• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,710 Views, 389 Comments

Nine Days Down - JoeShogun



Celestia's latest game of Save the Princess gets more serious than she'd have liked when she gets herself thrown into Tartarus. It would be bad enough if she were alone...but it seems she'd picked up a straggler as well.

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Arrival and Depature

They don’t love you. You’ll only ever be the worthless little sister. Always an afterthought. Just a pale reflection of Her. They don’t respect you. They don’t care.

And they never will.

Luna smiled, razor-edged and brazen, as she crossed the final barrier between Equestria and Tartarus.

It was a good one, that last trap. The ones before it were simple locks. Well, they were absurdly complicated, actually, and linked to an alarm spell that went off in the castle if anything managed to pop them, but still. Any lock could be opened eventually by a pony with the patience for such things, and there were certainly plenty of those. Of course, they would have had to have gotten past Cerberus to even try. He was an excellent guard dog, ferocious and ever vigilant, but he too, could be dealt with by those, rather less numerous, ponies who might dare to confront the beast. Behind the giant dog and the locks, the real traps began. Pits of fiery lava, bubbling acid, frozen spikes. All illusory, of course. The Princesses didn’t want to actually hurt anypony, just dissuade them. Those few brave souls who saw through the magics would then find themselves in a very long, very dull, maddeningly uneventful labyrinth. It held no loot, no monsters. Nothing at all, really. Not even any puzzles to solve. It was just lengthy and intensely boring. For ponies bent on excitement, which were about the only kind who might still be trying the gate at that point, this sort of thing was utter anathema. Usually they got annoyed and gave up, telling any other ponies who might be interested not to waste their time. Which was exactly the point.

But this last trap, this one was something else. The original plan had been to set up a spell that filled the victim’s mind with images of such resplendent terror that they would surely go shrieking home with tail tucked firmly between legs (thanks to a clever bit of engineering, the way out was far faster than the way in). It turned out though, that some ponies, specifically the kind that would go through all this trouble just do something they’d quite clearly been warned time and again not to do, didn’t respond to fear. It didn’t drive them away, it drew them forward. So the Sisters had come up with a different angle. Luna had, actually, but she was hardly one to brag about her brilliantly innovative solution to this problem. Perish the thought.

What hit these bold individuals, and had hit Luna just now, was a wave not of fear, but of anxiety. Even the greatest, mightiest, most clever of ponies had something that gnawed at them. Something deep set and inescapable. It didn’t have to be anything flashy. In fact, it was usually something completely mundane. Something like, say, an inferiority complex focused around one’s big sister.

The devious genius of it was in its simplicity. Though it seemed tailor made to pick apart every pony it attacked, all the spell really did was make its victim panic. Not the visceral fear of being chased, but the existential terror of…whatever it was that really kept them up at night. Once that overwhelming dread set in, they would find a focus for it all on their own, with nary a thought to how little sense it made. No fancy mind-reading magic required. The few ponies that had gotten far enough to suffer it had no idea why they suddenly doubted themselves, but the results were crippling. They mostly just sat down where they were and curled up there until the Princesses came along to take them home. And to a very good therapist. So unpleasant was this last trap, in fact, that there had been no repeat attempts on the gate of Tartarus since they’d set it up.

Luna had known what was coming though, so she smiled, if only in defiance. She’d thought she’d moved past this. She’d expected to be hit with temptations of becoming the monster she’d always worried she might be: pointlessly vicious, ravaging, terrible. Without purpose and without redemption. But…maybe after the incident with the Tantabus, she’d come to terms with who she was. She didn't have to choose between Luna and the Nightmare. She could be both again. Finally. And that was certainly something worth smiling about. She and Celestia would have to have a talk about that other thing, though. But that was for later.

She turned to look back, setting aside her own ruminations in favor of making sure her squad of guards was still with her. She’d warned them about this last little obstacle, like any reasonable commander, but there was no way to really prepare somepony for it. She could have deactivated it, sure, but this would be an excellent learning opportunity for them. And they’d all been volunteers, anyway.

Three of the six were slumped over, not ten feet away from the end. They’d stopped and sat down, staring at the ground. Two more had just stepped into the short tunnel, and from the looks on their faces, it was clear the effect was setting in. The rearguard, appropriately named Backstep, had stopped just outside the spell, and watched the rest, wide-eyed.

“Well?” said Luna. “Come along, soldier, there’s nothing to be done for it.”

