• 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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Pointillès

The first thing to do after having one's world shattered should be something small.

For the most part, it was wisdom he had passed down through providing the opportunity to follow it. A mother would lose her foal in spite of everything he could do (and he had done so much, more than he suspected even Quiet knew, remembered every name and tried to keep track of how their lives were progressing), a spouse would learn that nopony would ever follow him out of the birthing room. And when the cursing stopped, when the tears slowed and the kicks might have finally ended, he would tell them -- to mix a cup of wake-up juice. Sit down with a form, simply staring at it for a time. (There was no need to try filling it out: in the immediate wake of a death, such was a cruelty which only Coordinator might have relished, and so he generally did all the paperwork for the lost himself, sparing the survivors from what little torment he could.) Take a trot around what had once been his estate, although that would generally be one where he had to follow, just in case those who remained chose to seek a reunion in the shadowlands. They had just learned that there were aspects of the world which could never be controlled, and so he would provide them with something which could. Do something small, something you could still do. And once you had done that one tiny thing, perhaps you would be able to attempt something else. And then another, followed by another, until you were finally ready to face the larger challenge known as going forward.

It was wisdom he had acquired through experience, for his world had been broken, and he had done... something small. And then, with that accomplished, his mind had eventually become settled enough to think of something very large indeed, the means by which some portion of that lost world could be recovered, and it had led him into the labor known as the Great Work.

He had found her, in her place, more broken than ever, something which -- could be fixed. He had dedicated his life to fixing her once: swearing a fresh commitment to that cause had come automatically, even in the midst of horror. The path had been created which led to transformation: they simply needed to adjust the direction of the road, bring her to a place of stability. So many had thought it impossible to change even once and that had been accomplished: why should a second alteration be any different?

but his notes suggested there was one chance, one moment where change might happen, something he'd missed and she needed to reach it at just the right moment while in precisely the proper mindset, with the chaos pearls about her and my being there to direct them, one chance and then

No. Star Swirl had been the greatest caster of his generation, as Princess Twilight was the greatest of hers. It didn't mean either of them knew everything. The original (as far as anypony knew, and so few were aware of even that much) Element of Magic had tried to forge his own path to ascension, and that trail had ended in a lonely cell on a small island off the west coast, an aged body finally giving out and leaving the Amulet with no living host to control. Star Swirl had seen aspects of the path which she had ultimately taken, but that was all: aspects. The caster had been thinking of working the change on his own body, not performing the miracle upon another -- and so he had never pursued that which had been incorporated into the very heart of the Great Work, a method which had led to change. There had to be more than one chance. Because after that shattering, there had been none until the moment he'd decided there would be one, and then there had been. So he had now decided there would be two, and so there would be. A simple statement of approaching fact.

None of which changed the fact that her return

just like her arrival

had constituted a new shattering.

He had done his best to be strong for her. He'd touched her, even though it had meant feeling the shifting against his skin. He had nuzzled her and stayed beside her, reminded her of that very first lesson: that he loved her, and so she would love him too. He loved her still. She was... all that was left of a shattered world. How could he not love her, even when what remained had been a fragment, distortion, broken mockery of what should have been? She was loved, and so she would be fixed.

He had been strong for her -- and then he'd had to be just as strong for Quiet, for he knew his most devoted would be pained by the news, might suffer a total loss of hope, and he would not allow that to happen. Change had been created once: it could be created again. In fact, it would have to be created a second time, and then a third, and beyond. Nopony should ever call a hypothesis proven based on a single experiment, and there were so many of the broken who needed saving. They had blazed the first of the new trails together, and the destination had not been what he'd intended -- but still, they had found themselves somewhere new. It suggested possibilities, and if none of those were currently ways that promised a total success, much less a fresh means of fixing her, then the next thing to do was -- something small.

