• Published 5th May 2013
  • 12,887 Views, 1,494 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?

  • ...


They moved through the tunnel, with the path lit by silver corona light.

He had hardly ever used the passage. Teleportation brought advantages, and high among those was the fact that if you wished for a shortcut and knew there was a safe space waiting at the destination, then you had a rather strong primary option. For the most part, his time in it had been limited to occasional examinations of its full length, trying to see if everything was stable. But that was a visual inspection, and he had never been fully certain of his judgment there, for it wasn't as if any magic existed to help him learn what was going on with the walls and (still) somewhat natural ceiling. In the end, all he could do was say that it had not collapsed yesterday, having been there so long meant it probably wouldn't collapse tomorrow, and he was truly hoping it wasn't going to collapse tonight.

Surrounded by stone. For one of them, that state was the single most familiar.

"The things we fail to learn..." he softly said.

She was behind him, for she always knew to let him lead the way. "I don't. Understand..."

"Escorting," he clarified. "The process of teleporting with another at my side, bringing somepony with me to the destination. When I first learned to teleport, I thought that extra knowledge would be easy to add. How hard could it be? I could move myself. If I was wearing or carrying something, it came with me --"

From the back, a small, pained giggle briefly resonated through an enforced variety of night.

"-- well, all right," he ruefully remembered. "I did accidentally abandon those saddlebags at my departure point that once, rushing off to the delivery. I was rather distracted at the time. It happens. But in this case -- I thought I could learn to escort. There were many times in my life when bringing another with me would have been of so much use, starting when..."

And he stopped. It wasn't time for that. Not yet. And because she knew exactly what he was speaking of, the uneven sounds of hoofsteps slowed somewhat. There would be no more giggling.

"Many times," he quietly stated. "Including tonight. If I could just bring you there in a moment... so much easier. But somehow, the twist in the base working which leads to escorting -- that never came for me. And so we trot. But we will be there soon. And then I will have to go upstairs, be part of the party. Until the time comes."

"Yes," she eventually said, and he could hear the effort required to make the broken word emerge. How she was trying to make it sound as if she was hurting less than she truly was, and failing.

"Will you be all right by yourself? It will be some time."

"I can -- manage."

Words she probably would have said regardless. "You're certain?"

"I'm -- used to being..." Stopped. Coughed, and the little blast had a liquid sound at its core.

He wasn't a true doctor. But he had been present when so much had gone wrong, tried to stop as much of it as he could. To change those fates, and so part of him instinctively recognized the sound of a new distress. "What's happening?" And turned, his horn's light shining upon those changed features.

She wasn't moving. Her front knees were slightly buckled.

"I -- I feel --"

And then the vomiting began.

He rushed to her side, stayed with her through the convulsions. And when they finally ended, he gave her some of the water he'd brought with them, which had originally been intended for the time she would spend in waiting. But she could barely swallow it. He had to massage the outside of her throat with a field bubble just to trigger the automatic reaction and even then, some of the liquid tried to come back up.

It was several minutes, down there in the dark, before he would allow her to try moving again, and that did result in the resumption of their trip down the passage. She forced herself onward, because he had told her that this would be her night (not the one he'd dreamed of, but one which could still lead to the completion of the Great Work in the end, still an important night in so many ways and perhaps even the most so), and so she would do everything she could to make his words true.

But he'd forced himself to look upon the half-digested matter she'd brought up. The partially dissolved colors which stained her sickness. Melted capsules floating within.

Adverse reaction to the painkillers.

...he had other medications. He had something strong enough for the presentation, and if it triggered a reaction, it would do so after she had left the stage. They would get through the night. And after that... there was always a way forward. There always had been. So there always would be.

"This is your night," he told her. "The night for all of the broken."

And perhaps the pain had frozen her tongue, for she did not answer.

Pinkie had told her it was called circulation. For Twilight, who was the central target of the flow, it felt much more like being trapped within a giant clot.

