Act 1, Part 6: Of Future and Family

Meadowlark awoke with a start.

He didn't move. He had gotten used to being shaken from sleep, recently. In a strange way, he sort of liked it. It reminded him of life in the forest, where he had to sleep light for fear of some other predator stumbling across his and his brother's camp - whatever little risk of that there was.

He sighed, poking his nose out from beneath the sheets and peering around the room. It was not so dark that his eyes couldn't clearly make it out, but the clinging, creeping shadows made it obvious that it was still the dead of night. He looked for something out of place, something that might have toppled over to wake him up, but everything was as it was when he had gone to bed. Even the window, silhouetted by dripping icicles, still contained exactly the same amount of icy teeth. He smiled faintly to himself, baring his own teeth back at it.

No, he thought as he leaned back. Nothing had moved. Perhaps it had been his brother shifting or grunting? Meadowlark brushed the sheets aside just a bit, revealing the tip of Nightingale's muzzle. His nostrils opened and closed slowly, and a light snore escaped them. If anything, it was a surprise he wasn't louder. Meadowlark sighed, slipping out of bed and walking to the window. He leaned on the sill, resting his nose inches away from the cold glass. His breath fogged against the window, clearing between breaths. Fog. Clear. Fog. Clear. He watched it fade in and out for what seemed ages. Then he heard the whispers.

Meadowlark turned sharply away from the window, ears perking. The whispers were low at first, too low to hear, and unsteady. It sounded as though they were beginning after a long pause. Soon though, they grew in confidence. They seemed to be everywhere at once, bouncing off the walls and fluttering back and forth. Meadowlark drifted away from the window, tugged by a vague inclination of direction. It lead him to the door, which he nudged open. He paused for just a moment, looking back at his sleeping brother, before nosing the door open and creeping into the hall.

The whispers were more intense and more vague there. It was even harder to discern a direction, but just as before Meadowlark found himself pulled along by a feeling more than anything, a notion that the sounds happened to be coming from this way rather than that. The halls were dark, without a window in sight to let in the cool light of the moon. It was dark even to Meadowlark's eyes. The shadows clung along the walls, pooling in the crevices upon the floor and ceiling. For a moment, Meadowlark wondered if it wasn't the shadows that were whispering. He paused, his golden eyes darting to and fro across the hall. The shadows were still, but the whispering persisted. Meadowlark shook his head, and continued after the whispers.

He chastised himself as he walked, embarrassed by his nervousness. Shadows. He was afraid of shadows, of all things. He was a hunter. A predator. The shadows should be shying away from him! At least, that was what he told himself. His shoulders hunched, and he sped his pace. His ears swiveled like radio dishes, searching for the source of the whispers. He was beginning to be able to tell the source more clearly, now. The voices were becoming more clear as well. It seemed like there were dozens of them, stallions and mares alike. Some sounded big, others small, some strong and some weak Every one of them had a breathy, airy quality, as though they only spoke when the wind blew. They were getting closer with every step, and Meadowlark's pace slowed with every word. He was just around the corner from them, now. Despite that, it was still difficult to make out the exact words for the echoes and the soft hiss beneath it all. He crept down, straining his ears.

"...asleep. No need to... let him in... go quickly."

"We'll get this... work to do... more to learn... brothers..."

"...can help us. Better than... all the rest..."

"Damn the... rip them... enough... Meadowlark and Night-"

The last word was cut off by a howl cutting through, the mere sound of it chilling Meadowlark to the bone. It was like a wounded animal. Meadowlark's heart nearly stopped, and his wings lifted themselves from his body, half-unfurling. He had to stop himself from growling at the unseen howler. Instead he forced himself to round the corner quietly, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was before it saw him. He breathed deep, and stepped sharp.

The first thing he saw was eyes, hard as stone. There were mere inches away from his face. An enormous stallion, sided by an enormously fat and aloof looking mare, and another stallion who was so gaunt and pale he seemed to be a walking skeleton. Meadowlark froze in his tracks as a breathy voice rushed through once again.

"Wwwwwwhat are you... doing here... you..."

"...our house... must be..."

"Well, here he... now... last chance to..."

Meadowlark stumbled back, nearly tripping over himself. He felt his rump hit wall, and stared up - another stallion was above him, huge and looming down. His breath caught in his throat, and he just barely managed to pull himself to his hooves. He had just a moment to consider bolting before a crash sounded through the hall, like thunder. Meadowlark jumped violently, his heart threatening to burst out of his chest, and all at once there was silence. No more breathy whispers. No more echoing voices. Meadowlark was still, listening to the silence and staring at the ponies. Somewhere in the distance a light came on.

Slowly, Meadowlark began to relax. As he did, he found himself once more ashamed. There were no ponies with him. He had stumbled upon the hall of portraits once again, too focused on the whispers and shadows to realize where he was. He beat his wings and flicked his tail, snorting. He turned on his hoof, full ready to storm off back to his room and try and get some sleep, when he heard the whispers again.

They had lost their breezy quality, and with it some dozen voices. Now there were only two. Whatever had altered them had carried them, so they were softer now, but more clear. He began to creep down the hall, listening.

"It's good to see you again, darling."

"You make it sound like I've been gone forever."

"You make it sound like you haven't! I have needs, you know..."

"Well, I'll be happy to fulfill those needs soon enough..."

Meadowlark tilted his head. Now that he was closer, he was beginning to recognize the voices. They still echoed, but it was not so much as before. He crept into the light at the end of the hall, blinking a bit as his eyes adjusted. Not that he needed his eyes. He knew well enough that this hall opened onto the balcony of the foyer. It had proved difficult to forget his first experience with this place.

He lowered to the ground as he approached the railing. His eyes were still blurry, and the figures below were difficult to make out. There were three of them. Two were wrapped in what appeared to be thick robes. Both robed ponies were short, but the third was tall and slender, with it's back turned to Meadowlark. It moved erratically, seeming to bounce back and forth from the pony by the door.

