• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,082 Views, 998 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?

  • ...
38
 998
 11,082

Watercolors

"So does anypony know where he is?"

It was rare to hear Pinkie so openly worried -- but most of it came from the subject of that concern, and so Quiet was quick to reassure her. "Wherever he is, trust that he's all right. After the last incident, I suspect he has the local ponies keeping an eye on him at every possible moment, just in case that leg starts to drag a little more -- or, given the humidity, if there seems to be just one crucial extra drop of sweat in his coat. Which may produce any number of false alarms..."

It didn't quite work. "But when we don't know where he is --"

"-- out for a morning trot, even when he shouldn't be. Word arriving of a patient he had to teleport to see. Lost among architectural fantasies after the dreams of his own manifested in a way which left him buried in blueprints," Quiet sighed. "Believe me, Miss Pie -- oh, very well, Pinkie -- I'm not happy about his continued absence from breakfast either. As I said before, he's a horrible patient, and I'm afraid he will push himself too fast -- but I also have to trust that the town is ready to serve as a thousand roaming nurses at need, any of whom just might usher him in at any moment, hopefully no more injured than before. Which, as the second instance of the day, just might threaten to create a streak."

That last was said with a significant look at Twilight, who was starting to wonder if she'd picked up a reputation for acquiring new bruises every time she got out of sight for a few minutes. She had been a little late to the breakfast table herself: she and Applejack had separated as they'd passed the guest cottage, and then each had tended to their own washing-up before going to meet the others. It had just taken a little longer for Twilight to both figure out an unseen way into the castle (along with several deep breaths before she'd finally risked going into instinct long enough to reach her room's balcony, which left the entire short flight filled with non-thoughts about why she'd been worried about something so basic) and to get all the dirt off. And the leaves. Especially the leaves. Plus when you'd been resting in the soil in a wild zone, you had to take some time to check for insects, and then there could be other things --

-- she didn't have rupophobia, and would continue to insist on that any time somepony might suggest it. She was just practical. A pony should be clean when attending breakfast in a castle, and that pony had also better take a few minutes with a fine-toothed comb and check her entire body for ticks.

Also, mane grooming. Lots and lots of mane grooming.

(She always had a little trouble with her tail: using her field on any part of her body she couldn't directly see tended to be awkward, and so a proper self-grooming session involved a great deal of twisting -- and that was before considering what the tick check had required.)

"I'm fine, Quiet," she insisted, wondering if she'd groomed her mane enough. Rarity believed a hundred brushstrokes was required simply to venture out in public without collapse, and Twilight didn't know if that was supposed to be per strand... "I'm sure Doctor Gentle is too, Pinkie. The kitchen can always make him something when he comes in, if he doesn't just want to fix something for himself. Somepony who lives alone has to know how to cook."

Just about everypony very carefully avoided looking at Rainbow.

"You don't know how to cook," Spike immediately noted.

"I can cook a little. And I don't live alone. I live with you."

"Living with me is why you don't cook. Because I cook. And sears done in chemistry beakers don't count."

"They do when you're trying to make sugared hay twists come out right," Twilight protested. "Something you still can't do, and you come with a built-in searing option. You really need to bring your lips together a little more --"

Only a little of the incredulity was faked. "-- you're telling me how to breathe fire?"

"No! Just how to make sugared hay twists! I'd like to have one good homemade one. Once. Without actually having to go home..."

It took a few seconds before the emotions faded, long enough to wonder if some portion of the resonance bomb had been left behind. But she'd checked herself for thaums, and...

...it wasn't magic. She was just -- homesick. Legitimately homesick. All the magic had done was remind her of that, and everything afterwards, she'd done on her own.

Homesick for... Ponyville.

Quiet chuckled. "It's a challenge, I know. To make it all caramelize without burning off, and keeping the coating even... well, we have our share of gourmet chefs in Trotter's Falls, but a proper sugared hay twist might be beyond the best of them." His right forehoof pushed an empty plate aside: a servant swooped in to collect it. "So what was everypony planning for today?"

Twilight had worked out her destination during the trot down to the dining room: she just hadn't had the chance to tell anypony else. But she knew where she needed to be, and so, "I thought I'd visit your town's library."

And then everypony was looking at her.

"The library," Quiet carefully said.

"Yes..."

"The town library."

See? I'm not the only one who repeats things. "Yes."

"I," Quiet declared, "am insulted." And looked it.

She thought he was teasing. It sort of felt like a tease, anyway. And if so, the only thing to do with it was... "And why are you insulted?"

"Oh, please." That with a slight head tilt towards the door. "You've seen my library. I remember every last moment of your first encounter with it. The widened eyes. The increased heart rate. Oh, and there might have been some attempts at bribes involved, but I'm choosing to see that as the way you generally choose to declare your undying affections. You were in love with my library. And now, the first chance you get, you're going to cheat on it with the town library. A library which will, to be frank, allow itself to be patronized by anypony. It's a library without standards, not to mention a rather lacking Ethics section. It really gets around, if you take my meaning, or at least some of the more lurid books do. You have a choice between my library and the town library, and whom do you choose to spend your time with?" There was a pause, and she could almost see him considering the next words, wondering if he was about to carry the joke too far -- just before he went for it anyway. "The town's book slut."

