• Published 5th May 2013
  • 13,407 Views, 1,688 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?

  • ...


This silence needed some extended taking in to fully appreciate.

The hush had not fallen over the crowd: it had crushed them, obliterating all sound under the weight of disbelief. Ponies were staring. Ponies were caught in between breaths, and some of them needed to move on from that rather quickly. Ponies were wishing for cameras, but -- well, there wasn't exactly much of a press above that school level in this area, and nopony had traveled in to cover the story just yet, with a few relying on the flow of rumor racing through the air paths instead. The events seemed a little too much like actual news: why get involved?

It was a pity, really. All of the reporters and photographers stationed in Ponyville (some still seeking word of the Princess so they could go harass her in a new location, others using the time to find more reliable bushes) would have given so much for this. To capture the sight of a Princess bowed down low in front of a common citizen -- oh, there would have been so many options for association with that image. Cherished secret father figure? Actual father? (Nightlight, one of nature's faster learners, had required a mere two days to stop reading any and all newspapers.) Dare they push for -- older lover? So many stories to spread, and if any of them accidentally happened to be fact -- well, that had to happen eventually, right? Spread enough wild tales and you might hit the truth by mistake. And this time, it wouldn't have even been the standard attempt to kill the battered thing.

Twilight Sparkle. Caught in the position of deepest honor. Holding it for what would have been a respectable amount of time in the presence of Celestia or Luna (and a little over what was universally deemed appropriate for Cadance). Not looking up. Apparently rather intent on the act of inspecting the inside of her eyelids. Waiting to be released by a single word, and seemingly content to wait all day.

Thousands of Murdocks' bits would have been given out for that picture. Most of them would have been counterfeit.

The stallion's voice carried a touch of deep, calm bemusement: no mockery meant and none should be taken. "Royalty is bowing down to me. Something feels deeply wrong with that. Please arise, Princess Twilight. I am honored -- confused, yes, but honored. Now why in Equestria would you feel the need to do that, other than trying to take the weight off my leg by inflating the ego?"

"Sir," Twilight breathed as she straightened back up. "For the discoverer of Doctor Gentle's Differentiation Exception..."

He chuckled. "An honorary doctorate from the Equestrian Magic Society, no more. Technically, I'm a midwife. A stallion midwife, which continues to confuse certain ponies to this day, no matter what kind of title some ponies insist on throwing in front of my name. I am Gentle Arrival, Princess Twilight -- but if you want to use the 'Doctor', I can't really think of a way to stop you. Or any other pony."

Rarity was confused. "Differentiation -- Exception?" And that was the least of it: her expression suggested she was debating between bowing down herself, taking a quick gossip survey of the crowd in order to confirm exactly where she should be placing Doctor Gentle in the social tiers, and perhaps just a tiny touch of inquiry as to whether he was single. "I've never heard of such a thing."

"I have!" Pinkie laughed. "And then some!"

Doctor Gentle nuzzled her again, did the same for a lightly giggling Fluttershy -- then spotted Twilight's expression. "I know that look: somepony who knows all about it to the last degree and is simply waiting to see if I wish to say it first. And possibly one who knocked herself out in school trying to find a second -- yes?" The lightest of teases, and Twilight saw it for just that: she giggled a little herself. "The floor is yours, Princess."

She nodded, still unable to shake the feeling of awe. To meet this pony... "It's a field tuning which allows a unicorn to both feel and move one thing inside another -- but it only works on a single very specific definition for each. An unborn foal inside a mother." With some of that awe in her voice, "He invented obstetrics." And again, because she felt it needed to be said, "Sir." Was three enough?

"He," Doctor Gentle corrected her, "was both too stubborn to quit and lucky enough to find a single key. But one fortunate discovery -- that was enough." He looked at all the young mares and stallions still gathered on what was left of his grounds, ponies nearly all within a few years of Twilight's own age: those old enough to be on their own or simply allowed to travel without supervision. No wonder... "A single moment of fortune, and Equestria becomes so much richer for a little luck. And please don't argue that, my eldest." This to Fluttershy. "The world is better off for having all of you. Every last pony."

"I don't feel the other way any more," Fluttershy softly said. "Not for a long time." (Pinkie adjusted her position, hugged them both.)

"Eldest?" Twilight asked. "Wait -- Fluttershy --?"

He nodded. "My very first." She blushed. "Fluttershy is the oldest pony here: my career truly began the day she was born. A dry birth -- her mother had been in labor for hours, and -- well, I was desperate enough to try and lucky enough to succeed. About a year later, I was traveling and had the fortune to hear screams from across the fields -- and that eventually brought Pinkie to us. She was a breech."

Rainbow Dash had just barely been keeping up before that. "A -- what?"