To his credit, he didn’t stutter or hesitate. Just put his head down and trudged forward. He almost made it through.

Luna swelled with pride to see that even now, fifteen hundred and some years after its casting, her spell still worked as intended. She’d hoped for more out of her ponies, it must be said. These were Equestria’s elite guard, after all. Three were nyxies, oft-called bat-ponies by the ignorant, the finest hunters at Luna’s dispoal. They had pleased her immensely when they’d volunteered without even being asked, eager to see if the horror stories she’d always told them of this place were true and to test themselves against them. Nyxies were like that. Night creatures, like Luna, and predators besides. They weren’t violent, mind, not evil. Just somewhat…combative. It made them excellent soldiers, and prepared them as well as anything could for the living nightmare of Tartarus, but their carnivorous ways put them somewhat at odds with other ponies. One of many reasons they were so rarely seen among them these days.

The other three were Celestia’s pegasi. Not to be outdone by their night-time counterparts, they had insisted on being allowed to join the search. The disappointment of those not chosen for the task had been palpable. That might not have been the case if they’d known what they were truly in for here, but still. Luna'd had serious misgivings about bringing them at all. She’d only even considered those rare few who had seen actual combat, and then only after they’d accepted that their role in this mission was to scout. To provide extra eyes, and nothing more. In the end, she’d yielded to their zeal. It did them, and Celestia, great credit, to so willingly join what could very well be a suicide mission. And every one of them had shown admirable courage thus far.

So Luna elected not to blame them for this little lapse. It really was a very good trap.

“SOLDIERS!” she bellowed, most royally. “Attend me!”

All six of them snapped to attention.

Luna strode back into the corridor, letting the magic hit her again as a show of solidarity with her people

These? Just a bunch of freaks, like you. They aren’t your friends. They’re barely acquaintances. Servants, nothing more. They follow you because they have no one else. They don’t love you. No one—

Now that made her angry. At herself, of course, because they were her own thoughts, but still. Petty, vicious, damned spell. A curse upon it!

“On your hooves! Shall we all dwell upon our worries forever? Sit here in this cave until we starve? No? Excellent! Let us go forth, then! We have Princesses to rescue!” She whipped around, not looking back to see whether her soldiers followed.

Ah, nothing like snapping out a few orders to get one back in the proper Princessing mood. Strutting out of the tunnel, Luna looked up to sneer at the great, burning eye above. It peered down, seeing everything and nothing. Here in the little island of safety around the portal, she was probably invisible to it, but it surely knew who had come.

“Yes, it is Us,” Luna whispered, slipping into the familiar Royal plural. “Try not to piss yourself.”

Tartarus made no particular response.

Luna wondered if her sister were still alive. All those fires in the distance suggested she was, but there was no way to know. Terra must be throwing a fit right now, in her slow, inexorable way. Luna grinned at the thought.

Of far greater concern than either of her sisters was Twilight Sparkle, but Luna had confidence that she was still out there, somewhere. Dear, wonderful, little goody-four-hooves Twilight might be a twitchy bundle of complexes (Why, no, Luna wasn’t still a little sore over having once been beaten by her and also owing her several more great debts, not at all), but she was smart, and strong. But then, she’d never dealt with anything like Tartarus. Had her devotion to harmony helped her here? Or earned her an early death? How long had she been here, subjectively? It could have been weeks. Luna felt a twinge of worry. She shouldn’t have waited so long to come. Yes, there was no way she could have known they’d been sent here, which should have been impossible anyway, and yes, she’d been having a wonderful time haunting the dreams of the little maggot that had thrown them into this pit, but still.

On that note, it had actually taken disappointingly little time for her to crack this ‘Artifice’ character. Luna had had some really good stuff involving the unicorn’s personal demons and past failures and so forth lined up. She could have drawn her interrogation out for weeks. Alas, two or three sleepless nights being stalked by an angry Goddess of Dream had been all it took. Luna sighed. She never got to do the fun stuff anymore…

Of course, it went without saying that Luna took her role as guardian of the dreaming realm very seriously, and would never abuse the unfettered power she held there without just cause. Unless it would be really funny. And, as the sole arbiter of ‘just cause’ she had a great deal of leeway on that, but anyway. She did love crafting a good nightmare every now and then. It gave her a chance to unleash something really nasty on someone that really deserved it, but without actually hurting them. And that was why, as she stepped through the threshold and into Tartarus proper, she smiled again.