Rainbow nearly choked on her very last bite of food. Fluttershy's entire face vanished behind quickly-tossed mane, which didn't do anything to block the giggles. Rarity chose to develop a well-timed coughing fit. Applejack snorted. Pinkie buried her face in her napkin, an act which gave her an effective concealment level of three hundred percent over the mane: nearly nothing instead of virtually. Spike was just visibly trying to work through most of the vocabulary.

And Twilight smiled.

"Oh..." she slowly said. "So you'd rather I spent some private time with your library."

"Well, anypony with taste --"

"-- completely private time," she cut him off. "Just going around, carefully appreciating the artistry of the covers and spines. Especially the spines, because when some of them start to age, you have to look more closely. The letters fade. In fact, if you don't keep things perfectly organized, some of the most important books can get lost because from the casual side view, they look more or less just like each other. Anypony who truly knows about books is familiar with the problem -- how somepony could just get a few generic publications with brownish covers, rub a little dust into them to age them up a bit, then slip them onto the shelves while, say, taking down something important and... bringing it somewhere new. Somewhere it would be appreciated. Yes, Quiet, I would love to have a little completely private time in your library, taking things down, putting things back, seeing exactly what you have and making sure nopony's switched any of it out on you -- yet. Why, given the size of your collection, it might take moons before you noticed some of the volumes were gone..."

The coughing seemed to be accelerating.

Quiet made a show of thinking it over.

"The town library, you said?"

"Yes."

"Why?" Several facial echoes of the question manifested around the table.

"Because I'm a librarian," Twilight patiently explained. "A public one, although I like to think I've educated my shelves on practicing certain discretions and making sure somepony knows where their contents are at all times. I'm always curious to see what other settled zones are doing with their own facilities. You have a wonderful collection, Quiet -- and --" trying not to wince "-- I'm pretty sure everypony knows that if I go in there alone, it may take a while before anypony can get me out again. Believe me, I want to take some time in there before we leave, and I want to talk to you about some of your suppliers and how I can get in contact with them -- but today, I thought I'd see what a town like Trotter's Falls does. I know what my Ponyville budget is, and... how much trouble I have working with it." The Archives could get everything. She could get just enough to remind her that everything else was still out there -- along with collecting another angry letter from the mayor, who seemed to be under the delusion that Twilight didn't remember the last time she'd asked the city government for the planting of a second tree. And besides, who was going to use that proposed rounders playing area anyway? "So as long as I'm here, I'll find out what your facility is managing to get, and the arguments they're using to bring it in. If I could just convince Ponyville to give me a second branch --"

"-- tree trunk --" Rainbow broke in.

"-- then maybe I can finally start to make the place into a real -- um... anyway, I'm going to the town library, at least for the morning. What about you?"

"Well, with the party so close now, there are some things I have to do," Quiet admitted. "Mostly signing forms. But I can put that off for --"

Which was when one of the servants came in.

"Lord Presence?" Softtread's field was carrying a stack of papers. A very tall stack. "From Town Hall. To be sent back, bearing your fieldwriting, as immediately as possible, or at least as immediately as -- a certain somepony feels it should be done. Of course, it is your discretion as to whether you wish to... stall somewhat..."

Practicality and several minor forms of vengeance clashed on Quiet's face. The former barely won. "...no, put them down -- actually, put them down somewhere else: we don't want to risk flipping the table, much less giving my least favorite bureaucrat any excuse to ruin the party. Well, that's my morning settled, if not my stomach. Everypony else? Because with the press still in town, I don't think Twilight should be making her library gallop alone."

Rarity winced a little. "I... need sewing time," she admitted. "All the time I can find, along with rather more hues of thread than I brought with me. And anything I use for shopping -- Twilight, I will give you a list and the bits to cover it, and I would be thankful if you would fill it before returning -- but when it comes to my leaving..."

"I understand, Rarity." In no small part because she knew what the sleep-deprived alternative looked like (and was still internally flinching at the prospect of being sent back three times for 'just a minor hue correction, dear, it's not your fault that my eyes are better at determining exact shades than yours...') "Everypony else?"

"I'll come," Spike reliably offered, and left it at that.

Pinkie had pulled her face out of the napkin. "The party is getting close..." she thoughtfully mused. "If you need some help --"

-- and that put Twilight into damage control mode. Pinkie's mark and talent were for party planning: there was no question about that. And when Pinkie put her mind to it, parties came together. It was just that she had a certain, highly-preferred... type of party. It was theoretically possible for Pinkie to manage a high-society affair, booking the orchestra, arranging the appetizers into an artistic display, memorizing every lengthy title in order to greet the dignitaries in the manner they were expecting, and circulating among the guests in a way which both gave everypony the proper amount of attention and broke up the manifestation of all the tenth-generation feuds before they could truly materialize. It was also possible for her to decide that was just plain boring, empty out the wine bottles and hang them from the ceiling as clanging chandeliers, cover every exposed surface with streamers, push the stuffiest pony in the startled room into leading the dirty joke contest, teach dignitaries how to bob for apples and, after the inevitable occurred, how to bob for their lost monocles -- then wrap the whole thing up by taking her one-pony-riot tendencies into the orchestra and using any taut cello strings as a launching spring for the evening's Catch Me finale. Again.

"-- I need some help, Pinkie," Twilight immediately said.

"But..."

"A lot of help."

"But --"

"Please?"

Pinkie looked at her. Then at Quiet, followed by slowly moving her gaze over the others. Applejack was regarded last.

