• Published 17th Apr 2015
  • 2,365 Views, 181 Comments

Verse Averse: Tales of the Versebreakers - horizon

When musical mayhem threatens Equestria, the brave and misunderstood ponies of the Versebreakers are on the job. Ten music-themed stories by eight talented authors.

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On the Roof (horizon)

"Welcome," False Note said, sweeping a hoof around, "to the Rooftop of Hopes and Dreams."

Lyra blinked back the afternoon sunlight, brushed back the mane that an insistent breeze was blowing over her eyes, and took a step out from the doorway to glance around. While her trip to the so-called "Versebreaker Academy" had been one long string of subverted expectations, she had to admit that the broad, flat rooftop did look both hopey and dreamy. Most of the city of Canterlot was built hugging the mountain, as if afraid of falling off; the Versebreakers' squat and blocky three-story headquarters would have been impossibly modest by Cloudsdale or Manehattan standards, but here it was a beetle among ants. Standing atop it, she had nearly a 360-degree view from the spiraling towers of the palace to the sprawl of the city to the rainbow expanse of Equestria. The air tasted brisk and clean, and the world around her seemed poised with potential.

Her stomach twinged. A little too poised, in a way she was beginning to recognize.

Lyra backed into the shelter of the doorway and shot a questioning look at the orange pegasus. "This place is a musical number waiting to happen."

"Of course. Why do you think we came up here?" False Note grinned, and waved a hoof in the direction of the roof's edge. "Go on."

Lyra shook her head, feeling her heartbeat quicken and little prickles of sweat dot her forehead. "Uh … no thanks. I'm good."

"And I'm serious."

"Can we — maybe, uh, tomorrow? I mean, training." Lyra tried to drag words through her sudden haze of panic. "It's been a tough day, a lot to think about —"

"I know it has," he said apologetically. "I did warn you. This is the last of it, though."

Lyra chewed her lip as she fought to rein her emotions in, then took a deep breath. "That's fair. It's just … as much as I've learned today, not a single thing was about how to break songs, and the only time I did that on my own, it hurt. Please, False. Don't make me do that again until you teach me a better way."

False Note gave her a blank look, then his face cracked back into a wide smile. "Ha! Was that all you were worried about? Your job now is to get out there and sing one."

Lyra bolted.

Or tried, anyway; his hoof blocked her retreat. His smile didn't waver, but the amusement dropped out of it. "Lyra."

"No," she said, scrambling back and flattening herself against the stairwell. "Nonono. No."

"Lyra. Look at me." False Note leaned in, gripping her shoulders. His voice softened. "What's wrong?"

"You weren't there." Vertigo gripped her. "Bonnie. The crowd. The music —"

"Lyra. It's okay. There are scary numbers out there, but please, trust us. You're surrounded by experts. There's crowd-dispersal enchantments and restricted airspace and half a dozen wards and centuries of tradition here. You're safe. You'll never sing a safer song."

Lyra forced herself to nod, then took conscious control of her chest and took several tight breaths. Logic began to percolate back through her brain. I came here to become a Versebreaker … they're responsible for ponies' safety. They have to be able to rely on me if I get caught up in something bigger than myself. This is a test.

She swallowed through a dry throat and nodded wordlessly.

"Great." False Note's smile returned, this time encouraging. He nudged her out onto the rooftop.

"Okay," she forced herself to say. "Okay — wait! Where are you going?"

False Note glanced back up the stairs. "This is your number," he said. "About why you're here, and what you'll face. I wouldn't dare stay. It's one of our most important traditions."

"But —" Lyra bit off the sentence and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. If I can't face my fear now, I'll never have what it takes. "What do I do?"

"Just walk up to the edge of the roof," he said with a reassuring smile, "and let it happen."

She stared at his retreating form until the stairwell door swung closed.

Lyra looked around the roof, featureless except for the squat box of the stairwell, and up into the empty skies. Nobody to witness her shame if she chickened out. Nobody to help her if something went wrong. What if she just twiddled her forehooves for three minutes and then went back downstairs?