The Bearers had, over the course of their friendship, attended what might be seen as far more than the standard share of parties. For starters, there were certain consequences to having Pinkie as part of the group, and then there were those few social gatherings which they stumbled into, were requested to attend, initially received too few tickets for... Most of the latter categories had produced memories, and there were even a few which could be recalled without triggering blushes -- as long as the inner movie didn't roll out anything too far beyond the opening credits.

As such, they had slowly established Rules for non-Pinkie parties, in the hopes of keeping the incidents down and at least a few of the local support columns standing. Two of those had become standardized: Pinkie was generally in charge, and Pinkie would make sure she herself had a full understanding of exactly what kind of party it was and why those hosting the function might want to keep it that way before she actually took charge. On this night, with Twilight at her first major post-change function, with so many of the guests seemingly coming from high society...

(Twilight wasn't entirely sure where all of the guests had come from and, after she'd heard a portion of the accent selection which Rarity's presence had once again effectively made complete, had some questions as to how they'd all gotten to Trotter's Falls. Quiet had mentioned that they'd be getting a few from outside the settled zone, but she could swear she'd just heard a distinctive west coast snort coming from the vicinity of the bar.)

After Quiet's speech -- something which had ended with more than a few ponies staring at him, and some of those surprised gazes had felt like those guests were trying to figure out just who this was as to presume he could tell them what to be thinking about for even a few seconds -- a few had seemed extremely confused about that part -- the line of Bearers had quickly been (and almost completely) dispersed. Ponies had crowded in towards them. Moved around them. They had gotten separated from each other, because a party had circulation, and ponies flowed through the paths which made up its arteries and veins. There had barely been a moment where they could try to stand united -- and then they were somehow standing near the band, or next to the bar. In Fluttershy's case, the ultimate destination was probably going to be the most defensible corner available, and Twilight was just hoping there wasn't a clear path to any window available from it. They were circulating, whether they wished to or not. In some cases, this meant they were being circulated: passed off from one pony who wanted to meet them to the next -- and the majority of those ponies wanted to meet Twilight. Or rather, they were ponies who wished a little snout-to-snout time with a Princess.

The party had started -- and Twilight had almost instantly found herself meeting Very Important Ponies, very important indeed, so very important that the first full minute of their introduction was generally used for explaining just how important they were, with the second occasionally utilized for explaining why she still hadn't heard of them. But those who approached had to get through a curly-tailed barrier first, because Pinkie, who understood the flow on the level of her mark, had made sure she'd stayed next to Twilight. It seemed to slow a few of the approaches, diverted others, and as far as Twilight was concerned, every tenth-bit helped.

The baker was listening to all of the interactions. She generally didn't interrupt unless the other pony said something she found funny, which still had to deal with Pinkie's sense of humor. There really hadn't been any moment when she'd formally put herself in the way. But she was very much a visible presence, letting anypony who approached know that there was a guard of sorts on the premises even without the capital letter involved, and it seemed to having a screening effect. Some ponies had begun to approach, spotted Pinkie standing next to Twilight, and silently changed their angle until they were flowing into a different section. There was a pool steadily building up by the bar. In terms of party anatomy, Twilight imagined that to be something like the kidneys. Or perhaps the bladder.

Some ponies had turned away -- but not all.

"...and that, Princess," beamed the fast-talker who hadn't let either of them get a word in since he'd started the sales pitch (and speaking so quickly as to prevent Pinkie from charging into any gaps was a feat worthy of applause), "is why you should absolutely channel some of your plentiful resources into getting my new company up and running! You'll have the original investment back inside of eleven moons, and after that, it's all profit! Yes, I know you've already got your riches, but what's wrong with being wealthier still? Absolutely nothing!" The stallion's head began to tilt back, reaching for a tiny exposed corner of the papers which were making an extremely thick bulge in his garment's chest pocket. "Now, I just happen to have a copy of the standard investor's contract right here --"

The pegasus' teeth clamped down on that corner. It gave Twilight her chance. "-- I'm a librarian."

