by Radiant Dawn

Chapter 8

Because I was getting into a more regular sleeping pattern than I had been dealing with the past few days, I woke with the sun on the day after my deep heart-to-heart with Celestia. Bailey was already shifting around at my feet, which helped to bring me back to the world of the living, and I groaned slightly as I stretched. Let it be said that a lounge chair wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to sleep, but it sure beat the floor.

In the quiet of dawn, I rose to my feet and wiggled different parts of my body, eliciting multiple pops from joints that were stiff from sleeping completely still for hours. After a final trio of pops from my spine, I released a relaxed sigh and shuffled toward the kitchen. True to my word, I began to get out different ingredients to prepare breakfast for the house, simultaneously taking stock of how our food stores were holding up so far. True that supplies were going to go faster than I originally planned for, but so long as my greenhouse allowed us to grow things, we would be fine. Besides, I would find a way to make this all work -- for better or worse, I had four other people and a dog relying on me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.

I tried to be as quiet as possible, but the clatter of the skillet against the stove caused someone to wake, and I soon heard the soft padding of non-equine feet behind me, and sans canine claws.

“Morning, Jenna.” I greeted quietly, just before I felt her embrace me from behind and yawn loudly. I just chuckled at her, reaching behind and giving a little playful tickle of her ribs as I asked, “Sleep well?”

I felt her nod against my back before stepping away, yawning once again. “...yeah, pretty well. Forgot how nice it was to sleep in front of the fire in this place. It’s been years since I’ve been up here.”

I poured the remainder of the corned beef hash into the pan and began to warm it up as I picked out a bowl from the cabinet and poured some of the powdered eggs into it along with a dash of water, stirring it vigorously with a spoon as I turned around to face Jenna. “Do me a favor and let Bailey out?”

Jenna’s eyes were still half-closed, but she nodded her assent as she walked back toward the living room, snapping her fingers once and leading my dog to the front door. I went back to preparing breakfast for the house, losing myself in the monotonous task and just letting my mind wander. The obvious thoughts came to mind of course, such as the state of the world at large and my personal situation, but oddly enough, I found my mind drifting to Celestia and just how much I had learned about her in only an hour or so.

The prior night, I hadn’t come to know Celestia by her telling me in length about her life, but rather I experienced her thoughts, feelings, and emotions from some of the most powerful memories in her long life. That alone was enough to give me an accurate idea of who she was as a person -- or pony, as the case was -- which only brought one main question to my mind: how could someone so confident, who spoke casually about “royal harems”, suddenly become so flustered when I became the assertive one? Was she truly not used to others treating her like another person; was she that lonely? I can’t say that it was going to be easy being seen as the go-to for someone that had seen hundreds of lifetimes, but I guess there were worse friendships I could be a part of.

I had to admit, though: she had some nice tits for an ancient alien-pony-person.

“Alex, what the hay’s wrong with you?”

I whipped my head toward the voice, finding Vinyl staring at me with her mouth slightly agape. Though I knew mind-reading would be impossible for her, I couldn’t help but feel guilty as I replied, “W-what do you mean?”

“Dude,” she shot back, pointing to me with an odd look, “you were standing there, stirring the bowl, and licking your lips like crazy. Are you getting sick or something?”

I stopped what I was doing, looking down at the yellow goop that would become scrambled eggs, and brought a finger to my lips. Sure enough, they were slimy and wet, as if I had...well, like I had just been licking them excessively. I felt both ashamed at my thoughts -- which, as far as I knew, were still private -- and a little ashamed with how stupid I looked in front of one of my guests. With a hard shake of my head, I threw the thoughts away and focused back on the task at hand, instead.

“I’m fine. I was just thinking, is all.” I answered with a helpless shrug, hoping she would buy it.

“About what, food?”

“Yeah,” I breathed out, snorting a soft laugh, “food.”

“Are you lying?”

I couldn’t really deny it, and neither did I find reason to. “...probably.”

“...are you thinking lewd things?”

“It’s Celestia’s fault.” I answered plainly. “She’s a perv.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed as Vinyl came up beside me and leaned against the counter, her loose shirt just draping over her as haphazardly as her hair. There was something oddly attractive about the look, and her ruby-red eyes only added to the whole thing. Not that I’d outright tell her that, but I’m pretty sure she’d find out at some point anyway.