After finding her, after staying beside her for a time... he had helped her to reach the bath and assisted in cleaning her, as he had so many times over the course of her life. (It had been strange, tending to her that way as an adult.) It was in hopes that the heat of the water would soak into those tortured muscles and bring some relief. (It had not.) It had been a simple act of civilization. It had been something they could control: you are dirty (the dirt of the outside), and now you are not. It had given them something to do while he thought, and now he had the first steps of the new path. The meeting, with everypony (or so close to it) gathered in a single place, would be crucial. Especially if it became necessary to arrange --

-- he did not want to face that just yet. He had thought of it, started to plan for it, and mentioned some of the details to Quiet -- but that move was the more desperate of the two he had considered, and so it was the one he wished to avoid. The Bearers had to be managed, now more than ever. But if that could not be done, and the second method failed -- that would guarantee running, and perhaps so much more. So for now, his focus was on the first path: control. And in some ways, that was also a small thing.

There were stops to make. As he'd told Quiet, he needed drugs, powerful ones, and that went beyond what could be acquired from those few who worked in the hospital. The most powerful medications conventionally available to physicians, in the strictest legal sense, should not have been available to him: a midwife had no true right to write prescriptions. But while his doctorate was honorary, his skill was true, and so he had been granted a certain amount of leeway without even so much as the wink and flank nudge which might have gone with so many other underhooved transactions. He wrote out what he needed, and it was fulfilled simply because he'd been the one to make the request and nopony in Trotter's Falls ever really thought about the "honorary" portion any more.

The problem was that he needed to go beyond that.

Measurement of pain was a difficult chore: spells existed which could do it, but he knew none of them and had never truly required any, because his patients could normally be presumed to be going through the single greatest agony of their lives. She seemed to be in a place beyond that, one which those straining, often screaming mares falsely declared themselves to occupy and for her, it was a full-time residency.

There were also the changes to consider, the cycle of her transformation. Some of those alterations were internal. Food in her stomach was just that, because the stomach presumably remained the same in every aspect, and so digestion proceeded normally. But what of her blood? Medicine put into her body -- would that wear off well before its usual duration expired, simply because the blood which carried it had changed? Would it resume operation when that aspect came around again? What did that mean for drug mixability and interactions? Did her current state mean that she would build up tolerances more quickly, or was it now impossible for her to develop any resistance at all? What about drugs which were known to only work on a single race, ones which produced adverse reactions for the others? If he had to give her a dose of one for any legitimate medical reason and it was still in her body when the next phase of the cycle began to take hold... Plus there was metabolism: hers definitely seemed to have accelerated somewhat, her energy requirements were higher than he'd ever seen for any mare, she might simply burn medicine out of her system long before it should have been passed through, which brought up the question of dosage and the risks of giving her too little or too much...

The Princess had resisted virtually every attempt to have her body studied, and he suspected too much of that was due to Star Swirl's actions: the surviving notes had included some of his original observations on both siblings, along with a few minor experiments which had been surprisingly advanced for their time -- and given what had been done with that information, resistance to future inquiries had been effectively guaranteed. So when he'd tried to find out what she would have been like after the Great Work had succeeded -- if there were any special requirements to her diet, times during which she would have to rest, illnesses which only she might be susceptible to -- there had been just about nothing, and that had been a cause of some worry. Still, it was something which could have been fixed simply through introducing her to the throne (and then thrones), with a polite request from the newest of alicorns for advice on how she might go forward.

But she had changed into something never seen before. A miracle, a wonder -- and when it came to how her altered form now operated on the deepest levels, a total mystery. He would have to investigate carefully in order to avoid harming her, but investigations would need to be done just to ensure her survival until the day she was... fixed.

She needed drugs, ones stronger than any hospital could offer. Illegal concoctions, those banned because they were addictive, risky, too hard to control. It was another reason for going to Chief Copper, for while such substances were scant in Trotter's Falls, there were a few ponies who had tried using them now and again. Some of those attempts had been discovered, with the users compassionately sent to a place where they might recover -- but the drugs themselves went to the evidence lockers. If the right concoctions had been claimed by the law, then some of them would still be good. Narcotics strong enough to bring her pain to a level she could bear, turn the agony of the changes into something masked for the duration of the presentation. There was no guarantee that anything he required would be at the station, of course, but the Chief had his own connections and on the whole, the odds of finding what he needed seemed rather strong. However, using it on her...

