• Published 24th May 2018
  • 2,164 Views, 138 Comments

Pronoia/Paranoia - TooShyShy

Twilight Sparkle is transferred from Canterlot's elite police force to the boring town of Ponyville. She expects this to be the end of her detective work, but she couldn't be further from the truth.

  • ...

Chapter 7: Dinner

Just like any other city, Canterlot had its diamonds. It was no Las Pegasus—no spa resorts or amusement parks—but no one with two brain cells to rub together expected Canterlot to be a rich hive of gambling and con artistry.

That was Canterlot at night. Canterlot in the daytime was a lot more pleasant. But even though the brochures loved to showcase all the bistros and cafes lining the streets, those weren't the real diamonds of Canterlot, anymore than all those massage parlors and casinos were the real diamonds of Los Pegasus. Those places lost their charm after the third or fourth visit. For Twilight, there was only one place in Canterlot worth all that fuss: that one Sunbean near the train station. It wasn't just the coffee itself, although she definitely partook in more than one cup when she was off-duty. It was the conversations she overheard. That one coffee shop was the city's hub. Ponyville had Sugarcube Corner, Canterlot had that specific Sunbean near the train station.

It was at that coffee shop that Twilight discovered what the ponies of Canterlot really thought about Shining Armor's death. They had their kind words and condolences, but it was different when they thought Twilight wasn't there. She'd sat at a table in the corner of the room, hood pulled over her head and coffee hovering an inch from her face as she listened. Harsh words. Speculation. Questions Twilight would never have dared ask. But most of all, grief the likes of which made Twilight's heart clench. The city had lost another good one. It seemed Canterlot swallowed heroes as quickly as it made them.

Trixie didn't want to cooperate, but a few threats did wonders for her compliance. She actually accompanied Twilight to the station, as docile as a lamb when she thought her account book was in peril. The book and the receipts were officially evidence, both for the murder and—sometime in the near future—a very thorough investigation of Trixie's dealings. This time Trixie was going to be convicted. This time Twilight was going to actually get a good night's sleep, refreshed by the knowledge that the Great and Powerful Trixie was serving time for being a massive pain in Twilight's ass. Sometimes Twilight thought she was above petty vengeance, but then Trixie's face appeared in her mind and Twilight realized that she wasn't nearly that patient.

Twilight placed a tray on the table. Reinforcements. Even if Trixie had followed her to the station, there was no guarantee that she wouldn't just keep her mouth shut. But every felon had a weakness. For some, the promise of a lighter sentence was all it took to get that tongue wagging. For others, it was the safety of their family or friends that loosened their jaw. For the Great and Powerful Trixie, it was something more material that Twilight could easily get her hooves on.

Trixie eyed the tray hungrily. Homemade strawberry crepes, straight from Sugarcube Corner. Still hot and steaming from the oven.

“What can you tell me about your customers?” said Twilight.

Trixie tore her eyes from the crepes and gave Twilight an incredulous look. Obviously the answer to that was “absolutely nothing”. She hadn't gotten where she was—not that she was anywhere particularly glamorous—by sinking ships. It was all about discretion. If ponies knew she wouldn't go running to the cops the second she filled out a receipt, it made them more inclined to approach her.

“I have a lot of them,” said Trixie. “Does that help?”

The account book confirmed this. There weren't a lot of repeat buyers—Trixie probably skipped town long before that could happen—but the quantity was somewhat impressive given her flighty nature and unscrupulous practices.

“How many of them wear fox masks?” said Twilight.

The response was so expected that Twilight could have played the whole thing out in her head frame-by-frame. First the confusion, then the shock, then the guilt, and finally back to that manufactured confidence meant to fool a novice. But Twilight wasn't a novice. She knew how to read faces, even if said faces were cloaked by at least three layers of fiction. It was all in the eyes. If Twilight stared into a pony's eyes long enough, she'd eventually end up reading their entire life story. Trixie was no exception. What made her particularly vulnerable in this aspect was that Trixie actually thought she was an exception.

The pony in the mask must have known Twilight would get there. They knew she'd follow the trail of bloody hoofprints all the way to Trixie, then to that specific receipt with that ingenious code name they'd created for themselves. It wasn't a slip-up. This masked pony didn't make mistakes and they didn't just leave themselves exposed like that for no reason. It was all designed, much like how Twilight had built castles out of those little plastic logs as a foal. From the moment she dumped them out of the box, she knew exactly what she was going to make. The design was in her head before she even saw how many logs she had.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie does not...,” Trixie started.

