• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,496 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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Frame

Twilight was trying to stay some distance behind Coordinator as he led her through the castle. It still left her well within the aura of self-importance, perhaps because it had swelled outwards by another two body lengths in all directions. Part of her was wondering if it was currently acting as acid against the stone, while most of the rest was focused on keeping her legs trotting forward. Even when he was the one leading the way, with the trap yet to close.

He was happy. It was a state she'd seen so often at school, and it had never meant anything good for anypony other than himself. Even back then, she'd realized that he was most often happy because somepony else was not, even drawn a few of the tentative lines which threatened to link him as being the source of that second condition. And so she wanted to continue berating him, just as she'd done at the burnout site. To make him feel a portion of what he'd put so many others through. The words were currently somewhere in her throat, with more arriving every second. The ongoing pileup of unexpressed vocabulary seemed to have left something of a lump.

She wanted to say every last one of them. And she would say none, because Rainbow's manuscript

He stole it, he must have stolen it, but what can I do about it?

was more important.

And why would he take it at all?

Because it had belonged to somepony else. Easy to see that with Coordinator. But why hadn't he kept it? No suspicion had turned towards him: in fact, she'd practically forgotten he'd even been in the castle at all on that day, perhaps because remembering his presence would have been thinking about him at all. He would have easily gotten away with the crime.

But here he was, casually leading her onwards. Tail gently swaying to the rhythm of perfect internal contentment. All four legs seemed to be moving in a personal dance, although it lost something to the off-kilter movement of his clothing. Twilight didn't know much about stallion outfits, even after seemingly having picked up some of Rarity's other views through pure osmosis. Perhaps it was because her friend seldom did anything for males unless it was either a direct commission, an extremely desperate day which had the designer once again considering whether it was possible to somehow lure the huge missing percentage of her potential customer base into a dress shop, or a Clearance sign was being placed over the resulting (and failed) line of pocket squares. But it seemed as if she'd absorbed enough to spot when somepony was wearing items which had clearly been rented: the fabric had the harsh sheen of cloth which had been washed too many times, with all of the cleanings performed by somepony frantically trying to get it ready for the next customer. And even with the extracted papers (so few compared to the whole) now in Twilight's possession, the jacket was still being pulled offline by something in one of the chest pockets.

It shifted oddly against the fabric cup when he moved and during the moments of greatest impression, just before it tilted back, seemed to have the rough shape of a bottle.

He's trying to do something. No matter what he says, no matter what he claims, there's a trap waiting at the end.

He led, and she followed. She hated it, and he knew that. He had to know it. But he just kept trotting --

-- then stopped in front of a door, one of the many in the castle which Twilight had never been through. The dull field coated it, tugged, and Coordinator stepped through the opening. Twilight remained outside just long enough to take one more breath of clean air. And then she went in.

The room was -- cramped. There might have been some degree of design and intent behind the original layout, but those had been lost to the current assignment, one which had been given to so much of the castle: to host still more of the results from generations of pony shopaholic hoarders -- and for that, it was visibly overworked. The hall had been cleared for the party, and that meant just about everything which had previously been occupying that space had required temporary storage somewhere else. Pinkie had mentioned helping with some of that, and it was easy to picture pink curls flattening as a determined head helped push a particularly tricky wardrobe along. Some of those relocations had ended here, and it left Twilight with what felt like just barely enough room to stand. To pace would have put her into a dresser, going in a circle would have required going through shelving, and a slightly-leaning hat rack seemed to be considering whether it wanted to go directly for her spine. There was a window, but the night and storm had combined to turn that into something which only provided reflection.

Somepony had poorly wedged a clock into a gap between shelves, one of those odd purely mechanical specimens you found every now and again. It was currently at least three hours off, and that gap between machine and reality was audibly accounted for by gears which couldn't adjust for the changed angle and as a result, turned at something other than one beat per second. Sometimes it was a little faster. There were other moments when it slowed, and some when it skipped. Time itself rendered into disorder.

There was also a desk, a rather large teak one. Coordinator had already made his way behind it.