Everything here deserved it. Here, she didn’t have to pretend to be nice.

Well, perhaps ‘pretend’ was a bit strong of a word. She loved her ponies, obviously, and certainly wanted them to be happy and peaceful and have lives full of sunshine and rainbows and whatever. Twilight’s discovery of the magic of friendship and that way the girl had of solving problems with tolerance and harmony and such had been simply wonderful for everypony. What else could it be? Her friends had even brought Discord around. Discord! But alas, not every creature learned lessons the nice way. And that was when you needed a touch of something a little…darker. Sometimes, you had to scare someone. You needed a monster under the bed. A wicked grin full of razors, shining in the shadow. And maybe you had to kick a few teeth in while you were at it, so they knew that no, this isn’t just a bad dream. And if they didn’t sort themselves out after that? Well, you’d given it your best. Violence may never be the answer, but it was always an answer. Luna could hardly blame herself for choosing to have some fun with it.

Luna strode to the edge of the hill. The little hillock gave a fine view of the world-being that was Tartarus. The grass was soft underhoof, and ended exactly where the safety of the portal did. A tiny pocket of sanity in this mad place. The gate was essentially unreachable to the prisoners of Tartarus, so she felt no particular worry about leaving it open behind her. There were no locks or enchanted hazards on this side, just a tricky bit of magic that made the place hold no interest for anypony that knew they were locked in. Luna appreciated the subtle, cruel genius of the thing. A would be escapee could be staring right at it, spend years looking for the gate, and never see anything more than a boring hill in a pointless clearing. Anypony else could saunter through without restraint, popping out into an empty field near Equestria without even knowing they’d left. In fact, they inevitably would, if they didn’t die on the way: all roads led here, eventually. It was typical of the logic of this place. Tartarus ran on storybook rules.

She watched the shifting landscapes before her and considered where, exactly, to start. Like the portal, people weren’t hard to find in Tartarus, except for all the terrible danger. Just actively look, and you’d run into them eventually. And, as the fires attested, Celestia obviously wasn’t trying to hide. Luna hadn’t seen Tartarus this unruly for centuries. She sighed a deep, contented sigh, taking in the always delightfully strange scents of her favorite vacation spot. Good. That made it more fun.

But where was Terra in all this? Her erstwhile sister (what did one call a deceased family member? Passed-sister? Sibling-now-departed? It didn’t really come up enough to have a term, she supposed) must have been slumbering when the accidental invasion had come. Slow riser, that one. Should Luna look for her? She could lead her straight to Twilight, if she could be motivated to do so. It was always a risk though: Terra murdered her out of hoof about half the times she came to visit. She’d just wake up in her castle with no memory of what happened and find a letter near the portal a few days later, imploring her to learn some discretion or not come back. Whatever that meant.

“Apologies, your Majesty,” said Silver Spark. From the angle of his voice, Luna guessed he was bowing. “And, thanks for the save. What now, my Princess?”

This was typical of her relations with her nyxies. Formally informal.

“Now,” she said, “I go make a mess, and you lot keep watch. Do not engage without my orders! I will be doing the fighting, if fighting there is. And if I should fall, you will return to this place immediately. Do we understand each other?”

There were salutes all around.