“Y’know,” she began, moving her head around to pop her neck vertebrae with a groan, “if you’d told me that just four days ago, I’d have never believed you. The princess has proven otherwise though, I think.” She then nudged me with her elbow, smirking. “So for now, I’ll let you off the hook.”

I smiled wryly and turned my attention to the sizzling pan, using a spatula to move the hash around. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll do or say something at some point that you can get pissed at me for. I have a habit of sticking my foot in my mouth.” Turning my head to catch her eye, I added, “To be honest though, I don’t really think like that all that much. I just like to rile you up; you’re cute when you’re flustered.”

My eyes had turned back to the pan in front of me, but I knew Vinyl was blushing when she stammered out, “...s-shut up.”

I leaned into her, nudging her shoulder with my own. “Aw, you know I only tease ya because I care.”

I didn’t have to look at her to know her face had colored further, and it took Vinyl a few awkward moments to force out, “So, um...what are we doing today?”

“Well,” I began, pulling the hash off of the range and pouring it into a bowl, “I’m going to teach all of you how to lay some traps for some of these little animals around here that we can eat, as well as a few tracking tips so that we can all keep an eye on what animals -- or people -- are in the area with us. More alert ears and eyes means a better chance for us to detect danger before it gets too close.”

“Yeah,” she replied, reaching into the hash bowl and picking out a morsel to pop into her mouth, “Octavia and I aren’t really the outdoorsy type, so I guess some pointers couldn’t hurt.”

“Then,” I continued, “assuming nothing exceedingly bad happens, I thought we could do a little scouting further out to check for anyone lost out here. It’s unlikely we’ll find anyone, but it couldn’t hurt to look.”

I dropped a bit of oil into the pan again, and spread it around before pouring the mixture of eggs in. With a spatula, I whipped it around quickly to make the eggs nice and fluffy as they cooked, doing my best not to think about what was likely the same thing on Vinyl’s mind.

Unfortunately, she thought it prudent to make her thoughts known, and in doing so, bring my mind to the issue as well. “What if we do find someone?”

I continued my work, but sighed near-silently as I did so. “I don’t want to get your hopes up about that, Vinyl. With the shock of what’s happened as well as the cold and anything else that may have happened to them, it’s unlikely anyone we find will still be alive. It’s below freezing outside, and anyone left out in that for longer than a few minutes without adequate shielding or shelter will die.” I glanced to Vinyl and nodded solemnly. “I’m lucky to have found you and Octavia when I did. If you had been outside much longer, I wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything to revive either of you. Now,” I brought the now-cooked eggs off of the range and poured them into a second bowl, bringing the two to the table, “on the off-chance we do find someone, we’ll need to bring them here, of course -- until they’re well enough to travel again, at the very least.”

Vinyl took a seat at the table in front of me, her eyes wide. “You would really just let them go?”

I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not my right to make them stay. Many people who might be travelling right now are looking for family, and that’s their right to do so. Right now, I have four people and a dog to look out for, so I can’t force anyone to stay against their will, even if I wanted to.”

Vinly looked down at the table, though not at the food. Her expression morphed into something slightly upset as she voiced, “I don’t like the idea of people being stuck out there, cold and alone, while we’re safe here.”

I walked around and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze as I passed. “We can’t save everyone Vinyl. With things being the way they are, and with winter being in full swing, we need to focus on keeping what we already have safe. I won’t turn people away if they come looking for help, but neither am I going to put us in danger to try and save the world.” As I started pulling out a pitcher of cold water from the fridge, I pointed her toward the other room. “Do me a favor and let everyone else know it’s time for breakfast.”

Vinyl stood from her seat with mumbled assent, but I could see that her posture alone was quite a bit more morose now. I didn’t like the idea of leaving others to the elements any more than she did, but I knew that our survival trumped theirs. Maybe later on, years after all this had blown over, I would hate and curse myself for my choices, but at least we would be alive for me to do so.

For now, we could only focus on survival, and that would have to be enough.

Fingertips along my back gave me shivers, and I looked to see a smirking Celestia pass behind me as I set out the plates and silverware. She was only wearing her underclothes again, but by now I was a bit more desensitized to it. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to fight to keep from staring, but I didn’t feel like my face was going to catch fire, either.

“Morning, Princess. Fancy some hot food?” I questioned rhetorically before spooning some food on a plate and pulling a chair out for her.

She took her seat with surprising grace, and then looked up at me with a smile. “It smells wonderful, Alex. Thank you.”

