• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,097 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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Kenlijckheyt

Somepony else.

They were waiting for Rarity, who had headed for the dress shop intending what she had promised would be "Just a moment, dears --" with a subtle emphasis on the plural "-- I only need to learn what has happened to what I had believed an adequate suggested price structure, not to mention how well it might be working..." And then she'd gone inside, with the others understanding that said moment could be anything from a few seconds to the better part of an hour. Several minutes had already passed and there had been no audible indications of complaining, let alone whining.

Spike was on extremely short-range patrol, roaming the borders of whatever Royal Bubble was meant to exist in the morning traffic of Trotter's Falls, carefully telling the local ponies that the Princess had certain things to do that day and would be available at the party -- which at least distracted the inquiries by sending them onto new paths leading to date, status of invitations (sent or non, some of those questions becoming frantic as ponies tried to learn whether they were On The Outs), the possibility of formal dress requirements... That last sent more than a few ponies into the shop, which meant their best current hope for keeping things under five hours was that the owner wouldn't allow Rarity to consult on any emergency designs, also known as 'completely taking over'.

Applejack was also dissuading contact, but her methods were considerably less varied. "She's thinking," was the most frequent redirect overheard when she spoke to those few who would deal with her or intercepted a few of Spike's. "Just let her think." And if it went beyond that, she just asked ponies to leave Twilight alone for a while, or simply to keep moving, and too many of those glared at her, gave her looks which would have damaged manestyles and pushed hats a few inches to the side -- but the farmer had neither to worry about, and so quietly watched those frustrated ponies trot away.

Twilight still hadn't found the words which would start the conversation between them, approach the issues which had to be dealt with -- and if those utterances even existed, they couldn't be brought out in public anyway. And so she was thinking -- and the thoughts kept going back to the same place.

Somepony else.

Yes, that thought had come earlier -- but it hadn't stayed for long. Twilight had quickly gone back to believing she had to be alone, and must have been so for years. And in retrospect, that thought had been another insulting one. There would have been danger, and there would have been horror to go with that, but...

...nopony emerges from vacuum. She didn't walk out of a mirror one day and collapse in spasm in somepony's living room. She had parents once. Maybe she had friends, siblings, other relatives, teachers... there's so many ways for other ponies to have been around her. Somepony knew her before she changed. There might have been ponies who helped her. She tells them she wants to become an alicorn, and maybe -- the reasons are good ones. She wants to help other ponies. She wants to find the key for discovery, for invention, for learning, for reasons which would only touch resonance with positive things. She lets her family know, her friends... not necessarily everypony around her, but it's more than possible that somepony could have known. Or even could have assisted.

Applejack's right. I keep thinking she had to start as a unicorn because whatever path she tried to follow or create would have included spells -- ones she would have been casting. But first spell signs... no, Applejack's wrong there. You don't forget like that. You can get out of practice with some things and need a few minutes to recover the right feel for a spell. But basic grasping? Once she had that, it would have started to become instinctive -- and that would have stayed with her forever. If she was a unicorn, then her magic came very late, she made the try early...

...or maybe there was somepony else.

Somepony who cast the spells for her, if spells were needed at all. Somepony who believed in her. Somepony helping her. And that pony could have stayed around for years. Maybe she didn't go into self-imposed exile. There could have been friends hiding her. Family giving her a place to live, out of sight, bringing her food, possibly even medicine to keep the pain down. But if that's the case, what happened to them? Did she -- get them by accident? How many has she killed? Or did they just help her try to transform and when it went wrong... she could have done something then, or they might have run and tried to forget it ever happened...

Somepony must have known her before. Even if they're dead now, she must have had somepony around her once. If I only knew her name --

-- if she only had a name.

'Names limit!'

Doctor Gentle had called naming one of the moments of destiny -- not as great as birth or the appearance of the mark, but a significant one. Had she agreed with that school of philosophy and discarded her given name, believing that existence without one removed that limit from her and allowed a better chance at forging her own way? And when she became an alicorn, she would take a new name, one to signify the achievement, a name that had been earned -- and since it had gone wrong, given up on the idea of having any name at all?

Or...

...no. She was born. She had parents. She could have had friends and other family. She would have been named. Somepony knew her. Maybe somepony stayed with her. Food, shelter, medicine. Helping to restrain her in every part of the cycle, keeping her from doing accidental harm. But then something happens, and that pony -- or ponies -- can't help her any more. She comes out, hoping for one last desperate chance. Even when she knows she can't be cured, there are others.

And who are they? How many other ponies are involved in this? Is she thinking of a theoretical future? She creates the road and then watches proudly as other ponies trot down it? Is she one of many who were all trying at the same time and it just went wrong for her first -- so they stopped, and she ran? And if that was the case, what happened to those ponies? Are they going on without her? It's likely that nopony's succeeded: it isn't as if there's been any news of a fourth -- fifth alicorn emerging...

Too many thoughts. Too many questions. Too heavy a burden.

Twilight wanted to start her Rainbow Dash mantra, let that kind of instinct take over for a while. Instinct which wouldn't be thinking. She wanted her own brain to shut up and leave her alone, or at least just let her focus on the sounds coming from the dress shop, noises which she sincerely hoped were not from measuring tapes being unrolled, not ones held in a soft blue field -- although given that Rarity would practice that spell, Twilight really needed to expand the chromatic range of things to be hoping for. There were times when she thought too much: she couldn't argue that. And recently, there had been more than a few when she found herself wishing she could stop.

But thoughts always came. They just weren't bringing answers with them.

I have to save some of this for the afternoon. Maybe all of it. This time, I have to confront her, at least a little as soon as the chance opens up. We have to pin down not only what went wrong with her own attempt to change, but who these other ponies are. If she's just trying to blaze the trail, that's one thing and we can deal with that as it comes. But if those ponies exist right now, if they're getting ready for their own attempts...

...somepony knew her once.

Somepony loved her.

Somepony else.

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"Collector's items." Rarity managed to make the words sound like a particularly noxious breed of Poison Joke, one which just made mane and coat fall out. "Something is no longer being produced, so therefore it is worth more. It has not moved out of season or had the public's taste shift away from that trend -- it is simply more valuable because less people desire to own the piece. It is not just me, correct? This concept is inherently idiotic in and of itself?"

"It works for some things," Spike assured her. "When something becomes popular after it's no longer produced. An author catching on about three books into their career, with the first two having small print runs... that's part of why a first-edition Daring Do collection is so hard to put together. For clothing... if your dresses became vintage, Rarity, it could happen."

"Those pieces are from two seasons ago," Rarity pointed out. "The tides of fashion turn, but they do not move that quickly, Spike. It typically requires a minimum of seven years for backflow to occur. To keep a few leftovers hidden within inventory while hoping... yes, I can perceive that. But to raise the price on something and declare that because it is more expensive, that automatically makes it better --"

"-- this is the place." Applejack, tone far too placid. "Miracles Limited." She looked up past the sign, examined the upper edge of the main window. "And somepony just had a unicorn colt."

