• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,474 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Bloom

"We have an infestation problem."

The brown-and-white speckled unicorn looked up at him, and the expression Quiet had walked in on -- that of somepony in the middle of deepest headache and trying to force themselves to continue with the activity causing it -- shifted into a deep smirk. "Very true. I believe you're currently allowing it to reside within your grounds. As such, you should be the one to take responsibility for the cleanup. Do let me know when you've managed to get rid of the last lingering scents: I'm not particularly good at holding my breath and visiting you is becoming a rather unwelcome exercise in endurance."

There were ways in which Quiet was used to their interplay. When the two of them were in the same room, with no other ponies to observe, the sharpened edges of syllables were unsheathed. It could easily turn into a verbal war to first blood and beyond -- if Quiet cared enough to participate. He didn't do so every time. He knew what Coordinator was trying to prove: you may be the supposed Lord, but I'm the one with the true power around here. And that was what it was always about: power. Coordinator always felt the need to wield power, enjoyed it on a level Quiet fully recognized -- but the bureaucrat seldom had the chance to use it openly. Those chances were relished, and Quiet suspected Coordinator took them into the nightscape and relived them at leisure, at least until the dreams of greater power inevitably took their welcome turn.

But ultimately, Quiet didn't care. Coordinator was -- necessary. And to that degree, he continued to deal with the pony who effectively ran the town hall and by extension, so much of Trotter's Falls. He let the other have his say, gave over a few victories more or less by default, and simply moved on with what portions of the Great Work which Quiet could personally assist in.

However -- not caring didn't mean he enjoyed their meetings. And there were times when he let the sting of his own vocabulary enter the battle, a reminder to Coordinator that even if the other stallion didn't care to believe any of it, the bureaucrat ultimately had only petty power -- and it was something which could vanish at any time.

Quiet often felt Coordinator was incapable of understanding that. But there was a certain pleasure in watching the denials. And given that as far as verbal battles went, he'd just been through a rather intensive warmup exercise...

"The Bearers will depart -- when they depart," he told Coordinator. "If you want to directly tell a Princess that she's overstayed her welcome -- and we both know that's not going to happen, don't we? Direct isn't part of anything you do. You keep to the shadows more than Princess Luna, and there are times when you almost seem to do a better job at creating them."

That got him a slight nod. "I do my part, Lord Presence. And you're quite correct -- I'm not going to be the one to tell Twilight Sparkle she should be moving on. Speaking of which -- would you happen to know where she is now?"

"Outside with two other Bearers and the dragon." Quiet noted the most subtle degree of pulling back that came upon hearing the last word. "I told them I needed a few minutes to deal with some forms regarding the upcoming party. Notices of bands playing during the night just in case I wanted to book the entertainment and not worry about our local law enforcement dropping by to say a few words about unsanctioned decibels. They'll wait for me. We have time -- to talk about the infestation."

"Again -- your castle, Quiet," Coordinator smirked. "And therefore your problem."

Quiet took a steady breath -- no extra pain came from it -- and used the moment for looking around the grey office, a hue he came far too close to automatically blending in with.

It was -- organized. Arguing that it was too much so would come easily for most ponies right up until the moment the occupant directed them to fill out the complaint forms in a minimum of triplicate. And at the moment, there was something else to complain about -- for the standard had visibly slipped.

There were file cabinets. The sheer quantity of them meant they were often mistaken for two of the walls.

The diploma from the Gifted School had a place of prominence. Pictures of ponies Coordinator had special knowledge of were carefully displayed on what Quiet sometimes thought of as The Wall Of Blackmail, with the images carefully ranked from left to right according to just how much they could do for the functionary. Every so often, the order shifted. Rows were added. Once in a great while, a picture would be taken down. Quiet had walked in on the removal of one image, casually asked what the occasion was. Coordinator had, with great bitterness, told him that the absent pony would be unable to continue sorting out what should have been her best priorities from the shadowlands. And then the frame had gone into the trash.