Pinkie giggled. "I tried to come out tail first."

Twilight couldn't help herself: she laughed, and heard the others doing the same. Pinkie had been Pinkie from before she was born...

Doctor Gentle was considerably more somber. "As close as I have ever come to losing both mother and filly without having that tragedy actually take place," he softly said, gazing at Pinkie with warm eyes. (All the laughter stopped.) "I was able to turn her and bring her out, but by the time I heard them and arrived -- the strain on both..." Sadly, "I have lost the battle, of course: too many years, too many foals and mothers for whom nothing could be done. But Pinkie stood on the absolute border of the shadowlands and made her own decision to walk under Sun. So close..."

The earth pony hugged him again, said nothing.

Another nuzzle, and then "I am truly sorry, my young ladies, but -- there are others waiting their turn, and I wish to send them home before too much more of their lives are given to waiting for me. Will you be heading back to Ponyville today, or do you have a little more time in the vicinity? It's been nearly a year since we saw each other last -- I would enjoy catching up on your news."

Twilight thought fast. The mission was in this area, they knew that, presuming Discord wasn't expecting them to step through a local portal to somewhere else in the world. (It was possible. Too many things were.) They had to stay here (or roughly in the vicinity) until evidence pointed to another location on the map -- so before either pegasus or baker could reply, she said "I allotted several days for this, sir. There's no rush for us to return. Besides, I haven't gotten to travel to this part of Equestria before, and --" she just got the rest out with a straight face "-- it seems I should take the chance to meet ponies wherever I go." The next thought was closer to being sincere. "At some point, we should all take the full tour... but for now, we can stay. And --" this was beyond sincere and heading, with unstoppable force, directly towards the wild pronking gait more appropriate to fanfilly "-- I would love to take a night and talk about magic with you --"

The breeze came back up, carried a bit of soot and smoke residue into her nose while lifting an entire locale's worth of reality and crashing it into her brain.

Oh. Abashed, "-- but you have so many other things to do..."

He shook his head. "Most of my clients come to me, Princess -- and unless I hear of an emergency, I'm not scheduled to travel again for a couple of weeks. I've already asked my young friend here if he'll host me until I have a place of my own again, and he's consented."

Young friend here? Now there was a major category to narrow down. Young friend where?

"I will have the time to talk about magic with Equestria's most talented caster, although --" another twinkle "-- I'm genuinely not certain what I could possibly teach you. Actually -- given the amount of space he has available, he might be able to host you as well. Not that I mean to volunteer on your behalf, Quiet, but -- would you think about it?"

"I already have, Doctor. I would be honored."

Twilight jumped. Not very high or far: a full-body start which echoed from hooves to tail and wings (which didn't seem to know what to do with it), two inches or so in a series of traveling stages. But jump she did, and more than a few other ponies copied the action.

There was a young adult unicorn stallion present, a full body length or so away from the doctor's back left. She hadn't noticed him until he'd spoken. Not as a full presence, not as part of the background -- at all. But he was there, must have always been there: no tang of teleportation in the air, no feel of magic at all. He had just escaped her notice so completely as to not effectively exist, lost in the shadow of the legend's presence.

He was -- grey. The single most grey pony Twilight had ever seen. Hues of grey, yes, fine gradients: his coat one shade, his mane and tail yet another (with what seemed to be fine grey stripes running through that last) and eyes still one more. Small for a full-grown stallion, a little smaller than her, and she'd always thought of herself as being slightly built for a mare. Thin legs, a narrow body, breathing steady but with that seeming to require conscious attention on his part, as if he had to be sure the next one was coming. And the cutie mark was --

-- was...

...it was. Twilight was sure of that. She could make out its presence in the proper location. But it too was grey, and that made it difficult to identify the exact shape. If she just had some more time to look, time where it didn't seem to any spectators as if she was staring...

"Thank you, Quiet," Doctor Gentle said. "Truly and again. Now don't feel the need to follow or wait for me -- there are many ponies waiting their turn, and at some point --" sadly "-- I will be asked to inspect the remains. I can see the investigators waiting from here. And I refuse to believe in arson, so I am truly curious as to what they have to say..."

He kindly disengaged from Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, then limped away, giving Twilight a closer look at the injured leg. Medicine wasn't really in her knowledge comfort zone, but she had seen enough of her former fellow students suffering from backlash aftermath to identify a truly bad muscle pull. It would heal, but the process would not be quick, and very little could be done to hurry it.

