The sun had gone down for the day, and Smart Cookie stood in his kitchen, preparing dough for the next morning. A bit of earth pony magic meant the rosemary bread dough would have time to rise overnight, and the next day he’d have a fresh loaf by lunch and extra to take into town to trade for supplies and gossip.
He heard the front door to the cottage open and hooves cross the floor. Then Celestia’s voice called out, “Cookie?”
“In the kitchen!” he called back, covering the bowl with a cloth. He wiped his hooves on a dishtowel as Celestia appeared in the doorway like a vision, surrounded by the halo of her flowing mane.
“I hope you’re making something delicious,” she said, smiling.
Cookie grinned. “I hope so too. But it’s for tomorrow. I do have a poppyseed cake I made this morning, if you’ll have some.”
“That would be wonderful.” She walked over to where the kettle sat on the stove and fixed herself a cup of tea while Cookie washed his hooves and cleaned the counters.
“And how is life in Canterlot?” Cookie asked, glancing over to read her expression.
Her mouth barely twitched to a frown; then she shrugged, and the calm smile returned to her face. “As it always is, though the school year starts soon. It’s nice to see foals around the grounds again.”
“Did you take a personal student this year?”
“No… these past few years have been too dangerous. The world is changing, and it always seems to take time to adjust. It wouldn’t be fair to a student for my focus to be on everything but their education.”
“Well, you should consider it. You’re always happiest when you have a protégé.” He offered a playful smile. “I think it’s your maternal side.”
Celestia returned a smirk of her own. “Perhaps I should have a foal, then?”
Cookie chuckled. “Of course. That’s just what you need, to be worried about croup and changing diapers while ruling a kingdom.”
“Cadance has Shining Armor taking care of that, I understand.” Celestia calmly sipped her tea.
Cookie raised an eyebrow at her as he rung out the washrag in the sink. “I’m not entirely sure I like where this is going.”
Celestia smirked at him a few seconds longer until it dissolved into a laugh. “I’ve always thought I had a rather clever system, letting a family of ponies handle all of that and getting the joys of guiding the foal through magical studies.” She smiled and shook her head, then sighed. “And I do miss having Twilight around. She was always so eager for her lessons.”
Sticking his head in the pantry, Cookie found the simple pound cake. He carried the wooden tray with the cake to the counter and set it before Celestia with a bit of a flourish. “Well, who wouldn’t be eager for lessons, with a teacher like you?”
“You’re trying to flatter me,” she said, smiling, as her magic cut a slice and floated it to her plate.
“Maybe I am, but only with truth.” Cookie turned to pour himself some tea.
“Then I’ll do the same. This cake is delicious. I wish the castle chefs would make more desserts like this.”
“I’ve given you the recipe, didn’t you pass it along to them?” he said as he carefully balanced his teacup on his hoof. He carried it over to the counter where Celestia stood and slid the cup onto the countertop with a gentle clatter.
“Oh, I did, but they’re cooking for a princess.” She offered a grim smile. “They do like to show off their finest creations. They’re very good, but not as good as your baking.” The last bite of cake and several crumbs floated to her mouth.
“I’m sure these old recipes are hopelessly out of style. But then, I don’t have the burden of cooking for a princess, do I?” he said as he cut a slice for himself and a second one for Celestia.
“They’re exactly in my style. I’m glad I can come here to enjoy them.” She floated the slice onto her plate. Then she leaned forward and caught Cookie’s lips in a warm, tender kiss. “And the company is nice, too.”
As they parted, he looked into those rose-colored eyes; his heart skipped a beat in awe as it did every time. He grinned and leaned against the counter in contentment. “I provide what I can. So nothing has come of that petition from the griffons?”
Celestia smiled and nodded. “I’m holding firm; we’ll send ponies to aid them, but not money. The very last thing they need is more bits to squabble over. I think some of them may be starting to come around.”
“Maybe they’ll make their way out of this slump yet.” He frowned and took a sip of tea. “It’s depressing, to hear of a kingdom like that fallen so low.”
“It is,” Celestia agreed. “I can’t imagine what it would take for that to happen to Equestria…”
“It couldn’t. Not while we live.” Cookie offered a knowing smile, and Celestia returned it. No more needed to be said, so he went on. “Besides, griffon culture always has been difficult to manage.”
“Apparently it’s been anarchy there since Guto,” Celestia noted between sips of tea. “They’ve formed a council though, so that’s a start.”