“Just doing my part to keep dat ass from disappearing.” I quipped with my own smug grin, propping myself against the counter as I waited for everyone else to arrive. A few moments later, Vinyl and Octavia entered and took their own seats, but Jenna remained curiously absent. With a glance to the two other ponies I asked, “Jenna hasn’t come back yet?”

Octavia shook her head as she washed down a bite with a swig of water. “No, she hasn’t returned.”

I felt myself frown unconsciously, and I made my way to the living room. I sat down and slid my feet into my boots and laced them up, then grabbed my coat and pistol before shouting “stay here” to everyone else in the cabin.

I made my way outside and found Jenna’s tracks rather quickly, following them through the field in front of the cabin. My concern grew as I noticed where her tracks lengthened, indicating she had begun running at some point, though the reason remained unclear. I picked up my own pace, readying my pistol and keeping my head on a swivel for any danger.

Faint coughing and sobs caught my attention, and I followed them around a hilly bend before seeing something that set off alarms in my head: felled trees and blood-smeared snow. I slowed and brandished my weapon as I approached silently, reticent to announce my presence in case the area was still dangerous. Finally, when I crested the hill, I arrived on the site of what was clearly a battle of some sort. Blood was smeared or splashed over much of the snow-covered ground in the area, and the bodies of five or six giant, furred creatures could be seen, all missing their heads. Bat-like wings were visible on their backs, and what looked like a scorpion tail came out of their behinds.

I surveyed the scene further, still following the hiccuping sobs I heard, and made my way around one of the bodies to find a sight that both saddened and relieved me.

Jenna was kneeled on the ground, Bailey next to her, as she looked down at the body of an armored, winged pony woman in ornate, stark white armor. A large puncture in the abdomen of the armor was clearly visible, as well as strange, black veins that ran over the face of the yellow-furred pony. The eyes were closed and the chest still, which led me to conclude the pony was obviously dead.

I approached and took a knee next to Jenna, seeing a small puddle of vomit next to the body, where she had probably been sick because of the sight before her. I slung my arm around her shoulders, and Jenna turned and clung to me as if I were her only lifeline in the entire world at that moment. I couldn’t do anything else, so I simply held her as she wept.

I had been forced to swallow hard a few times because of my own nausea, but I had decided that we would return the body of the deceased pony to Celestia, along with its weapons. True, it took awhile, and the body was heavy, but I had a feeling Celestia would want everything returned to her, if only for some sort of closure.

Jenna hadn’t spoken the entire way back, only staring straight ahead with a glazed expression. I wasn’t doing so well myself either, but living five years with an uncle that was a mortician had helped me handle dead bodies a little easier than most.

Finally, after the long trudge, we made it back to the cabin, and Jenna went inside without a word. I set the body down in the snow before calling for Celestia, then waited patiently for the alicorn to arrive. I knew the situation wasn’t going to be easy for anyone to deal with, but I knew that I would rather show Celestia outright than try and hide it from her.

Truth in all things, after all.

Celestia emerged from the cabin, wearing that same fuzzy coat and a worried frown, before spotting the body I stood next to. The frown fell away as she slowly plodded over, then took a knee next to the body. I could only wait patiently as she did so, unsure of what else I could do.

“Barricade: one of my finest.” Celestia muttered with a deep sigh. “The half-sister of one of my other, closest friends.” She brought her face close to that of the pony, and shook her head. “Manticore venom…” Celestia stood and looked to me with a frown. “How many?”

I cleared my throat and answered, “I counted at least five. Big, hairy things with a scorpion tail, right?”

Celestia nodded gravely, looking back to the body silently for many minutes. After those minutes of silence, Karyll’a flashed into her hand in the form of a straight sword, and she plunged it into the neck of the body without a word. My un-manly squeak couldn’t be stopped, but I knew Celestia better than to think she would be doing something like this without a reason, so I remained silent otherwise. As I watched, the body began to smolder before bursting into flames, which I was forced to look away from as the smell of burning flesh and the heat overwhelmed me. In only seconds, the heat died down, and when I looked again, it was to see only a set of armor laying in the snow, which Celestia retrieved with a wince of pain from her wound. I reached to help her, but she shook her head and waved me away. I grabbed a crystalline sickle-like weapon and the exotic pistol nearby before following Celestia into the house.

Celestia carefully set the armor in the corner of the room, stacking it the best she could before placing the helmet on top of the pile and stepping away, allowing me to place the weapons I gathered. I could see Octavia and Vinyl watching from the kitchen, but they didn’t interrupt as we all just watched Celestia stare at the damaged armor.

