Shining Armor trotted out of the castle’s hospital feeling like the lowest pony in Equestria. The headache he now had was much worse than any he had felt over the last few days, but that was nothing compared to the blow to his ego. The doctors had taken nearly an hour to purge the brainwashing toxins the Changeling Queen has pumped into him, even with what his fiancée had done to reverse the process. Each and every one of them were surprised he could even stand, let alone walk.
For the first time in days he could think clearly. He remembered all the times he had disagreed with the false Cadence, only to agree when he got hit with what he thought was a spell to cure headaches. A spell that was often cast on him without warning, he now realized, and one which only seemed to make headaches worse. And the pains they were supposedly curing could have easily been prevented if he had had the other guards contribute their magic to help him with the spell.
It seemed so obvious now, like he was blind before but now could see. Earlier he couldn’t think about those things. Every time he tried focusing on them, the headaches would worsen until his mind drifted elsewhere. He found nothing odd about the fact that his bride-to-be was acting nothing like herself, or that she was blind to their history. Then again, he had been, too. Even trying to remember how he and Cadence met caused him great pain.
But he remembered now. He remembered proposing to her in the castle garden the day after she had gotten back from an important visit to Zebrica for a goodwill mission. She remembered her, or as she told him while in the hospital, the false her, had come to him the next day saying that the last of her men had reported back to her a great threat mounting against Canterlot, and how a shield spell was needed to protect the city. He remembered her early insistence that she allow her to cast anti-headache spells on him, a precautionary measure that seemed to do nothing. He remembered her apologizing for not doing the spell right, and how she insisted on casting it again and again until she performed it correctly, which he now understood meant when he stopped registering that every spell was making him feel worse, not better.
And he remembered his faith and pride in his little sister. Even while he was angry with her, there was a small voice, calling through the pain, begging him to have himself checked out before dismissing Twilight. He wondered how loud the voice would have been had he not been under the faux bride’s influence. Would he have listened? He wanted, so badly, to believe he would have, but it was impossible to say.
He slowed to a near stop as he thought of his sister. She had been right to worry about them drifting apart. In their younger days, she had practically been his shadow at times, following him into all manner of things and idolizing him. He had been protective of her, perhaps too much so. Once she had moved into the castle, she didn’t quite know how to defend herself from the bullies there.
And how long distance had their relationship become? Being Captain of the Guards required him to travel a bit, but he never realized just how much until a year ago. She moved to Ponyville without his input. He hadn’t been there to congratulate her on awakening the Element of Magic. Celestia had intentionally sent him far away from Canterlot and Ponyville, knowing he would have kept Twilight under lock and key during Nightmare Moon’s reign. He hadn’t been there to celebrate her knighthood after defeating Discord, having been out of the country. The previous Hearth’s Warming Eve pageant and her last birthday, he had been out of the country both times and missed her. The other Bearers, friends with whom she shared a deep bond, hadn’t even known he existed. She hadn’t written many letters, nor ever came for a visit whenever she had been in town.
Of course, he was not blameless for leaving her out of major life decisions. He had begun dating Cadence just six months ago. The feelings he had been too shy to tell her about came out, and he confessed his love. She reciprocated, and they fell deep in love so very fast. He never wrote to tell Twilight of his relationship when it started, or when he decided to propose.
Nightmare Moon. Discord. Dragons and an ursa minor. Twilight had faced them all, all threats he should have been stopping but didn’t, he doubted if he even could have. Even his victory over the Changeling Queen had been made possible through her heroics. For someone who ran Equestria’s army he seemed to do remarkably little in the way of dealing threats to Celestia’s subjects. He had to scoff at the irony. Since he was a foal he had dreamed about saving Equestria from terrible creatures, and it had been his sister doing it instead.
As soon as the changelings had been expelled from Canterlot, Twilight immediately began directing orders to the others to get the wedding back up and running in three hours. The others were incredulous that it could be done, but followed without hesitation regardless. No one wanted to doubt her now.
He had desperately wanted to talk to her then, but Celestia hadn’t given him the chance. She moved both him and his future wife to the hospital wing. Cadence hadn’t anything but a slight case of malnutrition and a dirty coat, and after a quick bath was released to the kitchen to sample the Apple Family’s cooking.