His mouth released the documents, and a confused gaze swiveled back towards her. "You're -- well, yes, I suppose some of your station do decide that a job will pass the time nicely, but still, I'm sure that once you tap your true resources..."

Twilight named her salary. It wasn't a particularly long name and was completely lacking in titles, although it did come with a lot of unpaid (and generally compulsive) overtime.

"...you're a Princess," the somewhat-stunned pegasus finally got out, six breaths into the desperate attempts to acquire oxygen. "How does a Princess not have --"

"-- additionally," Twilight broke in, speaking at the speed of Pinkie, "I've been saving up to take a very important test. For some time now. I'd really rather not put any of that at risk. So my apologies, sir, but I think you might be better off looking for other investors tonight."

"But -- you're a Bearer. Surely that must pay at least --"

Pinkie automatically giggled, which switched up the target of the stare.

"-- excuse me," the pegasus abruptly stated. "I think I see somepony I know. Yes. Somepony I know. Over -- there." Wings flared.

Twilight spent a few seconds smoothing out the wind backblast's disruption to her mane. (Pinkie's curls were naturally resistant.) And then she sighed. "How long has it been?"

"Since the party started? About twenty minutes."

Twilight had what she felt was the only possible sane response: she softly groaned. "Ponies who want to meet me," she quietly said. "Ponies who want me to do things. Ponies who just had to be here..."

"You're doing okay," Pinkie gently encouraged her. "And I'm here." Twilight glanced over at her friend, found one of the smiles which the baker could so readily bring to others. "It's just for tonight."

Until the next party. And the next, and the next...

But this one was just for tonight. And Pinkie was there.

Admittedly, when it came to her current outer layer, she was a little less there than usual. The dress Rarity had granted her was considerably more subdued than the typical Pinkie-destined composition: a dark teal which didn't exactly mute the baker's presence while still stating that on this particular evening, it was best for said presence to have some level of volume control. It hadn't done anything to control the wild curls of mane and tail (and practically nothing ever did for more than a few minutes at a time), but it had rendered the total image into something which merely suggested an inherent sweetness to go with Pinkie's near-infinite approachability, as opposed to putting the entire candy shop on open display.

A degree of muting seemed to be a common theme for just about all of their outfits, including Spike's. It had taken Twilight some time to figure out the problem: Rarity had been working with a lack of gems. Her storeroom was gallops away, she knew of no hunting grounds in the area, and she hadn't approached Twilight to ask for a voucher which could be used at any local shop: even Rarity would hesitate before trying to declare fashion as a mission expense, and that was in an area with more normal pricing. As such, there were only a few gem adornments -- and those had come from the little supply which the designer almost always had with her, added to Spike's emergency rations. The resulting dresses (and one tuxedo) were still recognizably the product of Rarity's creative vision: it just took a moment to adjust for not looking through facets.

"At least he was nice," Pinkie decided. "In a Flim-Flam sort of way. When they're being nice until they have your bits, and sometimes they're even nice all the way over the hill, right up until you never see them again." She was starting to trot forward: Twilight made sure to move with her. "Besides, who would burn oil to run a new kind of train? Oil smoke is dirty! Steam kind of messes up your mane for a while until it dries out, but oil..."

"I know," Twilight sighed. "But it's not like he gave us a chance to tell him." Ponies who wanted investments. Ponies who wanted to say they'd met a Princess. Ponies who were --

-- admittedly, some of them definitely seemed to be avoiding her. There were ponies who reacted to her circulation path through instantly putting themselves into a branch artery, or squeezing through the narrow capillaries which ran between roaming food trays. (Wider ones were available, but only where the griffon cuisine (modified) was moving.) But still -- twenty minutes, probably hours to go, and somehow using twenty minutes as the divisor for those hours was producing a rather unmathematical and yet completely accurate number.