No. They'd figure it out. Worse, she'd know. She had to do this.

Lyra set her saddlebags down against the door and took a deep breath. The edge of the roof had no guardrails. Nothing even resembling a railing, just a slightly raised cornice that false instincts told her to place her front hooves on. She ignored them and scooched forward on her belly, craning her neck forward to peek over the edge. Some of her fear eased as she saw the safety nets anchored in the building a floor below. False Note had said she was safe … though Lyra doubted the Versebreaker Academy got too many students who were terrified of musicals. At the things musicals made her do. The way they took her over, changed her.

But this was a tame one. Defanged. She was probably a bigger danger to herself than the song was.

Lyra drew in a deep breath and stood up. She lifted a hoof and moved it forward, hovering above the cornice.

The world held its breath.

It sounded silly to think of it that way, but she could swear that was how it felt. A rest seeking its beat, a dangling tension, a swelling internal pressure, a vocalization threatening to burst forth — the chorus of a thousand voices, a million, of Harmony itself, the yawning pelagic abyss around her little island of individuality, with an infinite whirling maelstrom tearing in across the waves.

It was too much. She'd been drawn into musicals before, but only as a background singer. Never at the center. She tried to jerk her hoof back, but her leg wouldn't move. Her heartbeat pounded against her ribs with the crash of a kettle drum. It was too late. She couldn't hear the music, but it had taken hold. A tsunami was sweeping her away, tumbling and battering her and filling her lungs, drowning her silent screams —

Lyra felt her hoof click against the rooftop, and everything she was dissolved in a triumphant flourish of strings.

The storm seared and crackled, churning up the waves that had drowned a tiny and terrified little pony. Lyra was gone. Lyra was. The storm, the sea, the sky, the electric air and raging surf and still depths, it all came together into a unity far greater than she had ever dreamed herself capable of conceiving. The layers of reality folded and mixed into each other — the maritime metaphor, the music, the pony on the rooftop, and Lyra was each of them, transcended all of them. As unconsciously and effortlessly as if she were blinking, she stirred up a gust of wind, watching her mane billow out as the voices of a phantom chorus joined the strings. Aah-aaaaaah, they breathed, she breathed, and the sound reverberated through her, through the roof and air and the metaphorical infinite sea; and all was one, and all was as it should be, and all was as it needed to be.

And through it all, a lone green unicorn stood transfixed. As her viewpoint spiraled out from face to body to rooftop, Lyra watched her open mouth slowly pull upward from awe into joy. Some part of that insignificant little unicorn at the center of the universe wanted to cry at its magnificence, but there was no need.

Instead, she drew in a breath, and tugged words from the torrents tumbling past her.

This whole darn day has been so strange.
I took this trip expecting change —
I never knew what kind.

Lyra's voice carried, clear and crisp and unafraid, the instruments on the wind smoothly shifting in support of her mezzo-soprano. The voices of the chorus receded into hums, and her words danced to the gentle rhythm of the violins and cellos.

You lose yourself into the song.
I always found that concept wrong.
But in this moment, I don't think I mind.

How could she have ever been so afraid of this? The question answered itself: She'd never controlled it before, never seen it from the inside. She'd been swept up in the crude, blunt tunes of awkward bookworms or conniving charlatans or … whatever Pinkie Pie was. This infinite power — she added the delicate contrapuntal plucking of a harp to her dominant vocal line, and broadened the strings' accompaniment into lush, sustained chords — was flawless. It was ponies that were the problem, in their imperfection and their need and their pain, wrestling with the tunes and pushing them in directions they were never meant to go.

She could fix that.

Stopping the music … that was madness. She had been mad to wish for that — mad, and afraid, and naive. How could she have hoped to destroy what simply needed better guidance? Even the Mark on her flanks would have told her that, if she'd only listened.

Her laughter rang out as the second verse swept in.

Look at me now! I'm singing! Me!
The things Bon Bon would say to see!

And the first notes of unease plucked at her heartstrings.