The desk was generally covered in paperwork, but in a very meticulous way. Typically, documents were sorted from station to station, piles shrinking by the exact degree which others grew. Multiple inkwells were in play at all times so that Coordinator could criticize, rebuke, and reject in considerably more than one color. One cherished rack held special stamps to be used on the front page of anything summarily destroying all hope. A lesser-used one contained the finest of quills, for when somepony required that special flourish of fieldwriting which said Coordinator wanted something from him. Another, more commonly utilized group, magically negated the lingering unique signature from the feel of any field which held it and, combined with an even more special flourish of writing, kept the recipients of those letters from knowing just who was making the initial effort in the quietly joyous attempt to ruin their lives.

And that was why the desk had caught Quiet's attention this time, because it was covered in papers -- but those papers were scattered. Disheveled. They seemed to have come from a dozen different qualities of reams, had twice that many hues of ink covering them -- and that was before he threw in what might have been crossouts, revisions, second drafts begun on top of the first...

They weren't forms. It would have been impossible to fill out any form that way without having the paper spontaneously catch fire in order to escape. But Quiet wasn't sure what they were: from his perspective, they were upside-down -- and even without that to confuse the text, the quillponyship was horrible. If it had been produced by a field, then the unicorn was just getting past the spark stage and if a mouth had been involved, the writer had no patience for the fine details of lettering, or the rough ones, or possibly much of anything else.

It was more than merely unusual to see such raw chaos on Coordinator’s desk. But it wasn't the problem. The infestation was. And in Quiet's opinion...

"Actually -- I'm pretty sure it's yours," Quiet said.

Another smirk. Not that the first one had truly faded. "Are you?"

"Well, that's why I came here. To ask you -- in your capacity as official press representative." Quiet didn't take a step closer to the desk, preferring to keep the standard three body lengths between them: he simply shrugged and let the motion of his shoulders cross the distance for him. "That's still one of your roles with Murdocks, right? You put in your opinion columns -- wherever you're having them mailed from these days -- you ask for no pay of any kind, just the joy of writing -- and part of what you get in return is that you are that representative, at least for his press corps. If there's a story -- you cover it. Or rather, most of the time, you don't. And nopony else shows up from his group to cover anything."

"As said -- I do my part."

"Apparently you're not doing it well enough."

"I only have influence with a single organization," Coordinator pointed out, far too casually. "The Doctor's absence was news -- to some. I told Murdocks it was a non-story, especially since there was no real way to write one about his having fathered every last one of the children he delivered and a very large number of ponies would have become angry at the attempt. Not just all of his, but their parents, and -- well, you recognize a few of the levels of power in play there, I'm sure, even though it leaves you looking up the whole time. But if anypony else from another newspaper came into town, I can hardly flash a badge I don't have -- and even should I get one, saying I was here first --"

It was more than enough. "We have three flanks displaying broken scales in the streets right now, Coordinator." Quiet was beyond certain that the bureaucrat had known that already. "And those were just the ones I saw. Why are they here?"

An answering shrug. "Influence -- which regrettably is not full control. I'd imagine some of the Doctor's got off the train in their own settled zones talking of the visitors who had come to ours. The Press Corps is very interested in the activities of all Princesses, you know that -- especially if there's any chance to use those actions against them. For Twilight Sparkle to be in town -- naturally they're curious to find out if she's here to do something, or hiding from something else." There was a brief pause. "Perhaps she's even sticking around to be near somepony. Wouldn't that be interesting?"

Placidly, "If you're into that reading about that sort of unsourced gossip thing, yes."

"And -- are you?"

This breath was slightly slower. "Gossip isn't to my taste."

"Then you should be more careful about avoiding situations which could create it," Coordinator calmly said. "A married stallion -- one who is not part of a union which would welcome expansion into a larger group -- brings six well-known single mares onto his property and -- puts them up for a time. While his wife is away. It's the sort of situation which could easily have ponies talking, Quiet. And you know how ponies love to talk..."

"And how much reporters love to listen," Quiet allowed. "So you feel they simply followed the flow of tales back here?"

