• Published 14th Feb 2017
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Sun and Hearth - bookplayer

Princess Celestia and Smart Cookie have watched Equestria rise. They share a dream that’s entwined their hearts for two thousand years, and a love that’s given them the strength to see it realized. Now they face the ultimate test of that love.

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20 - Judgement

Celestia frowned as she approached the door to her chambers, flanked by her guards. The halls were decked in holiday finery, though it felt like every bit of good cheer she’d managed to show this year was false. Fortunately, this situation didn’t call for any, though it might call for a delicate touch. Typically if a pony had broken into her chambers the guards would have addressed it, but considering the pony involved, they’d brought the matter to her.

She opened the large wooden door slowly, so as not to startle her, and glanced around the room. The pony wasn’t hard to spot, hovering by the fireplace in front of a banner displaying the flag of Equestria. Her distinctive mane and tail were always eye-catching to say the least.

“Rainbow Dash,” Celestia said firmly.

Rainbow looked over and landed. Her eyes darted nervously to the balcony, then to the door Celestia was shutting behind her. “I’m... not supposed to be here.”

“No, you’re not.” Celestia frowned gently and walked over to the cushions by the fire. “But I don’t mind. Would you care for some tea?”

“No thanks.” Rainbow straightened her shoulders. “Other ponies will mind, but I don’t care, ‘cause I needed to make sure you know something.” She hesitated, then took a breath and said with conviction, “If you ever mess with Fluttershy, or Twilight, or any of my friends, you’ll be sorry.”

Celestia sat and settled in, studying the pony. There was evidence of military training in Rainbow’s bearing, but it was clear that she was driven by a deeper strength. Her face was calm and serious, but not the even expression of a soldier. Instead it was what that was designed to mimic: confident understanding of what needed to be done and a certainty in her actions.

Allowing a small smile to play at her lips, Celestia tilted her head. “What makes you think I’d do anything to your friends? I hope they’re my friends too, not to mention ponies I count on to protect Equestria.”

Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “Smart Cookie told us what you tried to do—”

“I’m not surprised that Cookie would try to turn you against me,” Celestia said with a sad sigh.

“He didn’t. He says you’re still okay for now. That’s why I’m not supposed to be here.” She eyed Celestia suspiciously and rose to a hover, crossing her forelegs. “But I am here, because you were already planning to mess with Fluttershy. That’s not okay.”

With a tilt of her head, Celestia observed the pegasus again in her new pose. She was a slight mare, with no training in weapons. But Celestia was well aware that she was over-confident, even in light of her considerable talents, and could be dangerously impulsive without her friends to reason with her.

Celestia arched an eyebrow. “Rainbow Dash, I have no intention of harming Fluttershy or any of your friends. But appearing in my chambers to intimidate me is not acceptable.”

Rainbow’s eyes darted towards the doors that led to the balcony and open sky, but the only movement she made was the flapping of her wings as she hovered. She fixed her gaze on Celestia again with the same scowl. “Neither is what you were going to do, so I guess we’re even.”

“What did you hear that I was going to do?” Celestia asked, making sure nothing but a calm curiosity showed on her face.

The frown on Rainbow’s face didn’t budge. “Try to get Fluttershy to fall in love with Discord so she’d be immortal.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows. “And that would really be that bad?”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “It’s creepy on, like, seven and a half levels!”

“How so?” Celestia asked with a tilt of her head.

“You never even asked her if she likes Discord that way!” Rainbow waved a hoof wildly, emphasizing her incredulous expression. “I mean, you can’t just figure on a pony having the hots for Discord. He’s not even a pony!”

“If she hadn’t liked him, that would have been the end of it,” Celestia pointed out.

Her eyes narrowed again. “Have you even met Fluttershy? She’d probably marry Discord if I told her she should! You’re the Princess of Equestria!” Rainbow frowned deeply and landed in front of the fireplace with a frustrated sigh. “And that’s another thing. Look, you’re in charge of everything, but you really shouldn’t be in charge of, like, who’s dating who. I mean, I think ponies can figure that out themselves.”

Celestia shifted to a more relaxed position. “And what if who’s dating who might protect Equestria from much larger threats?”

“Like your thing with that griffon?” Rainbow asked, cocking her head.

Celestia’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed for a split second before noting the innocence in Rainbow’s expression. She took a breath and asked, “Where did you hear such a thing?”

“Princess Luna.”