She should be here instead.

Lyra leapt to the southern edge of the rooftop, staring out at Ponyville in the distance.

I hope she won't be too upset.
She'd sell her soul for one duet.
But in this moment, she's at home in bed.

Bon Bon tossed and turned. As much as she needed her usual afternoon nap, she couldn't get her mind off of Lyra. Of Lyra's trip to Canterlot. Of the letter with the royal seal that had invited her there.

Of the recriminations and reconciliations and the tension that had been left unspoken after their vacation. The unexpected musical number at the coronation that Lyra had sworn she had enjoyed. The sobbing in the bathroom, late at night, after Lyra thought Bon Bon had fallen asleep.

Bon Bon hadn't cried when Lyra had asked to go join the Versebreakers. At least, not until after Lyra had left.

She wasn't crying now, either. She was just lying quietly on her bed, doing that thing where her emotions twisted and curled and thrashed around inside her like a wounded lightning-snake. Its storms raged through her mind.

This time, if the swell of violins and voices in the background was any indication, the storm was escaping. She would never have dared let that happen if Lyra was around, but …

No. She shouldn't.

… But what harm could it be, really? She was alone. Resisting it all the time would just leave her more drained for the times when it mattered. There would never be a better time to give in to the song, and maybe it would crystallize her growing unease into a thing she could be rid of.

Still, she shouldn't.

Then the delicate tones of a harp joined the strings, and she knew she had no choice. The guilt was already crushing her. Far better to feel guilty over having done something wrong.

Bon Bon threw back the covers as her cue approached, rolling to her hooves. She snatched the Academy recruitment letter from Lyra's nightstand, balancing on one back hoof and effortlessly pirouetting with it, feeling the music sweep her away and fill her lungs, burning on her tongue with a passion effortlessly returned:

My search for songs hurt Lyra so
They even let the princess know.
That's why she left to train.

"Jump!" says the song, and up I hop.
I know, for her, that I should stop.
But what she doesn't know won't cause her pain.

That one was going to hurt when the music was over.

She had been right — the song was a bad idea. But the verse was over and the next was approaching. She was committed.

My song burns in me like her scream.
How could I hurt her for my dream?

Her guilt obligingly crystallized in the most uncomfortable place possible:

The problem here's my voice.

The unicorn on the rooftop burst back into motion, twirling across the rooftop as she sang, forelegs thrown wide, mane streaming in the breeze.

The song burns in me like a kiss.
How could I cost my love this bliss?
In this moment, now I see my choice.

Lyra looked down at the photo of Bon Bon she didn't remember digging out of her saddlebags. She hadn't had it in her horngrip when the second verse had finished, and yet it had been in her field when she started her dance. Nothing was wrong with that, of course, but some quiet inner voice noted the disconnect.

She clenched her forehooves around the photo and continued stepping upright around the roof, dancing a slow and graceful two-legged waltz with the love she'd left behind, as the strings and harp obligingly slid into three-quarters time for an instrumental section. She snapped one foreleg out as she sent the photograph whirling forward —

— and as the music shifted into a melancholy waltz to match Bon Bon's mood, she whirled across the bedroom, the edge of their mattress catching her croup like a partner's waiting hoof as she bent backward, one fore dramatically spread and one hind thrust out for balance. She pushed herself off of the bed, whirling back toward the mirror she'd pushed herself off of, until she arrested herself by clinging to it at hip height, staring into the photograph of Lyra she'd taped on at eye level. She swayed back and forth to the beat, leaning forward until her forehead touched the photo's —

— and Lyra drew the flimsy photograph, dwarfed by the forelegs wrapped around it, deeper into a hug. Cheek to cheek with a frozen and distant image, she swayed back and forth to the beat, until the music signaled a shift back into its standard measure. The strings receded to their chords, and the harp to its counterpoint.

Lyra reverently set the photograph down on top of her saddlebags against the stairs door. Fear had held her back for years, but her mind was clearer than it had ever been. As the music continued its inexorable march toward the final verse, she strode back to the edge of the roof, and took a deep breath.