It was going to be a very long party. And since the circulation had started to pull them all apart, she'd barely had a glimpse of the others. (The most frequently sighted pony had been Rainbow, who was either fulfilling all requests to show off a little or deciding that just about any interaction with her was leading up to such and saving those ponies the trouble. So far, the entire party area remained intact, although one ceiling-hung tapestry was now dangerously slanted to the left.) Spike, smallest, who had the most trouble holding his ground -- he'd been completely lost to view, something Twilight was all too familiar with because it happened so often at large gatherings: the little dragon, even with the novelty of his presence figured in, could become overlooked, especially if there were ponies with raised snouts who'd decided not to bother with checking for smaller obstacles in their path. At the worst of times, he could wind up dodging around a seemingly-endless series of near-tramplings. Tonight, Twilight had to worry about that, having him sneak off to the bar when she wasn't looking --

-- and a potential letter coming in.

They still hadn't received any reply from Cadance. It could arrive at any second. It might never arrive at all. But if it did come, then there was no way of stopping it. Spike had no truly tested ability to temporarily keep such missives within the aether, not for more than a few seconds. His nostrils would flare, his mouth would open, and a new pathway would be cleared for the gout of flame. Possibly rather quickly, and with more than a little chance of screaming involved. The majority of Ponyville's residents had gradually become used to the arrival of scrolls, and now recognized that most of Spike's exhalations represented nothing more than a rather unique method of saving a stamp. But here... they wouldn't know what was happening. They might panic, and with so many ponies packed so closely together...

Twilight had spent a good part of the day desperately hoping Cadance's answer would arrive. She was now rather desperately hoping it wouldn't. Not until morning.


"Just thinking, Pinkie."

Another smile. "About what?"

I have to tell them what's in my head...

Keeping her volume low, making sure Pinkie's rotated ears were the only ones which would hear her at all, "Hoping we don't hear anything from the North until tomorrow. If Spike got the scroll right now..."

Pinkie winced. "I didn't think about that! Maybe... oh, I hate doing this to him, especially during a party, but -- maybe he'd better go back to your room? How long could he hold it back if he had to?"

"I saw him do it for about twelve seconds once," Twilight admitted in that half-whisper. "He was assisting me with something and -- well, it was one of those things where open flame was a really bad idea. He managed to keep it from coming in until he got clear. But he's never had to really keep something from arriving for longer than that. I don't know what he can do. We never tested it, there was never any real reason to test..."

"Maybe it's like holding back a sneeze," Pinkie optimistically suggested. "Sometimes if you just make a funny face and hold it for a while, the sneeze goes away."

"And sometimes," Twilight stated, trying not to think about the possibility of a lost scroll, "you sneeze." Maybe she did need to send Spike to the upper level, just in case. But she needed to find him first. Aerial scouting -- flying in the great hall felt like a truly bad idea, because eventually the necessary state of mind would collapse and there was no guarantee that she would have landed first. Getting up to the surrounding walkway and staring down, however, seemed to have something going for it, and so Twilight adjusted her path. Pinkie continued to stay with her.

It wasn't a smooth passage. There were more ponies to meet, ponies who insisted on being met, and Twilight couldn't dodge them all. Could not, in fact, dodge any. It seemed as if she could see all the local Weather Bureau members she wished. But she'd lost track of Spike. She couldn't find her friends. She hadn't seen Quiet since the circulation had begun. And that wasn't all.

Was that his --

-- no. That's the dress' hue, not the fur.

That really isn't a very good dress. Somepony should send her to Rarity. Immediately. No dress should ever try to simulate a stallion fetlock clump -- maybe I've been spending a little too much time being shown all those trade magazines... wait. Is that his spouse?

And over and over, the answer remained no. Not Quiet's wife. Nor Quiet. She did spot a light green coat with swirls of soft yellow, but had no way to reach the thaumatology supply shop's owner, and the most she could have done was ask if he'd seen Spike. He seemed to be busy, anyway: Weaver Shine was clearly speaking with another pony and while Twilight couldn't make out any of the words through the party's buzz, his expression suggested they were important ones.