Twilight shut down whatever idiotic lie Trixie was about to spout before it even left her mouth. She pushed the tray across the table, finally offering some of those delicious crepes to Trixie. With the way Trixie was drooling all over the floor, she'd expected her to dive across the table and start stuffing her face. But she had held back, waiting patiently for her treat as she weighed her options. Unfortunately, Trixie had no options. She was in Twilight's world now.

Trixie grabbed one of the crepes and took a bite. That first taste was enough to break down her walls. A second later, she was gobbling up the crepe like she hadn't eaten in weeks.

The Cakes didn't mess around when it came to special orders. When Mrs. Cake first received the order, she assumed the standoffish detective had finally decided it was time to start making friends. Well, she was kind of right.

Twilight took one crepe for herself. Mrs. Cake's bubbly attitude might have tried her patience, but they were good crepes. No wonder Spike spent so much time at Sugarcube Corner. He was probably building his relationship with the Cakes just so he could get more free samples.

“I need details,” said Twilight. “Body type, mane color, build, Cutie Marks, their smell.”

Trixie raised her head, quickly swallowing her mouthful of crepe. Her cheeks had turned a deep shade of red. She realized that she had broken in record time, like a wannabe jewel thief after their first heist blew up in their face. All for some fucking crepes. Although in her defense, they were probably the best crepes she'd ever tasted.

“Smell?” she said. “Trixie did notice the cologne they were wearing. A familiar brand.”

Twilight leaned forward eagerly. Okay, that was definitely a lead. A slim lead, but something she could follow. How many places in Ponyville sold cologne? One. Assuming that this masked pony was playing their game as close to home as possible, tracking them down had suddenly become a lot easier. Just like Trixie, stores kept records. But unlike Trixie, these records were a lot more specific. Even if this masked pony had just given a fake name—and they definitely had—surely they had to have left some trace of their real identity.

“Which brand?” she said.

Trixie chewed and swallowed two more mouthfuls of crepe. She was smirking. Among the valuable skills Trixie had amassed to keep her business afloat, being able to read her customers was one of the most important. She had to know what they were thinking, preferably before they did. She wasn't especially good at this—she got it wrong more often than not—but Trixie knew that look on Twilight's face. It was a look of controlled desperation. Twilight needed this information, craved it like it was her nectar of life.

“And how will the Great and Powerful Trixie be compensated for this important information?” she said.

Twilight calmly placed her hoof on the table and gave Trixie her best smile.

“How about I don't arrest you for withholding pertinent information from a police officer during a murder investigation?” she said. “I think that's more than fair, don't you?”

Trixie slumped in her seat. It had been worth a shot. But Twilight was still the hard honest cop she'd been in Canterlot. It was actually quite admirable. A lot of officers slowly lost their souls after years of wading through Canterlot's muck. But Twilight had kept her morals close to her heart, even as the sin of the city threatened to squeeze all the goodness right out of her. While other officers had been wrung dry after only a year or two, Twilight had remained one of the honest ones and she'd even managed to keep most of the ponies around her—and Spike—on the straight and narrow.

“If you insist,” she said. “But the Great and Powerful Trixie does expect some leniency in the future.”

Sensing that no such promise was going to be made, Trixie decided to get it over with. She'd already sold out a customer for a plate of crepes. It wasn't like Trixie was swimming in self-respect at the moment.

“Lavender Forest,” she said. “Many of Trixie's numerous suitors wore this particular brand.”

The expectant smile fell from Twilight's face. This case had been manufactured with Twilight's life at the center. Every little detail had been tailored to reflect some part of her. It felt like a trap, except Twilight didn't know if she was meant to fall into it. Was this pony who was messing with her even a pony? Sometimes it felt more like an idea given physical form, a creature that defied all logic and morality. A shadow.

Twilight knew Lavender Forest. She'd been forced to smell it on a near-daily basis for years. She'd grown to like it simply because it was familiar, but she'd never really enjoyed the scent. On the other hoof, Shining Armor had loved it. He'd worn it almost every day, stinking up the bathroom with the unpleasant aroma despite his parents' objections. It was one of those “fancy rich pony colognes” that cost a fortune but ideally made the wearer smell “sophisticated”. As if Shining Armor of all stallions needed that little boost.

