, having her come in this part of the cycle meant only one thing: she had no true idea of what could happen -- and too much of one for how much raw power might be behind it.

She forced herself to breathe, risked closing her eyes for a moment in order to better focus and gather her own strength -- then ordered herself to do what she had told her friends to avoid at all costs: looked directly at the visitor's mark...

...and Rarity had been right. The gold loop was closest to the top -- but not all the way there: there was still some distance to go. Similarly, the silver had not reached the absolute ascent point. Visibly in that portion of the cycle, getting closer to the heart of it, the brief moment of completely having transformed -- but not quite yet.

Which meant that she had timed this.

She had made sure she arrived when she was strong -- and the longer she stayed, the stronger she might become. When the silver reached the middle of the curve, once the loop was fully pointing towards the sky...

It had been a little easier to look at the mark this time, experience and bracing serving their purpose. But it was still an experience to shake a burdened mind -- and the knowledge Twilight had gained brought no comfort. She's not stupid. I can't risk thinking of her that way. Her words come out in broken sentences because it's so painful for her to talk. Don't fall into the trap of thinking it represents a mind which can't communicate any other way. I don't know how smart she really is, but she's not stupid and the instant I start seeing her that way, I've lost...

...she's so tall...

A full and accurate height comparison had been hard from the middle of the dust devil. But yes -- just about Luna's size.

Having to look up again wasn't helping.

The unicorn slowly trotted closer. Twilight focused, watching the horn. She had told everypony else to do the same if this happened, and they were all ready. In a way, the fight against the wild zone rams had done them all a favor -- because they all knew what backlash was now. And how to inflict it.

They were not to attack at the first sign of any spell: she might try to take the food Twilight had brought for her, out in the open a little distance to the left along the pond's edge. But if it looked as if a fight was about to begin, all of them had the same instruction: go for the horn. Make hard contact and keep making it.

If we only had a restraint... I should have checked Quiet's armory: maybe one of his ancestors purchased one. It would only take up to five days before I could find it. Couldn't ask the police, they would have needed to know why, even for a Princess and maybe even especially. Oh Luna...

...who couldn't help her any more than Twilight had helped Shining.

Closer still. She wasn't moving well: there were little hints of limp shifting from one leg to another, winces and tiny moans as she planted her hooves. The pain was etched across her face, and how many years had the agony used to try and draw permanent traces? What would she look like if she wasn't hurting? Twilight tried to picture it -- and succeeded.

She would be beautiful.

Somehow, that hurt nearly as much as her inability to invoke her own faith.

"You -- came," she said. Three body lengths away now. "I -- wasn't --" a deeper moan "-- sure..."

Somehow, Twilight managed a nod. "I -- brought food. If you're still hungry." She nodded towards the supplies.

"Not," the unicorn said -- and didn't leave it at that. "Don't. Trust."

Twilight blinked. "I don't understand --"

"-- drugs," the unicorn snapped. "Eat -- then sleep. Don't trust." She looked directly at Twilight, tan eyes on purple. Her horn, already longer than the average, seemed to project a little more. "Want -- to talk. Will talk. But -- not trust. Only. So. Far."

She'd thought of something Twilight hadn't even begun to consider, come prepared for a plan which hadn't been part of any checklist... No, she wasn't stupid -- and in this case, that intelligence could work against them, because she would not only think of things the Bearers hadn't considered, but could imagine fears which shouldn't exist and preemptively react to them. "I -- thought about trying to find some drugs for you. Something which would help with the pain -- but if you won't take anything I bring, then I can't --"

"-- no," the unicorn said, stamping her front left hoof against the pebbles along the pond's edge: another moan escaped. "Can't." Anger in her voice -- but her horn remained unlit, and her eyes --

-- she wants to. She wishes she could. She dreams of the pain going away, even a little. But she can't trust me.

Twilight was starting to wonder how much more soul-deep hurt she could take. And how it compared to what the visitor went through every second of her life.

"All right," Twilight made herself say, and couldn't add maybe later. "We can talk..." Which meant it was time for the first question of her own, just one of those which had been haunting her. "What's your name?"

The unicorn blinked. "...name?"