A nearly-silent sob was soon followed by another as Celestia’s shoulders began to shake, and sniffles escaped even as she tried to hold in her cries. Only a few moments passed before she bowed her head and flared her wings.

“In life, you were one of Equestria’s most diligent protectors. You chased the shadows away, wherever they lurked, and were my sword and shield time and time again. You served without question, content only to protect the weak and defend against the wicked; a nobler cause, there is not.” Celestia’s composure broke briefly as she let out a strangled cry, and her next words were broken and hoarse. “But to me, you were my friend and confidant. You were my light when darkness threatened to swallow me before Luna returned, and you offered a listening ear whenever I needed, even if you did not always agree or understand. You were a loyal and loving friend, and I will never forget you for all of my days.” At this, Celestia placed her palm on her chest and bowed shallowly. “Elysium will know a great warrior and pony, one whose place none can ever fill. I pray that I see you again, one day.”

She then walked to the hearth, reaching into it without so much as a blink of hesitation, and rummaged around a bit before pulling out her own armor, which was covered in ash. Before I could remark on her apparent immunity to the fire, she grabbed the damaged chestguard of her fallen friend and placed it atop the burning logs. She then cleaned her own armor off with the brush by the fireplace, then swept up the ash and made her way to the sofa, slowly and carefully sitting down upon it.

We all simply watched silently, unwilling to break said silence with our own words of attempted comfort.

“This is why I cannot stay, Alex.” Celestia muttered sadly, rubbing the golden armor reverently. “This is why I fight: to protect deaths like that from happening.”

“You can’t save everyone, Celestia.” I retorted, repeating my words from earlier in the day.

“,” she answered after a moment, “but I can save as many as I can. I have no other purpose, in my heart. This sun does not heed my call, and Equestria has the leaders it was meant to have from the beginning -- the leaders it deserves.” She sniffled a bit, letting out a long breath. “I am nothing else, at heart. This is who I was meant to be, and I must answer my spirit’s call.”

I felt my expression harden unconsciously at her words, and I took a seat next to her. “You’re not going to do anyone any good by killing yourself, though. You’re still healing, and until you’re in tip-top shape, you’re staying with us.”

Celestia glared at me out of the corner of her eye. “I’m not stupid, Alex.”

“Could have fooled me.” I shot back, ignoring the gasps of shock that came from the ponies behind us. “It looks to me like you’re blaming yourself for something beyond your control. That, in its simplest form, is stupid.” I thrust my index finger in the corner of the room, which still held the armor and arms of the fallen warrior. “Do you think she was blaming you in the last moments of her life?”

“Alex-” Celestia attempted.

Do you?” I growled out, holding her gaze firmly, and unflinchingly. Even as I said it, faint memories about the pony in question surfaced in my mind, and it only added more fuel to my frustration. “You know as well as I do that she considered you family -- she loved you -- and we both know she would slap you in the back of the head for thinking the way you are now, Sunbutt.” At any other time, I would be furiously questioning where the words and thoughts were coming from, but I couldn’t stop them as they flowed through me, the memories becoming clearer and sharper. “What did she say to you a week ago, when you said your goodbyes?”

Celestia’s mouth snapped shut before she could interrupt me, and her ears flattened against her head as she glanced away. The room was completely silent as we all waited for her to respond, until she finally uttered, “If I should learn anything from her, it should be that my life is just as important as everyone else’s, and that it’s okay to live for myself. I should let myself have fun, relax a little, and maybe even…” She stopped herself before she could finish the sentence, though I (somehow) knew what she was going to say. For her own privacy, I didn’t mention it, but we both knew what she had been about to voice aloud.

I nodded before moving and taking a seat next to her, sitting silently for a few moments to let her think for a bit. Then, choosing my moment, I pressed forward. “The dead don’t give two shits about vengeance for their death, and the good ones don’t want those they care about to destroy themselves because of their loss. Barricade would want you to remember what she taught you, and the moments you shared together, not let her loss destroy who you are. Honor her by living your life to the fullest, not by throwing your own life away because of grief; that’s not what she’d want, and you know it.”

I was a little surprised that, after a minute or two of complete silence, I felt Celestia’s gentle hand grasp my own as she finally turned her eyes to me. She stared at me for a few moments before a faint, upturning of her lips preceded a simple, yet heartfelt, “Thank you, Alex.” We held each other’s gaze for a few more moments -- just before it became awkward -- then Celestia urged, “You should check on Jenna.”