It was necessary. It was doing the needful. But for that first dose, it would be a risk, and that was something he was dreading. But as the needful, it would be done.

And there were other reasons for seeing the Chief. The illegal passed through that stallion's jurisdiction, and so did the immoral and unwanted. He had always known there would be a successor in time, and -- he was looking forward to it. A youngling. All the discoveries shared a second time, a fresh chance at miracle moving through the rooms...

As long as we do not need to run.

No: new rooms could be excavated. A fresh start, in every way. And he would devote himself to a pair of Great Works, with the chance that fixing would unite the roads.

But...

...he had seen her, in the aspect of a unicorn.

She had looked... not as he truly would have wished, not even in that aspect. But it wasn't as if that was ever truly under his control, now was it? With so much involved, so many charged chaos pearls, the amount he'd believed necessary just to make the attempt... no, there was no way she would have looked precisely as he had once dreamed. That made sense.

But I asked her the question.

And she said --

-- no: asking her to interpret simple sensory information was hard enough right now, and he'd already had signs that her memory was confused. When her pain had diminished, she would naturally be capable of sensing more. He simply needed to wait for the right time, he would ask again, and she would provide the only answer which made any sense. He just had to wait.

But before that time could arrive, he needed to do things both large and small. And this was the time for seeing how well the first approach might work.

He did not teleport to Town Hall, for there was no safe arrival point waiting for him, and he suspected the building's true master had deliberately arranged it. Coordinator could not teleport -- could, in fact, barely do anything, and did so much in the name of keeping that a secret, one which had been so easy to learn -- and so why should anypony who could enjoy the benefits? He'd asked for a place, just a single unoccupied closet he could use, and the first time he'd tried to arrive there -- well, at least all the stacked-up paperwork had provided a degree of impact cushioning. The bureaucrat's excuse was that he simply couldn't control where ponies needed to place things, which of course meant that he had controlled exactly that and arranged both matters and stacks so that everypony would understand just who was really in charge.

(A pony who was -- necessary. It was, when applied in that exact direction, an ugly word. But what Coordinator failed to understand was that necessity in itself did not create power. A certain degree of leverage, yes, and his continued presence as a much-reviled part of the Great Work. But not power. Coordinator saw just about everything in terms of power, and so tended to falsely view just about all the world in terms of what he could get it to do for him. Coordinator thought he had control, and... some lessons had yet to be taught, ones which were an exceptionally long time in coming. He wondered if the stallion would ever learn, and who the teacher might ultimately turn out to be.)

So he trotted through the town, which slowed him down somewhat. It wasn't just the lingering injury of his leg: there were still a few of his in the area whom he could speak with (a welcome distraction), plus some of the locals wanted his attention (one had just learned of her pregnancy: they mutually set the time for the first examination), and there were other draws on his time, pulls created by a lifetime spent residing in the same settled zone, one where virtually nopony ever moved away and some of those who moved in didn't stay long. The interactions of everyday life. Small things, and thus they were ones which assisted in further centering himself before he reached Town Hall.

Eventually, he got inside. (Coordinator had kept him waiting: another petty display from an even more petty pony.) And having reached that particular destination, he went right for the point.

"It has become necessary to control the Bearers," he told the stallion, and his directness meant he got to watch something exceptionally nauseating take place. Coordinator seldom smiled and when he did, the expression was rarely a true one. Being in the presence of something which constituted genuine joy for the bureaucrat was more than enough to turn his stomach.

But it was necessary.

"Really," Coordinator smiled. "And does 'Bearers' include our visiting Princess?"

He saw the change in posture, tail lifting and ears rotating forward added to that so-rare flare of corona, and recognized that he might have just given Coordinator the single best moment of his life. (It was going to take a lot of effort to push that nausea away.) "Yes. Did you find anything?"

That weak corona exerted, and the stacked pages of the pegasus' stolen manuscript slid forward on the desk.

"Where," Coordinator smiled, "do I even start?"


Their first stop in the castle had been Rarity's assigned quarters, and that had gone about as well as Twilight would have expected -- which was to say that there had been other post-fashion-show occasions in all of their lives when they'd wound up interrupting the designer while Rarity was caught between creative frenzy and fast-approaching deadline, and so the five who were standing on the floor all knew just how much to back up before the door flew open.