"Go ahead," one of the cloaked ponies, a mare, said. Meadowlark recognized her voice. He furrowed his brow, squinting in to confirm his suspicion: the cloaked mare was Erin, wrapped in a thick blanket as usual, rather than a cloak. The tall pony seemed to relax, and leaned past Erin to the cloaked pony. As he did, Meadowlark found he recognized him as Stage, as well. They stayed together for a long moment, then parted. Meadowlark saw the cloak shuffle a bit, and the pony beneath seemed pleased with itself. He flattened his ears, not sure of what they had just been doing.

"Thank you, sweetheart," the second cloaked pony said. This one was still a stranger to Meadowlark, but apparently not to Stage and Erin. It was a stallion, though his voice was soft and high, and had an almost harmonious quality. It was as though it expect to be accompanied by music. "It's nice to see you again as well." He embraced Erin, and the three seemed to relax as one.

"But," the cloaked stallion said, "I know how you two are. If you wanted me over here, you probably have something urgent. Why don't you show me to it, and I can get let you back to business?"

"They're sleeping right now, I think," Stage said. Erin nodded in agreement.

"It's about the middle of the night for them," she said.

"It's the middle of the night for us," Stage commented. He shifted his stance, taking a few steps away from the pair. He turned to peer out the window, shaking his head. Behind him, Erin shook her head in kind.

"Whatever," she said with a wave of her hoof.

"You called me over in the middle of the night," the cloaked stallion said, voice clearly unimpressed, "and I can't even have a look at them yet?" He swept back his hood, and even from atop the balcony Meadowlark could see a dangerous glint in his soft blue eyes.

His coat was a creamy off-white, framed by a very carefully draped pale brown mane. His face was every bit as soft as his voice, rounding without being at all chubby. If it were not for a sense of serene maturity about him, it would be difficult to ascribe the title of stallion to his coltish features at all.

Erin waved her hoof again. "No," she said. "I called you over in the middle of the night so you could look at them. I'd much prefer you see them while they're asleep, if we can manage it."

The stallion's eyes narrowed. "...Why?" he asked. "You said they weren't dangerous..."

"They aren't," Erin said sharply. "But they are... unnerving. It's better they don't see you uncomfortable around them. They haven't really seen anypony else yet, so..."

There was silence among the three. Stage mulled awkwardly, and Erin played with the edges of her blanket. The cloaked stallion's frown deepened.

"I've seen 'uncomfortable' and you know it, Erin," he said. "That's not what this is about. You haven't told them, have you?"

"What was I supposed to tell them?" Erin snapped. "They barely even understand what they are, let alone why it's so important. I have more important things to teach them first. I..." She sighed heavily, rubbing her eyes. "Look," she said. "I'm sure you and Stage want to catch up again. I want to go to bed. Let's get you to them so you can take a look. You can call your friends about it in the morning, and if we're lucky you can probably be on your way before they know you were here, and we can go back to getting things ready for this. I'll... tell them when it's time. For now, I don't want them to know."

There was another bout of silence. Meadowlark's brow was locked in a furrow. He felt an all-too-familiar sensation, a dull stabbing feeling in his lower back. She didn't want him to know... what? Before he had time to think, Stage stepped up to the cloaked stallion and put a foreleg on his shoulder.

"You're not going to convince her, Singsong. And to be honest, I sort of agree with her. Everything we show them is new to them. We need to take it slow... I'm not sure we can trust them with something like this right now."

The stallion called Singsong sighed, but nodded. "Alright," he said. "Then let's go, I suppose. If you're so convinced to keep them from realizing life outside exists, we don't want to wake them up with our whispering. Where are they sleeping?"

"This way," Erin said, trotting towards the staircase. Meadowlark scrambled to his feet, spreading his wings and leaping down the hall. In a matter of moments he had gotten far enough away he could no longer hear them, but he didn't slow down. He wasn't sure what would happen if they caught him out of bed, but he wasn't inclined to find out. He dashed into his room, darting under the covers as quick as he could without disturbing Nightingale too much. Luckily, his brother was sleeping like a stone. Meadowlark settled in beside him, waiting.

A minute passed. Then two. Before long, he heard soft hoofsteps from outside, approaching fast. He closed his eyes, and stilled his breath, fighting every instinct he had to jump up and snarl at the intruders.

The door crept open, and Meadowlark heard the footsteps come in.

"...These are them?" Singsong asked, his voice hushed.

"That's right," Erin replied. "Just pull the sheets back. they won't notice, probably."

"Are you sure?" Singsong asked. His voice sounded a bit uncomfortable. "You said they were predators, right? How do you know they won't, you know... think I'm attacking in their sleep?"

"No," Erin replied. It sounded as though she were shaking her head. "I've studied them. They sleep surprisingly deep. I think they must have slept hidden or something. Either way, they trust me. Or at least, Meadowlark does. So they'll just assume it's me even if they do wake up."

There was a pause, and the sound of Singsong nodding. "Alright," he said. Meadowlark felt the sheet pull back, and Singsong's breath caught. "They're... big," he said. "Bigger than I expected."

"Will that be a problem?" Stage asked.

"No, no," Singsong replied. "We've had bigger. Hmmm... I think I have an idea."

"That was fast," Erin said, shifting on her hooves.

"They're... unique. It's easy to figure out."

"If you say so," Erin said.

Stage chuckled, and his voice drifted away from the bed. "Trust us, Erin," he said. "This is our ponies' specialty."

Erin muttered something under her breath, and Meadowlark felt the covers drift back over him. The three left the room without another word, closing the door behind them. Meadowlark threw off the covers and sat up, staring at the door. His chest was tight now, heart beating fast. His mind flashed back to the inspector months earlier, playing the words he had overheard again and again, mixing together with what he had heard tonight. He slowly laid himself back down, but he couldn't chase the words away.

"Meadowlark," Nightingale said sharply. Meadowlark jolted to life, jerking out from under the covers with a just as sharp grunt.

"Gnuh?" he said, whipping his head around. Slowly, the memory of allowing himself to relax and drift to sleep returned to him. He slowly fell back into the bed again, looking at his brother through tired eyes. "Mmm?" he asked. "What?"

"You moved," Nightingale said, gesturing to a rut in the bed beside him - one that in any other night would have held Meadowlark's sleeping body. Not that night, however. The stress had left Meadowlark sprawled haphazardly across the mattress.