"Here you go," he said, and that grey field exerted again: one desk drawer slid open, and the rest of the papers were levitated onto the slightly dusty surface. "There was too much for me to just slip into my clothing, of course, but -- I didn't think you would come with me unless you knew I had it." A small, rueful, and what Twilight instantly decided was a completely false smile. "We don't have the kind of relationship where you would just -- take my word for things, Twilight, and... some of that is probably my fault. But a lot of it is just the years. Old school hurts stretching across the void, with nopony talking about them." Thoughtfully, "There are ponies who say embarrassment is the one emotion which never truly fades, and I think there's something to that. But it's a subcategory, really. Humiliation -- that doesn't go away. And misunderstandings can be forever, unless somepony is brave enough to make the first effort towards clearing them up."

The words were almost wise ones. They were nearly worthy of placing into a letter. And when they came from Coordinator, Twilight couldn't make herself believe any of them.

"How did you get it?" That too would be a lie, but it was a falsehood she needed to hear.

The shrug was just as small and rueful as the smile, with the untruth also matching to the last degree. "It's a price of the job, Twilight. Everywhere I look, there's piles of paper. Forms. All of which I need to review and, too often, collect. I go around the settled zone dropping off forms, picking them up, I was here for the birth forms --"

"-- that was a delivery," Twilight cut him off, because that memory was suddenly crucial. "You were dropping off forms so Doctor Gentle wouldn't have to go back and forth all the time."

"But there had already been two births," Coordinator calmly said. "I also needed to pick up the resulting paperwork. And it was early, Twilight. I hadn't really eaten yet, I saw a group of papers through an open doorway, and when you're in my line of work, papers are just something you automatically gather. I took them into my field, and -- well, I didn't look at them until I got into my office."

"Why didn't you bring them back immediately?" How much of this lie have you planned? How much can you come up with on the spot?

"Because I started reading them," he sighed. "Once I got a look, I knew they weren't forms, of course. But I wanted to see what I'd gotten by accident, so I went through a few pages, and... Twilight, do you understand just how little most ponies know about the Bearers? The original articles following that Summer Sun Celebration -- there was barely anything there about the six of you, and then it all got lost in the crush of the Return. Then things were almost silent for nearly two years. We'd get the occasional story, but there were barely any details. Even after the wedding -- well, you've seen some of what was written after the wedding. I certainly have. And what I had, getting to see those pages, was the truth of events. Reading your friend's words made me into one of the only ponies in the world who understood what had happened, at least for that first year. It was -- a privilege. It was something I didn't want to give up before I had to, and --" the hesitation felt measured, and the clock completely failed to do so "-- I felt like a moon was as bad as a minute. That no matter how long they were in my possession, you'd hate me all the more just because they'd wound up with me. That it would have been the same hate after an hour, or a day. So I kept them because I was reading, because you already hate me, and -- well, that's it, really. Once I had them, I wanted to read them. And it didn't feel as if I could make things any worse between us for doing so. I'm not sure I still could do something which would accomplish that -- unless it was failing to return them."

The dull field nudged the manuscript, pushed it a little closer to her edge of the desk.

"I stalled," the stallion admitted. "I kept them as long as I dared. But you were all staying for the party: that was the only amount of time I could be certain of. You might have been gone in the morning, I imagine your friend's been frantic this whole time, it's only been getting worse because there was no way she could have ever found her work, and that's my fault. If there's any pain I'm familiar with, Twilight, it's having somepony misplace a paper and not being able to find where it went. I tore most of Town Hall apart once, searching for a single property tax form. I'm guessing she was just about trying to dismantle the castle, that's my fault and..."

His gaze went down. Rain beat against the window, and every drop sounded as if it was a single tail strand away from breaking through.

"...I'm sorry."

Would the rhythm of the full speech have sounded normal to other ears? Or would the sounds have arrived a little too quickly for some syllables and with too much spacing between certain words, like listening to an actor who'd phonetically memorized a foreign script? Too fast and too slow, almost all at once. Like a clock which couldn't keep time.

There are some ponies you can't make friends with... not ever...

"I couldn't bring it directly to her," he said, still looking at the desk. "I think that would have had a good chance of ending the party while it was still in the starting gate. You're probably going to tell her it was me, and -- well, whatever happens because of that, happens. But when you give it back to her, Twilight -- tell her I'm sorry. And that it was an honor to have met her, and the rest of you, through reading the truth. Please."

