• Published 5th May 2013
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Triptych - Estee


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

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Hamartia

It wasn't the kind of social gathering which baths were usually meant for, but it was the best way of getting together they had: a collective excuse added to privacy and -- least, but after her time in the fringe, still a factor -- a chance to feel clean, if only on the outside. Doctor Gentle had a patient to see -- and, shortly before dinner actually started, she had a filly: a process which had begun before the trio had returned, thus sparing Twilight from any requests of blessing. The servants left them alone while they were washing. And... somepony -- Quiet just hadn't been around when they'd trotted back in. It had made it easy to gather the others, get the water flowing, lower her body deep into the warmth and try to pretend some of it was actually soaking in.

Well -- they were mostly gathered, at least in that everypony was physically present. But Applejack was rather listlessly floating off to the side, and her form sometimes disinterestedly bumped against the border wall.

"Somepony else," Twilight repeated. "We really have to start looking at things from that angle. Somepony planted that bomb. There's a chance it was coincidence, somepony just looking for anypony who's run away, or a working left over from long ago -- but it's not a strong chance. I think somepony was looking for her, and they placed that spell hoping she'd trigger it and -- it would make her go home..."

Rainbow looked oddly -- thoughtful. "How long would it take to cast that?"

Twilight considered. "I've never seen it being worked and I don't know who cast this one." There hadn't been enough feel left at the backtracked site to even begin getting a sense of the unicorn behind the bomb: Twilight's personal dispelling had been strong enough to shred more than just her own entrancement -- but by that point, she had already been well out of range. "But they have to be charged, and casting something so that it won't usually register on background feel can make things take longer. I think the caster would need at least a few minutes, Rainbow. Why?"

"Because," the pegasus slowly said, "you hadn't met her in the orchard before this. Nopony knew you three were going there -- as far as we know." She looked up at the walls, towards the doorway, ears twisting as if trying to pick up on the subtle sounds of concealed eavesdroppers -- at least until Pinkie shook her head. "But somepony knew she was in the orchard once before this, Twilight. We talked to that pony. And I was wondering... if we weren't the only ones. If he told somepony who knew her -- or if you guys were just followed, spotted, or overheard. If somepony helped her, Twilight, and that same somepony's been looking for her all along... we don't know who that pony is. But that pony probably knows us. The whole town already knows we're here, and lately, it's been kind of hard to miss you..."

She adjusted her position in the water, began to preen the feathers of her left wing, seemingly without any awareness that she was doing so at all.

"So you think," Twilight carefully said, "somepony either might have seen where we were going, gotten ahead of us, and planted at least the one bomb while we were all still looking around -- or found out that she was in the orchard, and left the spell there just in case she came back."

A slow nod. "Yeah. Grape Indulgence sold us his story for some drinks. I just bet that once he knew how much he could fetch for it, he just kept trying his luck on the liquid market. Or maybe -- maybe she went out there all the time, Twilight, that's one of her favorite places, anypony who knows her would plant something there, waiting for her -- there's just too much! The plot twists aren't spaced out enough in the book, not for an adventure! There's too many possibilities, I don't know if we've thought of them all or even the right ones...!"

Her wings beat at the water in frustration, and Rarity yelped as she dodged the splash.

"...I don't think she goes out there that often," Fluttershy softly said. "...I'm not sure -- she goes much of anywhere very often. And not just since she changed, Twilight: I don't know if she ever did. Because... at first, I thought she was just scared. Afraid that any sound was another pony, somepony who might see her. But now... I'm not sure she knew what a squirrel was."

They all stared at her.

"How is that possible?" Spike asked. "Everypony would know --"

"-- I didn't," Fluttershy carefully broke in. "Not for a long time, Spike. We don't have them in the clouds. We don't have -- much of anything, really."

"So now we are working with the theory that she began as a pegasus?" Rarity looked as if she was trying the concept on for size and finding it in need of some rather significant adjustments. "I suppose it is... somewhat possible. If somepony else had been doing any required spellwork, she could have begun as anything."

"She probably wasn't a crystal pony," Spike decided -- then held his ground (or at least his portion of the pool) while they stared at him. "Come on, guys! You've been hearing the same stories! Ever since the Empire came back, half the time, when something weird happens, somepony starts talking about how there must be a crystal visitor just out of sight, because nopony's sure about their magic yet and it makes them easy to blame, even in a joke. Or they say it's an expatriate, a crystal whose family got out before the Empire was cut off and they've been living hidden among us for generations..."