"Really, do you mind?" (They tried not to look at the disheveled mane, which turned out to be surprisingly easy when the twitching borders of the blue eyes were demanding so much of their attention.) "I have hours, mere hours before I must be finished, hours I cannot extend or beg for more of, hours which never should have been so scant in the first place --" a forehoof stomped "-- not that I am blaming our host in any way, of course, but mere hours and now I am losing seconds, perhaps even a full minute to speaking with all of you, so really, I must ask that you all leave me alone. No suggestions. No advice. No queries on why the curtain rod is currently vertical against the wall -- oh, Twilight! If you have a minute, this one spool you left outside my door -- I'm sorry, dear, but the hue is not quite ideal. However, should you visit that shop and simply ask them to assist you in finding something two gradients closer to cerulean --"

Which was when a hovering Rainbow, who'd heard it all a few too many times before, pressed her forehooves into the carefully-wrangled indoor cloud.

"-- I am wet."

They all nodded.

"I am wet," Rarity slowly repeated, her straightened mane now dripping into the puddle on the floor, "and I am still hysterical. Hysterically angry. Was that truly necessary?"

Another group nod.

"And you all wonder," Rarity muttered, "why your hock lines sometimes feel too tight. They are that way because you all deserve it... Very well. If it is so necessary to both distract me from my labor and force me to lose yet more time to restyling and drying -- what is going on?"

Once the floor had been mopped and Pinkie had verified that nopony was trying to watch or listen in, the group began to update her. Twilight didn't stay for all of it: there were things she had to do and no matter what Rarity might have wished, none of them centered around the exchange of spools. She provided what information she personally could about their latest discoveries and conjectures, participated in the group's attempt to figure out exactly where the snitcher could be stored for maximum safety and a minimal chance of arrests, successfully talked Rarity out of laying claim to the new supply of shiftstones, and just barely talked her into removing the one she'd worked so hard on.

"But I was going to wear it at the party! And it was so hard to come up with a dress which would work with so many hues --"

"-- Rarity, it was part of her necklace." There had been no real point to checking the stone against the empty cradle's shape and fit, and they'd done it anyway. "Maybe part of what made her change. Nothing's happened to you, and I'm not sure anything could -- but I don't want to take the chance. Please put it away," Twilight asked, her tones coming all too close to pleading. "Because if there's any chance that somepony could wind up like her from wearing it too long, then nopony should ever wear these again, and..."

She couldn't stop the image any more than she'd been able to prevent it from manifesting within her inner vision for the seven replays she'd been through during the trot to the castle. Rarity's skin being pushed from beneath, new bones forming and breaking as her friend's scream filled the world.

"...you can't wear it again, Rarity. You can't. Not until we know it's safe. Please?"

The designer looked deep into purple eyes, and Twilight wondered how much reflection of imagination had been seen in order to trigger the shudder.

"Very well," she reluctantly said, and her field exerted: the necklace floated to a fabric-covered dressing table, enveloped in soft blue. "I do understand, Twilight, truly I do, but... I hope that should it be proven innocent in all this, you will return it to me. What is our next step?"

"They'll tell you." Twilight nodded to the others. "I've given you everything I have, and -- Pinkie needs to tell you some things."

It got them all a very quick "Privately," from the baker, followed by an even faster "After you promise you won't get too upset. And you'll understand. And really really won't get upset. Because you're going to get upset anyway and I want you to at least promise you'll lie about it."

Rarity blinked, and the saturated glue of her false eyelashes slipped a little more. "Pinkie, that is not exactly what I would consider to be an encouraging start. Exactly what is going on that you --"

"-- in privacy," Pinkie semi-repeated. "It's not horrible and it's not anything about -- her. I just know it's going to upset you a little. Maybe a lot. Please?"

Eventually, "...very well. Twilight, you are leaving?"

She'd thought she'd been shifting towards the door a little more subtly than that. "Yes. That book is in Quiet's library, at least if he didn't --" and she could feel the heat from the fast-rising blush "-- move it because he thought I might try to -- borrow it for a while, or all the things we were talking about over breakfast --"

We were having fun with each other during breakfast. We were just kidding around. Like friends.

