• 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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Planography

She wasn't used to the silence.

Typically, Rarity would keep up a flow of conversation while working with a pony: Twilight had seen that within her first somewhat-stunned hours in Ponyville, and had been through multiple exposures to the phenomenon since -- enough to recognize that much of the time, that discussion was rather one-sided. Rarity would provide a galloping commentary on local events, the latest rumors to reach ears which were always ready to rotate in a promising gossip direction, talk about designs she was working on, things she'd rejected, the mare she truly wished she'd actually and rather literally kicked out of the Boutique just before Twilight arrived -- and while responses were welcome and generally wouldn't be interrupted too badly, they weren't actually required. If there was somepony else around, then Rarity chatted as she measured, planned, and sketched. Twilight had never been able to decide if it was some level of mental focus exercise or if Rarity had simply become too used to talking at her cat.

But now Rarity was measuring her again, getting the new numbers, and -- silence.

During Twilight's first visit to the Boutique, she hadn't known how to deal with what had felt like an assault of words. She'd had no concept for any means of truly responding, much less coming up with something which would provide a chance to get away. And now her mind didn't know how to deal with the reverse. Her body manifested the confusion as the occasional awkward twitch, many of which set Rarity to silently taking that measurement again.

Finally, a soft blue glow of field rolled the tape back up.

"There are changes." (Twilight's ears strained towards the sound.) "Outside of those visibly created by the possession of wings. Your barrel measurement has altered, and I believe that is due to those new muscles. A fresh session was in fact required." Rarity softly sighed. "Better that I realized it when I did, best to have thought of it long before this. I have to resume my labors, Twilight, and you should return to yours. What next?"

"Spike." The extended silence had given her time to think, and most of that had been used in getting away from the things she didn't want to think about. It had allowed her to come up with two possibilities she wanted to try, and most of the invention had been in self-defense. "Have you seen him?"

"No," Rarity admitted. "Not when he has not come to me, along with the rest of you. At the moment, I am not in much of a position to search. But his current location is hardly much of a question, Twilight. We are in a new place, you had no need of him until just now, there are playgrounds occupying the grounds outside the castle -- and where there are playgrounds..."


It was almost always easier with the youngest. Too many adults tended to see him as something other, and multiple out-of-town visitors to the library still refused to believe he was something truly capable of thought at all. let alone a sapient who could outsmart their attempts to take unapproved photographs. Their first weeks in Ponyville had led to more than a share of that: so few dragons had ever lived among ponies, hardly any so young, and none but him had been raised by ponies starting from the hatching of his egg. There had been a generation without a dragon citizen of Equestria, and the most in any generation had been five.

So many ponies didn't know how to deal with him during a first encounter. There would be confusion, and most of it would be out in the open. Dismissal, more than occasionally. There were times when he had to deal with fear, prejudice, and being treated as an animal, with more than a little of that last taking place in the Gifted School itself. Ponyville had eventually become used to him, learned to accept, love, and forgive (with the perpetual exception of three flower-themed mares). But when they were traveling, it all came back as ponies met a dragon for the first time, and too many never took their eyes away from nostrils and mouth, watching for that first sign of flame.

But that was with adults. Children, especially those who were already at play, were a little more likely to use Spike's arrival in their midst as the launching point for an argument.

"He stopped it! It doesn't count!"

"But he -- but he didn't use his head! You're supposed to use your head! You can't use your forelegs! That's in the rules!"

"He doesn't have forelegs!"

A very familiar argument.

Twilight managed to repress the sigh as she trotted closer. There were in fact rules for mixed-species sports youth leagues: she'd managed to get copies of the relevant books, which had taken slightly more work than was required to locate a Fortreeze. They saw some use, particularly in Canterlot: some among the various embassy staffs brought their children along rather than spend so much time away, and of course there were immigrants of all species, here and there. When speaking about the total citizenry of Equestria, the appropriate term to use was 'everyone' -- but most ponies forgot that. When far less than two percent of most settled zones was something other than ponies, it could be easy to forget. And for a place like Trotter's Falls, where you couldn't even find an earth pony in residence, asking the local children to know how they were supposed to deal with a dragon goalkeeper was slightly unrealistic.