The new stallion (had he just arrived while they were talking? Had she overlooked him that completely?) bowed briefly, straightened and smiled at her. "So," he began, sounding more than a little bemused himself. "I want to make sure I have this right -- greetings and welcome to Trotter's Falls for all the Element-Bearers, Defenders Of Harmony, Exemplars Of The Six Pony Virtues, Saviors Of The Land." (Three Celests overhead, Rainbow Dash briefly felt better than she had in two days.) "And a most particular welcome to -- I'd better have this right or it's my head, isn't it? -- The Fair Princess Twilight Sparkle Of House Twinkle, Our Lady Of The Dusk And Dawn, Incarnate Of The Future, And Most Gracious Blessing Of Hope Upon The Land And Sky. Now if you'll all follow me, I will do my best to trust Doctor Gentle will have a sufficient number of stallion-sitters without my being there, and I see six mares -- and a dragon? Truly? -- in need of a good meal and a hot bath. Not necessarily in that order." (Rarity moaned. Just a little.) "So -- this way to the castle, if you're quite ready for either or both..."

The group began to shift forward. Except for Twilight, who had been paying close attention to the light humor which had underlaid her greeting. "A moment first, please." They all stopped. "I didn't get your full name, sir."

"Quiet -- Quiet Presence. And it's hardly a 'sir' --"

"-- and -- you have a castle?"

"Well -- yes. It's inherited, but..."

"Then you must have a title."

A blink. A quick, embarrassed gaze directed towards the crowd (which was pretty much all following the doctor towards the shield border -- and then had to stop as the spell parted to allow him and only him through), then at the ground. His left front hoof scraped a shallow trench into the sooty dirt. "Well... yes, but..."

Teasing, "Then -- shall we hear it?"

He looked around again, visibly seeking escape. And there were plenty of directions to run in, endless amounts of wild zone in which to hide -- but absolutely nowhere that the question would not find him. Reluctantly, "His Most Gracious Lord Quiet Presence, Heir To The House Of Deluge, Bearer Of The Standard, Light Of The Storm's Passing, And Holder Of The Sacred Leg Rings Of Trotter's Falls." (Applejack bit back a giggle.)

"And how do you feel when somepony addresses you that way?"

Without a moment of hesitation, "By the time they finish all that? Bored. -- all right, I get your point. Just Princess Twilight, then?"

She grinned. "Just Twilight, actually."

He nodded. "Twilight." And led the way.

Take a few minutes and have a good look around Trotter's Falls. You're going to be spending quite a bit of time here, so getting the feel of the land -- but not necessarily the feel -- might help you out a little in the future.

Start from overhead as we leave the doctor's estate, where an increasingly-frustrated Rainbow Dash is openly wondering how under the Sun and Moon Daring Do ever manages to do any kind of flying whatsoever and still keep her hat on. (The answer: her author said so, which is not something Dash is about to consider just yet.) You're going to be moving ahead here -- it'll take a while to walk and overfly the long road which leads to the main town.

If you moved above the trees and went a good distance to the east, right up against the town's borders (and close to where Quiet Presence lives), you would find the falls in question: a nine-Celest white foaming drop into a pond full of the clearest, coldest, and best-tasting water most ponies have ever had -- which then exits via a river, forming the eastern border of the original settlement, established a little over six centuries ago. (The anniversary? Just missed it. It was a major celebration: sorry you couldn't be there.) It's about three days' gallop west of Baltimare, which also means we're that far from the coast and giving somepony other than Applejack a theoretical chance to see the ocean.

Should you be expecting another Ponyville -- don't. There are differences. Some of them are immediately visible.

For starters, it's more spread out. The town itself exists in a carefully-hollowed clearing within the forest, and that clearing was made by tearing out trees as each new resident decided they had a need for space. The shopping district is tightly clustered, but that's six streets at the center of the community, and they're not long ones. Residences tend to have quite a bit of space between them. Empty space. There is nothing between homes, but if the occupants have anything to say in the matter, there's going to be a lot of it. Fences aren't common, but borders are everywhere. Most of them exist in the minds of the inhabitants, and the majority are uncrossable.

Look at the buildings for a moment. They're elaborate -- almost too much so. Painting is done with an eye towards the artistic appreciation of the passerby, along with how much attention might be grabbed away from a neighbor. Architectural flourishes breed when you're not looking and raise little columns in the shadows of partially-enclosed porches. There is no exterior surface which cannot have one last touch of texture, hue, angle, or curve tinkered with in order to create a more perfect distraction. Styles have been borrowed from everywhere in the world. Streets tend to stick to a single region, at least until one neighbor goes for a total redesign and winds up either leading the pack or kicking off the first angry fight. There is the distinct sense that this is a community which can not only spell and define 'crenelations', but is carefully watching to see if you get it wrong.