"...okay, Twilight. But I want to see the food list later. And if you need any extra baking..."

The others declared their intentions (most of which wound up centering around Rainbow's continuing quest), and after everypony had finished their meal, the group split up. Twilight went back to her room, with Pinkie and Spike following: there was still some time before the town library opened (at least if they were keeping something close to standard hours), and there was something she had to do before they left.

She waited until they were near her assigned bedroom, then asked Spike to wait outside for a moment. The remaining pair entered, and Twilight closed the door behind them with a flicker of field.

Carefully, more carefully than she'd wanted the word to emerge, and it still felt like she was directing a blast of sound at the most fragile of glass. "Pinkie?"

Who was looking directly at her from about two body lengths away: body still, blue eyes calm. "She told you." And all Twilight could do was nod. "I thought she would. I kind of thought -- she'd have to, after what I said at the waterfall. And I told her it was okay, because if you understood, and I think you understand a lot more now, more than ever, you'd -- know what to do."

The pink tail was completely motionless. No curl shifted or bounced.

"What are you going to do, Twilight?"

The librarian took a tiny step forward. Then another.

Then she rushed forward, planted her forelegs across Pinkie's back, pressed her face into the curly mane, and refused to move.

Eventually, a bright pink foreleg came up, rubbed against her.

"I'm sorry, Pinkie, I'm sorry, I didn't know, I didn't -- I don't even know how to be this sorry, it's not my fault or anything I ever did and all I can feel and say is that I'm sorry and... it doesn't do anything. I can't do anything..."

"You can do the important thing," came the soft words. "The same thing you've always done. You just treat me -- like me. Except no staring contests. Or paint drying. Because we're both more than that, okay?"

"It's going to be hard."

Absolute confidence. "But you can do it."

"Knowing you can't hear..."

"It's okay, Twilight," Pinkie whispered. "I make my own music."

They held their positions for a while, until Pinkie gently helped Twilight get all four hooves back on the floor.

Almost as carefully as Twilight, but with more than a little eagerness and hope riding in the words, "How did everything go with Doctor Gentle? Is he with us now? Can we take him out to the orchard, and maybe to the ravine, or... well, everywhere! Can he come, Twilight? Please?"

There was a moment when all the thoughts were crashing together in her head.

He scared me last night. I don't know why. I don't understand why. I just know he scared me, and I don't want him touching me again, I don't want him with us or...

He's part of Pinkie's life. He brought her to Sun. He brought her to the Cakes. He's why she's alive at all. He's the reason I have a friend.

He scared me.

He's... part of her family, isn't he? And she's one of his. I saw how he greeted her, nuzzled Fluttershy. The nuzzle meant for family. He cares about them. Maybe he even loves them...

But he... scared me, with that question. I don't feel like his explanation was real.

The family of Pinkie's blood had been an unknown horror.

She couldn't make herself speak against the family of the baker's heart.

"No. We... mostly talked about magic all night, Pinkie. I'm sorry. It got too late, and... you know me, when it's magic, I..." It was all too easy to see the sadness in the earth pony's eyes, and just as simple to remember how the pony who had been pushed into the Ancient History department (because nopony in the Archives wanted her in their domains) would have missed it completely. "But there's something he said which made me think a little, and maybe that could help us. Please don't tell him about the mission -- not yet. I want to check something first. Maybe later --" maybe never "-- but not yet. Please?"

A long, slow sigh, and the way the words eventually emerged reminded her of Fluttershy. "...all right, Twilight. It's a mission and you're pretty much in charge right now, so... all right. I won't tell him, and I'll let Fluttershy know when I see her." Hopefully, and not without pride: "But -- he said something which might help?"

Twilight nodded. "It's time to do what I do third-best, Pinkie." And somewhere, she found a smile, struck what she felt was the right too-dramatic pose, made Pinkie giggle. "I'm going to research!"


[/hr]

"Stop it," Spike told her.

"Stop what?" She wasn't particularly good at sounding innocent, especially when she'd been caught, and so Twilight decided to pass herself off as simply being confused.

That didn't work either. "Stop reshelving. It's not your library. You don't get to rearrange things. You're not allowed to shift the sections around. You have no right to start going through the late fees folder and see who's the most behind. And if I see your field projecting towards the card catalog one more time..."

"It's a lousy card catalog," Twilight said as two field bubbles crept behind Spike's back, silently bearing most of the Science section to where it should have logically been.

"...yeah," Spike eventually admitted. "But it's still not yours."

In protest and frustration: "It's mine for now..."

Because there were still more than a few ponies in Trotter's Falls who were trying to work out how to deal with a Princess.

The trot through town had been... odd. Twilight had felt so many of the local ponies looking at her, and that was becoming sadly normal in the moon (it was about a moon now) since the change -- but more than a few had followed that up by gathering in tight, whispering knots, and it was happening too many times for coincidence. One group might have just decided to take up a topic, two clusters could have found a sudden mutual need -- but this many were talking about her. And she couldn't just go up to them and ask exactly what they were discussing. Part of her wanted to -- and so much of the rest was afraid to find out, because too many of those never quite understood whispers felt dark. There were ponies who came right up to her (or as close as they could get before her companions blocked them), tried to get a moment of her time, as many moments as she had to give -- but in so many places, her passage triggered what almost felt like conspiracy.