Now, finally free of the doctor’s scrutiny, he sought out his sister. To his relief, he found her in the ballroom with Cadence and Pinkie Pie, going over the reception plans. Carefully, so the two mares dancing at the other end of the room couldn’t see him, he got Twilight’s attention.
“Shiny! You’re finally out! Are you okay?”
He smiled half-heartedly. “I can think better than I could have the last five days.”
“Great! I’ll tell Cadence you’re better, she’ll be thrilled that...”
“No, Twilight,” he said quickly, “I...really need to talk to you, now. Before we do anything else.”
The lavender unicorn’s mood changed from happy to nervous quickly. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”
“Not here, let’s go to my quarters.”
They walked in silence, though they walked quickly, as Twilight was adamant about not getting too far behind schedule.
They entered Shining Armor’s living space, the elder unicorn shutting the door behind them and locking it.
“Alright, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked, looking at her brother with concern.
“Twilight, I...I want to call off the wedding.”
For the following five seconds, the room became so quiet that the Captain of the Guard could swear he heard the sound of his sister’s eyes stretching to twice their normal size.
“What?” the younger sibling shouted incredulously, not believing what she was hearing. “Wh...how...How can you do this now?”
“Twilight...how can I marry her now? I let that monster imposter act as her for five days! That entire time she was starving in those caves, and I was up here, completely oblivious to her suffering. According to her, she was kidnapped right after I proposed to her. I let it happen right under my nose! I’m not even married to her yet and I already let her down!”
“Then I let that fake her waltz in and tell me her sources knew of a potential threat against Canterlot! The details were so vague but I still let her talk me into casting that shield around the city, and to let her zap me with those spells to brainwash me! I just gave that disgusting bug everything she needed to keep me weak and distracted while she fed off of me!
“And you! I let you down! I verbally backhoofed you in front of your friends and the princess without even checking what you were saying! I got everypony you care about to walk out on you without a second thought! All those years I promised to protect you and keep you safe, and today I hurt you worse than any of the changelings did!”
“So let’s review: I failed as a husband, a brother, and as Captain of the Guards, all in one fell swoop. The three things I’m supposed to be good at and I couldn’t do any of them. I’m… I’m a fraud. I think… no, I know Cadence can do better than me.”
He dared to look at his sister. She was looking wide eyed in shock, completely flabbergasted by her brother’s choice of words. He sighed. “Look, I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to try and talk me out of this, but I’ve made up my…”
As it turned out, he didn’t know what Twilight was going to do. He clearly had not expected to find himself on the floor with an aching jaw and his sister’s hoof print on the side of his face.
“Aw, jeez, Twilight…”
“You were being an idiot,” she said, coldly and sternly. “You needed that. Now get up and get ready to get married.”
“What? No, Twilight, I can’t do that to Cadence!”
“No, you can’t do this to Cadence! This is the that that you can’t do to Cadence!”
Twilight gave an exasperated sigh. “You can’t back out on this now, you’ll break Cadence’s heart!”
“No! You’re not going to ignore me this time! You’re going to listen!”
Shining Armor quieted himself. Bringing up his dismissal of his sister earlier had been quite an effective tactic, even if it did make her feel dirty for doing it.
Twilight sighed as her expression and her tone softened. “You saw how she looked when she came out of that cave, like she hadn’t eaten or slept in days. But when I made her a way out, she went running for the surface…running to you. I heard her cry and sob, praying to Celestia that you were okay. Even after going through Tartarus the past five days, you were on her mind.
“I knew…I knew, seeing that, that she was the mare for you. She loves you, more deeply than anything. I can’t let you get cold hooves now, not after all she suffered through to be with you. She wants you, Shiny. To her, there is no pony better.”
“But,” he began to protest, but she gently put her hoof on his mouth to silence him.
“The changeling’s fooled everypony. If anything, you should be feeling the least guilty here. You spent the last few days brainwashed. You weren’t yourself. I’m willing to bet that if you hadn’t been, you would have seen right through that bug’s disguise, I wouldn’t have had to do anything. And I’m sure the only reason you let her zap you in the first place was because you trusted Cadence enough to let her do that.