Back to the shopping district. There's a word you're going to want here, and you're going to be wanting it in large quantities: 'imported'. Virtually everything for sale in Trotter's Falls has been brought here from somewhere else, and the distances cross all of Equestria and sometimes go beyond. It's a point of pride for the town that they not only had artwork from the Empire in the windows at nearly the same time Canterlot did, but managed to charge a little more for it. (Several enterprising residents want to have a home in that fashion, but -- well, eventually, the material costs do add up.) A few things are homemade -- note the craft shop over on Suffolk Downs, next to the bar -- but those tend to be minor artisan productions, locals with time on their hooves and some skills they like to demonstrate at no more than a minor loss. For the most part, the town practices the philosophy that intelligence begins at home, standards come from the heart, and a truly impressive purchase starts at least three days' gallop away in any direction. Prices are high here, starting at about eighty percent over what you'd expect to pay in Ponyville at the low end of the scale -- and that's just for the most basic items. (We'll come back to that.) Rarity has sent a few shipments in this direction, and will shortly be proud to see some of her finest creations with a place of prominence in the town's premiere garment shop, identified by designer and point of origin in large letters. She will also be shocked to see some of them commanding three times the bits she ever gets, and will be having a long talk with the shop's owner later. (It will turn out that as soon as she discontinued some of her older styles, the shop decided to market them as collector's items. It's not really working.)

There are several restaurants, all of which specialize in one kind of foreign cuisine each. The grass at one is a Saddle Arabian delicacy and at the bits you're paying for it, may have been carried in blade by blade.

Here's the town square. Note that for the most part, it's empty. There are no open-air vendors here -- after all, who would be caught buying from that kind of establishment? (Well, maybe if they'd traveled here all the way from the far coast...) You buy high-end in Trotter's Falls or you move to an area you can afford. The town square is used for concerts in the spring and summer around the gazebo (once per moon, classical music until the last waltzer drops), public meetings when the mayor calls them (very rare), and hanging around the fountain. It's a very nice fountain, and twin sprays of water emerge from Luna and Celestia's horns. This was the first town in Equestria to have a fountain honoring both sisters once the Return was known, and it's another point of local pride.

There's a government district of a sort -- three whole buildings: a courthouse, a town hall, and a final structure which contains what little exists of the police department and that portion of the local fire squad which is based in the town itself. The crenelations on that last are particularly impressive.

One major bakery -- and 'major' is the right word. A few places to buy non-prepared food: most specialize, one goes for generalities and prices them based on how far they had to travel before getting here. And this is where the budget takes the repeated hits, because the food still starts at that 'eighty percent over Ponyville' mark and goes up from there. If you can afford to eat the basics in Trotter's Falls, you can live like something very close to royalty in most of Equestria's other cities, and if you're eating like a Princess here (the bakery is proud to send Celestia four cakes a year) without holding the actual status, then you are not and never have been worried about where your next bit is coming from. You might think this place would send Fluttershy into bankrupt despair within two days, but you wouldn't believe what the local pet groomer is getting away with.

That's some of what there is -- what you can see at first glance, anyway. But what there isn't may be just as important.

The large stretches of land between homes are decorated with ornamental rocks, small fountains, the occasional koi pond, and frequent eruptions of lawn sculpture. Nothing else. And they rise from paved surfaces, or pebble beds, or even brick for those following the second most-recent trend.

The streets are paved with small flat cobblestones, presenting a fairly smooth surface that's relatively friendly to hooves while covering up the fact that there's nothing but dirt underneath. And that's all there ever was.

There are no local flowers which haven't come from the wild zone, and even those are scant and short-lived. (The flower shop charges at 400% over margin.)

There are a few surviving trees here and there, but it's mostly just the same pines found in the surrounding wild zone. None of them bear fruit.

The homes have color -- lots of it. The stores import still more. The town gets downright festive when it has something to celebrate, and the Sun brings all those hues to life in the same way it does for all of Equestria.

But look away from that --

-- and there is brown, and grey, and black, and the red of those bricks, and pine-needle green, and all the sparkle-filled colors of the fields wielded by the majority of the town's residents. Throw in the variegated coat and mane colors of those residents, plus the occasional shine of a feather. And that's it.

Then again, why would you want to look away? Wouldn't you rather look at the latest addition to that building, or that one over there, and isn't that latest sculpture just magnificent? Pay attention to the things the town considers important: surely they know what they're doing. They have for just over six centuries and truly, it was a spectacular celebration. They had so very much to celebrate in their beautiful town -- and it is a beautiful town, really. Everypony says so. Everypony who lives here. Any other opinion is, well -- imported. And those the residents can have for free -- so they frequently won't take them.

Welcome to Trotter's Falls.

You do feel welcome -- don't you?