Spike stood quietly in front of the net under rapidly-thickening clouds, still holding the ball -- a ball he was completely aware that, under those rules, he wasn't allowed to be holding. But when it came to his first time in a game, he generally integrated himself with the new team by trying to get away with anything he could for as long as possible, followed by claiming ignorance of every rule he'd just very wittingly broken.

"Spike," Twilight sighed as she trotted up, "you know you're not allowed --"

The children automatically turned towards the voice. They all saw her.

It wasn't a perfect Official Royal Greeting Stance, especially when performed en masse by colts and fillies who might have never had a chance to try it out before (although she did recognize a few from the hoofball practice, whose brief previous experience didn't seem to be helping much.) Some forelegs were out of position, and more than a few heads were off-angle. Most of that last was produced by the ones trying to check their neighbors to see if they were doing it right. But on the very dubious bright side, it wasn't universal: not only had Spike kept his position (and the ball), but three -- two colts, one filly -- had stayed upright.

Those three were just staring at her. Intensely.

"-- please get up." Normal postures slowly began to exert themselves. "Spike, I need you inside for a few minutes. Please. You can come back out right after we're done. I promise it won't take too long, but we have to get it taken care of now."

He sighed, the exasperation of somepony who knew he had a better chance of getting away with it again once the game resumed if he was personally there to argue the lie. "Just a few minutes?"

"I hope so." She couldn't be sure. Half of it would be quick, but the remainder had felt extraordinarily awkward as she'd composed it within her head as a means of blocking out Rarity's silence. She suspected it wasn't going to make a very smooth transition to the scroll. "Do you -- need me to wait a little?"

Several children stared at the sapient who had just been proven capable of telling an alicorn to wait.

Another sigh, followed by a tired little shrug. "No, we can do it now. I'll be back in a while, guys." He carefully put the ball down, went around the argument which had seized its first chance to resume, and walked to her side. She smiled at her little brother, then began to lead the way back towards the castle.

"My mom," a colt voice said from behind her, "was talking about you."

She didn't know how to respond to that, if she was supposed to ask questions, or -- ignore it? Was that impolite, to ignore a child? Of course ponies were talking about her. She wished they would stop.

"She says you're --"

The next word was cut off by the sounds of the primary argument, which had just taken a verbal (and literal) surge for the sky. Twilight decided she didn't need to ask for a repetition. It was probably about blessing ponies. She'd heard more than enough of that for one lifetime, and truly didn't want to think about the word which had come just before the internal comma.

Spike waited until they were back in her temporary quarters before asking. "So what's going on?"

She made sure the door was closed, then checked the balcony. Everything seemed to be clear. "Two letters." He nodded, got the supplies. "The first one is to Trixie, and we're going to repeat the experiment. I have to tell her that I haven't been trying to make my own field stronger. I'm not sure what else I can tell her right now, but she needs to know it's not me. And... I have to ask where she is. Exactly."

He frowned a little. "Why?"

"Because we're allowed to ask for help," Twilight reminded him. "We can't call back to Canterlot: he said that. So the Princesses are out, and I'm not even sure if I can get away with writing the Archives. But -- we could be here for a while after the party, Spike, at least for being in the vicinity of Trotter's Falls, and Rarity was telling me..." She managed a slow breath. "...that we can't stay in the castle much longer. After the party's over, that's the end of our excuse for being exactly here. The Doctor is safe and our host kept his promise to the town. We may need to start getting some real camping supplies together, because we could be sleeping in the wild zone, really soon. And Trixie knows a lot more magic than most ponies, and she's really good with theory. If she's close enough that her caravan could get here in a few days, we can arrange to meet. That gives me time to figure out how to tell her what's been going on: that's a letter which'll take hours, and we don't have them right now. But if she can reach us, it'll be one more pony working on the problem, somepony who might have new ideas and a fresh respective. That could help."