I rubbed my thumb along the soft-as-angels fur of her hand and nodded, silently standing and making my way to the bedroom.

Jenna was easy to notice, even in the dim light of the room: she was sitting plainly at the head of the bed, holding the radio in her hands and cranking it every now and then to keep the battery charged. She glanced up at me on my entrance, but said nothing as she turned her eyes back to the device with glassy eyes.

“I always thought I’d be able to handle it, you know.” she near-whispered, her voice just barely carrying across the room to me. “I always thought, ‘It’s just a dead body; what’s there to freak out about,’ but then you see one and everything just…” Jenna shuddered briefly, just barely keeping her composure as she continued to stare at the static-y radio. “After the initial shock of, ‘Holy shit, a dead body,’ you start to really think about it. That…” she swallowed hard as her emotions bubbled up within, and much as I wanted to offer a hug, I knew it would be the wrong thing to do for Jenna in particular, “that was a person not too long ago, with hopes and dreams, and emotions. She wasn’t just ‘a body’, she had a name and people who love her and will miss her now that she’s gone.”

Much as they confused me, the memories that had arisen during my words with Celestia were still clear as day to me, and they gave me the ability to give my friend insight into the one she had found.

“She had a sister, a husband, and a little girl that had to say goodbye to her.” I confirmed, walking over and taking a seat a respectful distance from Jenna. Her confused glance to me prompted me to elaborate, so I dug deep and remembered all I could. “Her name was Barricade, and she knew what she was getting into before this all happened. She knew the chances of her getting through this alive were slim -- just as it was for everyone -- and she had prepared herself for that months in advance.” I shook my head ruefully as a thought occurred to me. “One of her greatest fears was dying alone, you know, but more than that, she feared her loved ones sharing her fate.” I pointed to the door. “Celestia was one of them, and we saved her; God-willing, the rest of them are okay, too.”

Jenna’s mouth had dropped open in shock at my words, and after a few moments of gaping like a fish, she squeaked out, “H-how could you…?”

I just shook my head and leaned back against the headboard. “I don’t know, but it’s probably something to do with Karyll’a and what happened last night.”

Her eyebrow raised as she stared skeptically at me. “What happened last night?” She looked around the bed, pulling her free hand away from the topsheet. “Should I take a shower after sitting in this bed?”

I rolled my eyes despite the situation, and shook my head. “No, not like that. It’s…” I thought hard for a moment on how to explain it to Jenna in a way that she’d easily understand, “using Karyll’a, Celestia showed me who she was; I didn’t have to talk to her about her life, because for a few minutes, I lived it.” I shook my head again at Jenna’s dumbstruck expression. “She has a sister, and I don’t know if it’s ponies in general or just her, but the love she feels for her sister…” I let out a deep sigh even as a deep warmth spread throughout me from a love that wasn’t my own, “I mean fuck, I didn’t even know it was possible to love someone that much. Humans like to talk about ‘true love’ or ‘all-consuming love’, but we really have no idea what that’s actually like. The love that Celestia feels for her sister is on a completely different level from anything any of us have likely ever felt; frankly, I don’t think humans are emotionally capable of feeling love the way Celestia can.” I snorted a mirthless laugh at the thought. “She really cared about that pony we found, too. Knowing and having felt what she does, even if only for a moment, I don’t even know how she survives losing someone; I literally can’t fathom it. That sort of agony would destroy a human being, but she’s been dealing with loss for thousands of years, and yet she still presses on.”

“I don’t mean to sound like an asshole here,” Jenna jumped in, “but what does any of that have to do with us dealing with what we saw?”

I glanced to Jenna, smiling a little sadly. “Because it never gets any easier, even for her. What we’re feeling right now about that whole thing, she would feel the same way about someone she didn’t know. It’s still a loss of life, and even if we don’t know the person, it’s still a tragedy.” I slowly reached out and placed my hand on Jenna’s shoulder, relieved when she didn’t pull away. “It’s going to be hard to get through, but we will get through it.” I gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, and smiled a little more brightly. “We just have to stick together, and I don’t have any intention of leaving you alone to deal with it on your own.”

Jenna nodded slowly before frowning and looking to the door. “Well, what about Celestia then?”