The news of their arrival had spread quickly, although it took third place in the local unprinted headlines behind Doctor Gentle Returns Mostly Unhurt and Princess Bows Down To Local: Everypony Deeply Honored. (Twilight had unknowingly made a huge number of, if not new friends, then deeply respectful acquaintances with her instinctive response.) But they were still one of the local stories, and a traveling one -- which meant Rainbow Dash and Spike were spending quite a bit of their time maintaining the integrity of the newly-reestablished Royal Bubble. More than a few locals wanted to get a look at the Princess. Or get a word in. Several words. Complete speeches, which were all the more amazing for being totally spontaneous. And all Twilight wanted to do was get to a bath. Rarity might have been the one with the most sheer desire, but Twilight had been thrown into trees -- twice -- and landed in dirt -- same -- plus there had been a ravine and scrapes against bark and the sheer aftertaste of that horrible grass was still in her mouth. She tried to make it clear that she wouldn't mind talking to everypony later (or at least to create that illusion), but she was feeling dirty and really needed a good meal, so did her friends, and if they would just let this kind stallion get them to the bath, maybe later...

Quiet Presence was the one who finally put an end to it. "-- and once the Princess settles in and gets a day or two to recover from her time in the wilderness, there will be a party!" (Pinkie immediately perked up.) "But until then, can we put a good face on our town by being the first ponies not to bombard her every three seconds? After all, I'm sure that's what they've been doing in Canterlot..."

And somehow, that dropped things down to a level the others could deal with. All except for Applejack, who couldn't shake the feeling that everypony was -- looking at her. Perhaps because so many of them were.

"Ah don't mean t' pry," she cautiously began, "but -- what happened t' yer town? There's so little -- of anythin'..."

Quiet turned slightly to face her, sighed a little. "We're a unicorn town, I'm sorry to say," he told Applejack. "And when I say 'unicorn town', I mean ninety percent of the population: the rest is pegasi. There are earth pony settlements in the desert right now with hardly a horn or pair of wings to be found, yes? Because they're establishing the Cornucopia Effect. In our case, we're the reverse. So the local vegetation takes over -- and for us, that means some impressively foul grass, a few berries for the whole six weeks of their season, and a small natural apple orchard some distance from town, which everypony raids for sport and pretends they don't. It's in the wild zone, Miss Applejack -- healthy and thriving, but untended. And as far as native food goes? That is it." Another sigh. "You would be amazed by what the local stores get away with -- no, perhaps you wouldn't. But without a permanent presence from your people, we are stuck bringing in virtually everything, at least until ponies learn to eat fish."

"Wait -- no earth ponies? None at'tall?" Applejack's tail swished for a few seconds before she got it under control.

"Well -- none who live here. A few members of the fire department are earth ponies, but it's a joint effort with another town and the local pegasi neighborhood -- they bring them in when they're needed. And of course we have them coming and going all the time, bringing food in and getting what I believe are remarkably good prices for it -- which the merchants then mark up still more. But -- this was originally a unicorn settlement. And through time and tide, it's remained so. You're from Ponyville, yes? When did your home fully integrate? And I mean beyond a token family or four."

Applejack briefly paused in her step, gave it some visible thought. "'bout -- forty years ago."

"And I'm willing to bet unicorns were the last in, correct?" She reluctantly nodded. Quiet Presence sighed again. "Believe me, I'd welcome some earth ponies around here. I'd like to have a garden which grew something other than fish -- it's called a koi pond, Miss Applejack: I'll show it to you later. But we're isolated here. Unicorns carved this hollow out of the forest, pegasi came to establish the courier routes -- and your people went to where there weren't so much clearing of the land needed. It's only in the last two centuries that you could take ten steps in this town without hitting a leftover stump. But with so much work to get started -- we'd need a huge influx. And this place is expensive, which makes it hard for large groups to get established -- and then there's the clearing I mentioned -- there was another major attempt two generations ago, but it met the same result as all the others: faded out, and took the Effect with it." Sadly, "My grandmother still talks about the flowers..." Looking directly at Applejack, "Earth ponies establish a town, and in time, the unicorns come. Unicorns set up a place, and in time, the earth ponies come -- except here." He switched to Fluttershy. "And pegasi establish a place -- but everypony else takes one step onto their main street and drops five hundred feet straight down. Sometimes, living together takes quite a bit of work."

The yellow pegasus seemed surprised to be addressed, and needed a few seconds to get an answer going. "...I live on ground level -- it's just easier for everypony. Easier for me... and my friends..."

He smiled. "It's a rare feeling -- wanting to make things easier."

Rarity went along with that. "Not as common as it could be, certainly -- Luna's tail, I have never charged that much for one of my creations in my life! How are they getting away with that? How -- oh. My apologies." She pried her front hooves away from the shop window and dropped back to a standing position, tried to pretend there weren't any spectators staring at her. "I think I will need to have a talk with the proprietor. I already know the subject."