Twilight glanced in that direction. Sure enough, copper buntings. "I wonder..." She headed inside.

The little bell set over the door rang as she opened it. Also, a small light came on above the main counter, a soft whistle permeated the air, and a quiet voice whispered "Customer, unicorn, female..." somewhere towards the back. And all of that was casual effects. Installing anything more major was frequently considered to be too risky.

Thaumaturgy supply shops don't always stock a lot of actual magic. The majority of them carry those items which are commonly used in during school terms, some pieces which are always in demand by the casual researcher -- dedicated ones almost always wind up at the point of custom orders or just making their own equipment -- along with odds and ends that just keep cropping up on the special request forms. Fawkes Vials, a necessity for storage of volatiles at fourth year on up? Guaranteed to be in stock at any time except just before terms start, when the orders are heaviest -- or a little into the start of vacation, or just before the end of it, when students trying to tackle their take-home work inevitably find the not-quite-sealed jade stopper on the other side of the house and a long trail of very narrow destruction between it and the actual hematite. Silver wire, useful for conducting certain kinds of energy, can always be had, along with platinum for those needing a higher degree of refinement and willing to sign the reams of forms indicating that they now own it, exactly where they're taking it, and what the typical emergency response time should be for all attending parties. And new devices -- yes, those turn up, mostly because those who regularly browse in a thaumaturgy supply shop also comprise the two percent of the market which qualifies as first adopters for fresh products. Such unicorns will invariably take a recently-minted convenience home. And then they will inevitably experiment with it. Then on it. Taking it apart to see how it works is almost mandatory. Pushing it until it breaks happens more often than not. An embarrassed, sheepish, and lightly-singed visit to the manufacturer while carrying a scroll filled with Things I'm Pretty Sure I Did Wrong is a rather helpful follow-up. (It's possible to make a convenience very nearly idiot-proof, but nothing has been found which will stop The Quest For Knowledge, up through and including giant labels all over the product reading We Are Not Liable Once You Get The Cover Off, Idiot.) Testing of new devices takes place in the lab: perfection inevitably falls to the consumer -- and sometimes on. The central result is that the second version typically contains extra warnings in even larger fonts.

But take those untried, unproven, and currently-intact innovations out, and there generally isn't much in the way of true spellwork within such establishments. There are things which hold magic, channel it, teach and confine and redirect -- but items which are magic in and of themselves? Not too many, and outside of those new inventions (which the shop owners are paid to carry -- risk money), most of it is minor and refined over generations to be as harmless as unicorns can make it. Sometimes, when first-years, enterprising researchers of all ages, or just unicorns who have never learned the dangers of What Does This Do? get involved, even that isn't enough.

You don't keep a lot of magic in a thaumaturgy supply shop for the same reason you don't keep a lot of high explosives in a forge. In both cases, sparks fly.

"Greetings!" the presumably-proprietor called out from the back. A few seconds later, a horn poked out of the curtain which separated shop from stockroom, shortly followed by the rest of the pony: a stallion in early middle age, light green holding swirls of soft yellow, blue eyes to match mane and tail, mark showing an intricate platinum wire cradle. "My apologies -- you're my first customer of the day and I was just checking in some new inventory --" and the mandatory blink. "-- Princess?"

"Hello," Twilight tried. "I'm sure you can help me -- I just need a few --"

-- and the stallion raced out into the shop's central aisle, galloping towards her, Spike couldn't get in front of Twilight in time, Rarity and Applejack were too far away --

-- pulled up to a stop right in front of her, just as her horn was beginning to ignite, and put his chin on her right shoulder. He leaned his head in until it just contacted her mane, rubbed gently once.

"Thank you," he softly said. "For everything you did. For my son. Thank you, Princess..."

Twilight blinked as the unicorn held the position of gratitude, refused to move. "It was Doctor Gentle," she protested, knowing the tone wouldn't get through. "I just -- attended, sir."

"And through attending -- you blessed." He pulled back, warmly smiled at her. "I'm Weaver Shine, Princess. You've met my spouse -- and my firstborn. There is no way I could ever repay that -- but let me at least make some kind of attempt. Is there something you need from my shop today, or did you just want to check on my son?" That last with some hope. "He and Glory are at home resting, but should you care to drop by later --"

Oh no... Not blessing again, and now a requested follow-up visit after not having done anything... Twilight could feel the blush coming in, and it hadn't seen fit to bring any words along with it.

Which was why Rarity stepped in. "I'm afraid we only have time for a little shopping today, good sir -- and may I congratulate you on your son as well? A most handsome coat, and the patterns rendered in his darker hues -- well, I can see where he gets them from. His first crushes will come at his first play date, and it will be your job not to let them go to his head. But for now, all we can do is accept your thanks and offer you our trade. However, should you be able to attend the party, we'll certainly have some time for you then..."

For Twilight, it just brought up the twin questions of what a royal 'we' was and if that had somehow been it. But with Weaver, the words had been enough. "I will be in attendance -- and I'm hoping to bring Glory with me. Dusk will stay home, though -- an infant at a party is a recipe for disaster, or so I used to tell all my friends when they threatened to bring theirs..." He laughed. "I guess I'm supposed to be changing my mind about that now, but I still feel like I had a point."

Spike's scales were just beginning to settle again. "We'll see you there, sir. But for now, we really just need a few Fawkes Vials, some silver wire, and to take a look around at whatever's new."

Weaver nodded. "It'll be my pleasure --" looked down. Blinked. "-- you're a dragon."

"All my life," Spike managed, and Twilight could hear him keeping the frustration out of his voice. Yes, he was the only one currently known to live among ponies. It was natural for his presence to get the occasional -- frequent -- actually, just about mandatory reaction. It didn't keep him from getting sick of it, especially since Ponyville had gotten used to him and, after post growth-spurt forgiveness had settled in, treated him as just another citizen. He had become used to being just another part of the population -- which made the rude shocks of fresh stares and starts from the new arrivals that much more jarring. And travel always got things going again, with some of the reactions heading past surprise and well into the realm of the impolite before all too often stopping in Second-Class Non-Citizen for the most restrictive of occupancies. Some ponies didn't know how to deal with Spike as a sentient, others refused to mentally grant him the rights allowed to a pony -- and a few downgraded him to animal right in front of his face (including one majestically ignorant vet), which left them dealing with a dragon who had been taught to fight back. Most of that was verbal. Some -- wasn't.

