• Published 5th May 2013
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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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Bentonite

For Coordinator, there was nothing quite like receiving the credit for something he'd intended to do anyway.

His recruitment into what so many called The Great Work had come fairly late in the process of that madness, during what had been just about the earliest part of his career. Oh, he'd had an idea that something might have been going on: ponies getting together who had no normal reason for associating, conversations between those with nothing in common... well, he supposed some might have called that the connections of friendship, and the description was only slightly less laughable than the actual concept. But once he'd realized that none of it surprisingly had anything to do with him (for he always tried to keep an eye on any such interactions, just in case anypony was plotting behind his tail), he'd initially just kept an eye on it from a distance, as best he could -- and when that gaze was blocked by the intervention of some rather surprising bodies, he'd stepped up his efforts, trying to bring some of his usual skills into play. Doing so had led him directly to the heart of everything.

Yes, there would probably be some who would describe the exact path as unusual. But when you were trying to get some idea of what was going on around town and whether that activity might be illegal -- or rather, a level of illegality which he could personally exploit -- then naturally the first pony to start putting pressure on would logically be the chief of police. Having that pressure tracked back to him... somewhat unexpected, but he'd learned from it and adjusted certain tactics since. And it wasn't as if anything bad had happened, because the ultimate result had been to place him into a position where he could expand his power while pretending it was in the service of a so-called greater cause -- well, no: that last part was true. Giving Coordinator additional control over an expanding population was as great a cause as anypony could ever work towards, while what would have been the best possible outcome of the supposed Great Work could have been accomplished on the very first day through the simple and just action of repeatedly kicking a skull.

(Perhaps he'd even slipped up purposefully, planning even that action on a deeper level of thought, knowing they would have to recruit him. That certainly seemed possible, especially after having told himself so over several years.)

The recruitment itself had been rather basic, at least once a pony of sanity took a moment to disregard what had so clearly been Chief Copper's completely empty threats. He had eventually been told what that lie of a Great Work was about, and Gentle Arrival had delivered the joke of a speech personally. Coordinator had managed not to laugh, mostly because plotting out what he could do with knowledge of that secret added to the proof of a public figure's obvious dementia had been taking up much of his time. The false physician had been chasing cure, when any who were truly among the pure would have exacted that simple justice.

But then the speech had gone on for a little longer. Not just the master experiment (he only thought of it as an experiment now, one which still needed perfecting, but just might have produced some level of reproducible result), but the... other things. The actions which had produced the warped.

(After he'd gotten out of there -- once he'd agreed to become part of the whole thing, after he'd gotten out of sight, hearing, smell and feel... well, the vomiting hadn't stopped for some time, and the profound sense of relief which settled in once it finally ended had never gone away. For on the day he'd been born, Gentle Arrival had not been in Trotter's Falls, completely unable to attend or assist. Coordinator was not one of his, not in any way for which the word could apply and never for the truest definition. It meant he was still pure. He would always be pure. He was safe.)

And as it turned out, the creation of the unnatural came with certain... expenses.

So he'd been recruited, and it had given him the chance to receive credit for something he would have done anyway. The Great Work had a number of willing donors: those who had been just as delusional, stupid enough to believe there was even a chance that justice needed to be postponed. (He held to that opinion of their intelligence, even now. There was no way anypony could have guessed the idiocy would do something.) But after so much time, they weren't enough. An open invitation had been issued for him to pull the strings of ponies he wasn't planning on tugging for years to come. To speed up the process of expanding his power base, all in the name of what they thought was their cause. As a sane pony, he'd let them think he was going along with that, and so the number of pictures on his wall had increased faster than ever. It was reaching the point where he was thinking about having somepony else move a few filing cabinets in order to clear extra space, although he had yet to decide where they were going to be moved to. The small details also needed full control.