"Inevitably," came the calm reply. "And I doubt I'll be able to talk them into leaving. Saying 'Hello, I am the local anonymous unpaid source' lacks a certain something in the way of proof, especially since I don't have copies of any pay vouchers which never existed. Complaining to Murdocks that others are stepping on my territory will only draw questions as to why I wasn't filing the story -- in fact, I'm expecting to receive something like that very soon no matter what I do. The good news is that as a volunteer, he'll have some trouble firing me -- and I believe I have enough goodwill built up to avoid any lawsuits, at least beyond the first round of threats."

"Do we have more than three of his?"

"Your news is the first count I've had, and I've been in the office all morning -- since before the Sun was raised, actually. When you get an exact tally, let me know?"

And with that, Quiet grew tired of the dance. "Coordinator -- do we really need somepony poking around Trotter's Falls right now?"

"That would depend," Coordinator countered. "What is the value of 'we' in play here?"

This time, Quiet did take a step forward -- and let his corona go to a full primary. The office was well-lit, even if the grey tried to absorb all the internal illumination it could while denying Sun as much as the occupant did (along with denying the Princess who made it work): he was sure Coordinator could see the sparkles. "The one which includes you and the role you so expertly play in the Great Work. She is out there, Coordinator. We're looking right now. You're directing some of that. The press knows the Doctor has been found, or will if they care to listen to any recent events at all -- which, when they find out how our currently-local Princess factors into them, they just might. If they get any wind of a search going on, they'll know it's not for him and I'm hardly going to ask him to disappear twice just to play the role. I'm also going to have some trouble having any other pony retroactively vanish. We're keeping things on a low level -- but given how much of the town is part of this, we would normally have relatively little to fear from a minor slip. In this case, we have the Bearers. I'm handling that. But now we also have the press. Which is supposed to be your department."

Coordinator was silent. The lack of words by no means indicated submission: it was simply waiting for Quiet to finish and using the time to plan his own response.

The quasi-Lord went with it anyway. "I may not read as much of Murdocks as you do -- it's not to my taste, although I do have respect for your talent in excluding all other viewpoints from what never winds up as a true debate. But I do know the general style. News is what they do to fill page count space between scandals. So they're slow to seek the former, but they'll always chase the latter. And if they should somehow get any hint, stumble across a single clue... which do you think we have more of here, news or scandal? Especially if they found out how far it goes? How many ponies are included? And once they reach your name..."

Very slowly, "My name?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Quiet lied. "Is there another brown and white unicorn stallion in this office?"

"Nopony," Coordinator said firmly, "is giving up my name. There's no reason to do so."

"Pretend you're drowning."

A sneer. "Whatever you're talking about --"

"-- blackmail," Quiet cut him off, "is your art."

Coordinator didn't even blink, which robbed Quiet of at least half the satisfaction.

The grey stallion began working on getting it back. "I realize you're trained to never admit it. But if it gives you any comfort, pretend I said the word 'hypothetical' about twenty times in random, yet appropriate places. It's a pity your mark doesn't reflect it, really -- but that would be something of a giveaway, wouldn't it? Still, it's part of your role with us. You use your skills -- and you are skilled -- to assist. There are times that means paperwork. Redirection. A subtle suggestion to the right twitching ear. Or the discovery of facts. Facts which ensure silence. If facts don't exist, then they're created. Blackmail is the art of bombarding ponies with the knowledge of their own deeds -- or those conjured for them -- until they feel as if they're drowning. And then, having flooded the grounds and stirred the current -- offer them a succession of temporary float supports. They'll always be in the water -- but somepony will control whether or not they sink. How many 'hypotheticals' have you used so far?"

This silence was slightly different.