But he was always willing to give a pony the chance at openly assigning an exact status before reacting, and so Spike continued. "Personally, I need some spell notation scrolls. Beech bark with belladonna infusion would be my second preference, but that's because you probably don't have redwood and mistletoe. It's my experience that I can hardly ever get redwood and mistletoe. Either way, about twenty should do it. Also, ink and quills. Ideally, I want them to match up. I usually get the best results with cockatrice, but manticore works for me. I never use phoenix: personal taste. I won't take lower than zanzustach, and only if it's the absolute last thing you have in stock and no other deliveries are due for three days." He looked up at the pony, blinked once without letting his nictitating membranes get involved. "So if you could show me where you keep the beech ones?"

Which took Spike out of curiosity and landed him dead-center in customer. "Redwood?" Weaver blinked again -- then laughed. "Celestia's shoes, do you know how long it's been since I've had somepony with the taste to request redwood? And of course it's using the mistletoe infusion: what else would anypony of knowledge want? Most of my customers ask for beech and a few settle for pine -- I really don't even know why I carry pine: it barely holds for more than a decade -- but you clearly know what works best, young sir. Yes, I carry it: you're in Trotter's Falls! Cockatrice ink and quills, I can do -- but I admit, I'm low on the ink. I have one customer who uses practically nothing else and he's the only pony I typically stock it for: he was in four days ago... well, I may not have enough for twenty full scrolls: we'll have to check. As for the rest of it -- who requires what?"

"The vials for me," Twilight told him. "Seven should do it." Actually, that number was frankly overkill -- but she couldn't be sure how long they'd be in town, how many letters might be sent, or if Trixie's method would ever get to the point of sending one back. For that matter, Twilight might have been relaying too little flame in the first place... "And then just a little browsing." She normally had to rely on catalog shopping or wait for a Canterlot trip to keep her own lab stocked: getting to simply look around a shop for the pleasure of it was a rare opportunity. But she had to be careful with her expenses. The Royal Vouchers were necessary, essential mission supplies -- but they were not to be abused. She needed the vials in case she needed to follow up with Trixie (and at least had to tell the performer that Twilight wasn't working with essence or trying to strengthen her own field), and Spike needed the scrolls for the same reason. Anything else had to be her bits, and she had very few with her. The Princess had never questioned her on the use of any Voucher -- and Twilight wanted to keep it that way.

"The wire is for me," Rarity added. "I'm not certain as to how much I might need -- this will be a feeling-out process. I will simply need to gauge your supplies to see which spool is the most supple."

The shopkeeper nodded, beamed, and turned his attention to the third pony in the shop, who was examining a shelf of crystal balls with something close to complete disinterest. "And for the lady...?"

Another blink. This was shortly followed by several more just like it.

Twilight watched his eyes move across Applejack's forehead, noted the gaze sifting through the mass of hair as if hoping that the weight of the stare could push some of the fall aside and reveal anything underneath. Instead, Applejack, aware she was being addressed, turned to face him -- and that movement stirred enough of her mane to show that there was no horn hiding within blonde strands.

The librarian wasn't sure why Weaver's eyes then wandered to Applejack's sides. Perhaps he was just being thorough.

"...we don't get many earth ponies in here," he just barely managed, and there was more than a hint of blocked stammer vibrating the fifth and sixth words.

"Yes," Applejack distantly replied, turning back to examine the quartz spheres again, gazing at her own distorted hatless reflection, "and at these prices, you're not going to get many more."

The silence fell hard enough to take out several shelves and most of the buntings.

After three endless breaths, the laugh came again, mostly from being forced through the curtain with horn prodding it all the way. "Oh, don't worry about prices! For the Princess -- the one who blessed my son... well, I'm not about to lose money on this, but I have no intention of making much. Now -- who can I help first?"

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The vials were easy: standard stock item, school terms not interfering. Twilight kept it simple and went for the ones without the runic embellishments spiral-running around the exterior, which she had always found both purely decorative and ridiculously stupid, especially given that their carving just subtracted the amount of hematite in the vial and made the whole thing less secure. Spike picked out his scrolls and ink -- there was enough cockatrice to get through fourteen of them: manticore filled in the rest -- with the eye of a connoisseur and a nose accustomed to sniffing out oak being passed off as something else: happily, no nostril flares got involved in this purchase. That left Rarity with the silver wire -- and typically, the unicorn was being fussy about it. Spools were unrolled slightly, with samples passed over. She would bend the wire. Twist it. Straighten. Repeat. Frown thoughtfully. Ask to see the next, go through all of it again, then politely request the first again so she could compare and that one, yes, that one over in the corner, was that one of those alloys she'd been hearing so much about? Yes, let's see that one too... And she wouldn't tell Twilight what it was for. Given any idea of the enchantment Rarity wanted to try working, Twilight could have recommended purity, fineness, and channel capacity within a heartbeat -- but no, the designer insisted this was a secret and Twilight would see what she had in mind along with everypony else, no sneak previews, no matter how much anypony insisted and yes, Spike, I know you're more familiar with this than most graduates, but that includes you too, don't worry, I won't be much longer...

And through all of it, Applejack just stood in the aisles as if waiting for somepony to attach a price tag to her mane.

Nopony would have inquired about the newest stock item, even with a Blessing Discount getting involved. Other customers came into the shop while Rarity continued to examine what was hopefully going to become her eventual -- any minute now -- maybe hour -- purchase, and all of them noted the relative strangers being attended to. Several tried to greet the Princess. A few just -- looked at her. Strange looks, dark expressions, somehow familiar ones, contortions she hadn't seen in years, something she couldn't quite pin down and part of that was because her burdened mind didn't want to be looking at those memories right now on top of everything else. And then those few would leave, picking another aisle of the twelve available or sometimes even departing the shop entirely. Twilight didn't like those looks -- but at least it was a few less ponies to try and deal with, especially since Weaver was more than happy to tell everypony around about how gracious the Princess had been in blessing his son, she couldn't stop him, didn't have words to make him understand that all she'd done was stand around and feel thankful that the Exception wasn't needed for a second time, and so many of them left with dawning belief in their eyes...

But everypony looked at Applejack.

They stared. They too would openly examine her forehead in the event that a horn had somehow manifested since the last time somepony had done it. Some of them gave her wide berth as they went past in the aisle. Others chose another walkway to trot down. A few bumped into her, and some of those were hard. And throughout it all, Applejack just stood there, eyes occasionally going over a price tag and silently tallying up bits she had no intention of kicking over. Not talking, not moving, not reacting. There were no visibly restrained thoughts of bumping back twice as hard, or feinting with a little half-kick, or even just slightly pulling back her lips in the universal pony sign of Back Off. She was an orange statue which had recently had parts removed by vandals, and one of the things knocked off had been her personality.

