• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,108 Views, 999 Comments

Triptych - Estee


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

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Scratchboard

They didn't fly back.

The training was having an effect -- but after that first burst of flight, most of what Twilight learned centered around just how many more lessons would be necessary. And that amount was, at a minimum, 'lots'. She could enter the pseudo-Dash state and was starting to work on getting it down to a meditative mantra -- but it wasn't instantaneous. Rainbow had timed her: on average, she needed a good two minutes of focusing before she could slip into the mindset required for takeoff. And that state was -- fragile. At some point during every flight, the considerably older part of her mind would peek out through the prismatic haze and start wondering about how those heat-color interactions were working, what the colors truly were at all, move back to the lightning trigger question, begin to ponder what the pegasus had said about everything in the world affecting the sky... Her newfound (and short-lived) abilities raised thousands of questions, and the vast majority of Twilight's brain wanted to take an extended look at every last one of them, generally in midair -- which then inevitably became a disrupted query impacting the surface of a very bouncy cloud.

Twilight could fly -- but not for long. Rainbow had timed her on that too: her best extended hold didn't reach three minutes, and all but one had ended with either her friend catching her or a slightly-built purple body slowly losing the last bit of trampoline rebounds against reinforced vapor. (On her eighth attempt, Rainbow had managed to talk her into demonstrating a landing in the name of showing off, and that had gotten her down just before she'd started paying attention to the river again.) Maintaining the instinct long enough to reach the castle was currently impossible. There was just too much to think about... and not all of that was related to the mysteries of flight, air mass interactions, heat, charged ions, and all the wonders revealed by pegasus sight -- none of which she could retain for more than a few seconds after snapping back to herself.

Too much to think about, far too much for a mind trying to sort a thousand worries into some kind of manageable checklist and a back which hadn't seemed to give up an ounce of burden to the first lesson's small degrees of success. And some of that was tied to the ravine itself.

Eventually, she brought it up to Rainbow.

"How does this save her life?"

The pegasus frowned. "That doesn't sound like a me thing to say, Twilight." They were on the base-coating clouds again, with Twilight supposedly getting ready for a final attempt before heading back to the castle for a more formal breakfast. "Come on -- our time's almost up. We've got to hook up with the others soon before anypony worries. And before all the food is gone."

"I'm sorry, Rainbow -- but we're here, and it's something she said. That she created the ravine to not die -- saving her life. How does making a huge crack in the earth do that?"

Rainbow shrugged. "It's kind of obvious to me, Twilight -- maybe because that's just another part of how the pegasi in the days from -- that book -- used to fight. Something was threatening her and she made it drop. Just not air to ground -- ground to -- well, lower ground. This thing's deep enough to really hurt something which fell in -- maybe even kill. Even if you hit the river just right -- it's flowing so fast, you might not be able to get out before it swept you past the opening. And then you'd be underground. Unless this goes into a cave system in a hurry and you could get out there... anything which was facing her might drown before it could escape the water."

Twilight could picture it, and there were any number of other things she rather would have imagined. "Which would bring her count up to at least three," she sighed. And so close to being four... "But we don't know what was facing her -- and it probably did hit the river. We never found any blood or other signs of impact, and given how new the ravine was... I know it rained a little, but it didn't wash all the blood off the tree. Even if something -- collected the body..." She closed her eyes again, tried to get back into the quasi-Rainbow state. It wasn't coming. There were too many other things in the way.

"What are you thinking about?"

"I'm thinking about --"

"Trick question and wrong answer! Come on, Twilight -- one more try!"

She sighed again. "I want to get this out of the way before I get in the air again. So it doesn't hit me when I'm twenty Celests up and you wind up having to catch me. You nearly got a wing in the eye that last time."

"Fine..." the pegasus grumped. "Get it over with if you've gotta... still on her?"

Twilight nodded. "It's just that -- as a drop, it feels like overkill. Why not just make a smaller hole and drop whatever it was in that? Anything big enough to need the ravine for a fall probably would have been at least Ursa Minor sized -- and she'd have a hard time hurting something on that scale with that kind of plummet."

"She doesn't have a lot of control, Twilight," Rainbow pointed out. "She gets freaked and -- stuff happens. Something freaked her, and this happened."

And we let her go. On Pinkie's word... No, that was a thought she had to keep out of the way for a while. She had to trust her friend -- especially one who had just trusted everything on her. The secret magic of an entire race. "It's scary to think about," Twilight admitted, at least for one of the other fears. "Not just that she can do it and can't stop herself. But that the Princesses can. And earth ponies working together..."

The right side of Rainbow's mouth went up: a quirked half-smile. "So we're going to be afraid of Applejack now? With that bruise, you've got a pretty good reason to start already."

Her reply was all too close to a whisper. "What I'm mostly afraid of with Applejack is that we'll go to breakfast with the others and --" no, she had to say it "-- she won't be there." The first train out. Not even bothering to wait that long and just twisting away from Pinkie long before the Sun rose, galloping away through wild zone with fifty generations of earth ponies on her heels, the shadowlands pouring forth cries of betrayal and promises to punish same.

"Yeah," Rainbow quietly admitted. "Me too. But Pinkie won't let her get away that easy, Twilight -- you know that." A small (but full) grin. "And now I know who'd win in a fight..."

"A physical fight," Twilight distractedly replied. It didn't look as if anything huge had clawed its way out of the ravine either -- and how could anything that big have fit in the incredibly dense forest at all? There was a strict upper limit to the size of anything she might have encountered because after a certain point, nothing would be able to work between the trees without knocking a few hundred of them over instead. Maybe it had just been alicorn-level overkill after all. "Pinkie said she can't do any of -- whatever the earth pony magic range is." Why? Is her field -- whatever an earth pony field is like -- just that weak? Is it a field at all? "If Applejack fought her that way, she probably wouldn't be able to stop it. I don't know how you stop earth pony magic." The last three words still felt slightly off when assembled in that order. "I can counter spells at least some of the time, especially when they're directed straight at me -- try to negate their energy. You said equal and opposite for wind..."