Spike still wasn't visible, but even with all the interruptions, she was getting close to the ramp. She'd have the elevated view soon enough --

-- a flash of orange fur, added to blonde mane (which still had too much of the upper crest exposed) and tan fabric, resting within a surprising bubble of open space.

A deeper instinct had its say, and Twilight diverted.


The farmer turned. "So y'haven't broken for the loft yet." There was a smile attached to that. "Not having a loft probably helps. How are you getting on so far? I'm mostly just watching ponies go by. And around me. Plus you've got to see some of their faces --"

It was just about a whisper, and all the stronger for that lack of volume. "-- House Rosaceae?"

"I'm impressed," Applejack placidly stated. "Most ponies can't pronounce that first go. Softtread had to rehearse three times."

Twilight stared at her. Applejack shrugged.

"Twi," the farmer calmly said, "just about anypony who held land early in a settlement phase can qualify for the nobility. Or occupied sky, for the pegasi. You know that. You know some Houses are just the ponies who were there first before the Unification began, and their titles are the concession they kept for having their territories come in. And my family -- was directly granted land rights in what wound up as Ponyville -- by the Princess -- and we got there first. What did you think that meant?"

The stare wasn't exactly decreasing in intensity.

"You went," Twilight quietly said, "more than three years without telling me you had a title."

"So? It took you just about two before you just happened to mention having an older brother. And only because there was, you know, a sort of event, and you showing up for it would have been kind of hard to explain away without going into some of the little details. I told you, Twi: you keep your secrets, even when you don't have to. And if they'd both been into prolonged engagements, I'd probably still be thinking you were the first branch on that part of the tree." Followed by, with a deliberately wicked tone, "But y'know, as far as my title goes, if somepony had just gone and asked me..."

Currently at 50% Fluttershy and rising. "But why didn't you --"

The words were pitched for Twilight's ears alone. "-- because it doesn't matter." A short pause. "Titles are mostly good for two things, Twilight, and one of them is saying you have the thing." Thoughtfully, "Well -- maybe three. I guess somepony could get paid to write something florid enough to say. Come to think of it, whoever did -- Quiet's? -- should have gotten overtime."

"Did anypony know?"

From behind her, "Yes." Twilight glanced back just in time to see the embarrassment rushing through Pinkie's fur. "After a while. But I wasn't supposed to say..."

"Plus," Applejack added, "maybe a couple of ponies around town. Two or three. Anypony who's really into reading those Peerage books, all the way through the last twig on the biggest trees. The mayor might have an idea. And that's probably it. I ain't even told Apple Bloom, because I knew the first thing she'd do if she found out she had a House was go all 'Cutie Mark Crusaders Nobility --'" the sarcasm was automatic "'-- yay,' and Sun only knows what she'd decide that meant, especially once the other two got involved. I figured the best case was them deciding they were supposed to be the government and we'd wind up losing Town Hall. Again. Twilight -- I don't care about my title." This pause was longer. "Well -- not much, anyway. As a family thing, it's a little special. To know that the Princess thought so highly of that family, she told them that she wanted the Malus line as the first ponies in. That we were chosen. When I look at it that way, it's something to be proud of. But that's all it means. Generations back, somepony else got her respect. I still had to earn it on my own."

"Then..." Completely confused now. "...tonight? Why tonight --"

"-- because," Applejack smoothly, softly cut in, a small smile twisting her lips, "the thing a title's good for which I didn't mention? Some ponies need apples kicked in their faces before they get some sense. Others gotta get hit by words. Every pony here tonight got a little reminder, Twilight. That earth ponies can be nobles. Maybe some of 'em are gonna decide their own titles mean less because of that. Others? They're just gonna be mad. Hardly anypony here knows how to deal with me. Can't trot up, can't talk. Because they'd have to at least pretend to treat me as an equal until nopony was looking any more. Maybe even a superior, depending on their own House. And every last one of those ponies who can't talk to me is trotting past with the bruises from words on their snouts. Because for some of them, their titles are all they are, all they can be, and now I've got one..."