Later, Twilight would think about the expression she saw then, would revisit it too many times under Sun and Moon, see it during dark times within the nightscape. It was not a look of anger. No -- confusion. As if Twilight had asked a question which had no meaning, one no pony ever could have even thought of, something so instinctive that not even a newborn foal would need to search for a response. A question which was answered simply by the act of existing.

"...no name," came the answer. And it wasn't voiced in protest or fury that Twilight would try to get something which could identify her. It was a simple response to a question which was too basic to ask.

This blink was harder. "You -- don't -- look, I'm not trying to track you down, I swear." Which was a lie Twilight felt she was getting away with. "I just need -- something to call you."

The unicorn looked more confused than ever. "She. You."

With what was very nearly the bleakest of internal humor, If we're getting stuck on this, the rest of the night is probably a total loss. Try it from another angle. "What do other ponies call you?" Or rather, what name had they addressed her by before her cutie mark came and sent her into a life of agonized isolation -- or (somehow) worse?

"Other -- ponies..." And it seemed as if there was a bare second where she was about to give a response -- but then she shook her head. "No -- other. Ponies."

"I... I can't just..." Getting desperate now, "How do you think of yourself?"

Which got her an expression which didn't so much suggest Twilight's brain had momentarily ceased all function as directly state it before writing the words down and having Spike mail it to the Princess for eventual filing within the Canterlot Archives in a new wing built just for the occasion. "I."

...right... But Twilight couldn't make herself drop it just yet. She needed to identify this pony in some way, create a tiny bit of order. To name something was to remove it from the realm of the completely unknown, if just a little, and Twilight was desperate for even the smallest step in that direction. "Can I just give you a name, something to call you by --"

Anger. The horn stayed dark, the field did not ignite -- but the sheer force of the words hit harder than any spell. "No name! Names limit! Name not earned! Never name now!"

The burst sent Twilight staggering back a step, mind reeling, images beginning to rush through her --

-- and then her back right hoof hit the water.

Twilight yelped at the cold, jumped forward, nearly stumbled on the landing.

The unicorn's anger -- vanished.

She snickered.

"Cold?" she asked, and snickered a second time. There was no malice in it. Just pain -- and even that seemed somewhat lessened for the tiny duration of the sound. "We -- talk. Now. No name. She. Her. You. Always work. All. That's needed." More quietly, "Ever."

Slowly, folding her legs as if each movement might break them, the unicorn sank down to rest in the grass, her front hooves just barely touching the border of the pebbles. Her left front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed right. Went back down.

Twilight carefully moved, assuming a similar position. The pebbles weren't too uncomfortable under her body, and if they were -- well, other things definitely had first priority. "I want to start with you," she told the nameless unicorn. "What you did. You want to know -- how to make things go right. The first step in that is isolating what went wrong." Waited for the argument, for the unicorn to insist that they go through Twilight's own irreversible change first --

-- but it didn't happen. "Understand, but..." A tiny head shake, clearing thoughts or trying to banish pain. "Don't -- know. Did -- something. Something wrong. Or. This not. Happen. Don't know. Can't. Go back." She glanced down her own body -- at the mark. Words almost lost, "Can't fix."

And Twilight knew she had realized there was no cure.

She wanted to cry. Barely held back from it. "I'm sorry..."

"...my fault," the unicorn just barely managed. She was never truly still: little twitches, moderate spasms. "Not -- made mistake. Then. Not like. This. My fault. Always. Not --" stopped. Firmly, self-loathing woven into her very existence, "Mine."

Twilight marshaled herself, found a few last bits of strength somewhere. "We still have to figure out what the mistake was," and somehow kept it over a whisper. "Anything that would help -- the others." The unicorn nodded to that, and her horn seemed to lengthen still more. Twilight forced herself not to check on where the silver was. "Let's start at the beginning. How did you originally -- prepare for the attempt to change?"

A swallowed scream, the unicorn visibly forcing it back -- but it was just the twisting and not the question. "Study... Learned. About ponies. Magics."

Study? Okay... if you were preparing to become an alicorn and knew it, you'd want to learn all about what you could do as one. The irony that this one had arguably been more ready than Twilight was not lost on the librarian. "For how long?"

"Life," came the simple answer. Quietly, "Wasted."

Twilight shoved the horrors back again, made them get in line and take numbers. "Until you -- changed."

Another nod -- and then what she'd so hoped to avoid. "You? Study?"