“Magnificent! The first to spot Twilight Sparkle or my sister earns all the bits she can carry. Away!”

~~~

Twilight screamed and staggered away. Or, she would have, but it came out as little more than a snort and a twitch of one leg.

“Twilight? Did we wake you?”

Twilight backed away from the pale figure before. Her heart was pounding with confusion and fear, but she was moving through a fog of lethargy, and she didn’t get far.

“Bad dream?”

That got Twilight's brain going again, more or less.

Celestia. It was Celestia. Big and warm and nothing at all like the twisted apparition Twilight was already starting to forget. Her eyes were searching, maybe a bit worried. And there was Bait, looking much the same, and Ben, sitting on the wight’s shoulders.

It had been a dream. A thrill of self-conscious relief washed through her. Of course! It was just a stupid nightmare! Because she’d fallen asleep, after their talk. And she’d been through a lot recently, so it was totally reasonable to have a scary dream, but also Celestia had been the last thing she thought of, because they were right next to each other, and that was probably why she’d dreamed of her. And of the…stuff that had happened. Between them. Before it had gotten scary. A couple of wires had just gotten crossed in her mind, and she’d had a weird dream was all. Happened to ponies all the time.

Twilight eked out a nod, and tried to say something, but the words got lost in a croak. Her throat was parched, tongue sticky and still clumsy with sleep-fuzz. She coughed and licked at her mouth until it started working again.

Seeing that Twilight was more or less okay, Celestia smiled soothingly.

“You can tell me about it, if it helps.”

Twilight shook her head. Nope! No need for discussion on this one, thanks.

Because it surely hadn’t happened, and Twilight had gotten over her embarrassing little one-sided crush years ago, and there was no reason it needed to try and dredge itself up again now. It was just…

“I understand,” she said. “No reason to linger on a simple little scare. Can you stop that spell you’re casting, please?”

It was just she couldn’t quite seem to remember exactly when she’d dozed off. When, specifically, reality had melted into dream. Because, I mean, she obviously couldn’t actually have kissed her, but Twilight couldn’t manage to piece together what actually had happened and wait what?

“What?” She looked up at her horn reflexively. Twilight noticed for the first time that the entire room was bathed in the plum-colored light of her magic. When had she cast a spell? What even was it?

A quick bit of mystical probing revealed it to be some kind of shield, mixed with a bit of force. Its lines were sharp, angular. More like a knife or a spike than a barrier, and shaped almost like one of the stars on her mark, except with one tip longer than the rest. The force had been there to…propel it? Into…Her eyes fell to Celestia.

She gasped and the spell popped out of being as she recoiled. She would have backed away further if she hadn’t hit a wall.

“Just breathe, Twilight. It’s over now.”

She’d known you could make a shield like that. Sharp. They were just planes of force, after all, bent into shapes. But she’d never thought to use them like that. And in her sleep!?

“I could have hurt somepony with that! How did I even do that!?”

“You could have,” Celestia acknowledged, radiating calm. “But you didn’t. Just take a minute. Relax.” She smiled. “Our magic does that sometimes. Just goes off when we don’t remember to stop it. It’s nothing I haven’t done myself. We can talk about how to keep that kind of thing under control, when you’re—”

A huge, hollow boom echoed through the little chamber. Celestia’s eyes went wide and she stopped dead.

The sound, as from some massive hoof, rapping ponderously on stone, thundered twice more. Celestia turned towards the entrance of the cave, the tiny noises of her movements seemingly suddenly very loud in the cavernous silence. She stood, ears forward, waiting. When she spoke, her voice was very low, and very firm.

“I believe it is time we left this place, friends. Stay close, but be ready to run.”

No one responded.

Celestia approached the boulder-turned-door, taking hold of it with a golden glow. She lifted it a fraction of an inch, and then, after a moment of consideration, flung it with unbelievable power from the cave. She sprang through the threshold, lighting up with incandescent power. Twilight raced past Bait and Ben to follow, and when she stormed out of the cave she saw Celestia, blazing and mighty, facing down…

Nothing.

There was nothing out there. No one opposed her. No great beast that could have hammered out those massive notes on the stone. Nothing at all but a small balcony of pale rock and open, empty sky. But how could that be?

As she stepped up beside Celestia to the edge of the crescent of dusty stone, Twilight realized that they were, impossibly, on a mountaintop. The cave had moved while she’d slept. Twilight wasn’t so much surprised as oddly offended.

The vista below stretched out forever. Forests and deserts and tundras and great rivers wound into and through each other in a nonsense labyrinth of landscapes. Strange monoliths stood out, things that may have been temples or towers rose here and there. They had clearly been made by someone, but they were nothing like the humble abodes she had seen before. These things belonged. Winds whispered, and she could hear…sounds. Out there. Mournful wails, or howls of hate, or words that never were. That kind of thing. Everything seemed both close and far at once. There was no horizon. It made no sense, but for once, Twilight didn’t even try. Instead, she looked up.

The huge, burning eye of Tatarus gazed down at her. Its fire burned faster now, licking over the circle of hypnotic, utter black with a living hunger. It seemed amused, if that word had any meaning when applied to a ring of flame.

Was it you then, knocking on the door? she wondered, with no small amount of bitterness. Politely suggesting that we might get up and go do something interesting? She shuddered at the idea of being this place’s plaything. A crash sounded far below.

Twilight broke off her glaring contest to look, and watched as the boulder Celestia had thrown caromed onto a low plain, plowed through a tree or two, and rolled slowly to a stop, miles away.

“I see,” said Celestia, after a time. “Yes, I fear it will only become crazier from here. Let’s get going then, shall we?” She looked Twilight in the eye and nodded, then stepped onto a narrow path that led who knew where.

Twilight followed.

“Sure. Why not.”

