• Published 19th Aug 2017
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Enemy of Mine - Ice Star



A few years after Luna's return it seems that Equestria will finally know an era of peace and appears to be on the verge of a new renaissance. Ponies are happy. Luna is recovering. Celestia is miserable.

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Chapter 8: Husband of Hers, Part 5

For all the things that continued to be strange to her, Celestia had never been a stranger to loss. As a princess, she had known many of its more unrelenting facets, and had to make its impact on her appear as though it had not been profound every single time. There could be no exceptions.

Sadly, personal losses proved to be the more troublesome and ferocious. They would worm their way into her and remain. Theirs was an ache unsavory and untrustworthy, and she put her every effort into working beyond them. Those that did not dull with time had her unvoiced frustrations piled against them. Such vexations grew with the march of time, too.

Some things she could not bear to lose even once.

Twilight Sparkle was at the top of that list.

Everypony else she had lost once before, in some way. For every unexpected loss, like that of Luna and Discord, there were those that were natural. Mortal lovers were claimed by time, and left her to assemble her own peace again. She could manage that. She had.

If there was anything she wanted, it was for all her desires for Twilight to come true. They were all selfless things: wishes of happiness, fidelity, and health to Twilight. In the course of eternity, she wanted Twilight to be in her life for a long, long time. Every adventure that Twilight used to go on only played her every fear like the the keys of a piano. When they came to an end, Celestia couldn't — and didn't dare — articulate her relief.

'I want to be just like you!'

Those were some of the most terrifying words that Celestia had read, and every thought of them absolutely destroyed her. Each sight of those words behind her eyes brought back the same terror that possessed her when she sent Twilight off to Ponyville for the first time, and was not sure if the young mare would live or die, or if they would ever see one another again. The world itself had rested in the hooves of Twilight Sparkle then, even if she did not know it.

In Celestia's world, Twilight was her brightest star just as Luna was the delicate, shining moon. Those two were Celestia's whole sky.

Twilight did not know what she meant when she wrote those words. She did not want to be like Celestia, not if she knew the mare below the mask... and Celestia was going to make sure Twilight did not end up like her.

She was going to disappoint Twilight Sparkle.

She was going to give Luna one less thing to worry about.

She was going to make a deeply regrettable choice.

Celestia was going to make a friend.

...

The garden was lonely without Raven and the familiar weathered chessboard that used to crown the table. When she looked closely, she could still see the outline of where it had been before she had stored it away, feeling ill the whole time. When hadn't the game she shared with her close companions been there, waiting for the next round?

The fragrances of spring where in the air, and the chills of winter were fading. The staff were not just changing out of scarves, but out of Sundrop Talismans and other amulets as well. Only Luna and Sombra would know why she had really declared something so normal to be forbidden on the castle grounds.

Ever since then, she had noticed the bags that had been forming under Sombra's eyes had cleared up considerably. Such a thing was quite notable now that she was sitting right across from him.

Here was to day one of these nonsense lunch breaks. Her forehooves were folded politely upon the table, in perfect arrangement with her simple fare of rice pudding and daisy salad. She had already picked at a considerable portion of it, too. The steam from her cinnamon tea acted as a much-needed veil between her and Sombra.

He had no silverware, no food, and made no eye contact with her. Still, he had to see the occasional glances she made to him between dainty bites of her own meal, even if his head was turned to her. Whatever captured Sombra's focus that he had to look away from her so sharply was to the farther side of the garden, past the trickling of the fountains. She did not care to know what. Instead, she was content to see the occasional glint of annoyance in his eyes through the steam from his single mug of black coffee.

No words were exchanged between them, and their silent contempt wore on until duties parted them.

...

On day two, Celestia tried to find something to do beyond continuing to refuse conversation with Sombra, who still only brought coffee with him. Something about the songs of distant birds was too loud without anypony talking, and Celestia busied herself with trying to see how many calls she could recognize.

Fifteen minutes after she had finished her raspberry tea, she had already named every single one.

...

Day three consisted of Celestia chiding herself internally over and over again about misplacing her latest book of crossword puzzles just so it would feel like she was talking to somepony. She was prone to misplacing it, anyway, which was no good for location-based teleportations.

Sombra continued to only bring coffee, but ignored her entirely. Between them, he had kept a sewing kit and busied himself with repairing the sleeve on a worn stallion's aviator's jacket that Celestia could nearly smell the wind and dust on. It looked like something from his photo albums.

He wasn't even half bad at sewing. His stitches were neat and strong-looking, but he also did not make any attempt to hide them.

In the midst of her boredom, Celestia caught herself thinking about how when he put 'sewing' down as a hobby for the Palooza that she thought he had been joking.

...

The fourth day passed painfully. Sombra was exceptional at making somepony feel ignored, invisible, and unimportant, especially when his muzzle was buried in the latest book from the stack of seven that nearly hid even his ears from her.

She was missing Raven again. Even the most awkward conversations with her had really been lovely. She would have to write to her more, and ask for more stories about what working for the Mayor of Baltimare was like.

Sombra finished five of his seven books.

Celestia had one headache and one frown that she kept holding back.

...

Sombra had a new stack of books on the fifth day. The stack reached past his ear.

Something about having this unbearably slow period of her day was aggravating.

She burned her tongue on her own cup of coffee, but that wasn't what made her want to scream.

At least she had remembered her crossword book.

...

On the sixth day, Celestia realized that something subtle about Sombra's presence was causing the birds to avoid her, and now she didn't even have someone to share the crusts of her sandwiches with.

Sombra was too absorbed in one of his notebooks and a brand-new stack of reading materials. A careful glance at the spines revealed that they were about engineering and the interactions and properties that resulted from magical and metal interactions.

She dragged what could have been one of her usual 'hellos' to the guards patrolling around the garden's borders into a fifteen-minute conversation about how Steel Feather and Stoic Bulwark were doing, how things were going for them, and what a lovely day it was.

Sombra had to be intentionally treating her like she was invisible. How else could he be finding the enchanted paper gliders he got his magic to steer so fun?

...

By the end of the week, Celestia was contemplating eating less at lunch to see if she could use it as an excuse not to show up at all.

She had utterly refused any conversation with Sombra, not that she had made any effort to talk with him in the first place.

But seven days of this was tiring. She was a mare with social needs, and if she had to maintain the illusion of friendship with this stallion, she had to start somewhere... didn't she?

She looked up from the last remains of her lunch that she had been picking at. Shoving around bits of radish and lemon with a fork was more appealing than talking to Sombra at the moment, but another day of silence to test her patience was going to be much worse.

Still, nopony said she ever had to do anything today.

She continued to let Sombra flip through the page of another grimoire that had no doubt been found in one of Canterlot's higher-end magic bookshops by the look of the fine binding. It appeared that he didn't even risk bringing a coffee, or anything that could spill on his stack of spell books.

Celestia privately wondered if he ever actually ate lunch.

Each tiny clink of her fork against her plate was all she could do to stave off the silence of the sunny spring day.

...

Their eighth lunch together began with the usual divide. An invisible boundary had begun to form, dividing the table in half. Sombra claimed his half, and Celestia hers. No words were exchanged between them, and every afternoon increased Celestia's growing irritation at this factor.

His coffee was missing again, and the quirky mugs he filled with the typical black brew he favored. One foreleg propped Sombra's head, his forehoof pressed to his cheek. Two tired-looking crimson eyes and the crimson glow of his magic followed each movement of his solitaire game.

Celestia returned her efforts to try to call garden birds to her once more. Her soft whistles and songs went unanswered, and the scraps of her poppy seed bagel were unclaimed. Generations of the castle's wildlife had been known to answer Celestia's calls, especially the songbirds.

She knew that dark magic corruption could make some other creatures wary, even if they lacked the magic-sense such cruel magics could eventually lend to their demon-riddled users, but only if such creatures were already rather meek. Few apex creatures would bother with a demon, and the majority of feral creatures would be bothered by another predator, even if it was an unnatural one.

In the long history of her rule, she had dealt with ponies whose meddling in corruptive magics led to pets behaving oddly, even if wildlife's behavior remained unaltered. She supposed that was another reason to flee into solitude as a dark sorcerer, lest domestic creatures give you away by telltale habits. Luna had taught her that years ago, for she taught Celestia much of the wilds, but Celestia remembered this old warning best because in the weeks before and after the First Longest Night, the Everfree Forest had been totally quiet. Only in its aftermath had Celestia known why that was, when druids she had requested to examine the ruins of her home had confirmed what she never asked.

The animals closest to their old castle had been used to Luna and Celestia, and especially Luna. She had loved the star-beasts and the timberwolves like little fillies loved kittens and hamsters. The birds here loved Celestia. Now that Sombra lived with Celestia, the jays, swans, finches, and other birds known to frequent the gardens had grown shy.

Celestia minded that lunch was drawing to an end and looked to the remains of her bagel again. The birds had changed, and Celestia and Luna had changed homes, but Luna had not stopped loving beasts and wanted Celestia to love her latest beast too. That had remained a constant, and a worrying one. There was nothing that worried Celestia quite like persistence, which like silence had never ceased to trouble her.

...

Celestia could not bear to have a ninth day of silence. When she sat down across from Sombra that day, she did it with purpose. Sombra sat had sat down before her, and his head was resting on the table. His ears were drooping to the side quite glumly. As Celestia had to come to expect from him, Sombra had placed his circlet on his side of the table. Apparently, wearing a sign of his station regularly was too difficult for him to manage. Whether he was tired or dejected, she did not know. He would at least be able to listen to her.

"Why did you tell Luna what was going on?" asked the princess, pointing a forkful of lettuce in his direction.

Sombra yanked the hood of his cloak as far over his head as his horn would allow him to without him damaging it. Then, he groaned. "Is this really going to be the first thing you're going to say to me?"

"I would like an answer."

"We were far past the point of getting out of hoof, and Luna did ask me how I was getting along with you. Did you think I was going to lie to her?"

"Yes, I certainly did."

Under the hood, Celestia heard him snort, and watched a few locks of his black mane move where they spilled outward. "I'm not a liar. Even if I was, I would never lie to Luna."

Celestia doubted this and speared her salad delicately once more. "Is there any reason you are moping today?"

Sombra sighed and his horn lit up crimson, pulling away his hood and he finally sat up and looked at her. Celestia had the urge to point out that his mane still had a bed head look to it and could use some smoothing. "Do I look like I've been moping?"

"You look very grouchy."

One of his ears flicked. "I had to quit drinking coffee."

"Quit?" Celestia asked, blinking in confusion. "Why would you have to quit drinking coffee?"

Sombra frowned and conjured a mane-band, grumbling as he indifferently pulled his mane back before returning his attention to her. She didn't bother to tell him that the work was sloppy and he had neglected to do anything with his bangs. "Does it matter why? I had to quit recently, and that's been what's bothering me."

Chewing thoughtfully, Celestia's brow furrowed and she swallowed. "Yes, I think it does matter. The only ponies I've known who had to quit drinking coffee were those with an anxious condition. Considering how much you've been poking into records, I'm sure you've learned that many of my Faithful Students were anxiety-prone, among other things. I had to steer them towards much more healthy habits. You, on the other hoof, are not what I would consider to be somepony with anxiety."

Sombra narrowed his eyes and searched hers for something. "You shouldn't be prying into this anymore. I told you what was wrong."

"And I think I should know if this will impact how you work. If you tell me what the reason is—"

"Stop," Sombra snapped.

Celestia's amiable, neutral expression vanished and she set her fork down. "What is it that's wrong with you? I'm asking a simple question, and the least you could do is answer it politely. Who even told you to stop drinking coffee?"

After giving her a sharp glare for a few moments, Sombra finally gave her a partial answer. "...Luna and I decided that it would be best for me to stop."

Celestia's magic stirred faintly, and the salad fork clutched in her aura tapped at the edge of her plate with gentle clink-clink-clinks. "I see."

What exactly was coffee doing to him? The only thing she had ever noticed for certain was how twitchy he appeared, and that his eyes followed ponies around more. Aside from that single freakishly paranoid thing, she could not say she had picked up on anything else.

Sombra's left eye twitched, and the left half of his mouth pulled upward in a brief, peculiar grimace. "Now Luna won't be complaining about me smelling like coffee anymore."