She told herself that she was being paranoid, that the mission made it all too easy to view things through shadows which had never been meant to protect, and to a degree, it was true. But still they whispered.

There had been two encounters with the press: both Murdocks, neither familiar. Spike had tried out Quiet's teachings with the first: as soon as he'd spotted the notepad coming out, he'd gone directly up to the stallion and began inquiring about his pay -- namely, where he picked it up, what the signature looked like on his vouchers, did it seem to be more towards mouthwriting or fieldwriting... It was a work in progress, but it had provided enough confusion for the mares to slip away -- right into the path of the second self-titled journalist.

The subject of Spike's efforts had gotten off easy. The mare wound up having to deal with Pinkie.

"Hi! So I've kind of been wondering. When you write articles which say things like 'A lot of ponies are saying' -- how does that work? Do you go around your headquarters handing whatever you wrote down to everypony in the building and when enough of them repeat it, that's a lot of ponies saying something and you can print it? How many ponies does it take for a lot? Do you ever wait until somepony gets back from lunch? What if you just stood between a couple of mirrors and watched your mouth move? Because then you could say a lot of ponies were saying it, only most of them were saying it sort of quietly, but all of them were you, and you're your own best source, so you can totally verify everything that all of you said! Or you could just use a mirror pool. Except you shouldn't, unless you like paint. You probably do, since everything you write is about taking things and making them into all the wrong colors and shades. You know, now that I think about it, what you're really really doing is just painting with words. Except it's not painting. You dip your tail into the paint bucket and just smear everything until nopony can tell what it was in the first place. So you create dumb stuff which doesn't make any sense and just tries to hide what really happened, and you get paid for it! But not very much, because you have to give most of your bits to the ponies in the mirrors, because without them, it would just be you saying things and you can't print that at all, right? So you've got to be paying your reflections, because they work harder than you do. And since there's sort of an infinite number of reflections, even if you can't really count them all because they get kind of small plus it's infinity and counting that takes a while, you'd have to give them... you're in debt, aren't you? I'm so sorry! You know the best way you could make some real money? Quit."

(The second salvo had been worse.)

Eventually, they'd reached the library, and Twilight... hadn't been impressed. There was definitely some degree of superior budget in place: the lighting was better than what she had in the tree and included several helpful enchanted lamps attached to the corner of some rather fine reading desks. The benches were more comfortable than what she'd inherited from the previous librarian, and a glance at the upper level told her the only thing it was being used for was the storage of more books -- and mostly hardcovers at that.

But there were also things missing. They had the smallest History section Twilight had ever seen outside a kindergarten: Quiet wasn't only the best source in town (and most of Equestria), he was just about the only one. The Periodicals area seemed understocked, the International area wasn't, and she couldn't find the library exchange program request box. Not that she'd gotten all that much time to look, because the resident librarian's first reaction to seeing Twilight had been to squeal, gallop directly to her (nearly knocking over two patrons in the process), ask what the Princess desired, what could she do to make the Princess happy -- and upon being told that the Princess (or, rather, the Twilight) just wanted to look around for a while and maybe do some reading, had responded by evacuating the entire facility. Every patron had been removed, and the slowest-reacting among them had been hauled out while still on the bench. A hastily-made sign reading Temporary Royal Hours In Effect had been attached to the outer doors before anypony could stop it. The mare had gushed, she had curtsied, she had been honored beyond all possible levels of understanding or reason, and then she had left because the Princess (who was somehow also a librarian) had the gallop of the place and it simply wasn't her place to be in the Princess' way. After all, it wasn't as if a Princess could possibly need help, not one who was also a librarian...

...and then they'd had the place to themselves, along with an incomplete set of fast-cooling benches and a card catalog which could best be dealt with through setting it on fire. Drifting ashes at least had a chance of landing in a proper order.

Pinkie bounced over, and her mouth deposited another bundle of papers in front of them. "I think I can find more! These were just holding up -- well, it's not being held up any more. By much of anything." There was a slow, unstoppable sliding sound coming from a back room, as if a rather heavy piece of furniture was skidding across a wall. "Actually, that might be a problem... be right back!"

She pronked away. Spike looked down at the papers.

"So what are we looking for?"

"News," Twilight replied as her field discretely finished its complete improvement of the atlas arrangement. "They don't have their own newspaper, not a formal one -- but it looks like their school does the same thing as ours: a student paper. If anything weird's been happening before we came in, maybe somepony wrote it down."

He looked her over, very slowly.

"And... what are we really looking for?"

"Spike --"

"-- I know you're going to go through the papers. And maybe we'll find something. But that's not the only reason we came here, Twilight. I can see you thinking. So what are you after?"

She glanced around, made sure Pinkie was nowhere in earshot. (It took a while. Pinkie had some interesting ways of hiding.) "I need every book we can find which mentions Doctor Gentle."

He blinked. The nictitating membranes didn't move. "...why?"

"Because he said something last night... I don't want to say too much with Pinkie here, Spike, and when she sees me looking at those books, I'll just tell her I wanted to refresh my memory on his credentials. But he said something which -- scared me. It just felt wrong. And he had what sounded like a good reason for it, but that's just it: it sounded sort of good, except that it didn't feel like it worked..."

Spike took three slow breaths. "How bad was it?"

"Disturbing. I'm not even sure why."

And directly, "Do you think he has something to do with her?"

Twilight closed her eyes.

"Did you feel them?"