"-- and that means I have to go read that entry. See exactly how complicated it is to make, how many snitchers might have existed during Fortreeze's time because that'll give me a guess as to how many might have survived. And then I need to find out if there's any local device-makers. That doesn't mean much because somepony could have gone a long way to find an old one or have something new created, but it'll help to know if it was at least possible to get it done in town."

Rarity slowly nodded. "Good luck, Twilight. But I rather doubt he's moved it. He knew you were --" and the pause felt far too long "-- playing. However, before you go -- one last thing." Twilight paused in front of the door. "Pinkie said that -- a pony who deliberately made her believe she was broken would be the worst pony in the world. We do not yet know if that is what happened. But not all monsters appear as such. As Luna has said, there are those who trot through the world wearing pony skins, and..." A deep breath. "Do not accuse any, not before we know. Most especially, you must try not to see her that way without final proof, for there is a chance that she is simply a victim and nothing more."

"We're all ponies," Pinkie half-whispered. "We have to remember that we're all ponies..."

It produced a slow nod. "But we may be moving among monsters, Pinkie, and simply have yet to see their skin slip. Be careful, Twilight. All of us must be so very careful. Monsters react poorly when their disguises are broken. Do your best to make it seem as if everything is normal, no matter how hard that might be. Act, speak, move normally. But think about what you see and hear -- no matter who might be saying it." And the last word came all too close to begging. "Please..."

Not Quiet.

It can't be Quiet. He's around our age. He wouldn't have the experience or the knowledge. He just has... a library which might help, and if he's around our age, then he's also around hers and he could have known her as a filly, but he... he doesn't have the device mark, even if he could pay somepony who did and

not Quiet.

"Okay." The word had made it into the air. It had been picked up by her ears. But when it came to sinking deep within her heart, there was simply no space remaining.

Twilight exited the room, carefully closed the door behind her, made sure she could hear just about nothing when listening from the hallway, and then slowly (it felt as if she was moving much too slowly) trotted towards the library.


In the past, she'd only had a total of thirty-one minutes with the Guide, and so she'd had to skim. She'd retained most of what she'd seen, but the speed of her reading had prevented a few facts from sinking in. Spending a little more time with the book, a hour in which the only pressure on her came from twitching ears rotated towards the barely-cracked door, was allowing her to learn several of them. Chief among the new lessons was that there were many things which could have been truthfully said about Fortreeze Laudanum, and none of them would have been "He was a good writer."

The Guide's creator had been one of the most talented researchers to exist and when it came to assembling the facts he'd unearthed, he certainly knew how to put them in their proper order. He'd had some hard-learned skill for sketching, and the plain black lines never seemed to miss any vital details. But when it came to weaving his discoveries into a compelling non-fiction narrative, he hadn't so much failed as he'd apparently never perceived that making an attempt at success might be worthwhile. Any other material given such treatment would have been so dry as to choke the reader. But the Guide's subject matter managed to give it some degree of flow, with all of it carried on a tide of spilled blood.

It was a first draft, and so it was somewhat more crude than the volume which had eventually reached the vanity press. But that gave her an advantage, as there were things Fortreeze had written down in this version which hadn't made the Archives' copy. Footnotes which had been deemed unworthy of publication, little sketches which he must have decided were just taking up space, personal notes to himself which never would have gone into an actual book -- and so her eyes went over crucial new lines.

Barrier Breaker: power requirements surprisingly high. Believes it's because mark magic so deep and hard to reach, getting accurate measurement takes more thaums than expected. Suggests platinum as absolute need instead of option: recharging otherwise too frequent.

Barrier Breaker. She knew that name from her Gifted School studies, and wished she hadn't.

No physical harm done from long-term contact. Fallen Shroud claimed heard of fused snitcher to skin of rival's child, prevented mark manifestation for full lifetime. Had to ask for repeat, three times. Hard to understand her through the laughter.

She turned her head, let the tears fall somewhere other than the book.

