• Published 8th Sep 2013
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At what price? - Cozy Mark IV



Only Star Swirl the Bearded knows how to save her friends from the reaper, but he has a dark secret of his own. Twilight knows something he doesn't, but could it be enough? And why did Princess Celestia just send a new Guard Captain to Ponyville

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Chapter Five: Reactions



Twilight thought for a few moments, and after an awkward silence in which Star Swirl gazed at her admiringly and she felt uncomfortable, her temper finally started to crack a bit. “What if I'm not qualified for your offer now?” she asked, an edge creeping into her voice that hadn’t been there before.

“Qualified, my dear?”

“You've made it clear that you have certain...requirements, of experience and so on, in the mares you’re romantically involved with, and you’ve offered to tell me how to achieve immortality for my friends if and only if I’m romantically involved with you!” In for a penny, in for a pound, Twilight decided. If Star Swirl could shatter a pony's illusions, then so could she. “And I'm terribly sorry to shock your timeless sensibilities, but I'm absolutely not qualified!”

“You don't think so? The bells can be a little intimidating, I expect, but nature and biology really don't allow for too much complexity in that area, not in just the one dimension or gender at a time, anyway. And I did say you could get more experience. You'll never see me object to that.”

‘What in Equestria is this pony’s problem?’ Twilight wondered. It was as if tone of voice, physical posture, all the signs of another pony’s obvious discomfort went right over his head. She’d heard of awkward professors and she wasn’t exactly the Element of Charisma herself, but this was ridiculous!

“You are aware that coercion is hardly a basis for a stable relationship, aren’t you?”

“Coercion? I do suppose you could, indeed, call it that, though it must be confessed, I had hoped that your spending a night with me, getting to be comfortable talking together…well…I had hopes that it would lead to a situation where I could enjoy somepony’s company. It has been a very lonely life for an awkward old goat like me, and I didn’t see how else I could hold your attention or persuade you to spend time with me.”

“…That’s insane,” Twilight gasped. Was he really that oblivious? Her tone grew sharper and her voice more loud as she first criticized and then actually yelled at him. “That is the most completely bloody backwards way of trying to make friends or court a mare that I’ve ever heard! Was this normal in your time, ‘oh, I’m awkward around mares, better sleep with them first so conversation is easier,’ or have you always been this weird?”

Star Swirl’s head went up as if he was offended by that remark, then he stiffened, seemed to think, and then bowed his head.

“…Always.”

“And that’s seriously how you’ve chosen to treat others?”

“…How else is there? I can’t always perceive how other ponies feel or what they’re thinking, not like other stallions can, anyway. It doesn’t make any sense to me, the way you’re offended by this, but I’m trying to understand. I’ve been trying to understand ponies for years and I’ve never even gotten a bit closer. Things that make sense to me don’t seem to make sense to anyone else, and things that make sense to them seem foalish and strange to me. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to ask a mare to talk about the things I found interesting, but once I saw that married mares listened to anything their husbands said, I started offering a romantic relationship first and the conversation, the shared research, everything I wanted, it always followed.

“Then, when some mares wanted the conversation, I asked if they wanted the relationship as well, because obviously that’s what mares required, and they invariably took me up on it! I know from Celestia’s reaction and the way the Canterlot court came to gossip about me and criticize so many things that seemed normal that it probably wasn’t, but in all their criticism, they never saw fit to give me any explanation with anything close to logic behind it as to why I shouldn’t love first and converse later!” He was panting strangely and Twilight might have taken pity on him if he hadn’t just confessed to trying to break the heart of the only mare he’d ever really loved. “So tell me this. What am I supposed to do?”

“Have you ever considered that you can be friends with a mare without making her your mistress?”

“You couldn’t in my day, but if you can now, I’d be perfectly happy to enjoy such an arrangement. It’d free up significantly more time for research and I can always meet my physical needs elsewhere...though that does seem fairly heartless. How is that transaction equitable if I know more than the pony I make my friend?”