Rainbow nodded. "Or unwinding -- for clouds, you break them up or unweave if you really need to scatter the moisture, but it takes forever with a big one... the techniques are there, Twilight. There's even a really tricky one for -- well, you can't stop lightning, but some pegasi can sort of redirect it as it hits them. It's one of the hardest things there is, though. You have to be sort of --" Her face went into 'there is a word which exists for this and if I can't come up with it, somepony's going to suffer, and it'll be me' mode. "-- neutral." Twilight didn't get it and said so -- which meant she got a frustrated "Blank? Empty? Like you don't have anything in the way inside... maybe I should just find you a book... anyway, yeah, we can at least try to stop each other. And --" Stopped. Winced. "Well, you remember that first Running Of The Leaves, Miss Fifth Place. If I can't move..." Her tone suggested a level of personal horror which was somehow nearly beyond Discord's temporary removal of her wings. "...it's hard to do much of anything. And -- sometimes... depending on how little I can move at all, not just my wings, but everything... it gets worse."

Like having my horn covered by a restraint. Block the field, stop the spells. Immobilize a pegasus and take out the techniques. Two of the three races had visible and (now) known weaknesses balancing out their magics. But how did you stop an earth pony...?

...and that's part of it, isn't it? If you don't know they have magic beyond the Effect, you won't be thinking about how to stop it. You're not going to be afraid of somepony -- growing plants at you. The memory had quickly turned embarrassing and was now starting to move into a near-permanent self-humiliation. You're not expecting anything other than the physical. No idea of what's coming or how to deal with it once it starts. You won't know you're in that kind of fight until after you've already lost it.

It was a benefit from having the secret be -- The Secret. You couldn't make plans to stop something when you didn't even know it existed. But was it the reason for the silence?

The pegasus shrugged, seeming to momentarily revel in her capacity for even that simple motion. "I don't know, Twilight... maybe she has to be in direct contact with the land? Even if she's just in a house, the floor might get in the way... I don't know." She groaned. "Great, now I'm thinking like you... Can we just get one more try in already? Or do you want to head back and make sure Applejack's still there?"

Twilight didn't have to think about that. If Applejack had made a (second) run for it -- then it was already too late, and that applied for a large number of things. Back to something less hurtful.

The ravine is the start of the middle. What does that mean? Is it the first place she used magic on this kind of scale? The first time she wasn't restrained in some way? The first place she killed?

Questions for the afternoon. Right now... "One more try," Twilight decided. If nothing else, it was a way to try and stop thinking for a little while, when there was just too much to think about -- and nearly all of it hurt.

It took four minutes to bring herself into instinct. She was able to hold it for just under eight seconds.

And when she finally stopped rebounding and came to a wing-splayed stop, Rainbow helped her up. "Okay, fine... this is obviously going to be a lost cause until we clear some of the other stuff out of your head. Where are we popping back in?"

"My bedroom -- no, the porch." After that encounter with the pegasus twisting of her, Twilight had made sure to memorize both. "We should be fine as long as nopony's cleaning it, and that's a lot less likely to cause recoil if we come in outside."

"As long as we're still in time for a real breakfast," Rainbow grumped. "And you've got to eat too. I don't know what your metabolism is normally like or how many calories magic burns, but you probably used more energy that you usually do, unless a four-hour reshelving is like doing a seven-gallop run as a one-day flight..."

Twilight did feel hungrier than usual. "Here we go..." She took them between --

-- and was immediately glad she'd aimed for the porch: there were two servants visible in the otherwise-empty bedroom, tidying up and putting fresh sheets on her bed. One of them looked up at the flash and hurried to open the door. "Princess!" An Official Royal Greeting Stance did not follow: Quiet had told the staff that a single assumption of the pose on first meeting had been enough. "We didn't know you'd gone out! Is there anything we can get you? Breakfast will be starting in a few minutes, but if you need something else --" and stopped. The small beige unicorn mare was staring at Twilight's left side. "-- you're hurt!" There was an unspoken 'again' somewhere in that. "Did somepony --" and another freeze as the thought of somepony attacking a Princess refused to complete itself. "I can get help --!"

"-- no, that's okay!" Twilight verbally rushed in. "It's just a bruise! If you have any mild painkillers, that would be nice, but --"

-- and both servants were gone, galloping out the door and down the hallway, presumably moving towards the medical supplies.

She could feel Rainbow grinning next to her. "Anything else you want them to do, Twilight? Write a few letters? Serve as test subjects for a new spell? Finally teach you how to actually dance?"

"...oh, shut up."

Rainbow didn't.

In a way, it was almost comforting.

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And of course they had to go over it at breakfast as well -- but that wasn't the worst of it.

Applejack wasn't there.

Pinkie looked up at Twilight as she entered the dining room, guessed at the internal question. "She's taking a bath," Pinkie assured her. "I heard her in there... she'll be in when she's done." Twilight tried to accept it and the fact that nopony was watching Applejack just now. It wasn't easy. Pinkie had faith that the farmer would appear. Twilight was having considerably more trouble with her belief and couldn't make herself invoke anypony. Not Celestia, not Luna, and never herself.

The thin grey unicorn stallion -- oh, right! -- at the far end of the table had other concerns. "...Twilight? What happened to your side?" He started to get up, looking as if he was about to move in for a closer inspection -- then stopped himself. "Has anypony taken a look at that yet? Your ribs... how did that happen?"