(Unseen by the rest of the group, Applejack and Pinkie Pie were staring at each other. There was a contest in progress to see which was the more worried. Applejack was running away with the title by eight lengths.)

The small stallion laughed at that. "My wife has two of your dresses, Miss Rarity -- both purchased here. Are you suggesting I should order direct?"

"Quite, and thank you so much for honoring me with your taste --" She stopped. "-- you're married? But you're so -- young!" Her eyes were already beginning to widen with anticipation: there was little Rarity enjoyed so much as a story of True Love, especially if it had been Forbidden at any point and a little bit of Star-Crossed did anything but hurt. "You're our age at best! How did you come to be wed already? Was there --" her voice dropped "-- a tale involved?"

"Not much of one," Quiet replied. (Rarity pouted. Meanwhile, Applejack pulled ahead by two extra lengths.) "But yes -- married. Not quite a year yet. We do things a little differently out here, Miss Rarity -- my status isn't unusual. But --" back to Applejack "-- once the Doctor's searchers clear out and the delivery ponies head home -- well, there's a good chance you and Miss Pie will be the only earth ponies in town overnight. And if you had a mind to, you might be able to rent yourselves out for truly astronomical amounts of bits to those who don't understand how the Effect truly works and haven't been taken by traveling con artists before -- the ones who promise a full garden in a week or your bits back, walk around the property twice and move on the next home before vanishing three days later..." A small, shy smile. "I'd be the first giving you money -- but unfortunately, I read."

Applejack and Pinkie Pie managed smiles of their own. But that was all.

(The Cornucopia Effect is what unicorns and pegasi recognize as earth pony magic. Put simply: where earth ponies start to work the land -- bringing in their own seeds, as they do not create from absolutely nothing -- the land will begin to respond. And it will frequently respond whether or not the environment says it should. As long as the pegasi keep a degree of moisture coming every so often, a group of determined earth ponies can get an apple orchard going in the desert. There's some limits to this -- tropical fruit in a tundra at least requires a lot of constant fires going in the area -- but to a large degree, anything at least has the potential to grow anywhere. And the Effect doesn't stay strictly within the land being worked. Get enough earth ponies together and the radius of soil fertility will begin to gradually spread out beyond their immediate territory. It's slow to take hold and there's an absolute limit to how far it can go based in the total number of earth ponies in an area -- but it will spread. An area with a significant earth pony population in place will have the resident unicorns and pegasi finding they're able to maintain small gardens and cultivate a few vegetables of their own. But should the earth ponies leave, the Effect will fade -- quickly. It can take a generation to get a town the size of Ponyville covered with background abundance -- and if every earth pony there happened to simultaneously depart, the place would become a wild zone within two years, leaving the locals stuck with whatever the land would provide on its own. Ponyville could survive for a while that way. Other areas -- can't. Pegasi and unicorn histories alike include major raiding periods, and some have tried -- other solutions.)

The unicorn male managed a light shrug as he walked: the movement seemed to pain him somewhat, and he took a deep breath before continuing. "Frankly, that would have been the only silver lining to having Doctor Gentle go missing. Enough time for more of his to arrive from distant corners of Equestria, and we could have had an actual population of sorts going. But I'll make that sacrifice to have him back."

"You're one of his, aren't you?" Twilight asked.

Quiet nodded. "One of the earliest -- about six moons after Miss Fluttershy."

"Do you know what happened to him?" Softly, "And -- if anypony else survived the fire?"

He blinked. "Anypony -- else? The doctor lives alone, Twilight." Permission to go with an informal address for her hadn't removed the automatic 'Miss' from the others -- along with a calm 'gentledragon' for Spike. "There would have been nopony else to save."

"Oh!" Genuine surprise. "It's just that -- the home was so large... I thought there had to be a lot of ponies living there -- family, servants..."

That got a smile -- but it was a sad one. "Doctor Gentle has his, and that gives him what might be the largest family in Equestria -- but in the sense of blood alone, he has no family of his own. And servants have simply never been part of his lifestyle. Frequent visitors, and some stay for a time, yes. But on the whole -- he lives alone. I know he had no guests that night."

"So you know what happened?"

Another nod. "To him, at least. But it's his story to tell -- and frankly, not a particularly exciting one. Tonight over dinner, perhaps. Now -- accommodations. I'm afraid 'castle' is a bit of an overstatement, at least for somepony who lived with the Princess --"

"-- I didn't," Twilight quickly said. "Not the way most ponies think. I took lessons from her and spent some weekends at the palace, but most of my school time was in the dorms."