She shivered.

"...I don't know. Maybe I'm just having the wrong reaction. We were up really late. With anything else, I could have taken something the wrong way because I was getting tired, except that we were talking about magic and I didn't feel tired, Spike. But the mission has everypony stressed, and... I don't know. I just feel like I want to know more about him. Like I need to. So while Pinkie's getting school newspapers, you look for those books. And if there's anything like a Public Records section -- that's probably another back room, if they've got one, they'd hardly ever need it -- try to find his. Anything, Spike. Because maybe it'll help me to stop feeling like this about him. Or maybe... it'll tell me why."

He often knew when she had something on her mind, and she could say the same about him. It was easy to watch him thinking.

"Public records is usually the town hall," he reluctantly said. "We could go in --"

"-- no. Not unless we come up empty here." If there was anything which seemed to relieve a little of her stress, it was getting the chance to trample all over Coordinator -- but this would be putting herself into a position where he just might have a little power. The ability to deny her information, if he could somehow find it in himself to openly refuse the request of a Princess.

But he was a bureaucrat. If he couldn't deny, he could delay. And she doubted he was willing to give them open access to the records, letting them go through cabinets while he left the building, content to have no idea what they were after. To make a request of Coordinator was to give him information, and that would never feel like a good idea.

"And not unless we absolutely have to," Twilight added. "He's probably monopolizing a few forms. But general town stuff -- true public records -- there should be copies. Start digging, Spike. Please."


[/hr]

The picture which emerged was incomplete, and she had expected that. It wasn't as if she could get his tax records: those would be the exclusive possession of the government, and she didn't really feel she needed them. His school grades didn't feel important. She was just looking for...

...something.

The school newspaper turned out to be thoroughly boring, without even a five-issue-wonder gossip column to break up the monotony. There were outdoor concerts. There were election notices. Bake sales, because it wasn't a school newspaper unless it was announcing a bake sale. Recipes created by the students, publicly posted and guaranteed to send most of the goods back home with their creators, as most ponies favored salt licks over salt bread. Oh, and there were things about the main fountain. The town really seemed to like its fountain.

Pinkie did spot her as she began to go through the Doctor's life, and her friend, who so wanted to see that part of her family join them, believed Twilight's lie. Claws and teeth brought her documents now, for there was a public records section.

Admittedly, it was... weak. Coordinator seemed to have just about everything under his dominion, and what Twilight was left with was more appropriate to old notices pulled off a central board. The library had also seen no more need to keep what seemed to be a never-accessed section in order than they'd devoted to a good History section, and so papers seemed to emerge at random, her eyes darting back and forth across huge gaps of years. But there was something to work with, at least enough that she didn't have to approach him just yet, and she delved, deeper and deeper into the faint ink trail which created the ghostly outline of a life.

Birth announcements were part of what was available, and so she learned his age, for he truly had lived in Trotter's Falls all his life. She saw the names of his parents, and she found out when they had died.

He had gone to school, of course: announcement for the first day of kindergarten, another listing the graduating class in that last year. But not postgraduate courses, and if he'd worked at anything before taking on the role of midwife, she couldn't find any record of it. No announcements of shops being opened, or family businesses being pressed between new hooves. Given the size of his (destroyed) estate, there was the possibility of it having been a old family home. He might have had a steady income waiting for him at the moment of graduation. No need to work at all.

A selection of journals momentarily distracted her. The first news of the Exception. The studies of it, one public demonstration with a mare who'd volunteered for the role. An honorary degree. Follow-up articles concerning everypony else's lack of ability to duplicate what he'd done. Nothing she hadn't already known.

There weren't many pictures: photography had been invented during the course of his life, and so images of the colt and young stallion were lost to time. There was one sketch in an ancient school newspaper: the entire class rendered in ink. However, it had been proudly drawn by a member of that young class, and the best Twilight could do was guess that he might have been one of the colts, followed by trying to guess which ones were supposed to be the colts.

It seemed as if there was a break line in the stallion's life. On one side, an adult who couldn't be picked out of the herd for more than a moment before slipping out of sight. Nothing notable, certainly nothing historic: just another quartet of hooves picking out a path under Sun. And on the other, the midwife, acclaimed, sought out, the last (and only) resort.

"it took some time for me to realize -- what I was truly meant to do"

What had he done first? It was unlikely that the manifestation of his mark had been delayed well into full adulthood. Twilight, with a few semi-backed fears regarding a lifetime of Crusades, had already researched that: the latest appearance she was able to track had shown up a few moons after the pony's graduation. So he would have likely already had that symbol, and... what had he felt his mark was guiding him towards? It wasn't a case of simply needing to put off his training: his own words indicated that. He had been... something else, prior to taking up the career everypony knew him for.

There were many ways to interpret a mark, of course. On rare occasions, the same mark could represent different talents: it depended on how the ponies saw it. A razorwhip was for battle, but it could also indicate a pony suited for weapons design. And a mark could stand for an entire category of talent. More than a few mistakenly viewed Twilight that way, thinking a mark for magic had to be everything to do with magic -- but in reality, it was unicorn workings: an enhanced capability for learning, understanding, creation, and duplication. With devices, she was a studious amateur, and when it came to the magics of the other pony races... she didn't know what her mark would allow there, if it was anything at all.

But for a single mark to show two completely different talents in one pony... that was the stuff of legend, or rather, fiction.