"While somehow completely overlooking both the lifespan of the average pony and the need for a rather large number of other hidden expatriates in order to guarantee that their restored refractive coats would reach the modern day," Rarity crossly replied. "Or at least some rather frequent occasions of completely unexpected birth arrival due to a rather interesting early family tree. There are days when I would be rather endeared towards any conspiracy theory which brought a touch of logic to its boundless imagination, Spike. It is not impossible simply because so little truly is, but that still leaves it firmly within the boundaries of the extremely improbable. You might as well say that she was once a buffalo who decided to become a Princess, and managed to at least reach a trio of pony states."

Twilight sighed. "I really don't want to start thinking about crystal magic right now. I'm having enough trouble with unicorn magic, if that's what was used. And pegasus magic, and..."

Her gaze instinctively moved towards Applejack --

-- and the green eyes came up. "Having trouble saying it?" Neutral.

After a too-long moment, "...yes."

Which produced an oddly calm "Good. That's how it should be." Back to floating.

"And the other magic," Pinkie quietly said. "The -- necklaces. And the crown thingie. And -- what it means. For them to have been -- normal."

They all went silent, and it stretched out like ripples across the bathing pool, sapped the heat from the water. For Twilight had told them. It had been necessary to tell them, because figuring out what it had been included removing any item from the checklist for a method disproven. For somepony of exceptional magical talent to get past Twilight's security spells, get into the vault... she had seen it within Rarity's realm of remaining extreme improbabilities. But with the attunement of the Elements added to that, the inability of anypony else to use them or for any of the Bearers to activate the wrong ones... and now that had been totaled with her word. The Elements had not been involved in any way other than a failed search.

Except that they had been involved. A long time ago.

Rarity's breath was oddly shallow, and still managed to work in an impressive amount of shudder. "They -- do not hear, do they? The Princesses. When we say our vows, invoke their names, swear upon and by them... they do not know. And... I have been thinking about that. For some time. If it is possible to continue swearing upon them now, or -- what I could swear upon at all, and..."

Her eyes closed. A false lash slipped, and the soft blue field did not automatically flicker to put it back.

"...I hate this mission," Rarity whispered. "I hate what it is taking from us. To call Luna any level of friend... I was proud of that: I still am. But I had thought of it -- as a point of special pride. To be the passing acquaintance of --" three deep breaths, all made while her gaze looked inward "-- I shall say it. A goddess. Twilight as the student of a deity, to have divinity marry into her family -- and --" tears were beginning to leak out "-- for Twilight to have -- I am sorry, Twilight, I am, and I swear to you, I shall never say this again, because I know it will hurt you and I never wish to see you suffer that wound from my horn a second time... For Twilight -- to have become divine."

And Twilight began to cry, for the white horn had stabbed her heart.

"I kissed the hooves of the Princess because it let me touch divinity," Rarity forced out. "A divinity which was never there. And how must she have felt in the presence of my devotion? Did I wound her? For she is but a normal pony with a different shape, one who has no power to hear my invocations, even in the most desperate of times. I call upon them and nothing happens, nothing can happen, and every word they become aware of long after the need was not met is a new wound, a crisis they could not intervene in, lives they could not save, while ponies believed..."

And she wept. She wept while Spike went to her side, the others closed in, let presence press against wet fur, as their own tears came...

But not all. The ponypile had been formed -- but there was a gap.

"What do I believe in?" Rarity whispered. "What did I ever believe in? What can any of us still believe in? We offer up our prayers and they do not hear. Is there anything which hears at all? Are there even shadowlands awaiting us when we die? Do the final plains and grass fields hold our loved ones waiting for that final reunion, or is there simply nothing, darkness without even the awareness of that dark, a stop to all we ever were, and when the last pony who knows to say our names goes into that dark, we are gone, truly gone, I am survived by dresses moldering in a museum where nopony ever bothers to glance at the dedication plaque..."

"You're Bearers," Spike said, and his words were as helpless as the gentle strokes of his claws through soaked mane. "Nopony's going to forget you --"

"-- Zephyra Hurricane." The two-word counter stopped him. And the tears were coming faster now. "Two names: I never knew she had two. We see her as merely a character in a play, all bluster and arrogance. We know nothing of what she was truly like. Only that she was Honesty, and... my faith is gone, Spike. I have nothing left I can believe in, for that is what this mission has taken from me. I have no faith, and no hope for the persistence of memory. Stories may last, but they will become distorted over time. Will I be nothing more than a character in a play to be performed in front of every schoolhouse on Return Day? How will the audience be made to see me? Pompous, egotistical, caring only whether her hooves stay clean, with no mention of my actual phobia. No faith in divinity, or memory, or friends..."

They all stopped breathing.

"Rarity," Twilight surged with the first gulp of oxygen she was able to temporarily seize, "we're right here..."