Nepher wants to know about bulk creation. Asked me to come back if I found something. Thought using them on private village might allow 'direction of society'.

The snitcher, as she now understood it, hadn't originally been created as a device meant to inflict pain. Instead, it had been the result of a parent's simple question. 'It seems as my child's mark should have manifested by now: is there any way I can learn if she's at least getting close?' A single dedicated caster who had only created the prototype as a means of reassuring her child that yes, the mark was on the way and now they would both know what sort of actions would make it appear all the sooner. That device builder just hadn't anticipated the suppression side effect, and when others learned about her newest of creations...

It wasn't always about the device itself. With the snitcher, the original intent had arguably been good. But once news had spread, so had the device, and that had led to the perversions which ultimately placed it into the realm of the banned and the pages of the Guide. The original creator hadn't been punished, for only the original dream had been hers: not the ways in which others had twisted it. But for the majority of those who had built and used the subsequent snitchers... prison, and that was at the minimum. Some of those discoveries had led to the reveal of other possessions, and several of those ponies had gone down fighting. More than a few had sent law enforcement officers into the shadowlands ahead of them.

A snitcher didn't require much in the way of special materials: the finicky part was in the arrangement of the internal structure, the true difficulty in the enchantments which made it work. It needed a builder with a device mark, enough raw field strength to get into the Gifted School without issue, and a spectacularly high field dexterity score because the final spells were just that complicated: microadjustments made up ninety percent of the final stage. A single pony could do it all -- but that pony would be a rare specimen indeed, and so snitcher production had always been kept low, even by those who never cared about consequences. Fortreeze had estimated a few dozen to exist during his time: Twilight would have been surprised if the number had managed to double since, especially given what happened to the confiscated ones.

So one very talented pony -- or two could work together: one builds the device, the other does the final enchantments. But you'd still have a hard time getting it all together, because there's no way to finish it, or even really start, unless you've got somepony with a device mark on your side. There are devices where somepony else can just work out the thing from first principles and then once it's announced and the designs get made public, somepony without that mark can just set up a manufacturing line. This isn't one of them. It's always going to take the right mark, and those ponies aren't all that common --

She paused as her thoughts turned to the one resident of Ponyville who possessed a device mark.

-- or fully suitable.

It was a thought which shamed her every time she had it. But it was the truth. She liked Ratchette: the two had often indulged in long talks since the mechanic had moved to the settled zone, although they were discussions which generally left both opening individual bottles of headache medicine: Twilight understood the spells, Ratchette the physical construction, and they hardly ever found a way to meet in the middle. Ratchette had her skills, her knowledge, a talent Twilight could still have so much trouble believing in... and yet she wasn't fully suitable for her mark-assigned profession, and never would be. For Ratchette would probably recognize a snitcher, might even be capable of repairing one if it was just a matter of realigning the interior -- but the pegasus would never be able to enchant. It took so much for her just to make fine adjustments without the benefit of a field...

...I'm distracting myself. Ask the hard questions, Twilight. First: could somepony with a Guide use it to create a new snitcher, with no other books for resources? It didn't require much thought. No. But they wouldn't miss it by much. This has everything about the physical construction and suggests most of the spells down to the feel -- but you can't get feel from books. He can write all about how your corona should be angular here and rounded there, but none of it will ever let somepony know how a spell truly feels until you either get it right or have somepony who can demonstrate for you, which isn't always enough. The Guide would let them make the interior and shell. They'd know which enchantments they had to learn, but they couldn't learn them from this. Nopony could finish it from one book. But... they would have a pretty good idea of where to start looking for the next step. The casters he's listed who could do it are all dead. But other books are referenced in the citations, and while pretty much all of them are gone now or just as restricted as the Guide, you'd know what you were after. Give it all to the right caster, allow some time for experiments and a lot of luck in dodging the results from the test gallops, and eventually...

Possession of a Fortreeze didn't guarantee the creation of a working snitcher. But unless another caster was willing to try working from first principles and just knowing it was possible at all, having the Guide was just about a required step to making one.

And somepony like Quiet, with this kind of library... would he have the books which let somepony try to finish?