"Did something happen?" Nightingale asked.

Meadowlark stared at Nightingale, then at the rut in the bed, then back at Nightingale. He faked a yawn to cover a worried frown. "S...hould it have?"

Nightingale's brow furrowed almost imperceptibly, but the set of his jaw gave away a mix of concern and confusion. "You never move," he said, his tone blunt. "We never move. Even if you get up you always come right back. Why didn't you?" His golden eyes locked with Meadowlark's, searching him. For the briefest of moments, Meadowlark considered lying. He considered brushing it off as an idle twitch in bed. Or perhaps with the warming nights of the oncoming spring, it was getting too warm under the sheets for them to be huddled together as they had in times past. If Erin didn't want them to know, perhaps it was better that they didn't after all...

Meadowlark let his ears droop and his head hang slightly. Even if he could lie to his brother, even if Nightingale couldn't see through everything he tried with those piercing eyes, Meadowlark wasn't sure he could bring himself to do it.

"I woke up last night," he said, meeting his brother's eyes once again. It seemed as though they communicated in more ways than just words, then. "I heard whispers. Erin and Stage. They... had a third pony with them. A small stallion."

"Singsong?" Nightingale asked.

Meadowlark narrowed his eyes. "Yes..." he said softly. "Did you know about last night?"

Nightingale shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I've seen him around the house before. He's never seen me. I think Stage called him his... husband?"

Meadowlark shrugged at the question implied. "I don't know," he said. "But his name was Singsong. Erin and Stage invited him here..."

"Why?" Nightingale asked. His voice was tight, and he leaned in slightly, eyes intense.

"To see us," Meadowlark said. "He came in the night while you were asleep. I pretended to be. Erin didn't want us to see him." He paused, letting silence hang. Nightingale leaned back, his eyes narrowing. When he spoke again, Nightingale's voice had regained its usual impassive, cold quality. Colder than before, even.

"...She didn't want us to see him?" he asked. "But she wanted him to see us? That's..."

Meadowlark nodded. He knew exactly what Nightingale was thinking. What he had thought as well. "She talked about something. I think it was the conference she mentioned before. She doesn't want us to know about it... she thinks it will be too much for us."

"What is it?" Nightingale asked. He snorted, settling down.

"I... don't know," Meadowlark said, leaning back as well. "They didn't say. But she seemed... worried? Scared? I don't know... Singsong said she should be getting us ready, but..."

"She's keeping it from us," Nightingale finished. "Keeping us from getting ready. She... Hmmph. What did that book say... knowledge is power?"

Meadowlark blinked, sitting up. "No it isn't," he said. "What does that have to do with this?"

Nightingale shrugged. "I think it's a... thing. Whatsit. A lie that's true? It means if she knows more than us, she can be ready and we can't. Like, if we hunt a rabbit, we know where it is, but it doesn't know where we are. So we have the power."

Meadowlark stared at Nightingale. Nightingale stared back. His eyes had turned from merely cold into ice. Meadowlark could see Nightingale's muscles tightening. He felt his own doing the same, as a familiar tension fell over them. Hunt.

"Why, though?" Meadowlark said suddenly, rolling out of bed suddenly. "I don't think she's hunting us... so why?"

"Who knows?" Nightingale said with a grunt. "Those things... we never know. It's always something new." He slipped out of bed himself, stalking aimlessly around the room. "We..." He shook his head as his words dissolved into a faint growl, followed by a sigh. "We shouldn't let her know," he whispered. Meadowlark peered at him, but Nightingale continued. "She's hiding something from us. Well... maybe we should hide this from her. Maybe if she doesn't know we know, then..."

He glanced back then, and Meadowlark saw something unusual in his eyes. Not something completely new, but something rare. Meadowlark took a slow step forward, his chest tightening.

A sharp rap on the door interrupted his thoughts. The door creaked open and Erin stepped through. She paused.

"Good morning, you two," she said, eyes narrowing slightly. She cocked an eyebrow, and continued, "I wasn't expecting you to be out of bed already. Did something happen?"

"Um," Meadowlark said, looking back at his brother. Nightingale didn't move, save for his eyes flicking back and forth between Meadowlark and Erin.

"We heard something," Meadowlark said. "From the window. Big crash. I think it might have been an ice...thingy."

"An icicle?" Erin asked, looking around Meadowlark's bulk. "Mmmm... could be. Spring is coming early this year, isn't it?"

"Is it?" Meadowlark asked, looking over his shoulder. His eyes met Nightingale's again, and Nightingale's cool eyes seemed to have a spark of approval in them. "I don't really know... I don't remember last spring that well. They all just kind of..." He shrugged.

"Blend together," Nightingale offered, getting to his hooves and trotting over to the pair. He paused beside them, ears perked as though waiting for something.

Erin seemed to get the idea, and nodded. "Well, I just came up to let you colts know it's time for breakfast. Since you're already up, why don't you come down with me, hmm?"

"Alright," Nightingale said, trotting out the door. Erin got up and trotted out after him, followed by Meadowlark in the rear of their three-pony-party. He took care to close the door behind them before following after Erin.

The three moved in silence. Judging from his slow, plodding gait Nightingale didn't mind, if he even noticed. Then again, Meadowlark mused to himself, the silence was hardly unusual for Nightingale. For Meadowlark, however, it was different.

He felt a tightness in his chest. Not so much nervousness or anxiety, just tension. The tightness spread out along his back, winding along his spine as he hunched his shoulders. He realized that he was staring at Erin. He caught himself, forcing himself to look away, but no matter how he tried he kept looking back at her, watching her every movement. He memorized her pace in three repetitions. In that time, her left ear flicked twice. He heard her clear her throat once, and one of her elbows popped. She smelled like coffee. She hadn't slept well last night.

Meadowlark shook his head, chasing the thoughts away. In their place his body began to move instinctively, twisting in tiny, subtle ways. He tightened his back and lowered his steps, crouching ever so slightly to the ground. Once again he shook his head, growling at himself. Erin peered over her shoulder at him as they turned into the foyer, making their way down the stairs onto the main floor.

"Something wrong?" she asked.