“Has it seriously never occurred to you that relationships aren’t business transactions? Ponies don’t trade company for knowledge and sexual favors for the information they need to save all their other friends! It’s insulting that you’d think anypony could be that…that calculating and heartless!”

“That’s easy for you to say, you’re my intellectual equal! I’d think you’d be as lonely as me, being more intelligent than everypony else in Equestria!”

Twilight let out a sound of pure frustration somewhere between a grunt, an ‘arrghh’ and a steam engine experiencing a severe malfunction.

“Damn it, Star Swirl, is everything brains to you? I have friends who wouldn’t know the first thing about magic or research or even studying, but they’re still my friends because they’re good ponies and we enjoy each other’s company. Not every pony you spend time with has to be a partner in research with three degrees and tenure! Sometimes friends are just friends for…for no reason at all besides liking one another!”

“…Isn’t that dreadfully annoying when they don’t know what you’re talking about?”

“If my friends don’t know, they ask, or if it’s not important, I change the subject and we talk about something else that’s interesting to everyone.”

“What if they want to discuss something trivial and meaningless?”

“Then I discuss trivial and meaningless things with them! And you know what, Star Swirl? I have a wonderful time discussing trivial and meaningless things with them because they’re my friends and they’re the most fun, loyal, honest and kind ponies you’d ever want to meet. They’re even generous enough to make allowances for someone as bookish and awkward as me, and as much as I hate to inflict it on them, I could even see them putting up with you!”

Star Swirl tilted his head.

“It seems to me that you have more to teach than I could ever have imagined. How can you claim you’re not qualified as my equal in every way, when you understand other ponies in ways I never did in a thousand years?

“Damn it, Star Swirl, that wasn’t what I was talking about at all!” Twilight spat derisively. “I'm a virgin.”

Her announcement had the desired, and frankly, rather satisfying, effect. Now whose jaw was decorating the tablecloth, hmm? “I'm not proud of it like the ponies who resented you for your promiscuity, but I'm not ashamed of it, either. It's just not something I've done yet, nor do I feel all that...all that extremely much of a need to, at any given time. It's not really a priority with what else I have going on.”

“...You're serious.”

“I am.”

“...Never?”

“Never.”

“And you're not one of those mares who insist the same gender doesn't count, because you know virginity is really only an abstract concept and not necessarily a physiological alteration based on muscular reaction to heterosexual carnal experience?”

She didn’t hit him. She wanted to hit him, but she didn’t. Instead, with the same thin-wearing patience that had helped her get Princess Luna to comprehend Nightmare Night, give Zecora a chance when the rest of Ponyville misunderstood her completely or survive being one of the best friends of Pinkie Pie, Twilight bit back a scathing criticism and decided to meet his academic view of pony relationships with an equally-detailed clarification.

“...I...hadn't heard it interpreted that way, but no. In this case, my assertion refers to a definition of precisely zero experience accompanied by any other conscious being of any species, gender or definition compatible with the personal pronoun whatsoever!”

“Well, at least you're comfortable with it, though I must say, this is a first. And you aren't blushing or stammering over it like an idiot. I can't abide that old fallacy that says a mare can be a wild wanton in the privacy of the bedroom but has to be an absolute nun in public, stammering and fainting over something she'd really like to hear more about if Society weren't such a pack of prudes. Just be a pony, for heaven's sake. If you're not interested in sexuality at the moment, there are a million other subjects just as fascinating. You and I could spend our days on amniomorphics, teleportation, political science or even the minutiae of technological advancement since I've been out of the field. If you ever are interested in sexuality, say so and don't be ashamed of it.