In her silence, she remembered: everything her younger self had once thought, everything she'd never been able to prove. She knew who he was. What he was. And she was only moments away from one of the strongest surges of self-hatred she would ever experience.

"I don't know what I'm going to tell her," Twilight finally said as her horn ignited with a partial corona, her field carefully collecting the precious words. (She did have some idea of when, and that time wouldn't come until they were well away from Trotter's Falls, because few things would delay Discord's mission like having a Bearer held on charges of very public assault.) "But I'll pass that on. That you -- or the culprit -- told me they were sorry."

"Thank you."

She turned away from him, started towards the door. So little space available in the cramped room, but just enough of it led out.

"It's not the worst thing which could have happened, really," he decided, with whatever expression he was wearing currently directed at her tail. "Not even close."

Twilight nodded, not bothering to look at him. Nearly out --

And with the true humor finally in his words, synergist blending and changing the self-satisfaction until the final result emerged as pure poison, "Her manuscript could have been eaten by parasprites."

Her right forehoof had been about four tail strands from triggering exit, at the moment she heard the trap close. In the instant when she loathed herself for, no matter how briefly, having started to doubt.

From just about anypony else, they could have been innocent words. A casual jest, almost a private joke between two of the scant number who shared knowledge. But not from him.

Twilight turned, and lost the burst of outer thunder in the hideousness of his smile.

"I mean, that's what happened to the bank's records, after you miscast that spell?" A bemused head shake. "The parasprites ate them. And that's why you're not allowed inside the bank, which I'm presuming is an ongoing condition because by that point in the story, Rainbow was starting to get much a better mouth grip on her tenses. Sun and Moon, Twilight, one of the first things they taught us at the Gifted School was that you never try to send a spell directly from theory to horn! Maybe it would have worked if you'd been wearing the crown at the time, but none of you ever seemed to go for the Elements when something was happening. But you tried it anyway, by yourself: concept to corona in one glowing leap. So there went decades of ledgers, into their gullets, along with everything else they consumed before your other -- friend -- finally got her instruments together." Which was followed by the ugliest chuckle in the world, with all of the sound produced by true mirth. "It's a wonder you didn't wind up spending the next two years in small claims court. At a minimum."

She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. The jaws of the trap were around all four legs, and all she could do was wait to see how deeply they would cut.

"Which still wouldn't have been as bad," he bemusedly continued, "as starting a war with the buffalo -- at least when it comes to a certain kind of public relations disaster. Admittedly, having a few less of the charging carpets around would be a benefit to the desert settlements, especially once the first unicorn attempt begins. But there are ponies who don't see it that way."

Rainbow was writing about our adventures.

Everything which happened to us during that first year. All the good. All the bad. The times we got it right and all the ones where we did it wrong.

Everything.

She wrote about everything and he read all of it.

"I admire your luck," Coordinator said. "I really do. Ponyville doesn't seem to have anything beyond a school paper, and Appleloosa -- well, I imagine an earth pony settlement has concerns other than sending out news about how they're progressing. Not much to write about, most of the time. Their magic claims another square body length of soil and makes it suitable for an imported apple tree -- if the pegasi can ever be bothered to drop the local temperature a bit. That's not a story which is going to race across the continent. A near-war is. But none of it ever really got out. And just the smaller things... Twilight, can you imagine what the gossip columns would have done, knowing the Princess had lost her pet and the pony who stole it was a Bearer? Yes, it was just an attempt to provide medical treatment, but once the writers got ahold of it..."

A slow head shake.

"It is so easy," he softly said, "for reporters to learn about things, so much of the time. You've probably seen some of the ones who came here, following you. I don't doubt they're asking as many ponies as possible about just what you've been doing: they'd be doing it in the castle right now if our local Lord hadn't screened them out. I know they ask in Ponyville, about the things you've done. But your settled zone is getting a reputation for lockjaw: most of the residents are very defensive when it comes to their adopted daughter. Perhaps that's even why they've forgiven so very much, seeing her as a child. Of course, there is that one pony -- what was his name? Thistle Burr? I think he'd talk if he wasn't scared about having every word traced back to him, as the only one who would. But you've been lucky, Twilight, so very lucky..."