Cookie shook his head. “It won’t do a bit of good until they get over their obsession with hoarding gold. Money is potential, not an end to itself. And like any potential, it’s worthless if you hide it away, let alone if a whole culture does that. They need ideas, investments, innovations—”
“Thinking of moving to Griffinstone?” Celestia smirked. “I’m sure the griffons are on the edge of their perches, waiting to hear what a pony thinks they should do.”
“I know.” Cookie offered a sheepish smile. “And for that reason, I’ll keep my hooves where they belong, in Equestria. Though I might be writing another book…”
“Of course you are.” Celestia smiled and took a sip of her tea. “You’ll be happy to know one of Twilight’s friends introduced their bakers to baking powder. Griffon scones are becoming very well regarded in culinary circles.”
“Now that’s a step in the right direction. Well done.” Cookie gave an approving nod and took a bite of cake.
Celestia paused for a moment to have some more cake herself, followed by more tea. She only barely glanced at him as she said, “How would you feel about meeting Twilight Sparkle and Cadance?”
Cookie looked at her and raised an eyebrow with a slight frown, remembering Luna’s words. “In what capacity?”
“Social,” she said, meeting his eyes with a casual, even expression. She added, “I did speak with Luna, but I told her that your decision on the matter is your own.”
“...but that you don’t agree with me,” Cookie suggested.
“That I think you’re worrying too much.” Celestia offered a smile and took a sip of tea.
Cookie frowned and studied her. “And she pressed on your affection for your students, and now you ask me to have them to tea, in hopes that eventually the same affection will grow and wear down my resistance.”
She took a bite of cake and glanced down.
“It’s been nearly two thousand years, Celestia. I know how you work,” he said, watching as she ruffled her wings and pulled herself up slightly.
“There’s another perspective you could take,” she said with the hint of a shrug. “It’s not just you and me anymore, Cookie. Luna has returned, and there are three new princesses, not to mention Discord—”
Cookie snorted and rolled his eyes. “Please, don’t.”
Celestia pressed on, “You’re going to meet them, eventually. And I hope you’ll grow fond of them, perhaps even Discord. And if that happens, I would rather it be now, when it’s still in your power to save them from some heartbreak and you from regrets.”
Cookie shook his head and took his plate and teacup to the sink. “I’m not likely to regret failing to cast a curse on myself and anypony they choose to love.”
“It’s hardly a curse, Cookie,” Celestia said. He could hear the hint of exasperation in her voice, but also tenderness as she went on, “I’ve loved you for a very long time. I don’t think I could stop now if I wanted to.”
He turned back to her to see her smiling warmly. He still frowned. “It would be a curse to me, not knowing if anything I felt was sincere or out of self-interest, or if anything you felt was passion or duty. Thoughts like that will drive a pony mad.”
Her smile only deepened. “Only a pony who thinks too much.”
“Centuries leave a lot of time to think.” He sighed, but he could feel the tension lifting under the twinkle in her eyes.
She shook her head and ate the last bite of cake, floating the plate and her teacup to the sink in a golden glow. Then she tilted her head and regarded him with curiosity.
“Are you saying that in the back of your mind, you don’t assume this is the case now?”
Cookie felt a smile crack his lips. “Of course not! I’m just coming to terms with the idea that you’re genuinely fond of me, so it’s quite a leap to your love being strong enough to keep me alive for centuries.”
“Cookie,” she admonished, but her smile had returned.
“Celestia.” He walked over to her and nuzzled her tenderly. “My life is comfortable only if I dismiss assumptions about this. I don’t assume that I’ll live another day, I don’t assume that you’ll love me another day, and I don’t assume I know why those things continue. I hope they will, because I can’t imagine anything better, and I won’t allow myself to waste my time on my fears when I have it to spend with you.”
She leaned her head down to rest next to his. “As I said, it’s entirely up to you.”
“And I choose bliss and ignorance,” he answered, enjoying the warmth of her body and the warm breeze of her mane floating around him.
Then she went on. “But you should still allow me to bring Cadance and Twilight Sparkle for a visit. What I said is true: you’re going to have to meet them sometime, and I hope you’ll grow fond of them. I think that will be a good thing for all involved, whether it influences you or not.”
Cookie pulled away and looked at her, pursing his lips.
Her face was the picture of innocence, with a gentle smile and those twinkling rose eyes. “Friendship is powerful, Cookie. It’s saved Equestria many times.”
“Very well.” Cookie grumbled. Then he smiled. “You win this round.”
Celestia grinned. “It’s an honor. I’ve never met a more stubborn pony.”
Cookie raised an eyebrow. “You must enjoy it, if you’ve put up with me for this long.”
“I love it. And I love you,” she said, and she gently nudged him towards the door.