It reached the point where Twilight couldn't watch it any more (and Rarity had never noticed at all in her pursuit of the perfect spool, with Spike only looking out for those approaching Twilight), couldn't call out protests on Applejack's behalf when her friend (still friend?) kept treating everything as being of no importance at all, and being in the same aisle as the farmer simply became too painful. It was as if Rarity's endless non-selection of wire was being wrapped around her own legs, tighter and tighter, metal cutting into skin before severing the invisible bonds between the Bearers. And so she moved to another part of the store, wandered up and down aisles while staring at shelving, the overhead lights helpfully strengthening as they rotated to highlight whatever she looked at, trying to think about the offered items so that she wouldn't have to think about anything else -- if only for a few precious minutes.

Spike came along. He frequently did.

"So what's this one?" he asked with some trepidation. After checking out the books offered and realizing that as always, there was nothing there which Twilight didn't already own, they had reached the New & Experimental area of the store. It had been easy to find: you just checked the walls for emergency shield-generating devices and then followed the pattern to the thickest cluster. (Such devices worked, but they tended to be short-term: one explosion, five seconds, the charge runs out, the shield drops, and the owner replaces it -- quickly. A typical thaumaturgy supply shop goes through about a dozen of the expensive devices per year. In the case of the establishment two blocks away from Canterlot's School For Gifted Unicorns, that number is daily, before lunch.) Peering closer, "It looks kind of like that dishwasher the Cakes tried out last season..." Which made him take a step back.

Twilight just winced. "We never did figure out where the dishes went."

"It's not where the dishes wound up," Spike groaned. "It's where those things which replaced them came from..."

"They were still dishes."

"They glowed in the dark."

"So they were glow in the dark dishes."

"That floated two inches above any surface on their own? You just don't want to think about it because you couldn't work out how they were doing it."

Twilight sighed. She'd ultimately bundled the strange tea set up and shipped it to the Archives just to get the faintly-humming crockery out of her lab: the undertone of the noise had been making her ears twitch even in the loft. The last she'd heard back, three researchers had quit, one had transferred to Ancient Artifacts followed by barricading herself in, and a fifth had developed what she considered to be an unnatural attraction to coffee. (Twilight had tried it once. Zecora had served her what had been promised as an exotic blend which would be kind to virgin taste buds. Twilight had held her post-drink smile just long enough to get out of the hut and then teleported directly to the spa for an inquiry about tongue treatments. Wake-up juice was just about as strong and didn't make her want to eat her way through six bars of soap.) "Maybe..." She moved closer to the silver box and read the label attached to the pull-down front panel. "Oh! This is interesting, Spike! It is a washer of sorts -- but this says it scrubs magic! It takes residual traces off items and renders them null so you can do experiments where you need untouched equipment without waiting for the last bits of energy from the last handling to fade! It means I wouldn't have to keep cycling through things all the time, keeping a null set in reserve while the last field-gripped bunch is still clearing! This is handy!"

Spike frowned. "Two questions. First: how much is it?"

Twilight looked. "It's -- um..." She blushed again. "...staying right here." Even at normal prices... actually, the wholesale might have been out of her reach. Still, if she saved up for a while and calculated the cost versus the savings on backup pieces...

"Good," Spike seriously replied, "because that means I don't have to personally worry about the answer to the second question: is it somehow negating the magic it takes off things -- or is it storing it?"

This time, Twilight took a very long, extremely squinty look at the tiny fine print. "Let's see... negating would be tricky, wouldn't it? Natural fading is easier that way, and asking a device to null something out, especially given the variety of signatures and strength of residue across the population... oh, there it is! It's storage, Spike. This says it soaks up the magic -- how does that work? -- in a special retentive sponge, which you then throw away once it's full... oh, that doesn't null out: weird... and the device tells you when it's at capacity. I guess that keeps bits coming in for the inventor, because you always have to purchase new sponges."

"You throw the full sponges out." A stark statement.

Her own best inadvertent Fluttershy imitation. "...yes."

"Sponges which are soaked with magic. Energy which won't ever null out."

"...right."

"And nothing bad happens from having a whole lot of discarded magic sitting around in one place, which is probably the part of the recycling plant where all the failed experiments wound up."

They both thought about it for a while.

"...I'm going to write the inventor."

"I'll help."

The third voice came from behind them, a familiar one, gallops out of place and perfectly merry about having turned up where they would least expect it. "And I'll let that pony know a Princess is going to badmouth her invention to deprive her of the fundamental pony right to earn bits!"

Spike jumped, spun in midair, landed facing the newcomer. "NO PICTURES!" he roared. "I forbid you to take a single one of me or Twilight! And since you can't do that, you can just get out!"

The smirk was more than audible. It had weight, pressed into Twilight's ears even as she turned and tried to bring them back against her skull. "It's a public shop, dragon. Maybe I want to try out a new Kryllian lens for my camera: some of these places stock them. I just might take a look around -- after I have a few words with the Princess..."

Twilight finished rotating, and her eyes gave her the confirmation she didn't want. Unicorn mare. Green and brown. Broken scales. And far too happy.

"Surprise!" the reporter grinned. "Got a ride in, Princess. Always nice to have friends, isn't it? I don't have to teleport as long as I know somepony who can escort me, somepony who lived here when she was a filly... I would have been here sooner, but it took a while to get within her range and then the last part? A split-second -- and now we can catch up right where we left off. Sure, no pictures, dragon: I can live with that. I'll let my words draw the image. So what are you doing in Trotter's Falls, Princess -- somewhere I'm betting you don't have routes memorized for the fountain yet? I saw other Bearers three aisles over: is the gang all here? Did you manage to do something which meant you had to leave Ponyville before we all found out about it and brought your cronies along to help establish the cover story? Are we slumming out in the woods? Or is there something else involved, something where you just had to sneak away under the guise of what was supposedly a mission, one where nopony in the Corps can get a word out of the Solar or Lunar courtyards about any mission going on at all? Is there something bringing you here -- or is it somepony? Are you and the farmer out on a little romantic getaway? Must not be going well: she looks like somepony broke up with her -- or like everypony did. Maybe this would be a good time to finally confirm the group marriage, Princess, especially since you seem to be down a member and I'm sure there's going to be applicants to replace her lined up from here to Manehattan, mostly because there's just that many ponies in the realm with no taste..."

Twilight had no words. She almost wanted to blame Rainbow, believe that the temporarily facsimile of that mental state had also duplicated the inability to find the right speech at the right time -- but that problem had always been hers as well: it simply manifested under different circumstances with nearly all of those at the worst possible moments. No cure had been found in books or lessons. And it was blocking her again, exactly when she needed something which could get rid of this.

A tiny degree of peace had been shattered. Even with her involved, the horrors stemming from all that and more arriving the longer she thought about it without being able to stop herself, there had been a measure of privacy in Trotter's Falls, a portion of trauma left behind --

-- one which had just caught up. A lesser nightmare which had followed her across the continent, and it was the kind of dream where she found herself unable to scream.

Spike still had working vocal cords. "She doesn't have to answer you!" the little dragon shouted, clearly trying to project his voice. "Nopony ever has to!"