"The problem with drowning," Quiet continued, "is -- well, now we have to move into the real for a moment. Most ponies are poor swimmers. We're fine in the shallows with slow currents. As divers? Frankly, we're pathetic. And any water moving quickly -- there are many reasons so few go out on the ocean, and most of those center around a desire to avoid the chance of not coming back. Still, ponies do find themselves in situations where they could drown. Earth ponies have the most resistance on the whole." He noted the automatic expression of distaste, then watched as it went beyond that. "They can fight the current, tread water for longer than unicorns can manage. Us? If we can teleport, we're fine. Self-levitators get clear of the water and try to reach land. Most of the rest are in rather more trouble. And pegasi -- it's the stuff of fiction, really. Given how often they have to fly through storms, I have a hard time imagining the weight of water soaking into their feathers enough to drag them down, no matter what the stories try to say. There's a chance they might have trouble taking off, but I'd have to see it. But ponies have drowned. Other ponies have watched it happening. Many tried to save them. And sometimes it worked. Unicorns with sufficient field strength --" and the open hate took on a new tone "-- pluck them out of the water or loop ropes to drag them out with, pegasi swoop and lift. But others have to go into the ocean after them. And those drowning will cling to their rescuers as best they can. Sometimes they flail during their attempts to do so. Kick. Injure. Drag the other pony down with them. Where one drowns -- two can die. So tell me something, Coordinator... all those ponies in the water -- how far away are they? How strong are their fields? Do their forelegs press tightly?"

And then he took a breath, noted the increased ache -- and waited.

There was a clock on the wall. It was an odd sort, powered by gears rather than magic. One of Quiet's ancestors had purchased a similar model and he had carefully failed to keep it tuned in any way: the thing was horribly finicky, considering a good day to be one where it only forget one hour in every ten. But he had to admit, the sound it made was slightly comforting, a regular pattern of metallic clicks, each one driving a single second -- more or less -- into the ground and pinning it there...

"Your language becomes too fanciful at times," Coordinator said. "I suspect it's all the donkey so-called literature you peruse. If you're implying that you have concerns about them finding her -- then look harder. Try to beat them to it. I'm doing my part there, and it would only help -- in theory -- if you joined in. Unless you feel 'handling the Bearers' is more important?"

Quiet -- shrugged again. Smiled and took half a step back. "You're right. It's not. I'll stop right now. Let me just go tell the Princess that all my handling is over and she shouldn't consider any of my suggestions ever again. In fact, in a minute, you'll be able to tell her yourself, because she so wanted to come up here with me and see what you'd made of the place and as soon as she stops considering that..." He turned, headed for the overly-polished grey door --

"-- you're lying."

"You're worried."

"She has no reason to come up here."

"Being such great school friends should be reason enough, shouldn't it?" Quiet inclined his horn towards the well-lit diploma. "The eternal bond between graduates..."

Twenty clicks locked time into its proper place within the cabinets.

"So when is the party?" Coordinator asked.

"Two, three days," Quiet answered. "I can't see it being anything beyond that. But I can't move it up any more, either -- we're using the occasion to bring ponies in, and some simply need the time to travel. As it is, we won't be able to get everypony. But we won't be missing very many."

"I'll get your paperwork through. Just be careful about the noise level. I know how far you are from other residences -- but sound carries, Quiet. It always does."

"I've noticed." He took a step towards the door. "I heard some familiar ones today. Echoes, really. They must have taken years to reach the point of bounce-back, and more to make the full round trip."

"Oh?"

"And the odd part? They were all echoes of things you'd said. About our guest Princess. Strange that they'd be arriving here again at this point in time, isn't it?"

"Not really," Coordinator opinionated. "I've spoken to many ponies about her since leaving school. Now that she's here, some of them are simply -- remembering my words. The visual appears -- reminding them of my experiences -- and they repeat things to themselves in order to be sure they have them right. It happens all the time with other ponies who might enter an area after the population there has heard about them in advance. It's just as natural to have it occur with a Princess -- perhaps even more so, given what an inspiration she is to think about such things at all."

Quiet, still facing away from the bureaucrat, nodded. "You're right -- that is natural."

"Very."

"And no fault of your own, having ponies bringing those words back on such an obvious cue."

"None whatsoever."

"Incidentally -- what's that on your desk? Did the school ask the youngest children to submit their best guess at what a form should look like for your professional grading?"