He'd done work he would have done anyway, received what often seemed to be insufficient and, occasionally, what he felt was perilously close to backhoofed praise for it. (He had plans on how to make certain ponies pay for that, and some of them were now very close to being put into unstoppable action.) Records had been presented to Gentle Arrival, along with what the elder foolishly believed to be the complete results of those efforts, and Coordinator was certain nopony had worked through the multiple layers of security he'd used to get his hidden bank account. In return, he'd been given updates on how things were proceeding, managed not to laugh at any of those either, occasionally took time out after such meetings so the nausea could subside, and once his skills had been proven, once he was trusted...

Coordinator usually didn't think about that day. Surprisingly, if given the choice, he might not have scrubbed it from his memory entirely, for the pure needed to be aware that sin existed, along with those weak enough to allow it any freedom to breathe. But for what had happened... well, that usually wasn't worth thinking about, because he had only seen her once, and once would have been the ultimate limit. Coordinator's lies had been believed over any truth she might have tried to present: the midwife wasn't so far gone as to not dismiss anything which came from taint. Ultimately, all it had done was reinforce his place in the conspiracy, for he had been believed, not her, and so he'd left her halls at a speed which years of lying to himself had turned into a slow, dignified trot. Never to return. Never to look upon that walking sin again.

Except that now, there was going to be a presentation, with the party used as the excuse for gathering those who would attend. There was something which could be presented...

Coordinator was rather involved in the planning of the party, and not just in the little ways in which he was using it to remind the powerless local Lord of just which pony truly made everything work. For starters, he was the ultimate arbitrator -- and gatherer -- of the true guest list, and that was an exercise so complicated that he frankly didn't trust it to anypony else. There was just too much to do there, and he was the sole pony who could get it done. The deadline (and why was Gentle Arrival in such a ludicrous hurry? It wasn't as if he had anything to fear from the still-lurking press, nothing except for everything) had put a certain amount of pressure on his office, and that started with the need to send things via same-day delivery -- not just within Trotter's Falls, but all over Equestria.

It was a complex process. News typically traveled at the speed of ponies and when sufficient vocal relays between fresh, speedy pegasi got involved, a story could go from one coast to the other in something over a day. But there were times when things had to go faster than that and when the need truly called for it, ponies turned, as they always should, to their superiors.

Gentle Arrival's idea for maintaining a series of safe spaces at the limits of his range had hardly been an original one: even the palace maintained hollow structures called gatehouses across most of Equestria in case the thrones' own teleporters needed to be disbursed in an emergency, and Coordinator had recently managed to get the one for Trotter's Falls dismantled due to a minor and completely fictitious conflict of zoning laws. However, when it came to private operations... if it was truly necessary to get a physical missive from one major settled zone to another within a matter of hours, you paid a teleporter, who would bring it to the limits of their range, pass it off to another unicorn who would repeat the process, and after the required number of jumps had done their damage to your budget, the letter would be delivered. Or in this case, the invitation, which was the best way to mask what Coordinator saw as the order.

The bare majority of those invited were within Trotter's Falls: sending out underlings on the gallop sufficed. But Gentle Arrival had, over the course of the years, spread things across Equestria. Coordinator had amplified that web, added fresh strands while thickening a few established ones into choking ropes whenever a pony seemed to be on the verge of coming to their senses. And if everypony needed to be contacted in one day -- well, there was an expense built into that, and it wasn't a small one. But it was a cost many operations dealt with as part of their yearly operating expenses, and Coordinator had funds put aside for such occasions, none of which were actually his.

Issuing same-day orders was a fairly standard procedure, especially for a pony of his skills. The trouble came when everypony who'd been given those orders needed to respond through showing up. Because those ponies were still all over the continent, they would need to attend the party -- and that meant another requirement for load-relaying teleporters, those who could escort, bringing the living through the between. When Canterlot had a true legislative emergency, putting all of those casters to work on the same goal would gather the full representative population of the Day and Night Courts in a matter of hours -- and should that requirement dictate the use of more than the palace's own capable unicorns, it would happen at government expense. In this case... well, just about everypony paid, and other ponies collected. Which excepted Coordinator, who had never perceived a need to blackmail his way into the travel network and had no way to make up for lost time. Ten of thousands of bits would be spent for such speed of journey, and no percentage of that would skim its way to him. If he hadn't been boosted by his current joy, it actually would have been somewhat depressing.