So maybe he's a category case. Or... I don't know. I don't know what I'm looking for. I'm not even sure why I'm looking at all. He said something which scared me, I don't even know why it scared me, and now I'm in a library. I could be looking for her. I should be. But I'm here. Because this is where I'm comfortable. Because this is something I thought I could control, at least until I saw how bad their shelving was. Because... I had a nightmare.

A nightmare which felt like it was trying to tell me something.

With more than a little self-directed sarcasm, Other than my being broken. I figured that out on my own.

The dream could not have come from Luna, sworn not to interfere. Twilight knew of no other ponies who could roam or so thoroughly manipulate the nightscape of another. It was possible to shield one's dreams from intrusion (although she wasn't sure it would actually hold against Luna's strength), and she had read about a spell which allowed the caster to stop a desired category of dream from appearing: ponies trying to escape recurring visions by any means possible. And with her...

...it could have been her. But that's the easy way out, isn't it? She's a unicorn one-third of the time, she's powerful, maybe she can do anything, so if I have a nightmare, it's her. And she could have done it, put herself into that last part, but... where did the rest come from? Things I've never read, things I didn't know. Maybe they're things she learned, but why would she send them to me? Why a dream about Star Swirl and -- everything else?

Doctor Gentle had been part of the nightmare, or his words had. And things which scared her could easily slip into her nightscape -- but it still felt as if it meant something.

In the midst of nightmare, she had seen Nightmare. She had heard an offer, and pain had accepted. And then there had been shadows, and that had been followed by the Doctor's voice. Why?

Maybe it was just a dream.

A dream of things I never knew.

Things I made up --

-- no. I don't think I did. But... where else could they come from?

No answers. Just more papers. They were starting to blur.

"Twilight?" For Spike knew her, and so he also knew when she was getting tired. "We're running out of stuff." He put down the newest bundle. "Maybe two more to go after this, and then -- that's his lifetime. All of it."

Hours spent searching through that lifetime. Hours she probably should have used for something else. "I understand. How's the sorting going back there?"

He sighed. "We're putting it back in order. Mostly."

Wearily, "How many flying sheets?"

"Pinkie stopped folding them after she finally got one to land in the drawer." He turned, ready for the next trip. "Want to get some food in town before we go back?"

"No. I didn't bring any vouchers." Of course, it was possible that somepony might be willing to provide a Princess with a free meal -- and she really didn't want to go through the process of finding out. "We'll eat at the castle."

Spike nodded, left. Next stack. Scanning for strangeness. For a name. But there was just birth and bake sales and new business announcements and a huge settled zone founding anniversary which took up so much of the stack all by itself and --

-- that was when she saw it.

She had been hunting for the name, a familiar sequence of symbols. And it was there. But not on the first line. A little underneath. Isolated. Given some space to itself.

There was another name above that, on the notice. There was also a request. A quiet invitation. Come, it said. Come when you're needed. Come to where you're needed. Come because... you still can, and there are those who will never be there again...

She was still looking at it when she heard Pinkie come up behind her, and made no effort to hide it. There was no need.

"Twilight?"

"I didn't know," she quietly said. "Pinkie, did you...?"

Her friend looked at the notice.

"No," Pinkie said, and she could almost hear the tears starting to coat blue eyes. "He's never talked about it. I didn't know..."

Discord had told them they were being sent to the start of the middle, something Twilight still didn't understand. But the chaos which was the filing of the notices had brought her in at one kind of end, and they didn't find that particular beginning until the very last stack, with two years in between.

Two years of marriage before Doctor Gentle had buried his spouse.


[/hr]

The trio was silent all the way back to the castle, all possible speech absorbed by pain and grey sky.

Pinkie's face was a study in empathetic misery. Hurting for a pony she'd known since the first moment of her life, mourning for a mare she'd never met. Spike was at her right flank, with Twilight on the left. Keeping company, trying to diminish her pain through sharing it. And Twilight felt like an intruder. She'd gone through the debris of a stallion's life like a scavenger hunting through the ashes of the fire, and all she'd found was death.

There had been no cause listed, of course: it had simply been a funeral notice. But... two years of marriage, both still young. Likely not a natural death. Accident, illness, monster attack. So many possibilities. One gone, the other trying to find any way of going on...

He'd never remarried: Pinkie knew that much, because she'd never known he'd been married at all. Two years... and then alone.

Was that what had made him take the first hoofsteps on his path? The death of his spouse?

They entered the castle, failed to find anypony except Rarity, who had shut herself into her room and most assuredly did not wish to be disturbed, could not be interrupted at this vital stage, and if anypony was so crass as to take an artist away from her work when a deadline was so very close... Which had been all the accent-implied italics they could stand, and the trio had quickly retreated before Rarity could bring her creative agonies into the realm of boldface.

The servants told them Quiet (or rather, Lord Presence), was desperately sorting through a dozen different menus and could not be disturbed, especially since there was a new place in the settled zone trying out griffon cuisine (heavily modified) and they suspected their Lord would rather not have anypony see his reaction to the sample tray.

"And my friends?" Twilight asked.

"At the waterfall," the eldest of the maids sighed.

The -- waterfall?

"We tried to warn her --" the mare continued -- but by then, they were already on the gallop, Spike moving onto Twilight's back with practiced ease in order to save that much more time.