The reporter shrugged, smirked again. "Leaves me free to guess whatever I like and write it down, scaleface. Where is the rest of your posse, Princess? Did they all come here with you after the Bearers teleported out together? A romantic getaway for the group? One last fling before you broke it off with everypony? I heard you went bar-hopping the other night, and there's more than a few ponies claiming you pronked home with them. How many do you think are telling the truth? Unless you can give me some proof I'm willing to print, I'm going to guess at all --"

"-- you are going to back off now."

And they all jumped, the reporter spinning around to see --

-- not Rarity. Not Applejack. A thin, small, grey unicorn stallion, about Twilight's own age, with a cutie mark she couldn't make out beyond the fact of its presence, somepony who --

-- Quiet? When did he get here? I didn't even hear a bell! But she was right in my face, I could have missed...

He took a few steps forward, moving past a shelf full of slowly rotating gyroscopes. "It is a public shop," he calmly said, advancing steadily towards the still-startled reporter. "And therefore, as a member of the public, I'm asking you to leave it. Whatever reasons Princess Twilight has for being here are her own and no business of yours. She is welcome in Trotter's Falls, and those who only come here to harass her? Are not. So if that is your only purpose in traveling here, then consider it accomplished -- and get out."

The reporter was now beginning to recover and went on the offensive in the usual way: the field-held notebook came up slightly and flipped open to a new page. "And who would you be?"

"And why would you care?" Quiet softly challenged.

"I'm a reporter. The Princess is a public figure, and ponies have a right to know anything and everything they want about public figures -- including the identity of any ponies who would try defending them." She looked him over. "Not what I would have figured for her taste if she went for stallions at all --" and the smirk grew wider "-- or does she actually look in that direction? You know, we all assume that because she's always surrounded by mares and nopony's been able to track down a single verified date with a stallion in her life... well, she really could go for anypony at all, couldn't she? Is the farmer so upset because there has been a replacement? Here, let's show all of Equestria just what kind of stallion the Princess goes for -- one who barely qualifies for the title!"

The camera came up.

Quiet's left front hoof went through the field, knocked it to the ground.

The replacement Bell & Hooffall (same model, same age, same degree of cheapness) broke into eight pieces.

"I'm pretty sure I owe you some bits," Quiet placidly said. "Or at least some fractions of same. Oh, and -- no. Or was I supposed to say that first? I read about the new law, but I've never had to personally put it into practice before..."

The reporter was staring at him. "I'm going to find out who you are," she softly vowed. "You're going into an article --"

"-- no, I'm not." Still placid, perfectly calm -- but there was a glance over the reporter's right shoulder, one aimed directly at Twilight and Spike, carrying a message which only strengthened in crossing the distance: let me. "Now -- I believe your basis for hassling the Princess is that ponies have the right to know everything about public figures?"

"Yes! I have every right to ask her anything, and you --"

"-- how old is Murdocks?"

She froze. "...what?"

Quiet tilted his head slightly to the left, smiled. "Murdocks. His age. I've been curious about that for some time. In the rare editorials he at least claims to write himself, he comes across as a fairly old pony -- but at other times, as if he's trying to make himself sound older in order to appeal to that generation. There are certain -- well, never mind that. But as long as we're at it, what kind of pony is he? Unicorn? Earth pony? Pegasus? A crystal expatriate who spent his life hiding among us? Is that why he never allows himself to be seen? Why he's sent representatives to speak for him at every hearing? Surely with the Empire opened up again, he would feel free to step forward without fear -- oh, and incidentally, is 'he' even the right pronoun here?"

The reporter was starting to tremble. "You -- you can't..."

"Can't I?" Quiet took a half-step closer, stared at her in a manner which approximated Fluttershy. "He's a public figure, isn't he? I would hardly call the owner of the most extensive newspaper publishing business and leader of its press corps anything else. It seems to me that by your definition, ponies have the right to know anything and everything they wish to concerning him -- and I am a pony who wishes to know. Now while we're at it, about sending all those lawyers out on his behalf in the cases where he always turns out to have paid with counterfeit bits with no idea how they possibly could have come into his possession -- why has he never considered purchasing a device which detects them? They're not all that expensive, you know. Most store owners around here have one, and you don't need to be a unicorn to use the things. Is he somehow allergic to magic?"

"...I..." The trembling was getting faster. "...you don't understand, I can't, none of us are allowed to --"

"-- oh, and about his political positions," Quiet continued. "The ones he never quite finishes explaining, at least in print. He claims that there is a need for a voice other than that of the Princesses, one who can argue the opposing point of view and beliefs. Very well. But the Princesses believe in Harmony. What is the opposite of that? Because I truly want to know. And I have every right to ask that question, and follow you until I get an answer, or perhaps just trail you all the way back to wherever the headquarters is and confront him with every last one of them myself. And should he answer me, I also have every right to buy a printing press and start my own newspaper to publish his answers -- or refusals to provide them -- within. Or, optionally, if you and he -- it is 'he', right? -- refuse to give me what I have every declared right to know, I could just --" and now his lips pulled back from his teeth "-- guess whatever I like and write it down..."

The reporter's horn ignited. Twilight's and Quiet's followed.

Her field surrounded the pieces of broken camera, brought them up.

"This..." It was almost a stutter. "...this isn't over..."

"Bets?" Quiet asked.

She began to make her way around him, trying to make it look as if she wasn't retreating while in the middle of doing so, not breaking eye contact while desperate to do exactly that. "I'll get your name -- I can print a story about your hanging around the Princess..."

"Yes, I suppose you can. In theory," the stallion said. "I'd wish you luck with that, but..."

"...ponies will know who you are..."

He didn't laugh. But one side of his mouth went up in a half-smile, and he tilted his head slightly to the right.

And she was gone, a bumped shelf of buzzing Hemlat Boxes vibrating in her wake.

Quiet trotted up to the siblings. Softly, "Are you all right?"

"Yes," Twilight tried out. The word felt like it fit. "She just -- bombarded us. I wasn't expecting her... I thought they would all be back in Ponyville..."

He sighed. "I could say something about the town battling me again, but that was a rather unwelcome import. Has it been that bad the whole time?"

Spike answered for her, one word: "Worse."

Quiet briefly looked as if he was trying to picture what 'worse' entailed, then as if he'd succeeded, and finally as if he was trying to get rid of the successful image once and for all. "And now it's here. Luna's mane, Twilight, I'm sorry... I know it's nothing I did, but -- I'm sorry anyway. This was a haven of sorts, wasn't it? At least for a little while. And now -- Twilight?"

Whispered, "Yes?"

Carefully, each letter overflowing with soft concern, "You're shaking."

She pulled together her remaining bits of strength. There seemed to be less to gather than before, and it was just barely enough to stop. "I'm okay..."