She looked away, still recalling his strange expression before she returned to her meal. "That's... very nice."

Why was it that Luna would want him to stop? That wasn't a real reason, and Sombra wasn't anypony who could be hen-pecked, nor was Luna one to do so. Luna was the one that claimed Sombra had some illness, and that his bizarre reactions to things were panic attacks...

Celestia blinked and bit down on a tomato. Panic attacks. Quitting coffee. Celestia was convinced that this stallion had anxiety levels that were equal to the distance that Qilin could throw a cottage, but she would be a fool to admit there wasn't anything wrong with his head. Whatever was wrong with him might mean he had to quit coffee, who was she to know?

Admittedly, she would like to have it before her in clear Equestrian, but knowing she had a piece to a puzzle that she might actually be able to assemble one day was just fine too.

Sombra had conjured his deck of cards again and was starting to pull them out when he bothered to acknowledge that she was looking at him again. "Yes, Celestia? Did you want to play?"

"Oh no, I'm not a mare for cards. I..."

If I don't think of something to say, won't we just lapse into silence again?

"I am absolutely loving the weather today. Aren't you?"

In response, Sombra brought one of his forehooves to his face and sighed loudly.

...

Celestia put her spoonful of jello down and looked at Sombra. "Doesn't reading so obsessively ever get boring to you?"

Sombra peered over his large copy of Equestria on Rails: Travels by Train and other Tantalizing Train Tales. He had fetched it from the stack next to him that also contained From Edinbridle to the Germane Coast: Railways of the World and Lots and Lots of Trains. "No. Why would you ask that?"

"I think this is the twelfth book about transportation I've seen you read. I'm aware of the recent allure of the railway phenomena, but why do you feel so compelled to read about niche forms of transportation? Airships and trains are an unusual subject for a sorcerer."

Sombra marked his page and closed the book. "To elaborate on your first question, no. I can learn anything I want, and have a wealth of knowledge at my disposal. I'm going to use it. I love learning, and reading is one of the best and my favorite way to do that. I prefer pages to ponies."

"I just can't see why you do it constantly. Even my students took breaks. I've had to tell them that they cannot devote themselves to dusty old books past a certain point, though none got that talk nearly as much as Twilight. The amount of lonely scholars I've seen over the years has never been particularly good, either. Don't you think that it is important to not neglect the company of ponies too?"

"No. This isn't exactly a chore for me. As for my 'compulsion'? I like magical engineering and traveling. This is new technology, isn't it?" Sombra tugs at his cloak. "Well, the trains are new. Airships are an ancient revival. Both are fascinating. You're surrounded by so many spectacular things in Canterlot, and there's so much to travel and see..." His expression falters. "I miss getting to travel constantly. Doesn't staying in Canterlot the way you do bother you? Yes, most ponies travel by cart, hot air balloon, or by river but Canterlot has one of the biggest train stations in the world!"

Celestia laughed, not sure how she was to take his ramblings but letting them be. "No, not at all. I'm a homebody, and leaving my city on a whim feels wrong."

Sombra shrugged, and he pulled a folded piece of parchment from where it was tucked somewhere under his cloak. "I'll never understand ponies that don't have a mind that's starving. I can't even begin to fathom rooting yourself in one place and living with yourself. However, I do have this."

With a flick of magic, the paper was unfolded before Celestia. Drawn carefully upon the surface was a rugged, gorgeous mansion with stunning conifers surrounding its lone grounds. The way the land tilted told her that this stately building was perched up in the mountains, even if all the artist had drawn was a forest. Through the dense trees, she could see that the artist had been skillful enough to give the hint that a mountain stream was nearby the grounds. Something about the aesthetic of the location looked vaguely familiar, but she could not say why that was.

"Oh my! That's a very lovely drawing, and I must commend the ink-work. The trees came out very well. Where did you get this?"

"I bought it in Germaneigh."

"This must be the Black Forest, then. All my favorite cuckoo clocks came from there. Tell me, why did you purchase a drawing of a Holzfachwerk-style mansion? Oh, I remember when that was all the rage down there! You never struck me as an art-lover, though."

Sombra shrugged again. "I can't say I'm partial to it, but I didn't buy the picture."

Celestia looked at Sombra, and then at her jello plate. Even the treat seemed to wiggle with the same confusion she did. "You just said you bought the picture in Germaneigh."

He smirked and shook his head. "I said I bought 'it'. I did not say picture. This is my house."

"Your... house?"

"My 'vacation house', as I'm aware this kind of residence is called." Sombra flipped the picture around and stared at the image proudly. "I know that getting attached to a building isn't exactly understandable. However, this place was worth it. The nearest village is an entire day away, and there have been no photographs taken of it. When I visited, I was only able to get my hooves on this. It was painted a century ago, but it's still accurate."

"Why would you want to buy a place so far from ponies? How would there even be energy in this home?"

"The entire estate runs off arcane-hydropower that has progressed with the times, not that it was ever going to be too much of a problem. I don't think I need to answer your first question." He arched one eyebrow before tucking the picture under his cloak again.

Celestia hummed and treated herself to a few spoonfuls of her jello. "How did the Kaiser take you wishing to have an international home?"

"I was informed that it wouldn't matter what I did, as long as I don't dump bodies there."

The princess frowned. "Yes, that kind of distasteful remark sounds like something I would expect from him. This sort of thing is exactly why I preferred to negotiate with ponies who are more pleasant and think it is better to manage more civilized estates. Just what are you going to do with it when you aren't there? Are you planning on assembling your own staff?"

"Of course not."

Celestia's spoon clinked. "Why not? It would be an excellent way to offer jobs to ponies."

"This is my property, I'm not going to have ponies be where they should not. There's a wide array of enchantments and other magic that can easily, efficiently, and expertly serve any purpose I'll need when it comes to maintaining the property. Considering how secluded it is, there's no reason to even try and bring ponies there."

Allowing herself to scowl, the princess looks at Sombra with disgust. "I... I just don't have the words for that kind of behavior."

"Then don't try and say anything about it. I didn't share something with you so you could play the selfless, foolish martyr in our every conversation."

"At least I am selfless. I wouldn't close off my own home to ponies and create the image of a recluse like you have!"

"I want a retreat for myself and my wife that is safe from ponies, and you are trying to belittle me for it. You really are selfless, Celestia. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word — I don't think you could live for yourself if you tried. That's more despicable than anything I've done recently."

Sombra glowered at her and grabbed his books. Contempt burned in his eyes and he clearly wished to end things early.

Celestia certainly wouldn't mind having him gone so that she could have some true peace. They both had facades to maintain in this, did they not? So, she coolly observed Sombra as he moved, waiting for when she could at least pretend that the garden would feel fine when she was alone. "I really doubt that you simply purchased a woodsy retreat for the sake of it."

Sombra stopped and brought his angry stare to her. Only now, she saw that it had shifted. As somepony who pressed her whole essence into a mask every single day, Celestia had to admit Sombra's confusion looked good enough to be genuine.

"What do you mean this time?" he asked, sounding aggravated and confused in equal measure.

"I think there's a specific reason you chose Germaneigh for your home."

Sombra's horn glowed a bit more furiously and he pressed his books to his chest, but said nothing. Why was he still maintaining that look of confusion?

"Luna told me that you've been seeing a psychologist there, on occasion. Perhaps they are a therapist, I don't know—"

Sombra's jaw clenched and now he simply looked angry. "What did she tell you?"

"That you have been seeing somepony of that kind of profession for whatever is wrong with you."

Sombra's breathing was as angry as the rest of him looked. The way his lip was positioned told her that he wanted to snarl at her, or that he was gritting his teeth. Different hues of magic — green, purple, and red — flickered in his eyes. She tried to hide how she tensed up at the exact moment his eyes bored into hers.

Instead of saying anything, he stormed off looking positively furious, and only after he left her line of sight did Celestia realize that he had forgotten to bring his books with him.

...

Sombra was there the next day, looking quite sullen. Confusion sparked in his eye when he saw two plates already set out. Each had a few chocolate chip cookies on them, all warm and fresh. New books were in the saddlebags at his side, the ones from yesterday having been safely returned to him this morning, with only a dirty look exchanged between them.

His ears perked forward at the sight of the treats, but not out of eagerness. Celestia could not say what caused such a reaction in him, but there was no need to guess why he still looked wary.

He sat down before she asked him to and removed his circlet.

Celestia smiled awkwardly and adjusted the vase of a freshly-picked bunch of snowdrops that she had set out. "I think we need to talk about how these little luncheons are going to go, hm?"

Admittedly, she hadn't initially thought of attempting any diplomacy on him. Being a princess had taught her to keep sweet for ponies who were absolutely obnoxious and forge bonds that started with a painted smile for centuries. She had never thought of attempting anything quite like that with Sombra, but she had also had not ever had to act so around anypony she had ever had as a nemesis. Perhaps it was about time she tried.

Celestia inhaled calmly and steadily, letting the sweet breeze graze over her.

Sombra levitated a cookie closer to his face and scrutinized it. "Did you make these?"

"No, I did not. I'm afraid I haven't made anything with my own hooves in quite some time. They're from the kitchens. I thought that you could use some lunch for once, though. Even immortals need to eat."

Sombra let the cookie fall from his magic with disinterest. "I've been eating fine."

"...You have? I don't exactly see you—"

"I don't like eating around others, especially ponies I don't like." He folded his forehooves nonchalantly and looked straight at her. "Can you just get to the point?"

Her smile grew thinner. "Please explain."

One forehoof moved up and scratched behind his right ear. "I get it. I'm not sure how much, but I do get it, Celestia. I'm caustic and you're incredibly disingenuous, but only one of those is as terrible as it sounds. We have nothing in common beyond hating each other and being Luna's family. We push each other into all the exact same situations. Part of me thinks you want these kinds of cycles too. Does it make it easier to blame me? Do you get to be under the delusion of some bizarre self-sacrifice all over again? I'll be damned if I know, because I can't be sure of much with you."

The painted princess smile wavered momentarily. "And how is that so? I would like you to elaborate on this 'cycle' you think we have."

"We are both absolutely terrible in some way."

Celestia nearly choked on the cookie she had been nibbling on. "I beg your pardon?"

"Honestly? It isn't as bad as it sounds. I know that I'm not the kind of terrible you and everypony else thinks I am," Sombra said, smirking faintly. "That's not what you want to hear, or what you're going to listen to, though."

Celestia swallowed the cookie fragment with a cough. "N-No, not at all. Please tell me about what is it that makes me so terrible."

"Everything that you think makes you so great," he went on flippantly, transferring his cookies to her plate. "You can't even try to not call me a lunatic for one day, for example."

Celestia bit down on another cookie. "I see, and for that—"

"Cut the fake apology. Celestia, that isn't the worse thing I've heard about me."

Celestia swallowed abruptly and her mane rippled with confusion. "Then why is it that you got so mad?"

Sombra raised one eyebrow and looked at her all too knowingly. "That never makes hearing those things any easier."

There was something especially bitter buried in those words.

"I am to assume that by this, you wish for me to stop saying these things?"

"I've always wanted you to, that never meant you were going to." With an apathetic wave of one forehoof, Sombra continued. "I'm not one to waste my effort on pointless things."

Shuffling cookies around with her magic, Celestia picked up the warmest one she could fine and nibbled thoughtfully on in. "You haven't told me what makes you so terrible in all this."

Sombra's gaze drifted off to the side, but not nervously. There was nothing waiting there. What could be on his mind?

"...I like hurting you. Many of my actions toward you have stemmed from this, and I don't have any justification worth mentioning for this other than how I feel about you. There is no secret that I can be violent and that I have a terrible temper; when anypony manages to antagonize me at the level you do, they do not survive. I do like seeing you upset, and I'm guilty of making it happen sometimes because that is what happens to my enemies."

Tense with vigilance, Celestia drew up her posture and reminded herself of the location of the nearest guards.