“I see.” Celestia nodded, carefully keeping the annoyance from her face, though she couldn’t help musing, “Apparently I’ve been a topic of conversation recently.”

Rainbow nodded. “Yeah, there was a meeting.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Who was at this meeting?

“All of us, Princess Cadance, Princess Luna, and Smart Cookie,” Rainbow said with a casual shrug.

The last name mentioned explained everything, and Celestia’s face hardened as she said darkly, “This was Cookie’s idea.”

“Yeah, he wanted to figure out how to make you stop it,” Rainbow answered, still apparently oblivious to the impact this information was having.

“I see,” Celestia said coldly, lost in thoughts of what game Cookie was playing. Enlisting Twilight and Luna and Cadance suggested something large and potentially dangerous, even if only accidentally.

“Anyway, I don’t care if you want to marry some griffon,” Rainbow went on with a dismissive toss of her head. “But it would be totally creepy if you made somepony else marry a griffon.”

Celestia turned her attention to the pegasus in front of her with a more serious focus. “I wouldn’t make anypony do anything they didn’t want to do. At most I’d encourage them to do things that would help Equestria.”

Rainbow frowned. “Yeah, still creepy.”

“Well, I’m afraid my desire to protect Equestria outweighs my desire to be seen as not creepy,” Celestia said sharply, returning the frown.

“Do you even have any friends?” Rainbow asked.

The question seemed serious, not intended to taunt despite the bluntness. Still, Celestia felt taken aback by it. “I beg your pardon?”

“You can be creepy and protect Equestria, I guess.” Rainbow considered that, brows furrowed, then looked at her. “But you can’t really be creepy to your friends and still have friends. I know it hurt Twilight’s feelings when she found out you set her up to be an alicorn without asking her. And it hurt Fluttershy’s feelings when she heard about the thing with Discord. And you hurt Smart Cookie’s feelings, that's why you broke up. And you hurt Princess Cadance’s feelings and Princess Luna’s feelings with this whole marrying a griffon thing…” She still looked perfectly serious as she finished, “So, do you have some friends somewhere who you aren’t creepy to?”

A bolt of annoyed anger shot through Celestia, and it was all she could do to keep from snapping at the little pony in front of her. She took a deep breath, but still her face was hard and her voice cold as she answered, “I balance an immense responsibility with things like love and friendship, Rainbow Dash. But that responsibility must come first. And if ponies who claim to be my friends can’t see that, perhaps it is they who are not very good friends.”

Rainbow just raised her eyebrows. “Twilight took over for you, when we were fighting Tirek. She had all the magic in Equestria, all your magic and the other princesses’ too, she was the only princess in Equestria. And she gave it all to Tirek to save her friends.”

Celestia’s face softened but the frown remained. “She is the Princess of Friendship. It’s her magic.”

“I’m not the princess of anything, and I’d do the same,” Rainbow shot back.

With a sigh, Celestia shook her head. “She’s young. So are you.”

“We’re not thousands of years old.” Rainbow shrugged. “I guess it’s good that you’re a princess, but I’m glad Twilight’s my friend.” She frowned and squared her shoulders, pulling herself to her full height, not even as tall as Celestia sitting. “And as far as I’m concerned, friend outranks princess any day. So leave my friends alone.”

“I assure you I will,” Celestia said, but she found herself unable to look away from Rainbow. She couldn’t remember ever having seen the like, a pony so young and small facing her as a... threat. Of sorts. She tilted her head slightly and asked, “Out of curiosity, what exactly do you intend to do if I don’t?”

Rainbow didn’t hesitate, “Whatever I have to to make you.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows. “That probably wouldn’t turn out well for you.”

Looking her in the eye, Rainbow answered, “I’ve stuck with friendship this far, I’ll stick with it to the end.”

Celestia nodded. “You’re a brave pony, Rainbow Dash. Your friends are lucky to have you.”

Rainbow puffed up with pride. “I know. I hope you can find some friends as good as me, Princess.” Rainbow turned and walked to the doors of the balcony, pausing and turning around as she opened one. “Oh, and thanks for not calling the guards.”

“You’re welcome. Have a good day,” Celestia said with a nod.

“You too!” Rainbow called cheerfully, then the door closed behind her.

Celestia closed her eyes and shook her head at the space where the pony had been. Twilight’s friends certainly occupied a unique place in Equestria: vital allies necessary for the country’s safety, but without the slightest sense of the position they occupied or the decorum it suggested. Rainbow Dash would never consider a terse secret meeting in a windowless room when she could fly in Celestia’s bedroom window. It was fascinating, really.

