Dear Princess Celestia,
Um, I'm not sure how to start this, so I guess I'll just get right down to it.
Lately, I've been thinking about this thing I got as a Hearth's Warming gift, a long, long time ago.
And not in a good way, you know, like: 'Oh, I can always look back on this gift, and remember the wonderful moment when I first opened the gift, and the look on everypony's face'. Whatever the silly cliche is from those gross “heartwarming” stories you get in films or whatever, you know? With the whole family wearing matching sweaters and drinking warm cocoa...?
No, I mean, this is a bad gift, it was terrible.
It probably doesn't help that I was very young; foals don't really understand about this sort of thing. I think I'd been at the Academy for...three years, at that point? I was still living at home; I'd just started our little private lessons on the side—I remember, I was stressing out about something you'd assigned me, because it was the first real take-home assignment from you, and I wanted to do it perfectly. You remember, I was so terrified that if I didn't do it right, you'd give up on me...
Anyways, so, right.
Um, I never really liked Hearth's Warming, because I never seemed to get the right presents. My brother—ha, well, my brother, he's easy to shop for, just ask Cadence! Armor polish, exercise manuals, and a renewal of his subscription to The Equestrian Journal of Macroeconomic Policy, and he's happy.
I guess I was still at the stage where every year it was something different, but, I mean...
I wanted school stuff. I wanted books, and parchment, and quills, and lodestones to practice levitation with and...and I thought I made that obvious! I wanted to excel, and succeed—I was desperate to, in fact, like I said.
But my parents—ugh, I remember their faces, aghhh! They had that, you know, super-duper-earnest expression, the really awkward one that says, “we are being very honest right now”, and it makes you just cringe, and they put this little box in front of me, and were like, “We got this for you, Twilight. Just something for you to have around to think about.”
Heavens above, I knew it would be something just...awful, then and there, right?
I mean, you met my parents—er, well, obviously you did, many times. I mean, solid, dependable ponies—good ponies—but not much for words, and not exactly the world's deepest thinkers, so, um...yeah, my dad trying to be deep and meaningful? Did not bode well.
My heart just, ugh, sank. But I smiled and opened the package anyways, because that's what you do...
It's this compass, set into a wooden box with a trite little “inspirational” quotation on the side: “Follow your dreams and shoot for the moon, and even if you fall short, you'll be among the stars”.
I mean, honestly...just...
It's not even a good compass; it's one of those flimsy mass-produced ones—Rainbow Dash has one, too, with a different phrase. And because it's set in this rather cheap wooden box, it's too big to carry around in any case. I think you're meant to look at it and, er, think about your direction in life? I don't know. It was stupid, and I hated it.
But I smiled and thanked them because...well, it was a gift.
I could tell they knew I didn't really like it. Their smiles faded a little, you know, but, er...then they pulled out the signed copy of the latest Daring Do novel and all was forgiven, at least in my heart. At the time.
“Ha ha, had you going there, for a minute, didn't I?”
Oh, heavens...my dad. He was crushed that I liked the book more than that stupid, wretched compass...but he tried not to show it. Not that I noticed at the time, tracing the loops and swirls of the signature on the inside cover of Daring Do and the Fire Caves of Cavalerio.
Which, erm, was my least favorite of the series at the time. I suppose I could find something to complain about everything, really.
But this compass! I mean, it's such a...thoughtless object. It's something you give somepony because you don't really know them at all! It's...generic, the same as a thousand thousand other compasses which only manage to be slightly different from one another because of sloppy defects in their manufacture!
It's not...unique, or special, in any way. It's the physical embodiment of an awkward smile and a shrug in reply to the question, “What is interesting and unique about your daughter? What are you proud of? What makes her special and unique?”
In a way it fulfilled its purpose—I did take it out and look at it, from time to time, but not quite in the way they intended, I think. It was usually when I was angry at them.
It became a token, a little totem I could attach all my frustrations with them onto. When they didn't understand the stress I was going through at the Academy, and laughed at how seriously I took my assignments—which, in retrospect, I was completely neurotic over. When they expressed concerns about me moving into the Tower—
Do you remember how angry I was? I felt so special, and loved, when you asked me to stay there, and they were (completely reasonably) worried about my ability to live on my own...we had a big fight and then I just went up to my room, set that compass on the windowsill, and stared at it for hours, until I just fell asleep, stewing in my anger.
I was so mad.
Ha, the compass doesn't even work properly anymore, because so much residual magic from me staring at it and manipulating the indicator has messed up the magnetism. It only points at me, now, and only when I'm upset; otherwise, it just sort of spins on its own, really slowly.
Every time I felt like my parents just didn't get me, or they said something stupid, or prevented me from doing something I wanted for a reason I thought was silly...there was that stupid compass for me to be angry at.
I hate it. I hate it so much. It's the embodiment of how much my parents and I never really got along. Shining? He's simple. Easy to understand. He's wanted to be a Royal Guardspony his whole life and Captain of the Guard is something easy to be proud of.