“So you aren't an expert in sexuality yet. Never having cracked the book doesn't mean it's not on the shelf for when you need it. I'm at the blushing-and-stammering point with technology, my grasp of recent history has holes you could drive a herd of cattle through and I've been informed that even chemistry will take weeks of catch-up before I could follow the goings-on of a class full of fillies and little colts. Botany could be interesting, I've always wanted to learn more about mineral geology...we don't have to play exclusively to my strengths as a couple, nor must we confine the relationship exclusively to each other's gifts and capacities. Some mares feel more comfortable in a ménage a trois when they're starting a new subject or sharing one for the first time.”

“...It’s not a question of sexuality, Star Swirl. You asked me to sleep with you. That’s not something I’d ever consider doing lightly, and only the fact that you’re the only stallion in the world who can help me keep each and every one of my friends from dying in the next hundred years when I’m stuck with this…this damned Princess thing…frankly, that’s the only reason I even considered trying to make this work. I thought if I could get myself drunk enough to fake some courage and get past your allegedly horrific appearance, build up your confidence and show you that you aren’t alone, that might be enough, and if it wasn’t, I’ll confess that I was feeling desperate enough to consider taking you up on that insane offer!

“But if the price of your immortality was becoming so out of touch with what it means to be a pony, I can’t imagine my friends would want anything to do with it!”

There was a long silence. Star Swirl sighed.

“That…isn’t an effect of the spell. I’ve always been this way, ever since I was a little colt. I’ve tried to change, to make it better, and in some ways I’ve succeeded, but in other ways…this is the best I’ve been able to do, myself. I can’t always pick up on other ponies’ emotions, I have a devil of a time getting my own across…it’s been terrible, trying to figure out pony relationships, and you’ve been a Princess, indeed, to put up with me.”

“What you wanted in the first place and could have quite reasonably asked for –and gotten, instantly, incidentally, if you weren’t such a…a Smarty Pants, is someone who’d want to discuss all of your and their interests, learn about new ones, see things and do things together. You could have just asked me to be your friend!”

Another long silence. Twilight wasn’t sure what was going on under Star Swirl’s veil, but the bit of fabric was moist in spots and what lay beneath it seemed to hitch up and shudder occasionally.

“...That's what friendship is like, for mares?”

“For everypony, pretty much.”

“So, and this is just out of curiosity, what does one call the identical relationship with the addition of sexuality?”

“'Friendship with benefits' is one colloquial term for that,” Twilight explained, as patiently as the time she'd clarified to Cranky Doodle Donkey the subtle difference between 'butt dial' and 'booty call' as regarded Ponyville's portable telephone program for seniors. “Some ponies consider that relationship to be the most powerful form of 'love,' it may accompany engagement, marriage or long-term cohabitation as well as the various courtship stages. Some ponies are able to share sexual activities only with ponies to which they are committed emotionally and exclusively, others can and do easily share them much more casually, even with friendly acquaintances they have known a short while, and some ponies can share such things with multiple other ponies at a given time. But friendship doesn't require any of that, and a pony's friends can even be well below the age at which adult consent, because true friends don't need sexuality to express affection.”

“This reminds me of something Plato was going on about.”

“Platonic friendship, yes! That's the word I wanted!”

“All the intellectual benefits, none of the physical...” Star Swirl mused. “Odd.”

“Well, it's not nothing physical.” Twilight picked up a picture of herself with her friends, snuggling in an enormous pony pile and trying to fit together into the frame so Spike could take the snapshot. “Friends often share hugs, hoof-bumps, the odd backrub, pulling burrs out of one another's tail, Rarity will do your mane and design you an outfit soon as look at you, Applejack and Rainbow Dash work out together a lot, Fluttershy and Rarity sometimes invite me along to the spa for massages and such...”

“So...very casual, non-sexual physical contact and activities.”

“Exactly.”

“...Normally I would make a snap judgment and say 'how boring!' but this photograph is interesting. Perhaps there is something to this...platonic friendship. These aren't your ladies-in-waiting or sworn sisters of a religious order, perhaps?” Star Swirl asked.