“Do you remember anything else?” said Twilight. “Their voice? The way they trotted?”

But Trixie was fresh out. She didn't remember a single thing about this pony other than the fox mask and the scent. As far as she recalled, there hadn't really been anything else worth noticing about them. The mask had dominated her attention. It seemed like a bizarre choice, given that most customers simply trusted that Trixie didn't want to get busted for selling illegal goods.

“What about “rhubarb”?” said Twilight.

Trixie finally clammed up. Possibly revealing her customers' identities was one thing. Admitting the types of products she sold was quite another. Given how things were going, Twilight would probably get all the information she needed about those soon enough. But there was no way Trixie was going to just hand it over on a silver platter. The crepe thing was still nagging at her and she felt she should at least try to reclaim her dignity.

“How about we take a trip down to the cells?” said Twilight.

However, this time even that familiar threat wasn't enough. Trixie was no fool. She knew she'd be in for a much longer stay in a cell if she confessed what she was actually selling. That was why Twilight led with the masked pony, even though it was the rhubarb thing that was really bothering her. She needed to get as much as possible out of Trixie before she brought in the heavy stuff. Fortunately, Twilight was correct in assuming that Trixie would only turn into a locked vault after the crepes were gone and she had a lot more to lose.

Twilight sighed. This was definitely aggravating, but she decided it was fine if Trixie didn't want to talk. She didn't need Trixie for everything, although her cooperation was going to make this whole search a thousand times easier. Twilight might even hand Trixie over to the Canterlot police just to be rid of her.

“I'm sorry about this,” she said.

She was lying and they both knew it, but they chose to pretend otherwise.

Canterlot liked to think it was the center of Equestria. It was certainly the first town most ponies thought of when they considered the great land as a whole, but it wasn't what Twilight would have called “the center”. There really was no “center” of Equestria. It was a big place with its own heart, its own lungs, and enough dreams to fill the heads of every pony, dragon, griffin, and zebra. There couldn't actually be a center to a place that was constantly twisting and changing the further one traveled. But however wrong the city was about its place in Equestria, it loved to at least pretend it was somehow the heart of the entire land. There was a shop for almost everything. If it existed somewhere in Equestria, there was a good chance it was being sold for a reasonable price somewhere in Canterlot. If it was illegal, there was always some back alley merchant peddling it for an outrageous price.

Ponyville was different. While it did have a few shops that sold “exotic” goods, most of the stuff was made or grown locally. The town lived inside its own concentrated bubble of production. This self-sufficient attitude was rather inspiring, but it did sometimes become an annoyance. Twilight had lost count of the times she had to either order something or make a lengthy trip outside of town just to purchase something that had gained unexpected importance in her life.

The town had only one shop that sold perfume and cologne. A little out-of-the-way place called “Musk”. It was near the town's only Sunbean, but Twilight had only spared it a short glance on her way out of the coffee place. From what she'd glimpsed in the window, the place sold a lot of stuff that was usually only available in Canterlot. Celestia knows why. Ponyville wasn't the type of place where citizens doused themselves in expensive perfume. They were more likely to douse themselves in cake frosting.

Twilight's first look at the interior surprised her. For a moment, she thought she'd stepped right out of Ponyville and into Canterlot. The place was far too fancy for somewhere like Ponyville. Even the sign outside was written in that maddeningly superficial script that businesses in Canterlot seemed to love. How had the owners of this place even ended up somewhere like this? Then again, it seemed that a lot of ponies who didn't belong in Ponyville ended up staying.

“Hello?” she said.

There was a beaded curtain that separated the back room from the rest of the shop. As soon as Twilight called out, a mare appeared from behind the curtain and approached the counter. She looked exactly like the type of pony who sold perfume for a living. As beautiful and enticing as the products she sold. She flashed Twilight an alluring smile. If she'd been almost anypony else—like Spike for example—Twilight imagined that her heart would have leaped out of her chest and demanded to be sacrificed at the altar of this mare's enchanted smile. But Twilight had seen this type of behavior so many times that she didn't even roll her eyes anymore.

“May I help you?” said the mare.

