Aaron lay still in his sleeping bag, staring up through the branches at the distant stars. He had managed to find his way through the trees to where they had been sleeping the night before and, sure enough, Celestia was already there. But by the time he had found her she was already asleep, or at least pretending to be, so he decided to forego putting the tent up to avoid disturbing her.
He could hear her, just a few yards away from him, her breathing slow and uneven. Aaron wondered if she might be dreaming, and wondered what could possibly be going on in her head. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
Had he actually managed to break her? The thought that he had triggered this, and that he might have destroyed the friendship they had been building, was terrifying. Particularly after he had tried so hard to help her.
But at the same time it was a wonder that this hadn’t happened sooner. After everything that had happened to her in such a short time she had every right to be upset. Most other people – or ponies – would have been driven mad by what she had seen.
He thought about going over and talking to her, but two things held him back. For one, he didn’t want to wake her when she was sleeping in case it just made things worse. For another, he had no idea what he could say. So many things could be affecting her right now, and he didn’t know which to address or how.
Figuring that trying to sleep was futile, he got out of his sleeping bag and started to walk off through the trees. He needed to think, and he always thought best when he was moving. If he was going to stand any chance of helping her, he first needed to work out how.
~ ~ ~
Not long after, he passed close by the spot where Celestia was lying again. He paused for a moment, and as he watched her, her chest rising and falling unsteadily with each breath, he felt something he would never have expected to associate with the princess.
She was the great Princess Celestia, co-ruler of Equestria, guardian of the sun. By all counts she was – or at the very least used to be – the most powerful individual he had ever known. Her presence alone was enough to inspire awe and reverence in other ponies, and she was loved and admired by all who knew her.
But at this moment, as he watched her, all Aaron could feel was pity. She had seen so much, and lost so much. And now she lay here, a mere shadow of her former glory, slowly falling apart and apparently struggling to hold herself together. He started to doubt if he would ever be able to help her.
The sound of his name made Aaron jump. His tongue froze in his mouth, taken by surprise.
“Aaron, I know you’re there,” Celestia said.
With a sigh, Aaron walked over to her and sat down on a patch of moss by her neck. Celestia didn’t look round at him, staying curled up on the floor.
“Did I wake you?” he asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Celestia replied.
Aaron placed a hand on her neck, stroking her mane softly.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been so harsh.”
“No, you said what needed to be said,” Celestia answered. “It was I who reacted poorly.”
“You’ve got every right to react how you want,” Aaron said. “After everything you’ve been through, I’m not going to hold it against you.”
Celestia lifted her head, looking round at him. “That’s exactly the problem,” she said. “I'm not reacting properly. I just don’t know how.”
“How to do what?” Aaron asked, perplexed.
“After everything I’ve been through,” she continued, “everything I’ve seen, everything that’s happened to me just in the last two weeks, I should by all rights have lost control a long time ago. But I haven’t. Because I’ve forgotten how.
“I’ve lived for millennia, and I’ve seen so much in that time. I’ve seen empires rise and fall, nations invaded and plunged into total chaos, I’ve seen my own sister descend into evil, and been forced to fight her myself. And that's just what you already know about. Plagues, natural disasters, civil war; Equestria has a long history and it hasn't always been so peaceful. But throughout all that I have learned to always stay strong. I had to, for the sake of the nation. If their leader lost her mind, what hope was there for them?
“But now I’ve become stuck. I’ve kept the act up for so long that it’s the only thing I know. Part of me wants to let it all out, to scream to the heavens and never stop, but I just can’t. I don’t know how.”
Celestia fell silent, staring at Aaron. Her face was drawn and cool, but he could sense the fear in her eyes.
He tried to find the words to respond, but nothing came. Before now he had always admired Celestia for her restraint. She definitely had emotions, but she never let them get the better of her. She never lost control. He had always assumed that this was a blessing.
“There are things that I need to do,” she continued. "Things that I need to say. But I simply don't know how. I think that for the first time in centuries I truly have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I am having difficulty even saying this, but… Aaron, I need your help.”
He listened in amazement. The words were so at odds with her expression. She sat in front of him, completely calm, as if there was nothing wrong at all. But despite this she was asking him – begging him even – for help, trying desperately to free herself from the prison she had built herself.
The only clear tell he could see of what was truly going on was her eyes. Her pupils were wide as saucers, opening up to an endless black chasm. They quivered back and forth as water rippled across their surfaces.