There was nothing more she could do with the Guide, not for this, and her old desire to go through every last page seemed to have faded. Instead, her field gently closed the old book, and she carefully reshelved it in the way she treated every volume, so that it looked as if nopony had ever moved it at all.

He's got somepony regularly dusting them. Under normal circumstances, she would have approved -- but in this case, it meant she couldn't estimate how long it had been since the previous reader had opened the book. Hours, years, centuries: anything was possible.

Standing perfectly still, facing the shelves, listening to the silent hallway and the unsteady beat of her own heart.

It's not worth my wings.

She needed to apologize to Rainbow, because the pegasus had probably (and justifiably) been offended by the stupid statement. She seemed to spend so much of her time apologizing for this and that, and virtually none of it ever felt like it prevented the next offensive sentence from dropping out of her mouth.

I have to check the security spells on the castle. There doesn't seem to be much magic in the library itself, but Quiet's going to take books in and out of here all the time, bringing them somewhere else to read. His main concern would be anypony leaving the structure with them, not leaving the room. So most of the workings are probably at the front door, plus any side entrances, the local pegasus population isn't that large so he might not have done much with the windows, although that's also leaving all this open to self-levitating unicorns. But I really need to learn just how hard it would be for somepony else to get in and out without him knowing. Use the book --

But Quiet had said it was just him and the servants on a lot of nights

when his wife is traveling

and that implied he didn't have many guests. The best security for his wonderful book collection might come from nopony knowing he had it.

That's not good enough. With just a little internal humor, Because now I know he has it.

Not that she was planning on stealing from him -- but it would be a lie to say she hadn't already entertained several rather detailed fantasies on the subject, because it was almost a truism that anypony would recognize a truly great library when they felt the instinctive desire to rob it. Push aside the palace (where years of daydreams still hadn't let her figure out a route past the Princess) and Quiet had the single greatest personal collection she'd ever seen. To look at his shelves was to plan a thousand heists and the twelve false identities she'd need to live under in order to get away with it.

Owning a Guide isn't illegal, not in and of itself. But there's other books which somepony could have temporarily taken from him or just broken in long enough to use. I saw the citations section, so the next step is to find out if any of those books are here. Because if they are, it means anypony working on this just has to break into one place. Or they could own the spellbooks and just need information on the device. Finding an old snitcher, having the book just be a coincidence... that's still possible. He's --

-- hoofsteps in the hallway: light, careful ones, steadily approaching. She paused, then went back to reading book spines.

"I should have known," came from the steadily-opening doorway. "One library a day just isn't enough to satisfy your urges, is it?"

It made her smile. And then she realized she was smiling, felt how good it was to smile around him, and...

He's not.

She turned her head just enough to look at him. "I know that expression," she told him. "I've had that expression. It's the look of somepony who's checking the complete contents of their shelves to make sure nothing's missing and doesn't want anypony else to know they're doing it."

"That's a -- rather specific expression," Quiet guiltily admitted.

Twilight shrugged. "I'm a librarian. I get to wear that face every week, and --" blushing a little "-- when I worked in the Archives, a lot of department heads had it around me. Constantly. It didn't take very long to figure out what it meant. They're all still here, Quiet: I promise."

"So no more offers?" She couldn't tell if that had been a tease.

She sighed. "I don't think I have anything valuable enough. And you should be worried about that value. What's your security like? Because if somepony wanted to get the haul of their lifetime, you have subsections which are worth more than a few whole libraries --"

-- Rainbow's manuscript, I keep thinking she must have misplaced it because nopony would have stolen it and if anypony was going to steal a book for value, there's all this. She must have just left it somewhere --

He was looking at her. Waiting for the rest of the sentence.

"-- and you're going to need the spells to match," she concluded. "I was just trying to think of a few which might be suitable, that I could cast for you before we left. It's the least I can do to thank you for your hospitality, Quiet, and -- to make sure it's all safe. I never want to hear that something happened to your collection."

He sighed.

Twilight blinked. She hadn't been expecting a sigh. The sigh didn't seem to make sense. "Quiet?"