"And you're also lying. When I saw that other stranger blocking off your friends with his horn lit, I initially thought it was another one of the Doctor's -- but he was too old, and then I saw his mark. Running interference for his partner so she could hit you with her idiocy without having them break in. I should have tried to get their attention first, but my instinct was to come find you..."

"It's -- all right." And that was no lie at all. "I'm glad you did." Or that.

"A little advice, Twilight," Quiet gently told her. "Those who desire secrets most are typically the ones most concerned over whether their own will be exposed. Cockroaches run from light. Don't be afraid to turn one on."

Twilight nodded. The words had registered. It would take some time for the full meaning to sink in. "Thank you."

He smiled. "Let's get you back to the others." With a soft groan. "I should have come along in the first place, but I was worried about Doctor Gentle... All right. We know there's two of them about, and she more than implied a third with the one who teleported her in. I'd love to believe the count would stop there, but I don't have that kind of confidence -- so let's get our own reinforcements before theirs arrive. And if her partner is still lurking about, I'm going to have a few questions for him as well."

Quiet escorted her back towards the wire spools, Spike staying close and looking at the sort-of-Lord with something which wasn't so much approaching admiration as already there and picking out a good location for the base camp. Twilight stayed within a few hoofwidths of his flank and there were moments when her wings started to tremble, extended a little away from her body, brushed his side.

And Quiet kept his ears open. He watched the other customers as he brought Twilight back to her friends, looked to see if there were any he didn't recognize, checked marks -- but for those he knew, he paid careful attention to what they were saying. Listening had always been one of his greatest skills, especially when others didn't realize it was happening at all.

There was the usual assortment of reactions. Confusion. Gazes sliding off him and landing on Twilight, with occasional moves to the gentledragon. Some awe at being in the presence of a Princess and all the ways in which that manifested.

But from a few -- those who turned away, the ones who headed for the door -- there were muttered words. He caught a few of them. They were words he had held before and recently, he had dropped them on the floor as a precursor to stepping on them until they died. And there they were being said again. Twilight hadn't heard them: he was sure his senses were stronger than hers there, and he was glad for that. He hoped she would never hear them -- and knew that wish was in vain.

He felt his lips pull back from his teeth again, took as deep a breath as he dared, settled them back into their normal position.

"Stay close," he whispered.

She nodded, drifted closer still. Her wings brushed his side again.

The cruelty of when.

The cruelty of now.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I wish to be certain I have this absolutely correct. You had to impress the sole pony responsible for determining if the Empire would receive the Games. Everything depended on your presentation to her working out exactly as planned. And in order to go forth and greet that pony, you all galloped down to the train station with the following means of identification at your disposal: her luggage. Not mane, coat, tail, and eye colors. Not race. Not cutie mark. Luggage." He was trying not to laugh. "I know everything worked out in the end, but I do want to backtrack on this much: how in the realm -- and in this case, beyond -- did that wind up as your lone piece of information?"

Fluttershy giggled. "The pony who delivered the news jotted down a few details to give Princess Cadance. Twilight read the note before we left for the station -- but... The Empire is still adjusting to -- catching up, I guess. They use our alphabet and spellings for most things, but Twilight said there's a bit of a regional dialect. Some words get confused. Horrible mouthwriting plus some really old word uses and slipping into Ancient Crystalia on a few of her nouns... the luggage was just about the only thing Twilight could make out!"

Pinkie laughed. "She apologized later. She really thought it would be enough. After all, it wasn't as if the Empire had a lot of tourist traffic yet! How many ponies would have been getting off that train to start with? There probably would have been only one carrying a floral print most of the time..."

Doctor Gentle smiled. "And the language problem was also part of why Rarity had so much difficulty with the manestyle?"

His eldest nodded. "Some of the words just didn't come across. There were diagrams, and that's what saved it in the end..."

Pinkie shifted on her couch, stretched out her front legs. "At least Dashie was happy. Not seeing the Games in Cloudsdale really hurt her. More than I thought it would. But cities try so hard... when it doesn't happen, you almost feel like you failed. I felt that way when I thought we'd cost the Empire their chance..."

He adjusted his own position, tried not to wince as his injured leg protested. "It is rare for a pegasus city to host the Games, my young ladies. For starters, it requires a massive magical effort. Very few unicorns can cast the cloudwalking spell, and all those who can need to be gathered. For weeks, they do very little else but. Facilities need to be constructed on the ground, and those take longer than the ones built in the sky... There are simply issues which, while they can be dealt with, make it easier to look at other sites first. In my lifetime, only two sky cities have hosted. It may be some time before one does again."

"Ground is just better for some things," Fluttershy sighed. "It's easy to get a temporary flight stadium over a mixed city, or an earth pony town or unicorn one which has all the other arenas -- but doing everything in reverse..."

He nodded. "But I understand the pain. When Baltimare hosted, Trotter's Falls applied to take over some of the smaller competitions. We were hoping to acquire a few of the unicorn events as a satellite venue. It didn't happen. I was but a colt at the time, but I remember the elders dragging their hooves for a week after the refusal... Still, the Empire will have much to celebrate, and it will be Equestria's first true chance to become reacquainted with them. I intend to travel there myself before the Games start and acquire a safe arrival point." Openly reminiscing, "I haven't been to the Games in decades..."

'And afterwards, we can'

There had been a reason for that.

"We're going back then," Pinkie told him. "Maybe we can all get together there!"

"I will do my best to arrange my end," he assured them -- and carefully began to slide the topic over. "And of course, I would love to meet Princess Cadance. In a way, this will be a test of her rulership as well -- hosting the Games is no task for the fainthearted. So many ponies in town, interacting with a culture they know nothing of -- and her own populace trying to figure out Equestria's citizens. There will be clashes and misunderstandings over more than mouthwriting. The duties of a Princess will include keeping everything on track while resolving all of the inevitable incidents without real damage being done. It is not a casual or enviable task."

Another sigh for his eldest, and the typical hesitation dropped back into her speech. "...I know. Twilight's been really worried about her... she's been writing her, trying to get updates, but Cadance has so little time, the letters back are short... Twilight knows Cadance cares and isn't brushing her off, but she'd still feel better if she knew more or could just help out herself... but Twilight's so overwhelmed already, ever since -- she changed..."

And she was doing part of the work for him -- or would if this was the topic he wanted from them. Still, there was no harm in exploring it somewhat. "I was surprised she hadn't been given any additional duties," he honestly admitted. "With Princess Cadance -- in retrospect, I suspect Princess Celestia was waiting for that chance of the Empire being restored. But if rumors were to be believed -- and no, I am not asking you to confirm or deny things you would have no reasons to know -- Princess Cadance was in training for that chance for some time. With Princess Twilight ascended, I had thought that at the very least, she would have vanished into more private classes in preparation for the next opportunity. Education on government, bureaucratics -- all the burdens of leadership. But perhaps Princess Celestia feels that for now, representing Magic within the Elements is enough?"