“I… I have no idea how,” he said. “I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know if any psychologist would even be qualified to deal with this, and…”
He started to ramble in a panic, but the words caught in his throat as Celestia’s eyes continued to burn into his mind. They were impossible to ignore, and as saw the longging in them he wanted nothing more than to help her in any way he could.
He searched his mind desperately for anything that might help, but this was completely unlike anything he had ever had to deal with before. It felt like she was stretched to breaking point, the last two weeks’ events slowly taking their toll on her, and he needed to be careful. She wasn’t just an egg that he could hit and break open. He needed to find some way for her to let him in without hurting her too much more.
He thought back to the only times he had ever seen her drop her calm façade. The only time she had ever even come close to losing control was in the lab, as she tried to deal with her instinctive need to defend others along with the suuden discovery of her isolation. She had still managed to regain control before the end even then, but it had taken all that just to bring her remotely close to the edge. Now she actually wanted to cross that linr and let herself lose control for once. Maybe that itself would make it easier.
There was no way this was ever going to be pleasant, though. He could only think of one option that even had a chance of working, and in any other situation he wouldn’t even have considered it. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and Celestia was certainly desperate.
Placing a hand carefully on one of Celestia's forehooves and looked her in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can try to help, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
Celestia sighed warily. “At this point, I’m not sure I care,” she said.
Aaron took a few deep breaths, steeling himself, then shuffled back into a sitting position. Once he felt ready, he looked back up at Celestia.
“I don’t know how easy this will be, or if it’ll even work,” he said, “but I want you to think of somepony that you hate.”
“What?” Celestia recoiled slightly at the request. “But I could never hate any of my subjects!”
“Just bear with me,” Aaron said. “It doesn’t have to be major, just any disagreement. I just need somepony you’ve ever felt the urge to yell at. You don’t have to tell me who it is,” he added.
Celestia went silent, her eyes darting back and forth.
“If this isn’t working, I can try something else,” Aaron said, but Celestia shook her head. She looked up at the sky, deep in thought, before looking down again with a sigh.
“No… I think I’ve got somepony,” she said. “But why am I doing this?”
Aaron stood up and started to pace back and forth in front of her. “Just keep them in your mind,” he said. “Imagine it’s them that you’re talking to. Hopefully it’ll make this easier for both of us.”
“Make what easier?”
Aaron stopped and looked down at the princess. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood tall, trying to sound as imposing as he could. “Tell me what went wrong,” he said.
Celestia paused in confusion. “What went wrong?” she echoed. “You mean with the experiment?”
“Yes, with the experiment,” Aaron retorted harshly. “How could the casting of one simple spell have been such a huge failure?”
“In fairness, the spell was anything but simple,” Celestia pointed out.
“Was that the problem then?” Aaron asked. “The spell was too complicated, and mistakes were made?”
“We made no mistakes!” Celestia said. “Everything about the spell itself was right. It was checked so many times. It should have worked.”
“So it was the casters’ fault?”
“No, never!” Celestia stood up, towering over Aaron, but he stood his ground. He could see the confusion on her face, but tried to ignore it as he kept up the act.
“Twilight Sparkle would never miscast a spell!” Celestia shouted. “She is my most faithful student, and the most talented pony I have ever met! She would never make a mistake!”
“So it was one of the others, then,” Aaron said, waving a hand dismissively.
“Don’t speak of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony like that,” Celestia said. Her eyes narrowed and her voice went quiet and cold, anger starting to well up inside her. “And they played their part perfectly,” she continued. “Twilight carried sole responsibility for the casting, and this cannot be her fault.”
Aaron turned away from her, and began pacing back and forth across the grass.
“You admit that Twilight Sparkle was the only one in a position to have caused this,” he said, “and yet you refuse to admit that this is her fault. I think that you are letting your personal feelings cloud your judgement.”
“My personal feelings are irrelevant,” Celestia said.
“On the contrary!” Aaron shouted, spinning round to face her and jabbing an accusative finger towards her. “Your feelings have everything to do with this!” he continued. “You gave sole responsibility for your own safety to a pony who clearly can’t be trusted with it just because—”
Suddenly Celestia let out a loud neigh, rearing up on her hind legs and throwing her wings out at her sides.
“For the last time, Twilight Sparkle has nothing to do with this!” She shouted as her hooves crashed to the ground again. “Stop throwing blame around at other ponies just because you can’t face the real problem!”
It took all of Aaron’s strength to face up to her, but he wasn’t going to give in now that they were so close.
“Just tell me what the real problem is, then!” He shouted back.
“You know the problem well enough!”