Twilight and Rainbow had worked on the story before coming down (and after the first gentle numbing effects of the painkillers began to settle in). They'd quickly decided on something easy to believe -- a blending of recent truth with total lie, told in the locally certain knowledge that their host wouldn't laugh or pass it on, and the librarian's faith that he would simply understand. "Flight training," Rainbow answered for Twilight. "My -- fault." Although some parts of the lie were easier to get out than others. "I didn't see that one squirrel jumping off the tree branch and then when it whipped into her..."

Quiet blinked. "Flight -- training...?" And again, harder -- before his eyes briefly widened and he inclined his horn towards her wings. "Oh -- yes, they don't come with instruction manuals, do they?" Twilight ruefully nodded. "Well, at least you have one of the best teachers on the continent." (Rainbow looked as if she was about to start striking victory poses on the spot.) "Nopony can fault you for missing that, Miss Dash -- but Twilight, if you're sure you're all right... the Doctor can look at that when he gets back, if you like. He may perpetually insist that he's only a midwife, but he's picked up more than a little knowledge of general medicine along the way."

"I already took some mild painkillers," Twilight assured him. Fluttershy had examined the injury before they'd left the falls and pronounced her ribs intact. "And I'd know if I broke anything. I'll be okay, Quiet -- I just need to bring Fluttershy along the next time so she can talk the branch jumpers into staying put..."

Fluttershy blushed and nodded, which was her typical contribution to many public stories.

Quiet sighed as he watched Twilight and Rainbow Dash take their positions along the table. "Even so... I'm doing my best to be a good host, but I feel like the town and area itself are battling me. Go ahead and start in, everypony. The Doctor, against my advice, decided he wanted to try and stretch out that leg a little this morning. Something else which qualifies him as a true physician: he's a horrible patient. He'll be in when his body finally talks him into what I couldn't. As for Miss Applejack -- far be it from me to cut a bath short. We'll just make sure to save food for her." He looked around the tables as the Bearers began to collect food from their plates. "Although we may have some trouble holding back enough wake-up juice. Do I want to know what time you broke up the party in the cottage last night? Miss Fluttershy seems fine, but gentledragon, you look as if you could pull your basket up right here and fall asleep in the sapphires."

Spike glanced down the table, tried not to yawn before starting his answer, failed. "We --" another yawn "-- didn't really look at the clock..."

Pinkie took over. "Parties end when parties end! We just started talking and playing around and fun takes as long as it takes! You can't put a schedule on joy!" An old, familiar light glare at Twilight. "Or a checklist."

Rarity's own yawn was distinctly ladylike, although her field's grab of wake-up juice came across as slightly less so. "There are certain perils in having a professional party planner in one's circle, not the least of which is that they will insist on exercising their talents to the fullest regardless of typical pony considerations -- with 'sleep' rather high on that list..."

"I'm not a professional until I charge somepony!" Pinkie pouted. "I didn't even ask for a single bit from the wedding!"

"You charge," Rarity yawned again. "You have taken the cost out of my coat several times, generally in the uneven state of my fur after I wake up the next morning -- or mid-morning -- or worse. Also, to date, you have billed me for approximately one hundred and twenty hours of lost sleep, all of which you have always insisted I pay immediately --"

-- Applejack walked in.

Ponies stopped chewing. Spike's current sapphire only got to mid-crunch. The Bearers who had known her longest stopped breathing. And Twilight, who had wanted to internally rejoice at the farmer's presence, celebrate potentially not having lost a friend, was instead frozen by absence.

Even Quiet, who had known Applejack for a couple of days, could see it. A pony who barely knew her realized something was out of place. And lacking the connections the other Bearers had, the ones which kept them from speaking until they could (somehow) find a way to talk about it with her in private, he became the one to voice it.

"Miss Applejack -- where is your hat?"

The farmer hadn't replaced the rope loop which normally bound her mane: some of the blonde hair fell about the back of her head, with extra amounts overlapping the normal amount of front rest along with never-before-seen plummets to the sides. The hemp circle which typically kept her tail under control, the loop which hadn't been broken in the fight, had been removed, and the result was a puff of yellow that nearly approached Pinkie's curls just by sheer weight and volume. None of it had been styled in any way: both had just been allowed to dry and naturally splay. And her head -- was bare.

A waking Applejack only took the hat off for a few minutes at a time, when there was something extra-important to say, a formal doffing to move through, if she needed to protect it from damage. The other Bearers presumed it had hours free of her head for cleaning and the occasional bit of temporal reversal through its own version of spa treatment at Ponyville's haberdasher, and they knew Fedora was the best around: Applejack praised the mare to the Acres' apple-laden canopy every three moons. There were nights when Applejack slept in the thing and it never seemed to fall off when she did so. It was a permanent portion of their internal image for her, part of her body.

She wasn't wearing it.

The other traumas and upheavals of the mission were nearly relegated to a very distant second place.

"Ah -- didn't feel like puttin' it on," Applejack softly answered. She settled into her position at the table, slightly off-angle. Tail hairs went everywhere, formed a blonde carpet over the woven rug. "Didn't seem appropriate today."

Her words were comprehensible, even if they were so soft as to barely exist on the edge of hearing. The accent was far lighter than it should have been.

"Applejack," Rarity tentatively began, "I of all ponies would normally applaud the desire to try out a new look, but -- that is your hat..."

"It's not mine." And those words had no accent at all.

Rarity blinked. "I don't understand, dear..."

"It's not my hat." Not 'mah': my. "It's my daddy's. It always was. I just -- keep it." The accent was beginning to move east, heading for Manehattan. "And today, I didn't think I should wear it. It's probably not appropriate anyway, wearing it to a formal breakfast in a castle, right?"