But he was happy as he worked in his office, writing the true invitations before sending the summons out into the network for delivery to those attendees, and there were many reasons for that. He had pretended to dedicate himself to the Great Delusion and much to his surprise, that insanity had produced results. Not ideal ones, from what little Gentle Arrival had told him prior to departure, but -- results. There was a chance that one day, that type and level of power could be his, and Coordinator was more than willing to pledge himself to a cause which might support him, especially when he had the means to control it.

But that was something for the long-term (although the direct control would need to begin very soon). For now, he had been told that the time had come to control the Bearers. He would receive all the credit for that within the conspiracy, along with the potential for increased influence and an easier seizure of the lead role. And it had been something he'd been planning to do anyway.

The weather coordinator's manuscript had inflicted multiple levels of pain. Unless research was involved, Coordinator didn't read about pony's lives: he wrote about them and then let those ponies know that he had the means to publish. But going through the multicolored text had certainly qualified as research, just as much as trying to get all the way through the results had more than established its credentials as migraine.

But it had been worth it. The pegasus might have treated the placement of apostrophes as something very much like bursts of lightning produced while blindfolded (just jump on the base material enough times and eventually, something would be randomly shocked into agony), but there had been nothing wrong with her memory. Normally, he would have taken a little more time to verify some finer details of such accounts, but he'd been reading the reports of an eyewitness and had, somewhere around the third dose of pain medicine, learned to translate from the ego. In a very real way, she'd become one of his favorite authors, and he almost considered it a pity that her desires to create future volumes were about to be completely derailed.

Still, it didn't matter. Very soon, he'd be getting everything he needed to know from the pony's mouth. All six of them -- but with a special focus on one. Twilight Sparkle had gotten away once with nothing more than a lack of friends as inadequate punishment for that escape -- something she'd certainly managed to change since graduation. It was long-past time to collect his true due.

Coordinator would finally be her friend. Her best friend, the one who kept her shielded from all the things which could hurt her. And weren't there more of those things than anypony could have possibly imagined?

He would speak for a Princess, just as he'd once dreamed. Not the Princess he'd originally intended, yes, but in time... well, who knew how far Twilight might go with a few proper words of advice helping to clear the way? After all, that was the sort of thing friends did for each other. He would make the path for her -- and she would keep him in her shadow, stepping aside whenever he wished true power to flow.

Control over a Princess: the best day of his life. (He could see that as a seventh Element: Control. It was certainly the only one which mattered.) The chance to take over a conspiracy which might actually be able to do something, potentially provide the opportunity to replace Princess with Prince, a glory found only in the nightscape given the chance to manifest in reality -- well, really, was there any way this day could possibly improve any further? And yet it would be surpassed at the party, the gathering he was looking forward to more than any other moment of his life, as the time when Twilight would realize what a good friend he would be. Given that level of shining guarantee as a beacon to steer by, he could even deal with having to see her --

-- he was going to see her.

(His field winked out. The quill dropped. No part of him was capable of noticing.)

She had -- attacked him. Attacked him simply for telling the truth, telling her what she was and what should have been done with her. They were words somepony should have told her at birth, assuming any of the truly pure could have been bothered to pause long enough in their kicking for speech. She had clearly never heard those words before, and so they had been more than overdue. And she had responded by attacking.

They were words he had relished and in part, that had been due to their fundamental truth -- but some of the rest was because under normal circumstances, he just didn't get to say them. As her inferior intelligence had naturally failed to perceive during her failed lesson, there was generally a need to maintain a shielding barrier for purposes of plausible deniability and so under most circumstances, he simply wrote the words and made sure they would be found by those just barely capable of reading them. There were certain problems with saying them in person, starting with the loss of that layer and ending with -- attack.