"I -- learned about other ponies," Twilight carefully tried.

"Magics?"

How much can I lie? We need this answer and if I steer her down the wrong path with my own responses, she might come to a false conclusion on what went wrong with her, and that won't help the others or anypony else, ever...

And Twilight tossed the lies away.

"I studied unicorn magic," she told her. "For pretty much all of my life. But I never studied pegasus magic at all until -- after I changed." Watching the dark purple-black horn very closely. "And as for studying other ponies -- just basic history and culture, and -- I think I missed a lot. Lately -- I know I did. I never learned enough about pegasi, or thought too much about what they did because -- it wasn't part of what they taught in my school. I was focused..." Very close to a whisper, "Too focused. If you studied all the magics, then -- you did more." Waited, checking for the first sign of a field, the next burst of anger which would come with a wave behind it...

The unicorn blinked. Twice.

No anger. Just -- more confusion. "Not -- study? But..." and then a slow exhale which broke in the middle from a full-body shudder -- and when she emerged from that, the sound turned into an agonized sigh. "Many -- paths. Said --" another stop, and it felt deliberate. She visibly considered her next words before the broken voice resumed. "You -- took. Another. Can't -- help." There were tears in the tan eyes now. "Can't compare. Different. Roads. Same destination. You -- finished. I. Failed."

She slowly started to stand up.

Twilight shoved herself off the pebbles, scrambled to get back on her hooves. "Where are you going?"

The clearest words to emerge -- and Twilight saw that the silver was at the outermost part of the curve, the gold loop at its absolute peak. "To die."

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Doctor Gentle blinked away tears.

He had been crying for most of Quiet's relayed story. Just tears. No sobs, no gasps. He hadn't even asked a single question. All he had done was listen and let the relief flow.

"Gold," he whispered, seconds after Quiet finished. "Gold, Quiet. The same gold as the shield. Metallic-hued fields are rare to begin with, and they run in families. The colors -- shifted about her body, but her colors. If his perception was correct, her height might have increased somewhat, but... gold..."

The tears came faster and Quiet moved in, let his first friend weep into his coat. Felt the moisture running down his right shoulder before it was fully absorbed by his fur.

Quiet put the smile into his voice before the words started. "'No -- and yes,' you said," and the laughter wanted to come, the explosion of joy and hope fulfilled. A lifetime... and now... "Failure -- and success. Not an alicorn. But a unicorn. She moved between --" and he couldn't hold it back any longer: the rapture erupted, visions of children laughing on his fields and in his halls, of birthing rooms where he would not pace outside, no, he would be there for every last second of it because on some level, he had feared he would never be there at all. "The most glorious possible failure imaginable --!"

The coughing came. His ribs heaved, tried to tear themselves apart.

Doctor Gentle was positioned within instants. The tapping hit there and there.

"Don't apologize," were the first words Quiet managed. "Don't. In all my life, that one was worth it more than any other. I would go through that a thousand times with ten times the pain just to have that emotion again." He could feel his own tears coming. "Let a million failures blossom across Equestria, let them all be as magnificent as this. Let there always be stallions and mares this enraptured to have not done something. I believe. I believe it was her. She lived, she's a unicorn, you were right, even in failure, you were right..."

The two friends waited for each other, wrapped in the mutual embrace and nuzzles of family. Waited until the surges of emotion faded a bit, until they could think again, until visions of the most perfect future under Sun and Moon were finally put aside to await the time when they would come to pass. A time that could finally come to pass.

"I was afraid," Doctor Gentle quietly said as he settled onto a couch in his granted bedroom. "Afraid -- she had died. You were as well, Quiet, and I know it -- but you tried to spare me from that fear by not voicing it. Thank you for that."

Quiet exhaled and let the last of that emotion go. "Your burdens were too great already. Just because I can't teleport doesn't mean I don't understand the danger. I kept picturing -- her arriving in the middle of a hill or mountain. And -- how fast she would have been moving when she came out."

"I imagined the same," Doctor Gentle told him. "And worse." He managed a smile. "None of which concerns us now -- and much of which opens up new worries."

At least Quiet had dropped one burden before adding more. "All right, Doctor -- let's try to talk it out together. Or rather, I'll mostly listen while you speak. I know you sometimes work best when you can bounce ideas off another." Doctor Gentle managed a rueful smile upon hearing that truth. "With this latest information -- what do you now believe happened?"