"You are." More miserable than anypony had ever heard her, all of them wishing for it to have come from that frequently-misplaced sense of drama, with everypony fully aware that every tenth-bit of it was true. "I can feel you, Twilight. I can identify everypony pressed against me, simply through warmth and breathing, the textures of scales and feathers and fur. A narrower rib cage here, a stronger body there, the presence of new wings. Which means I am more than aware when somepony is missing. Fluttershy, I know the words hurt you, as much as some of mine have hurt Twilight, and I am sorry -- but they still must be said: I hate Discord." She kept speaking, the soft words failing to drown out the gasp. "I loathe him in this moment, and do not know if it is possible to ever feel any other way. For this is his mission. Perhaps everything which has happened was his intent. That we would lose faith, and memory, and friends..."

And to Twilight, it felt like a cue. A signal for one final body to press against theirs, warmth and silent strength from the most gentle and physically powerful of them all, her presence reminding them all of a friendship unbroken.

But five surrounded one. And the last would not approach.

"Nothing to believe in," Rarity wept. "Nothing and nopony. Never six, never truly six. Always seven, no matter what anypony wished to believe. But now it is six, Twilight, because she is right there listening to all of it, and every moment of her still silence gives agreement that it is six, forever six, perhaps was never even seven to begin with, and as time passes, it will become five, then four, and time will dismiss us as it counts its way down to --"

Splashing.

Silence.

"I -- Ah -- I'm not gone yet."

Contact.

"...Applejack?"

"It's -- taking a lot," the farmer softly said. "It could take more before this ends. But -- Rarity... I... I -- talk. To --" and with the second-greatest effort of her life, "-- the earth. Something hears me. Something says yes. I believe in the ground under my hooves, in -- the contract, and... I can't ask you for much. Can't ask anypony for much any more, maybe not even my own kin, not after this. I sure can't ask you to believe, not in something you've never heard. But I... just want to ask you... t' understand. That Ah'm hurting too. That it took -- almost everything, and... I need time, everypony, please, it hurts and I need time..."

The seven remained still in the water. There seemed to be very little need to move.

"Will --" Rarity took another breath, tried again. "-- will you wear your hat to dinner?"

"No."

"I am putting in a request. As official fashion advisor to the Bearers. I believe you all remember what happened when you ignored my intentions for your garments the first time?"

Starkly, "Don't deserve to wear it."

"Then... I suppose that will let me know."

"Know what?"

"When it stops hurting."

Eventually, the ponypile separated, although perhaps only physically.

"Very well," Rarity finally said. "I believe I shall require some extra time to freshen myself before dinner: please do not be surprised if I am somewhat late to the table -- and if you would make my excuses for me should such become necessary, I would be grateful: there is something other than myself which still needs a few finishing touches before it becomes presentable." The dripping body carefully made its way out of the pool. "And everypony, even for those who do not generally use makeup --" an inevitable glance at Applejack, which then moved to Twilight, followed (with a touch of amazement that every last result was natural) by Fluttershy "-- please do your best to conceal regardless. We do not wish any of this day to be visible to our hosts."

"Maybe we do." And it had come from Pinkie.

They all focused on her, and the baker took a deep breath of her own, shook a little water out of drying curls.

"Discord... he said we were allowed to get help. Local help. Anypony we could. And -- I promise we didn't say anything about the mission, Twilight, but -- I've known Doctor Gentle my whole life. And Fluttershy's known him longer than just about anypony, at least by about a year. And he's really really smart, he knows a lot about magic and he sure knows the ponies in town, he's lived here his whole life. After the book hunt started --" a still-frustrated Rainbow fumed "-- we decided we didn't want to do it without you knowing, then we wanted you to be part of it, and we finally decided to wait and let you -- decide." The sincere blue eyes held a steady gaze, lit with a lifetime of adoration. "If you wanted to tell him what's happening. So he could help."

And Twilight thought about it, as the others watched.

"He is smart," she readily agreed. "And he would probably know as much about Trotter's Falls as anypony, so if she didn't flee to here, if she's a local... he might know." With rising hope, "Maybe -- maybe he even delivered her. He did say he remembers all of his."

"...he wouldn't have," Fluttershy softly said. "I'm eldest, Twilight, and she's a little older than me. About two years or so."

"Ponies don't always look their exact age," Twilight lightly protested.

"...I know, but I'm still pretty sure..."