"Huh?" Meadowlark asked, straightening up and blinking. "Uh, no," he said. "No, just... thinking. To myself."

Erin raised an eyebrow, but smiled a bit at him. "You generally think to yourself, yeah. What were you thinking about?"

"Oh, um..." Meadowlark rolled his shoulders, looking out a window as they passed. The sun outside looked bright and warm, reflecting off the wet snow. "Not much," he said. "Just thinking about spring, I suppose."

No matter how he tried to twist the words, they were not at all the truth. They were a lie, plain and simple. He hadn't been thinking about spring. He had been watching Erin the way he had once watched a bear. Taking in the details. Analyzing. Waiting. Seeing how she would move. To hunt her? No. Meadowlark shook his head. No, it wasn't to hunt her. Just to be ready in case... his ears drooped. In case she was hunting him.

"That's fair enough, I suppose," Erin said. She swung open the door to the small kitchen tucked into the back of the wing they called home, and trotted around the island in the center. "I suppose you guys are used to being out there, huh? This'd probably be the only time of the year you actually liked..."

"I liked Winter," Nightingale said as he took a seat. "Rabbits leave better trails in winter. They're easier to hunt. You can find bigger animals hunting them, too."

"Huh... really?" Erin asked, pausing in front of a cupboard. "I'd have figured... well, I guess you guys must be used to the cold. Anyways, speaking of hunting, what can we rummage up for breakfast, hm?"

Meadowlark sat at the island as well, cradling his head in his hooves. He didn't answer, instead just idly staring out the window. It was Nightingale who spoke up, once again.

"Let's hunt our breakfast," he said. Meadowlark blinked. Erin paused again, tighter this time.

"What?" she asked, turning around. "Why?"

Nightingale shrugged, trying to seem casual, but Meadowlark saw a cautious glint in his eye. His words were guarded, no doubt carefully chosen on the walk over. "It's been awhile since we hunted," he said. "Why not?"

"Because... it's cold and wet out there," Erin said with a wave of her hoof. She turned her back on him, standing on her hooftips to look into the cupboards. "Maybe we have some jerky. Or more griffon food."

"I'm tired of Griffon food," Nightingale said, his ears drifting back. "I'd rather hunt. The rabbits are good this time of year."

"...I'd like to hunt too," Meadowlark agreed. He caught Nightingale peering at him out of the corner of his eye, almost thankful, but whatever he was planning Meadowlark hadn't intended to play along. He had been telling the truth - he wanted to hunt, to work out the tension he had built up watching Erin. More than that, his jaws ached from a winter without ever tasting fresh blood.

"No, no," Erin said, shaking her head. Something about her tone sounded worried, perhaps even scared. "No sense in wasting energy going after some rabbit that might not even be out there. I've got some stuff planned for you today, so I'd like you to be with me." She glanced over her shoulder at Nightingale, raising an eyebrow accusingly. "And awake would be nice too, in your case."

Meadowlark peered over at Nightingale. His eyes were dark, and his shoulders hunched. Slowly though, he relaxed and exhaled.

"Alright," Nightingale said after a while. "Do we have any jerky left?"

"Yeah," Erin said, producing a bag from the cupboard and dropping it in front of Nightingale. "We only have enough for one though, it looks like. Meadowlark, what do you want?"

"Huh?" Meadowlark asked, his head snapping away from Nightingale sharply. "Uh, just Griffon food if we've got any, I guess."

Erin nodded, plodding across to the fridge. After some rummaging she managed to find a soggy, but mostly full box of tightly-packed and strangely-spiced meatballs. Meadowlark still had a hard time believing they were meat at all, but they seemed pleasant enough and they sated the aching in his teeth a little, so they were a welcome meal.

Erin joined them at the island shortly after with a bowl of cereal, and set into it. Meadowlark focused on his own breakfast, and for a while he was even able to ignore her.

It didn't last, of course. Before even a few minutes had passed Erin cleared her throat, and spoke up.

"So," she said. "I know I've been too busy to keep up with you two the past few weeks. How have you two been getting along?"

"Just fine," Nightingale said, hardly looking up from his jerky. "We're used to being on our own."

Erin looked at Nightingale for a moment, her expression almost faintly sour. "I suppose so... from what I hear though, you haven't been alone per se." She turned back to Meadowlark, a brief smile flitting across her lips. "I hear from Stage you've been hogging the piano."

"That's..." Meadowalrk began, but stopped and narrowed his eyes. "What's hogging?"

"It means keeping it to yourself," Nightingale offered, glancing at Erin. The mare nodded.

"That's right," she said. "Very good, Nightingale."

"Oh," Meadowlark said, returning to his food. "I... guess I have? He's been showing me some... I didn't really think I was hogging it, since he was there with me..."

Erin smiled again, waving a hoof. "Well, you know Stage. He's a whiner. Anyways," she said as she polished off her cereal, "We're going to be giving him the day with that thing, now."

"Huh?" Meadowlark asked. He licked his lips of the last meatball, setting the soggy box aside.

"I told you I had something planned, didn't I?" Erin said, standing up. "You two kept up with reading like I asked, didn't you?"

"Well... yeah," Meadowlark said. "I read the alphabet like you said. And those things... sentences."

Erin nodded. "Good, good," she said. She turned to Nightingale, then. "And you Nightingale?"

"Houyhnhnm's Travels" he replied.

Erin blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Houyhnhnm's Travels," Nightingale repeated. "That was what I read this week."

Erin simply stared at him, eyebrow cocked in disbelief. "Hyouhnhnm's travels," she repeated. "Really. I ask you to memorize the alphabet and some simple sentences, and you tell me you've read -"

"'I cannot but conclude," Nightingale cut in, his voice curt, "that the bulk of your natives, to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.'"

"...Huh," Erin said, clearly dumbstruck. "That's... and you understand all that?"

"Your entire species is mean, nasty and smelly," he replied just as curtly. "So far as I can tell."

Erin simply nodded. "Wow," she said. "Alright, I hadn't been expecting that. I... hm. Seems kinda like the lesson wouldn't be much good for you... I guess if you want to do your own thing for the afternoon, Meadowlark and I can -"

"I'd like to stay with Meadowlark," Nightingale said. He pushed himself away from the table, walking to Meadowlark's side and flicking his wings, the leathery skin snapping softly."