“You’re not unworthy of her. She doesn’t think so, and that’s really all that matters. She suffered through a lot this week. If you call off the wedding now, it will kill her. You can’t do that to her.”
Shining Armor looked at his sister, stunned. “Wh… Are you sure?”
Twilight smiled sadly. “Haven’t you learned…” she began, but stopped midway. Her remark wasn’t the best thing right now. “I’m sure. Completely. The Changeling Queen fooled everypony. Even if you hadn’t been brainwashed…” her tone saddened. “Well, I still wouldn’t have blamed you if you hadn’t believed me.”
He was taken aback. She continued.
“My friends...well, they had good reason not to believe me. I made it clear to them I didn’t like that imposter. After listening to my whine about it so much, they had every reason to think I was just jealous. Plus… yeah, I guess I have a tendency to overreact. You see, there was one incident, right after we defeated Discord…”
“You don’t have to tell me,” he assured her. “I… know what happened.”
Twilight blinked. “You do?”
Shining Armor sighed. “Celestia told me. I… asked her to keep me up to speed on anything that happened to you while I was away. It… it made me feel guilty.”
His sister, once again, was shocked. “W-what? How?”
“Twilight...you were right to worry about us drifting apart. I missed you getting the Element of Magic. I missed you defeating Nightmare Moon and bringing Princess Luna home. I missed you defeating Discord...and then I wasn’t there for you to help you through everything afterward. I mean, the Princess told me you weren’t healed by the Elements like everypony else, and if half the things I’ve heard about Discord are true, it must have been horrible.”
“It was...” she said softly, looking away. “I just… I never wanted anything to be out of place again, I just…”
Her older brother sighed, nuzzling the younger pony with sympathies. “I’m a soldier, Twilight. I’ve seen what war can do to a pony. No one blames you for losing your head afterward. But… I blame myself for not being there for you. I should have taken a leave, come to see you…”
“Shiny, no,” she said. “Nothing that happened was your fault. You need to quit apologizing for being flawed like every other pony.”
“I can’t help it. Remember when we were foals? We talked with each other about everything. Every night we talked about how much closer we were getting to our goals. I told you how much stronger I was getting, how much better I was getting at my drills. You told me what you read about that day, how everything worked… it was kind of embarrassing not being able to keep up with a six-year-old on magical theory,” he admitted with a blush. Twilight couldn’t help but smile.
“You remember how mad I got when I couldn’t be there for your entrance exam? I begged Mom and Dad to let me take off school so I could see you get in, but they said no. And I missed you getting your cutie mark…”
“You wouldn’t talk to our parents for a month after that…” she remembered fondly.
“Even after you went to live in the castle, we still visited once a week. We still stayed so close. Then I actually enlisted and had to go away for basic training. That’s when it all started, isn’t it? We saw each other less and less. I was surprised when you just up and moved to Ponyville without even telling me…”
Twilight cringed. “So, I guess I’m to blame for us drifting apart, huh?”
“We both are,” he sighed. “I never even told you I was dating Cadence. It never even occurred to me you would be upset by it.”
Twilight looked away from her brother for a moment. “I’m sorry. I… I guess I really had no right to be that mad at not being told about the wedding directly from you.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “But I don’t blame you. I could never be mad at you for too long.”
There was a long silence. Eventually, she looked at him again. Tears were forming in his eyes. “Look at you.”
She blinked. “What?”
“All this time I’ve been thinking of you as my little sister, that filly who always followed me around, looking up to me with those wide eyes. But look… you grew up. You’ve done more in the last year than most ponies do in a lifetime, and it looks like this is only the beginning of it. I’ve got to say… I’ve never been more proud to be your brother.”
Now Twilight was crying. “Stop…”
“No, you deserve to hear this…”
“No, I don’t!” she yelled.
Shining Armor stopped. She wasn’t crying out of happiness, he realized, but self-loathing.