The movement of his head crests seemed far too slow, the nod just barely identifiable at all. "Twilight... I know you two have been doing better. But -- Rarity and Pinkie -- bringing Trixie in, working with all of us, with them..."

"It'll be hard," Twilight reluctantly admitted. "But at the very least, she needs to know I'm not doing anything stupid. And she is good, Spike. And as far as the fights go --" because there was guaranteed to be at least one "-- I don't have to tell the others to get ready if she can't reach us, so I'd better find that out first."

"Okay," he eventually decided. "But Pinkie's going to yell at her. A lot. Because she's got her mouth back to yell with. Who's the other letter for?"

This time, it took five slow, steady breaths before she built up the internal pressure required to force the word out.

"Cadance."

Spike looked at her. Waited, claws flexing around the quill.

"She said... that the sisters and I used the same path. The Elements. But she didn't know what Cadance did. Maybe nopony does -- except the one who was there. The one it happened to. It's possible that she stumbled or researched her way into part of that path without knowing it, an accidental duplication -- and because she didn't know all of it, that's what went wrong. So I have to ask Cadance --" and she had to swallow twice "-- about what happened."

His eyes widened. "She's -- I..." His free hand came up, covered his eyes for a moment. "I don't even know how she's going to take that. Are you going to tell her about what's going on?"

"I don't know how much I can say," Twilight awkwardly admitted. "She can't come. She has to stay in the Empire. And if I say too much, she might relay some of it to Canterlot, and that could count for contacting them. This is hard, Spike. It's hard to figure out how much I can say to anypony, and I was trying to work that out for a while. But... she might have a piece of the puzzle. A piece nopony else knows about or understands. I don't know how she's going to take it either, and -- I just know I have to ask. It's time to ask. And if I make it sound too bad, or too urgent, then..."

"It could get worse than that," Spike decided as his hand came down.

"Worse than breaking one of the rules fourthhoof?"

"You could get her worried enough," Spike told her, "that she shows the letter to Shining."

Twilight's imagination immediately flashed onto the arrival of a full Guard unit in Trotter's Falls, with a very determined, potentially overprotective and, in this situation, extremely military Big Brother's Mentally A Captain Forever trying to put himself in charge. She stopped just as Quiet's study was being turned into Central Command, with all of those suddenly-pointless books being evacuated to make space for something important.

"This may take a few drafts," she winced.

"I know..." Most of the groan was buried. "Maybe they'll go into overtime outside."

The wince seemed to settling in for a long stay. "I'm sorry, Spike."

"Don't be." (She was proven wrong when the blink banished most of it.) "The mission comes first. Okay -- Trixie. Let me get a vial..."


With two scrolls sent into the aether, she released Spike to what remained of the game, then trotted back to Quiet's library. There was a little time left before dinner, and she needed just about all of it for scouting the shelves.

This time, she kept her focus on the goal (after a brief look at a fresh bookmark and listening for any hooves which might just happen to be approaching in the hallway, plus a brief pause to make sure the reading couch was properly aligned for best acoustics). She'd seen the citations Fortreeze had listed, and now she had to check for those books. She didn't expect to find any of them: the majority were scarce (although that didn't seem to be a problem for Quiet) and the rest held the same Can We Just See Your Authorization Form One More Time? status as the Guide. But she had to check. A one-book temporary raid of the library would start somepony's hooves on the path to creating their own snitcher: was there enough present to allow anypony a chance at the goal?