“Then tell me whose fault this is!”
“This is your fault, Celestia!”
There was a deafening crash of thunder as bursts of lightning briefly filled the clear sky above them. For a few seconds a fire bright as the sun burned in her eyes.
“You continue to insist that you’re infallible!” she yelled, bearing down on Aaron. “You refuse to ask for help from anypony right up until you haven’t got a choice! You jump blindly into situations you can’t handle without even considering the consequences! And now because of your carelessness, you’re trapped somewhere where you’ll never be able to help anypony again! So then what do you do? You hide away in your own head, refusing to admit that you have a serious problem! You’re absolutely pathetic! If you were anypony else, I’d… I’d…”
She froze, panting heavily, staring down at Aaron with a look of fury frozen on her face. Aaron backed away from her, bracing against a tree, reeling from what had just had happened. He had known she had a lot to get out of her system and had prepared himself for it, but he had never expected this to happen.
Slowly the look on her face began to melt. It shifted to confusion, her eyes searching desperately for something, but soon passed through into exhaustion. Her entire posture collapsed, and her head fell forward with an almighty groan. Aaron caught her and held her close to himself, stroking the back of her neck.
“You’re not pathetic,” he said.
Celestia fell to the ground, rolling over onto her side. Aaron sat down with her, letting her rest her head on his lap.
“I am pathetic,” she said. “Look at me. I’ve faced down monsters in defence of my nation, but when it’s me that needs help, I just can’t. I was too stubborn, and I let myself be broken just to protect my pride. I’m hopeless.”
“That’s not true,” Aaron said. “You’ve let other ponies help you on loads of occasions. What about Nightmare Moon? Discord? Chrysalis?”
“Who?” Celestia asked, opening one eye and looking up at him.
“Chrysalis?” Aaron said. “The Changeling queen?”
“You mean Princess Cadance’s wedding?” Celestia gave a spluttering laugh. “You saw what happened there,” she said. “That’s exactly what I mean. I assumed I would be able to defeat her on my own, but she struck me down with a single blow. I was a fool to try and face her alone.”
“But what happened then?” Aaron continued. “You asked Twilight and her friends for help. I think it’s clear to everyone that you trust them with your life. You have a lot of friends that you trust.”
“I don’t have as many friends as you think,” Celestia replied.
Aaron shook his head. “I find that hard to believe,” he said. “And I don’t see how you couldn’t consider Twilight a friend. You were very clear in your defence of her.
“By the way,” he added, “you know I wasn’t actually trying to blame Twilight for what happened. As far as I can see this was just an accident. And I certainly don’t blame you for it.”
“That’s just because you don’t understand,” Celestia replied.
“You’re right," he said. "I don’t understand. It would help if you explained.”
“No it wouldn’t.”
Aaron sighed, massaging his forehead with his hands. “Yes it would,” he said. “I’m your friend, and I want to know.”
Celestia shook her head, then slowly picked herself up off the floor, walking off into the trees. She came to a stop a few yards from Aaron, but didn’t turn round to look at him.
“You aren’t my friend,” she said. “It just doesn’t work that way. It can’t. You think I asked those ponies for help, but did I? In truth, I never gave them the choice. I repeatedly put them in situations where they had no choice but to do what I wanted. I used them, over and over again.
“If I could have done what they did myself, I would have. There should never have been any need to involve them, but the Elements of Harmony refused to work with me. They turned on me when I banished my sister; they demanded a sacrifice in return for their power, and I just threw the most promising pony I had ever met at them. I even tricked her into recruiting the others that would have to join her! I used them like I would a weapon! Does that sound like a friend to you?”
She dropped her head down, sighing. “Now I’m stuck here because I pushed them to test an unknown spell without any knowledge whatsoever of what it would do,” she said quietly. “I put others in danger to satisfy my own curiosity, and I can only hope that nopony else was harmed as a result.”
Aaron stood up, carefully approaching Celestia. He held a hand out and placed it on her back, but she swatted it away with her tail.
“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” he said.
Celestia refused to respond, turning her head away so she couldn’t see him.
“Celestia, look at me,” he said sternly. She turned her head slightly, looking back at him out of the corner of her eye. Aaron could see tears running through the fur on her face now.
“How can you even think that?” Aaron asked. “You’ve acting like it’s a bad thing that you’ve got friends! You’ve even managed to blame something for it!”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Celestia replied, her voice beginning to crack. “You might live for a century at most, and you’ll never have to carry the fate of your entire world on your shoulders. I’m not supposed to have friends; I know I’d just lose them eventually. I’m not happy with what I’ve done, but I had no choice.”