It didn't take long. It took too long. For the waterfall pool was the place where everything had truly changed, but it was also a site she had chosen to appear, and if she had returned --

-- but it was just their friends.

"...so do it already," Fluttershy suggested, the quiet words barely reaching them as they came into some level of hearing range.

Rainbow was a lot easier to pick up. "I'm gonna! I just want to -- pick a spot."

"You've been picking a spot for about fifteen minutes," Applejack pointed out.

"It's got to be deep," Rainbow insisted. "This is a high dive! If I don't get something deep, I could crack my head on the bottom instead of just touching it! Do you know how hard it is to see straight down through this much water?"

Applejack simply snorted, and the little outburst was almost comforting to Twilight: the familiar sounds of her friends arguing over something which was only important to them. "Do you know how much you're stalling?"

"Am not!"

"You're still hovering. So you're stalling."

"I don't see you up here!"

"Yeah, Rainbow, and there might be a certain, I don't know, anatomical reason for that?"

It took Rainbow a few hoofsteps to get past that one. "...well, just wait until Twilight gets here! One little spell -- it's not like we've got much Sun today and I'm not that high up, so if you really wanna try -- oh, hey! Great timing! Twilight, would you mind putting a pair of butterfly wings on this poser? We'll rewrite the dare and make it into a contest! Whoever stays down the longest wins!"

They took the final steps of the approach, Spike jumping down as they reached the water's edge, where Fluttershy and Applejack had been watching Rainbow, hovering some eight Celests over the middle of the lake.

"What's going on?" It seemed to be the logical question for Twilight to ask.

"Rainbow's diving," Applejack replied. "Eventually."

"Who dared her?" Pinkie asked.

"Fluttershy."

Twilight locked onto the one visible blue-green eye.

"...she was going a little nuts in the castle," the animal caretaker quietly offered. "She's looked in some of the same places eight times. I know we said we'd stay and help her look, but the more she made us look in places we've been through over and over..."

"She was driving us nuts," Applejack firmly declared. "And Fluttershy remembered something Quiet said: that the pool's so cold, most ponies only go in on a dare. And I --" a little more awkwardly "-- know it's cold." Pinkie winced, nodded. "And... well, three of us know it's cold, let's just leave at that. But Rainbow never went in. So Fluttershy dared her to do it. To dive. And here we are. For what's probably the last fifteen minutes."

"...I thought it would get her mind off her manuscript," Fluttershy softly finished. "...just for a minute or two. I brought lots of towels and blankets. We'll dry her off and warm her up as soon as she gets out, so she won't get sick. And she'll do some heat-shifting on top of that. But she's -- picking a spot."

"For fifteen minutes!" Applejack called up.

Rainbow glared at them. "I'm a pegasus, not a seapony! We don't do water!"

"Ain't no such thing as seaponies! And you still took the dare!"

"I know! And I took it because I'm me! I can do this! I think I've got the right spot! It's just... a lot of water..."

Applejack looked at the hovering weather coordinator, then snorted again. "Okay, fine. I swore I would try to never go through this after what happened to Rarity, but... Twilight, let's see some corona, 'cause if she won't --"

"I will!"

"-- did Ah say 'won't'? Sorry, Rainbow! I meant 'can't'!"

Magenta eyes narrowed in a very familiar way. A sleek body oriented down.

Oh no.

"RAINBOW!" Twilight yelled -- and wound up addressing a spreading circle of ripples.

The pool was too big for a splash at dead center to reach the shore and soak the spectators. Rainbow gave it her best shot anyway, and never got to see her efforts land two body lengths short.

She turned on the others. "Does anypony know what thermal shock is? Or how bad we are at swimming? That water --"

"...I do," Fluttershy softly reassured her. "There's no real current there. This is safe, Twilight. It's a few seconds down, and a few seconds up..."

A soaked prismatic mane broke the surface, and Rainbow gasped. "I -- oh, for... I... I think I..."

"Are you okay?" Twilight called out. "I can scoop you --"

"-- no! Don't! I'm going back down!"

"...what?"

More ripples, and fast-vanishing colors muddying as their bearer went deep.

Seconds passed. Too many seconds.

"...Twi?"

As fast as she could talk, "I don't know any spells for breathing underwater. There's some experimental devices -- Fluttershy, get me up there, over where she went down, I need to see --"

But there were already hooves pressing against her sides, weak wings fighting to get her weight off the ground --

-- and Rainbow surfaced.

Her legs kicked at the water, with her body so low. All they could see was her back, and her head from the nostrils up. But she was pushing in towards shore, she would get there -- in a time added to what Twilight already considered to be too long. Her field lanced out, surrounded the pegasus and scooped her up.

It let them all see the rest of her. The saturated, dripping tail. Waterlogged wings. And the thing she'd found.

For five long seconds, nopony moved. The field bubble was static. And then Twilight carefully, silently pulled her in, waited for Rainbow to bring her legs into a landing posture and then deposited the pegasus on the shore before winking the field out.

Rainbow spat. Her discovery landed in the grass, and five of them gathered around it, staring. The sixth couldn't get close enough.

"Oh," Pinkie breathed, and seemed to have no other words.

They changed. They changed in rhythm, in perfect synchronicity with each other. They did not touch, bound within their cradles of shining wire, for all were fairly small and so could be easily kept separated. But there was a cradle for a single larger piece, and that was empty, at least unless they decided to fill it again.