Twilight got close enough to read the mare's name tag: Aloe. She must have been one of the twins who owned the place. The other—Lotus, according to Twilight's research—was nowhere to be seen. She must have been in the back.

“Detective Twilight Sparkle,” said Twilight. “I need to ask you a few questions about your customers.”

Aloe nodded, immediately proving herself more compliant than Trixie. Twilight was glad to be in a situation where her name and title actually carried some clout.

“Do you carry a brand of cologne known as “Lavender Forest”?” said Twilight.

Apparently they did. They basically carried everything. Even though a lot of it was hard to come by, they had some loyal customers who'd buy almost anything. Aloe and Lotus had adopted a very effective sales tactic, one that Trixie had tried but never really perfected. The combination of their beguiling behavior and the enticing aromas that permeated the air around them created a specific atmosphere. A pony would wander in out of curiosity and end up leaving with fifty bits worth of perfume they didn't even know they wanted. Given how they'd managed to stay afloat in a place like Ponyville, it must have worked better than Twilight would have thought. She herself was becoming ever-so-slightly ensnared the longer she stood there, but she was keeping her head steady by thinking about the case.

“Oh yes,” said Aloe. “We get regular shipments from Canterlot.”

So that was where all this stuff came from. No wonder the place didn't look like it belonged in Ponyville. The twins had taken one of the more profitable chunks of Canterlot and plopped it down in Ponyville, a town just waiting to be dazzled by something that seemed “exotic”. Devious. Even Twilight was impressed by the twins' business acumen.

“Do you have a record or something?” said Twilight.

Aloe reached under the counter and pulled out a huge book. It looked like a hotel register. Businesses in Ponyville were known for keeping track of their customers, something that was just impossible in places like Canterlot. Too many ponies passing through and a sizable population. Ponyville didn't have either of those problems, so shopkeepers were more inclined to keep records. This made it a lot easier for the police to figure out which would-be graffiti artist had purchased a significant quantity of spray paint. Other than weeding out teenage vandals, the local police didn't get much use out of these records. Ironically, Twilight would have killed for this kind of thoroughness in Canterlot.

Twilight waited for Aloe to find the entry she wanted. She wished Aloe would hurry up. The sickly-sweet air was making her head fuzzy.

Eventually Aloe found it. She put the book on the counter and tapped her hoof against the page. She was grinning, like she was proud to be helping the police. It wasn't every day a business owner got dragged into a murder investigation. While her eagerness to help was appreciated, it also made Twilight slightly bitter. It was fine for Aloe, Lotus, and the many other townsponies who might get swept up in this tragic business. They were on the other side. They got to observe, like an audience at the theater. Twilight was the one on stage, sweating under the lights and stumbling over her lines. Aloe didn't have to return to the station praying she had something. Aloe wouldn't be the one slamming her hooves against her desk and crying out in frustration if this lead didn't go anywhere. Sometimes Twilight envied the life of a civilian.

Twilight couldn't see much from the other side of the counter, but she noticed that everything in the book seemed to be color-coded. It was quite pretty to look at, although a little hard on the eyes. So much yellow and pink. No soothing blue or purple to break up the harshness of the bright colors. Twilight preferred her own binders. Simple, discreet, easy to look at. Why did so many ponies in this town embrace either one extreme or the other? Was it a Ponyville thing or just a pony thing?

“Our last purchase of Lavender Forest,” said Aloe.

She turned the book around so Twilight could see. It took Twilight a while to actually find the entry Aloe wanted her to look at. She had to squint to actually see words among the blinding colors. It took all of her willpower not to just snatch the whole book off the counter and do some impromptu redesigning. Her only consolation was that she wouldn't have to look very long.

Lavender Forest – Clever Hooves.

Well, that was obviously a fake name. Twilight had heard them all: Tender Cliff, Thunder Frost, Dashing Delight, etc. But unlike most of the false identities Twilight had encountered, this one was so clearly fake that it had to be on purpose. This wasn't an honest attempt at hiding one's identity. It was a message. A taunt. This wasn't a lead. It was never meant to be one, even though Twilight had followed the crumbs. This was just the punchline to a cruel joke that began with that scarecrow. Mockery. A sick game she'd been forced into by somepony who knew she couldn't resist the scent of blood.