She worked quickly, even as her subconscious kept pausing in amazement, shock, and the occasional outburst of total jealousy as more and more longed-for titles passed before her rapidly-scanning eyes. (It took three tries to get away from the strongest of the fantasies, and it only broke up after she'd realized the spell she'd just had her imaginary self use to get out of the country had never existed outside a Thaumic Fiction section and would need at least two years of research before she could try to extract it into reality.) But in the end, she wound up with three things: a fairly extensive personal cataloging of Quiet's collection, a blazing fire of purest envy just barely being kept in check by a full knowledge of Equestria's penalties for grand theft, and -- one book. The weakest of those on the citation list, something which could be found in more than a few collections across the continent, which generally required nothing more for access than a polite request following a knock on the local library's front door.

It couldn't be done. There was no way to construct a snitcher simply by working with this group of books. To that extent, there was also no way Quiet could have been an active participant, and anypony breaking in for the information would have needed to plan a secondary robbery elsewhere.

The relief was enough to send her tail splaying across the floor.

All right. So the next questions go to device-makers, other sources for those books, and the possibility that her piece is just a really old one: something which was never confiscated. But that's an incredibly wide range of possibilities, too much to ever examine from here. There's device-makers all over the continent, along with private libraries. It could still be somepony who got into the Archives, and as for an old device -- that could be anywhere in the world, even places where ponies don't usually live because that might be the best place to hide something illegal. I don't know how we're going to narrow that down. If I brought her snitcher to a device historian, they might be able to examine it closely enough to determine age and caster, but that means finding a historian who won't report me two seconds after I take it out of the saddlebag. There probably isn't one of those in town and --

They had to be careful. About what they said, and very much about which ponies they spoke with. Twilight still didn't believe the entire town was in on it, for the full scope of whatever 'it' ultimately turned out to be. But they all believed somepony other than her had been part of it now, and without a find or something sitting in somepony's personal collection with multiple workings shielding it from the authorities, a device-maker would have been needed. Find exactly the right pony to ask about a snitcher and she might wind up talking to exactly the wrong one.

And if we got the right one, Rainbow would insist that the bad guys would catch up to us just before that pony could give us the information we needed, hitting them with a spell through a gap in the shop's keyhole, never mind the aim or a device-maker using security measures on their door which would leave it with a keyhole.

The thought made her smile, if only for a moment. She was proud of Rainbow for having taken to reading, but her friend's personal library was still extremely limited. Rainbow was thinking of things from the perspective of an adventure novel because that was all she had experience with. Plus the fact that she'd personally gone on so many adventures probably wasn't helping --

-- this isn't an adventure.

She stopped. Held the thought within her mind, rotated it back and forth, turned it over for a closer examination.

We've had missions, and some of them were adventures. But the books always miss something, and it's a problem no author can fix. They can make your heart beat faster, they can put you as close to the character as possible, they can make you feel for everypony there -- but they can't duplicate one aspect. Because when you've been on a real adventure, you know about the other moments.

The ones where time slows down because something's going wrong and the whole world wants you to appreciate just how badly you messed up.

The seconds where you're wondering if your friends are going to die because of a decision you made.

The moment when your heart almost stops.

You can always close the book. You can come back when you're calmer, and know the author is waiting to get the characters out of it. But no one saves us. No one fixes things for us.

When it's real, when it happens to you -- adventures are what you call the times when you nearly die because it's the only way you can think about them again at all.

We've had adventures and one day, one of us isn't coming back. Maybe we'll find something which Harmony and Elements don't mean anything against, and then all of us aren't coming back. But this... this isn't an adventure.

There's horror. There's been horror from the moment I first heard her voice. Then I saw her, and it became grotesquerie: breaking through something I thought was normal to reveal the nightmares underneath. I started to learn more about her and the more we all thought about somepony doing this to her, the closer we got to tragedy.

But that's not the core, is it?

Not adventure. Mystery.

(She paused for three seconds before realizing she'd been waiting for Pinkie to pass her the hat.)