They both went silent for several breaths, visibly looked to each other for support.

"...Doctor?"

"Yes, my eldest?"

"...I'm worried about her. She's... not used to it, to any of it. All those ponies... wanting advice, pictures, interviews, the press is the worst, some of them tried to get at me when I was working at my cottage, they wanted me to say things about her that they could put out of order or just distort..."

Gently, "What happened when they did?"

"...my friends didn't like it."

He pictured it and smiled at the image. Yes, there were multiple hazards in dealing with Fluttershy on her own ground, and that was after you factored the rabbit out. "I assume they were slow to return."

"...they haven't tried again yet, not at the cottage... but when I go to town... most of the time, I just fly away, but some of them are pegasi and I can't always get away fast enough, I can't hardly ever..." Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment, the old pain claiming a moment for manifest. "Rainbow has to save me, or somepony else does, and then they just get it..."

Pinkie's smile was weaker than it normally would have been. "I get some of it too, but I can usually find places to hide."

And some of those places would be strange ones. "But the Princess -- doesn't she just teleport away?"

"Sometimes." Pinkie admitted. "But that's mostly back to the library -- and when it's open, there's ponies there all the time, when it's closed, they cluster around the shield and yell because she put one up so she could try to sleep at all, they finally started to give up and go home at night, but..." And it was her turn to sigh. "Those ponies are everywhere, Doctor. And some of them really do need help, but she can't always do something. They think because she's a Princess, that she has power -- not magic: power like Princess Celestia and Luna have. She doesn't. And they don't want to believe that. Some of them come into Sugarcube Corner afterwards, confused or complaining or believing she was lying to them, and I can't make them listen to me any more than they listened to her..."

Which were all things he had anticipated and trained her for -- things the world's fourth alicorn (with no fifth coming, not yet, but it had been a glorious failure and he so needed to tell her that) had not been educated in. Had Princess Twilight possessed any anticipation that her own Great Work was about to become complete? What had her path even been? He had assumed one in particular, but without any actual word...

He felt he could push a little further. Kindly, caring about the pain of their absent friend, "She wasn't ready for the change, was she?"

Coral strands of mane shifted: the one visible eye went half-shut. "...no."

And another hoofstep. "Did she -- even know it was coming? At all?"

Pinkie sighed. "I thought... when the beams from the Elements hit her, she started looking around at all of us, and she was scared, like she didn't know what was happening -- none of us did, Doctor."

The Elements.

It was right there. His most determined was talking about it. Answers sought over decades were being delivered into his hooves on honest words...

"But then she put her head down, just a little," Pinkie continued. "And -- she smiled. A little one. I asked her about it after, and she didn't even remember smiling at all. But it looked like..." She glanced at Fluttershy.

"...acceptance," his eldest finished. "Like whatever happened... would happen... and she was ready for it. And then she vanished, and the floor of the library was scorched in the shape of her mark..."

Sun and Moon, they were there. They may have been part of it...

He had to keep himself steady. He had to stay under control. But he still found himself leaning forward somewhat, and felt it was the natural reaction. "Were you all there? All of the Bearers?" They nodded. "And you were all wearing the Elements at the time?" Again. "Was there a mission? I know the only times you remove them from the vault is when something is happening, but we received no news here. Admittedly, any such event might have been lost in the wake of the coronation --"

-- and he'd pushed too far.

The expression on Pinkie's face was familiar to him: it was one he'd seen most often in the days when Pinkamena had been the only name she'd known, a weary sorrow which said I have to think about how much I can say and I already know that's nothing at all. From Fluttershy, a sudden shrinking, her body curling up more tightly on the couch as her tail swished in to shield more of her form.

"I'm sorry, Doctor Gentle," Pinkie sighed. "But -- Princess Celestia... we told you more than we've told anypony, and -- I trust you to keep it secret, you know I do -- but she asked us not to really say too much. I wish I could tell you everything, I really really do, but -- we promised. I just didn't think about that when I started telling you, and -- I'm sorry... I'm sorry because I gave you only part of a story, and I'm sorry because it's the Princess and I just messed up..." Her head sunk down, went between her outstretched forelegs. "I feel stupid because I said anything and stupider because I wish I could tell you everything and I can't..." But that was as far as the reaction went, which meant that the promise had not been the Pinkie variant with capital letter attached. She was embarrassed -- but it wasn't tipping into self-loathing.

"...we all promised," Fluttershy whispered. "I did it too... but it's so hard not to talk with family..."

He managed a smile at that. Conspiratorially, "I won't tell if you won't," and was glad to see Pinkie's head come up again, with Fluttershy's tail moving back out. But still -- close, so close, but of course the Solar Princess would have wanted those details protected... and he needed them to see he understood that. "I can see why, truthfully," he went on. "I imagine the Elements are already at risk every day. There are ponies who would love to study them, and not necessarily in ways which would leave them intact -- although I have a hard time imagining anything which could destroy them. Or enemies of our nation looking to steal them and remove that weapon from Equestria's arsenal. If ponies knew they were instrumental in the ascension to an alicorn state -- yes, then they would be facing increased dangers from within and without." The next thought was new. "I can even picture somepony trying to make it work in reverse -- dethrone Solar and Lunar to replace them with their own chosen rulers... yes, having Princess Celestia ask you to keep the secret is perfectly understandable. But it must be difficult not to discuss. At least you all have each other to turn to if the need to talk becomes too great."

Fluttershy sighed. "...I wish Twilight would speak to us more, Doctor. Not just about the change... about everything that came with it..."

"She's not happy," Pinkie added. "But I've been trying to get her to talk, and so has Fluttershy, and she just won't let any of it out. We're worried about her."

And this, perhaps, was another form of chance. "Is it possible that -- it is because you are all so close? Because she does not wish to make her burdens your own?"

"...I can take it," Fluttershy whispered, and he knew her words were sincere. "...I can take more... for her..."

"I can too," Pinkie sighed. "But she won't talk... and if she did, it would all be so much easier, I just know it would..."

"Then -- let me try." They both blinked, focused on him. "This will sound odd, my young ladies, but I am a stranger to her still -- and sometimes, it is easier to unburden yourself with somepony you do not truly know. There is less of a connection, a diminished fear that by sharing your own pain, you will transfer some of it. I am supposed to speak with her about magic -- and I would like to do that tonight, after dinner." According to Quiet, their local Princess had asked to eat considerably later than usual: their mutual host had readily agreed. "I will not bring up what I know of how her change occurred -- but I will -- shall we say, conjecture as to some of the aftereffects. It will not hurt to give her the cue. If she refuses it, then I have confidence that you and the others will find the path on your own. But should she choose to take the topic up -- then I may be able to make some headway simply through virtue of not being so familiar to her. Just a pony she met for a few days and perhaps runs into moons from now in Ponyville when I come to visit you again. A passing acquaintance. She can give her burdens to me and I will trot away with them, the weight never to be seen again. It is a strange concept, but -- it works. Not all the time, but often enough to try. The things parents have confessed to me... Will you allow me to make the attempt?"