I'm quitting the academy.
How thrilled Bon Bon is going to be!

Bon Bon felt, rather than heard, the sad, solitary waltz shift expectantly back toward its verse structure. With an effort, she pulled herself free of the mirror's embrace.

Lyra's photo was stained with tears.

She plodded over to the window, throwing it open and staring at distant Canterlot, and took a deep breath.

They say to love you must set free.
For Lyra, I'll live silently.

But in this moment, Lyra sang.

But in this moment, Bon Bon sang, unconsciously shifting her tone down by a third.

Lyra closed her eyes, feeling the pull of some ineffable harmony, as the instruments and the chorus and her voice all soared to the climax:

I …

… will sing …

… for me.

The instruments swept into a brief, subdued coda that left an oddly bittersweet taste in her throat, then faded back into the distant sussuration of the city. Lyra sank to the rooftop, the waters of the song receding, depositing her gently back on the sandy beaches of her consciousness. She rolled to her back and let her eyes drift closed, filling her lungs with crisp mountain air, letting the warmth of Celestia's sun soak through her pelt. There wasn't any of the vertigo she was used to, just the lingering afterglow of Harmony.

It would have been perfect, if not for the regrets.

Lyra let a long breath out, chest deflating. The Versebreakers did an important job, and she'd liked everypony … everyone she'd met, and they'd given her this moment. She owed them everything. She wasn't looking forward to telling them she was going to walk out on them before her training could even begin —

"I'm sorry," a smooth feminine voice said from inches away. "I'm afraid I can't accept your resignation."

Lyra's eyes shot open to the sight of the dark chasms of draconic pupils. She shrieked and flung herself sideways, scrambling to her hooves near the edge of the roof, and gasped for breath against the sudden ice of adrenaline. The owner of those eyes — a white unicorn with tufted ears and a Cutie Mark of an eighth-note — regarded her with calm amusement.

Lyra glanced at the door to the stairs. Still closed, with her saddlebags untouched at the base. Her mouth opened and closed several times. "W-who ..." she finally managed.

"Siren Song," the Moontouched unicorn said. Lyra's eyes widened, but Siren was already speaking again by the time she opened her mouth. "To answer your next few questions: Yes, the Academy director, but call me Siren; the rooftop is strictly first-names-only. No apology necessary. I heard the whole thing. We'll teach you about song-shrouds in Third Bar. And to answer that … can I share a story?"

Lyra had no idea what her last question was supposed to be, but she nodded anyway.

"My parents were old-guard Full Moon Cult," Siren said. "I was taught growing up that Princess Celestia was a usurper, and that I would fulfill my destiny by tearing down her nation of lies when Nightmare Moon returned. I hid my nature throughout my youth —" she blinked twice, and for a moment her pupils were a pony's normal circles — "and entered Versebreaker Academy as a sleeper agent. When they left me alone on the roof to sing my initiation number … it was a villain song." Siren chuckled and shook her head. "If you think my arrival was awkward, imagine my face when Director Beat deshrouded."

Lyra stared. "But …"

"But I'm Director now, yes." Siren looked straight into Lyra's eyes, smiling. "False Note wasn't lying. That was your song, Lyra, and every word of it is yours alone, just as every word of my song was mine. Director Beat never told anyone else, and when I decided to come clean to my classmates and teachers after a few months of soul-searching, he stood at my side and vouched for me." Siren touched a hoof to Lyra's shoulder. "I'm here because it's a sacred gift to share the Versebreakers' greatest teaching … and, for reasons that should be obvious, I take our traditions very seriously."

Lyra's heart sped up. "But I'm quitting. I sang about quitting."

"And I sang about destroying Equestria. Look at how well that worked out for me."

Lyra swallowed. "… Why didn't you? If you don't mind me asking."