Cookie felt her feathered wing drape over his back, and he couldn’t help grinning. “May the stars help me, I love you too.”
The snow fell. Cookie stood and looked up. In the light from the castle windows it looked like stars falling from the sky, swirling and scattering around him. The cold was cutting, and he hated it, but he wanted to feel it tonight.
Inside, ponies danced and laughed at the ball thrown for the fifth Hearth’s Warming. But while his friends enjoyed their well-deserved position as guests of honor in the newly finished castle, he had wandered off quietly. He wanted to remember what had come before those honors, before the miracle that bestowed them. The sharp pain and utter hopelessness, the feeling of despair, not only at the situation but at his life, worthless then wasted. He would always be as much the pony who went into that cave as he was the pony who emerged to help found a nation; it may not make a pretty chapbook for the foals, but there was wisdom to be gathered from the ice as much as there was from the glowing hearth in the feast hall.
Only two other ponies knew what had really happened, how they’d come together. They’d hoped the heat of their bodies might buy a few moments, but they’d needed the warmth of each other’s spirits more than even that. They were unlauded, unloved, and soon to be forgotten, and on that darkest of nights, all they’d had to offer was themselves, raw and stripped of all pretenses.
When Pansy had, in her gentle way, called Clover by the honorific “lady,” the bitter scoff rang through the cave. Clover’s correction unleashed a torrent through chattering teeth: how, despite being an apprentice of Star Swirl and the finest magician of her generation, she had fallen hopelessly at court; how she’d been regulated to a basement workshop, barely better than a dungeon, called upon like a magic wand to fix problems then expected to disappear back to her hole so as not to embarrass the courtiers. Even the maids and guards at the castle were treated with more respect, and more likely to rise in position.
That was what prompted Pansy to observe that they weren’t so different after all. She was one misstep away from being discharged, a fate far worse than death for a pegasus, and she’d been assigned to Hurricane specifically so that she would make that mistake. Her family could barely stand to look at her, and if they were somehow alive out in the icy wastes they’d consider her freezing to death a stroke of good fortune.
Smart Cookie had tried to fight back his thoughts with a sardonic smile and the observation that at least in their inevitable demise she could please somepony. The collective shrug at his own would last as long as it might take ponies to recall that good joke they’d heard.
The mares just looked at him. He could see the question in their eyes, but the sympathy as well. He drew a breath, but through his shivering he released it as a sob. He confessed the utter failure of his own life; a failed baker’s apprentice, failed pamphleteer, and the election he’d lost by the largest landslide in the tribe’s recorded history. His blunt honesty and joking defense amused the ponies, but ruined him in business and rendered him so unelectable that his opponent had offered him a position in her cabinet, like a Saddle Arabian eunuch entrusted with a harem. He could see so much to be fixed or improved, but the only thing that rivaled his vision was his political impotence.
He’d never felt so broken as he did then, awaiting death and finally admitting that it honestly wouldn’t matter.
Their bodies were shaking as the magical ice crept up their hooves, so he didn’t notice Clover chuckling until it turned to a laugh. He and Pansy looked at her oddly.
Clover just shook her head, still grinning, and said, “Well, the world may be better off without us, but I can’t help feeling that I’m better off spending my last with the two of you, tribes be damned.”
“It’s true,” Cookie agreed. “Imagine how awkward it would be to die here with somepony who’d had a rich and fulfilling life. I’d feel a hundred times worse than this.”
“I’m not sure… begging your pardon, you’re wonderful ponies and this has been a lovely death bed, but I think I would have liked the opportunity to buck Commander Hurricane in the face. Just the once.”
Clover and Cookie had agreed that was a very good point, and the three laughed at the irony of finding the ponies who understood them best among their sworn enemies, until the ice froze the smiles on their faces.
And then, the light. An unimaginable reversal of fortune that echoed for all the years since.
Clover’s library was the largest building in Everfree, and when Star Swirl returned from his journeys even he considered it a respectable place to take up residence. Pansy had been promoted immediately, and regularly afterwards, her diplomacy carrying more weight these days than the Commander’s title and position.
The crunch of snow under hooves pulled him from his thoughts. He looked over and saw her framed in the light of the castle doorway.
“I thought you hated the cold?” Celestia said, a soft smile playing at her lips as she approached him.
“Sometimes one has to feel cold to know warmth.” He closed his eyes as her floating mane washed around him. Even on a winter’s night, it felt like a warm spring breeze as she nuzzled him.