Another one of those mutual glances, the communication silent but visible. He had often seen them do it, and wondered if more than simple sight galloped down the pathway. It was possible: they were close, and had so very much in common.

"...yes," Fluttershy expressed for the pair. "...if it would help her... if there's any chance..."

He nodded. And if fortune was truly with him, then perhaps Princess Twilight, as keeper of the secret, would be the one permitted to give the full version out. "I will do my best," he promised, and decided to take up the next angle. "I imagine this trip must have come as something of a relief to her. Not the search for my own missing corpus, of course -- the chance to rest after that search ended. Even those ponies who know or discover where she has gone would need time to cross the distance. Those in Trotter's Falls are, by and large, being polite, at least in the sense of waiting for the party so they can ask their questions in a more formal setting. Being here is a chance for things to become a little closer to what used to be her normal -- but then, even that included missions and quests and battles to save the realm."

Pinkie smiled -- but this one had a touch of sadness to it. "Rarity spent about three days in the spa after Discord -- the first one, Fluttershy." The animal caretaker understood, and Doctor Gentle knew what his most determined was referring to. That had been in a letter which had the topic all to itself -- a very long one. If the Solar Princess had asked for any secrecy on that matter, the airmail stamp had beaten it out. He had been immensely proud of his eldest -- and had given the contents of the letter long thought, consideration which took him deep under Moon and nearly back to Sun again...

...but Pinkie was still talking.

"And -- it took a while for all of us to -- be all right again. Even after Twilight restored us..." It was clearly a painful subject, one so weighted by emotion as to press upon her mane. "...we held together long enough for the fight, but -- Luna came to our dreams, each of us, for weeks after, and... We got there, we all recovered, it just -- took a lot."

Fluttershy shivered twice, said nothing.

"The missions take their toll," he gently said. "I've seen that in your letters. You all boost each other, bring one another back -- but the stress of being Equestria's defenders remains stress you feel every time the Princess sends you out and lingers after you return. It is because you all have each other that you come through it so well -- but there is still something to come through. And you two are vital in keeping the Bearers together and returning to themselves each time, for Laughter and Kindness are the Elements to be drawn back to. In that, you are the most important. Not always during each mission, but every time after they end. Never doubt that. And it is why you are so hopeful to take some of Princess Twilight's burden -- because it is your duty under those Elements, along with your simple hope as her friends."

He let them sit in silence for a moment. Words weren't always needed, and Fluttershy's closed eyes told him all he needed to know.

"I saw your stress when you came here," he told them, and it was a partial lie. There had been none when they found him, simply relief and joy and love, the same as it had been for all the others. But since then... "And part of that is because you are trying to carry some of her burden, even when she will not give it to you. Some is because you cannot take it. But while I can only present myself as a near-stranger to Princess Twilight, I would hope that I am something more to you..." A look from eldest to most determined, his eyes kind and patient.

"You're family, Doctor," Fluttershy told him with no hesitation whatsoever.

"You know that," Pinkie gently insisted.

"Thank you," he sincerely told them both. "And as family, my young ladies -- is there any burden I can carry for you?"

They exchanged glances again. He could almost feel the words going down them. There was a moment when he felt the phantom exchange was almost audible, written in posture, position shifts of their legs, a change in the speed of breath, little movements of both tails and for one, the most familiar vibration of her wings.

There was something. And they wanted to tell him. He had done his best to always be there for them, had done so since the very first moment of their time under Sun, and now they wanted to give him something back --

-- but they were hesitant.

There were ties of friendship in the way. Bonds of duty. Perhaps even the connection wrought from Elements -- or the ones which had allowed those Elements to attune at all. And still, they wanted to talk. Because they were family, all of them, in more ways than they knew.

Fluttershy got up from the couch.

The motion surprised him, and continued to do so as she slowly trotted up to Pinkie, leaned in, whispered into her right ear.

His eldest's mane obscured much of her face at the best of times -- but even on a side viewing, it could not hide all of her mouth. The words remained unheard, but his best guess at lip reading gave him what could have been "...any help we... "

Pinkie looked uncertain -- but, after three long breaths, nodded.

Fluttershy turned to face him directly.

"...Doctor," she carefully began, "we --"

-- and a cyan near-tornado blew through the room, rammed into Fluttershy's just-vacated couch, nearly knocked it over.

"In here?" she shouted. "Is it in here? Has anypony seen it?" Frantically glancing around, magenta eyes refusing to rest on any target for so much as a second, her sleek form taking off again from the cushions and doing a high-speed circuit of the room's perimeter. "Please, guys, tell me it got in here somehow, please...!"

Pinkie gasped, jumped off her couch, tried to race beneath the pegasus and keep the pace well enough to talk to her friend -- something she was perfectly capable of doing indoors, although the cornering around the furniture was giving her some trouble. "Rainbow, what's wrong? We can't tell you if we've seen something if we don't know what's missing!"

"I've been all over the castle," the weather coordinator called out. "Tried not to come in here until last -- wanted to let you all talk -- it's got to be in here, unless somepony stole it!"

"Dashie, you have to tell us what's missing..."

Fluttershy took off, positioned herself so that she was very nearly in front of the pegasus, stuck out her left wing just enough to let a single yellow edge feather brush against the blur as it made another circuit.

It was enough to get her friend's attention. The movement slowed, and the frantic eyes settled on them for that lone second.

"My manuscript! The first half of Volume One! It's gone! It wasn't in my room, the servants swear they didn't take it but some of them could be lying, he -- he -- whoever he is, he said he took on all those temporaries to help host us, one of them could have walked off with it, my manuscript..."

And that put an end to the meeting. There were apologies, and still more apologies, mostly from Fluttershy (who had spent her life making it into an art form), followed by all of them flying and racing out of the room to help their friend search. After a long pause to collect his thoughts, he followed to give what help he could.

Close. So close...

But he could not allow himself to openly regret it, and gave only a little time for the internal expression. The meeting had been worthwhile, and there would be other chances. For now, he would content himself with having learned much. The Bearers were up to something: he had known that already, but the confirmation hardly hurt. Better still was that he knew there was no suspicion of himself or Quiet: it would have been visible -- and should it have existed, those thoughts would have kept his from wishing to speak to him. And they did want to speak. Given another chance, later on -- they might. For now, they would help their friend, and he would assist in that.

No help in finding her or in discovering how much they knew there -- but still, he had learned, and that knowledge was precious beyond measure.

Six Elements. One alicorn.

The original path -- the one he'd had to abandon -- worked.

They needed the meeting, and they needed it quickly.

It will have to be the party.

And so it would be.