In my case, well...my mother kept sending me vacancy notices for professors of magical studies at universities and things, all but demanding I make use of my personal association with you to “go somewhere” with my life. The Magic of Friendship, research, all of that...secondary to the fact that I am the librarian of the out-of-the-way little village of Ponyville.
I mean, they're proud, sure, especially of you and I being so closely associated. But they don't get what that means, beyond the vague expectation that it meant better job prospects for me.
That compass—that stupid saying—everything! It is such...it's so perfect. Perfect, in a weird, perverse way; it completely accomplishes a purpose. In this case, being an artifact of my family's dysfunction.
But you know what's weird? It's never crossed my mind to get rid of it.
In fact, when I moved all my stuff out of the tower to move to Ponyville, Spike was going to throw it out and I nearly tackled him grabbing it out of his claws.
But now...with...with things being as they are, I've been, um, thinking about it a little more...and...
Twilight's dictation petered out, very much like the last little breath from an emptying bellows.
She'd been speaking in a more or less even tone since she began, a conversational and untroubled diction that suggested she was talking about something no more distressing than some bad weather or a bad meal. This had initially disturbed Celestia somewhat, given how her student was trembling and her usually bright amethyst eyes were now dull and listless, wet with sorrow.
The princess's face creased with concern. Twilight was staring at the headstones, unblinking, mouth working to wrap words around what Celestia suspected were emotions and concepts the unicorn had never had reason to consider or express before. Now, put on the spot unprepared, the poor creature found them a roadblock to grappling with the reality that her parents had died.
Privately, Celestia promised a terrible vengeance on her Captain of the Guard for pressuring Twilight to give a eulogy at the funeral, since she quietly suspected he did so to avoid the duty himself. Watching her beloved Twilight get up in front of everypony, clear her throat with a polite little smile, and freeze for a moment before beginning to tremble and weep...
It had been too much for Twilight, it seemed. Celestia had taken it upon herself to escort the sobbing unicorn somewhere away from everything to just let it all out.
Time alone together was at a premium in their busy lives, and it killed the princess to spend it like this; but she was wise enough to know that Twilight needed her now more than ever. These short hours of deep, deep sorrow would be more important to her than ten times as many happy moments, in the end.
Not for the first time in Celestia's friendship with Twilight Sparkle did the princess curse the universe that even her immense magical power was not enough to alter reality so fundamentally that Twilight—or indeed, anypony—need suffer through things like this. But that was foolish; that things end is what gives lives meaning and purpose.
But Twilight's parents...Celestia couldn't help but think that it had been too sudden, and too soon, and that is what was making all of it so hard. The accident had been quite unexpected; nopony was at fault, really. Houses get old; beams break, and—
Princess Celestia sighed. In moments like this, she felt as powerless as a newborn foal before a manticore. It was too much, even for her.
It was important for Twilight to confront the reality of things, to look at the graves and see the headstone and not flinch or hide from the truth of it; but Celestia had not forced this upon her when everypony else was there. Certainly, Twilight would hardly have been able to give voice to her anxieties in the comfortable routine of a letter to her teacher if everypony else was present.
As a dedicated student, ha, of her student's correspondence, Celestia knew they fell very broadly into two categories: letters written publicly, which tended to be short, businesslike, and to the point (and written in Spike's meandering hand); and those she wrote herself by the light of a lamp, observed only by the silent vigil of her owl, which were long and conversational and deeply, deeply personal, meant for the princess' eyes only.
Celestia looked up from Twilight and off into the setting sun. Twilight really was a quiet, gentle soul, and privacy is a balm to such ponies in hard times.
The princess was stirred from her reflections as Twilight's voice once again broke the stillness of the early evening, and Celestia looked back to her, putting on a reassuring smile.
“I've been thinking about the compass,” Twilight murmured, a tear running down her face. “It's different now. I think...I think...”
Celestia laid down before the graves, using a wing to clutch Twilight close to her as the unicorn gratefully collapsed onto the princess' body like a great pillow. The unicorn sniffled a bit, and Celestia gently nuzzled her as she gave Twilight a little squeeze with her wing.
“That stupid compass, I hate it!” Twilight exclaimed suddenly. “It's not a sign...it's...it's not a sign of my parents not understanding me, it's a sign of how...how I was a terrible daughter! I always left them behind. I was so eager to do my own thing, and then got mad at them when they didn't just understand, or—”
“Twilight, Twilight, shhh...” Celestia interrupted, as Twilight stamped a hoof in front of herself in frustration. It made a deep impression in the freshly-laid earth.
The unicorn shook her head violently, as if to shoo away the words like a fly. “No! I'm...Princess, I...”
Celestia's heart broke as Twilight looked up at her, tears pouring down her face. It was immediately obvious to her that this was a pony crushed by guilt and finally captured by a deep shame she'd been trying to hide from for years.
“Twilight, you're just upset—”
“I wished you were my mother!” Twilight howled. “So many times, I stared at that stupid compass, and hated it so much, and I said...I said...oh, heavens...” The fury in her voice faded quickly into a deep, crushing despair. “I can't believe it. I said: 'The princess understands me. I bet...I bet she's my real mother, and is just hiding it from me for some reason...'”