"Oh... well, misconception corrected. It's comforting to fix that hole in Coordinator's story, actually... but still, I have some space. With Doctor Gentle staying with me, it's enough formal guest rooms for perhaps four more -- or five, gentledragon. But I also have a guest cottage near the edge of my property. Again, not very large -- two or three more could stay there. But it's the only thing I can offer without asking some of you to sleep on piled blankets on the floor, and I know the hotel has been packing eight or more to a room since this began. If you don't mind splitting up...?" He turned around, checked the group as they exited the shopping district, started through a residential neighborhood which was far too much in love with Trottingham building styles.

"I'm okay with a basket and blankets," Spike assured the unicorn. "I'm not sure I'd know what to do with a bed." (Although his expression suggested he wouldn't have minded finding out. Also possibly that Twilight's mattress wasn't as safe during her travels as she might have thought.)

"Umm..." Rainbow Dash uncertainly began. "I don't like sleeping on -- floors..."

Pinkie Pie shrugged. "It's just a sleepover, Dash! And you sleep on branches, clouds, roofs, hay wagons, moving carts, apple piles, the Crusaders' catapult, some of the market tents, Twilight's porch --"

"But this is a -- floor."

"Wait," came from a suspicious Applejack. "Let's get back t' the catapult. Catapult?"

Rainbow Dash instinctively began flying a little higher. More out of lasso range. "It's not finished or anything -- they've only really got the scoop done, and it's pretty good for curling up in..."

"An' what the hey are they makin' a catapult for? Cutie Mark Crusaders Siege Engine Warfare Experts, yay? Celestia's mane, Dash, who gave 'em that stupid idea? 'cause Ah know they ain't thinkin' of that one on their own. They would have had t' get it from somepony else an' Twilight, Ah see you tryin' t' get ahead there! Ah begged you t' tear up their library privileges! Why can't y'jus' let 'em come up with disasters they can think of instead of ones somepony else already wrecked stuff with? It's bad enough that y'let 'em get away with that love poison book, but now yer lettin' 'em go for weapons?"

Twilight was doing a credible Fluttershy. "...but... they said it was for a history report..."

"They lied! Or -- it was Scootaloo who got it, wasn't it? Oh, the next time Ah see that filly..."

...and Quiet Presence was laughing. Hard, ribs heaving, gasping for breath to the point where he seemed to be in real trouble --

-- and then he was. An intense coughing fit took over, grabbed him in its vise, would not let go.

Fluttershy immediately swooped in, tapped her hooves there and there along the stallion's thin chest.

The coughing eased. Quiet started hard, as if surprised it had passed so quickly -- then saw the pegasus. "Thank you." Calmly, "It's usually much worse than that -- and would have been without you."

"...it's all right... it wasn't anything, really... does that happen a lot?"

"Enough. And no -- before you ask, there's nothing you can do. But -- thank you again, because I know you were about to. And please, no pony apologize -- not for making me laugh, not ever. Fillies looking for their cutie marks, isn't it?" (Twilight tried to make out his again, failed.) "And I'm guessing at least one of them is a sister." A small chuckle: no coughing. "Cherish it, Miss Applejack. It may be chaos -- and for some reason, catapults -- but at least you have that chaos, and the weary happiness that will come on the day they find what they're looking for. They'll live through it. They always seem to. It's just everypony else who suffers... at least until enough time passes to make it a story. And the stories will come -- and you'll love telling every one, especially to her fillies and colts. In time."

Which finally got a real smile from Applejack. "Voice of experience, Mr. Presence?"

A small head shake. "Voice of hope." And before anypony else could speak, he pointed a thin leg down the road. "We're not that far out -- you might want to talk about who's sleeping where before we get there. I promise, the cottage is comfortable and warm. I just want Doctor Gentle in the main residence so I can keep an eye on him. No matter what he says, I don't like the look of that leg..."

He continued to lead the way while the Element-Bearers sorted it out -- a process which didn't take long, as Applejack practically demanded the cottage -- "Me? In a castle? Canterlot, okay, that's the Princess, but..." and verbally dragged a protesting -- just short of kicking and screaming without actually doing either -- Pinkie Pie in with her. "An' you with castle kitchens? Naw, yer better off where Ah can keep an' eye on you, instead of lettin' y'have the run of their pantries an' samplin' every last dish by eatin' every last dish..."

"I don't like splitting up," Rainbow Dash insisted. "If somepony's just willing to take the -- floor..."

"It's jus' a cottage. Y'can come out any time. Or y'could sleep on the floor in there."

"Umm... the castle's fine..."

"Sure y'don't want t' try the branches over the cottage, if we've got any? Or don't y'have any pillows hidden out this far?"