Sombra recognized the look in her eye with a look of stoic acknowledgment. "Don't get so riled up; you're safe, whether you believe it or not. I've never physically hurt you for a multitude of reasons, and chiefly among them is that Luna cares about you. I may be vengeful, but that doesn't make me unwise. I'm no monster who would hurt you when I know how much it could impact Luna. I annoy you. I get under your skin. You go beyond frustrating me and this is all I am able to do. And you know what? I don't think it's right... this isn't anything I would call wrong, either. I've entertained homicidal ideation fondly more times than I care to count in my life — not about you, about others. But I've still liked it — the one-and-done thought of somepony else's death doesn't compare to much else."

Celestia narrowed her eyes and was ready to flare her wings. The whole atmosphere of a tranquil, slightly overcast day of sweet spring serenity was now something much darker. "What are you trying to say to me?"

"Celestia, I'm not going to do this anymore. In all this, what sickens me the most is how you want to drag me backward in this mess. I'm willing to stop, and you should be too."

There was that usual stubborn look in his eyes. What was she to make of it this time? How was she to handle his defiance? What reaction did he want from her?

"Are you saying that you forgive me?"

He chuckled bitterly and let a cool breeze ruffle his mane. "Far from it. I'm not the forgiving type, and there isn't anything 'higher' that would come from letting anything go, not that there usually is. I'm going to give you a chance."

The princess lowered her wings, and let a fraction of how dumbstruck she was bleed past her mask.

"A chance," she echoed, unsure if she had even heard him right.

Sombra nodded earnestly. When the princess tried to find even a hint of deception or some other emotion in his gesture, she could find none. He was either lying quite expertly... or he really meant this.

Celestia wasn't sure which would be worse. "...What do you have to seal your promise?"

Sombra's horn lit with a brief swirl of magic that plucked at the necklace his wedding ring hung from. "My word and nothing more."

"Why would you give me this, ah, chance?"

To her surprise, he didn't say anything for a few moments. She watched Sombra lean back with a private anxiousness swelling in her. He looked at the sky. Whether he actually saw what he thought about in the silvery hues, she wasn't sure.

"I met Luna when she tried to kill me. My niece blew me up before I really got to know her. I'm good at judging others, and I'm even better at being right about them. Perhaps we should see if I am really right about you. Those closest to me often start out as those who oppose me. Maybe there is a pattern, and you and I can tolerate one another. Or maybe there isn't, and I was right about you all along."

Celestia adjusted her wings a touch nervously. "I... I think I follow," she said carefully.

"I'm saying that you might be worth it."

Might.

Celestia bit her lip and let her mind submerge itself in a wash of whispery doubts. Would she, or won't she?

For a reason she could not immediately gather, when she realized that the 'she' of her thoughts was herself Celestia felt like she had been kicked.

"A chance," she murmured again.

"Just one," Sombra confirmed. Did he sound bored, or was that just her imagination?

"I suppose that there is some condition to go with this?" The vaguest detail of demons with riddles and conditions on the fringes of old memories and older legends seeped into Celestia's recollections.

Sombra's mouth curled into the faintest of smirks. "Just one," he repeated with a brief, teasing tone she was not sure that she had heard him use before. "Don't pry."

"Pry how?"

Every bit of mischief vanished from Sombra, and he was utterly somber for but a moment. "You do not pry into my life and history, and I don't pry into yours. When a question grazes anything too personal, we let the other know."

Celestia hummed. "A mutual condition, then. I must say that is quite unexpected. Now, for your idea of 'tolerance'? Is it the same as mine?"

"Unlikely. I use it in the most literal, broadest sense. There is a reason 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' are not the same words, nor do they mean the same thing. We bear one another, disagree, and endure. All are considerably different from what we have been doing." The explanatory, condescending edge to his tone quieted when he did, but there was still a harder look in his eyes. That look questioned her. 'Well?' it seemed to say.

It was not her favored definition, but a definition.

Experience reminded her that she stood at a forked in two again. The right path was down one road, and the wrong its twin. She wished that she had even a hint of what was down each this time around. She could hesitate, and pass this opportunity by, whatever it may be, or be ruled by a single odd step.

"Alright, then. May our 'tolerance' begin."

One twist of impulse it would be.

...

Celestia sat down gracefully, taking her customary seat across from Sombra, her usual smile on her face. In her magic, she levitated a quiche and a mug. While the former was neatly arranged on a plate, the latter was another trinket from a past Faithful Student, and it was crammed with popsicle sticks. Had she brought a beverage with her, she would have ensured it was in fine porcelain, or a proper mug, especially when she had appearances to maintain.

"Up, up!" she said, wasting no time prodding Sombra as soon as she was seated. Just because he was here before her oftentimes did not mean he could bury his head in his forelegs so often. "I have something for us to do."

Sombra groaned and nuzzled further into the sanctuary of his forelegs.

"Please stop doing that. You can't use 'caffeine withdrawal' as a justification for being so tired."

Did Celestia's ears deceive her or was Sombra really trying to scream in frustration into his forelegs and the table? The sound was terribly muffled so she wasn't sure.

Nudging Sombra with another prod of her magic — she didn't dare touch him — Celestia waited for him to lift his head. "Oh please, you don't have to be so morose. I brought a little game."

Two fuzzy gray ears flicked. "What kind of game?" he mumbled.

"It is a game of ice-breakers," Celestia said, cheerily stirring the sticks around. "I played this with many of my Faithful Students to help some of them overcome their shyness."

"...Fine. I suppose I'll bother with this." He shifted himself so that his muzzle and head were propped on top of his folded forelegs curiously while his bright, grumpy eyes were mostly covered by his bangs. "How do you play?"

The edges of Celestia's smile tightened just a bit. The warm sunshine and sweet winds of the new season caused her mane to swirl with something between extra enthusiasm and impatience. "All you have to do is draw a stick, read the question on it, and then we both discuss what is on it."

Sombra eyed the malformed mug boredly. "I'm not sure that's a traditional game, then."

"Ah, yes. I suppose that is because in your mind so bent on judgment one must either win or lose?" Celestia's expression slipped into one of mild disapproval, and her mane flicked on, as lively as her own reactions were controlled.

The response she was treated was the faintest twitch of Sombra's eye. "I was speaking of a game usually having a clearer objective or something that can be learned."

"I'm surprised that you're so unfamiliar with different types of games. I suppose your adjustment to the modern world has not gone so well in all ways, if you cannot even recognize conversational aids as a form of entertainment."

Sombra's eyes showed the sharp annoyance he was unwilling to convey otherwise. "Do you have to berate me already?"

"You do realize that you are already difficult to converse with as you are? Playing a foal's game should do you some good, seeing as the only game I know you to frequent would be cards and other similar skill-less schemes." Celestia smiled at Sombra, her gesture thin and containing buried venom below the overt kindly looks.

She saw Sombra grit his teeth, though he looked like he wanted to hide it.

"Please draw a stick," Celestia ordered, voice oozing sweetness, "and let us begin."

With a rough gesture, Sombra snatched up a decorated stick in his magic and glared at it. "What is your favorite kind of movie?"

While he still looked faintly confused, the movement of Sombra's ears told her that he might actually be just a little interested in the conversation topics she had carefully written in thin marker lines.

She fixed the smile on her face so that it was beamed entirely at Sombra, and kept her tone extra polite. "I like anything with a happy ending. Sweet, silly films meant for watching with friends and smiles. Don't you agree?"

There were three truths to her words that went unsaid. The first was that she imagined Sombra enjoyed much more improper, ghastly genres of film. Secondly, she rarely saw anything alone because then it wasn't very fun. These questions helped her learn what to take her young, more recent Faithful Students to see when their marks were high, or more often she would send them off on their own. She would never let them see anything that wasn't age-appropriate, especially if she knew her student would not enjoy it. The last truth was that anything that wasn't lighthearted tended to sour her mood or made her want to cry.

Sombra shook his head. "I can't say I do; I like mysteries and action."

Well, that is somewhat surprise, Celestia thought as she savored a forkful of quiche. "Is that so? I always imagined you were an enthusiast of bloodier works."

Without a word, she watched his expression fall into a tiny frown. "Not really. If I'm going to be sitting anywhere for hours and simply watching something, I want my mind to be kept busy." A soft noise rumbles in Sombra's throat, but Celestia could not ascertain exactly what it was. "Especially if I'm paying for it."

"Oh," Celestia murmured, "you like heavier themes and such?"

Another nod, and Sombra set the stick down. "Is it your turn now?"

Celestia heard herself say 'yes' and withdrew her own slim stick, eyeing both the words and the ladybug sticker affixed to it. "Who do you think are the most successful ponies?"

"Hmm." Sombra ran a sweep of telekinesis so he tugged at the throat of his cloak. He arched one eyebrow in thought, and it didn't feel especially creepy with how he looked at her. "The most successful ponies are ambitious, assertive, honest, and intelligent."

The princess pursed her lips in one thin line.

Sombra tapped the table's surface. Once. Twice. His eyes were shining with thought. "Did you mean to ask about a specific pony I find successful? Was my answer to the wrong question?"

"No," Celestia replied tersely, "I am only disappointed."

One look full of annoyance was directed to the side, and Sombra scowled. "I should have expected as much."

This was one of the questions that prompted the most varied answers, and one the princess was sure to have each of her Faithful Students asked. Much of their character could be showcased in such a simple answer. Sunset Shimmer had said that royalty were the most successful ponies. Twilight Sparkle had answered with heroes, citing that they were only heroic if society deemed them so. Most of her Faithful Students named a personal hero, like an old teacher, family member, or somepony in their community.

"Well, maybe you'll learn something. In all my years, I've found that ponies who are successful are the ones who claim to know nothing, are kind beyond belief, sacrifice much, devote themselves to others entirely, and—"

"How many centuries worth of fortune cookies have you raided to give me the answers you do?" Sombra interrupted, his expression oddly teasing.

Celestia sighed and let her smile slide into something more plain. "You never seemed like the type to enjoy cheap take out."

After he shrugged, Sombra pushed the little mug back towards her. "'Enjoy' is a bit of a stretch."

The first stick that caught Celestia's eye was one with a tulip sticker on it. She wished that at least she had a young foal or colt before her, that way putting on the appearance of excitement would be less inauthentic. Still, trying to talk with Sombra on her own was better than having Luna learn they weren't communicating and having to be there with them.

"What is an important lesson you have learned?" Celestia did not allow herself to betray any emotion, and held her serenity perfectly. This was one of her favorite questions; she wanted to have no intentional influence on his answer. Words toppled through Celestia's mind eye, all possible replies. Whether he would mock her, answer poorly, or do something else was exactly what Celestia couldn't anticipate.

For once, Sombra's expressions was relaxed and entirely thoughtful. "Telling somepony you love that you trust them was hard for me to learn."

"But it was important?" Celestia added. Knowing you, I'm certain it was hard.

Sombra looks at his hooves and nods without paying attention to her. "What about you?"

He had not even acknowledged the quiche, but Celestia realized he had nothing to eat or drink when she had plenty. Already, her appetite was starting to falter. Normally, she wouldn't eat around somepony unless they had something too. Being ill-mannered was inexcusable in such a situation.

"I am the most inconsequential pony in my life. Ruling a nation correctly teaches one that."

Sombra's expression said only one thing: I could not disagree more.

To distract him, Celestia first accepted the little mug of questions when he pushed it back toward her. Then, she tilted her head back slightly. Along her horn, golden light ignited and let her mind recall some of the snacks in the castle, letting her memory guide how her magic probed the castle kitchens. Her eyelashes fluttered; when she focused again a plain bagel and apple glimmered in her magic and with a breezy gesture, she floated both over to Sombra.

"You must eat sometimes," she chided him, knowing that if she was going to play her part in this game of friendship she had to play her part. Gestures rooted in being polite would more than suffice.

Sombra eyed the food with confusion and she saw how his eyes widened somewhat with his look of hesitance. Such an expression was oddly innocent on Sombra's face. Levitating the apple to his mouth was done with the utmost reluctance. Fangs that sent nervous chills down Celestia's spine nibbled at the fruit's skin. Nothing more.

Celestia remained seated tentatively and tried to draw her focus away from the sight. Today was undeniably lovely — and so lovely that letting the silence mounting between them wasn't as stifling when she let herself bask in springtime sunshine for a few moments. Sombra might need more time to absorb the act of kindness and nibble at that apple. Did he not think she saw how he hid the bagel away in his cloak like a madpony?