Which got another blink out of Quiet. "Miss Applejack, I assure you, I don't exactly have a lot of regard for the supposed formalities at my table --"

"-- I didn't feel like wearing it." She slowly looked around the table, and the weight of her gaze sank deep into seven pairs of eyes. "Can I just eat now?"

They all nodded. Applejack started into her food, took in the fuel she needed to keep her body running as if that element of the meal was the only consideration she had at all. No talk about taste, no questions on how any dish had been made or where it had come from, no chatting with the others whatsoever. She just ate to keep herself going.

There were still far too many things about pony social interactions which could throw Twilight, letters waiting to be written with lessons she wouldn't know needed to be learned until after she'd been taught. But she knew something about family. About feeling as if she'd let everypony down. The myriad ways self-loathing could manifest. Not every personal experience had made it into a scroll (and there was at least one she never allowed herself to think about), but they remained lessons learned, still enough to recognize with.

Oh, Applejack... what is this doing to you?

Twilight thought about the scroll which had launched the mission. The strange feel, the one she hadn't investigated.

She had wondered if Discord had assigned -- or somehow created -- the mission to break them. And now she didn't know if he was a seventh of the way there.

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"So what are the plans for today?" Quiet finally asked them once the too-silent meal had mercifully wrapped up. (There had been no sign of the Doctor, and one of the few sentences spoken after Applejack's entrance was their host vowing that if the older stallion didn't turn up by lunch, he was going to find out just how much Quiet had learned about the formation and distribution of search parties.) "Anything particularly interesting, or at least events I should take out of the party plans -- yes, I am still going ahead with it. Unfortunately, it seems the townsponies are holding me to it as well, Twilight. And a bit beyond, as the news of your presence has spread somewhat and several of the not-so-locals have been on my tail for invitations. I'll try to give you a little more warning once things solidify, but I think it'll be within the next few days. I do want to stall until my spouse returns, at the very least..." Which made Twilight more than briefly curious: while the idea of a formal party for her to meet the locals (and not-so-locals) wasn't exactly a pleasant one, she was becoming steadily more interested in meeting the lucky mare who had Quiet as her very special somepony. "But that's not much longer now. At any rate, if there's any warnings I should issue about residents whom you're planning on dealing with before then, now would be the time for me to give them." He inclined his horn towards Twilight in a gesture which left the 'So?' hanging in the air.

"I could use some directions, at the very least," Twilight admitted. "Quiet -- I'm guessing Trotter's Falls does have a thaumaturgy shop?"

He nodded. "Of course -- casual supplies, some more exotic goods for those in town who like to do their own research, school items for fillies and colts studying during the holidays or needing to restock before the boarders head off again... I'm seldom in there myself, but I know the overall selection is excellent, even if it leaves one wishing for the ability to conjure their own bits. Ponyville doesn't have one?" Twilight shook her head. "Is there something in particular you were after?"

"A few Fawkes Vials," she honestly told him. "Spike and I have been doing some work with dragon flame, and I have to store samples -- it's one of the few things that'll do the job long-term. They hold it as well as they do virtually everything else. I thought I'd keep working on that while I had some -- quiet time." He smiled -- and suddenly, surprised by how serious her own words were, "I hope we're not imposing, being here this long..."

"You're not," he assured her. "None of you are. It's nice just to have the company, Twilight. With my parents gone, my grandparents moved away... when my wife is traveling and the children go home, it's just myself and the servants on a lot of nights."

"Parents gone?" Applejack, very quiet, accent still missing.

Quiet closed his eyes for a moment. Steadily, every word kept in that state by great silent effort, "Deceased. Four years ago. An air carriage accident -- there was a problem with the air path. The pegasi had to divert, found a storm in the wild zone, tried to go around that -- and went into another." A long silence, time enough for the sounds of imaginary thunder and crashing metal to echo in every imagination. "I'm as prone to euphemism as any pony, I suppose."

Softly, "I understand. Mine are -- gone, too."

Each new word now carried the weight of empathy. "Not the same reason?"

"No... but... sometimes, 'gone' is the word I still use first. It took me moons to stop thinking 'away'..."

"I know the feeling -- and I am sorry, Miss Applejack."

"Nothing you did, Mister Presence, and nothing you have to be sorry for -- but thank you."

Nopony talked for a while.

Finally, Quiet visibly forced himself back to his previous rate and tone of speech, picking up a little more of the original flow of banter with each word. "Not that I'm ready to take the Doctor on as a permanent guest... he hasn't had a middle-of-the-night call yet, but I can feel it coming.... Believe me, if I decided you were freeloading, I'd let you know. Politely. From a great distance. Yes, Miracles Limited should certainly have those: they're still required items for fourth years and up, aren't they? Unless the teachers have found a few more failed methods of keeping things from ultimately exploding." He provided the directions. "But that won't take the whole day by any means, not even if you get completely lost in a book section which you probably have replicated four times over in your library."

Twilight shook her head. "No -- I'll browse a little, but I was going to go out this afternoon with Pinkie and Fluttershy." As the ponies seemingly most comfortable around her -- Twilight had no idea how they'd been able to mutually pull off their lie about the falsely-claimed beauty of that mark -- they were the best companions for the orchard: one requested, the other chosen.

"Anywhere in particular?" Quiet casually inquired.

"Wandering," Twilight tried. "We'll know when we get there."

"Well, in that case.... Miss Pie? Miss Fluttershy? If there's nothing terribly important going on for the two of you until then, would you mind staying in this morning? The Doctor has no appointments and if we are very lucky, none will suddenly schedule themselves. He has been waiting to speak with you..."

Fluttershy smiled. "...I can stay for a while... I've wanted to catch up too..."

