• Published 19th Aug 2017
  • 6,582 Views, 201 Comments

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 10: Husband of Hers, Part 7

"Why are we so gloomy today, hmm?" Looking up from her petite mug of lemon balm tea, Celestia evaluated Sombra's glum looks. Since she had learned something odd about him she couldn't unravel, she had been doing her best to pay attention to him. Today, he was the rain to an otherwise carefree-feeling summer day, and the latest breezes running flowing through Canterlot were filled with mountain air holding the distinct crispness of fall to come.

Carefree to everypony but Celestia and Sombra. He was having some sort of odd bout of near silence, only grumbling a few things here and there today while looking quite insulted by nothing particular. Meanwhile, her whole inside was riddled with concern that her relaxed disposition gave no hint of and no stress-relief was working as she wished it too.

"It's not about anything new."

That was all he appeared willing to say. Perhaps he was intent on attempting to remain stoic; such a feeling was one she could understand. Something was just so obviously irritating to him; the notebooks in his saddlebags were untouched. No matter how much time passed, she could not trust his temper and did not wish for him to be bothered for long.

She returned to her tea, and in between bored turns of the cup across the table and measured sips, she tried to string along an appropriate conversation with him. So far all she managed to get was one-word responses about the weather, which was what she had apparently resorted to while her thoughts steeped. Words just came to mind, as if from their own tunnel of thought, and left her tongue with ease as a result of ages of meaningless small talk to twine her will about somepony.

When she learned of Sombra's apparent youth, she had thought that there would be something instantly transformative about the experience and conclusive in how she thought of him, much like how getting a cutie mark was for any true equine. All she expected was for her exercises in thought to amount to some understanding and clarity.

Thoughts of cutie marks had a hypocritical edge to them. Celestia's cutie mark was one of importance, and she had always kept that as her focus. Otherwise, she had no real memory of the day she got it or any meaning it had beyond raising the sun.

Time was no doubt the culprit for such a thing, and her memory of the day was a patchwork of half-recollections with no emotion attached to any part of the event. Her fragments were mostly just assembled from secondhoof experiences of something she should have never lost. She knew what she looked like at that age, the exact feel of snow on her coat, and enough to outline the rest and let Luna's words add anything extraneous to their normal conversations. Still, realizing that one day something was just not there anymore was disturbing in a quiet, tentative way that could manage to creep up on her. She was so used to rehearsing the same answers about her cutie mark legend (and really, part of it was a legend, even to her) to ponies that this surprised her.

Knowledge of Sombra was quickly becoming like that. There was no transition into something calmer, like the silence that fell between her and Sombra. She was left to watch him as he looked out at the gardens, head tilted back somewhat, and how his loose mane was windswept. There was an expression that Celestia read as glum boredom on what she could see on his face.

Dropping her focus to his circlet, she zoned in on how the steam of her tea curled in front of the emeralds from where she sat. In her jumbled thoughts were two main roots. The first was an old one, only it sprouted some new doubts. How could an adult stallion have been controlled, in any sense of the word, by a child like Onyx? Such words only felt like a poor justification to shift barbarism and tyranny to a party that might as well have been imaginary. That had wormed its way into her thoughts and stayed there.

"You don't normally have that look." One of Sombra's eyes had found her from under his bangs. "What's on your mind?"

She stared at her tea as though it could give an answer. "I only was thinking about why your unhappiness is so persistent."

There, was that a safe answer? He looked hesitant to offer an answer now; she had clearly caught him off-guard.

"...I'm not in the mood for one of your lectures. Especially not for another awful positivity one."

For a moment, the second root of Celestia's thoughts was now clear again, his words offering a distant reminder. She was starting to get Sombra to speak around her and feel more at ease, at least by her best guess. Their tolerance could be delicate, but it was there. Luna certainly seemed to think so too. The whole process was akin to getting an unruly child to adjust to change. When she thought of foals now, she thought of Sombra and how he commented on her Faithful Students and youthful susceptibility.

Did he know from firsthoof experience? Had he really been a foal with such a life... could he have been brainwashed? Led to evil by a peer like Onyx? Could a child even have murdered Starswirl the Bearded? There was so much that didn't make sense to her, and already she could feel the gentle heat of steam floating up from her teaware to caress her furrowed brow.

"I won't," she said quickly. Perhaps too quickly; Sombra had what looked like a suspicious glint in his eye. "Sombra, would you like me to, ah... promise?"

It was a bit of a stretch to promise anything to him. As a demon, she had no clue if such an oath would be binding or if some curse would rebound on her because of some sinister property Sombra's existence had; there truly was no way to tell if what she was offering was dangerous. If such a situation did seem likely, she would just talk her way out of having to risk anything.

"What would you even promise with?" A sardonic edge of amusement had crept into his tone, and it was enough for him to actually pay attention to her. Resting his muzzle atop folded forehooves, Sombra gave her unwavering stare of flickering crimson. "What are you to swear on?"

"Err..." She tapped one forehoof on the table lightly, in order to hear her shoes clink. "My sun?"

Any hint of brighter emotion was gone from his face.