"The Princess doesn't look a thousand!" Rainbow declared. "Over a thousand. I don't know how much -- how old were they? When they changed? How do you even ask? Come to think of it... Pinkie, how many tiers would you need for that birthday cake? I bet it reaches the palace roof! Ponies might look at the fire from all those candles and decide Sun had set in Canterlot --"

"-- focus, Rainbow," Twilight said with a grin, one which didn't feel completely forced, and it got her one in return. "I'm supposed to talk to Doctor Gentle about magic tonight. Let me see how that goes, okay? I think it's a good idea, but..." A slow breath. "...it's what Rainbow said. About Volume Twelve. Expanded universe series."

Which instantly put another expression on the pegasus' face. "That the whole town could be in on it?"

An even slower nod. "It's something you only find in books, Rainbow, but after what happened at the orchard -- unless we find some kind of proof that it wasn't associated with her..."

Somepony else.

"He's not like that!" Pinkie protested. "He's a good pony, Twilight, he's the best pony I know!" Fluttershy nodded, with the motion much stronger than usual. "If anypony would be willing to help, he would! He always helps!"

"I understand," Twilight replied, because she knew what hero worship looked and sounded like, even felt like because she had the Princess and -- she'd had faith... a faith Pinkie and Fluttershy still had in one decidedly non-divine stallion. "But let me just talk to him first, okay? Give me a chance to see how good he is, even more than I have already. And after that -- after we both know each other a little better -- I'll ask him."

Fluttershy smiled. Pinkie beamed. And they all went back to their rooms.


[/hr]

"And now that we've been waiting forty minutes," Rainbow announced, "I'm saying 'still fixing her makeup' is off the board! So unless she directly says otherwise and we get some proof that she messed up on top of it, 'still fixing her makeup' is a loser, Pinkie! What's everypony got left?"

"Curling her tail," Twilight immediately replied.

"You're still going with that?" Quiet asked.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I've seen her tail. And I still don't think she had enough in her saddlebags to create a completely new dress, Fluttershy. To finish one of the pieces she brought along, yes, but not starting from scratch. So I really don't know why you're staying on that."

"...have you been in her room yet?"

Twilight frowned. "No..."

"...so you haven't seen the curtains." Fluttershy shyly smiled, at least from the part of her mouth currently visible past the manefall. "And their fabric."

"No -- oh, no, she wouldn't..." Who am I kidding? "...she would. Quiet, I'm sorry..."

It got her a raised eyebrow. "She's done this before?"

Spike took that one. "Never with somepony else's possessions. But she loves good fabrics, and... well, when she gets an 'I-dea!', she's kind of hard to stop. It's never happened -- but it could." With pass-along embarrassment, "She'll pay for the curtains, Quiet, I know she will..."

And that produced a small chuckle. "I'm rather more curious to see the results than worried about the compensation, Spike. I've never pictured those particular draperies being worn. Although now that I think about it, that shade of green... well, certainly not with my spouse's coat."

It got Twilight to look up. "Does she -- wear dresses a lot?" Does he like ponies who wear dresses a lot? "You said she had two of Rarity's designs."

He nodded. "She's generally dressed up, even when in privacy, in case a potential audience happens to drop by. I admit, I'm curious to see what she wears to the party."

She blinked. "She'll be here? But I thought you said --"

Quiet sighed. "It's a coincidence of deadlines. She decided to come back a little early: I just got the word a few hours ago. And as for the party -- the day after tomorrow, Twilight: that is not only what Coordinator's permits are willing to allow me, they are all which was surrendered. I've revised the invitations so many times already -- and of course, the one date he gave me is a day -- and night for which he claims to have no ability to request that our local weather coordinator do anything to save me..."

It got Fluttershy's attention. "...that's the storm. The big one. And nopony will reschedule?"

Another sigh. "What little influence I might be able to exert in this town stops well short of reaching the sky. I don't have the pull to get it done myself, and since my least favorite bureaucrat suddenly can't seem to remember where all his forms are... I'll just do what I can to have somepony set up drying spells in the entrance hall. I'd have somepony else build a temporary pavilion over the approach path, but if it's not sufficiently anchored, it'll be blown into the wild zone before we even get to the less awkward dances."

"You know," Rainbow carefully began, a dangerous twinkle beginning to dance in her eyes, "you don't always need authorized changes..."

He smiled. "While I appreciate the offer, we're going to have Bureau members -- and bureaucrats -- at the party, all of whom will see that the weather's not quite as the calendar dictates, and the local version of the violation fine is breathtaking by just about everypony's standards. We'll just have to work around it."