"Failure to reconcile," came the immediate answer. "There was no merge. When I saw her -- what I could perceive of the ascension -- she seemed to be shifting between the three races at an incredible rate. Unicorn, earth pony, pegasus. If I looked at her directly, there was a sense of overlay, as with watching multiple pictures go by at high speed, almost creating the illusion of all three having come together -- but it was three separate states. At the time, I thought that was her body incorporating the new, trying to find a balance. Ultimately -- that did not happen. At some point after her teleport -- or perhaps at the instant before it, when the process was complete and she found her magic -- she shed two of them. Leaving only a unicorn..."

Quiet wanted to laugh again, held it back. "A unicorn," he repeated. "One who broke an Eastern Red Giant. We're going to have to get her some basic training, fast. I hope her theories become skills in a hurry, Doctor -- she may not be an alicorn, but she wound up with the raw power of one. Luna's mane, the magics she might be able to accomplish..."

The Doctor smiled. "She's a fast learner. Have no doubt there."

"I don't," Quiet smiled back. "Just to have grasped so quickly..." But there were still issues to deal with. "He said she seemed to be in some pain. I'm hoping she didn't get hurt out there. And -- there's still the larger question."

A nod. "Say it." Sometimes the Doctor worked best when he heard what others were thinking first.

"Well -- we were lucky, obviously, and she was so lucky as to practically have had Celestia personally picking an arrival point. She barely went anywhere in terms of distance, and there's only so far she could have gone since then. We have an area to search which can be searched. But -- well..." A little more awkwardly, "How much does she know of the area? Would she have recognized the orchard and realized she was so close to my castle? If so -- why not try and come to me? She could have oriented on Sun or Moon, and she knows a few ways here which skirted the wild zone to start with. Why not -- try to come home?"

Nearly all of the joy left the Doctor's eyes. "Because... partially because... she knows something of the orchard from what I've said of it: I do know I've spoken to her about it. But she might not have associated it with Trotter's Falls. Disorientation again, and not just geographic: trying to reach some kind of terms with a new body is an experience... well, our visiting Princess can probably speak to that, but no more than three others could. I imagine -- it would not be easy or instant, and that is before considering the sudden arrival of feel. But more than that, Quiet..." His volume dropped, his eyelids half-closed. "...I believe she has not tried to come home -- because she is ashamed. Because she feels she has failed. The goal of The Great Work -- was not achieved. She would not see it as a glorious failure -- simply as a failure. She worked too long and hard for anything other than a total success to be acceptable. She might even feel -- that I would..."

These tears were of a different sort.

"...be disappointed in her," Doctor Gentle made himself finish. "Be afraid to come home because she would think -- that I would hate her for failing..."

Quiet closed his eyes, left them that way for too long. It was too easy to see. "Your feelings are anything but... I know that."

"But -- she may not believe that," came the sorrowful reply, words overflowing with pain. "She could so easily feel that anything other than the total success was -- wrong in my eyes. So many years of labor and struggle... she might simply see her achievement as a collapse of all hope and -- flee. Try to gallop to where I could never see how badly she had failed... Quiet, we have always needed to find her, but now..."

"Now you have to tell her," Quiet gently said.

The Doctor nodded. "That this failure is as much mine as hers. That we did not know -- and how could we, with something never done before in this fashion? That this is the most glorious failure possible. And -- that I love her, and will continue to do so regardless of how she might see herself and the end of her part in The Great Work. She has advanced the path for others, laid a trail for so many to follow. How many can say they have achieved so much in life? And her life is ahead of her..." Just a little smile. "But I think I will tell her I love her first. And when she understands that once again, she will say she loves me. We will forge ahead from there -- together." Orange eyes closed, remained shut. "So many miracles... Can you imagine the odds associated with not a single one of the search parties which were hunting for me coming across her? They surely would have tried to bring her in, and any fleeing unicorn in the wild zone would have been mentioned. One witness, with a reputation as a less-than-credible drunk... I am starting to feel Celestia and Luna were smiling down on us. With --" his eyes opened again and a twinkle of faint humor entered the pupils "-- perhaps a little currently-local accompaniment."