~~~

Celestia led the little party, ears flicking, eyes roving and alert for any danger. Twilight tried to emulate her, but she was preoccupied.

She felt ridiculous, worrying over this particular thing at this particular moment. There were so many bigger problems to be freaking out over. Tartarus had come alive while she’d slept. Winds full of bizarre scents blew through at random, the road bent down the mountain and twisted without apparent purpose, clouds of colors Twilight couldn’t name gathered and dispersed as they pleased. Sometimes she felt like Tartarus was looking right into her, but usually it seemed distracted, as if more exciting things were happening elsewhere. And it sounded like a warzone out there. Or, at least, what she guessed that must sound like. There were roars and crashes, great thuds that shook the earth. It seemed silly to be caught up by something so trivial as a kiss that probably hadn’t even happened. But here she was. She might have been able to convince herself it really had all been part of the dream, but then Celestia had used that same phrase again, about it only getting crazier. But then again, she wasn’t acting any different than before, and Twilight was pretty darn sure that she would have at least said something if it had happened. But maybe she was just doing the same thing Twilight was: pretending it hadn’t. The Princess kept looking back to make sure everypony was close, and Twilight thought she could see something in her eyes, but what? It was driving her nuts, not knowing!

“Um, Princess?”

“Yes?”

“What’s happening right now?”

Nice. The wise and brave Princess Twilight, avoider of difficult questions.

Celestia huffed a short laugh.

“Well, it seems we took too long, Twilight. Tartarus has awoken in full, and in Its waking throes, lost control of its inmates for a time.” She shook her head, looking over a shoulder. “I’d hoped to avoid this, but, in a way, this is good.” She tilted her head to one side, then the other. “Maybe. It will be busy watching other struggles, so perhaps we can slip by. But, as you can see, things are going to be a bit more active than before. I suppose I should warn you that we may have to do some fighting soon. Maybe quite a lot.”

“Yeah. I understand.” And, to her profound surprise, Twilight found that her words were true. She wasn’t happy about it, but she got it. Sometimes you had to fight for things. No, not for things. For your friends. She still didn’t think she could do what Celestia did, but she could keep Bait safe, at least.

“Princess?”

“Hm?”

“How long was I out?”

AAAAAUUUUUGGGHH! Seriously!? Just ask the question!

“Oh, several hours, I suppose. Hard to say here. Are you still tired?”

“No, I’m okay. Still a little sore, I guess. Did you sleep at all?”

“A bit. I don’t need much, even as I am. Don’t worry about me, Twilight.”

She smiled sweetly, and Twilight returned it by reflex.

There! Right there! There had been that little gleam in her eye! Twilight was sure she’d never seen Celestia look at her like that before now. But maybe she was just deluded. Maybe this was just her old infatuation, looking for a way back in. It wouldn’t be a big surprise: Twilight had spent most of her life in love with her Princess, one way or another. It had been worst in her teenage years, the kind of infatuation that inspired awful, saccharine poetry. By her. And Twilight hated poetry back then! She’d thrown what little she’d written in the fireplace before it was even finished…Anyway, it had been such a problem that Twilight had actually done an (extremely secretive) research project on the matter. It turned out, she discovered, that cases of excessive, illogical, idiotic puppy-love for Princesses was a hilariously common phenomenon. There were whole books of (terrible) poetry devoted to them, and volumes of (certainly fictional) romantic stories about them, and canvas upon canvas of (often surprisingly good) drawings, paintings, and sculptures featuring them. They mostly focused on Celestia, obviously, but no Princess went unnoticed. Many names Twilight had never heard of elsewhere showed up in those works, and she had to do further searching to verify they were even real. The oldest of the pieces often held Luna in the spotlight, and Twilight was rather embarrassed that she hadn’t figured out Celestia had a sister from that. She’d even found a few recent ones of Cadance. Now that she thought on the matter, Twilight wondered if there were any such bits of nonsense with her as the ‘muse.’ Now there was an idea that bore further research.