I have to ask Rarity for a new dress, Twilight quickly decided. I know she brought that one to finish, but that's supposed to be for standing near the Princesses. I need something which looks good near leaf-green. Looks better when it's near leaf-green, better than anything she's going to be wearing. Maybe I'd better go into her room and check out the curtains, assuming they're not already taken. Green on purple, though... well, Rarity would know, and she'll work on it for me. Maybe she can even do two dresses. Or three. Three's probably the limit after what happened that last time, but as long as I just trust her on the designs and don't get involved in any way other than making sure they'll all be ready on time because she's working efficiently, I can just change throughout the party, just keep showing off new looks which are better than hers, and I'll --

"-- Princess?"

Visions of properly-done impromptu fashion shows broke up in front of Twilight's eyes. "Doctor?"

With a twinkle in his voice, "You were missed today."

She managed to internalize the worry, mostly because she'd been creating new space for it hour after hour and as long as she kept clearing out room at the same rate as the concerns stampeded in, she was probably okay. "I don't understand what you mean, Doctor. Was somepony looking for me?"

"From the first contraction to the last," he smiled. "I swear, if they knew how to do it, we'd have a few of the town mares speeding up their pregnancies just so they could finish before you left. Half the questions I asked my most recent patient were answered with queries about when you were coming in..."

Twilight sighed. "Doctor -- I know you feel it -- motivates them, but -- I don't do anything. You do."

"Belief is powerful, Princess," he calmly replied. "A pony who believes there is a greater power looking out for them will sometimes accomplish amazing things on their own before misassigning the credit. You do have an effect, and it is a positive one."

Except that I still don't do anything, can't, any more than the Princess and Luna --

-- Celestia and Luna?

The Princess and Luna. She still had that much, at least for now. "Well -- if we're going to talk about greater powers -- are we still discussing the Exemption tonight?" And because she still truly wanted that talk, recruitment or not, it was followed by an eager, happy, "Please?"

"And anything else I might somehow be able to teach you," he smiled. "Although I personally expect to do more learning --"

-- and Rarity finally came in.

"I do apologize," were the first words out of the dress-free designer's mouth. "This is not my usual craft, and it took some time to find a truly proper cradle weave which balanced without criss-crossing in the front and ruining most of the view. I was tweaking and tweaking..."

Pinkie smiled. Fluttershy and Applejack both quietly nodded approval of the results. Twilight found said results exquisitely balanced. Rainbow tossed off a signature shrug, the one which said that while she was actually kind of impressed, there was no way she was ever going to show it. And Spike --

-- grabbed his napkin and pressed it over his nostrils.

"Oh! I am sorry, Spike, I completely forgot. Will somepony please switch positions with him, before I sit down? Yes, thank you, Fluttershy, that is very gracious of you -- oh, dear. Very well, will somepony please switch plates? -- and thank you as well, Twilight..."

She sank down to the floor, and more than just her position shifted. "Oh, yes, one moment..." Her right front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed left. Went back down.

"Miss... Miss Rarity?"

And there was only one pony left at the table who was still using that particular 'Miss.'

Doctor Gentle's voice had emerged as oddly -- dry. Not lacking in tone, or full of subtle wit: more as if he'd been galloping across the desert for some time and had just seen a distant oasis, one which his mind insisted on eliminating from the category of mirage before he dared to approach. "Where did you acquire that?"

Rarity's forehoof proudly touched the homemade necklace again. "Oh, the shiftstone? -- yes, Pinkie, I know he would think of it as a deathstone should he know it, but I am rather hoping it catches on... We found it in your wild zone! While we were searching for you. I may know no magic to detect ponies, but when it comes to gems... well, this one got my attention." Another moment of contact against the intricately-woven silver wire which supported the ever-cycling disc. "And understandably so! Pinkie has told me of how rare they are --"

"-- where in the wild zone?"

The volume increase had actually been rather small. And somehow, that made it all the more noticeable.

Rarity blinked.

"We were lost, Doctor Gentle," she said. "I cannot give you an exact location when I am uncertain of where we were. Are you -- looking to claim one for yourself? For I only detected this piece, and I would ask that you trust me when I say that for such searches, I do have a certain faculty..."

Doctor Gentle... took a slow breath. Nodded. Then smiled.

"I was simply curious about the terrain, Miss Rarity," he told her. "But 'wild zone' is enough. Even though I was hoping there was some consistency in where such wonders might be found -- and yes, I was briefly thinking of looking for myself, although such decorations are hardly suited to my own form. But I understand that most ponies have never even seen one, and I feel honored to be in the presence of your new jewelry. You've done an excellent job of presenting it. Silver wire for the cradle?" She nodded. "A good choice. It goes with all of its manifestations. And if you wouldn't mind -- might I touch it? I am curious to see if the density and texture alter in concert with the colors."