"This?" The sound of papers shuffling, followed by an audible wince as the headache settled back in. "Just a little -- light reading."

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They were heading back towards the castle. No real degree of tour had been taken. Quiet had told them that the castle was still secure -- living within a giant stone pimple, complete with fortifications, did have certain advantages -- and he also had full authority to keep others from trespassing on his grounds. Given that, the best thing to do was get inside his territory while everypony tried to figure out what could be done with the press. If anything could be done at all beyond what Quiet had already publicly accomplished -- an action Spike fully approved of.

"Sometimes being a dragon hurts," Twilight's little brother sighed. "And sometimes it just feels like it keeps me from doing anything."

Rarity frowned, adjusted her saddlebags so that the wire within sat more evenly. (A final choice had been made -- eventually.) "Spike, you should never feel that way. You are a citizen just as we are, with the same capacities which the rest of us possess -- allowing for a few minor differences, of course -- and once those factors are -- actually, largely ignoring those factors, you can do just about anything we can and a number of things we cannot. Those differences are something to be proud of, and if you but think for a moment --"

"-- Rarity, it's not about pride or being the only dragon who lives with ponies," Spike sadly stated. "It's about -- doing things. Like back there with that reporter, the one Twilight managed to throw out of Ponyville... well, she left one town..." A deeper sigh, and his shoulder scales tilted with badly-repressed anger. "In that kind of situation, I usually get two options. One is Yell and the other is Fire. And if somepony ignores Yell, I can have a really hard time justifying Fire. I've gotten ponies to do things with words sometimes, but what Quiet did... he took her apart. I want to be able to defend Twilight like that. And I can't."

Quiet gently smiled, trotted a little faster so as to walk next to Spike. "Gentledragon, I --"

"-- Spike. Please -- just Spike."

Quiet tilted his head slightly to the right as his ears fully straightened, looking vaguely surprised -- and bemused. "All right -- Spike."

"And while we're at it," Rarity called forward, "I will make you a deal, Quiet. You shall no longer insist on putting 'Miss' before my name on every use and not only shall I not recite your full title at every turn, despite the glowing way Spike described your exploits at the thaumaturgy shop while you were personally inside the town hall, I will somehow refrain from adding 'Captain Of The Dawn Guard' to it. Shall we agree to that mutual accommodation?"

Which produced a slight stumble as Quiet's right front hoof landed less than evenly. "Celestia's mane, I think you just found the one thing which could make it worse... no offense, Twilight, but we've already been over my total lack of desire to wear armor and I don't even want to imagine what kind of design -- all right, so Rarity will probably wind up handling the designs. I'm sure they'll look spectacular. Gem-studded. Streamlined. And heavy. Can I finish my sentence for Spike now?"

Twilight giggled for the first time in what had been starting to feel like weeks. "I think you'd better. Refusal of my Captaincy -- you'd better speak to him because there's a good chance he's going to be the only one still talking to you. Turning down the honor... I don't think that was ever a criminal offense, but I should still check just in case..."

"I'm a Lord," Quiet protested. "Sort of. Guarding you is too much like work. Pointless work because it's already being done by six others who can manage more than I ever could short of my somehow becoming a dragon... You already have the Dawn Guard. And from everything I've seen, the travel opportunities are sublime, the chance for advancement is somewhat intriguing, and the pay is horrible --"

There was another giggle, an almost inaudible one, immediately cut off as soon as the pony making the sound knew it was happening at all.

"Miss Applejack?" Quiet looked back. "I -- do still get to use that 'Miss'? Or is there Eastern Red Giant fruit about to take the express route to my head?"

"The pay isn't horrible," Applejack softly stated.

"It -- isn't?"

"No. Sucks is a much better word."

Twilight clenched her jaw, squeezed her eyes shut as little bubbles of sound broke from the corners of her mouth, wings vibrating as her sides shook...

Quiet stared at her. "Twilight? Is something --"

"I don't want -- to laugh..." she half-gasped. "It'll only make you laugh... Luna's tail, the pay does suck... it's half-off your library fines and all the lectures you can stand..."