“Have you felt enough cold to come back into the ball? Other stallions keep asking me to dance without you there to claim my hoof.” Celestia raised her hoof gracefully, and Cookie offered his foreleg for it to rest upon.
“I can’t say that I blame them. It’s a beautiful hoof. It must seem ridiculous that I should have any claim to it,” he said with a smiling glance at her.
“Yet you hold it now,” she pointed out. She hesitated a moment, her smile turning to a demure, nervous expression. “Cookie… It’s been over a year. You know that if you wished to claim my hoof for more than just dancing, you need only ask.”
Cookie bit his lip, looking down at the thin layer of snow on the flagstones. The thought had crossed his mind at least once a week since they began their courtship, and he’d pushed it and pulled it every way it would go. To be married to the brilliant, beautiful mare who raised the very sun and shared his passions and dreams… it was more than he would have dared hope for, even at his most wildly optimistic. And yet, there was more to consider than that, such as a role he was both wholly unsuited for and never desired, and which might bring harm to the mare he loved.
He gave his head a shake. “I—I shouldn’t.”
“Why not? I thought we were—” Celestia cut herself off, and went on with a studied calm. “Have your feelings changed?”
His attention snapped towards her, his eyes wide. “No! Stars above, no. I simply—we shouldn’t be married. I can’t marry you, Celestia.”
“Oh.” She looked away, but not before he saw the blush on her cheeks. “So this is a dalliance.”
“It isn’t,” he insisted. She looked at him, confused, and he took a deep breath, feeling the sharp chill in his lungs, then went on, “I love you. I love you so… I have been blessed to love you, and to have you love me in return... But beyond that, I’ve been blessed with a unique place in the world. One where I’ve earned respect without the pomp and mask normally required for it. From this place alone can I speak with honesty and without currying favor.”
Celestia blinked, staring at him. “Are you blind, Cookie? You have my favor, the entire court can see that. Both as a trusted advisor and as the pony I chose to court me. If we were wed, nothing would change.”
Cookie frowned. “I hope I don’t have your favor. I hope you hear my words with the same worth as any of your other advisors, and only value them as they seem true to you.”
“And you think I would do less if we were married?” She narrowed her eyes and pulled her hoof away sharply.
“No, Celestia.” He looked in her eyes, and reached up to stroke her cheek. “Your wisdom exceeds even your beauty. It’s not your favor I concern myself with. But if I were your husband, when I spoke it would be in the shadow of your rule. Either my tongue would be nothing but a political burden on your back, or I would have to hold it for your sake. One of us would be diminished, either way.”
Her face softened, and she looked down. They were silent a moment.
Cookie swallowed and sighed. “If you wish to take a husband, you must find one better suited to your position. I’m sorry.”
“Very well,” she said, giving a nod. Then she looked him in the eye, taking a deep breath to steel herself. But something deep in those rose eyes twinkled like candlelight in the snow, and she smiled as she went on, “Then I amend my offer. I shall not take a husband as long as you live, and in return I ask that you take my hoof in my chambers tonight.” Her smile grew, and took on a pleasantly wicked cast. “And as often as you see fit.”
Cookie gaped at her. “Have you gone mad? How will that be less a burden to your rule, to have a lover too rude to wed you?”
Celestia smirked. “This castle has more passages than it has candlesticks. Only Luna and I know all of their secrets. My door will remain barred, and my guards at their posts. Ponies may talk, and those close to us will guess; I don’t expect Clover will be fooled more than a few months more, but then we both know her bed is rarely cold since Star Swirl returned. So long as my rule remains even and fair, which I know we both desire, nopony shall have reason to investigate deeply.”
“But—if you want to take a husband later…” he trailed off as her face fell to a grim line.
“I know the husband I want now. I care about very little in life for my own sake, and I will not sacrifice it easily.” She looked into the distance at the falling snow. “Anypony who can’t understand my feelings on this matter doesn’t understand me, and is therefore unworthy of taking your place.”
Cookie hated to see her looking so melancholy. And he saw that just as he was looking out for what he needed to play his part in this world, so was she. He reached up a hoof and laid it gently on her cheek, turning her to meet his eyes.
“You are a wonder, Celestia.” He smiled. “Give me directions, and promise you won’t let me rot in the dungeons if the guards catch me.”
A light sparked in her eyes, and she grinned. "I'll show you the way, and then we can make an appearance at the ball before I take my leave. If the guards catch you, I shall tell them I asked you to hunt the manticore Luna lost in the passages."
"Manticore?" Cookie raised his eyebrows.
"There's no need to fear; we believe it must have escaped by now," she said with a chuckle, leading the way back to the warm lights of the castle.