But this masked pony had made one mistake. Yes, an actual miscalculation. Twilight almost didn't believe it, almost didn't dare let herself hope. But although she could hardly bear to dig her battered old heart out of the mud, it started to move of its own accord at the possibility. This mysterious pony had signed the register. They'd left a mark. An actual mark. The hoofwriting was messier, but with a sort of unique elegance to it. The note, Twilight realized, had been a ruse. A successful attempt at disguising their hoofwriting. Their signature in the register was this pony's real hoofwriting.

Twilight tried to keep her heart steady. What if there were multiple ponies? It was possible. But nothing she'd found thus far had suggested there was more than one pony. So the possibility of this being some other pony's signature was slim. Even if it was some other pony's signature, it was still a lead. But if this signature was as legitimate as it looked, Twilight had something that was worth more than any other clue she'd come across: a hoofwriting sample. Almost as good as a Cutie Mark. Unique. Distinct. Traceable. Maybe it was the aroma in the air, but Twilight had never felt her heart pound like this before. She tapped her hoof against the page, trying to ignore the thumping in her chest.

“The pony who bought this,” she said. “Can you remember what they looked like? What they were wearing? Unicorn, pegasus, or Earth pony?”

Aloe tapped her chin for a second.

“I think they were an Earth pony,” she said. “I didn't see any wings or a horn, but I guess they could have been hidden. They were wearing a cloak with the hood pulled over their head, so I'm afraid I have no idea what they looked like.”

Twilight was too high on the scented air and her discovery to care that none of those answers had been helpful. She felt like a giddy foal who'd found a new book under the tree on Hearth's Warming.

“Did they have a mask?” she said. “A fox mask?”

Aloe nodded, a troubled expression on her face. Just how normal were ponies with fox masks that nopony deemed it something they should warn the police about? Twilight was used to getting calls about stuff that wasn't even remotely suspicious. Naturally when something legitimately interesting happened, nopony in this boring town thought to warn the cops about the weirdo with a mask.

“I'll need this for evidence,” said Twilight.

She grabbed the book before Aloe could say anything. She didn't relish the idea of going through it, but that was why she had associates. Maybe she could get Fluttershy to do it.

“Is that all?” said Aloe. “If you're looking for some new perfume, I'm sure I can help you find something.”

At that point, the only thing Twilight wanted was to escape into the fresh air. She shook her head and started backing out, ignoring Aloe's enthusiastic attempts at interesting her in some of their “discreet scents”. Whatever that was meant to imply, Twilight chose to take it as an insult. She wasn't particularly big on perfume. Rarity wore enough of it for both of them.

Twilight felt like she'd been napping this entire time, but now she was finally waking up. Why did she keep treating this case like it was normal? Nothing about this was ordinary and she couldn't expect this case to follow all the rules. So maybe if she really wanted to solve it, Twilight would have to break some of her own rules.

Twilight didn't have much experience with ponies disappearing into thin air, but she'd heard stories. Felons who literally vanished right under a cop's muzzle, as if they'd been snatched from reality by some unseen force. Thieves who escaped with the goods and promptly fell off the face of the planet. Murderers who left behind a trail of bodies that led nowhere.

But in most cases, it was just a simple matter of retracing their steps or thinking outside the box. Nopony could just will themselves out of existence, so untraceable that no amount of magic or research could unearth a hint of their whereabouts. Dead or alive, Twilight would usually find them or at least produce a reasonable explanation for where they'd ended up. No magic in Equestria could shield somepony from Twilight's shrewd eyes.

This masked pony was putting themselves out in the open. They were entering shops, purchasing dangerous materials, leaving a hoofwriting sample. But somehow they remained completely elusive, like some kind of specter. Had anypony seen this masked pony? Yes, at least three ponies had interacted with them. Was there enough evidence to conclude that this masked pony existed? Yes, there was at least a box's worth of proof that this wasn't just a figment of the town's collective imagination.

Had this masked pony actually been seen by multiple ponies in a more than one-on-one capacity, therefore further confirming their existence? No. It was like they lived outside the known spectrum of reality, popping into existence ever so often to taunt Twilight. But seeing as that was impossible even with magic, Twilight had to go for a more mundane explanation: when this pony shed their mask, they were just an average citizen. Somepony who could buy a bunch of dragon's weed and then pop into Sugarcube Corner for a pleasant chat with the Cakes.