Luna was right. Being kind to somepony you loathed was no act of benevolence except in the words of liars. Punishment accurately summed up this ordeal. Why else would Celestia feel sick to her stomach because she was kind to Sombra?

...

One last tug finished the job. A perfect garland of begonia and anemone was strung about the little table. A plate of daffodil sandwiches was neatly arranged on its surface, boasting a little pyramid of the sandwiches. Birdsong rang throughout the gardens, and the princess looked out at the castle garden. Upon her muzzle was a small, pleased smile that came from knowing all the bird feeders were full and she had managed to pull a few extra weeds when she wove her way through the familiar paths.

Under her breath, Celestia hummed a catchy refrain from an older Countess Coloratura song. She rewarded her efforts with a few bites from one of the sandwiches. Her stomach growled for more when the first had vanished, but she did not allow herself another. Some of these were meant for the hideous maw of Sombra too, were he to bother to show up. She really shouldn't have sampled anything herself until her guest had eaten. Silently, she wished he would not notice.

Crimson flashed suddenly, and one teleportation spell finished. Sombra sat aloofly in his usual spot, giving Celestia a plain look of acknowledgment. Obviously, he noted how her wings had unfurled slightly. Ringing in Celestia's head was the instinct urging her to flex them completely and take flight, knowing he was a threat.

"Ah!" Celestia gasped. "Do be more careful with such displays!"

There was the way he arched his eyebrows again, and the steady, almost bored way he regarded her. "That was basic teleportation, Celestia."

She held back the slightest huff and offered him a sandwich.

"Is this your new way of saying 'hello'?" he asked, pointing at the snack as if it might bite him.

Every time she did something nice for this stallion, Celestia was positive she was on the verge of vomiting. None of that stopped the princess from speaking to this monst— Sombra with the pleasant tone reserved for normal matters. "Do you not like daffodils?"

The reply she received was in the form of a clear headshake: no. "I would bring my own food if I wanted any."

"Picking up the habits of a regular pony regardless of whether you must helps your image," she reminded him, nibbling at the crust-less bread. "You should also accept food when others offer it to you. Imagine if you had done this at an important event."

Lectures and words of reprimand were effective ways to establish discipline in any setting. One needs only to mind the situation, severity, and subject who was receiving the lecture. At some point, everypony did.

Sombra took the lecture like water slid off the back of a duck. "Is there some sort of Equestrian holiday I wasn't aware of today? Would that be why you're offering me these?" One metal boot pointed at the platter, the owner of the limb entirely unfazed. The owner of that limb also still had a habit of calling holidays 'Equestrian holidays', much to her frustration.

"I'm afraid that there isn't one, merely something I want to talk to you about."

Sombra's slight slouch vanished. Blinking, the princess watched the demon draw himself to his full height. The silence he offered was concerning.

"I... I learned something about Luna recently." Her voice was so obviously hesitant, even to her own ears.

Sombra scratched at one of his ears with a forehoof. Was the gesture meant to hide the mild concern on his face? Celestia could not be certain.

"Has she been alright? Should I talk to her?"

Hearing plain, understandable amounts of concern for another knowing that it was Sombra who made the inquiries was jarring.

"No, no, that won't be needed. This was when she brought up the... issue of how you conducted yourself around me. There was something else she said..." Celestia brought a hoof to her necklace, feeling tentative. "She came out to me."

Sombra perked notably at her reply. "Luna was talking about doing that for the longest time..."

Celestia used how he trailed off as an opportunity to claim another sandwich. "She finally did, then. I... I was astonished, to say the least."

"No way. That came as a surprise to you?"

"Ah... y-yes?" Celestia admitted sheepishly, still sensing the nervous aftertaste of her sandwich even though she had swallowed the last of the third one some time ago. "Didn't she have to come out to you too?"

Sombra's muzzle crinkled. "Sort of. I never knew for certain what she was until she told me. Ever since she and I started dating, I did notice something about her that was almost like the way I am." He tilted his head nonchalantly. "I never thought to mind it as anything beyond disinterest, and there wasn't a problem with that."

The afternoon felt sharper the longer Celestia sat, chatting and taking things in. Sitting here like this made her realize that even though she had never been fond of him, this was the first time she had conversed with him as anything other than a goalkeeping matriarch and a fickle-tempered fiancé. That private revelation aside, what really stood out in Celestia's thoughts was her own confusion.

Twilight's books had explained more and cleared up some of the questions she had — the ones that she wanted to spare Luna, knowing that they probably would embarrass her or be seen as condescending. She didn't want to hurt Luna's feelings by having to be a meandering goalkeeper again. Worst of all was that none of those books had helped Celestia understand Luna the way Celestia wanted to.

"You weren't surprised, were you?" Celestia asked, her voice soft and a pang of envy already claiming its place in her chest.

"Not at all." When Sombra gave another head-shake Celestia felt the familiar trickle of envy seep into her own disappointment with herself and tangle things up. Wasn't she the one who loved and protected Luna the most?

"She told me something else too," Celestia added, floating another sandwich in her own direction. Somepony had to have some. "Luna tells me that you have supported her identity immensely."

Sombra was absolutely silent. He did not claim this credit, correct her by adding Cadance supported Luna too, or do anything but give her one steady, enigmatic look. Only birdsong and soft puffs of wind above floated between them.

"I... I haven't cooked much of anything in centuries," Celestia began. The weight of her necklace in its familiar place felt strangely awkward. "You can see quite easily that I have little need to... I made you these sandwiches, though!" Up went the corners of her mouth into one nicely pinched smile. Was this how to deal with a demon?

"For me," Sombra echoed flatly, prodding at one with his hoof. Two reddish eyes took in the sight of the platter with renewed curiosity.

"Yes, I suppose you can eat them in your study if you are so odd to refuse them in proper company."

Sombra did not look away from the sandwiches, which he now looked at even more intently. As she watched the bizarre little sight, she could swear on exactly two things, no more, no less. Sombra looked nearly cross-eyed observing the plate, and she was certain the tiniest portion of his tongue's tip was sticking out.

"I'll be taking that as a compliment."

"Good," Celestia said evenly, clearing her throat as politely as possible. "I would also like to add that for supporting Luna..."

No, no, no not like that, she chided herself. The voice of her critical little 'inner princess' cut through her usual inkling of doubt and into the forefront of her mind. That sounds all wrong.

Rubbing two her two forehooves together with delicate motions, Celestia started anew. "If you really do support Luna... that is something not wholly terrible, and I thought you should know so."

Celestia counted exactly three somewhat surprised blinks from the stallion.

"That's nearly a compliment."

She supposed it was, much to her regret.

...

Regardless of their now-frequent conversations, there were still times Sombra just did not seem to get a hint. As voracious of readers as some of her Faithful Students had been, none had ever absolutely barricaded themselves from her. Especially not behind a wall of Daring Do books.

She had grown rather used to her own private idea of Sombra enjoying nonfiction over fiction. Why else would he so frequently have the books he did? Subjects like spellcraft, sewing, maths, and history were his typical fare, and this sudden change had a very fishy air about it. Why, she had even caught him reading materials authored by her, though it couldn't have been for anything good.

"Why are you reading those so avidly?" Celestia asked, taking a dainty bite of a few grapes plucked from her plate. "They hardly appear to be in your usual taste."

"And I must conform to whatever narrow view of taste you have for me?" he asked, turning a page.

"I never took you as a fan of trendy fiction, that is all."

One of his ears swiveled with acknowledgment. "To be fair, I'm usually not. I'm partial to The Adventures of Shadow Spade, though. Good mysteries that I haven't already solved by the first act are uncommon, and ones that I am still invested in even when I already know the end are rarer."

Celestia couldn't believe her ears — he actually was speaking to her conversationally! He had even put down his book!

"Do you know just how predictable the murder mystery genre is to an actual murderer? That's more despicable than any crime I've ever committed." His eyes may have boasted his usual grumpiness and his tone did match, but he was showing her a thin, silly, and very sardonic little smile.

Celestia let out a small snort. "Oh, I think I know that feeling — ah, without the murder." A tiny sneer of distaste crept into the last word. "You live for long enough, and swear you've read the same three romance plots at least two hundred and thirty-three times in one century. I counted, you know! At least adventure stories have reasons to conform to certain rules."

One eyebrow raised with all the questions Sombra had, and he watched expectantly. "There are rules to adventure novels?" The way he spoke made it very clear he did not believe her at all.

"Well," Celestia began, and she popped a few more grapes into her mouth, " I think these could easily apply to any kind of story. If your hero fails, you do not have a good story. That takes away the happy ending ponies were needing. When you show any kind of true evil with any ounce of charisma, sophistication, or intellectual habits, you are a liar and a poor writer. When I see something that attempts to give pain depth and purpose instead of banality, I cannot be more displeased at such an inaccurate representation of life."

Sombra looked at her coldly now, and without his circlet, he had this much lonelier, unrefined quality to him. It was one that still made something in Celestia feel overshadowed, not that she would ever admit it. She could not even name it. "I couldn't disagree more with every bit of that."

His usual glare was creeping in, and his magic and fetched his book again. This was the God of Knowledge, a demon who looked against the grain to everypony else's frustration, and was frustrated by the field around him. It was the silliest thing to be the demon who did what he did, so focused on magical arts in the most peculiar way when he lived in a country renowned for agriculture, weather-manufacturing, publishing, and trade. When he did little worth noting, what ground did his criticisms hold?

None.

"That is no surprise to hear. You tend to disagree with everypony, hm?" Celestia paused to take a sip of jasmine tea. "If I may suggest something to correct that, I would advise you to take a look at any of Twilight Sparkle's published works. Her contributions to sociology have been a light in the dark to Equestria."

Admittedly, the last part was a private little way to rub in something to Sombra: he was not highly approved. Oh yes, sure he was tolerated very well and there was a sizable niche of ponies who did in fact take him quite seriously and circulate his essays and treatises about this and that. But he was no Twilight Sparkle, the glittering idol, hero, accomplished mare, and all-around good mare. No one told their foals to be like him, or spoke of his good name and family at dinner events. He was only just enough to be a prince and remain a prince.

"I've already read them," he grumbled.

"All of them?" Celestia gasped, blinking in astonishment.

"Every. Single. One." Sombra emphasized each word with a page flip.

"I'm puzzled as to why you would put such effort into reading something you so obviously disagree with."

"I wouldn't be able to accurately argue against anything in my own writing if I didn't review what I was against. When it comes to regular friendship material and memoirs her work isn't that bad. How do you think I found out about these?" The magic around his book intensified into a momentary glow of much more sinister crimson.

At the sight, Celestia's magic nearly faltered. Thankfully, she maintained her nervous grip on her teacup. "I see. You browse Twilight's work for... book recommendations?"

Sombra chuckled and brushed a few petals off of his cloak, not minding the wilting table garland with the delicacy the princess would have liked. "I'm guilty there. I wanted to find some books that might suitable for Skyla whenever she visits again."

As Celestia recalled, she had not seen Twilight Sparkle with a Daring Do box set until she was at least ten. They weren't novels marketed to foals as young as Skyla at all. Sometimes, she did worry that Cadance was too permissive of a parent in regard to what she let Sombra do and how often Skyla got to see him.

"Mhm, that's very thoughtful of you, but don't you think that they are a bit above her level?" Could she ever compliment this stallion purely out of politeness and not experience the kick of queasiness in her gut?

"Not when I read them to her. She can still enjoy a story regardless of her current lack of literacy."

Swallowing the putrid emotion growing in her, Celestia kept her calm and nodded. Perhaps a few more sips of tea would ease the feeling? "That is true," she said softly, her mind having strayed from her words long after she spoke them. "Is there anything that prompts you to hunt for books so actively instead of just reading whatever you have at hoof to her?"

"I think the answer to that is simple. I aim to be a powerful babysitter."

Drinking tea while Sombra said that was a terrible mistake, but not for her ill sensation. The way he said that made her giggle-snort. Lukewarm tea shooting out her nostrils and the coughing that followed was a far worse thing than Sombra's company.

...

Neither of them knew what to do when it rained in the gardens. Celestia did not know what to do when Sombra's mood was sour, either. As reasonable as she felt it was for her not to expect the latter, she could at least treat it like most other cases of gloom, by letting it be until it went away. Managing the rain only took one weather bubble casting its luminous gold glow into the overcast world.