But he had said them. He had been forced to spend time in the presence of taint and worse, it was taint which thought it could become something far worse than the usual delusions of equality. She had believed there was the chance to become superior. Nopony of sanity could have stayed in that room without having said something and as it had turned out, there had been no consequence at all. He'd left, knowing he would never see her again.

Except that... he would see her again. Very soon now.

He would be expected at the party. He would need to be there, for that was the time to seize control of Twilight and the other Bearers, with the others believing he was doing it on their behalf. And afterwards, at the gathering... yes, he would be expected there too, and he'd been told that there might be certain precautions in place, depending on whether he had succeeded. Because if he somehow didn't (utter nonsense), there was a next step, and --

-- he would succeed. Of course he would. But after that happened...

There was a chance to avoid the gathering itself, although it would be a regrettable one: he would have to postpone some portion of his power transferal for later, and getting just about everypony together a second time in the same fashion would be extremely difficult. But when he did take over... she would be there. She might always be there.

Gentle Arrival hadn't said that much in telling him what the presentation might contain. Hardly anything, now that he thought about it, and he hadn't seen a need to ask because he'd assumed it would be a modified form of the recruitment speech: the same stupid words just about everypony had already heard. But she would certainly be in the room, he might have some trouble avoiding it, and --

-- there were things which could be done. She wasn't essential. She could be disposed of at the sign of first perfection (unless that was her -- Sun and Moon, what if that turned out to be her?) or second partial success. Maybe -- maybe he could get rid of her immediately, or rather, have somepony do it for him. But then there would be nothing to present, it was essential that there be something to present or things would stop. And even if he waited until the minute after she left the stage...

Would she have forgotten him? She had only seen him once and under most circumstances, that would provide hope for a lapse of memory, especially when dealing with the inferior. But it wasn't as if he hadn't done something rather memorable.

It took nearly half a minute to force his corona into ignition, and then he slid open the hidden drawer of his desk.

There was a bottle there. He'd kept a bottle in the concealed compartment ever since taking the office, although it occasionally had to be replaced after the contents aged past any hope for use. This one was fairly fresh. It had been hard to get, just as hard as some of the others, because sources had a way of vanishing. But he had to have the bottle, because the bottle was power. More power than he'd ever had, at least for the kind of power he... didn't have. It would not provide the level of power which only fantasy, and now perhaps the Great Work, could truly offer. But to a smaller degree, the bottle was still power, and so he'd had to have it. Just in case.

Gentle Arrival hadn't told him much, not compared to what he now wished he'd been told. But one detail stood out.

She had broken an Eastern Red Giant. Casually.

He had to get back to issuing the summons, and so he closed that hidden drawer -- only to find himself opening it again and again, looking at the bottle. And all the while, the same five words kept echoing in his inner ear.

He had been justified. He had been right. Nothing about that had changed, or even should. But she had changed. And he had...

I called her a clod.


"'She remembered the first time she had visited the Museum Of Minotaur History in Polis, the capital city. The heavy stone around the entrance halls, taken from the remnants of overseer tunnels. The bloodstains which had been perfectly preserved through requested magics, with the intent that those who stepped through would be reminded, and so never forget. And just beyond the last remnants of Ancient lives stolen by force, she had found the whips. Thousands of them, the largest collection in all of Mazein. There were times when a young, bold, and rather dismissive minotaur would be found snidely looking at those whips, having somehow decided that they meant nothing, and one of those had occurred right in front of Daring. Her tour guide had spotted that look, gone to the teenager, and asked if he felt his strength was enough to withstand what others had not. The youth had started to boast of his power and in his bragging, he hadn't seen the guide's big hands move. He only felt the sudden pull of the metal cord as the end clamp snapped onto his nose ring. He had started, instinctively tried to pull it away, felt the surge of pain from his snout. And then he had screamed, over and over as the guide calmly resumed the tour's opening lecture, timing the words through the bellows of fear, ignoring the youth for five full minutes before coming back to grant him his right of freedom once again. Daring remembered all that and wished for that teen's fate because for her, it had been so much more than five minutes...'"