Rarity nodded, and her horn ignited. The soft blue field lifted the necklace away from her own body, floated it across to Doctor Gentle's station (with Spike going for the napkin again), then receded away from the jewel itself, allowing direct contact. Doctor Gentle raised his right foreleg, held ankle against stone for the duration of three changes.

"It does," he nodded, seeming satisfied. "A complete change indeed..." Rarity waited for a signal that he was finished and, after receiving one, floated it back to her own neck. "Thank you for the experience, Miss Rarity. I look forward to seeing what kind of dress you might create to truly show it off at the party. Although with only two days to go --"

"-- two days?" Rarity's forelegs shoved out, pushed her away from the table while making most of the plates dance. "Since when is it two days? Why didn't anypony tell me it was two days? Celestia's tail, two -- what time does it begin? I need an exact hour, a minute, and then I can hope to be fashionably late, but -- what is my deadline? Somepony, please, tell me what I'm up against! And the six of you, yes, Spike, I was thinking of something for -- oh dear oh dear oh dear, I don't have the fabrics, anywhere near the fabrics, and -- Quiet, I do apologize for what I am about to ask, but I couldn't help but notice a certain unexpected finery in your curtains...!"

Eventually, they talked her off the ledge, or at least off any borrowed sewing device, away from what would have been freshly-purchased extra sketchbooks, and into not staying awake for two days straight, although the group knew they would have to keep an eye on that. And then everypony settled back into their dinner, more or less, while trying to ignore the way Rarity was arranging the available hues of her vegetables into the shape of elaborate gowns.

Doctor Gentle also went back to eating. But he didn't consume that much, spending most of his time poking at his food, shifting it about the plate. Much of the rest was used for looking at the necklace.

Twilight understood. It really was something to see.


[/hr]

Moon had been raised a long time ago, and Twilight was trying to make sure they didn't get too close to seeing Sun coming up from their view in the astronomy tower. But it was a hard battle, for Doctor Gentle knew a lot about magic. Oh, he didn't match her: few ponies did, and even Trixie got lost sometimes -- although to be fair, there had been two occasions when Twilight had been the one scrambling to catch up. But he knew much more than she would have guessed a midwife to even be aware of. They had discussed nothing which she wasn't familiar with: other than the Exception itself, something which still wasn't yielding to her duplication wishes, he had nothing truly new to contribute in the way of discovery. But his perspective was surprisingly informed, and as the night sped on (because such a delightful discussion could never wear), it began to feel as if there were more and more times when she saw recognition in his eyes, even for those things he claimed to have never studied or even heard of, and she wondered if he was just having trouble bringing all the memories to mind, so deep into the night. Or if there was something else he was thinking of now and again, blocking the way. There had been moments when she'd briefly lost sight of his face, waving her hooves around or levitating star reference charts as a way of sketching out a particularly graphics-requiring point, and when she'd glanced back, she'd found him --

-- distracted.

Unfocused.

But only for a second. He always returned to the discussion. He never pretended to fall asleep, and it let her mention Star Swirl, of course he knew of Star Swirl, had even read some of the legends, and it let her keep mentioning the caster for a little while, although -- for once, it was only a little while, because Star Swirl had been one thing to her before the mission began, and was now -- she was still trying to work that out.

But Doctor Gentle knew so much...

Finally, she had to ask.

"Sir? Did you ever actively study magic? I mean, more than the basics, in a classroom or university setting. It's clear you've kept up --" that with some pride, along with a little internal disgruntlement concerning those who wouldn't "-- and I know you didn't attend the Gifted School. But it's not as if it's the only one, and some of the others are really good too."

He shook his head, hooked his forelegs over the railing, stared out into the night. "No, Princess. I came to magic studies late in life -- well, later than most. After I'd left school, and begun my current profession. I thought I might be able to learn things which would further assist me in midwife duties. I was able to master a few of them, but... well, nopony can learn everything. Still - as you said, I keep up. It's amazing, the things which can be adapted for medical use, if you just give them a little thought..."

"After you discovered the Exception?" She was truly curious now.

"Yes." Quietly, still not looking at her, gazing at the constellations which made up the Barding Of The Ancients, the oldest ones recorded in Equestria's astronomical history. "Where a little magic might assist now and again --" which struck her as a drastic understatement "-- a touch more could be useful. And I hoped to make another discovery, I pushed, and there were times when I -- pushed too hard. Well, I suppose it's a rare researcher who hasn't driven themselves into a drain-based exhaustion faint, even for the amateurs like myself. But it's never a good idea to do such things while a mare is on the birthing table, as that is a rather poor occasion for taking a sudden nap. All I could do was research in privacy, then hope to never need it in reality. Experimentation during labor..." and his voice was tired now, she'd kept him up too long "...you have to be desperate, Princess. Truly desperate. And I was..."