I followed her gaze and let out a long breath. “She is hurting, and will be for awhile, but she’s also had a lot of practice with the grieving process. She’s had to learn to deal with it on her own for centuries, so she tends to be a little more closed-off than normal.” Again I smiled, this time a bit more genuinely. “She knows she can talk to me if she needs to, though; that’ll be enough, I think.”

“What’s with that?”

I turned to Jenna and raised my eyebrow. “What’s with what?”

“That:” she pointed at me accusingly, “you smiled dreamily and sighed wistfully.”

I scoffed and turned away, since I felt my face warming against my will. “I did not.”

“Dude, you so did.” she teased, elbowing me in the ribs. While I wanted to immediately deny it, I knew doing so would only add fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, my silence did more harm than good as she crowed, “I knew it, you’ve got the hots for the alien princess!”

I elbowed her back harder, and growled, “Shut up! I do not!” I held her gaze for a moment or two, my glare burning into her grinning face, before sighing and slumping against the bedframe. “All right fine, I think she’s hot, but you know as well as I do that doesn’t mean I like her like that. I’m not Captain James T Kirk here, and besides that, she’s…” I deflated even further, if it was possible, “...she’s leaving.”

“Have you tried…” Jenna began, only to stop as she thought for a few moments, “...have you tried just asking her to stay?”

I shook my head at the mere thought. “I can’t. Besides the fact that she innately feels like she needs to go out and ‘fight the good fight’, we barely know each other. I don’t believe in ‘destined love’ or any of that bullshit, and you know that; why would I ask a near-stranger to stay with me when I already know she has prior engagements? It’s not fair to her, and I know she’d say no anyway.”

Jenna sat silently next to me for a long few minutes before asking, “Could you see yourself with someone like her?” As I turned my head to look at her, Jenna shook her head with a frown. “Forget that she’s an alien or royalty: if you met a girl like her, could you see yourself being with said girl?”

I wanted to deny it out of principle -- I wanted to argue that the fact she was a fucking pervert was a problem -- but then, I really thought about it.

Celestia was a very complex soul, which was to be expected, but she was also kind and welcoming despite her age. She was intelligent, witty, and -- dare I say it -- charming despite her overly-flirtatious attitude. Just from what little I had come to know about her, she experienced emotions in a way that I could only guess at, and though she was open about who she was and how she felt about things, her past was still a mystery to me. Regardless, I believed she was a genuinely good person with only her people’s best interests at heart. She was easy to get along with and while wise on a level humans will likely never know, she had a youthful spark within that was as radiant as the sun itself.

And let’s not forget that body...mmm…

“And now you’re ‘mmm-ing’ to yourself.” Jenna pointed out, a smirk curling her lips when I turned to look at her.

I turned away and thought on my mental findings for a moment longer before shrugging weakly. “Yeah, I guess I could see myself with someone like her. Yet again, though: she’s leaving.”

“Yeah,” Jenna muttered as she shifted, eventually laying her head against my thigh, “but what if she comes back?”

I turned my eyes to Jenna, frowning gently. “I’m not sure I like what you’re getting at, Jen.”

She shrugged, closing her eyes and stretching her hands above her head. She groaned out, “So, be someone for her to come back to.” As she opened her eyes, my look of disbelief must have been clear, since she saw fit to explain. “For chrissakes, the last girl you took out was me, on a ‘friend date’, two years ago. I’ve even been busier than that, so you have no excuse.”

I rolled my eyes at her words. “You’re awfully concerned about my love life, Jen. Sure you don’t want to give it another go?”

Jenna chuckled and shook her head. “Don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Viking. Besides...I can do better than you.”

“Ouch.” I shot back, shoving her playfully away before letting out my own soft laugh.

We settled into companionable silence for a long few minutes, simply enjoying the strong bond we had forged over years, unwilling to break the tranquil silence.

“I worry about you, you know.” she whispered, reaching up and bringing my hand to her face, manipulating my digits with her own. “I know that you’re good at being the decision-maker in shitstorms, but I also know that you’re not invincible. Your mental and emotional wellbeing is just as important as your physical state, and you know as well as I do that burdens are best shared instead of kept to oneself.”

“That’s what I have you for.” I countered gently, patting her shoulder with my free hand.

Jenna frowned briefly as she continued playing with my hand. “That’s not the same, Alex. A platonic gay friend isn’t a substitute for a real connection with someone you care about romantically. I mean, you miss out on kisses, entire days spent in bed together, and let’s not forget make-up sex.” At my rolling eyes, she chuckled before her expression sobered a bit. “But really, you miss out on someone that’s willing to build a life with you, maybe even have kids and...I don’t know, married shit. All I’m saying is that you’re missing out on a lot because you’re reluctant to commit.”