Ponies were going by, because a party's circulation flowed until something blocked it. But that tide passed around them. Nopony was truly watching. And if any of them were listening, then the forced stoicism on so many faces told Twilight that the last thing they wanted to do was hear.

Applejack could clearly see all of it. And so the farmer rolled her eyes -- then sighed, as the smile faded away.

"Ah've gotta watch that," she quietly said. "Maybe it felt too good. Like something I could get used to real easy, and want to do over and over. I don't think I'll be kicking like this again for a while after tonight, not without a really good reason. But maybe when you've been kicked enough, anypony's entitled to kick back once."

Part of Twilight's rather occupied mind was beginning to consider all of that. The remainder was dealing with what had suddenly become a rather pressing question, and so managed to beat a path to the vocal cords before the majority had a chance to notice.



"Remember that whole 'garden party' bit?"

The farmer's lips quirked. "Fondly."

In some ways, that provided the next answer -- but the question emerged anyway. "Did you do that on purpose?"

Which brought the smile back. "So where are you heading? You kind of look like a pony who's trying to get somewhere."

"Applejack, I know you're trying to change the subject --"

"-- already apologized to Rarity. A while back. Besides, everypony else was having so much fun, and there was a little dance craze getting started... So where were you going?"

Twilight, for lack of any other options, sighed. "Just up the ramp. I have to find Spike: I just realized we might have some problems if he gets a sending right now."

The green eyes went slightly wide. "Oh -- yeah. Do that. Pinkie, how are you holding up? It's not the worst party, but even with you helping out on the setup, and Ah ain't blaming you..."

The baker's eyes briefly sought out the floor. "Maybe an apple bobbing tub would have helped."

Twilight had been wishing for one ever since the circulation had begun. "So I'd better get up there," she recommitted. "Pinkie?"

"Um..." A little wince. "Actually... will you be okay by yourself for a minute or two? I think I need to talk to Applejack. Right now. About -- looks. And -- not looking. If that's okay?"

"Pinkie," Equestria's newest confessed noble said, "I'm fine --"

"-- and I say," Pinkie carefully insisted, "that we need to talk. Just a little. Right now."

There were times when they had to trust Pinkie. Twilight had already decided this was one of them.

"I'll be all right," Twilight assured her, and hoped it would be true. "The ramp's close, and nearly everypony's down here. I'll just go up and scout. Maybe I'll wave Rainbow over if she gets close on a swoop. But once I'm overhead, it shouldn't be that hard to find Spike."

It was.

There had been three we-must-talks! on the way to the ramp, and she'd thought it was about to be four until the pony who was right in front of her had abruptly moved out of the way. She'd also had a harder time getting away from such interactions without Pinkie there, ponies seemed to be coming up faster now, and she'd had some real worries about being followed --

-- but once she'd reached the surrounding walkway, she'd had a minute to herself, for even in a culture where a third of the population could be airborne at any moment, groundbound ponies who didn't possess constant low-level concerns about where Rainbow might be crashing next didn't spend a lot of time looking up.

She found Rarity first, and hadn't meant to. It also didn't take long to realize she wasn't going to be interrupting that interaction, because the designer had a very distinctive sales are in progress set to the elegant tail, one which told Twilight that of the six mares who had surrounded her, at least one was extremely interested in a commission. (Based on Twilight's hours within the boutique, two others were probably just keeping up appearances, and the other three would ask for a calling card, followed by very carefully losing it.) A Rarity who had the chance to expand her contacts and profits needed to be left alone, because the Fund would only do so much and there was always the chance for true Discovery to be a single client away.

Fluttershy... well, it was a very defensible corner. Twilight had seen Fluttershy insert herself into any number of corners during high-pressure social situations, and so could expertly say that the pegasus had made an excellent choice. Of course, it wasn't perfect, because Fluttershy was the most attractive of the Bearers. There were other pegasi at the party, and that allowed for three angles of approach. And with the corner in play, there was nowhere left for the animal caretaker to retreat. All Twilight could do was hope another friend reached her. Quickly, because the shapely body could do a rather impressive amount of damage in full charge, and when Twilight considered the way Fluttershy was currently trying to hide just about every last tenth-bit of tail she possessed, which was a near-impossible project to start with...