Twilight tried to picture her friends as nuns. It wasn't really a good picture, and she laughed. Only Fluttershy even seemed close to working and Applejack struck her as the ruler-levitating kind from the private school for unicorns she had attended prior to qualifying for Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.

“No, they're just ordinary, good ponies.”

“Excellent! Might it be possible to...oh.” Star Swirl looked down at his gloved hooves and long cloak from behind his veil. “I suppose meeting them wouldn't really be possible.”

“Actually...just leave that to me, Star Swirl,” Twilight grinned.

Ever since she'd learned the truth about Star Swirl's lost love, she'd been wondering something, and once she'd realized the news of Nightmare Moon's return and Luna's restoration to her senses had eluded him (she didn't like to think why, the day had had enough...startling realizations about her mentor Princess Celestia as it was,) her planner's mind was working overtime.

Sure, she had been intellectually and a little foalishly attracted to Star Swirl's mind, at first, but he really had some serious issues that didn’t bring out the best in her. Mares and stallions in a relationship should improve one another, and complement each other’s best and worst qualities, not amplify things like social awkwardness and a tendency to retreat into the library away from all equine company. If she were involved with Star Swirl, she knew now, they’d only make each other worse in terms of flaws. She only had the slightest touch of his…well…out-of-touch-ness with the rest of equinity, but it was enough for her to know that he absolutely wasn’t right for her.

He also had a very good point about mares without...experience, and as interesting as she'd found him before when he was a mysterious masked figure, in the light of day and with all explained, he really reminded her more of an older and strangely shaped Spike still crushing on a Rarity-in-the-Moon than the kind of stallion she really felt attracted to in...well, in the way mares were attracted to stallions for more than intellectual conversation and occasional hugs. She also had to admit that she pitied him, finding love despite what had to be some kind of strange social disability and having the integrity to first try and push her away because he didn’t feel worthy of her, and then, after everything, to lose that love so horribly…that, and if nothing else, Twilight could sympathize with awkward ponies. She couldn’t exactly take empathy far enough to cover the extremes of Star Swirl’s behavior, but she did know what it felt like to not understand other ponies’ feelings and to feel all alone because of it.

And it wasn’t like Luna couldn’t handle his moments of awkwardness. The Princess of Night was a little bit odd herself, but whereas Star Swirl was the absent-minded professor who could and did go literal years without seeing another soul, Luna enjoyed and sought out others’ company. She liked others and wanted to be liked, and she’d proven she was willing to work on her own shortcomings to achieve that end. Perhaps, if they had really gotten along as well as Star Swirl implied (and it didn’t seem likely they hadn’t, given that things would have to be going very well for Star Swirl to even perceive what was going on,) perhaps they might be the kind of couple that helped one another, had one another’s backs and slowly grew better, each with the other’s help. They didn’t have too much in common, but they had two very important things: self-awareness of their own flaws and a strong desire to fix them.

And if nothing else, well…the Moon was big enough for two, in a truly worst-case scenario. The two of them certainly could behave like ponies from space sometimes…maybe they were two of a kind.

But first, it was time to rally the Elements of Harmony and help the greatest (and most awkward,) wizard Equestria had ever known discover the magic of friendship …even if that sounded really cheesy even in Twilight’s head.

. . .

Meanwhile, in Canterlot, Princess Celestia was growing concerned. She had assumed that Twilight Sparkle would meet with Star Swirl the Bearded, quickly realize the tremendous downsides to immortality and either accept the situation and send a letter detailing what she had learned, reject Star Swirl’s solution as unacceptable and send a letter requesting more research material or become disgusted with the old satyr and send a letter asking for help dealing with the difficult old coot.

By evening of the first night, no letter had appeared. Celestia decided that Twilight and Star Swirl must have hit it off and were probably engrossed in a discussion of spellcraft the likes of which would give ponies within a two-mile radius a reading headache if they so much as overheard. Surely, with so much interest in amniomorphic spells, the two of them had a lot of academic discussions to share.