"Alright," Erin said, raising her hooves and lowering her brows faintly. "Fair enough. Sound like me a little more..." Nightingale snorted in response, and Erin shook her head.

"So Meadowlark," Erin said. "Care to come with me to the library? Let's see if we can get you caught up to your brother at all, hmm?"

"Uh, I guess," Meadowlark responded with a shrug. He slipped down from his chair, walking wordlessly to the door, pausing to let Erin through first. The mare gave him a smile, and he tried to smile back. He hoped it did not look as suspicious as it felt.

After they slipped outside, Meadowlark fell in beside Nightingale, keeping his voice low, so Erin would not hear. "You've been reading?" he asked.

Nightingale shrugged. "I had to do something while you were playing piano. We were in the library. There were books. I found one with lots of words and what they mean in it, and then I found others."

"Oh," Meadowlark said, looking down. He frowned deeply. "Why, though? I mean..."

"I didn't want to be away from you," Nightingale asked. "I... didn't trust you with Stage. Alone."

"Or Erin?" Meadowlark asked. Nightingale nodded silently. Meadowlark's frown lessened, and he sighed. He felt more than a bit relieved. "I'm glad," he said. "That it's not just me, I guess." He raised his head a bit, staring at Erin's back. If she had become aware of their conversation, she didn't show it at all.

They were getting close to the library. Meadowlark lowered his head again, breathing deep to try and shoo away the growing feeling of sickness in his stomach. "What are they like?" he asked. "Books, I mean? Stage said they had... powers. Ideas. Can they make me think things?"

Nightingale's eyes narrowed. "I don't think so," he said. "All the ones I read... they have ideas, but I don't think they made me think the way they did. There were some I actually thought were dumb. Like one that thought stronger things always get better. But a bear is stronger than us, and we're better than a bear."

"Huh," Meadowlark said. He swallowed, rolling his shoulders. "I guess... that's okay then. So you don't think she's trying to... I don't know..." he eyed Erin carefully. "You don't think she's trying to make us forget about whatever she's hiding? Or make us think it's a good idea, or something?"

"Well," Nightingale said. "I wouldn't say that... but I..." he breathed deep. "Auf aksh," he said softly.

Meadowlark was silent. The words seeped into his mind, settling down. Words. That was what they were. It was almost surreal to think of them that way. Words. Language. He knew what they meant. No matter what they were called, they always meant the same thing. I kill. You hunt. We eat. He smiled a smile that got bigger and bigger, until he was grinning at Nightingale. Nightingale grinned back.

"Thank you, Nightingale," Meadowlark said. Nightingale didn't respond; he kept on grinning until Erin came to a stop in front of the library, throwing open the doors.

"Right!" She declared loudly, rounding on the brothers. "Nightingale, If you want to grab a book on your own, you can sit nearby, but I'd like to make sure Meadowlark can focus. If you don't mind?"

Nightingale exchanged a glance with his brother, and smiled. A glint passed between the bat ponies' golden eyes, and Nightingale nodded. Without a word he spread his wings and leaped into the air, silently ascending to the second floor and disappearing into the forest of bookshelves, leaving Meadowlark alone with Erin.

The nervousness had mostly evaporated now, replaced by a strange blend of trust in his brother and mild distrust in Erin. Still, Meadowlark shuffled his hooves idly as Erin trotted along the bookshelves, apparently looking for something.

"Go ahead and sit down, Meadowlark," Erin said without looking over. Her eyes scanned the shelves and she seemed to flit here and there aimlessly, muttering to herself under her breath. Meadowlark didn't sit down, however. Instead he just drifted near the table until Erin made a sound of victory, pulling out a large, if thin, book from the shelf.

"Found it!" she declared, whirling on Meadowlark and prancing to the table, book in the grasp of her magic. She took a seat, waving at him as though she barely noticed he was there. "Sit, sit," she said. She sat down herself, placing the book down gently. It was old and well-used looking, the spine nearly worn bare from opening and closing what must have been hundreds of times. On the cover was a faded image of a young, bright-red earth pony, surrounded by large, looming trees. Their branches reached out like skeletal, curling fingers, grasping at the colt who was curled up on the ground. He looked terribly afraid. The cover was also emblazoned with large, spooky-looking letters.

"Lit..." Meadowlark said, focusing on the words hard and squinting. "Little Brave Heart and the... the For-est of Fee.. Fah... Fair? Fear?" He blinked. "Little Brave Heart and the Forest of Fear?" he turned to stare at Erin, who was looking longingly at the book. "What's this?" he asked, slowly taking a seat.

"It's a storybook," Erin said. She tapped the cover. "My grandpa used to read this to me when I was little. I want you to read it."

Meadowlark's brow furrowed almost imperceptibly, and he looked between Erin and the book. "Why?" he asked after a while.

"Because it's short," Erin said simply. "Short at simple. Perfect for learning how to read. Starting today, we're gonna start working on that, alright?" She smiled at him, and her horn lit up to open the cover.

Meadowlark stared at the storybook, and swallowed. It seemed to be eying him expectantly - or perhaps that was just the crude, simple drawing of a pair of ponies. Meadowlark almost smiled at them. As paintings went, these ones were significantly less intimidating than the paintings of ponies in the hallway.

One of the ponies was tall and slender, clearly a mare, with a stern look on her face, and the other was a colt running through a field of flowers. Above the pair were words, written in large and inviting letters. It was these that Meadowlark focused on, beginning to read aloud.

Meadowlark turned the last page, finding nothing there but the large words, "The End." He blinked, scratching at the back cover. "Is that it?" He asked, a bit sadly. Erin chuckled, closing the book.

"It is," she said. "Did you like it?"

"I... think so?" Meadowlark replied. His eyes lingered on the back cover.

Erin smirked, and pressed. "You think so?"

"Well, yeah," Meadowlark said with a shrug. "I mean, it was neat... but it was weird." He frowned. "I guess I still don't really get stories... there was confusing stuff in there."