“So I should commit to a sun-goddess who’s going to leave on some world tour of badassery -- because of which I might never see her again?” I questioned rhetorically. “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea; let’s do that.”

“So,” Jenna began, tapping me in the chest with the back of her fingertips, “give her a reason to come back. Something tells me the girl probably doesn’t have too many people she’s close to, and everyone could use a little love.”

I shook my head, tapping Jenna’s breastbone right back. “I said I think she’s hot; I never said anything about love.”

“You just said you could see yourself with someone like her,” she started counting off on her fingers, “you admit that she’s physically attractive, and the two of you understand one another. If that’s not a good, strong foundation for something more, I don’t know what is. Most regular people go off of liking the same music, or having similar hobbies, but you two actually get each other on a deeper level.” She let my hand go and bored her gaze into my eyes. “Don’t pass something good up just because you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” I shot back with more force than necessary, immediately pulling back at the realization, “just cautious. It just wouldn’t make sense for me to devote time and energy to someone that I might never see again. That’s wasted effort, and you know I’m all about efficiency.”

She then sat up and pivoted, shoving me away forcefully. “Then you’re wasting time. That ‘Barricade’ pony wasn’t my friend, and you can bet that with as much love as you claim Celestia feels for those she cares about, she’s in agony right now. I got to deal with my own issues about all this, but Miss Sunbutt needs you more than me.” At my glance back to her, Jenna shooed me away with her hands. “Go on; I’ll be fine.”

I stared at her for a moment before nodding slowly, moving to the door and opening it...only to find a certain pair of ponies poised and ready to knock.

Vinyl looked up at me and smiled sheepishly. “You were in there awhile, so we just wanted to make sure you were both okay.”

Octavia nodded in agreement before looking into the dim room. “Do you mind if we talk to her a bit?”

I glanced back into the room to Jenna, who was looking up at me curiously. “Two pony-ladies want to give you some pleasurable company. You up for it?” It was only then that I’d realized the way my words could be twisted, but it was too late.

Jenna’s lips slowly curled into a grin as she replied, “I don’t know; do they mind calling me ‘Mistress’?”

Vinyl’s hand met her face as she groaned out, “Dear Celestia, there’s two of them!”

Jenna chuckled softly and shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m just kidding...mostly. Truthfully though, yeah, some company would be nice since Alex is leaving me all alone now.”

As I turned back to the two ponies, I noticed Octavia’s borderline-accusing gaze rest on me, which I only was able to respond with a, “What?”

She lifted her gray-furred hand to the room. “Jenna needs you as well, Alex.”

I shook my head. “She’ll be okay -- her words, not mine. Also, someone else needs my company more, right now.”

The two ponies glanced back at their princess, who was silently staring into the corner of the room, nothing but her twitching ears moving. They then glanced back to me and let me pass before stepping into the room and closing the door, leaving me to make my way down the short hallway and back into the living room.

Celestia was seated -- upright, for once -- on the sofa, her elbows resting on her knees. Her wings were brought around and draped over her body like a large, feathery blanket as she stared at the gear of her fallen friend, silent as a cemetery. Other than a subtle ear flick, she didn’t otherwise acknowledge my presence as I rounded behind the sofa and took a seat adjacent to her. Instead of initiating a conversation, I simply offered silent support with my presence alone. Save for the crackling of the fire and the occasional sounds of Bailey moving around the room, all was completely silent for quite a long time. After a good stint of time -- which could have been over an hour, for all I knew -- I felt Celestia’s velvet-soft hand inch into the grasp of my own, and I offered a gentle squeeze as a silent acknowledgement that I was there for her.

“It’s always difficult.” she breathed out, so silently that it was easy to imagine she was talking to herself, until she looked at me from the corner of her eyes. “Normal people like to imagine that after experiencing so much loss, I become somewhat numb to the experience…” she then retracted her wings and scooted closer until our shoulders were touching, breathing deeply before she continued,” ...but no, you and I both know that’s not the truth.”

“I know because of your memories.” I pointed out, pulling my hand away from hers, only to sling it around her shoulders as I offered what physical support I could. “Honestly, before you came along and showed me different, I believed the same thing...but you just get better at dealing with the grief over the years, I suppose. It never hurts any less, but I guess to keep your sanity, you have to become an expert at mourning.” Again, we sat silently for a long while, simply enjoying the presence of another understanding soul.