"Oh, are we getting to limit the lectures now?" Rarity brightly asked. "In that case, I am putting in for an immediate cease and desist to the series on Field Efficiency And You: Loving Your Primary Corona As If It Was Your Only One, especially given the often hypocritical nature of the pony who keeps delivering it..." And then she was pursing her own lips, the repressed sound trying to escape as a series of tiny, rather unladylike snickers.

"Celestia's shoes, stop!" Twilight gasped. "I can't keep this in -- I don't know where to tap his ribs, I don't want to hurt him..."

And Quiet moved in front of Twilight.

The colorless field reached out, surrounded her right front hoof. Brought it up without resistance. Touched it to his thin torso.

Wide purple eyes stared at him. The gasping stopped -- but Twilight's breathing became faster. The others were looking at them. She could feel Rarity's stare, the amazement inside it. Spike's acceptance. And from Applejack -- she couldn't tell. But at least the farmer was looking...

"Here," he gently said. "And here."

Her skin seemed too small for her body. Feathers vibrated without her consent. Ears rotated and twitched, eyes refused to blink.

"And even if there was nothing to be done," Quiet softly told her, "nothing anypony could do -- what would hurt more than anything else is knowing that you were afraid to find joy because of me. Never feel that way, Twilight. Ever." The field released: her hoof stayed where it was. "Now -- laugh..."

She finally blinked. And after a moment, the laughter came. Rarity joined in, but her tones now carried something else within them, an emotion Twilight didn't recognize. Then Spike, more sincere and joyous. But Applejack just stood off to the side and watched, head slightly tilted to the right, ears shifting as if trying to sort out her mane using nothing more than a series of twitches.

Quiet stood silently in the middle of the path, listening to Twilight laugh. Smiling.

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Twilight watched the conversation resume as they crossed the last three hundred body lengths leading up to the castle.

"-- I just have more experience with words, Spike. And while I've been lucky in not dealing with that exact profession until now -- and I didn't know just how lucky I'd been until it ran out -- the principle is the same as for dealing with too many others whom I do have to encounter on a sadly-regular basis: the ponies in my own supposed class. Nobles who feel they're in the right on all things simply because they have a title which somepony else attached to their names through the random luck of birth. Ponies who feel that blood substitutes for education, reason, logic, and thought. They're not so different from those of Murdocks -- actually, given some of the political views I've been forced to suffer through at extended dinner parties, some of them are exactly in that mindset, if you could even invoke the word 'mind' with it. Believe me, those are experiences I also would have been lucky to lack... but they carry through into other areas."

"Not all nobles are like that, though," Spike almost protested. "Twilight and I had to deal with more than a few like the ones you're talking about, but it's not everypony."

Quiet sighed. "No -- just all the ones I break bread with... all right, nearly so. There are exceptions, but I swear most of them move away just to escape from the majority. Still -- it's about having gone through something similar before and working out how to adjust it to a new situation. The truth is that with Twilight as a Princess, Spike, you're going to be getting more reporters, not unless you find some way to permanently stop them -- and I'm having trouble thinking of anything which would work. Many of those experiences are going to be ugly. But you'll learn from every one -- and after a while, it'll give you more options than 'Yell' or 'Fire'. 'Humiliate' and 'Terrify' can work wonders, although you have to be careful: it's too easy for them to come back on you. 'Embarrass' has some staying power, especially since no amount of time ever seems to make it completely go away..."

"Twilight." The voice was a whisper, the lightest possible breath against her right ear. It also came with an accent no other pony had ever possessed and the flutter of false eyelashes against the side of her head. "Before we step into the palace -- drop back for a moment?"

Surprised, Twilight slowed her pace, drifting out of casual overhearing range for the two males, allowing a stoic Applejack to pass her without the farmer taking any recognizable notice of the change in their marching order, and finally found herself at the rear of the pack, with Rarity having matched her every step of the way. Keeping her volume low, "What is it? Did you have an idea about --"

"-- I have an idea," Rarity carefully cut in. "Perhaps more of one than you are currently allowing yourself."