Pinkie laughed. "It's not like we don't have new stories! The last time we saw him was before the Empire!"

"Somepony should go to the shop with you, though," Rainbow Dash told Twilight. "Spike at least. This isn't -- before, Twilight. It's not going to be ponies coming up to you at the bar looking for -- stuff. It's going to be ponies looking for autographs -- maybe more."

Twilight managed to hold back the sigh. "Spike?"

"I'm going," her self-assigned bodyguard proclaimed. "Anypony else?" Hopefully, "Applejack?"

The farmer laughed. There was no humor in it. "What am I going to do in a 'thaumaturgy' shop? I don't even know what that word means."

"The working of magic," Twilight automatically supplied. "It's sort of the science of spells, Applejack."

"And how is an earth pony supposed to do anything with that?" No challenge, no bitterness. Just a plain statement. "I can stand around and watch sparkles. That doesn't really do much for anypony, does it?"

Rarity allowed herself to get away with a frown. "Applejack, Twilight simply requires somepony to watch her other flank. It's not as if any of the locals mean her harm, but you saw how -- intrusive -- things could become when we were first on our way to the castle -- and before that, in Ponyville as well. You can gently discourage as well as any, can you not?"

Applejack sighed. "Fine... but it's not like I'm going to buy anything."

The unnatural flow of letters and presence of typically-missing consonants and vowels would have gotten on Twilight's nerves if it had somehow managed to displace any of the worry. "Rarity, do you want to come?"

The unicorn nodded. "I may not have the same research needs you do, but there are a few things I hardly mind at least checking out styles and revamps on. Plus the latest conveniences can be a treat and experimental ones do tend to appear in such places first... actually, now that I think about it, I do have a use for some silver wire: that's a standard stock item as well. Dash?"

The pegasus got out of that one in a hurry. "Three's enough. I have some -- stuff to do upstairs."

"Stuff?" Rarity gently inquired. A little more teasingly, "Bar 'stuff'?"

"Stuff with -- commas. Okay?"

And the slowly-developing art of being somewhat less wantonly cruel to them. Twilight smiled. "Sounds like we're at least set for the morning. Quiet -- did you want to come along?" Like so many of her words, those last seven had just slipped out -- but they seemed so natural. "It's your town... you could show it off a little."

It got her a smile back. "Unfortunately, I have to wait for the Doctor first, or I would take you up on that. Perhaps I'll catch up with you later."

"I hope so," Twilight told him, and meant it. "Okay, everypony -- let's get started!"

Three with her. Two waiting together. One heading upstairs for the pain, torture, and self-inflicted murder that was editing. And their host alone in the dining room, finishing up a bit of imported pomegranate, waiting...

...but not for long.

"You had me worried," he told the arriving older stallion. "I know you felt we'd be best off splitting up early and I realize you can teleport back at any time, but it's still the fringe and you, first friend, are still injured."

Doctor Gentle settled down in front of his own postponed breakfast. "All is well, Quiet... the orchard is almost always peaceful, especially once the Sun has been raised. How went your end?"

Quiet tried to keep his own burden from visibly impacting shoulders and hips, partially collapsing withers and poking against docks. He felt he'd mostly pulled it off. "The only thing that went right was getting him on the train. If you've ever wondered just how drunk a pony would have to be before he failed to remember talking with a Princess, I think I may have found your answer -- presuming he ever spoke with them at all. Not even morning sobriety was enough for him to recover the memory, and I wasn't falling for any 'one drink, maybe seven, it might help' tricks. But in the event that he had a more-or-less private audience with the Bearers, he somehow completely failed to either register or retain the fact that one member of his audience had wings and horn both. Now there's a weaving argument against overindulgence... Yourself?"

"The Princess moved the tree."

There was a short silence while the Doctor prepared his next words and Quiet tried not to think about the first five.

"None of her feel remained," Doctor Gentle continued, "but there was feel yet to be had. I studied the site, Quiet -- she would have brought the tree down on top of herself. Either she teleported out of the way -- short-range, as you told me, the witness said he saw her gallop out -- or she threw it over her body. The Princess shifted the trunk to be closer to the stump, so that it would look more like something else. On closer inspection, I found some burn marks -- lightning, perhaps added to dragon flame. The pegasus, no doubt, unless our newest Princess has mastered that technique. It appears they were trying to make it look like a breaking strike, a brief tempest in the wild zone along the lines of their windstorm. But they can only trigger and aim the lightning itself -- they cannot control the grounding. And the scorches, inspected carefully, show the bolts hit the trunk after it had fallen. The puzzle pieces, mentally assembled into the whole, did not match. A good attempt, and one which would pass casual examination from most unicorns -- but not mine. As said -- they are yet inexperienced."

"So --" and Quiet hated saying it, despised having to think about the increasing reality of it "-- they're hiding something. Any idea what?"

"At the very least, the idea that somepony was responsible and not natural forces," the older stallion told him. "Lightning would not have sent the trunk so far from the stump. At a guess, the drunk did not overlook the dual flashes of a short-range teleport. She did toss the wood over herself. So they were covering where she would have been standing. What they know beyond that -- there is no way to say. They are investigating, though. At the very least, they know there is a unicorn capable of doing such a thing, and they are looking into that. And that alone is something we could still solve with a simple introduction, if we can but find her... but should there be more..." He allowed the trailoff to speak for him.

"No word yet from our own," Quiet told him. "Not since you left."

The Doctor sighed. "So the partially false search for my own presence becomes a dress rehearsal for the larger play. What did the Bearers tell you about their activities last night?"

And now they were at the part Quiet truly loathed. "They lied. Their claim was that they were in the cottage partying."