Still comfortable on her pillows, Celestia allowed herself a few moments to consider the content of this strange confrontation.

She could consider this a true threat if she wanted to. Rainbow Dash was a formidable pony: a member of the Wonderbolts, popular, capable of a sonic rainboom by herself, and with her friends… Celestia frowned gently. If she ever did aim for a coup, she had Twilight Sparkle to place on the throne. It wasn’t unimaginable.

But it was absurd. Twilight respected Celestia too much to allow one of her friends to act against her. And even if Twilight were persuaded, or Rainbow acted without Twilight’s blessings, Celestia had magic, and a loyal military, and the love of the ponies of Equestria. Perhaps this was more reason to consider the griffon proposal…

Do you even have any friends? The blunt, scratchy voice echoed in the back of her head. She was nearly as surprised as she had been when the question was asked.

Of course she had friends. Luna and Cadance and Twilight might be upset right now, but they could be made to see reason. Certainly nothing she had done was worth losing a friendship over, and some tea and contrition would soothe the hurt feelings. It might be more difficult if Cookie had warned them that she might do exactly this, but...

This was all Cookie’s fault. Celestia rose quickly to her hooves and paced away from the fire. She should have seen this danger in introducing him to Twilight; her friends were exactly the sorts of ponies he swayed easily with informal dialectics and rhetoric. It was his nature, his special talent. Now the whole situation would need to be managed.

Celestia stopped as she reached the far wall. A large mirror in an ornate wooden frame hung before her, reflecting her face and the fire behind her in cold glass.

The princess in the glass wore a thoughtful frown. She raised her head with an air of nobility and bore the weight of the crown upon it with grace. Her face was considered the standard of beauty throughout her kingdom. The pony she saw there was beloved by her subjects, and had dedicated her entire life to being worthy of that love.

Do you even have any friends?

The frown deepened until it seemed defensive. With this expression her face looked ancient and cold, like a marble statue. Only the fire behind her seemed alive, dancing merrily with the occasional unruly pop. The light reflected off her crown, making it appear warm and bright.

But the crown wasn’t her face; it was merely an accessory. And princess was merely a title. And the leadership of Equestria was her profession, one she did well, but one which she could easily retire from, or be removed from by her ponies if she failed. While the pony beneath those things...

The eyes of the pony in the mirror narrowed skeptically. There was judgement there, and consideration of what use she might be put to in the future. If the pony before her required friends, some could be persuaded, and this time she would keep them apart from her role in the world. They could have tea and talk of the weather and never come close enough to see this expression.

But Celestia could see it all too clearly in the mirror. The pony’s face softened and fell into a worried pleading as Celestia realized that she didn’t want to be this pony’s friend. In fact, she didn’t like this pony much at all. The desperation in her face broke her heart, all the more because she knew she was the only pony who could be trusted to see it now.

She cringed away, shaking her head. Friendship was Twilight’s role to play, and somepony else had to play the role of ruler of a nation. Maybe Cookie was right, and it was a cage, but he was wrong to think she could step out; if Equestria stood in the balance there was no escape from it, and only room in this cage for one pony. She had been born to this role, she had chosen it, and she could bear it. She would have to bear it, and if that required her to betray those closest to her she would have to bear it alone until the stars fell from the sky.

Celestia drew herself up to her full height. There was a meeting with the Captain of the Guard in half an hour, and there were reports to be read before that, and afterwards a formal dinner honoring the director of the Equestrian Mail Service. She would be busy for hours, until the sun went down.

Carefully, she reconstructed the pleasant, serene expression of a princess in control of her kingdom and focused on her duties, and hurried out the door.

It was rare that she got to see Cookie’s cheerful cottage in the daylight. The midsummer garden was crowded with vegetables, dots of ripening peppers and squash amidst the unruly tangle of green. The flower beds along the house added more splashes of color, calling to mind the rainbow falls the nearby town was named for.

The sun was already on its descent; in a few hours Celestia would have to lower it and raise the moon, and the thought cast a shadow over what should have been a much needed break after a busy day of celebration. But she shook it off as she approached the door and opened it, peering in with a smile.


He was seated on the floor, using the coffee table as a writing desk, his floppy mane falling around his face. Pen still in mouth, he looked up and smiled, then motioned with a hoof as he made one more note before depositing the pen into the ink pot.