The works ran the gamut from sticky-sweet to melodramatic to flat-out dirty. Twilight’s interest in the latter was purely academic, of course. Purely. They matched the Princess of their desire up with all manner of ponies and creatures, and in all manner of (highly unlikely) scenarios. Sometimes, it worked, often not. Many of them were such flagrant bits of wish-fulfillment for the author that they were almost painful to read. But the main point Twilight had taken from all her research was that she wasn’t a freak. Not in this way, anyway. What she was feeling was completely normal. She knew it would never go anywhere, because as far as she knew Celestia didn't do the relationship thing. It had hurt, learning that. But even so, it had helped. It had given Twilight some peace. Closure.

And so she’d moved on. She’d gotten over her silly infatuation. Even before she’d left for Ponyville, she’d done a little dating. Or, well, she’d thought about it, at least. She hadn’t really hit her stride until a few years later, but hit her stride she had. She’d been around. She’d played a few fields. Heck, she’d played in a few fields. And it had been good. She was proud of those adventures. So it was kind of upsetting to have this nonsense just waltz back in like it had never left. She’d spent so much time coming to terms with herself on how it was never going to happen, it was impossible, it just couldn’t be, that it seemed unfair.

But that was the thing. The Celestia Twilight had always known had lived on a pedestal, high and bright and far beyond the petty, sordid, sexy concerns of her ponies. Perfect and untouchable. But Twilight was seeing now that she wasn’t perfect. Celestia had been pushy, panicky, melodramatic, and even frightening. There was a quote about that, something about how we respect ponies for their virtues, but love them for their flaws, or something. And she was so full of virtue, yes, but, for the first time, Twilight knew that she was flawed, too. And maybe even touchable. And maybe…maybe she wanted to be? Twilight knew enough to be pretty sure she’d seen the signals, but she couldn’t tell, and it was absolutely maddening to not know! She didn’t even know if she really wanted that from Celestia. Maybe it had been a fluke, just a random, terror induced misfire in her brain that made Twilight do something crazy.

Twilight heaved a sigh that was half groan, trying to figure out what to say and how in the world she was supposed to actually say it when Celestia stopped. Twilight was so deep in her own head that she nearly ran into her.

“Twilight?" asked her Princess. "Are you upset?”

“I-Buh?”

“About what happened? In the cave.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open. All this time thinking about it and she was still caught flat-hoofed.

“When we,” Celestia sort of danced from one hoof to another. “When I kissed you? Should I have, er..." She composed herself with visible effort. “If I crossed a boundary, I apologize. It won’t happen again. I was just, well, I spent so long so afraid that I’d lost you, and when I finally saw you, and heard how well you’d been handling this, it just...And sometimes I get a little, um, impulsive, when I'm away from Equestria for too long, and, well, you really are a hero, Twilight. And you’ve always been such an inspiration and—“ She brushed away stray hair that may not have actually been there off her face.

She was babbling. She was nervous. Twilight was making her nervous!