Twilight listened, ears rotated to catch the sound from a great distance. For she had been in Mazein for a moment, and then she had returned to the dungeon to sit at Daring's side, helpless to assist the pegasus as she struggled against the chains, trying to find a route to freedom which had already been located through the flip of thousands of pages, and yet was still in doubt until the next one turned --

"-- your... pardon?"

Ahuizotl's dungeon vanished. Quiet's library returned. A library where they were sharing a reading couch, she had been listening to him, and everything had been perfectly fine as long as his voice had continued to advance through the pages. (He had such a good reading voice, at least until he tried to vary the tones for some of the secondary mares). She'd... lost track of time. There hadn't been time, other than that which was passing in the story. No time, no mission, and perhaps even no wings. It had been something very much like a little miracle, and it all shattered at the moment she saw Rarity standing within the doorway.

Quiet blinked. Twilight was in a perfect position to see it, at least once she glanced up a little.

"Rarity?" Quiet asked and to Twilight, his tones seemed to be slightly off. "Is something wrong?"

"No," the designer too-quickly said, just as Twilight spotted the tide of red surging beneath the white coat. "I simply need to borrow Twilight for a short time. I have been working on her onsom for the party, and... well, the problem is this, Quiet: I have all of her..." with a very strange awkwardness "...measurements memorized, of course, and they tended to hold true at all times, excepting when she pushed herself too far in her studies and neglected to notice Spike trying to shove food beneath her snout. But those are the... old measurements. I have nothing for her as..." It triggered a little swallow. "Very well, put bluntly: I need to get her wingspan. Also, I must check to see if the necessary change to the muscles around her ribs has altered that number. And then there are other considerations..." More hastily, "Quiet, I am under something of a deadline here, there are multiple dresses to complete along with a tuxedo for Spike, I have only now realized that there is a possibility that nothing I have for Twilight will work, I will already have to do a certain number of adjustments and I now owe you a set of curtains. So before my inevitable nervous breakdown decides to save everypony some time through happening now, would it be possible for me to borrow Twilight?"

They both stared at her for a few seconds, and Twilight wondered if there was a subtle way to tell Quiet that the eye twitching was, at worst, in a mere Phase Two and there was actually nothing to truly worry about until the recently-restored mane began to fray.

"I think you'd better," Quiet replied. "Quickly. And for that matter --" with a small sigh "-- the duties of setting up for the party call. Again. Twilight, I'm sorry, but -- I do have a lot of things which still need arranging and if I don't get back to them soon, I probably will need a professional planner's assistance. And since Pinkie happens to be here --"

Twilight's imagination quickly pulled up the rather recent file which contained the images of a Pinkie-arranged, castle-hosted party.

"-- how do you feel about balloons?"

After a long moment, "...I think I'm missing some information which would be required to answer that. Balloons?"

"And cakes flying through the air. And collapsing statues. Plus some columns. There's a chance for columns to collapse too."

Carefully, "I think I'm... against it? Well, maybe not the flying cake, depending on where it lands. Or the statue if it's an ugly one. But I'm pretty sure I need every last one of my columns."

"Then you'd better get back to work," Twilight said, pushing her way off the couch. "I'll see you later, Quiet."

He nodded, started to get up -- paused. "Do you want me to bookmark it?"

"Please. Spotting the bookmark will save me time in searching before the theft."

It triggered a smile. "Until we see each other at the trial, then."

Teasingly, "You would press charges? Against a Princess?"

"The world," Quiet solemnly stated, "does not need a Princess of Crime. Best to stop her now before that career truly takes off."

Twilight shrugged. "Oh, fine... come on, Rarity, let's get me wrapped and quantified. Again..."

She wanted to take a last glance back, see if he'd been amused by that. But Rarity's tail swished as she stepped aside to clear the exit, did so again as they began to make their way down the hall, and the air currents seemed to suggest it was being held somewhat higher than usual.