Quiet's groan was sincere. "Do not tell her that. I know she's having more than a little trouble with the concept. Her face when she was pulled back into the birthing room..."

A small smile. "She will adjust -- in time. But for now -- we have a rough area to search. Only a few gallops at best. We have a description. If only he had not been so drunk as to have difficulty remembering a mark... hard to look at. More likely there were visions of pink flying donkeys hovering within his eyes and blocking the view. But the rest will suffice. And our own searchers can call to her and say it is all right, and she can come home..."

"I hate doing this, Doctor --" and Quiet truly did "-- but I have to add one worry to the total. Our drunk said he had told his story to some ponies before giving it to Chief Copper. It's probably minor -- they may have been some of yours on their way out of town and we know they weren't any of ours here -- but somepony else got that tale. I'm hoping that it won't wind up meaning anything, but -- you had to know."

The frown managed to shove a few of the other emotions out of the way -- but not all. "Likely minor, as you say... was he able to identify the earlier listeners?"

"The most I initially got out of him was 'a bunch of mares'. After some more questioning, he narrowed that down to a number between four and eight, possibly inclusive, and that they were rather pretty at the absolute least. But... that brings up another concern -- and --" part of Quiet hated this as well, and it was not a soft-spoken one " -- I think you know what it is."

All of the other emotions were gone now. "Our guests." There was no darker note in the voice. The tone was calm, thoughtful, had a sense of planning within it.

Twilight, Quiet thought, and didn't need to wonder why. "We know they were at the bar, six certainly falls between four and eight, and 'pretty' would be the least of the words I'd use to describe the group. They might have felt pity for him and decided to buy the poor sot a few drinks, listening to the tale in fair exchange. I can see your eldest doing that -- Kindness, after all. It's certainly possible that there were other mares involved, but -- it could have been them. Too easily. And -- there's more." He almost didn't want to say it. He had to. "They went into the wild zone today. To the orchard. The earth pony brought back several apples to core for seeds so she could raise a new crop. There's only one orchard, Doctor..."

Still calm, still thoughtful. "So the question becomes motivation," the Doctor said, and no hint of anything else was in his voice. "Our new Princess and the rest of the Element-Bearers might have listened to his tale and decided to examine the site. It is certainly within the realm of their normal activities. They are Equestria's defenders: for a report of a unicorn with such power to gain their attention -- yes, that is very easy to see. But they did not discuss it over dinner. They have been very open with us about their purpose and doings here -- or have they? It is possible the Princess simply does not wish anypony to panic before she and the others have learned what is going on, but... yes, I think we must give some time to considering... other possibilities."

Quiet did not speak. Didn't want to.

"I did not give any thought to the speed of their arrival," Doctor Gentle said. "News can travel fast, ponies move much slower. Three days by train -- but our new Princess is involved, a known teleporter and the strongest caster of her generation. Able to move a party of seven over such a distance? Easy to picture. Of course, she has never been here before, has no safe arrival point and I now know even a Princess is subject to recoil -- but she could have gone to Canterlot and asked our rulers to send them. To that degree, I had worked out a story which they never told. The news reaches Ponyville: no great surprise given how quickly it reached every point we know of. As so many others did, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie decide they must come and join the search. But they have a resource others do not. No gallop or train or emergency air carriage for the Element-Bearers -- simply a word in the right place. We are under Sun: Princess Celestia smiles, and they are sent across the continent in an instant. Not to the house to sign up as a search party -- dropped off in the middle of the search zone to begin on their own. Perhaps a place our Solar ruler had as her own arrival point, with directions to reach the center. And then the wild zone greets them with something less than royal deference, a raccoon pack races off with most of their supplies, including all maps..."

A long pause. It was more than enough time for Quiet's own thoughts to intrude, insisting on ideas he didn't want to have.

"I pictured that so easily," the Doctor continued. "My eldest and most determined were happy to speak of their adventures on my last few visits to them, and there was frequently more than a hint of 'mis' applied to the beginning of the word. They have done so much, they are our nation's heroes -- but they are yet inexperienced. I did not give them the benefit of the doubt, Quiet, for there was no doubt at all. Two of mine came in search of me and brought their friends along. Perfectly natural. But now..."

Quiet didn't want to think about it. He wanted his brain to stop insisting on making him do so. His brain wasn't listening to him.