He reared up on his hind legs, planted forehooves on the desk. Looked down at her.

"Luck," Coordinator finally taught her, "runs out."

She couldn't move. Could barely feel the manuscript within her field. The crash of lightning never reached her, lost in visions of horrors to come.

He slowly returned all four hooves to floor level. Shook his head again, looking briefly weary.

"I know she meant well," he sighed. "Rainbow, I mean."

Don't say her name, you shouldn't get to say her name, any of our names...

Her feathers were shaking. The fabric of her dress vibrated, and stars vanished.

"Creating the record," he continued. "Telling the true story. It's a noble thing. But when you tell stories, Twilight -- you somehow wound up as a librarian, I'm sure you'll understand -- you have to consider who's going to hear them. And that in the end, most of those will hear not what was written, but exactly what they wanted to. There are so many ponies who would love to know about all six of you. And so many who would take the events and -- reframe them. Innocent mistakes made by those with no real training in anything they were trying, will turn into something else entirely. Just trying to get that red dragon out of the cave -- the sequence of attempts, the prioritizing, and if it wasn't for your yellow friend's warp --"

"-- what?" She just barely got that out, and it emerged in confusion. The speech felt so practiced. Rehearsed. Every syllable memorized, if not their true meanings. And in the middle of the performance, there had been a word which didn't belong at all. A word which hadn't been said so much as spat.

He stopped.

"Local slang for talent," he eventually shrugged. "I was born here, wound up coming back after school, when my original plans fell through. I've never heard it anywhere else, so I'm not surprised you haven't either. At any rate -- if not for your yellow friend's special skills, things might have ended with no stories left to tell. And with nopony alive to do the telling. Something which, if the wrong ponies ever read about that, would start to look like the best of all options. Twilight, anypony who had a few minutes with that manuscript could take notes. Make copies of whatever they wrote down and secure them in places nopony could find. They could give other ponies instructions, that if anything ever happened to them, or if they just weren't heard from for a while, those notes would go to the newspapers with an interest in reading them exactly the wrong way. Or... they could simply decide to publish directly."

A pause, with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"She worked in a little foreshadowing for future volumes, towards the very end," he noted. "I can't even imagine what the Smarty Pants Incident is supposed to be. Still, I suppose just having the name would be enough for somepony to start looking into it --"

"-- what... do you want?"

The next peal of thunder reached her. Perhaps it was because the sound was so very much like a world breaking.

"It's all out in the open right now, you know," Coordinator quietly stated. "On your face. How afraid you are. How you've just realized that information can have power which mere Magic will never match. She let those stories out, and stories want to be heard. She just can't control how ponies choose to hear them. She didn't know, Twilight. None of this is her fault."

you it's all you it's you

"What I want," the unicorn told her, "is for there to never be a situation where you have to feel that fear again."

A little sigh, and he settled back on his haunches, with his eyes never leaving her face.

"Naive," he said. "Not understanding how the world works. That's the truth of things, isn't it? None of you really know. If Rainbow did, she never would have tried to write a book and if the rest of you understood, you would have stopped her. Information needs to be controlled, and there isn't a single one of you who knows how to do it. Even our local Lord doesn't have that much of a clue, because when a stallion takes six mares under his roof while his spouse is away -- can you imagine some of the things ponies could be saying there? He certainly didn't. It takes a special kind of pony to forsee such things, exert the control which prevents words from forming at all. Twilight, you've been going at this alone the entire time, and you didn't know it. As a Bearer, you got away with it -- somehow. But now the regalia is -- well, somewhere, and I'm sure there's a crown which can come out at need. Now, you are an alicorn. A librarian was lucky because somehow, nopony was truly watching her. And even now, you're still operating without Guards, because you don't see the dangers. Or realize there's more than one kind of protection."

Legs trapped. Mind frozen. Heart paralyzed.