When the clues don't seem to come in order. When you can't be sure if you're following the right clues, or if something is a clue at all. When you don't know who to trust or turn to, when even those closest to you -- no, stop: that's going too far. My friends are my friends, even if two of them are --

-- his.

Maybe it was something about being in the library, which made her think everypony could hear her heartbeat. Pounding so loudly in her own ears as to escape into the world.

What do I suspect him of? He scared me, that's all. Or maybe that's the wrong word. Go to what I told Spike in the town library: disturbed. You're scared when something isn't normal. You're disturbed when something should be normal and suddenly, it's just a little... bit... off.

"Can you feel them?"

I don't think that meant what he said it did. But I don't know why I think that. It's just instinct, and my instincts aren't always right. If I was better at instinct, I might be better in the air. But this takes thought, and when you try to break down instinct with thought... you can't always understand it. Maybe that's why I have so much trouble working out Rainbow sometimes, even now. She reacts and I try to figure out why I'm reacting.

But it's a mystery. Anypony could be a suspect. Anypony at all.

But not Pinkie and Fluttershy. He delivered them, and I'm grateful for that. It's all 'his' means: that he was their midwife. I'm glad for the Exception, for him. That they're under Sun as my friends.

The seven of us are together. None of us are any part of this. And I hardly know the town, or anypony in it. Mostly just the ponies in the castle. So I'm going to focus there, even when I possibly shouldn't. There's so many ponies in this town, and any of them could be involved. I need the right suspect. I need...

...her.

I need to go out and look for her tomorrow. And take Applejack, because Rarity's right: that's a resource we didn't know we had before this. Maybe there's a tool which can track. And maybe Cadance has an answer, or Trixie's just a few gallops out, or...

She wasn't sure when she'd started to move in the circle, and really didn't know why she kept looping behind the couch.

Too many questions. Too many possibilities. Too many mysteries, and even if we solve everything in Trotter's Falls, it'll still leave one. This was Discord's mission.

"I -- need your help. There is something -- which needs to be done. You are the ones -- who can do it. Will you?"

For Fluttershy.

"Something has happened. More things will happen. Unless the seven of you stop it. That is the mission. Now go do something about it."

For us.

Was she close to finding a way to become an alicorn, he doesn't want more of them around, and he wanted us to destroy her path once and for all? Why couldn't he do that himself? He never tried to stop me, if he even knew anything was happening at all. How does he know when something is taking place? What gets his attention?

Why does he care? Can he care? And if he can't, why would he pretend?

"Why?"

She stopped pacing as she said the word, looked up to the level where those mad red eyes usually glinted. But there was no flash of light, no sound of snapping talons.

Mysteries were, in their way, a form of chaos, and perhaps that held some interest for the draconequus. But solutions were order, and so she doubted he had any interest in providing hints.

It was time for dinner. The last one before the party, and perhaps her last formal meal in the castle. They would need to duck out before breakfast, might be gone long enough to miss lunch and after that, she had no idea what the meal service would be like during the party itself. If they left afterwards, their excuse having galloped itself into the ground -- then it might be the last time when that exact group would share a table.

If we have to leave -- I won't see Quiet any more.

She could write him. Experiment with the idea of multiple-jump teleportations, try to establish a line of safe spots between Ponyville and Trotter's Falls. Quiet would probably be willing to give her a clear arrival point in the castle, presuming anypony could move enough furniture.

But he's married.

He was her friend. Just her friend. It didn't matter if he was married. They could see each other, talk, read together, and his spouse wouldn't mind because they were just friends --

-- she'll be at the party.

She's coming back tomorrow.

I have to meet her. So she understands.

I don't want to --

-- it was time for dinner.


Eventually, Rainbow got Rarity into the dining room and judging by the echoing screams which had made their way down the approach route, most of that had been via tail clamp and drag.

"Really," Rarity huffed, "it is as if nopony here has ever had to deal with a deadline --"

"-- publications," Twilight reminded her.