Twilight put up with it until they were most of the way back to Rarity's guest quarters. "What are you doing?"

Half-whisper, half-hiss. "Recovering you. Because I do need to put you under the tape, Twilight, or you will look something other than your best when the party begins. But other things must be discussed, and it would seem that some of them should come in the form of a reminder. An immediate one."

She had no idea what Rarity was talking about.

Then she knew exactly what Rarity was talking about, and decided it was in her best interests not to.

"I don't understand," Twilight lied.

"You. And Quiet." Three-quarters hiss now. "Together --"

"I told him," Twilight cut her off.

Slowly, the hoofstep rate dropping accordingly, "Really."

"I told him I thought we were friends," Twilight stated. "He didn't say no. So we're friends, Rarity, we are friends, and my new friend had a bad day. The head researcher who's been working on curing the weakness in his blood told him there was a setback, and... he was down, Rarity, he was just starting to get depressed thinking he'd never have anypony he could read to -- so I let him read to me for a while, and he felt better." Not without pride in three years of lessons both well-learned and recently applied, "That's what friends do for each other."

Rarity's next breath somehow came across as forced. As did the next, and the next...

"...Rarity?"

"Friends," the designer softly said.

"Yes," Twilight tried stating again. "We're friends."

"So when a friend reads to you," Rarity quietly continued, "your natural listening position is to lie down so that your head is resting on his forelegs?"

Twilight hesitated, searched for a response, then wondered how visible that hunt had been.

"I don't know," she replied, and also wondered if the words sounded just as defensive to Rarity's rotated ears. "None of you ever read to me. So I guess any position I use during my first time would be my natural one."

Rarity's breaths were now being pulled in between her teeth. The door to her quarters was right in front of them.

"Twilight." Flavorless. Neutral. Almost completely free of accent.

"What?"

Rarity's horn ignited. The field-coated doors opened to reveal nopony else waiting within, and the designer went inside. Twilight followed, and the doors quickly closed themselves.

The purple tail whipped as Rarity spun, blue eyes fully open, nostrils wide and tail now starting to lash --

"-- we cannot stay here," Rarity hissed. "Not in the castle, not for much longer. Our excuse will only hold for so long. We are expected to remain until the party, and I suspect that many within this settled zone might feel we are only staying for that amount of time as a courtesy to our host. But within a day or so after that, ponies will begin to question why the Bearers need to remain in Trotter's Falls, when Doctor Gentle is safe and we all have duties awaiting us in Ponyville. We all have lives which were put on hold, no matter how many ponies fail to see that and in time, those lives would be expected to resume. The mission -- that goes on for as long as it must: I doubt we would even be permitted to leave the area until it was completed. Simply attempting to depart on the train might lead to a flash of light and rather unexpected fresh view of the ravine. We may wind up camping in the wild zone rather soon, unless we can make progress. And this means we need to search for her, as soon as we possibly can. Or rather, you must, along with as much company as can be managed, as I am expected to stay behind and work on those dresses. And the tuxedo. Spike is somewhat more fit in the limbs than he was the last time I designed for him and the tuxedo shall require additional effort. We have all been distracted by things, from the town itself to the library and poor Rainbow's lost manuscript. But tomorrow morning must be for the search, to find her. We will lose at least the entire evening to the party, and there is nothing to be done about that, not without creating questions. Even if we somehow managed to locate her, help her, everything before Sun was lowered tomorrow, we should attend the party. But the castle is not our first priority. She is. I have trapped myself, through my declarations and neuroses. The rest of us cannot do the same. You know that, Twilight. Help her. Think of her. And tomorrow, search."

She had listened to all of it, as such had seemed essential to finding the best place for an interruption and countering argument for whatever Rarity had meant to say. It meant Twilight had heard every word and in doing so, realized no counter existed. For Rarity was right. The mission had to be resumed. They had to find her and very soon, they would have to leave the castle.

It... hurt.

She didn't know why it hurt, and that made the pain surge all the more.