“It’s afternoon already?” he asked, rising to his hooves and crossing the room as she stepped inside to meet him.

Celestia grinned and nuzzled him. “It is, four o’clock. We have twelve whole hours before I’ll need to return.”

“To the kitchen, then.” He motioned and followed as she started in that direction. “I’ll fix supper quickly, and thankfully I was wise enough to do the baking before I started thinking.”

“That is a blessing, indeed.” Celestia chuckled as she walked through the door into the bright, roomy kitchen that always smelled of delicious cakes and breads.

Cookie stoked up the stove and put a pan on one burner and a kettle on another, then walked over to the pantry and stuck his head inside. He collected ingredients on a tray on his back and carried them to the counter.

“The sun came up, so I take it everything went well yesterday?” He glanced at her, then focused on slicing the squash in front of him.

“Just fine,” Celestia said with a sigh, using her magic to open a cupboard and retrieve two mugs and the tea pot.

Cookie glanced up again as he started on the next vegetable. “What’s wrong, my dear?”

“Nothing. Everything is fine.” She shook her head and looked to the peaceful kettle, waiting for it to spring to life. “I’m just thinking about next year.”

“Yes. That.” Cookie frowned at the cutting board as he worked. “Have you decided what you’ll do?”

“The Summer Sun Celebration will be in Ponyville.” The kettle and kitchen fell away as Celestia's thoughts traveled to the little town, full of ponies who were completely unaware of its importance.

He nodded. “That’s the town near—on the edge of the Everfree Forest?”

“Yes. The farmers I gave the land to did discover the Zap Apples, and a pleasant little town has grown there. I’ll practically be in the shadow of the castle, the Elements will be close at hoof.” Celestia imagined that moment, as she had so many times. “She’s blunt, she’ll attack me before anything else.”

“Then shouldn’t you retrieve them first?”

She looked over to where Cookie had paused in his preparations to stare at her with an eyebrow raised. She swallowed and nodded. “I should.”

“And we come to your fears.” He turned back to his work, carrying a plate of vegetables to the stove and depositing them in the hot pan. He added spices and a dash of oil with a loud hiss as the mouthwatering smells came together and filled the room. “Is there still no way to reform her?”

“The magic of the Elements should be able to banish the dark power that eats her, and then she could be dealt with; reasoned with, perhaps, or made to understand somehow…” Celestia trailed off, the rest of this path intentionally vague. There was no use daydreaming only to face the cruelty of reality.

“So is there a pony who could manage it?” Cookie said as he stirred the pan a few times. “Cadance, perhaps?”

“Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said quickly. The kettle started to whistle and her magic floated it to where the tea pot stood ready. “I know she has the magic, I saw it when she got her cutie mark. When she learns to use it properly, her power will rival Star Swirl in his prime. If she could channel that through the Elements, I know she could unlock their full potential.”

“Have you asked her if she might be willing?” Cookie regarded Celestia as he returned to the cutting board, turning his attention to lettuce and other fixings for salad.

“She can’t use them.” The smell of steeping tea tea wafted up, joining the smells of dinner cooking, so warm and comforting that she had to smile sadly as she added, “Someday, somepony will write a book that can teach the most brilliant ponies in the world about friendship, but it hasn’t been written yet.”

“If anypony demonstrates that, it’s your sister.” Cookie frowned down at a radish in thought. “Celestia… isn’t that concern enough in itself?”

Celestia gave a light shrug, floating a mug to Cookie. “She’s young. She has time to learn.”

He took a sip of tea and leaned against the counter. “Your sister aided you against that monster of chaos.”

“Ponies can join their powers and understanding through them, yes.” Celestia nodded, enjoying her own tea.

Cookie raised his eyebrows and turned to slide a large wooden salad bowl from the cabinet. “So there you are. Offer to show Twilight how to join her magic to another with a better understanding of friendship.”

Celestia pursed her lips as her magic gathered dishes and napkins from their places, setting the small kitchen table. “I could face Nightmare Moon with her, but the Nightmare’s rage at me and suspicion of my plans might make her even more dangerous to both of us.”

Cookie turned to give the vegetables on the stove a stir, addressing Celestia over his shoulder. “If I may, my dear… you may not be the best pony for the duty.” He turned back and slid the salad bowl on his back, carrying it to the table. “If she’s to work with a pony who understands the qualities of friendship, isn’t it best that it be a pony she might befriend, so she can begin to learn them herself?”