Erin opened her mouth to speak, then paused. Her horn lit up, and a pad of paper and a pencil floated gently over to their table. "You mind if I..."

Meadowlark shrugged again, shaking his head. Erin nodded, and flipped open the pad. "What confused you about it?" she asked.

"A... lot, I guess?" Meadowlark said. His mouth hung open as he struggled to find the words. "It's... weird. I mean... those were ponies, right? Are they like the paintings in the hallway? Were they alive once?"

Erin shook her head, the pencil scribbling seemingly of its own accord. "No," she said. "At least I don't think so. They may be modeled after ponies the artist knew - that is, they look like real ponies - but they were made up. Little Brave Heart and his mother were never real."

"Okay," Meadowlark said, though in truth he was still grappling with the concept a bit. It didn't help matters it seemed to be the exact opposite of what he understood from paintings - although that seemed to be as little as everything else. He sighed internally, turning his attentions back to the book. He flipped through it, finding an illustration of a small, gnarled pony with big blue eyes and a corkscrew horn. "And this?" he asked. "Is it made up too?"

"Mhmm," Erin said, leaning in to look at the page. "There are old legends about them. Elves. Evil spirits that steal away ponies to be work for them, or play with them forever."

"And the trolls and mig mites?" Meadowlark asked, flipping through the book.

"Also not real," Erin confirmed.

"None of it was real?" he asked.

"Nope," Erin said with a nod.

Meadowlark nodded back. He stared at the back of the book, flicking his eyes back and forth over every detail he could find, every scratch and word. Wheels spun in his mind, going over the information over and over, but whatever answer he sought, whatever explanation of the strange thing, it always lay just beyond his comprehension. If there was an answer at all.

"So Stage was right," he said to himself. "Stories are lies."

Erin looked up from her notes, and turned to stare at Meadowlark. Her expression was almost completely flat, save for an almost accusatory arch to her eyebrow. "What?" she asked.

"Lies," Meadowlark answered, leaning back a bit from her glance. "That's what Stage called them. Lies everypony knows are lies." He paused for a moment before leaning back in, and stared sidelong at Erin. "Why did you want to show me this?"

Erin snorted. "That's... hmmph. I guess that's one way to put it. You'd think a writer would be a bit more poetic, though. There's a big difference between what isn't real, and what isn't true." She tapped the book. "This isn't real," she said, "but that doesn't make it a lie."

"Why not?" Meadowlark asked.

Erin opened her mouth, but didn't speak at first. "It's..." she said after a while, her voice faltering. "It didn't happen, but, nopony is claiming it really did, so it's not... really a lie, but it's more like a... a... well, look!" She slapped the table, scowling. "The point is, the things in it aren't invalid just because they didn't happen. That's the difference. There!" She grinned, clearly pleased with her answer. Meadowlark simply frowned at her. That she needed to go so far to justify why she wanted him to read it was far from inspiring. He sighed, staring up at the balcony where Nightingale had disappeared.

"So," he said quietly, "Even though the things in the book didn't happen, they're true?"

"Yes," Erin said with a nod. she paused. "Well, sort of. Just because something isn't a lie doesn't make it true, either..."

Now Meadowlark simply stared at her, blinking slowly. "What are you saying?" he asked suddenly. His heart clenched with the words, and he breathed deep. "I don't understand. There's a difference between not real and lies, fine. But not real is the opposite of real, and true is the opposite of lie. You told me that! How can something not be itself, or its opposite?"

"It's..." Erin grunted. "It's a storybook!" she snapped. "Why do you care so much about truth and lies? It's not important, I just want you to read a damn book!"

"Maybe it's not important to you," Meadowlark snapped, leaning in, "but it's important to me! I don't know everything like you do! I don't understand!" He slammed his hoof down on the table, baring his teeth. Erin jumped, leaning away from him a bit, but he continued on, feeling himself lose control of his words. "You do it all the time, saying things I don't understand - you know I don't understand, because if you don't tell me how can I? You say words I don't understand, and you don't let me understand! You keep things from me, and I don't know why. You told me! You told me I was here to understand. That's what you promised me, that you'd teach me, but you only teach me what you want me to know, and nothing else!" He paused, realizing that he had stood up. His chest felt tight and cold, but he fought to continue.

"I'm a hunter! A... a bat pony. I'm not like you. I don't understand these things. You... you give me a rabbit, and it's dead or it isn't. There's never a picture of that rabbit on the wall. It's just gone. Before it was real, it was there, and now it isn't. There's no way for it to be real and not real at the same time. I don't... I just..." He breathed deep, leaning against the table. "I want to understand" he said, half a mutter and half a growl. "I want to, but I just... don't.

Vaguely, Meadowlark was aware of Erin shifting in her seat. She sounded uncomfortable. Eventually, he heard her shift towards him, and felt her hoof on his foreleg. Meadowlark looked up, and he saw Erin frown and run a hoof through her hair.

"Look, Meadowlark..." she said. Her voice was soft and frustrated, and she grunted wordlessly. "If I avoided giving you a straight answer, it's because I'm not a philosopher. A lot of ponies a lot smarter than me spent their whole lives trying to come up with an answer to the questions you just asked, and they never really came up with a good answer. Some things are just too complicated for a single pony to understand. But..." She looked back at the book, and her frown slowly morphed into a faint smile. "My granddad read me this. I was a stupid, stubborn foal. I did a lot of bad things because I thought I knew best, and this book kinda... I dunno." She laughed, more at herself than anything else. "The reason I say it's not true, but not a lie, is because whether it's either of those things is... personal. I mean, didn't you ever fight with your mother because she made you do something you thought was dumb?"

Meadowlark sighed. His shoulders ached, and he felt as though his rant had drained all his energy. He sat down, still leaning his forehooves on the table. "I... guess?" he said. He sighed again, frowning as something occurred to him. "Or... maybe? You said Nightingale and I are brothers, right?"

"Right," Erin said. Her smiled faded just a bit, and she flicked her ears in confusion.

Meadowlark, however, didn't notice. He frowned deeper, mental gears once again spinning. "The book calls that mare Little Brave Heart's mother," he said after a moment, "and you said something about a grand mother... which is I guess is a really good mother or something?" He rubbed his chin, flipping the pages and staring down at the final illustration: Little Brave Heart wrapped in the bigger mare's arms, both with warm and happy smiles on their simple faces. "...What's a mother?"