Slowly, cautiously, Aaron moved forward until he was in line with Celestia’s bowed head. He knelt down so that his eyes were level with hers, but avoided making eye contact.
“Just listen, okay?” he said. “I don’t care what you’ve been telling yourself all this time, because I’ve seen how you act around Twilight and her friends. Tell me again the last thing that happened before you came here.”
Celestia gave a deep sigh. “Twilight was being drawn into the vortex,” she said. “I tried to stop it.”
“Of course you did,” Aaron said. “You put yourself in harm’s way to protect her. Why would you do that if you didn’t care for her?”
Celestia didn’t say anything, and didn’t even move, so Aaron pressed on.
“You never used Twilight Sparkle, or any of her friends,” he said. “You just helped them fulfil their destiny. Every single time they entered the fight willingly, sometimes even when others tried to stop them. Everything you did was to try and help them, and they would have been seriously hurt, or worse, if you hadn’t.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” he continued, cutting her off. “Twilight and the others are your friends, and I’m sure they would forgive you for what you did without a second thought if you just talked to them about it. There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilty, of course; in fact it says a lot about your character that you do. But you should let your friends help you when you feel like this, not distance yourself from them because of it.”
Celestia nodded weakly.
“What about now?” Aaron asked. “Be honest with me. Be honest with yourself, even. Think about Twilight and her friends, and tell me how you feel.”
Celestia sighed and closed her eyes. She remained still for a long while, and Aaron waited patiently while she thought.
Eventually she opened her eyes and turned her head to look at Aaron. She blinked the tears away, and almost managed to smile again.
“I miss them,” she said. “The letters I received from them would always be a welcome break at the end of a long day. I miss hearing their stories, and I miss talking to them. I just wish I had got to spend more time with them.”
Aaron smiled, and Celestia managed to return it. “Of course you do,” he said. “You’re lucky to know them, and there’s no shame in recognising that.”
Celestia nodded. “I’m just worried that I’ll end up hurting them,” she said.
Aaron gave her a comforting pat on the cheek. “And that’s what makes you a good friend,” he said.
Aaron then stood up and started to lead Celestia back to where they had been lying.
“You’re right,” he continued. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be you. But I know what I’ve seen. Whatever you tell yourself, it doesn’t change the fact that you are capable of making friends. And you clearly enjoy doing so, as well. I don’t think you should deny yourself that, particularly as you know better than I do how important friendship is.”
Celestia nodded, wiping her face dry with her foreleg. “Thank you”, she said.
“Are you going to be okay?” Aaron asked.
“I’m not sure,” Celestia replied. “I can’t promise anything, but I have a lot to think about. Maybe I will be eventually. But I guess this is what I really needed, just to talk about everything with someone.”
Aaron sat down on his sleeping bag, and Celestia lay down facing him.
“I’m sorry I put you through all that,” Aaron said. “I thought you just needed to shout at someone for a while; I honestly didn’t realise how much you were hiding.”
“That' because I've had a lot of practice,” Celestia said, laughing weakly. “I’m curious, though,” she continued. “What made you think that would work?”
“I remembered the first time we met,” he said. “That was the first time I saw you properly lose your cool.”
“That was different,” Celestia said. “I was confused, disoriented. I was not in my right mind then.”
Aaron shook his head. “I think it was more than that,” he said. “From what I can remember, you thought you were under attack.”
Celestia thought about it for a few moments, then chuckled. “I perceived you as a threat to Equestria,” she said. “Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why, but…”
“But you thought ponies were in danger, and you wanted to defend them,” Aaron finished. “You’re capable of anger for the right reasons, and I thought I might be able to use that as a starting point.”
Celestia nodded. “Well, thank you,” she said. “I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad it happened, I think.”
“And I’m glad I was able to help,” Aaron replied.
With a second nod, Celestia lay her head down on the ground and closed her eyes. Aaron followed suit, crawling back into his sleeping bag. As he was making himself comfortable, Celestia sat up again and looked over at him.
“I want to do something,” she said. “Something to honour my friends.”
“Like what?” Aaron asked.
“I don’t know,” Celestia replied. “I just feel like I need to do something to show that I haven’t forgotten them. And to apologise, I think.”
Aaron nodded. “That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Celestia nodded in agreement, then lay down to sleep. Aaron did the same, leaning back on the soft ground. The sound of Celestia’s breathing was soothing now it was steadier and calmer, and five minutes later he was fast asleep.