Celestia stared at Twilight, aghast, and tried to think of something to say. For her part, the little unicorn just held the gaze, very much like a felon awaiting sentence.
“Well, Twilight, I'm...not. I've never had foals of my own.”
Now Twilight looked away, her expression miserable embarrassment. “I know.”
Celestia clutched her closer with her wing, grasping for the right words. “But...Twilight, that's....”
“I never loved them right,” Twilight murmured. “I never loved my parents! I always left them behind. I left them to live in the tower, with you, and then it was off to Ponyville without even consulting them...and now they're gone.”
“Don't do that to yourself,” the princess said, firmly. “Of course you loved them, or this wouldn't hurt so badly.”
Twilight gave a great, heaving sob, turning her head to lift something out of the discarded saddlebag behind them—a small, wooden box. It was indeed of exceptionally poor make, and when Twilight opened the lid, the little compass swung around to point directly at her as she'd described earlier.
“Now...now...all I have to remember them is this stupid...stupid compass...” the unicorn sniffled. “I was so selfish. I just...I assumed they had to understand me, or at least try to. But I...I...should have helped, I should have—”
Celestia tsk'd. “Twilight, now is not the time for 'should haves'. They'll only make you hurt more.”
“I want to hurt. I deserve to—”
“Twilight, enough,” Celestia said, firmly, but let her features soften. “You are in pain, and in the immediate absence of your parents who—Twilight, look at me—who you loved dearly. Don't make it harder on yourself.”
The unicorn's face fell. “But—”
“But your filly's heart was wayward in its hopes,” Celestia said. “Your parents weren't perfect. Neither were you. We are none of us perfect.”
Twilight said nothing, but the heavy implication lit in her eyes were all the reply the princess needed.
“Especially not me, Twilight,” Celestia said, slightly annoyed. Her shoulders slumped, and she gave a little sigh. “For example, in a manner of speaking, that compass is my fault.”
The unicorn's face lit up with terror. “Princess! Please, no, it was me, you never did anything wrong! It was me, I'm the one who screwed up things...please don't say...please...”
Twilight's voice faded as she stared up at the princess, anxiety etched on every inch of her. In her expression was the lingering fear, the little hook of doubt that the princess knew she'd never really be able to get free from Twilight's heart: that in some way, Celestia regretted their long friendship, even if only in the sense that it caused stress between the unicorn and her parents.
“I have never once had any doubts about my choice to take you on as my student, Twilight, even though it has presented both of us with challenges and worries from time to time...” The princess gave her student a little nuzzle, which Twilight very tentatively returned.
“Then what do you mean?”
“Well, you see...I think I remember the Hearth's Warming in question.” Celestia lifted her head and turned to gaze at the sunset. “Your parents came to me, asking me what you needed for your new work with me. I...”
“You what?” Twilight asked, cocking her head. Celestia was encouraged, very slightly, by this show of Twilight's reflexive curiousity.
“I told them that school supplies weren't a suitable gift. That they should give you something that demonstrated their hopes for you.” Celestia turned back to Twilight, looking apologetic. “In retrospect...they were doing so, trying to help you with your studies.”
Twilight blinked, and opened her mouth to speak, though no words came. Her jaw worked a few times, then she shut it and gave the princess a curious look.
“I was in a speculative mood, and observed to them that there was more than enough of everything you'd possibly need freely available in the palace,” Celestia said, not for the first time in her life finding cause to regret advice which had seemed wise and suitably mystic at the time. “Your parents were practical ponies. I think I confused their intent in consulting me...and I certainly demonstrated that I didn't understand you, either.”
“I...I see,” Twilight said, evenly.
The princess sighed. Reaching out with magic, she manipulated the lid of the compass, looking pained. “Which is not to say that you aren't correct in describing this compass as a terrible thing.”
Twilight pursed her lips. “Knowing the condition in which it was given changes things,” she said—but Celestia caught the hint of dissatisfaction she knew would be there.
“Not completely, I suspect.”
The princess gave her student a squeeze with her wing. “You know very well that there is not going to be a perfect sentence to resolve all the little worries. You'll have to work them out over time, with your friends and brother and sister-in-law to help you. This compass certainly represents...misunderstandings, miscommunications, between you and your parents, but...”
“But it was given to me in earnesty,” Twilight said, voice hushed, as she took magical control of the little box and worked the lid several times.
Celestia nodded. “Yes.”
The unicorn was silent awhile, staring at the little box as the compass needle swung idly on its pin. The little brass panel with the inscription gleamed in the dying sunlight.
“I wish I had...told them I loved them more often,” Twilight whispered. “I really, really do. Love them, I mean--I think it's why I'm so upset we never really understood each other...”
“It wasn't myself I brought you here to speak to,” Celestia said, and kissed Twilight on the forehead.
Twilight sighed. “Yeah.”
She cleared her throat.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I'm afraid this letter is going to have to be dictated, not read...