Siren nodded. "The first words out of Down Beat's muzzle were, 'Do you still want to be a Versebreaker?' Once I got over my shock, I asked him if he was really still willing to teach me, knowing that I was there to destroy everything he stood for. Then he told me the story of his initiation number. One guess how awkward his talk with his Director was." Siren strode over to the edge of the roof. "Harmony's the greatest thing there is, Lyra. It's grand and infinite perfection. Getting swept up in a musical number is the closest we can ever come to it, but even a musical is just a brief brush against its edges. And here's the thing. The greatest teaching. The central core of everything we do."

Siren set a hoof down on the cornice. A breeze kicked up, and a brass section began to play a shifting string of chords amid a harp's lush flourish. "Harmony," she said, as the air swelled with potential. "Sometimes." A phantom choir stirred to life —

"Is wrong."

The music came to a crashing halt. Siren lifted her hoof, then walked calmly back to the center of the rooftop.

Lyra stared. "Uh … yeah. I knew that. That's the whole reason I came here."

"You know that. You don't understand." Siren looked out at the sweep of the distant horizon. "Don't get me wrong, Harmony is perfect. The problem is, we aren't, and sometimes we get so close to perfection with musical numbers' stories that their light burns us rather than illuminates us. Versebreaking isn't about bad ponies perverting the music — Harmony wouldn't allow villain songs if they weren't part of some greater tale. Versebreaking is about knowing when the song is good for us, and when the song is too good for us … and then setting the singers back on the right path, no matter what it takes or when you step in."

"With all due respect, ma'am," Lyra said carefully, "being in the song taught me how perfect Harmony is, too, and frankly I don't see what that philosophical distinction has to do with my plans."

"Two things. One: We're not here to stop 'bad' songs. We're here to stop songs that hurt ponies … no matter how right they are, because often those hurt the most. And two —" a smile crept back onto Siren's muzzle — "if you ma'am me again, so help me Celestia, I'll throw you off of this rooftop myself."

Lyra couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry, m— Siren." Her smile quickly drifted away. "But what makes you think that my choice is going to hurt anypony? You heard the song. It's clear as day — I'm quitting to stop hurting Bon Bon."

Siren nodded. "How many verses did your song have?"

"Huh?" Lyra said, but by the time her brain caught up to the question, her mouth had already supplied the answer. "Four, plus the half-verse at the end. Why?"

"How many verses did you sing?"

Lyra's eyes widened.

"Oh, stars," she whispered, taking a step backward and sitting down heavily against the stairwell wall. Her forehooves flew to her mouth as the song flashed back through her mind. The whole song. "Oh no. No. No."

"Lyra." The voice was clear, firm. Siren crouched over her; hooves dug into her shoulders. "Breathe."

Lyra did, and hyperventilation receded. "It was a duet," she said, still light-headed. "She's quitting musicals."

"I know. I listened. I've done this enough to hear both sides." Siren brushed Lyra's mane back and stared into her eyes. "See what I meant? Harmony has a story to tell, and we both know where that story wants to go. You quit and go home. She goes ballistic over you turning down a royal commission and abandoning your dream, and blames herself. Another big argument solving nothing. You whirl apart and spend weeks soul-searching and learning painful lessons. Maybe you reconcile, maybe you fall in love with someone else along the way. Or," Siren said, "you stay here, we charter a train to Canterlot for the most important mare of your life, and you talk about your duet, bring her to this rooftop, and show her you can both get what you need. Sweep straight through all the road apples. Harmony's happy, you're happier."

Lyra's eyes blurred with tears. She sniffled and smiled. "I … I think I'd like that."

Siren leaned in and hugged her, smiling broadly. "In that case," she said, "congratulations, Versebreaker, on your first official success."

A harp flourish danced in on a stray breeze. Aah-aaaaah, the phantom choir breathed. The violins swelled and receded, and all was as it should be, and all was as it needed to be.

Author's Note:

Story written by me (horizon).

This story (though it was written to stand alone for this collection) is a sequel to Fugue State, which shares similar themes (though no mention of Versebreakers) and explores the origin of Bon Bon and Lyra's romantic troubles. If you enjoyed this, take a look at Fugue State after you're done with the collection.

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