"We'll get back out there," Twilight softly promised. "We will, Rarity. But I don't know how we're going to find her. She's been coming to us and I was hoping that -- once the resonance bomb wore off, she'd come out again. I don't even know where to start looking. We lost the trail going out of the orchard, and without feel to track..."

"You will think of something," Rarity quietly answered. "You usually do, Twilight, and if not you, then one of us shall. We also have -- a resource we did not previously possess, at least knowingly. Perhaps that can be of some use. Just find her if you can, and begin planning for what must happen if we cannot locate her and convince her to come with us within a day or two of the party."

She nodded. It was all she wanted to do.

"And -- Twilight?" Rarity added.

It felt as if the next thing her friend said would hurt her. Twilight didn't know why it felt like that, nor did she understand why she was so certain of it. But she also knew there was no way of stopping the words.

"Lies," Rarity softly said, "can have their place. Despite what Applejack might believe, there are times when they are necessary. To save social graces, to prevent public embarrassment and sometimes... to save lives. A well-placed lie can do much when it enters the world with good intent and careful crafting, Twilight. But... there are times when the truth is what saves us. And either way, it does not mean I appreciate it when you lie to me."

She didn't understand.

Or she did, and no longer wished to.

Every one of Rarity's gentle words kicked her. Lashed, blasted, bit. "Can you accept that you can only be his friend?"

Twilight closed her eyes, left them that way.

"Yes."

It meant she didn't have to see Rarity's face.

"I suppose you feel some good has come from saying that," Rarity sadly replied. "Because there are times when a lie helps, does it not? So I will take your new measurements now, because that is part of our latest lie, and so it must be the part which provides evidence, along with a proper fit. But Twilight..."

The pause felt far too long.

"...no good ever comes from lying to oneself."

And the little sigh took forever.

"Spread your wings, please," Rarity said. Twilight did. And the rest took place in silence.


He had told her what they needed to do, and she had agreed. It was for the Great Work, and so it was something which had to be done. Yet another consequence of her failure. But she didn't want to do it. And that... didn't matter. Whether she wanted to be presented was immaterial. She had failed. Her desires were no longer relevant, if they had ever meant anything at all. It had been his Great Work, and she had failed him, failed all the others, failed everypony. She had done something wrong and the fault had to be hers, for it could never be his. Not when he was...

...he was there.

She was a horror. A monster. Something which never should have existed, a status which had been present on that very first day. And yet he had accepted her. He had tried to fix her. And all she had done was find a way of becoming the most broken pony who had ever lived, defective beyond all hope of repair.

But he still had hope, and he was still there.

He was watching her eyes now, as their color slowly began to phase. She tried not to squint against the pain. He needed to see it, see everything, no matter how much she wished for nopony to ever look at her again.

"This is the first trial," he said, and the only truly familiar voice she knew was calm. "This is -- powerful. Under normal circumstances, it's more potent than anypony would normally consume. And I have no way of knowing how your new body will react to it, so I'm going to stay with you and monitor things for as long as I can. If something happens after I have to leave --" and she could hear the regret in that "-- you know where the passage is. Use it if you can. And I'll come back during every chance I have. If I don't find you here, I'll look there."

She nodded, felt the grinding within her neck, fought back the scream.

"Are you ready?"

Another nod. She could deny him nothing, not after having cost him everything. And should something happen, then he would only have to look at her one more time.

"All right," he softly said, and silver floated a vial of liquid up to her. "Swallow." His field tipped the contents into her open mouth, and she let them burn their way down her throat.

"How..." Her tongue constricted, and she waited until the next momentary ebb before trying again. "How. Long before. We know?"

"With a broken pony, a few minutes. But for you -- I don't know," he admitted. "I'm sorry for that, but we have only one way to learn. We have to wait."

"Is it. Safe? For -- anypony?"

It seemed as he hesitated too long before he spoke.

"It's what I could find for you," he finally said. "So it's what we have to try."