"Birthday parties," Pinkie chirped.

"...taxes," Fluttershy softly said.

"Harvests," Applejack added.

"Daily weather schedule!" Rainbow finished.

Spike simply, silently pointed to Twilight.

"I suppose," Rarity sighed, "you all believe you have a point..." But the angle of her ears told them she'd admitted defeat. "Very well. I will emerge long enough for a meal. It keeps the food from getting on the fabric anyway. But may we please begin now, or at least free me to consume? I understand that the rest of you may wish to wait on Doctor Gentle, and that is a matter of courtesy, one I generally would not wish to offend, but given the scant hours I have remaining --"

"-- he's been in and out, Rarity," Quiet told her. "There's a lot going on today. I don't think he'd want us waiting on him."

Pinkie looked up. "A lot of births? I didn't hear that many ponies coming in and out of the castle, other than all the ones with the forms." A brief frown. "Why do you have to fill out so many forms just to throw a party? If I lived here, I'd go through more quills and ink than Twilight, and I'd never have time to do anything else!"

"Government," Quiet sighed. "Lots and lots of government, which somehow manages to manifest itself in the body of a single pony."

"Coordinator," Pinkie not-quite-asked, and he nodded. "I don't --" Stopped. "Um... I don't know how you two feel about each other, and I don't want to -- I mean, maybe when we're not here, he's really really different or something, but..."

Their host managed what felt like a rather weary smile. "If it's a matter of not wishing to cause offense, the only way you could say something about him which I haven't already is by speaking more languages than I do. And given that properly expressing myself on that subject required researching a few extra curses, you may need to take some classes. I'm hoping I can finish the last of the paperwork tonight. But as for the doctor -- he's been going back and forth between the castle and his estate grounds. Too much, in my opinion, but he's starting to make plans for the future. We both know he can't stay with me forever -- or rather, he can, but I think he'd rather have a place of his own again. And when it comes to his work, something a little less improvised."

This can't last forever.

"Twilight?" She looked up, saw Quiet's smile become even wearier. "As long as we're talking about less than enjoyable things -- I should warn you about the party's guest list."

She sighed, and felt he would understand the reasons. "Ponies who want to meet me."

He nodded. "We'll be getting a few from outside the settled zone, I'm afraid. Those who couldn't attend the coronation, and perhaps some who did and just want to prove they can manage such a feat twice. You'll be seeing nobles of all sorts, plus a number of businessponies and more than a few who'll just want a picture with you, preferably as you press a hoof against theirs or give them the nuzzle meant for successors. Which I've never seen and have no idea how to manage, but they'll just claim any nuzzle they somehow received was it. But I'll do my best to keep those encounters short."

"Well," she noted, "that is your duty as Captain of the Dawn Guard." His ears twitched a little, and she felt that much better about the day. "But there will be locals?"

"The majority," he assured her. "You've met at least one of those: Weaver Shine will be in attendance, although I'm not sure his spouse wants to go out this soon after the birth."

Rainbow looked up at that. "Who?"

"He runs the thaumaturgy supply shop," Twilight told her. "All sorts of stuff which nopony in Ponyville carries. We really need one of our own. We can't even get the experimental devices on first-generation because Mrs. Wonderment won't --" and she realized it was giving her an opening "-- carry anything that new. I'm guessing that's not a problem around here."

"Mrs. Wonderment?" Quiet blinked. "The Wonderments are in Ponyville?"

Which made Fluttershy tilt her head enough to almost expose a second eye. "...there's more than one of them?"

"They're rather scattered," Quiet told her. "Some make devices. Some sell them. It sounds as if you've got the latter. And if it's Mrs, then you may just have the clan elder." A brief pause. "You have my pity."

"You've met her?" Pinkie asked.