And Equestria's least believable protest in two moons rang across the land: "What pillows?"

They had walked him through the ruin of what had once been his home.

It had been like moving through a mirage. If he tried not to see -- if he let himself peer at past instead of present...

That part was easy. Here: he was moving through his waiting room, where years of fathers and Second Mothers had paced back and forth for endless circuits in the well-established floor groove and complained about the lack of room when what they were really complaining about was their lack of ability to influence the situation. Complaining because pacing and worry were all they could truly do.

Here: the birthing room. Not all of his came here, of course: he always traveled where he was needed and, as with Pinkie, found himself making a few unexpected stops along the way. (He had been surprised to see her and Fluttershy -- and happy. He was so proud of both.) But the majority had their first view of the world here. Endless hours spent decorating to make sure that initial view was a pleasant one.

This space: a study.

This one: the secondary research room.

He moved around where his bed had once been.

But stop trying to see what had been, even for a moment...

...soot. Ash. Remnants. Final bits crunching into smaller pieces under his hooves. A little trail where one leg was still dragging.

Nothing left.

It hurt less than he had expected it to. There were other things on his mind.

And then they showed him the reason the investigator had put the shield up --

-- and he laughed.

"We couldn't break it," the surprised arson investigator said, a sturdy unicorn mare with the slightly unfortunate name of Surefire. "And we tried. I've never seen this kind of shield, sir -- never in my years of visiting sites -- like this one." Which was followed by her third hasty "I'm sorry for your loss," of the short walk. "Not one that was so completely heatproof. We closed the area off to keep other ponies away from it -- guard what little you had left -- and I am so sorry for your loss -- but we couldn't get in, and -- from what I can tell, the fire started right outside this. But everything within looks completely untouched... We couldn't find any magical indications of a fire, or any other signs of an arsonist. But because this is here, and the fire started nearby -- some of us thought there was an attempt to destroy this which failed. And that you cast the shield. But we'd thought you'd been here at the time, and now... well, we'd appreciate an explanation, sir."

He chuckled, smiled at her. "No -- no, you wouldn't have seen anything like this. And I hadn't either. What you're seeing is the result of a purchase I made decades ago. A traveling unicorn salespony who swore he had a security device which would protect my valuables from harm. He was very persuasive, especially for a pony who also swore he couldn't demonstrate it because it took an actual disaster to set off the spell stored within. I finally risked a few bits just as thanks for the pleasure of his fast-talking company. Well, this makes me wonder what became of him... and if I should have invested in his product..."

"It certainly works," one of the pegasi said with awe. "I'd buy three..."

"Yes, it certainly works," he said. "And it will continue to work, because I have no idea how to take it down. There was a command word I had to say and a manual which had it written within -- but that was so many years ago, and the manual is -- part of the ash. I will try to remember, and perhaps call for friends who know how this kind of spell might operate. But for now -- it's doing the job it was meant to do. It has protected --" more softly "-- that which is precious to me." A sigh. "If I had to lose everything else -- at least this is still here."

The oldest of the fire squad -- a local, one of his own generation -- gave him a slow, sad nod. "One blessing, Doctor. Yes -- at least it's this. I never knew you kept --" and stopped himself.

"I couldn't kick them away," he sadly answered, "and I couldn't look at them any more either. No -- this was best. And here they still are... I have a favor to ask." They waited. "Please, if you would -- key your own shield to me and leave it up? It should hold for a while yet. I know no pony would steal this, but -- even if I can remember how to get in and out, I don't want everypony to see. Your shield will give them doubled protection until I get through this one and move them to a fresh safety. It's just that -- it's all that's left..." He let the silence speak for him before continuing with "As for the fire starting near here... I wish I knew. I don't think the spell discharged itself by accident and created heat along the border: no shield works that way, and you said there were no signs of arson... Perhaps it just held all the heat there was outside it and made things that much worse in its vicinity. A small price..."

"I still wish I could find a cause," Surefire said. "I understand what you mean, but..." A quick, sharp shake of her head: her short mane vibrated. "It's not arson, it's not magical discharge from the shield because I would have found that, and it's not chemical or lightning. I don't know what this was. Spontaneous combustion is a myth -- or I thought it was until now. We'll keep looking for a while longer, but... this may go unsolved, sir. I'm so sorry..."

He raised his right front hoof. "Not your fault. Sometimes things just -- happen."

A reluctant nod. She would continue to search, he knew -- and in time, she would give up. "I'll key the shield to you, sir. It won't last more than another week unless I drop by to reinforce it -- but I might be able to come down if you need me. In the meantime, you'll be able to pass through casually. I just hope you have your answer by then."

He looked at the golden shield. Stared at the things within.

"So do I," he told her. "So do I..."

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