She looked so young, suddenly. Celestia, who had seen untold thousands of years pass her by, was bumbling through this like a teenager. Twilight just gawped. And then it all came back.

~~~

Twilight looked up. Celestia smiled back down at her, big and warm and gorgeous as always.

“Um, Princess?” asked Twilight, still trying to solve the riddle of what was happening here. She remembered some of those looks Celestia had given her before. She lined them up with the one she was seeing now, and looks just like this that she’d seen on other faces. She couldn’t be right. But then...maybe she was?

“Hm?” Celestia looked down.

Twilight wasn’t sure exactly how she managed to cross that impossible distance between them. It had only been a few inches, sure, but she’d never dared even really think of trying to bridge this particular gap before.

Princess Celestia gasped a muffled little ‘Mph!’ as Twilight kissed her. Her eyes went wide, wings flared out and…well, that was probably what happened. Twilight couldn’t see it, her eyes were closed. That’s what usually happened though. People always seemed surprised when she kissed them, for some reason…Anyway, there was no grand explosion of light when it happened. No revelatory burst of gnostic wisdom or orgasmic pleasure like Twilight had spent way too much time fantasizing about when she’d been a weird, lonely teenager. Just two pairs of lips meeting for the first time, soft and skittish and wonderful as any first kiss should be. And, of course, far superior to the tawdry nonsense she’d always imagined. A bit less flashy though. Twilight put in the slightest bit of tongue, just barely licking at Celestia’s lips, terrified she’d be slapped away any second now but unable to stop herself. Might as well go for it, at this point.

There was no slap. No hoof shoved her away. It felt like forever before Celestia finally pushed the tiniest bit forward. Her lips opened a tiny bit, almost afraid, as though, even now, she wasn’t sure. It seemed to Twilight that the time for doubt ended the moment a girl put her tongue in your mouth, but maybe that was just her. Celestia made another little noise as their tongues met. This one was less surprised, and more…

Oh my, yes.

Twilight threw herself into the kiss, wrapping her arms around Celestia’s neck and pulling her down on top of her. A surprisingly girlish giggle escaped Celestia as she fell down into the embrace. Twilight laid herself out and shivered as Celestia slid up over her and—

Something shuffled beside them, and both mares froze.

Bait shifted slightly, lifting one rear hoof-claw to scratch an ear in his sleep. He settled back down a moment later.

Twilight watched him with bated breath, a delicious, agonizing heat surging through her. The ponies laid still until they were certain he was, in fact, still asleep.

“Why don’t we—” Celestia whispered in her ear.

Sneak off to some corner of the cave where nopony will hear us? Yes please!

“—save this for later?”

Nuts.

It was the reasonable thing to do, of course. It wasn’t like this cave even had any clandestine corners to sneak off to anyway. It wasn’t helping that Celestia was running a hoof down her chest and looking at her like that, though. She was nibbling her lip. Actually, literally nibbling her lip. Sweet heavens, Twilight loved that! And so, it was with a profound effort of will that Twilight replied.

“Okay.”

Celestia slid up off her, and both of them did a bit of preening and adjusting before they shuffled back into place next to each other.

“Why don’t you try and get some rest?”

Twilight had no idea how she was supposed to do that just now, but she dutifully laid her head across Celestia’s outstretched arms and did her best, positively glowing all the while. And the next thing she knew…

~~~

Oh. Hrmm. Alright then. But, wait...

“W-I-You kissed me?

Celestia looked stricken.

“Oh. You don’t remember. You m-must have been asleep on your hooves. Well, that’s reasonable, I sup—”

Apparently she’d missed the emphasis.

“No! No, I mean, Yes! I remember! It’s just, I thought that, I mean, I was the one who…”

Twilight’s darting eyes happened to cross the path of Bait. She noticed with no small amount of relief that he was scrupulously looking, with great interest, elsewhere. Good kid. She turned back.

I kissed you! I thought so, anyway,” she finished. It lacked the punch she’d been hoping for, but maybe they were both doomed to act like teenagers for a while. "Was that okay?"

“Ah, haha, um, yes, well. I wasn't certain how you would feel about it, afterwards, so I suppose I may have pretended I started it to take the pressure off of you. In case you, well...How do you feel about it?"

Oh, that was such an infuriatingly Celestia thing to do! Make no commitments, no direct answers, just leave the floor open for suggestions. It occurred to Twilight for the first time that Celestia might do that because she didn't have any direct answers. Twilight decided to give a little back.

“I think I can honestly say that I have no idea. You?”

Celestia’s visage of jittery worry deepened.

Twilight fought to stop a giggle. She couldn’t help herself. This was just so…

Celestia saw it. A tiny smile pushed its way onto her lips, her own little slightly manic giggle escaping. Twilight joined, unable to stop it now, and then laughed, and then Celestia laughed, and they just collapsed into it until all the craziness of this whole situation worked itself out and they were both nearly in tears. Celestia managed to find her words first.

“Well. This is just, I don’t even know. Just absurd, isn’t it?”

“It so totally is,” agreed Twilight, wiping her eyes with a wing.

“Why don’t we—“

“Handle this whole thing later, after we get home?”

“Yes.” Celestia nodded, with a warm, familiar smile. “Let’s do that. Shall we go?”

Twilight nodded in return, trotting up beside Celestia. The one put a wing over the other, loving, friendly. Maybe some other feelings were in there. But maybe not. They’d figure it out. Twilight turned back to her other companions,

“Sorry guys. We’re done. Ready to go?”

Bait wasted no time catching up. He didn’t bother pretending he hadn’t heard all of that, and that was fine.

That bit of pressure relieved, the little group trotted on through Tartarus in high spirits.

Author's Note:

Another chapter, now with 100% fewer ridiculous copy-paste errors. Hopefully.

Also, I totally lied about this one being eventful. My bad.

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