"I don't understand --"

"-- no." The word was gentle, as were those that followed it. "No, you do not. Twilight -- he is married."

She kept the laugh soft, and it somehow made the sound come out as being certain. "I know that!"

"Intellectually, yes. For everything else..."

"He's -- my friend." It was the first time the words had emerged into air. "A stallion friend. Maybe my first one. Brothers don't count and Big Mac and I never do more than debate philosophy for ten minutes when he's operating the market stand by himself and sales are slow. And he usually loses me after the first five. Actually, I bet he knows about moments of destiny. When we get back, I should ask --"

"-- you are straying from the topic. And whether you recognize it as such or not, Twilight, you are doing so deliberately."

"Rarity, you're overreacting -- I'm just happy to make any new friends at all after -- changing. To meet somepony who can still see me. So what if he's married? We're just friends."

"Twilight -- I am sorry if it sounds in any way as if I am repeating myself -- but after all we have been through during this, and before -- you realize that I care about you? That I truly wish to see you happy and never desire harm to visit you in any way? And if I say something which might hurt you, that was not my intent and the words are only meant to help, even if it does not feel that way when you first hear them?"

Confused. "Of course, Rarity -- you know I understand that, even if I get -- stressed sometimes, and... need reminding..."

"I spoke to Fluttershy this morning. While you and Rainbow were practicing. She was reluctant to -- but she needed to speak with somepony, and I was there."

"...about?"

The designer sighed. "We do not have that much time before we're inside: I shall be relatively brief. These are the words she wishes she could say to you -- the ones she is afraid will hurt you too much, with all the stress of the mission and the change added into having to hear this. But I feel it will do more damage not to listen -- and so it falls to me on her behalf. No matter how it sounds -- no matter how it may make you feel -- please remember I do this as her friend -- and yours."

"Rarity -- you're scaring me..."

"Twilight -- dearest -- you don't say what's going through your head. What happened at the ravine had clearly been building up for a while. And if any of it had come out before that in more standard portions, through conversation, discussion, simply letting us know what was going on... there would have been no explosion of pain. Perhaps there would have been less pain, with hopes of none. There's a lesson I'm sure you may have written down at some point, but you haven't put it into practice: you need to talk to us. You keep too much inside, Twilight. You always have." More slowly, "And it -- is the one thing we all have in common, isn't it? Fluttershy said such to me, and I did not wish to believe her -- until I said it to you. None of us talk when we should, we know it -- and yet we still don't."

"I... I don't understand...."

"Look at me." The unicorn sighed. "I take all your revisions for the Gala dresses and incorporate them because I cannot bear to tell you what is happening to the final results. Had I said a single sentence to the gathered group? That disaster of a first show never would have happened. I cannot balance my desire to integrate myself among what I was seeing as Canterlot's elite and the time to make your birthday dress -- it was supposed to be so much more elaborate, Twilight, what I gave you was all I left myself strength for, a stage on the way to completion -- but do I confess? Not until this moment. Even after you realized I was trying to divide my time between the parties, when you tried to help me do so -- I still allowed you to think I had simply grasped a love of simplicity until this moment. Did I tear myself away from the center table in the town hall rotunda and dash to your balcony so I could inform you that your three minute date idea was not working? Could I approach Fluttershy early enough to save her from the pain of her brief modeling career -- a sojourn she never even saw real income from, given that there was a hidden clause in her contract which stated that should she leave before the full term was completed, that damnable Photo Finish could legally keep most of the bits..." The blue eyes closed in pain. "Shall I go on? Because I can. There is every chance I could manage to stay on this humiliating topic without repeat for hours. And that is simply keeping it to my own misplaced silences."

"Rarity... I'm -- I'm sorry, I --"

"Whatever for? They were my silences. My stupidity. A lesson I have not fully learned, one I continue to repeat while never truly taking it in. But I am asking you -- to recognize that in yourself. That there are times when you must speak and do not. This moment could be one of them -- and should not be. Look at me, Twilight -- and tell me that you see Quiet as nothing more than a friend."