A rhomboid. A little triangle. Rougher shapes. Green. Blue. Pink. The deepest red Twilight had ever seen, red merged with black...

"Painite," Pinkie softly said. "I've only seen pictures -- there it goes. Black opal..."

"...it's a necklace," Fluttershy breathed. "...like the one Rarity made. But there's so many shiftstones..."

"Twelve," Applejack counted. "Would've been thirteen with the center piece. But that ain't silver wire. And what's that gold bit at the back? The braid holding it all together?"

That was the part Twilight was staring at, frozen and silent. A long braid of double-woven braided gold, twisted into itself so that it was something very close to a doubled helix. Staring at where the wire wrapped around the ends, just before the deathstones began their march.

"I saw it down there," Rainbow gasped, and the shiver which followed it got Fluttershy moving towards the blankets. "I saw the colors flash. I had to go back down, make sure it was really there... the cold shocked me, I wasn't sure --"

Her head began to dip, as if she was about to touch it again. Going for the braid.

"DON'T TOUCH IT!"

Rainbow looked up, saw Twilight's narrow rib cage heaving in and out. The panic.

"-- okay," the pegasus quickly decided, and backed one body length away. "But -- why? We know the stones are safe --"

"-- Spike," Twilight cut in, "check the border. Right now. Make sure there's nopony watching us --"

"There ain't," Applejack said. "Not unless they're in the air." She looked up. "Don't see anypony, and they can't spy through clouds that thick. Twilight, what's going on? Why can't we touch it?" Openly worried, "Should Rainbow have touched it in the first place? Is she gonna --"

"As long as nopony can see us with it," Twilight softly told them, "we're fine. It's not the deathstones. It's not even the platinum wire, because if it hasn't done something by now with the way it's attached, then it's stable." Platinum with deathstones, what would that even do... "It's the snitcher. If anypony sees us with that, thinks it's ours, and the jury decides we're guilty, it's a minimum of ten years in prison. If the judge is being nice. It's one of the most illegal devices there is..."

"Snitcher?" Rainbow, now being quick-dried by Fluttershy. She was also shifting her wings and legs in what felt like an unusual manner, and Twilight managed to give a second for wondering if heat was being pulled in before the fear came back. It didn't stay long. The horror needed the room.

"The braid," Twilight made herself tell them. "It... you put it on a pony, and if they don't have their mark... whoever puts it on, it'll tell them how close they are to manifest. They'll just feel it. And it'll keep telling you until the mark comes, or it's put on another pony, for as long as it stays in contact..."

"That's illegal?" She had expected the words, along with predicting the identity of the pony who would be saying them. "Ah could use that, more than just about anypony! We'd know if the Crusade was getting anywhere, or if it ever could! Why would anypony make that --"

"-- because when you put it on a pony who doesn't have their mark," Twilight stopped her, "it suppresses their magic. They won't be able to access their field. Any kind of field, I guess: I know it works on unicorns and pegasi, so probably earth ponies too. If you have a mark, it can't do that: your magic is too active to stop. But for a youngling who hasn't manifested... it'll stop them cold, until they get it off or find their mark. That's the first reason."

"...there's... there's another?" Fluttershy risked.

And Spike spared his sister from having to voice the horror, through making everypony else hear it.

"Because if you know a mark is coming," he whispered, "you can try to stop it..."

Twenty hooves and two clawed feet backed away. And the necklace lay in the grass, the metal still chill from its time in the pool. Liquid which was as cold as the water in the ravine.


[/hr]

Griffon cuisine. Modified.

Quiet didn't see the point of it. Making vegetables look like meat. Cooking them alongside meat. But he did know it was a trend which was moving through a few of the largest settled zones, and so Trotter's Falls had gotten in on it. Some of his guests would be expecting it, and so he'd added the stuff to the menu, fully expecting to spend part of the morning after the party watching the servants carry every last expensive serving to the trash.

He was still trying to get whatever a simulated 'au jus' was supposed to be off his tongue.

"Lord Presence?"

"Give me five more minutes," he called through the closed bathroom door. "Ten. Maybe ten. Ten minutes and some more mouthwash -- fifteen. Fifteen minutes , mouthwash, and ice cream. No: twenty minutes, mouthwash, ice cream, and a hazardous substance form I can fill --"

"-- the doctor is here. He wishes to see you. Immediately."

The words normally would have brought some small degree of relief: it had been hours. But with 'immediately' invoked...

However, it wasn't the worst of words. It didn't mean run. "Let me just take care of my breath and --"

"-- he insisted, Lord Presence. He is in your -- other study."

And that got him moving, as fast as he dared, passing through Bearer-free hallways (although he did go by the increasingly-frustrated sounds of frenzied sewing), into the passages and --

-- his mentor was on the reading couch. The newest one, the piece Quiet had been relaxing on when everything began. He'd never moved the tract.

The older stallion's head was down. Eyes closed. Long, half-dried trails ran down his snout from their corners.

It wasn't a question of whether something was wrong. It was a matter of what.

"Doctor --"

There were only six words, at the start of that meeting. Six total words was what it took to break Quiet's world, and the three sentences which contained them arrived as statements.

"She returned. We failed."

Quiet's heart missed a beat. He fought for breath. And that was before the last two words put an end to that phase of his life, sent him crashing into a potential future without title (although that didn't matter), possibly without direction (and that did), without... hope.

"They know."