There was a strange silence. Meadowlark looked up and found his eyes meeting Erin's. Her smile faded bit by bit, until it finally became a frown. Her gaze was guarded, almost confused. She leaned back in her chair, opening and closing her mouth a few times, then stopped again. "You..." she said slowly. "Sorry, I think I must have misunderstood you." She shook her head like she was trying to shake something loose. "Your mother is the mare who raised you," she said. "You know, taught you to hunt."

Meadowlark narrowed his eyes, shaking his head. "Nnnno," he said. "We didn't have anything like that."

Silence fell again, and this time Meadowlark was sure he could feel the tension. He leaned in, and his chest began to feel tight, just as the face around Erin's eyes became tight.

"How can you not have had that?" she asked. Her voice was quiet. "How did you learn to hunt? Who taught you?"

"Nopony taught us," Meadowlark said. Erin stirred a bit when he spoke, and he noticed that she wasn't writing this down. That bothered him for some reason, though he couldn't put his hoof on exactly why.

"We ate weak animals, or small animals at first. It was enough. When there weren't any, we ate berries and roots. Soon we got bigger, and we just... learned. Found out how to. If we couldn't eat we went hungry, and..." he shrugged again, just a small shrug this time. Erin looked almost as though she were in pain, and when she spoke her voice was more than just soft.

"Just the two of you," she repeated. "It's been just the two of you? All your life... damn." She covered her mouth with a hoof, her brows knitting together. "I... I always thought... I mean, I know you two were the only ones we found, but I figured maybe the rest just lived deep in the forest, or maybe you were the last ones around, or... or... I mean, I'd wanted to ask, but..." Her voice was turning frantic, but the pained tone never left her. If anything, her voice became more pained.

Meadowlark tilted his head. He wanted to do something to alleviate the pain, but as ever he had no idea what even had caused it. "What's wrong, Erin?" he asked. "What's the matter with it just being us?"

"I... I don't know," Erin said, lowering her head. "I guess I just... I'd had assumed..." She leaned forward again, an inch at a time, and slipped her hoof over Meadowlark's. He stared down at it, blinking. "I'm sorry, Meadowlark," she said. "To you and Nightingale both. Now I understand why you've been having such a hard time. I thought you were just having trouble adjusting, but..." She sighed. "A mother is a mare," she said. "A mare who cares for you. She protects you, and helps you, and teaches you how to survive and to live. A mother does... a lot of what I'm trying to do for you right now. But you and your brother are smart enough to learn to survive alone in a forest by yourselves, from birth - no instinct, no mother, no nothing."

Meadowlark looked Erin up and down. "Were you..." he said, he said, his voice soft and slow, "were you trying to be our mother?" He looked down at Erin's hoof. It felt warm against his, pulsing faintly.

She shook her head again, setting down her notebook. "I... no," she said. "I don't think so, at least. I... honestly don't know." She slid her chair away from the table. "Meadowlark," she said, staring him in the eye. "Please believe me when I say, I was doing my best to help you. I tried to teach you at a rate you'd be comfortable with, and I thought that you would just... know that. I promise you, I never meant to keep anything from you. Not... not really. If you're really self-taught, though, I don't think any pace I set will do. I think you need to set your own pace. I'm sorry I didn't understand that." She smiled a bit ruefully, and added, "I guess I didn't really understand you - I might have stopped trying a while ago, really. But I promised, form now on I'll try... on your terms. I still have things I'd like you to learn, but we can do it at your pace." Her smile turned from rueful to warm, and she extended a hoof.

Meadowlark stared at it for a while, before smiling back. It was his turn for the smile to be weak, though. It was not rueful, but a tad unsure. He was a tad unsure. After seeing Erin so sorry, it was difficult to be frustrated with her... but perhaps it was for the best. He took her hoof, shaking it. "You promise?" he asked. "You weren't... trying to control me or anything?"

Erin blinked, and chuckled. "Of course not," she said. "Why would you think that?"

Meadowlark looked down, shrugging. He opened his mouth, but didn't speak. In spite of everything today - or perhaps because of everything, the way Erin seemed to switch moods so suddenly - it was still hard to trust her. For a moment he thought that maybe he shouldn't let her know he knew. Maybe he should keep it to himself, and prepare. Maybe he should lie. He breathed deep, and grit his teeth. No. No lies.

"Nightingale told me that knowledge is power," he said. "That if you know more than me, you can use that. Trap me, or trick me... I thought maybe that was why you didn't want me to see other ponies, to know they'd think I was a monster." He sighed, shaking his head. "But, you promise that you really just wanted to teach me about them when I was ready? And about the conference?"

He looked back up at Erin; he felt strangely hopeful. He expected Erin's warm smile to greet his eyes. Instead, he was surprised to find that her expression was no longer warm - it was no longer anything, changing between expressions almost too fast to track. Hurt, angry, horrified, guilty.

"You-" she stammered, her voice apparently decided on angry, "were you spying on me!?"

Meadowlark blinked, leaning away a bit. "What's spying?" he asked.

"You were!" she said. She opened her mouth to shout, but froze, and sighed heavily. She ran a hoof through her hair, and when she looked up again her irritated expression was cut with something like remorse. Meadowlark's eyes narrowed, and a wave of cold washed through his gut..

"W...why?" he asked. "Do you still think like that? That I'm a monster... whatever that is?"

"No," she said. "No, I'm not... sorry." She sighed heavily, running her hoof through her mane and scratching her head with a grunt. "I'm just frustrated. I guess. I'm... not used to apologizing this much? Didn't want to confront this right after I already realized I've been wrong to you the whole time? Pissed off that I didn't get to choose the way you found out about this?" She sighed again. "How did you find out?"

"I... followed you when the inspector was here," Meadowlark said. He spoke slowly, tilting his head this way and that to view Erin from different angles, though she didn't seem to change at all. "Followed you to your door and listened... is that spying?"