Twilight popped open a hidden compartment in her desk. This was where most officers would have hidden a bottle of apple cider or their personal collection of contraband. Some cops even had hidden compartments filled with “trophies” they'd collected from crime scenes, like bottle caps or candy wrappers. But Twilight wasn't that kind of officer. Her numerous binders and folders were evidence enough that she'd been there and done that. She didn't need a used tube of lipstick to remind her that she'd put a jewel thief behind bars. Twilight had something much different in her hidden compartment.

She retrieved a little folder from the compartment. Ever since Twilight came to Ponyville, she'd been collecting hoofwriting samples. Perhaps not the healthiest hobby, but Twilight was a detective. Even if the most exciting thing that ever happened in this town was a bit of petty vandalism, she liked to have all the information she needed at hoof. Sure, Twilight could have just politely requested that every citizen hand in a sample of their hoofwriting for archival purposes. That was how it was done in Canterlot, even though the city was slowly but surely making the switch to completely paper-less methods of communication and record-keeping. But it was a lot easier to just secretly collect the samples and a lot less socially painful. Some citizens were far too belligerent about that sort of thing and Twilight didn't want to fight with Granny Smith for an hour. As is turned out, getting hoofwriting samples from every citizen was ridiculously easy.

Twilight placed the folder on the desk. Even with Ponyville's small population, this was going to be a bit of work. At least she'd torn the page out before giving the book to Fluttershy, so she didn't have to wait an hour to get started. All she could do was hope she was right about this. If Twilight had actually found something so definite, she might be wrapping up this case in just a day or so. All she needed was one name, one real name. That was sure to get the ball rolling.

Most of the samples were written on loose pieces of paper, like receipts or brief written testimonies. Twilight couldn't remember where she'd gotten half of them, but it didn't matter. The names were there, either on the papers themselves or added by her. She didn't even necessarily need the page from the register beside her. Twilight would know that hoofwriting when she saw it. It was so unique that Twilight felt like she'd seen it a thousand times already.

As she worked, questions kept circling the edges of her mind like birds of prey. What if there was more than one pony? What if the murder somehow had nothing to do with everything else? What if it was that elusive “coincidence” ponies were always talking about? Sure, the threads were right in front of Twilight's face. But what if she was following them in the wrong order? Maybe if she moved away from the catalyst—the murder—she might find something obvious that had been hidden from her. Normally she knew she was supposed to proceed from Point A to Point B and so on until somepony ended up behind bars. But what if she was actually meant to go from Point B to Point G?

Think outside the box. Challenge yourself.” Advice from one of her teachers at the academy. A retired cop who'd looked at Twilight like she was the manure he'd stepped in that morning. He'd never believed in her. He thought she was too much of an “egghead” to succeed at field work. He thought she'd just stick herself behind a desk and put her head in a book while the other officers did the real work.

Twilight had proved him wrong on her very first day. But she'd never taken his advice about thinking outside of the box. She might have stuck a hoof outside of the box once in a while, but the box itself was just so safe and predicable, so unfailing. Well, until the day it failed her.

What was outside of the box? First off, there was the idea that this whole thing had started before Twilight came to Ponyville. That was way outside the box. But even further outside the box was the possibility that this somehow involved Shining Armor as well. Of course, he was gone. Dead, buried, but still kicking inside Twilight's memories. But it wasn't like he'd left this mortal coil like a shadow, all traces of his life and his accomplishments following him to the grave. Twilight's parents still had most of his stuff. Twilight still had a lot of his stuff, stuffed into a box in the basement that she'd refused to leave in Canterlot even though it meant leaving some of her own stuff behind. It was a sacrifice she'd made without a second thought. Twilight could buy more sweaters, but she couldn't buy new memories.

Hoofwriting was easy. Some ponies liked to think it was complicated, but it was actually a pretty direct field of study. There was always something hidden in those loops and swirls, always a reason for the way somepony crossed a “T” or dotted an “I”. There was some psychological aspects to it that interested Twilight, but mostly it was the artistic side of it that she liked. Every signature was like a painting, sometimes a landscape and sometimes a still life. But always a piece of art, even if the pony didn't know it.