"Just thinking, Twilight," he told her. "That I probably don't have enough spells set up, but... don't worry too much about them. Anypony who knows enough to want them is at least a pony of quality and eventually, they will need to go somewhere. Somepony else will live in the castle, they won't have the same interests, and -- they won't stay here forever. I think the most I can hope for is that in the end, they wind up in a place where they're carefully pressed between caring hooves. That's enough."

The words had been -- soft. Solemn. Weary. And she thought she could hear more than that, after three years of trying to learn the art of listening.

He's hurting. Something's hurt him.

The words automatically slipped out, and she didn't regret any of them. "What happened?"

"Sorry?"

And now he was trying to brush it off. "Something's wrong, Quiet. I can hear it. Something happened and -- something's wrong. I'll understand if you don't want to tell me what it is, but I'm your guest and --"

Could she say the next part? Did she mean it and nothing more?

"-- I'd like to think I've started to become..." Her head briefly dipped, eyes unwilling to meet his from fear of seeing rejection looking back. "...your friend. If it's anything I can help with, anything..."

Another soft sigh, and then a nearly-invisible field gently lifted her chin.

"It's..." He took a deep breath, then winced at the movement of his ribs. Her right forehoof started to come up, and he quickly shook his head. "It's the weakness in my blood. I told you there was work being done on a cure, and -- I spoke to the head researcher today. There's been a setback. And that's the whole of it, Twilight. I thought there might be a cure any moon now, but -- it's going to take more time. And I've been roaming around, thinking about how much more time it could take. Trying to keep believing that there could ever be a cure at all. Hope can be a very delicate thing, mine took a kick today, and I'm not thinking about the security of my books so much as -- having nopony I can read to, or leave them to, and... whoever winds up in the castle might just kick them out and fill the space with sports trophies. Compared to that, a thief who would steal the books for their own use starts to sound pretty good --"

She didn't know she had been stepping forward until she finished doing it, and she didn't realize she was nuzzling him before she was in the middle of it.

His eyes went wide and grey ears rotated back, half-flattened. But he didn't pull away from her. He just -- let it happen, something she hadn't even realized was going to happen. She nuzzled him, and it felt almost as if it was the nuzzle meant for friends.

Almost.

"Please keep hoping," she whispered. "You always have to hope."

He nodded, if just barely, and she took a hoofstep back.

"So the issue is reading to somepony?" she challenged while hoping he could hear the tease in it, without ever wondering if there was something else present to hear. "I can fix that." She trotted over to the largest couch, settled in. "Read to me."

He was looking at her. She couldn't remember anypony ever having looked at her that way before, and wasn't sure what it meant. Not until the moment her gaze reached his eyes, eyes which looked like nothing else in the world.

There was a moment when it was the two of them among the books, one standing, one resting, and a heartbeat which she felt everypony in the settled zone must have heard. And then he took a slower, more shallow breath, and his face turned towards the shelves.

"Any preference?"

"I saw a first printing Canon #1 Daring Do up there. Which doesn't quite fit your theme..."

"I like to think of them as history which had to be published as fiction," Quiet declared. "Because nopony ever would have believed it. That's your choice? And you're willing to put up with my notoriously horrible attempts at a mare voice, which I generally only use when I'm completely out of penalty rope?"

"We'll see just how far I'll let you get with it," Twilight told him. "Get the book."

His field fetched the volume, and he settled in on the couch. It took some time before he had arranged body and legs into a position he was truly comfortable with, and Twilight wondered if she had to move closer. Keeping an ear tuned to his breathing felt like a good idea, and of course that naturally meant dipping her head in a little...

"You want the opening chapter quotes, don't you?"

"I," Twilight declared, "am a proper audience. The opening chapter quotes, if you please."

He began to read, and Twilight listened, moving closer still so that he wouldn't need to raise his voice too much. And she still had to check for those spell-crucial titles, and there was the mission and the snitcher and her wings and the Secret and so much else, but it could all be told to wait for a little while, for her friend -- her friend, just her friend, he had to be just her friend -- was hurting, and she thought she could help him feel better. For a little while, she could let that be the most important thing.

He's not a monster.

She would almost manage to believe that all the way to the end.