Erin waved her hoof. "Yes," she said with a sigh. "But, look, don't worry about it. I... guess I'd have to tell you soon enough anyways. But I should... we should talk to your brother." She turned around, waving to Meadowlark to follow her. She moved slowly, almost wearily as she climbed the stairs. Meadowlark followed closely behind.

They found Nightingale deep between the shelves, nose buried in a book. His eye snapped up when he heard them coming, though his head did not move.

"M' reading," he said. "Like you told me to... reading Thus Spake Zarath... Zarasoo... Zarathuta." He snorted, turning back to the book. "The words inside are easier," he added as if in defense of himself.

"Well, I'll need you to stop," Erin said. Nightingale's eyes paused their travels across the page, and he looked up with his whole head this time. His eyes flicked back and forth between Erin and Meadowlark.

"...What is it?" he asked.

"We need to talk," Erin said. "All three of us. Meadowlark told you about the things he heard, and saw?"

Nightingale's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Yes," he said after a minute. "The pony that came last night. You talking to that inspector about us. He said something about a conference?"

Erin nodded, and sat down. She let out a deep sigh, and leaned back against a bookshelf. "That's right," she said. "I'm... princesses, I have no idea where to start with this. I guess..." she rubbed her eyes. "The inspector. The inspector was here to check the cage I was keeping you in at first. She wanted to make sure it would keep you in."

Nightingale's eyes narrowed more, and Meadowlark felt a spark of anger flare up in his belly. He suppressed it though, and managed to keep his voice calm as he asked, "Why?"

"Because she thought you were in there," Erin said. "Legally, you should be... legally you're classified as animals. The same as a rabbit or bear. But you aren't."

She breathed deep, and Meadowlark peered at Nightingale. His brother stared back. There was caution in Nightingale's eyes. Not quite fear, not quite anger. As cold as ever, but waiting. Watching. In his own eyes, Meadowlark knew, there was concern and confusion. He breathed deep as well, forcing the same cool watchfulness into his eyes.

"You're... I don't really know what you are," Erin said finally. "I think you're ponies, like me and Stage, but you aren't like any ponies we've ever seen before. Nopony has. Ponies don't eat meat, or hunt, or have bat wings or see in the dark, or..." She took a moment to compose her breathing again. "That's why I don't want anypony to see you. Yet. You're different. Scary. They'll think you're some kind of... some kind of monster. Something dangerous and weird. They'll be afraid of you.

"But the conference... the conference is a meeting. A meeting of scientists, like me. Ponies who will understand what you really are, if I show you to them..." she swallowed. Nightingale stared. Meadowlark stared.

"Ponies will be afraid of us," Nightingale said slowly, "so you want to show us to ponies."

"Carefully," she said. "In a controlled situation. I want to teach ponies about you. Introduce you to them, and to the world outside slowly-"

"And what if this wasn't what we wanted?" Nightingale snapped suddenly, getting to his hooves. "What if we just wanted to go home?"

"I couldn't," Erin said. "There were... somepony wanted to kill you. Taking you in was the only way to save you, and then I discovered what you were... I needed to teach you."

"Did you?" Nightingale asked. "Why? Why did we need to be taught?"

"Because you weren't meant to live in a forest," Erin said. "You're ponies, like us. You can live here, like the rest of us -"

"Why?" Nightingale snapped again, raising his voice. "Why would we want to live here instead of the forest? We agreed to be taught, but never to that! Did you ever ask us?" There was a hint of a growl to the last word, and Nightingale approached Erin. Meadowlark jumped up suddenly, throwing a wing in front of him. Nightingale stopped, but growled from the back of his throat.

Surprisingly, Erin jumped up too, and marched up to Nightingale. Almost out of panic, Meadowlark spread his second wing in front of her.

"I'm sorry!" she shouted. "You're right! It was wrong of me to keep this from you, and to make this decision for you! But what could I do? Throw you back into the forest to be killed? Keep you locked up in that cage forever, never let you understand the world you're in?" Her eyes were hard as steel, matching Nightingale's blow for blow. Meadowlark stared between the two, and he found he saw a line of something like warmth.

"Like it or not, Nightingale," Erin said, "you walked out of the forest. You made that choice. This is the world you're in now. Would you want to go back? With no books? No music? Would it be enough now?"

Nightingale faltered. He moved as if to speak, but found nothing to say. Erin gestured at the book behind him.

"Would you be able to stand not knowing?" she asked. The hardness faded from her eyes and her voice, and she looked down. "It was wrong of me to try and trick you. I thought you wouldn't know any better. But you made the choice to learn, after all, so maybe I should give you more credit. I'll give you another choice:" She looked back up, some hardness returned to her eyes. It was not steel this time, though. There was a challenge in her eyes. "do you want to go to the conference? There's still time for me to cancel it."

All three ponies were silent. the whole world was quiet, save for the slow ticking of a clock somewhere deep within the library. Nightingale swallowed, and looked away. Meadowlark closed his eyes as well. He breathed slowly. His gut was cold as ice, and hot as fire. He lowered his wings, like floodgates for all the information. His body trembled, and he was only vaguely aware that Nightingale had gone to pick up his book. Erin was still sitting as she had before, eyes cast ever so slightly down.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Meadowlark asked.

Erin tensed up like she had been shocked. When she spoke again, her voice was tight. "I... didn't think you'd understand," he said. "Not yet. I was planning on telling you when I thought you'd be ready. I wanted you to be ready..." She sighed, and her tension subsided. "I guess I just thought it would be too much to take in at first. Knowing that as far as the world was concerned, you were unique and strange."

"We were always unique and strange," Nightingale said softly.

Meadowlark nodded in agreement. "I think..." he said after a moment. Nightingale and Erin both looked up, staring at him. He looked between the two of them, and breathed deep. He beat his wings once, feeling it match time with the heart pounding in his chest. "I think," he said, "that you shouldn't have lied to us. But I believe you. I believe that you thought you were doing a good thing for us." he pawed at the ground, turning to stare at Nightingale. For once, Nightingale's eyes were not cold, or hard, or cautious. They were close. They were frightened, just as Meadowlark knew his eyes must be. He trotted over to Nightingale, standing close to him, and he turned back to Erin.

"We'll go to the conference."