Speaking only to stars now.

"She was dying," the soft voice slowly said, and the warm eyes closed. "I knew she was dying..."

Quietly, "Fluttershy."

He blinked.

"...yes," he said after a moment. "Fluttershy. A dry birth, as I said. Her mother's water had broken hours before, and there was no strength left to push. A foal can't stay in the womb that way, Princess. And -- I knew she was dying. That she would die, if she didn't come out. And -- she was my first, and I was desperate, and... sometimes, when you're truly desperate, when the need is there... something will come. But the success isn't always complete. I brought her to Sun, and... it saved her, but..."

He seemed to be having some trouble focusing again.

"It's late, Doctor," Twilight gently said. "I'm sorry. We can stop now."

"No, Princess, it's all right," he told her, turning his head for a moment and letting her see the smile. "It's just that -- when you remember the ones you've saved -- you also remember those you couldn't. And for me, over so many years... there are names on that list, too many names when one is more than you ever wish to see, especially when -- well, some are patients, but some are friends, and..." He sighed. "Perhaps it's best that I started so late in my profession. If nothing else, the list is shorter for it. I told Fluttershy once that I felt I had to remember every name, from the first to what I'm forever hoping is the last. And I worry about what that did to her, because I think she does the same. And for her, desperation doesn't help. She can't mix herbs and chemicals just hoping something works, not without causing more harm. But for me... once, and once only..."

Back to the stars.

"Have you ever been that desperate, Princess?" he patiently asked. "I'll -- understand if you don't want to answer."

They were both silent for a moment, watched only by clouds and constellations.

"Did Pinkie and Fluttershy tell you about the Nightmare?"

He nodded. "What they were present for, and what you told them about what happened while you were alone."

"I never teleported before that. I was charging it, trying to get past it, and -- I was desperate. I wanted to phase shift and go through it, or self-levitate, or -- anything. And I went between. I was lucky, Doctor -- the Princess had escorted me a few times, and I'd been through it with teachers. So when it happened, I knew how to shield my mind. But I still had to reorient when I came out, and... after that... things became really desperate, and..."

Her eyes closed, opened. Closed again.

"...and I'm alive. Sometimes, I -- still wonder how. How we're all still alive, after everything we've been through. Knowing that it's so easy to... lose one, or more. That I'll lose them, and... I don't know how long we can keep that from happening. Eventually, a mission has to go bad, that's just odds catching up to us, and..."

Twilight's words finally reached her ears.

"...you shouldn't have to hear this. I'm sorry."

"Don't be, Princess." His right foreleg shifted over, made momentary contact before more tired words emerged, more weary than ever: he was older and she'd kept him awake for so very long, brought back his memories... "I spoke of loss. You spoke of fearing loss. It's natural. But in the end... you have so little to fear..."

She didn't understand.

She looked at him. And he was not looking at her. Only the stars.

"Doctor?"

It would be some time before she truly understood his next words. And by then, it would be too late.

"Did you feel them?"

A simple question -- so simple that it almost wasn't a question at all. More of a statement. An expression of knowledge and faith.

"...Doctor?"

And he turned to face her, forelegs unhooking from the railing, all four hooves now on the stone floor of the astronomy tower.

"Can you feel them now?" the soft voice asked, just a little more strongly. "Do you have to try, or are they simply there, waiting for you to call on them?" More loudly now: nowhere near a shout or even normal speech, but the words had a strength all out of proportion to their volume, it felt like every last one was kicking her... "But when it happened... did you feel them, Princess? Tell me you could feel them. Tell me that."

He was advancing. She was backing away. She didn't know why. She didn't understand, didn't know what she'd done, what had put the steel in his spine, the rising fire in those usually-twinkling eyes, the desperation which had straightened his tail and pushed his ears down and set Moon-glinting drops of sweat in that graying muzzle...

"You must have felt them! Please tell me --"

Her tail hit the back wall, and the base poked the stone hard enough to bruise. Twilight yelped.

Doctor Gentle -- stopped.

His left foreleg came up. The hoof gently pressed against his own temple.

"Forgive me," he said. "This wasn't the time for matters of faith."

"...faith?"

He nodded. "There are times when I believe -- that those I could not save watch me from the shadowlands. That they listen when I talk about them, because in such times, it is as if I can truly feel their presence around me. Just now, so deep under Moon -- I felt them. I felt them as strongly as I ever have. And it was so strong -- that for a moment, I thought you surely must have felt it too."

But... but that doesn't make any sense... it almost fits with what he was saying, and it's just his belief -- no, maybe it does fit, but... but why was he...