Initially, Sombra could not stop staring at the soft light. That had been sudden. One moment he had been sitting at the table, looking listless and sullen, then he had been captivated by the sight before returning to gloom. Of course, she had expected one of those things from him, but listless? For a stallion determined to be busy with something, seeing him appear quiet in a way that wasn't looming or lurking and just... almost dejected-looking was something she did not know her feelings on. That could be worrying.

She was not a mare who wanted ponies to appear dejected. Smiles were made for spreading, and happiness was the only 'infection' worth having. Twilight Sparkle and Discord were not the ones she admired most because they were quiet and melancholy, but because they were bursting with cheer and a sense of fun that made the sky that was her life feel cloud-free.

The princess was a mare of standards. Seeing Sombra happy did not align with those, or all of her wants. There was a part of her that felt that creeping infestation of regret twisting painfully in her chest knowing that there was enough of her that wanted Luna's husband to be miserable. Or, that there was some terrible intersection were 'Sombra' and 'Luna's husband' were not mutually exclusive thoughts.

Somehow, the shadows dancing on the contours of his face were made darker by the presence of light. Sparks danced in Celestia's mind, and outshone the thought of every link in the chains of life that she felt so tangled by. An idea had taken root, and it was not one made with the worries of a weary ruler or the doubtful whispers of her littlier selves.

Celestia thought Sombra was like a cat in his less intimidating moments. He was stressful to deal with, mean, sneaky, and a picky eater. One could not play with cats like most creatures. Much like Blueblood, as soon as they were grown, they were quick to neglect those around them. She had heard every other pony in the castle give a real laugh at some point when they were in her company.

Luna agreed with this conclusion regarding Blueblood and feline natures, if nothing else. In the recollections of Celestia, she knew the ghosts of Luna's words. Sombra was reserved, she said. He made growls both playful (though Celestia had only heard abominable noises from him) and threatening. There was a rumbly purr he could make.

Who knew what other non-pony traits he might have?

Gentle gold aura sprung to life on Celestia's horn and spun itself into something riddled with flecks of fire. Sharp sunfire skipped across the surface of the table's surface as a harmless shaft. She had it whorl about and dance rapidly, making its presence known with fluctuating brightness.

At first, Sombra just made a muffled growl not unlike the sound of an annoyed groan. He kept his head buried in his forelegs without looking at her. She did understand why he wouldn't bother to tell her if something was bothering him, but couldn't he sense magic? Why didn't he just look at her?

Frowning, Celestia called the beam of light back to her horn, though she kept it flaring with light. Reaching out, she tapped him lightly. Privately, she did regret actually touching him. Sombra's immediate reaction was to draw back, growling irritably, and glowering at Celestia.

The last two things he did from the edge of his seat; nearly jumping back had caused him to lose balance. "Don't touch me."

Must he be so hostile? It wasn't as though she had wanted to. "I wanted to show you something."

The light of her weather bubble reflected in his eyes only accented Sombra's unamused expression. "What magical trick was worth mentioning?"

Oh, so he was able to tell that it was magic. "Just something I thought would make you look a bit less miserable. Frowning so much can't be good for you. Just what has gotten you so down in the first place?" She didn't actually want to know his problem, and she was sure that he knew that too. However, asking was polite. That was a game she could never step away from.

Sombra looked sideways, posture drooping just enough to be notable. "Rejection letters came back for the essay compilations the papers here have been fine with publishing. But actual Canterlot publishing companies? They're Tartarus-bent on not letting anything with my name on it get past them."

Celestia disagreed with anything that came out of his mouth, and by extension, all his written works. Sombra was not a poor writer, though. He knew how to debate, and his rhetoric was astounding even if he was so... disagreeable. She had been near-unpopular once, though, and could almost understand his frustrations. He had a bias against him and nopony in a respectable place would likely listen to him. There would be no other reason his work would be rejected beyond that when it was simple to silence controversy.

"As royalty, haven't you considered the option of paying them to take your work in order to get past this? It's entirely do-able. I've had things published that way. This is a good opportunity for you, isn't it?"

"Certainly, I just would rather save more bits for experiments."

So that's why he buys all those things! "Looking outside of Canterlot might help, though I would avoid self-publishing."

Sombra looked at her questioningly. "If I keep getting rejections, do you realize that is a reasonable option for me to consider?"

Not if you want to be taken seriously. Twilight Sparkle does not stand alone and you do. What bigger weakness do you need to be pointed out to you? "Putting the effort into that will surely cut into your duties. Personal projects shouldn't be taking so much priority in your life."

There was the sharp look of disagreement in his eye again. "Celestia?"

"Mhm?"

"Just show me what you wanted to and I'll figure this out."

By impulse, she smiled. Warmth overrode the quiet nausea that came from another act of kindness towards Sombra. (Later, she knew that a single shot of nagging that what she was doing was wrong would manage to slip past mental walls.) "You really wish to see it?"

"Go ahead," he conceded.

Finally, she let the magic she had been restraining flow. The sunfire shaft flickered across the table again. Sombra eyed it hungrily, wringing his forehooves once. She caught him fidgeting, once, twice, three times. Every movement was followed by his quick gaze.

It seems that she had gotten one thing about Sombra right.

...

"You actually can cook," Celestia breathed.

Sombra had little reaction to her astonishment and stuck a fork in his falafel again. "Did you think I had been joking about that?"

Celestia looked down at her own lunch of a large garden salad. Unlike the little plastic bee plates Sombra had brought with him, hers was upon a proper plate. "I did think you might be exaggerating to make yourself more relatable to ponies, not that's a bad thing. I haven't cooked anything properly in ages, but I still appreciate the art."

Sombra chewed at his falafel thoughtfully. "How exactly does that work?"

Celestia shrugged. "After a while... I just stopped. I have a properly staffed kitchen, so there really wasn't the need to continue. I used to make excellent pancakes, though."

"I'm not sure I would consider it an art, but it is surprisingly enjoyable." He took another stab at the falafel. "Why did you stop?"

"I really can't say," Celestia said, idly picking at lettuce. "Cooking was better when there was somepony to cook with. Vanilla Bean, Crème Brûlée, and—"

"Who?"

Celestia blinked. "They were old flames. More than a few of mine have been chefs..." Celestia's voice grew quiet as she traced a hoof along the edge of her plate, thoughts slipping into the past. "I realize that you and Luna know next to nothing about them, which feels a bit silly of me. History is quick to forget who these stallions were beyond being ponies I loved. It's such a shame."

"Luna has actually mentioned them before, when I was asking about some of the pictures in the Solar Wing." Sombra took a long look at the clouds. Knowing him, there was something else on his mind. "If you enjoyed something like cooking so much, why did you stop?"

"I..." Tomatoes were the last thing on Celestia's mind, but she couldn't figure out what else to focus on, and let her gaze droop with her mood. "It just happened, that's all. Without somepony to share things with, I think there's a lot that has been better to give up... so I have. I'm not a batty old mare who wants to lock myself away spending quiet time with books and puzzles, you know."

"You're extroverted," Sombra concluded.

Celestia nodded absentmindedly, her thoughts floating about. Or, perhaps it was just the weight of her crown prompting her to shift a certain way. She didn't give it much thought, though she knew that a long time ago she had been open and extroverted, as Sombra had put it. Now, she wasn't really sure what she was.

"Do you really think that giving up the things you love is good for you?"

Celestia did not like the question, though his tone was more inquisitive than disapproving. "I've hardly given up all leisure, but if it can help somepony, then it is always worth doing. I've never been my priority." One hoof reached up to tap at her crown. "This is, and it's such a shame you don't wear your circlet." She didn't add that if he could wear his wedding ring every day about his neck and have the time to let Luna style his mane on some days, he should have the time to put effort into keeping the only piece of regalia he had on.

His pause told her that he acknowledged her answer and that he disagreed with her, though it was less offensive than she expected, but watching him spear another bit of falafel so viciously was concerning.

For a moment, Celestia's thoughts strayed to the crown and its weight upon her. She knew that Sombra and Luna could not afford to be themselves as rulers. They would have to change, and to that there would be no exception. She couldn't say that she was the same mare that had first started the Solar Millennium.

"Celestia, do you think we could start working on things outside of lunches together?"

Celestia let her fork click against her plate. "I beg your pardon?"

He swallowed the last bite of his food as if he hadn't said anything outrageous. "Social interaction. Can't we do it outside of these lunches? We were just able to have a conversation that didn't leave me tempted to yell at you for something, and it was about something we both like doing. How much more do you need me to explain?"

"Well, I... Maybe a bit more?" Celestia said sheepishly, straightening her fork a few times until it looked satisfactory.

Sombra rolled his eyes with the defiance she had come to expect from him. "At this rate, am I going to have to burn that I will tolerate familial time with you outside of these lunches into the hedge maze?"

"Familial...?" Celestia echoed, horribly dumbfounded and feeling very far away. The demon hadn't actually been referring to her as his family, had he?

A deep churr rumbled in Sombra's throat and he looked just as confused as she did, flicking his ears and tilting his head to the side. "I thought you would be considered my lawful sister."

Lawful sister? Does he mean...?

"Sister-in-law?" Celestia prompted, hearing how uncertain and nervous her tone sounded. "Is that what you mean?"

"Yes, that!" Sombra's magic flared an even more vivid shade of crimson, and the small surge assisted in flinging his fork far into the gardens, much to Celestia's dismay. "I only found out about the tradition after the wedding. Apparently, there's no blood oath for these kinds of pacts."

In all the time she had known Sombra and Luna were together, never had it occurred to her that Sombra would be connected to her through marriage in that way. She wasn't sure what she should feel: worry, disgust, shame, or something else?

"You think of us as family?" Maybe the fork wasn't as nicely arranged as I thought. "Do you understand what family is?" Knowing she still had the rest of the day to bear, Celestia resumed nibbling at her salad.

"Not like you do." Ah, he's getting snippy now. "Rejecting you as family is pointless if you are declared by law as family. I can't pretend to understand why this is done. If I had to guess, I would say that it is a superficial remnant of an obscure pony tradition."

"You don't feel that thinking that way is strange?" Or insane? Goodness, he was still proving to be quite the piece of work, especially when it came to the non-conformity. Couldn't he at least act like a pony?

All Sombra did was arch an eyebrow and use his magic to sweep his plastic dishes into an organized stack and look at her slyly. "Should you really be talking about 'strange' when you're now related to a spell book?"

Celestia let loose a few hacking coughs to dislodge a tomato from the wrong pipe. "E-Excuse me?"

"I married your biological sister. I am the product of a spellbook, and your family through marriage. You are related to a book almost as much as I am now."

Celestia sighed and bobbed her head just enough for Sombra to see. That would be all she did to acknowledge that statement. "What is it that you wanted to ask of me when it came to spending time together?"

"You know more about cooking than me. I'd like to get better. While both of us in a kitchen at the same time is a potential cataclysm waiting to happen, I will accept cookbook and recipe loans if you have any to share."

There were far worse things she could do. Truthfully, this didn't sound entirely terrible either.

"Perhaps I would be willing to try this if you could do something for me."

Sombra shot her an icy glare. "Name the conditions and I'll consider it."

"Please go pick up your fork. That is all."

...

The air beside the garden table parted. In the middle of the air was a pulse of crimson that appeared to come from nowhere and cling to nowhere all the same. Sombra simply stepped out of thin air the next moment, from a tear that emerged when he did. The edges of the 'rip' looked quite crystalline, in a fantastical sort of way. She even caught a faint glimpse of whatever tunnel his magic had woven in-between the world and something about it showed the world differently from the inside. There, she saw the faint flashes of a fantastical, but fractured kaleidoscope sight and thought of how strange it would be to see the world like that, through a tunnel where every sight gleamed like ice.

Sombra promptly sat himself down, and the magic tear was gone just as quickly, like it had never been there in the first place. As Celestia expected, he had nothing to eat with him, just a couple of books held in his aura. He promptly opened one of them and casually began to read. The covers told her that these were among the cook books she had lent him last week.

The banana bread she had been chewing suddenly tasted quite sour. "Was that a display of divinity?" she asked as coolly as she could, swallowing with unexpected difficulty.