They waited. She did everything she could to bury the spasms, counter the twitches, keep the gasps silent while only permitting the screams to sound within her mind. She frequently failed. But he had told her to listen to her horror of a body, tell him everything she experienced as the liquid tried to do its work. And so while the miracle, when it began, was small, she knew.

"It's..."

He leaned forward, ears rotating towards her.

"...moving."

"Keep talking," he told her. "Where is it going?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "It's like it's -- shifting away. Like it's. Still there, but... I'm over here. There and not-there. It's..."

It was fading. The pain was fading.

"...going --" The hesitation of disbelief, somepony beholding the impossible taking place on their behalf and afraid to accept it because that recognition might somehow ruin everything. "-- away. It's going... away. I know where it is. I know it's here, inside me, but it's like -- it doesn't know..."

The thought struck her as funny, to have pain as something capable of ignorance, and so she giggled. The sound only rasped at her throat.

"Think," he said, and she could hear the hope rising. "Is your memory any clearer?"

She hadn't felt there was anything wrong with her memory, at least not until he had found her. The pain could disrupt thoughts, break them up in waves of agony, but she could remember. But he had told her that she was remembering things as they were not: confusion from twisting senses added to the delirium of pain, and that had sounded wrong --

-- but he knew best. He always did.

Perhaps she had become confused, when she was out there in the world. It was certainly possible, because he had said so. And with the pain so distant now (still there, but mostly ignoring her, muttering to itself, only bothering to send occasional flurries of spikes into her eyes), she tried to remember again, for the things he felt she had to remember.

It was surprisingly hard to do. Thinking about anything felt like she was pushing herself against a formless mass of cotton wool. It was like the night her first quilt had torn and the stuffing had gone everywhere, she'd tried to pile it back up and push it through the gap, fill the cloth envelope again, but it had squished around her hooves and up her ankles, soft and giggle-inducing right up until she'd remembered that he could have just looked at it and made it all go back inside, she was broken and only his Great Work would ever make it right --

-- she... couldn't seem to make her thoughts go where she needed them to. She needed a guide.

"I need my memories," she said.

He blinked, looked worried. "Do your best to focus," he told her. "This is a -- powerful drug, and you may have some trouble concentrating. Start from when you appeared outside."

"I don't have a memory for that," she admitted. "I haven't made one yet."

Under normal circumstances -- under just about any circumstances -- to truly hear those words would have had her jamming an imaginary forehoof into her mouth, hoping onto everything there was that he wouldn't think about them. But she had already made the mistake, her thoughts didn't seem to be interested in doing anything other than getting some welcome rest without the pain battering them all the time, and so all she did was look in a certain direction.

She had, in the time since he'd found her, caught him looking in that same direction. She had done it too, when the pain broke her focus on not letting it happen. Neither of them had discussed it in any way. There had been many words between them, and none had concerned what was there.

He sighed.

"Too strong," he half-muttered, half-whispered, and while she heard the words, she was no longer capable of truly caring about what they meant. "Strong enough to affect the brain, as it would for other ponies. Impairment of thought. Still, it may do for the presentation, should it last, if the dosage is properly timed and it holds through the change. But we will have to be so careful..." Back to normal tones. "Where is the pain now?"

She tried to think about that. "It's there." She glanced down at her right flank, noticed the bulging of the skin as bones grew beneath it. "It's just not paying attention to me right now. I'm afraid to bother it. It might get mad."

"And that is as far as it has moved or changed?"

She nodded.

"Very well," he said. "And you are still willing to try?"

Her failure. His time. His life. "Yes."

A slow nod, and then he stood, crossed the short distance to where she rested on the stone floor, dropped down and nuzzled her before he said the words, with a few new ones added. They reached deep into her, ignored cotton and pain, touched what was still present of her thoughts, because the start consisted of the first words she could remember being said to her at all. The thing he had been saying to her for all of her life, when she had never deserved any of it.

"I love you," he told her. "In spite of what you did, I loved you. I love you still."

She tried to smile, and even with the pain uninterested in interruption, it wouldn't come.

"Now," he stated. "Faster."