"So they are concealing even on that level -- but possibly still to protect," the Doctor concluded. "Very well. And where are they now?"

"Four to the thaumaturgy shop: Twilight wanted some Fawkes Vials. The dragon, unicorn, and earth pony went with her, just in case any of the locals started badgering her again. I suggested to yours that they stay for your talk, and they agreed: they may be freshening up first. The pegasus is working on her manuscript."

"And you stayed here." It was not an accusation. It was a statement.

"I needed to update you first," Quiet said without insistence. "Twilight is expecting me later -- I told her I might catch up in town after I made certain you were all right."

"We could have caught each other later as well." Another statement, still plain and unflavored.

"You've been wanting to talk to yours," Quiet reminded him. "I kept them here waiting for you, which I wanted you to know so you could take advantage of it -- and now I can go. And Fluttershy doesn't exactly strike me as a skilled liar. If you work up to it carefully, go through their last few adventures with them before reaching the current one..."

Doctor Gentle smiled. "That sounds as if I would have said it."

"We do spend a lot of time together," Quiet pointed out. "So I believe you do have an appointment after all."

"As do you."

Quiet nodded and got up, heading out of the dining room. Doctor Gentle watched him go, then turned his attention to the saved meal.

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Twilight, just for the sake of having something to say, told her current companions about Trixie's letter. It was a repeat for Spike, but he put up with it. Rarity listened carefully. Applejack simply trotted along in silence.

Twilight didn't know how to ask Applejack for an apology. How to apologize herself, or how much of that she had to do beyond one for 'grow plants at us', which seemed more insulting with every internal refrain. She didn't know how to talk about the previous night. So she read the letter and hoped talk would come from it.

"Interesting," Rarity finally concluded. "If you enjoy not being able to sleep at night either, and I'm not certain she objects to having created the company... Twilight, I am sorry. To hear that about your hero..."

Applejack just kept looking ahead at the road, didn't glance back at them from her point position. "So you believe her?"

"Well -- not all of it," Rarity admitted. She'd been having trouble bringing up the fight as well -- but at least now they were all talking about something. "For example, I have some small amount of difficulty believing she referred to me as 'your good friend Rarity', especially given the way Twilight hesitated at that section." The librarian winced. "But for the rest? She has very little reason to lie. Most of those would have typically centered around making herself look better, and she hardly managed that. She could not have made herself sound worse if she tried. For the parts about this essence thing, I rather do believe her. Also that she managed to make her own coat smell bad for a week." That with no small amount of pleasure behind it. "But Twilight, I am slightly confused as to why you are sharing it. I know you have been trying to convince us that she is, if not reformed, at least making an attempt to improve herself -- but that is your relationship to pursue, not ours. I respect that you are beginning to see her as something of a friend and she is apparently coming to think of you in the same fashion. But I am not there yet. She is hardly writing me. I will not stand in the way of your friendship with her and I would hardly argue against it, but I would require many words of my own before I forgave her -- and I have not been approached, in person or writing. Nor have the others. Pinkie in particular might need a slumber party and a full essay."

"Because of the essence harvesting," Twilight told them, trying not to think about how much it might take to persuade Trixie into writing the other Bearers. "Trixie said there are ways around the internal storage limit -- that thing about timing which she couldn't pin down with the notes that still existed. And if you harvest it for a bad reason, that adds up in the resonance. Enough essence generates a field, at least for unicorn essence... I was wondering if that was part of what she did. Got a lot of unicorn essence together and found some way to exceed the limit in her own body. It strengthened her field -- but because of why she did it, that's part of what went wrong. And if she threw pegasus and earth pony essence on top of that... The resonance might have broken whatever method she was trying, all by itself. Or maybe that was the method." It was an idea, something which didn't need the Elements -- however required (or not) they might be. One more thing to think about on the current tally of Far Too Many -- but this one was necessary.

"Resonance is hardly always negative, though," Rarity frowned. "According to -- Trixie..." ('Her' was currently reserved.) "...Star Swirl gathered essence from desire for power, and that desire was created through envy and resentment -- yes, not her exact words, but it is how I am seeing it. Suppose she wished to become an alicorn from -- generosity or charity? To help others? Remember, she has more than implied there are many ponies on her path. If she was blazing the first part of the trail, she might have also tried to harvest from invention or the thrill of discovery. How would that touch the gathered essence? And we are still dealing with her age... I imagine this is not a magically simple process. To have mastered it before gaining her mark, let alone traveled to find it..." She shuddered. "...although a well-stocked local cemetery might have been enough..."

"You're both making a bad assumption," Applejack softly added. She still wasn't looking back at them. The continuing presence of the full '-ing' felt unnatural, as if it was a rather exotic means of cursing.

"What's that?" Twilight asked, both curious and desperate to have the farmer involved in the discussion.

"You keep thinking she was a unicorn. Before it happened. Sure, that would probably put her in the best position to research and if she has to cast spells to make her way work, she'd almost have to be, unless she had something like that Amulet which would work with anypony regardless of race... but it's not necessarily where she started. Twilight, on the way back from the orchard, you said she might have had somepony around at some point -- somepony to put a restraint on her. Well -- they'd have to keep putting it on, right? Every time she lost the horn, it might slip off. She could put it on herself, but then she wouldn't have had those first spell signs with the tree... unless there's some device that clamps it on for her, she'd at least have practice with moving it onto herself, and -- is that possible? To put the thing on yourself without somepony or something to do it for you?"

"Hard," Twilight said. "You'd need a very stretchy chin strap and to get that on first. But once you started covering the horn, you'd begin losing the field. If you had it lined up right, it would sort of -- snap onto your head." She winced at the thought.

"I've seen one which was a little like that," Rarity mused.