His displays of power were always unnerving, but his divinity was especially so. Being known as the God of Knowledge was not something that could be taken lightly. For one like herself, or like Discord, the extent of their divine magical capabilities can be guessed at with ease. In the case of her decidedly hybristophilic daughter, Luna's powers were more abstract. Still, they were non-threatening most of the time.

"Just something I worked out," Sombra mumbled between page flips and not looking at her. "The points between teleportation can be fascinating to travel through."

The brow of the princess crinkled. Messing with teleportation was something unheard of. Theoretically, much could be done with it, but to tamper with the process was not something Celestia and many other ponies understood or ever bothered to expand upon. Celestia still remembered the days when it was considered high magic to know how to teleport because of all the freak accidents that used to happen. Now, those only lurked in the rumors and fancies of the tiniest foals and old news archives.

"I see. Forgive me for my assumptions, then. I've just been a bit curious as to what way it manifests."

Sombra gave Celestia a look she couldn't read entirely. He looked skeptical. "My magic manifests in a variety of different ways. I'm certain you've seen flashes of it before." He eyed the fruit Celestia had near her delicious bread. "Other than that, I don't think you'll have noticed anything. I like exploring all this magic; the power is invigorating." He paused and looked idly to her folded puzzle book and lunch plate again. "Mind passing me one of those?"

Celestia reluctantly nudged an orange in his direction, since he had been eyeing the fruit. She gave the sky a quick glance, minding the silver hues in the clouds. Would it rain today?

The next thing she heard was a growl. When she turned to see what it was, she looked at Sombra and found his teeth stuck in the skin of the orange. He looked immensely displeased, to say the least, making little grumbles and growls at the fruit he had hooked his fangs into.

Celestia simply pursed her lips. "Why did you bite into an orange like that?"

Sombra tore it from his mouth with a surprising lack of brutality that left the little orange rather intact, except for the gaping tear to one side. One glare of displeasure speared the poor little thing. "I've never had one before."

"But you didn't think to peel it first, like everypony else would?"

Sombra repeated himself, his magic peeling away a shred of the orange's skin with brusque motions. Idly, he examined the damage his fangs caused to the fruit. "I've also never seen anypony eat one of these. The thing is about the same size as a pear or apple, and this skin is soft. How was I to know that you peel these?"

Celestia shrugged after a moment and nibbled at a few apple slices. The idea that the God of Knowledge was not endowed with magic-born knowledge or some similar thing as a result of his divinity was curious indeed. Celestia felt such a thing would be more of a curse than a blessing. She was weary of learning and bearing, and if Sombra was Knowledge of all things, would he not be too? There would really only be one way to find out.

"Is there nothing you regret about divinity?" Her thoughts reached around, straying deeper than she would have liked. She thought of god's worlds. Plains of magic were drawn to the new gods that emerged within them, and to these divines, they gifted their names and selves entirely over to the more powerful being, though there was no life, no sapience that could be gleaned from these worlds as far as Celestia knew, they had a Knowing somehow. That was how Celestia heard it was for others, but she remembered things in splinters and rather differently.

Her world was called Radiance and was forged of the heart of a great metaphysical clock, as big as any city as far as she recalled. It moved like a city and formed itself like one in all her memories, and it was always aglow and bright. Radiance was determined to bend itself away from all shadows. All of it was brimming with a bright power, and dull recollection prompted Celestia to think that there was something Matching in that time when it came to the Celestia of ages ago and the world that sought her.

God-worlds were bound and intertwined with the god in ways that Celestia knew not in full, and what she did know frightened her, though she spoke nothing of it. To have something like this feel as though it was connected and below her skin and haunting her rang bells of alarm only she could hear. She had long since started binding her abilities, and though she knew Radiance was there, it was distant. She lacked access to it, and noted the shifts in her magic that were likely a result of that action.

She was curious about Sombra's regrets, though. When he said he was a stallion with regrets and yet acted so differently, he must've assumed such a thing wouldn't stick with her. How many might be tied to his divinity?

"I can't do word searches anymore," Sombra said nonchalantly after he popped a properly peeled orange slice in his mouth.

Celestia opened her mouth a tiny bit, and found no words came out. Closing it again, she let her expression fall back into composure and peered at Sombra doubtfully once her mind was as in order. "Are you taking this seriously?"

"Yes, and I told you what you needed to know. My only regret in godhood is that I can't do word searches now. They were one of my favorite ways to past the time on train rides. Did you expect me to regret something else?"

Of course I did. Why else would I ask him that so seriously? "I... did, yes." Celestia offered a modest painted smile. "What I fail to see is why you cannot do word searches. My book here has a few, and I would like to see what it is you mean by this."

Perhaps what he meant was that he thought he was too good for such common puzzles. She nudged her puzzle book towards him, making sure it was flipped open to a word search. The particular one she had selected was of middling difficulty, so she was sure Sombra would have no problem with the travel-themed puzzle. She had already found a few names of distant cities and countries with ease.

Sombra squeezed his eyes shut before he even looked at it, something Celestia found quite odd. When the book was levitated at a normal reading distance, Sombra opened his eyes abruptly. The light on his horn suddenly went out with the crack of a few crimson sparks. Her puzzle book fell onto their table, askew but still open. His orange and the rest of its peeled scraps fell nearby.

Sombra recoiled from something, growling with his forehooves brought over his eyes and pinning his ears back.

"What did you do?!" Celestia asked, gasping. There was more panic in her voice than she would've liked.

To Celestia's horror, her word search book was burning up. No, not with flame, with magic. Vibrant crimson flashed and when Celestia got a closer look at her book, she saw how each word was glowing. Not each letter, nor any specific row. Horror clear on her face, she saw how every one of the words in both the word bank and the puzzle itself was glowing the same color as Sombra's aura. She looked up to Sombra, and through his hooves and peeked at the little bits of crimson light that were visible despite his effort to shield his eyes.

Then she recalled how crimson light sometimes flashed in Sombra's irises.

Oh!

With one quick motion, Celestia flipped her book shut and pulled it close to her again. The glow instantly ceased, first in the book, and then how Sombra looked like he was recovering from a headache.

Sombra rubbed at his eyes, and moved his hooves away just enough to peer at her, wary and confused. He didn't appear to be hurt beyond the sudden spike of pain a headache might bring, and was so obviously being careful about how he kept himself guarded. Dull light flickers of crimson that reminded Celestia of embers were still there in his irises, until even their glows ceased with a few blinks.

The pause between them carried on with a weighty awkwardness that made Celestia distinctly uncomfortable. Tired of rustling her feathers and averting her gaze, she cleared her throat.

"...Does this happen with crossword puzzles too?"

...

Celestia cut the last bit of unneeded paper away from her picture. Once the single snip had freed the image from the magazine she had so carefully snipped it from. Tiny crabs and shells dotted a beachy border that would be reused excellently in her latest scrapbook. The pages in progress were laid out before her, awaiting borders, backgrounds, and the like.

In each photograph pocket were no photographs at all. Aged charcoal drawings resided behind clear barriers, the slight gloss of preservation enchantments were visible on them. In each image were the sights of rocky shores, sand castles, and muted figures of mortal beach-goers dwarfed by the gray strokes used to form Celestia, her wavy mane kept under control with as many mane clips as could work alongside her regalia.

From across the table, Sombra peered over his latest pile of books, flicking an ear as a nearby bit of dandelion fluff grazed it. The plain pictures with their lonely, boxy, and prominent sketchy lines somehow caught his attention. Perhaps he focused on them because of recognition. No matter how loose the style was, Celestia knew that her image within each picture was clear.

"Those aren't recent." Sombra's observation could've been chalked up to a good eye for detail, or the more obvious dated look of the clothing other ponies wore, even if Celestia herself remained. "Where did you get them?"

Celestia stared down at her pictures; she didn't like how Sombra looked at them, not that there was anything malicious or annoying about how he eyed them. She just didn't like it. She spotted herself easily in one picture. The artist had made sure Celestia was the center of every single drawing. In this particular one, she was like a swan in a duck pond, only she was an Alicorn on the seashore. Ponies frolicking on the beach were not captured in as much detail the farther they strayed from her. A smudge of regalia graced her body even in leisure, for who would she be without it?

The Celestia of the past turned back towards the artist, and to her subjects around her wearing an expression of vacant sweetness that the ponies of the period wanted her to have. The Celestia of the present tried to will some kind of connection with the image or herself. She had the ability to look at all sorts of representations in herself in statues, photographs, and all forms of artwork across the ages, and never once had she recognized them as herself.

"From Sea Biscuit," she murmured, pushing away the fork from her nearby salad. Then, she realized Sombra was waiting for an explanation. Of course, he was. Anypony would be. "He and I were lovers just about six centuries ago. He was a chef and aspiring artist from the coasts of Baltimare."

"Are these from Baltimare?" Sombra asked, twirling a fork against the spaghetti lunch piled on his silly plastic bee plates. She never understood how he could eat it without even a bit of butter or cheese. Pasta was made for toppings.

"Yes, these scenes are some of his sketches from when my duties brought me to his home city. Traveling was much more fun with him, you see. That stallion knew how to make a mare laugh." She patted one of the pockets with delicate fondness. "The poor things needed a new book to call home."

And that was simply what she loved in a stallion — or a draconequus — was the ability to make her feel like she was soaring with light, happy feelings no matter what came with life and routine's roulette.

Sombra looked to one image where Celestia had been raising the sun from the beach shore. Monochrome rays blurred into most of the drawing's background, giving the appearance of a visibly hot day captured in the loose strokes of charcoal. "Why does the sun look like it's melting everywhere in that picture?"

"Bisky had a love of capturing my sun in some... notably abstract ways. I suppose that was why he never surpassed the 'aspiring' rank; his style was not one that sat well with the popular looks of the time." Celestia carefully applied the last touches of paste to the back of a nice umbrella cutout. "Thankfully, he gave up the pursuit after some time. We always disagreed about his art and its reception. Bisky had many other talents, you must understand. I always told him of all the things he could be, and that I loved him. He listened." She hummed, affixing an elegant seashell sticker onto the page. "I've always kept every piece he ever made, though. You won't believe the auctions I've had to frequent to find a few of these."

To every stallion she had loved that had tried their hoof at art, she had been the Muse of Muses, more than she was to any who simply knew her as their princess-goddess. When such words were showered on her without restraint, it would have been cruel for her to allow any of her lovers' works to be sold off as antiques.

She brought one forehoof to rest on the two pages she had before her. The paste would have to dry before she could turn them to work on the next ones. Until then, she could look at each aged piece from Bisky. He had always drawn the sun so prominently, more so than was natural. In each picture, it was her halo, her curtain, and its light always had the look of wavering water, no matter the lack of color. "There were just so many more sensible things to be, and his own cutie mark called him elsewhere."

Sombra chewed at his pasta thoughtfully. "Have you ever wanted to be anything else?"

"Anything other than what?" Celestia asked, resting a hoof upon her necklace for some imagined reassurance. Truth be told, she felt rather safe, or at least as safe as one could feel around Sombra.

Sombra nodded to her crown. "You talked a lover out of something they enjoyed, not that there's any problem I have with that. I wasn't there; I don't particularly care. I hear about different things in life that ponies have wanted to be or have a calling for. I never wanted to be a prince, but here I am. Luna has wanted to be all sorts of different things, like a pirate, a drifter, an artist, and a psychologist. Part of me is surprised she still bothers with being a princess."

An ill feeling grew in her stomach with his last statement; only her refinement kept it from showing. She didn't want to doubt anything, not now. Let those feelings strike her when she was not on her lunch break, for she really wished that this would remain a break.

"Yes, I've always wanted to lead. As a little filly, I knew I had been born a princess and that it was something to live up to. I've had no reason to aspire for anything else when I've always been needed as a ruler."

Sombra's fork twirled through the pasta with a few flicks of his magic. As it wound around the teeth, Celestia wondered if it was from one of the recipe books she had lent him. "Have you really wanted this, though?"

"Yes," she said quickly, "of course, I do, not that something like that dictates what must be done."

For once, Sombra's eyes were showing something clearly. They said she spoke too quickly.