Twilight shut the folder with a sigh. Sweet Tartarus. Nothing. Not a single match. She'd even checked and triple-checked some of her own officers' hoofwriting, but nothing. Twilight had been duped again. No, more than duped. She'd been jerked around by her own hope like a dog on a leash. That teacher at the academy would have been sneering at her right about then.

She brushed a hoof across her phone. She was surprised that Spike hadn't called her again. Was he taking her advice? Actually taking her advice? Was he snuggled up in bed with a movie, some hot cocoa, and the dazed but happy expression of somepony about to get a good long sleep? Twilight was sure he was. Good. Spike was in much better shape than she was at the moment. Twilight would have loved to be snuggled up with a movie and some cocoa, instead of standing behind her desk with another dead end in front of her. She wondered if it was about time she got some rest. Surely everything would look better after some food and a nap. It was past dinnertime.

She shoved the folder back into the secret compartment. Enough of that. Whatever Twilight was looking for, it wasn't in there.

Fluttershy knocked on the door of the office. Actually, it was less of a knock and more of a light tap. Twilight would have missed it if she hadn't been paying attention. But she was used to—and appreciated—Fluttershy being so quiet and polite. It was a nice change from having Rainbow Dash beating down her door over a parking violation or one of her other officers just barging in when she was in the middle of something to tell her about a “suspicious bird” they'd seen.

“Come in,” said Twilight.

Fluttershy reluctantly entered the office. She was carrying a tray of coffee.

Twilight had asked Fluttershy to make a coffee run, forgetting that Spike wasn't there. In fact, the station was almost completely empty, save for Fluttershy and Twilight. The other officers were either working or had already left for dinner. No wonder Twilight had actually gotten some work done. Now that she thought about it, maybe that was why she'd come to prefer all-nighters. Less noise.

Twilight took the coffees and put them on her desk. She supposed she'd just have to drink all of them herself. It wasn't the worst fate. At least half of them were decaf, so she was unlikely to end up completely wired by the time she finished.

“What is the enemy of truth?” said Twilight.

Fluttershy looked startled. She'd obviously expected Twilight to ask her about the book.

“Excuse me?” she squeaked.

But Twilight didn't seem to be listening. Or if she was, she ignored the invitation to explain herself. She put both hooves on her desk, her eyes darting from coffee to coffee like she'd been talking to them instead of Fluttershy. Four coffees. Four truths. No, five. Hidden from sight. Too hidden for her to actually assign a number to them, but Twilight liked numbers. Numbers forced everything to make some kind of sense, even if it really didn't.

“Ignorance,” said Twilight. “The enemy of truth is ignorance. You can't be aware of the truth if you don't know what it is. But the problem is that we're always ignorant to some extent. Truth takes too many forms. We can't know them all. So what form is this truth taking?”

Completely out of the loop, Fluttershy gave Twilight a hesitant smile. She wasn't sure if she was supposed to leave or just stand there until Twilight finished talking. She decided on the latter because it seemed less rude.

“Um, a bird?” said Fluttershy.

Twilight tapped her hoof on the desk and pointed at Fluttershy, causing the other mare to jump and squeak in panic.

“Yes!” Twilight said. “A bird. Ducking and diving, sometimes out of sight but always out of my reach. I can see it, yet I can't actually put my hoof on it. That's how this is meant to play out. I'm supposed to just watch. Looking but never touching. How will I know the bird is real if I don't touch it?”

She put her head on the desk, putting herself at eye level with the coffees. Some officers needed caffeine to jump-start their brains. Twilight never needed to jump-start anything. She could have powered an entire city with the energy her mind produced on a daily basis. Even if the main power supply failed, she always had a back-up generator handy. Although to be honest, the coffee did help.

“They don't want me to touch the bird,” she said. “Not yet. It's still circling right above my head. I can feel the beat of its wings, but I can never get close enough to stroke its feathers.”

Fluttershy looked up, as if she expected to find a literal bird in the office. But of course it was just her and Twilight, the latter having seemingly gone off the deep end.

Twilight narrowed her eyes. She began nudging one of the coffees forward, moving it closer to the others. She spoke so quietly that Fluttershy had to lean in to hear, although the slightly increased proximity didn't make her words any more coherent.

“Close enough,” she said. “Close. Somepony close to me.”

She levitated one of the coffees above the desk and scrutinized it.