“I am her friend,” Celestia said with just the tiniest pang of defensiveness.

Cookie smiled and brushed her body as he passed her. “Of course. And her mentor, and her sovereign, and her elder by millennia. I’m afraid it’s not a friendship for a beginner to learn from.”

She raised her eyebrows at him. “So you think I should find a pony among Twilight’s peers, and hope they have the qualities to use the Elements?”

“It would be your best hope of reforming Nightmare Moon, and might avoid another as well.” Cookie gave a shrug as he pulled the vegetables from the stove and poured them into a serving dish.

Celestia frowned and took her place at the table, helping herself to the salad. “It also risks two innocent lives and offering Equestria on a platter if Twilight should fail. I should do this myself.” She paused and looked at her plate. “Did you make rolls?”

“In the pantry.” Cookie nodded, carrying the serving dish to the table. He took his place across from her as she retrieved the rolls with her magic. “You don’t want to do this yourself.”

“I don’t, but it can’t be worth the risk.” Celestia shook her head as she added a roll and the vegetables to her plate.

“There’s risk in any plan we make here,” Cookie pointed out as he served himself.

“Yes,” Celestia answered, swallowing a bite of salad. “But it should be on my shoulders.”

“And if you should fail?” he asked, barely glancing up from his food.

“I’ve considered that.” She nodded at him and said between bites, “You should go to Canterlot and contact Cadance and Shining Armor. He’s my captain of the guard. Tell them all you know and together you can devise a plan.”

“And I can’t do this if it were Twilight who failed?” Cookie raised an eyebrow at her.

“You would have fewer resources at your disposal.” Celestia shrugged and took a sip of tea.

He kept his eyes fixed on her as he pressed, “Resources we would already know weren’t sufficient.”

“I simply can’t take this risk, Cookie.” She rolled her eyes, ignoring her plate for the moment. “It’s my duty to defend Equestria.”

He pursed his lips as they stared at each other for a moment, then his face softened as he stood and walked around the table to her, leaning his strong body against her and offering a nuzzle.

“Celestia, Equestria is nothing but an idea: that all ponies might work together to build a land where every pony can pursue their dreams. You are a pony. If you can’t pursue your dreams, there is no Equestria, and we have failed.”

My dream is to keep Equestria safe,” Celestia said, returning the nuzzle.

“Nothing more?” he whispered.

Celestia was silent a moment. Cookie felt so warm beside her, and the kitchen and food felt so much like a home; not a home she’d ever had, but one she’d dreamt of. One where she gathered ponies she loved in good cheer, with no more worries than whether a second roll would spoil her dessert. But it wasn’t the kitchen or Cookie...

She turned to look at him, almost pleading, and said softly, “And to have my family around me.”

Cookie nodded and looked her in the eye. “Then set hoof on that path. And just as the farmer never knows what his planting will yield, and the explorer never knows what land she might find, we will see in the end where we are and where we must go next.”

Celestia gave a light snort and turned back to her plate, looking down at it with no move to eat. “It might be hard to see the next path if Nightmare Moon has covered the land in eternal darkness.”

“Then we shall be a hundred million ponies together in the darkness.” Cookie gave a wave of his hoof as he returned to his side of the table. “With the stars to guide us, there must be one or two of us who might lead the way to the light.”

She hesitated with a thoughtful frown. “I suppose even if there is a risk, it might be outweighed by the benefit. With the Elements in the hooves of a pony like Twilight, and my sister’s mind and magic in service to Equestria, there would be nothing in the world we’d need to fear.”

“That much is certainly true,” Cookie said, returning his attention to his own dinner with gusto.

“I’ll consider it,” she said, her mind suddenly full with the idea of a collection of mages and magics like the world had never known, prodded forward by memories of that warm dream.

Cookie nodded and swallowed. “Don’t consider too long, you’ll want to prepare Twilight and help her find a friend to assist.”

“Yes…” Celestia wondered how she might arrange such a thing; what could make Twilight value friendship as more than a frivolous novelty, without turning it into a set of directions to be carefully followed in hopes of the right reaction in the end. To avoid the former she would need a situation where she must depend on her friend and learn to trust her, but the latter suggested that under no circumstances could she know the importance of this lesson...

Cookie’s voice cut through her thoughts. “You’ll also want to eat your dinner before it grows cold.”

She looked up to see him smirking at her, and she smiled back at him as she raised a roll to her mouth. “I think I must want too many things.”