"I've met a Wonderment. That was bad enough." He shuddered. "Well, we don't have a member of that family locally, at any rate. The closest such pony is in Baltimare and our own convenience shop has more than enough devices, especially as owning something more expensive than functional seems to be an odd and frequent source of local pride. Weaver takes the experimental goods and Iridium Twist just takes the majority of everypony's bits, generally while he's smiling directly at you."

"Maybe I'll stop in tomorrow morning," Twilight decided. "It's been a while since I've seen anything really high-end."

"For purposes of costs," Quiet stated, "you're better off waiting for another shop. Just about any other shop."

"I can browse." And hope there wasn't any such thing as a Royal Discount. "Does he also do repairs? Mrs. Wonderment doesn't." Was in fact famed for not doing so, along with finding a way to blame just about every defect on the buyer, while that pony's fur was still smoking.

"Now and again, for some things," Quiet shrugged. "The damage to the malfunctioning device's surroundings is generally only matched by the injury to any repair budget."

"How about older things? Does he have any unusual pieces?"

There was a moment when she thought the near-colorless field around his lit horn might have flickered. Or perhaps it was simply sparkles shifting under light.

"Such as?"

"I wouldn't mind seeing a device shop which was a rough equivalent to your library," Twilight smiled. "With an equal promise not to leave with all of it. Since this seems to be the town which hosts a few surprises..."

He chuckled. "You may be disappointed. He mostly tries to keep as current as possible, and the antique shops... well, there may be a few treasures there, but I haven't really looked. At most, I might have moved something which was blocking my view of a particularly fine desk. That's about it. There's probably more antique devices in the castle -- which reminds me." He turned towards Fluttershy. "Did you ever mail out that animal feeder?"

"...no. It's easier to just take it when we go," Fluttershy softly replied. "And... thank you. Again."

Quiet smiled. "Think nothing of it, please: I'm glad just to know it'll be used and free up the space. And Miss Applejack? Did you mail your seeds?"

"Yeah," the farmer admitted. "Before we reached that shop you were talking about. Dropped them off at the post office." Twilight nodded confirmation: it had been a rather quick side detour. "I might have been better off carrying them home, but you never know with airmail: there's at least a chance they'll beat me there. Even if I can't plant them until next spring, I at least want my brother to see them as soon as possible."

It brought a nod, and the topics continued to shift. They talked, they ate, and they tried to keep Rarity from bolting her food too fast, with a brief failure of attention leading to Spike carefully pressing his hands against her ribs until the coughing went away. But Twilight kept her mind focused on what she'd learned. A local device shop was a place to start, and an inspection of the interior -- and proprietor's mark -- could potentially tell her just how good this pony might be at putting things together. Then again, if it was a rather young pony, that individual might not have been around when she had first needed a snitcher. However, if the shop had contacts...

Twilight felt it was a place where she could try to investigate. She just wished she had some idea of how to actually do that without getting caught. It was one thing to look into a subject where everypony knew there had been a crime (along with exactly what that crime was) and all attempts to solve the riddle could take place in the open. But with this kind of mystery, where even the investigation was being concealed...

Apparently I'm a specialist. Equestria's Greatest Pastry Detective. No other cases accepted, much less solved.

The meal went on, and there were moments when Twilight almost felt as if she was trying to slow time. For there was no disaster in progress, nothing with any degree of risk involved or a chance of somepony being hurt, the things she knew stretched out her perceptions -- but she wanted to remember. Sharing the meal. Herself, her little brother, and six friends. Six -- friends.

He's just my friend.

But nothing worked. The seconds rushed on, became minutes, gathered their forces and assaulted the clock. Nothing she did slowed the process, granted her a single extra moment. All she could do was try to remember. That they had talked, and joked, and mutually kept Rarity from dashing off for nearly an hour.

We may have to leave the morning after the party. We may never all be here again.

That there had been a time when it truly felt like as if there were eight.

I can come back. I will come back. Maybe we could all come back...

And she didn't understand why it felt like the last time.