“I was an idiot. I didn’t even think it was a bad idea to just barge in during the rehearsal and accuse her. I could have just gone to Celestia and told her what I saw like a full grown mare, but no, I had to act like a foal! I… I’m so embarrassed,” he put her hoof to her head, her cheeks flushing.
“Twiley, no, look…”
“No, don’t try to justify me! I acted like an idiot. Everypony had good reason not to believe me… they probably thought I was relapsing again.”
“It… sounds like it’s bothering you,” he noted, feeling like an idiot for not being able to come up with anything more comforting than stating the obvious. “You want to talk about it?”
“It’s… I’m scared. What if I had been wrong?” she sighed. “I… I would have lost everything. You, Cadence, my friends… and Princess Celestia. Everything I worked so hard for would have been gone.” She groaned, sitting down and clutching her stomach. “Just thinking about it makes me sick. Am I really just one mistake away from losing everything?”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” he tried to assure her, sitting as well. “I mean… I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had been in my right mind. I probably would have been mad… but I would have forgiven you.” He paused, wondering what to say next. “Are you mad at your friends?”
“…A little,” she admitted, sounding guilty. “I know I shouldn’t be, but…” her tears increased. “They hurt me. I… I don’t know. I mean, they sometimes get on me about overreacting, but…a-am I really… do they really have that little faith in me? Am I that bad?”
Shining Armor sighed. “I really don’t know. That’s a side-effect of us drifting apart, I really don’t know. But here’s what I do know, Princess Celestia trusts you, and she’s very proud of you. I always hear her bragging to visiting emissaries about you, and nearly all of them think you’re her daughter until she corrects them. And today, you proved yourself right. You saved me and Cadence, and the entire kingdom. If that doesn’t earn you some trust, I don’t know what will.”
“If I had been wrong… would they have forgiven me?”
Shining Armor just smiled. “I know they would have. I’ve… I’ve been reading your friendship reports. I know about everything you and your friends have been through together. Believe me, they would have… I would have.”
Twilight looked at the floor. “Are you sure?”
“Are you doubting me?” he said playfully, poking her in the ribs. She giggled, having always been ticklish there. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you talk to your friends about it? I’m sure that would help.”
“I was planning to tomorrow, when everything’s cooled down. We still have a wedding to plan… you are getting married, right?” she asked, giving him a completely serious look.
“I guess… that depends on one thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“If you’ll be my Best Mare again.”
Twilight smiled, but she gave a sigh that sounded like she was trying to make it exasperated. “Shiny… why are you asking a question you already know the answer to?”
“Because I’d like to hear it out loud,” he said simply.
“Well,” be began, with faux indecisiveness. “I guess I will be. If…”
“If?” Shining Armor asked, genuinely confused that she’d have a hook for such a thing.
“When I get married… you have to be the one to give me away. Deal?”
He gave a smile, faint tears beginning to form. “Now you’re asking questions you know the answer to.” He nuzzled his sister again. “As soon as the honeymoon’s over, I’m coming to visit you in Ponyville.”
“You don’t have to…” she began.
“Yes I do. I’m not making this mistake again. I want to meet your friends, see your life in Ponyville.”
She smiled. “I’ll be sure to set out an extra bed for you and Cadence.”
As it turned out, Twilight didn’t talk to her friends at the earliest possible opportunity. She had been caught off guard by the fact that they felt such guilt, she focused on them. She decided to wait a few more hours before having that talk, though part of her said that was a bad idea. Besides, there really was no time, the reception was starting, and she wasn’t going to miss her chance to sing.
By the end of the night, she was so exhausted she wanted to crawl back to her suite and go to sleep, but Luna had appeared before her with one final task for the evening. The night ended with her curled up next to her mentor, feeling quite relieved that things were back to normal between them.
Shining Armor sat in the carriage as it left the outskirts of Canterlot, his wife curled up at his side, asleep. This was the day he had broken his sister’s heart, the day a large army had swarmed into the capital of Equestria on his watch, the day he had realized he’d allowed the mare he loved to suffer for nearly a week, and the day he had gotten talked down to by his little sister.
Cadence stirred at his side, nuzzling deeper into her husband’s chest. He smiled. Whatever horrors the day may have brought on him, he couldn’t be happier right now.