There were a mere eighty body lengths remaining before the entrance to the castle.

Then seventy.

Sixty.

"He's -- married."

"And if he were not?"

Fifty.

"It's so hard... to even think about asking... I don't know how..."

"Are you saying that you would have wished for that? Or hoped that he would ask you?"

Forty.

"...yes."

"I am hoping -- that he is truly a gentlecolt, Twilight. I accept all the forms of love our land offers and recognizes. But I suspect that as with the majority, his marriage is a singular one: stallion, mare -- and no others shall be welcomed. Even in the very rare times when invitations remain open, the spouse must fully accept the new arrival. But I do not believe he is in such a union. It is himself, and the mare who married him. And a gentlecolt -- would recognize your feelings, before gently telling you that friend is all there could ever be. A gentlecolt -- would be loyal to the one he had chosen. Equestria recognizes so many kinds of love, Twilight -- but none of them are called adultery."

"He doesn't feel the same way about me."

"And you are saying that because...?"

"Nopony ever has."

Twenty-five.

"Twilight? Do you know how I realized what you were feeling? I looked at your eyes when you touched him."

Abashed, but with a touch of challenge. "And?"

"Yours were not the only eyes I regarded."

"He can't."

"Quiet has treated you -- normally. Something you have been craving. Even with the reason we are here -- with all that has happened -- he has made you feel as if things were somehow more stable than they truly are. And that is precious to me, Twilight. I am thankful for him. For you to find any relief in this time... I would welcome him as your friend. But you have said that part of you wishes for more than that. I feel there is more than a little in him which desires the same. Those who say that mares and stallions cannot simply be friends -- at least for those of both genders who are attracted to ponies in the other -- speak falsely. It is possible, it happens, and for one who is married to truly befriend another that happens to be single -- even that takes place. But where there is attraction, any degree of connection..."

"He doesn't think about me that way."

"Twilight -- even if you truly feel that nopony has ever looked at you simply for yourself -- and with what you went through in school, with those now seeking the favor of a Princess or boasts to spread about their conquests, I can understand why you would both believe that and to some degree, almost want that belief -- it does not mean it will never happen. Even that it has not happened before. Or that it is not happening now."

"But nopony --"

Twelve.

"-- Twilight, you must listen." Speaking more quickly. "I have very clear memories of what happened when Fancypants decided to take me on as a secondary student, behind Fleur. The newspapers were quick to accuse: the gossip columns began with 'adulterer' and moved on from there. His part in having been attacked... he laughed it off, said it happened nearly every time he spoke to -- a beautiful mare -- and I should only see it as a compliment. But the words, and the battle against those who believed them... He did all he could to help, but the struggle... And now there is this with you. As an Element-Bearer, as a student of Princess Celestia, it would have been bad enough. Now, with you as a Princess, with Quiet... even friendship will be twisted by some of those who observe it. You could deal with that: I have faith in your strength. But if there is anything more, anything you cannot bring to that level, should you be unable to accept that being his friend is all that can exist between you -- if he cannot do the same..."

The barest of whispers. "...Rarity, what do you want from me?"

"I want you -- to be happy. Always. And he makes you happy. He gives you an oasis in a desert you never wished to cross. As your friend, I welcome him. But can you accept that even his friendship may be hard at times -- harder than it was when you first came to us, simply because of the ponies who will refuse to see it that way? Can you make that connection be nothing other than friendship? Can he?"

Eight.

"I don't know... how am I supposed to know what he's feeling, I didn't see his eyes, not that way, I don't know how to recognize it..."

"You do. You will. When you try. It will look like nothing else in the world. And you will know."

"But --"

Five.

"-- you have to talk with him, Twilight. There is no other solution. And you will have to do it soon."

"I can't, Rarity..."

"You must. Because I can see it and I assure you --"

Two.

"I can't..."

"-- when his spouse returns -- she will see it too."

Zero.