"I know," Twilight sighed. "I got a really close look." That wasn't one of her better memories either and came with the lingering phantom feeling of water in her face plus a memory of blood rushing to her upside-down head.

"Well, to be fair, Rainbow put it on you..."

Applejack nodded, still not glancing back. There was no hat to not shift. Her mane, unaccustomed to the current degree of freedom, went everywhere. "So maybe somepony was with her all along," the farmer quietly proposed. "Somepony who kept her from using her magic in all three parts of the cycle. Restraint when she was a unicorn, immobilized for a pegasus..." She stopped, and her tail did not swish: it simply hung limply, hairs scattered. "And then maybe that pony -- died, and she had to go out and find help because there was nopony left to take care of her and protect other ponies from her, and she'd forgotten about how to use magic in the meantime because it had been so long, but she got it back in a hurry. Or that pony -- messed up. Didn't get a restraint on in time, or did it wrong, and she got that pony without meaning to." There was a little sadness in those words -- but it had been in virtually all of them since she'd begun to talk outside the castle at all. "Same situation -- she's got to get help, but now it's more urgent. And she keeps hurting without wanting to... she almost got Pinkie..."

Spike broke the silence. "Applejack?" The question mark made it feel as if the little dragon needed to be sure the pond hadn't been a mirror pool of its own.

"I don't think she's a bad pony, Spike," Applejack told him, eyes on the road, accent trotting closer to Manehattan with every step. "If she is -- she's a great actress. But even if she's that... I think she's scared, and hurting, and desperate, and -- suicidal. Maybe it's the pain, or the failure, or both. But she wants to die. Pinkie was right... if we'd captured her last night, she would have tried for it. At some point, I think she's still going to try for it. If we find her answers, and she helps those others and can't save herself... how long does she hang on for?"

Still more nightmares being brought under waking Sun, and Twilight wished for a way to divide nightscape and the real world once and for all. It wouldn't happen. "Applejack, we'll do everything we can to help her..."

"What can we do? What she did to herself -- is done. There's no way to take it back." The next words should have been a whisper. They weren't. They emerged as normal speech and carried all the more pain for it. "There's no way to take anything back..." And there was no time for a response. "We'd better drop this -- the town's getting close. We don't need to be overheard right now. Or ever."

They closed in on Trotter's Falls, with no time for more open words -- speech which wouldn't even begin to touch on the questions in Twilight's heart.

Are you all right? At all? Even -- maybe especially -- at'tall?

Is there anything we can do?

Are we still friends?

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It was rather easy to find his. He just followed the sounds of the argument.

"It's never justified!" He seldom heard Pinkie that insistent. Or angry. It took a lot to make the baker genuinely mad, and he wondered what his eldest had brought up to create the reaction.

"...it is." Considerably softer, with only the strange acoustics in this part of the castle allowing him to pick up on it at all, but just as insistent. "...I have to do it, Pinkie... too much. It's part of my job, and I hate that part, I hate that everypony knows it's my job and that I have to do it, but -- nopony else will..."

He was starting to get an idea of the topic.

"It's about life!" Pinkie's insistence was getting louder.

"...quality of life," Fluttershy whispered.

"As opposed to what? Quality of shadowlands?"

"...yes."

He knew Pinkie well enough to picture both the hard blink and ensuing look of outrage. "Are you serious?"

"...yes..."

"HOW?"

"...Pinkie... sometimes when there's that much pain... going to the shadowlands is a relief. I know you'll say... as long as you're alive, there's time for somepony to find a cure... there's hope... but it doesn't always work out that way... it never has for me... they're hurting so much, there is no cure, no hope of relief, no drugs that won't eventually do worse themselves in the doses it takes to make the pain go away... they bring them to me, always me, never her, and... that's part of the cycle too..."

Much more quietly, but with none of the insistence lost. "That's animals."

"...friends." A word on the verge of tears.

And Pinkie knew it. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to say they were anything -- lesser, Fluttershy, you know that. Not with Gummy. Not the way I feel about him. I love him, you know that..."

"...I introduced you to him," Fluttershy said. "...it took you hours to pick him out..."

"He was the only one who could keep up." A brief, audible smile. "I just didn't hold a contest to figure that out. But -- as much as I love him -- I know he's not a pony. He thinks, he cares, he loves -- but he's not a pony. None of them are, Fluttershy -- even your friends."

"...I know."

"So are you saying that same decision applies to a pony? That it's justified when you can really think about it for yourself, and you have pony friends who want you to be around as long as possible? That it's possible to suffer so much that leaving everypony behind to miss you and mourn and hurt is better?"

"...maybe... I think sometimes, when it's just that bad... I think it's their decision to make... it's their life, right down to the end..."

"And what if somepony else tried to make that decision for them? What if they hurt so much they couldn't think right any more, or for themselves at all, or something happened to their head, or -- just pain, Fluttershy, pain like..." And now it was Pinkie's turn to whisper. "I couldn't make that decision for somepony else. You're making it for animals -- even animals who are friends. Could you make it for a pony?"

"...I..."

And he entered the sitting room. "Do I want to know why you two are discussing this?" He smiled -- but it was a worried one. He knew Fluttershy struggled with that aspect of her duties, had felt her crying into his coat when he had visited on a particularly bad day. If his were on this of all topics, given both their histories...

They both jumped: his eldest more than his most determined, of course -- but the reaction came on both sides. "Um..." Pinkie blushed. Her coat, mane, and tail were what he had come to think of as normal, so things hadn't gone that far in the argument -- or at least hadn't had the time. "How much did you hear?"

"Starting from 'It's never justified'," he honestly told them. "The topic -- is suicide, isn't it? Taking one's own life when pain is too great to bear? Or even doing it for a pony when they were no longer capable of the actions required?"