“Does it bother you -- all these memories of mine cropping up?” Celestia voiced, asking the question that preempted the question I was going to ask.

I shrugged slightly, not relinquishing my grip on her. “Not really. It’s weird, yes, but there’s a definite break between your memories and mine, so as long as I keep track of who I am, I know which are which. What I’m curious of is why it’s happening in the first place; I thought that memory-thingy was only for last night.”

Celestia shook her head before leaning it against mine, her silky hair draping over my back and shoulder. “I can’t pick and choose which memories you received other than limiting it to the strongest ones, so as your mind works through all the new information, you’ll find you have at least a century or so worth of memories that aren’t your own. Thankfully, as evidenced by your continued life, the human mind is far more malleable than that of a pony’s.” My rebuke was stopped as she raised her free hand and placed it on my lips. “Your attunement to Karyll’a proved that before last night, so I was confident you would be fine; Karyll’a searches for very specific things in the people she calls friend, and a flexible psyche is one of them. A flexible mind assures your values and morals are relaxed enough that you can know me without worshiping me...or going insane.”

“Modest, aren’t we?” I needled, gently elbowing her.

She shrugged. “I’m speaking from experience, unfortunately. About seven hundred years ago, there was actually a group of ponies that started praying to me; do you have any idea how embarrassing that is? I mean yes, I am the Sun incarnate, but I am not omnipotent, and I don’t like it when people assume I am. Omnipotence is something I simply cannot live up to, so those who believe in me for it will be disappointed.”

“I don’t.” I replied firmly, in what she likely believed was a comforting manner. Unfortunately for her, I continued and shattered the illusion. “You’re just as jacked up and perverted as anyone else, so you’re definitely not what most humans would consider a goddess. You’re more like a fallen angel, in that respect.”

I felt more than heard as she let out a soft laugh, smiling at the knowledge that she was still able to do so, so soon after saying farewell to another friend. Still, rather than instantly fire back with a witty response, Celestia sat quietly after my words. Because I was quite comfortable with silences, I simply held her close and waited for her to speak, if/when she was going to do so. The seconds ticked away, eventually fading into at least fifteen minutes, before she finally spoke.

“Alex…” she spoke, just above a whisper, “if it would make you more comfortable, I would wear my full armor and put a barrier of a blanket between us, but I ask that you stay with me tonight.” Her request surprised me a bit, as it wasn’t the playful flirting that she would normally use with me. Instead, she sounded just as vulnerable as I already knew she was...and she was asking me to be there for her. I didn’t feel like this was a trap, nor that I was going to be teased all night long, so I could only ask one question:

“Are you sure you want me there?” I prodded, turning my face to her. “I’m not the best at comforting people; you know that.”

She hummed softly. “True, you aren’t an expert...but I know you’ll understand. When the nightmares come like I know they will, I want patience and understanding over platitudes and heartfelt, yet empty promises of safety.”

I shook my head sullenly. “Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that you’re the ‘safe-maker’ here, not me.”

I felt a tickle along my back before the feeling of Celestia’s massive wing extended around my shoulder, pulling me tighter to her, with her arm sliding around my back and under my arm to hug me. She let out a long breath as she completed the actions, her hair obscuring her eyes. “I may be a warrior at heart, but even I desire someplace comfortable to lay my head. You, Alex, comfort me, and so I desire your presence more than I do a protector.”

Despite the situation, I found myself smiling. “I’m glad to have been of service, Tia.”

“My sister calls me that.” Celestia giggled out, and just by her tone, I could tell she was not as morose as she could be, considering the events of the day thus far.

My smile widened at the words. “I’d like to meet her, one day. She’s adorable as a little pony, and has the cutest blush when she gets embarrassed.”

“That’s my Luna: cute, sensitive and kind, almost to a fault.” Celestia answered, letting out a long sigh following her statement while simultaneously resting her head on my shoulder. I’ll admit, I briefly thought about just how intimate this position was, only to throw the thought away -- Celestia had just been through something severely distressing, and needed support. If this was what made her feel better, then I would offer what I could -- within reason -- to help her heal.

Already, the day seemed to have bled into weeks and months, just from what we had all experienced in just the morning. However, I knew that work still had to be done, and I would need to pass on some of my knowledge about survival to the ponies that needed it.

But...maybe a few more minutes beneath the beautiful wing of a pretty pony princess could be accepted.