"Currently, I do not wish to think ill of our guests," Doctor Gentle stated. "Until we have more proof, I will not make the mistake of assuming that they came here to investigate something other than my vanishing. But that does not dismiss the possibility of their having stumbled onto something by accident and feeling they must look into it for the good of Equestria. And good intentions can often do more damage than anything else under Sun and Moon. We will have to try and watch them from this point on, Quiet, for as long as they remain in Trotter's Falls and when they wander the wild zone around it. We need to learn if they are investigating and if so, figure out what we will do about it. I will speak to mine tomorrow if it all possible, and then perhaps to our new Princess about magic -- and I would appreciate any efforts you made on my behalf. But -- I also do not wish you to worry unduly. Remember, it is quite possible they simply went to the orchard for apple seeds after not speaking to a certain pony at the bar. And in the end, we might be able to resolve things simply by finding her -- and then making formal introductions all around." The thought brought a brief smile to his face. "Keep the greater concerns in mind -- but do not let them rule. We have no real reason to believe beyond what has been stated. Paranoia should not completely have its day. Caution -- but not fear. And we will pay our own visit to the orchard tomorrow. If we are lucky, there might be some residual feel left from her effort. It has been days, but -- we have been lucky so far, and if such continues, it would be enough for me to begin learning her anew. A longshot -- but it would replace eyes with magic and shorten our hunt. Still -- I admit, I am not confident in finding anything left to use."

Quiet nodded at that. "I'll start notifying our own searchers on what to look for, then. Is there anything else I can do?"

The Doctor considered carefully. "We will need a meeting -- soon. In fact, almost immediately. The largest one we've ever had. I would hope to have found her before that... There is a certain difficulty here: arguably the best way to gather everypony in -- would be by using the party you have offered the Princess. But of course, that would mean she and the other Bearers are here. If they are innocent or simply tracking from natural concern -- then there is no fear. And if they are not -- well, the best time to discover the timber wolves are at your door would generally be when all your friends are on the other side, but... there is a shadow of wings here, and I would much rather keep it overhead. At the same time, however..." and he inclined his horn towards Quiet.

"...the best time to run is well before anypony would order the chase."

"Exactly. And to that extent, I am not afraid to -- take a chance, or even several. Better to know we have some difficulties than dismiss and return to comfort before hearing a hoof knock on the door. I do not believe you would object to leaving all this behind?"

Quiet's noisy brain didn't need a moment of thought for that one. Smiling, "You've given me my dream, Doctor. My title can go hang."

"Thank you, my most devoted -- but please understand: while I do not wish to dash your hopes, this is one result. We will likely have to try a second time, and a third or more -- to be certain. Still -- the impossible has happened once. Everything from here on is the possible -- and in time, the known." He smiled at Quiet. "You will have your heir -- even though you never cared if there was anything to inherit."

"It's less to deal with anyway," Quiet said. "There's something to be said for the life of a normal pony... all right, let me get started. We can discuss the rest in the morning --" he started towards the door "-- except for one thing." The Doctor, who had just been leaving the couch so he could return to the bed, paused. "I've been meaning to ask you this for years and given how many times you've hit everypony else with it, you have this coming. Have you picked out a name?"

Doctor Gentle's smile was honest and warm. It was the same smile so many had as their first view of the world. Of their first friend.

"Several."

And Quiet left.

He checked his guest rooms on the way out. They were empty.

He checked the cottage on his way off the grounds. It was empty as well.

And Trotter's Falls had a nightlife, and some of that nightlife ran late, and they were six young, single, and attractive-through-astounding mares whom anypony might be lucky to spend a night with, they had certainly gone out on the town once before and nothing stopped them from doing it again or even sleeping in beds other than the ones he had provided.

But he didn't know where they were.

Being completely out of guest rooms, he'd put Grape Indulgence up in the slightly-more-empty hotel: some of the Doctor's were still arriving and deciding to overnight before returning. The intent had been to put him on a train in the morning -- but he could question the earth pony after sleep had sobered the wine-taster up all the way: he might remember more then, although Quiet didn't like the odds after hearing the admission of having consumed to the point of unconsciousness. Still, there was every chance he'd have Twilight and the others cleared shortly after the Sun rose.

But they weren't in their quarters.

He couldn't make himself stop thinking.