“Rhubarb,” said Twilight. “Did you know the leaves are poisonous? The stems are edible when cooked, but the leaves are poisonous. Not a lot of ponies in the city know this.”

Fluttershy glanced at the coffee, then back to Twilight's face.

“Um, there's no rhubarb in that coffee,” she said. “Did you want rhubarb in it? I-I could go back. I mean, they're probably closed by now, but I'm sure I could do something.”

Snapping out of it, Twilight put the coffee back on the desk. Oh right. Fluttershy wasn't Spike. She wasn't used to Twilight thinking out loud like that. But Twilight couldn't stop herself. Sometimes Twilight just had to verbalize her thoughts. It was a shame Spike wasn't there to keep the wheels turning. He always had a good retort, something to make her think. They could go for hours, Twilight blurting out whatever was in her brain and Spike picking it apart to give her something good.

“Oh, Spike sent you a message,” said Fluttershy.

Speak of the dragon. Twilight took the scrap of paper from Fluttershy. She thanked her for the coffee, but was relieved when Fluttershy left her alone. She felt like Fluttershy was the only pony in town who understood certain parts of her personality, but they were still too different. Completely separate sides of the same coin. Maybe a few years back they would have had a lot more in common.

The note wasn't anything too important. It was just Spike requesting that Twilight pick up dinner on her way home, as if she hadn't been planning to anyway. Although this time only Twilight had been working. Shouldn't Spike have been doing the cooking? But Twilight didn't care too much. It was his day off. If he didn't want to cook, that was up to him. Granted, she didn't appreciate the list he'd written on the back of the note. This was exactly why Twilight never went on lunch or dinner runs if she could avoid it. Everypony always wanted the most complicated dish they could summarize in ten words or less.

Twilight put the note next to the page from the register. Oh, why not? If she was going to pick up a buffet for the two of them, she might as well get a dozen of those crepes from Sugarcube Corner. Hopefully they were still open. Even if they weren't, Twilight might get them to open up for her. The Cakes knew she was “friends”--ponies in this town really loved to stretch that term to its limits—with Pinkie Pie. Twilight might even be able to get a discount.

She started to reach for the note again, but she stopped. The smile froze on her face.

Twilight realized that she was wrong. She didn't have a hoofwriting sample from every citizen. Her collection had been incomplete this entire time and she'd never really noticed it. It was only now—when she actually needed all those hoofwriting samples—that she accepted her own failing. Being the best detective in Canterlot required being thorough, sometimes to the detriment of others. Twilight had to accept that she didn't have any friends. How could anypony be friends with somepony who knew all their secrets? But that was one test Twilight had failed. She did have complete trust in certain associates, even if it left her open to betrayal.

Her eyes moved from the note to the torn page from the register. She'd been foolish, stopping just short of getting all those hoofwriting samples. So many citizens unaccounted for. But it didn't matter. Twilight didn't need samples from every pony in town, or at least she didn't need them for this case. It was right in front of her. But she hadn't noticed it. A part of her brain had blocked it out because it conflicted with her internal logic.

Spike had two different types of hoofwriting. The first he used more frequently, when he was slipping Twilight reminders or leaving messages so she wouldn't wonder where he'd gone during the day. But sometimes he lapsed into the polite, professional type of writing he'd adopted after complaints from his superiors. Unused to writing in such a sophisticated way, there was something unique about it that made it obvious he wasn't using his natural hoofwriting—or claw-writing as it should have been called—despite his efforts.

Clever Hooves. Written clearly in Spike's second type of hoofwriting, the kind he used to sign important documents.

Twilight cocked an eyebrow. She had to admit, it was a good forgery. Indistinguishable from the real thing. That explained why Twilight had been so certain about it before. It had struck a cord with her because she'd seen it before, although her subconscious wouldn't allow her to remember where. Another taunt. The masked pony yet again proving that they were always ahead, always in the lead even when Twilight thought she could see the finish line in the distance.

She pressed both hooves against the page, resisting the urge to crumple it up and throw it into the garbage. She knew it was just a taunt, another silly attempt at making her afraid. So why was her heart pounding like it was about to burst out of her chest? Why did she feel watched, hunted, and exposed?

Because I am, she thought.

Twilight stood in her office, staring at the closed door. For the first time since she'd left the city, she didn't want to walk home alone.