"A Princess needs a staff," Coordinator told her. "Ponies who control the flow of information between her and the rest of the world. A different kind of guard. You just found out you need one, and you did so in a way where nopony was hurt." (She hated the smile.) "I suppose that means your luck is still holding. But now you know it can run out. Twilight -- I know we didn't start off well, all those years ago. But we're both unicorns -- well, I know: wings. But you're still a unicorn in your heart. We're old Gifted School mates. I don't want to see you hurting, and I know how to stop it. I can give you advice. Tell you about things you should be doing, and a few which you might want to consider stopping immediately. I can sort what comes to you, and then tell ponies the things they need to hear from you. Speak for you, in those times when you're not sure exactly what should be said and need somepony to pick out the words. What do you think the Canterlot staff does for the Diarchy? They shield them, from things coming in, and those which might get out. And I know I'm just one pony, but -- I'm a talented one. I understand things you don't. I can help you. I can protect you. Because if there's nopony doing that job, or the wrong pony doing it -- eventually, information will escape."

She'd never seen his eyes so bright, much less truly looked past them to what lurked within.

"There's no telling where that could wind up, or what the original words could turn into after being distorted by dozens of articles and thousands of throats. The things ponies could end up thinking about you, or worse, believing... well, let's make it easy by never finding out." And with that horrid smile at its widest, "I offer my services to you, Princess Twilight, as the first of your staff and true Guards."

Ponies who won't trust me. Ponies who'll -- Sun and Moon, the Smarty Pants Incident, we were all still recovering from Discord's inversions, but only Ponyville knows that and everypony else...

They'll be afraid.

Of me.

"I think," Coordinator calmly finished, "you now understand why you have to accept."

Rain beat against the window. Dark wood absorbed the light of the room. Seconds kicked against her ears.

"...I..."

Her eyes closed, for there was nothing in the world she wished to see. Even her inner visions had turned into something she wanted to escape, and so she retreated inside herself. Going to where the shadows were.

"Twilight?" Waiting for her answer.

"...why..."

Trotting now. Starting to come out from behind the desk. "Twilight, you know this should be what happens --"

Her eyes opened, focused on him through the thin layer of welling tears. And when she spoke, it somehow felt as if her voice was not entirely her own.

"...why am I supposed to care?"

She saw the shock as control broke. The whip-end twisting inside him, starting to bleed his body from within.

"What do you mean, why are you supposed to care?" It hadn't been all that much of a volume increase. Compared to what had come before, it still remained a shout. "Ponies will hate you! Be afraid of you! Ponies will believe --"

-- and then she got to watch as her words kicked him, driving him back. "-- they believe I can bless! What can they believe that's worse than that?"

So close to frantic now, and it was good, it felt so good to see him going through it. "You don't understand --"

And then she was the one who was shouting.

"-- that ponies will hate me? Fear me? Ponies hated me from the day I went into the Gifted School, because I was her student and they weren't! You were one of them! Ponies were afraid of me because --" and the memory was stopped before it could truly come forward "-- I didn't always know what I was doing in class! Because when I get things wrong, parasprites stop eating food and start eating the town! Ponies were afraid, and some of them hated, and I didn't understand how anypony would ever like me, could ever, and I wasn't worth that, it was never going to happen and then, with everything I'd studied, everything I thought I knew, then I was wrong! I found ponies who liked me, who love me no matter how much anypony else feels hatred and fear! I found my friends. And I always had my family, even if it took me so long to remember that's what Spike is, to take him back into my life as my brother, and he loves me, my little brother loves me, my big brother might even try to understand one day, and my friends were there for all of it, Coordinator, every last second! All the times when I tried to save them, and every one where they saved me from myself! They know what happened, because they were there! Their feelings are the ones I care about! Strangers I'll never meet won't say my name in their invocations? Nopony will ever ask me to bless them again? The worst you can do is just about the most I want!"

He heard all of it. He only responded to the words he understood. "I never said I would do anything --"

The heart of it had come out, and so the next interruption was decidedly quieter. It still completely stopped him.

"No. No, you never do. I guess you don't have to. You brought me to a place where I could just imagine it." A soft, tiny laugh. "So the mark for that is red tape. Who knew...?"

"You are making," and those words were a hiss, "a mistake."

"I make a lot of mistakes. You read about some of them. I'm not going to make the one where I start caring about what you think." She turned away from him, took a quick count of her field bubble's contents. She was fairly sure all of the manuscript's pages were present. "There are ponies who need staffs. There are no ponies who need you." Trotting for the door again. "You were born in Trotter's Falls. You can stay here." A little bit of field lanced for the door.