They both nodded. There was a strange touch of relief to it, perhaps because they didn't have to deny the discussion at all.

He sighed, held off from taking a position on the couch. "My young ladies... please tell me -- and know that I will be very aware if you're lying -- that the pony in question is neither of yourselves."

"...it isn't," Fluttershy softly told him. "...neither of us is sick, and for emotional pain... I told you... I haven't felt that way for a long time..."

Pinkie gently nodded. "I haven't either, Doctor. Not since -- the Cakes took me in. I promise."

And then he let himself get comfortable on the cushioned surface, being careful with his injured leg. He didn't think he'd made the strain any worse by going to the orchard. He hadn't helped it either. "I believe you both. But -- you understand why I would be concerned." They nodded. "And not a friend or family member?" Another nod. "Then what did put you on that horrible subject?"

"...just pain," Fluttershy said. "...just thinking about... all kinds of pain. Some nights I... can't stop thinking about it. I wish I slept more... but it would just come in my dreams..." And she said no more, clearly wanting to be finished with it -- at least until it inevitably returned to haunt her again.

She was holding back.

He knew it.

Yes, they had been talking about pain. But -- why?

He looked at Pinkie. She didn't say anything either.

No... I cannot allow myself to fall into paranoia. Yes, the drunk said she seemed to be in some pain. But not everything is about her. This is a hard subject and the Princesses know Fluttershy has reason to confront it every day. Just being able to face it at all makes her stronger than most ponies ever suspect. Having turned away from it makes her even stronger than that. And Pinkie...

He was still proud of them both. He always would be. Two of his -- Element-Bearers. Other than her, could there be any greater proof that the road had been worth every step he'd had to travel?

"Doctor?" Pinkie focused large blue eyes on him, looking oddly (and rarely) serious for her normal hues. "What do you think? About a pony who was in -- too much pain to live? Do you think suicide is ever justified, when living just hurts too much to go on?"

"You do not," he stated to Pinkie, and she slowly nodded. "And you," he told Fluttershy, "are struggling with it." The coral mane shifted. "My own position... and this is all I wish to say about it before we move onto happier tales. For yourselves... it is your mutual perspectives coming into play. Pinkie, you embraced laughter and the joy of life -- so you associate life with that joy, and picturing why anypony would surrender one is to ask yourself why they would give up both -- something you cannot see. Fluttershy deals with the end of the cycle -- too often. But that is part of her duties. However, as Pinkie said, Fluttershy, along with the companions of those loved ones, is making the decision for those who cannot truly decide for themselves -- not on our level. For a pony..."

He gave it thought, and was not surprised by how serious those images were. They had asked: they deserved the best answer he could give.

"I have always believed," he said, "that life and hope galloped side by side. I suppose it is possible to be so sick or pained or bereft of senses that travel to the shadowlands and the restoration found there would be a mercy. But it is a one-way trip -- at least, most ponies believe so. Some claim that we are visited, others say we come back in new bodies to live again and learn a second time from fresh experiences -- and a third, a fourth, and so on. I have always found that last belief endearing, even if I could not fully accept it. I wanted to think that those I have lost over the years would gain another chance... but in that, my faith remains slightly lacking. A desire -- but not a belief." His smile was more weary that he would have wished, too many funerals weighing it down. "I do wish I believed that much..."

They listened. They always listened to him.

"So for me," he continued, "the important thing has always been life. That while you are alive, you have the chance to change things. To make a better world for yourself and others. A pony in the shadowlands lacks most to all of that capacity. So for myself... I would wish a fight to the last. And if I was no longer capable of saying or thinking so, I would hope those who loved me would continue that fight on my behalf, knowing I supported them in the battle. Even if it was just holding out to hope for a miracle. Perhaps a miracle only comes one time in a million or less -- but imagine the value for the one it does come to. I would not be egotistical enough to claim ownership of that 'one' -- but I would hope... But I cannot make that decision for another, and would wish never to be put in such a position. In that, I have been lucky. Mothers have died in front of me, as have foals, and I feel the pain of every loss. But never was I put in a place where I could only save one and would have to decide who that one would be. I have my own nightmares about that choice, ones I could hardly ask the Princess to deal with. And if that situation escaped from its chains in Tartarus to land on my birthing table -- I would still insist on fighting for both. In hope."

He sighed.

"To the last," he told them. "There is your answer, my young ladies. For myself, a struggle for each second in the hope that it would lead to more. For others -- I would fight on their behalf, but to decide for them... I don't know if I could. It is a test I have never been put to -- and I hope never to take it. Perhaps not the answer you expected or wanted, but it is the only one I have."

Fluttershy's eyes were wet. "I understand, Doctor." Although she did not say if she would take that answer for herself. Or what her own was.

Pinkie sighed. "I do too." Nor did she, although he had rather a better idea. Pinkie was too in love with life (now) to give it up, not for herself or any other pony. However, Fluttershy dealt with the cycle...

But there were cheerier topics ahead of them, tales to be told, questions to subtly ask -- and perhaps secrets to uncover. "Now -- can we stop depressing ourselves for a few minutes? And do not wish for the world to bring depression for you: that desire is almost always heard..." Pinkie laughed, and he was relieved. "When I last saw you both... Celestia's mane, that was right after Fluttershy played her part with the water transfer team." Yet another (if lesser) reason to be proud. And Snowflake as well, such an achievement... "Which means I have personally heard no truly accurate accounts of what happened at the wedding and while I have your letters, Murdocks is making it harder every day to trust something in print." Fluttershy giggled a little -- and with that, they were back to normal. "Let us begin there."

They talked. He listened, because he always paid as much attention to them as they did with him. And prepared.