Applejack and Pinkie were where she'd left them. The set of their ears told her the conversation was a rather serious one, and might go on for some time. A small bubble of space maintained around the discussion.

A noble.

Twilight's House had existed for generations before her birth. She knew it was a strictly moderate one as Houses went: not too many members, not that much power, and pretty much no caring about either of the previous factors. It had gained some minor extra status when Shining had reached his rank. But then the wedding had come, and -- well, ponies paid real attention when somepony married a Princess, especially when it seemed to be the only such wedding in Equestria's history. Then she had changed, and... she didn't know exactly what the status of her House was, but she had several reasons to suspect it wasn't moderate any more.

She was, technically, a noble. She always had been. But she had something in common with Applejack: she didn't care. She didn't even know how her House had been founded to begin with: she had learned about the lives of so many great casters, but when it came to her own family history... well, there weren't all that many great casters in it. Her parents hadn't seen the other ancestors as a worthy subject for bedtime stories, and so she'd left that part of the past alone.

It had taken much less than two years for the others to find out about her status, and Twilight hadn't been the one to tell them. Pinkie, bringing in the library's mail for her, had splayed out the envelopes on the main desk while Twilight was busy with some extremely necessary reshelving, and that had given Pinkie the chance to read it -- for when you were a unicorn in a House, you were in the Peerage books. That was automatic. Twilight could find her entry any time she liked, and had only glanced at the relevant page in an update volume once since her arrival in Ponyville, mildly curious as to just how Cadance had been written in.

You were in the books -- and, if you weren't careful, you also wound up on mailing lists. Requests for donations to all sorts of causes, political appeals from your supposed fellows who just knew you'd understand and all sorts of other missives, every last one of which wanted her to send a prepaid voucher in the return envelope. (She couldn't even get rid of the catalogs, although she'd managed to redirect some of them to the Boutique: Rarity could at least appreciate the intent behind a ridiculously overpriced mail-order dress, if not always the design.) And they were lists which followed you. The process for doing so didn't seem to be a magical one: Twilight had never found so much as a single lingering thaum on any of the mailings, and attempts to dispel what didn't appear to exist had mostly led to a lot of singed envelopes. She couldn't get a given journal's subscription mailing address reliably updated, much less get off the list. There had been a few moons of peace -- and then the letters had found the tree.

Pinkie had read the full designation on an outer envelope, immediately fallen into a cascade of giggles, and by the time Twilight got close enough to learn just what was so funny, the secret (such as it was) had been out. But Twilight hadn't really cared. Ask her to describe herself and in the time before Ponyville, she probably would have begun with 'student' or, after graduation, 'researcher'. 'Librarian' had only arrived after she'd taken custody of the tree and learned what the job truly meant. 'Bearer' hardly ever got pulled out unless it was the only way through. 'Noble' might have reached after about five hours of steadily working her way down the checklist until she finally she reached the dusty entry. Her friends had all enjoyed their share of the laughter, especially after they'd seen what Twilight was being asked for and worked the figures against her actual salary. And then they had treated her no differently than before -- if you left out the typically-once-per-season opportunity for a minor joke at Twilight's expense. It was a cost which generally worked out to zero, at least once you subtracted the blush.

And now Applejack is -- always has been, and just didn't see any need to bring it up -- a noble.

Why am I having trouble with this?

Is it because...

...maybe I should get back to --

-- no. Stop it. I don't always catch myself when it happens, but this time, I know I'm trying to dodge. Let the words go through. Is it because...

It hurt. It shouldn't have hurt, and yet the pain worked its way across her snout, contracted fur as a hard wince rippled her face.

...is it because she's an earth pony? Am I really somepony who can't see an earth pony as being a noble? Am I...