"I see," he mumbled between bits of pasta. The answer was a curt one given to a reply he did not agree with but cast nothing against. At least, not aloud. "Do you have any more personal pictures like this?"

Celestia tensed up as soon as he said that. "Personal how?" she prodded, voice hiding a steely edge.

Sombra calmly arched an eyebrow in response, horn glowing almost teasingly, not that Sombra seemed aware of that. "Something that doesn't involve royal duties, perhaps in in the vein of a vacation?"

"No, I have nothing of the sort." Celestia picked at her salad, truly feeling a bit confused. Though, what exactly she felt it for, she did not know. Call it a general malaise, and one she was accustomed to with Sombra. "I may travel the world and Equestria frequently, but I cannot neglect business. Can you not see how irresponsible that would be?"

"Have you ever just gone anywhere for the sake of it, Celestia?" He tapped one metal-clad forehoof along the edge of the table.

"Again, my answer is 'no'. Why are you so preoccupied with thoughts of travel when Canterlot is such a fine place to be? Goodness me, there's no purpose in galavanting about when all is quite cozy at home." The sound of her purely conversational laughter drifted through the air with the light wind. "There isn't a single bone in my body that begs for such a thing! I'd loathe to remove myself from anypony who needs me."

Cutting past her expected noise was the faint clinking of Sombra's fork against plastic. He eyed his food with a look Celestia found was too close to apathy for polite company. "Don't you ever long to be anywhere, ever? Or like seeing something different?"

She chewed at a piece of lettuce, and admittedly most of her thoughts were drifting to meetings and what the weather might turn to. "I am pleased with where I am. Though, I do like seeing neat little nooks in new cities. There's always a wonderful eatery anywhere you can look! Oh, and nice parks! Seeing what makes every city the same is always so sweet."

The sound of a fork clinking was heard again. Sombra looked at Celestia with startling intrigue. She could only purse her lips, straighten her posture, and look to the side to hide her own flightiness at how sudden he was. She hoped that there were no guards walking about too closely that they could see her talking to Sombra. Oh, yes, she knew that it was obvious she was here, but it never sat well with her. Being visibly nervous around Sombra wasn't anything she wanted anypony to know. Just being seen having these lunches with the demon was already punishment enough.

They didn't see anything, did they?

"Celestia?"

Oh. He was still looking at her. "Yes, was there something on your mind?"

While he offered no smile, he eyed her in a decidedly normal way that bordered on... friendliness, maybe? She could never be certain about him.

"If you could go anywhere in the world, where would that be?" he asked, still looking at her so calmly. "The chance to go anywhere arrives at her your hooves. Where would you pick?"

Oh, she wasn't fond of silly games of fancy. They ended up being rather wasteful, and were hardly much fun. Still, there was no harm in playing along with one or two questions. Heavens knew she humored nearly everypony at some point in her life when image and service depended on it. "Is this for a summit? Have I been called somewhere?"

He simply shrugged, adding, "If that's how you want to see it."

"I'm at least respecting border laws in this hypothetical, aren't I?"

Sombra's left eye twitched in momentary irritation and his magic moved in a way so that his fork scraped against his plate. The brief noise proved rather dreadful. "Only if you want to."

"Laws are laws," she chided, "so of course I shall. I think that I would head to Maris. The city is always filled with such a bustle and so many agreeable ponies."

"I've always wanted to see a fjord," Sombra chimed in, with a tone far more enthusiastic than the princess was used to hearing from him. "One with no yaks, ponies, or another sapient mind." He paused, minding another forkful of pasta. "Actually, I might want to take Luna, too. She would love it. I would love it — nothing but remote seaside, snow, and wilderness."

Celestia could not help but laugh. "With the chance to go anywhere in the whole world, you would pick some desolate old cliffside? Oh, that is a good one! You can find nearly any place like that, so why not go somewhere a bit less dreary? Or cold?" She wished to add 'civilized' but did not.

The constant small frown she expected from him returned. "I've never seen the moon rise over the ocean before, not like that at least. The skies would be so clear—"

"There is hardly any pollution in Equestria, you know. Luna's efforts can be seen quite easily from the Manehatten skyline now that she is the one managing the night again."

"The experience wouldn't be the same. Tartarus' flames, one of the few places you can find a midnight sun is past Yakyakistan and you're telling me you wouldn't want to see it?"

"I've never seen my sun at midnight," Celestia murmured just loud enough for him to hear. "But are the only reasons you can think of to go galavanting around the wilderness?"

"Certainly not." Sombra was looking past her now, wearing what she considered his trademark 'thinking scowl' that made him look far too gloomy and brooding, in her opinion. "Taking a long train ride and all the hiking would make it much more enjoyable than flinging myself in a metropolitan area as soon as an airship landed. I think a fjord would be a very peaceful location."

And you are such a peaceful beast?

He wasn't touching what was left of his food, which was almost as awkward as how he ate: little, thoughtful bites where he 'snuck' forkfuls in his mouth as soon as she did not eye him directly, with discreet chewing and swallowing. You would think he hated chewing, or some other crazy thing. "I think," Sombra said slowly, "that if I were still mortal, and I was ever willing, I would have wanted to die by a fjord."

"That is absolutely ghastly," Celestia said sternly, "and I shall be hearing no more of that terrible talk from you. Death is not a subject that I shall hear approached so directly and with such morbidness—"

"Hold on," Sombra cut in, fork no longer in his magic and his forehooves folded stoically to match his cold looks, "I'm not going to point out how hypocritical it is for the mare who has made multiple attempts on my life and is surrounded by death to say that to me. I don't expect a being born with a nature like you to understand the feeling, either. Leaving me any time to explain myself would have let me tell you that I didn't mean whatever you probably thought I did."

...Surrounded by death. Those three words created a cold pit in Celestia's stomach and sent her headaches and whispers scurrying about her mind. Little naggings popped up quickly when she didn't want them to. She hated those words. Hated that they were true. Hated the fascination she used to hold for them. There was so much hate buried in deep things about those words, and the bizarre invasive musings of mortality she had known over something she never could.

(Had death not always been something that happened to everyone else?)

"What," she said with a low, scolding voice, "did you mean?"

"Have you ever been in a waiting room?"

"Of course I have." Unfortunately, part of her added.

"I've heard about more than I've been in," Sombra began, "I've still seen that the ponies setting them up an attempt to create an environment with minimal stressors. While it doesn't always work, it can be used to soothe or to manipulate somepony indirectly."

She did not give a single sign that she agreed or displayed recognition with such tactics, nor did she scold him for being cynical. All she did was motion for him to continue.

"Somepony dying doesn't want to die on a battlefield, or in a hospital. They want to be somewhere they don't feel threatened and can feel any satisfaction remaining at when they do die."

What bothered her most was that Sombra could not say 'pass away' or 'depart' like nearly every civilized pony.

"Cemeteries and crypts are terrible to me. Had I met a mortal end, I would have wanted there to be nothing left of me, and I would have wanted to be left somewhere like a fjord, whether I was a restless soul or not."

They said nothing to one another as they began to clean up their presence, it simply began. Celestia was surrounded by all Bisky's drawings, alone in the garden with sunshine, loud birdsong, and all the senses of spring raining down on her in all life's glory. Suddenly, it all felt quite putrid. All the creeping reminders that came from thousands of years of the inability to feel this bizarre mortality her ponies had danced about the edge of her mind.

Each one of Bisky's sweet sketches reminded her that at his funereal, she had not cried in public, though in private she bawled. No, she was reminded of how she stood alone for hours after he was buried as she stood by the graves of many she held dear, and that among the things she had tippy-hoofing about her mind as the fixation of what it could be like to know that with every motion of a shovel, you would be buried far from the sun.

How did that feel? How did living knowing that your life was not limitless feel as it weighed upon somepony every day, invisible or not? One day, the blade would simply fall on a mortal. How did they manage? Was it enviable? Terrible? Centuries ago, this had eaten at her until there was nothing left to eat, but no inquiries were ever answered. They were terrible things to think, she knew she should feel guilty for ever letting them cross her mind. Luna's inability to even bother with such things and see her eternity as pure delight was more terrifying than facing the judgment of the dead worlds to Celestia.

The fact that Sombra lived every day as he could still die was one of the most frightening things about him. If she were to venture that any bit of him could actually be of interest, it was not Sombra himself. It was that he was the only immortal that had any experience with mortality, rather than just knowledge of it. He may not be able to die or even feel a longing for death and act upon such a thing, but if he ever had that would stay with him.

Sombra himself was not what prodded such a buried fixation, then. She really did want to ask him what dying felt like, if only because she could not understand it and had made the mistake of dwelling for it. And it was because she had the tiniest part of her that wanted this was all she needed to know that no part of her would ever permit herself such a thing.

...

Celestia only woke up because she had to. She was sure that was why everypony else woke up, too. Everypony had somepony else they needed to be there for, and something required of them. Maybe nopony else thought about how she had to wrangle a kingdom, a draconequus, a kirin, and a gaggle of other royals not limited to her peculiar daughter. Time might as well not begin until a clock ticked away the first seconds of one's schedule, and there could be no day until she raised her sun. (And, perhaps, fueled her brain with a caffeine haze and affixed a smile to her face.)

She needed the bustle of the castle, that she could say with certainly. It existed as its own miniature city, which she preferred to it existing as merely her home, as some drafty old manor could might be. Noise took the place of introspection, and the beat of conversation lulled her senses somewhere nice and bright. Somewhere outside her own head, and its mustier shadows. She knew Sombra would grumble that she was an old nag with some regularity, like how Dissy conjured tiny umbrellas in her beverages regardless of what they were, simply because he knew it could pull a chortle out of her.

(Was she an old nag? At least, in the literal sense?)

The gardens were not just a place for cultivating beauteous blossoms, but for growing the right thoughts and reinforcing the right mindset. Yesterday's rain and gloom was clearing up perfectly, a result of the efforts of Cloudsdale weather pegasi and Canterlot's magical weather arrangers. Puddles still gleamed and gathered where the light had yet to reach them.

One little table of stone, where she now sat, still bore marks and the cool feeling of moisture. One familiar demon had a modest pile of books, whose spines boasted content on the subjects of cartography, sewing, enchanting weapons, and archaeology. His reading choices wouldn't have stood out to her today if the combination had been less unusual. There were days when she simply didn't note exactly what book he was burrowing his muzzle into.

He had a newspaper out, too with a considerable amount of the crossword in the Galloping Gazette filled in. She had been mildly surprised to learn that his magic sight did not impact those particular puzzles. Still, she liked looking up from her own little project to catch a glimpse or two of the bizarre ability in action.

Magic without lighting one's horn was something that could be done among unicorns and other horned magic users. Though, it wasn't anything traditionally common, to say the least. With time came control, and Sombra clearly had some control of his magic sight. Crimson light would flicker in his irises faintly as he read, something that wasn't immediately noticeable. She liked to think the flickering made a sound, like a camera's shutter when a photograph was taken. That was likely due to the nature of when he did this.

He had told her about how he used his sight to further his dabblings into memory magic and 'capture' the moments he read, and the content he was reading. While he was not one to go into detail about his magic to her, he did tell her that the reason his irises would flash at some times was that he was 'retrieving' such 'instances' from within his augmented memory.

Clearly, it was some sort of demon thing clashing with divinity.

Yes, the whole concept and process was baffling and completely unheard of to her, but she liked to think it was a little bit like scrapbooking. Storing away memories was not unusual to her, even if she knew that Sombra's method was one of a kind and absolutely insane, but she did know that the pastel pink paper she chose for backgrounds was as fantastic as this ability of Sombra's was likely to be mostly harmless.

From the cloth bag next to her, she retrieve a piece of lightly colored ribbon and carefully tied it. Once a bit of paste was applied to the tiny bow, she found the right place to put it above one of Qilin's hatchling pictures. She recognized her smile in the photo as one of a nervous, wounded animal hastily managed for the sake of normalcy, publicity, and reassurance more than they usually were. Just looking at it now made her feel an echo of the terror she knew she was choosing to bury then. Discord, on the other hoof, was overflowing with genuine excitement. He clutched their little kirin like a birthday filly showed off her favorite new toy. And yes, she did mean 'birthday filly'. Dissy's eyes were visibly sparkly and held an overtly girlish quality.