"Or," he sighed, and his posture sagged, "I am simply an aging pony who has been around too much death for one lifetime, straining to hear voices offering forgiveness and finding his own mind all too willing to provide, especially this deep under Moon. I am sorry, Princess. It was a hard labor today, and... matters of faith should be private. Perhaps we should stop for the night."

Twilight managed a nod. "Get some rest, Doctor. Please. There's probably going to be more mothers and foals who need you in the morning, and I still can't help..."

"You help," he quietly answered. "With your very existence, Princess, you help us. There was a reason for your new title, at least for so many of us. Because when I look at you -- I see that most gracious blessing of hope..."

He stopped. Took three breaths, then turned and trotted, with that one leg still dragging, towards the winding ramp.

Twilight watched as he descended.

And for a moment, the only thing she wanted to tell him was to never touch her again.


[/hr]

"Are you all right?" It was an automatic question, especially when the doctor looked that haggard. "I thought I would have the rougher coat between us when I had to stay up this late waiting for you, especially given that you're more used to being woken up at this hour than I am. But you look like you just did the Running five times in one afternoon, and with your leg..."

"Just -- shaken, Quiet," Doctor Gentle said as he fully entered the private room. "I was shaken somewhat at the moment the unicorn entered, and -- in retrospect, I'm not certain it ever completely wore off. Additionally, the Princess is -- rather enthusiastic about her subject. I received something of an education tonight, and much more than I gave -- but before you ask: only about magic. We were never quite able to reach the true questions. Perhaps another time, when I am less tired and better able to guide, there might be more luck, but for tonight -- well, let us simply end this portion of it so that we may both seek refreshment in Princess Luna's lands."

Quiet nodded, began a slow trot towards the far stone wall. "Well, if you've ever wondered whether that anti-detection spell actually worked..."

It got a slow exhale. "Do not be so certain, Quiet: we do not know her range. Fortunately, this is much deeper than most ponies would normally go. But... a gem-finding spell... it must be her personal trick, to have that degree of refinement. It took me so much time before the first feel arrived -- but then, I was not looking for the stone."

"We're not missing any," Quiet said, his eyes moving over the last of the count. "Not from here."

Doctor Gentle shook his head. "I could have told you that -- and am sorry there was no time in which to do so. Quiet -- it's one of hers."

The small stallion glanced back, and the grey eyes were not as wide as they might have been. "I thought there was a chance of that. Finding it in the wild zone. If we just knew where -- is it discharged?"

A nod. "Fully. But then, we already knew that worked. Not that it matters now, with no current means of retrieving it. And -- we have not had any means of recharging it for some time."

"True," Quiet dryly said. "But there's still a positive in that."

"Yes," Doctor Gentle replied. "As noted on both that day of recapture and after I received the letter... we are alive. The simple fact that we continue to breathe means he knows nothing. He must not even have memory of it, Quiet, for he is hardly known for his patience, and his entertainment would have begun immediately. And yes, I am aware that I am repeating myself -- but in this room, after this night... it seems necessary."

They never used the name. Not since that first day. It wasn't as if either believed he would hear it, and there would soon be a time when saying it would also be necessary. But still... it was best not to push too far.

"Keep repeating yourself," Quiet agreed. "Sometimes I think it's actually holding him off..."

Looking over the wall again.

"We're down one," Quiet noted.

"Dawn Sky," Doctor Gentle said. "Nuchal cord -- one of the rare truly bad cases. It's automatic now, Quiet. I always have one in my birthing garment. And I wished her to live more than I wanted to worry about our restock issue."

"Your priorities are in the proper order," Quiet assured him. "Still -- down one. And unless we can find some means to recharge them --"

"-- we may have one." A statement.

Quiet looked at him.

"And she's sleeping upstairs," Doctor Gentle finished. "For as much as she ever sleeps at all. But for now -- the Bearers have a chaos pearl. One of hers. And so we must wonder where they truly found it, and how -- along with what else they might have found. And knowing now exactly how expert our newest Princess is in magic, I am certain there is one thing which would have caught her attention..." A long moment of silent thought, and then, "Whatever supplies you might have been considering in the event of our needing to run, Quiet -- begin putting them together. We stand between caution and paranoia, on simple guard. And even so, even with that increased risk -- the party is more necessary than ever, for now we may not be the only ones who need to flee..."

"And now," Quiet softly said, "we have to take these."

They both looked at the wall.

Within one hundred and forty widely separated cradles of carefully-arranged platinum wire, the chaos pearls continued their endless changes.

Tanzanite.

Jasper.

Obsidian.

All the colors, textures, and densities of deathstone.