All the ponies milling below, and so few coming close to the two that lacked both horn and wings.

What do I think of when I think of nobles? What does being a noble mean to me?

-- okay, for me, it mostly means that when I get one of those government forms where you have to fill out your absolute real and true ultimate full name, I need more space. I'm really going to need some extra space the next time that happens -- actually, come to think of it, maybe that's why Applejack never accepted any of my offers to help with the family's taxes. But what does it mean when I apply it to other ponies?

It should just mean 'ponies with a title'.

Applejack is -- still herself. Even with everything that's happened, all I've learned -- she's still Applejack. She's just Applejack with some new things added. I see her though the filter of a title and I see...

...I see my friend.

And when I think of nobles, what I mostly think of is the ones who are -- what she said. The ones where the titles are all they are. All they ever could be. It's the most they can even dream of for themselves, unless they're dreaming of being the only ones who have that title at all.

But Quiet's not like that. Neither's Fancypants. And there are nobles who just -- fill out their forms with a little more ink. But when I think of nobles, and try to think of Applejack -- I can't see her acting like the worst ones do. Ever. And all that time in the palace, at the Gala, even at that garden party, when I'm seeing the worst of them... it makes it hard to remember the best exists.

I think of the worst of them, automatically. That's the shame of it. Maybe it's something I need to be ashamed of, having taken that in as a stereotype. But that's not my friend.

She's a -- noble pony. And a pony noble.

Ponies can be both.

And somewhere, she found a smile.

I wonder what Big Mac's full title is? Probably something really embarrassing. I'll ask Applejack what it is. And if she won't tell me, I'll pull it out of him eventually. Maybe by yoke -- come to think of it, how are they staying off the mailing lists? Now that's something worth calling 'the Secret'! Or is there another mailing list for the non-unicorn Houses?

-- okay, now I'm just distracting myself. I can see four of my friends from here. Can't spot Rainbow right now, but maybe there was a stunt she just had to show off outside, storm or no storm. And I can't spot Spike. If he was just taller -- bad wish, bad wish! Just look for his crest --

There were hoofsteps coming up the ramp. She didn't look in that direction: it would have been time taken away from the search, and she'd used enough of that already in getting past her own thoughts. If somepony was trying to meet her, she would be met. There wasn't much she could do about that. And for that matter, there was a chance that if the new arrival was asked politely, or by a Princess, she would have the help of extra eyes.

But the hoofsteps stopped, and the voice which replaced them was familiar. It was a voice she had spent years listening to, one she'd dearly wished to forget, and it would never be a sound which offered help. But it addressed her in what were almost caring tones, a falsehood which even the tiny portion of bare empathy she'd retained in school had always seen through.


And with all the echoes rushing forward, those school years suddenly surrounding her, pressing on her body with the weight of memories and shrinking the pony at the center -- there was a moment when all she could do was stand there. Unable to move. Waiting to see just what was going to go so horribly wrong --

-- I'm not a filly any more.

I'm not that pony.

I'm me.

She turned, looked directly at him.

"Is there something you want, Coordinator?" she snidely asked. "Is there a legislated maximum viewing time for this area? A minor law requiring that I find a coin-operated telescope and start dropping bits in? Because if that's the case, feel free to send the resulting paperwork for the fine. That would be care of Tartarus --"

"-- Twilight." And it was half put-upon sigh. Frustrated, somewhat bemused exasperation. Another lie.

For him, it can be Princess. "What. Do. You. Want? Because I really want to reach the part where I just say no and --"

But the dull grey field had already ignited, and glow was descending towards the chest pocket of his own garment, fishing within. This time, the paper had the chance to emerge, and Twilight's words died as she saw the multiple colors of ink which covered the exposed portion of the folded sheet, and all the things which had been scribbled in some of the worst mouthwriting ever seen.

"If you have a moment," Coordinator calmly said, "I'd like to return this. As a --"

The pause, if not for the word which followed it, would have been the worst part. The pause was when he smiled.

"-- friend."

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