"It's a rare pony," the voice behind her shakily stated, with her basking in every vibration, "who feels that way."

She didn't answer. Almost out --

"Do your friends feel the same?"

-- she froze.

"Start with the farmer," he spat. "Somepony who creates edibles for a living managed to put half your settled zone down with food poisoning: that's not the sort of reputation which would be good for business. And the other one, who should have caught her -- what was it that happened, when she thought nopony wanted to attend her parties? It read as something very close to a minor breakdown. Well, it's not surprising that being warped would make somepony mentally fragile --"

Her soul froze.

And then all the ice shattered from within, as she spun to face him with eyes gone to white and that soul set to blazing, all the anger and frustration and fear and confusion set alight because the world had beaten her, tortured her, changed her -- and then provided somepony she could take it out on.

The stallion was within the newest of field bubbles, hoisted so close to the ceiling. There was a chance she'd already slammed him against it at least once: she really hadn't been paying full attention. She could feel every contour of his form, distractedly verified the presence of a bottle while not caring about it in the least. He was shaking, his body vibrating with her field's grasp -- and that was all he was doing. His horn wasn't even lit. It was something she didn't understand, for he had entered the Gifted School when she had, graduated on the same day, and anypony who'd been there with her, even when unable to match her field strength, would have been capable of something. Of fighting back. But he wasn't even trying, he was just shaking and

she didn't care.

"IF YOU EVER TOUCH MY FRIENDS -- IF YOU EVER TOUCH MY FAMILY...!"

She could feel his body.

think of me as Magic, which gives me a very long list of options for the next thing I might want to do

She could feel how easy it would be to squeeze.

Some of the speckles in the exposed portions of his coat were visible. The hue of her field had distorted their true shade, making it appear as if he was covered in tiny flecks of blood.

He was so scared

the exam

and so was she.

The confining bubble winked out.

He crashed down, she collapsed against the shelves, and the combined impacts dislodged the clock. It fell to the floor, shattered there. Rain pounded the window, the uneven impacts filling in for the sounds of the lost seconds.

Nopony moved. Nopony came in to find out what had happened. Somewhere, there was a party, and it had sounds of its own.

She couldn't look at him. She couldn't look at herself. Staring at the door and nothing else through purple eyes.

"You..." Twilight finally gasped. "You were born here. You can stay here. You can die here."

Her forehooves slammed into the door. Twilight half-ran, half-fell into the hallway, her hind legs kicking the first available barrier shut behind her. And then she collapsed, a small body huddled against the stone.

A mare on one side of the door, a stallion on the other. Neither had any way of knowing that their bodies were in the same position, much less that the cause for their mutual shaking was now, at its core, exactly the same. Those two things would have given them more in common than they'd ever truly had. But there was a third factor in play, and it had its way with both of them for some time.

Eventually, each would pick themselves up. The mare would force herself to trot back towards the party, because there were friends there and she needed somepony, anypony she could talk to about what had just happened. Somepony who could help her to deal with nearly all of it as she desperately tried to dismiss the part she so badly needed to forget. And she would find somepony, very quickly. She would find exactly the wrong pony, and in so many ways, their meeting would be the beginning of the end.

The stallion, who had finally taken his own test, with his core already refusing to recognize that the failure had fully been his own (for he was, and had to still be, perfect in every way), managed to acknowledge his own survival, along with the minor irony of it. After all, he had spent so much of their school time cautioning ponies not to be too close to her in case she lost it, and... well, it turned out he'd been exactly (and naturally) right all along. She was dangerous. It was almost impossible to imagine any bodies standing between the two of them and trying to serve as shields, even when the act would have been so much less than voluntary and, given her hideous strength, futile. But there was still a way out, and not the one which the fool doctor would undoubtedly begin to enact once some form of information about what had just happened reached his ears, after it had been controlled. For the best counter to an angry Princess...

They both got to their hooves in the same moment. One tried to wipe her tears, while the other made sure his bottle had come through intact. Each began to move, although the stallion wouldn't risk coming out for some time. And as they each forced themselves towards what they were hoping would be their solution, with both wrong, they continued to share an emotion. Something neither could voice, and one would never acknowledge.

For in those scant seconds of strange reflection within the mirror of the final storm, both mare and stallion felt like they were drowning.