One half-muffled trill rumbled momentarily. The faint murr reached her ears and she fidgeted with uncertainty, looking to see the source.

Sombra was looking at her scrapbook without any of his usual stoicism. The semi-usual and practical braid he had to his side gave him a more inquisitive appearance. She was never sure how to react to his vocalizations. Luna gushed over them and adored them utterly and unsubtly, much like how she was around little foals. He refrained from all but the shortest of little unhappy noises and grumbles around most ponies, but when it came to Cadance, Shining Armor, Skyla, and Celestia he was a bit more liberal with them. It was chilling, in some distant way, when she realized that he was actually fairly quiet around ponies. She could've sworn he was more vocal outside of her interactions with him with the same certainty she could use to say that his noises troubled her.

But she said no such thing. She kept to herself how bizarre it was to hear his distinct warbles, growls, trills, and more from a beast as big and threatening as he was, and how made otherwise innocent noises from any other animal suddenly be a quick trigger for a nervous clench in her stomach. On top of her general unease, she was still sickened with the most kind gestures she made towards him.

"Yes?" Celestia prompted. Her own calm tone was a fine mask for any hint of imperfection in her voice, but the disparity with her voice and what she knew in her heart caused hollow feelings to tug at her. She was used to them. "May I help you with something?"

"You and Discord have been involved before I returned, and I still don't know much about the two of you the way you know about Luna and me. This is despite that we are..." He waved one forehoof in a circle, the look in his eyes sharpened and his book forgotten as he clearly tried to find the right words. "...lawfully-bound siblings?"

"Um," was all Celestia had to murmur. Both her forehooves rested across her family scrapbook for the kind of needed assurance that came with dealing with Sombra's... whatever this was.

"We're attempting socially engaging like family?" he suggested earnestly. His magic swirled about with thought, stroking his braid as he searched for the right wording. "Does that sound any better?"

"Ah..."

"Conversing with lesser degrees of suicidal intent than ever before? Come on, Celestia, you're more of a polyglot than I am. There's got to be something in your lexicon to describe whatever kind of behavior we try to accomplish with these lunches in some language because my Equestrian isn't doing me any favors right now."

"...Talking?" Celestia ventured with the utmost awkwardness. "About my crafts? I'm afraid that I too lack any idea for a grand term... Oh my goodness, did you neglect to bring lunch again? What did I say about that?"

"You lent me cookbooks and lectures, and I only accepted one of those things," Sombra said crossly.

"You have to start eating like a pony. I didn't lend you A Cunning Casserole Codex so that you could keep being sneaky about nutrition. If you keep this behavior up, I'll make you sandwiches again!"

"See, what kind of a threat is that?" Sombra's exasperation through gesture was as obvious as his critical tone was to her ears; his forelegs were held somewhere between what she was supposed to take as an innocent shrug and a loose, open gesture. "If you're going to argue with me, at least threaten me right. I'm nearing the point of concern, and neither of us wants that."

"I want you to eat properly and quit being such a spoiled brat about 'I'll eat when I want to'. That is nonsense, and if you keep acting like a brat, I will cut the crusts off just for you. Again."

Pure disgust and confusion overtook Sombra's features quickly enough to startle her. His forelegs flailed angrily and she saw his eye twitch. "WHAT COWARD CUTS THE CRUSTS OFF SANDWICHES?"

'Cowards' was not the word she would use for somepony who favored their food so, but Celestia couldn't use any words when she was choking on her own chortles.

That was enough to snap Sombra back to his senses. He looked at her with astonishment for both of them, having realized she was close to laughing because of something that he said.

"Forgive me for getting carried away there, but I am serious about you starting to eat. I have vegan books I'd allow you to borrow if you take good care of them. You seem to be doing fine with the ones you're already using, but why don't you eat? I know you don't have to, but you should try."

Sombra murred again. This time, the sound was more worried in pitch. He still looked at her, but fidgeted under his cloak. For all his habits of infrequent manestyle changes, the cloak was always the same. Nopony had whispered about it, thankfully. While clothing was optional for anypony, Sombra had to wear something any time he might be seen.

"I don't like eating in front of others."

That... had not been the answer she expected. However, it was supported by his behavior.

She did not let any surprise show. Such a thing was especially done for such a minor remark. Sombra had no allergy known to her, nor did such a behavior align with anything Celestia could call neurotypical. Twilight Sparkle and quite a few other Faithful Students had been more than picky about food textures and other things. Who was to say Sombra was not the same? Truthfully, it might even explain a few things about him, especially with what Luna had told her.

"Surely eating in front of Luna is no problem?"

He nodded absentmindedly. Was Sombra bored?

"Is the same true for Cadance?"

He frowned, tilting one hoof in a 'so-so' gesture. Celestia could not quite recall them both eating in the same room at the same time. Or maybe it was that Sombra always had coffee and she mistook it for food?

"How about Skyla? Do you eat around her? She's certainly at an age where I'm sure you've had to show her that snacks are meant to be eaten, not played with, through demonstration?"

"Sometimes," he mumbled. The more she tried to get a clear answer out of him, the more he just shut himself away.

Sombra's refusal to eat around ponies started to strike her as uncannily as how there was no living memory of her crying. They both refused something.

"Why do you do this to only some ponies?" She stretched her wings and was already tidying up the littlest bits she had used for scrap-booking when she asked him.

She could see him grit his teeth slightly with the lightness of somepony more reticent than angry with her.

"Celestia, ponies don't do the majority of their bodily functions around others, and especially not without provoking disgust. This one is far from foul, and yet that doesn't make it any less like bathing or..." Sombra's muzzle crinkles suddenly. "...other things."

"Oh yes, that makes sense," she chirped, watching Sombra only look more distant in response. Did he realize she was just saying that? Was she too obvious?

"I only eat around the ponies I trust; it doesn't feel as gross then. I don't know how I can make that any clearer to you."

After how they treated one another, how was it still a surprise to Celestia that he did not trust her?

...

"You were asking about me and Discord," Celestia said. One finished scrapbook was tucked under her wing and the sun was high on a new afternoon.

"I did," Sombra said levelly. His eyes had already found her book. "You want to show it to me...?

She was wearing her normal princess smile when she nodded. It was rare she showed off her sketchbooks so personally. Normally, she would just submit copies of photographs that were to end up in her finished projects to newspapers when they asked to do an article on her. She'd give them winning smiles, Princess Celestia-isms, a glimpse into a life polished for sight, and she told another chapter of the life of Princess Celestia to that mare's adoring subjects that would last until she returned to the castle feeling like a complete stranger and...

...and...

She wasn't always sure what followed. She did know that the ponies in her life were Luna, Dissy, Twilight, Cadance, Shining Armor, their foals, and Blueblood. Everypony in Equestria knew that she cared for each one of them dearly, what they did not know were the complications and every word beyond the outline in the story of her life.

Once she had sat down, she opened her book to a random page. The faces of herself, Dissy, and Qilin all smiled back from page after page of photographs gracefully framed with bows and countless little appliqués worked into soft fabrics bordering each clear pocket.

"He and I have been together since Twilight was gifted her castle." She smiled more in spite of her desire for polite moderation.

The warmth that came with talking about somepony so beloved was delightful. Some weight she had been bearing today was dissolved so as long as this conversation continued she could feel the warm echo of love and the particular light fuzziness hers brought her. She loved Discord for his general inability to be serious but was still far from Sombra's flavor of facetiousness. Where did ponies think she got some of her best jokes from?

Sombra's gaze drifted to a picture of her and Dissy on one of her trips to Ponyville years ago. A bunch of lilies was gripped in his paw and the tentacles of an octopus, along with a few streamers, were poking out of the all-purpose basket that he had selected for that picnic.

"There's no way that's all to your story."

"Oh, it isn't," she assured him, flipping a page. Discord was dressed up in this photograph, clad in an inverness cape, galoshes, and cap while clutching a magnifying glass. Though his conjured garb was the sort of thing that the infamous detective in one of Sombra's favorite mystery series might wear, on that day she had been given only a bubble pipe and bow tie as Dissy went about 'investigating' the statues that had been added since his time in the gardens.

"I had been planning to... make an effort to arrange a reformation for him after Twilight and her friends sealed him. The Elements of Harmony had saved Luna..." Celestia paused to gather herself, giving the photo as much of a wistful look as she would permit herself. "...I wanted to know if the Bearers could save my oldest friend, too. Thus, I made some very difficult decisions and tasked those mares with doing what Luna and I had too much history to do."

"You were friends with a draconequus?" Sombra asked quickly. His eyes were already analyzing her expression for an answer before she had formed one.

The suddenness at which he was scrutinizing her was uncomfortable, certainly. However, she was glad she had a chance to talk to him today instead of leaving him to delve into reading and related discussions. A mystery anthology rested comfortably under his forehooves, and she was not looking forward to hearing about the inaccuracy of the deerstalker cap assumption and further impractical situations for a private investigator to be wearing one as often as ponies thought he did. She could only wish that Sombra would stuff his muzzle in his latest volume of detective fiction (which she could now safely infer was among his favorite genres) and keep it there.

"Did Luna never tell you that we knew him?"

Sombra kept his eyes glued to her photographs. "Luna has, just not as much as you might think. She knows him differently, and Discord doesn't do conversation that fits my standards."

"Ah. You find him difficult, I suppose?"

She knew that Discord had honestly put more effort into talking with Sombra than she had before Luna wanted her and the demon to have lunch. Those words meant little considering Discord would happily talk to anything that moved in search of some fun, and make something move if it didn't.

Through Discord's chattering, she had learned that he found Sombra to be a brooding sourpuss' he declared to have the social skills of an end table. She had leagues more in common with Luna than Discord did with Sombra. One of them was silly, energetic, and a poster of what Equestria's ways could do to help somepony. The other was grouchy and a dreary hopeless case.

"Precisely. Just because I can convince somepony that household chemicals are worth ingesting a few times does not mean I can understand them entirely or manage them."

She knew about that too. Draconequui may have a unique ability to process nearly anything, and when their immortality was considered...

Well, Celestia knew about how Sombra had convinced Discord that consuming such materials would be some kind of a 'prank', though it was most likely done to give Sombra the morbid confirmation of knowing that her Dissy's stomach could in fact handle the consumption of bleach, and other things Sombra saw fit to 'request'. That wasn't something Discord wouldn't chatter about with her.

"I'm not surprised you of all ponies find somepony difficult to get along with. What is it about him you need to ask about?"

"I want to know your side of history with Discord."

"Why do you want to?" Celestia asked. Did he have some kind of plan he needed information to fulfill?

"Different experiences produce different stories, for one. You know how Luna and I met, and even if I live with you I have no idea about you and your partner."

That's... a surprisingly normal request for him. "Well, that is a very long story, are you sure you want to hear it?"

Sombra shrugged. "We have the time."

Now, the princess most certainly didn't like anything about Sombra. From behind the mask she held against the world, Celestia did spot one thing that she could claim as fulfilling about him and that only his company had managed to ground in some way. There was nothing she was more petrified of than confession, and little she went to such lengths to avoid. She killed the chances to admit to things like a top assassin who silenced their targets. She could get relief in scrubbing away any feeling of genuine, personal, mask-shattering things that came from letting honesty taint her, and what opening such a gaping abyss in her could show with that one traitorous quality.

There could be no confessions. She was a personable mare, not a personal one. Nothing was scarier than the thought of a confession meaning something. With Sombra, she could confess just enough to him that would be a fairly moderate amount from any other pony, and her confessions would mean absolutely nothing.

Author's Note:

[Revised for print on 5/26/2023]

I had to split the last chapter into three (compared to what I had originally) in order to avoid a huge 40k chapter. I get it, I can write long chapters and this story kinda exploded but I'm not writing Background Pony or anything.

My laptop did break during the last part of editing this chapter. I was able to get it working for one last update, before tranfers & computer-y things happen and then everything will be posted on my new laptop. RIP Ice Star's First Laptop 2014-2019. If there's any typos in this, it's cause I didn't want y'all to have a super late update. Sorry guys, stick w/ me here.

Also, someone said they liked Sombra's bee plates. They've returned. Don't think I neglect to read my comment sections.

pls gib more i liek comments