Surely, that was what was going on.

…Wasn’t it?

Suddenly, a long-buried memory of a fight with her sister, one of the worst in the long series of confrontations which led to Luna’s transformation into Nightmare Moon resurfaced. Celestia had caught her sister in an exceedingly inappropriate dalliance with her magic tutor and promptly banished him, only for Luna to protest that her sister didn’t understand and that despite Celestia’s repeated warnings that Star Swirl was no fit consort for anyone, let alone a Princess of the realm, she …loved him.

At the time, Celestia had assumed that this was the natural rebellion mares her sister’s age felt against authority figures, even those giving perfectly reasonable advice, and she cursed herself for a fool for ever mentioning Star Swirl’s impropriety and general bad character. She’d probably made him sound wonderfully exciting, and if she’d thought about it harder, remembered what it had been like as a younger mare and remembered that Luna wasn’t exactly happy answering to a sister who really wasn’t so very much older, well…it was probable nothing at all would have happened between the two of them.

At least, she assumed so.

What in Equestria could anypony, let alone her bright sister, see in that ridiculous old Star Swirl? He was intelligent enough, certainly, and handsome in a graying kind of way, but so irritating to be around. And at the time, she had really not been impressed with his sexual ethics. That level of …promiscuity was still a little outside the norm, even a thousand years later, and while she conceded now that his attitude of intellectual polyamory worked for many mares, stallions and transponies (including a very happy threesome who ran one of Celestia’s favorite bookshops in Canterlot and a fascinating pentad who had a winery in the south of Prance and bottled some truly excellent vintages a couple of hundred years ago,) at the time she had considered Star Swirl the Bearded a libertine and hedonist of the worst sort. She’d really only allowed him as Luna’s tutor because he was, when it came to magic, legitimately the best. There was really no other reason, at the time, for civilized ponies to tolerate him at all beyond what the basics of etiquette required.

But…supposing Luna hadn’t just been a young mare in the throes of a badly-advised crush and teenage rebellion? Supposing Luna had seen something good in Star Swirl that Celestia couldn’t, hadn’t or wouldn’t have acknowledged even if she had because Star Swirl frankly weirded her out, far more than she liked to admit? Supposing there was a good reason, well beyond the rumored Seduction Spells and…anatomical suppositions, that so many mares and, it was said, stallions, enjoyed the private company of Equestria’s greatest and most eccentric wizard?

…And she had sent him to visit her most beloved student, a pony who had never even been known to date.

Oh, dear.

That, coupled with a mysterious package sent to the palace by Spike (which she instantly recognized, confiscated from the mail-ponies and clapped into her personal freezer with the lame excuse that sometimes the Tsarina of Muscovy sent a bit of the glorious reindeer vodka to her sister diarch as a present and she really needed to pick up some Apple Family Special Reserve on her next trip to Ponyville to reciprocate,) convinced Celestia that she had to act, and act quickly, lest her prized pupil become, at best, another bell on the cloak of Equestria’s most promiscuous slut-stallion, or at worst, wind up quarantined on the moon for a thousand years.

So she did the only logical thing that a constitutional diarch could, when faced with the potential corruption of one of her most politically important and personally special subjects.

“Guards,” she announced with a secretive smile. “Summon Lieutenant Flash Sentry to my chambers immediately. I have a special mission for him in Ponyville.”

‘Take that, Star Swirl,’ she thought with a little smirk.

She only hoped it would be enough.

Author's Note:

For those who are a little confused as to how Star Swirl can be both eloquent and awkward, attractive and irritating and an extremely smart pony who is still so frequently clueless, I refer them to this link. Given what we are told on the show about his accomplishments and lack thereof, it seemed the most logical explanation for a pony who could figure out amniomorphic spells and time travel but lacked the ability to truly understand friendship.