"The castle? The Elements of Harmony? I could do a formal oath as a princess... I... would you wish me to swear as a goddess? Upon the founding of Equestria? Upon Starswirl's beard?" The last one was a bit desperate, she had to admit. How could she be at fault when it was a popular expression among scholars? She lived in the City of all Cities of Scholars! Some habits of ponies were bound to rub off on her.

Sombra managed to produce a condescending, dry kind of cough in the back of his throat. It wasn't even a full cough, just something like a snort, and just as flippant. "Definitely not the last one. Our eyes and Tartarus are really all that knows just how hideous that thing was."

Something snapped to life in Celestia, and her smile cracked into one that was considerably more sincere. Yes, she knew she didn't know how to feel about him saying 'our eyes' in a way that was so... inclusive and suggested a foreign unity they had for something. "Indeed! Oh, you have no idea just how ugly it was. Beard hygiene was not the same in those days! Plus, the ratty thing was nothing more than plain and simple overcompensation."

Sombra's sudden cough startled her. The sound of her gasp was drowned out by the loud, choking sound and the shock that was flashing in his eyes.

"Are you choking?!" She reached a hoof close to him, careful not to touch him. There wasn't even enough time for her to react to the amount of alarm in her voice. "What's wrong? Do you need water?"

"N-No," Sombra wheezed. His sides were moving rapidly with each breath he was so audibly drawing in. "Fine. I'm f-fine. Tartarus' flames, I had no idea you could tell a real joke."

Joke? Baffled, Celestia could only offer a few flabbergasted, rapid blinks at first. "...I wasn't joking..."

Ignoring her, Sombra continued to laugh genuinely while Celestia looked on speechlessly, unable to do anything but marvel at what she didn't think was possible. Her own jaw was agape in a tiny 'o' and the only thing she was certain was that her eyes were wide, as if she was catching sight of something ghastly.

Sombra.

Sombra was laughing like he meant it.

Only the pop of magic and pulse of crimson aura bursting into existence brought her out of her stupor. The first sight she was 'treated' to was Sombra, who had leaned forward slightly and was peering at her with much of his usual seriousness restored. An empty glass of water was by his circlet. "Do you need me to slap you?"

"Um. No..."

Lightheadedness rendered all of Celestia's thoughts nothing more than stunned fluff. He had heard her, hadn't he? Without a word, she watched as he raised an eyebrow, deadpan and familiar once more.

"Are you sure about that? All I need is a nod."

"I... yes. I'm very sure... you just..."

"I just what?"

"You laugh... very loudly?"

The demon's eyebrow rose just a bit more. "You just don't think I can really laugh, do you?"

"Yes, that was true... and I apologize for any awkwardness... I've just never heard you laugh before." Wringing her hooves a couple of times, she realized her tea was cold. "Really. No need to think about it."

Quiet settled over Sombra again, and this time Celestia watched carefully as his expression shifted just enough to be totally unreadable; she was sure this was the quiet of somepony who was disappointed or troubled.

"You still haven't told me why you're such a grump today. There won't be any lectures if you tell me."

He sighed without any attempt to hide the annoyance in the gesture. "I decide not to tell you. Then what happens?"

"I'll be reading Twilight's friendship reports about better communication to you out loud."

"Trying to read them to me," came the grumbly correction she expected.

"Well, yes. Now, why don't you tell me? My job is to help ponies with their problems. I might be able to help you." She smiled at him like she would at any subject who was uncomfortable, only she felt the sour taste of nausea burning the back of her throat again; the unexpected presence causing fear to clench in her belly, no matter what was on her face.

"Hearing the staff say that I should be gagged every time I open my mouth is..." She heard him lash his tail and a darker look crossed his face. "...infuriating."

"Sombra—"

"Let's not forget how often I'm told I should have a..." While interrupting, she spotted clear hesitation. He cringed, swallowed, and there was the briefest shaky look in his eyes. "...I should be wearing a gods-damned c-collar because of how I 'follow her around'. Stars know I'm only married to her, and still I'm regarded as some kind of filthy pet over her husband because I have the audacity to talk to her in halls and be seen with her. Do you want to hear about how a little coven of maids think I should have a bell too so I don't 'sneak upon on anypony' because approaching them is something they think is harassment coming from me? Would you really like to hear about all of that?"

"They really say all these things to your face...?" Celestia frowned, her tone hushed. She was trying to imagine the cheery staff ponies she knew so well speaking so when she knew them to part graciously around her like water. They loved to gossip, and Luna did say that there was behavior like this... but surely most of them were still too afraid to speak to Sombra? What of how he treated them too?

"Yes," Sombra insisted. "Of course they have. Those maids of yours are better rumor mills than they are window cleaners, for one. Half of them would be gone now if the fate of their employment was in my hooves."

As much as she hated to hear her friends called such things and hear how he thought so little of them (which is why she was very reluctant to let him hire any staff), she was willing to bite her tongue to help him. "What about how you treat them?"

"What about it?" Sombra groused. "None of these ponies are being paid to spend their whole shifts chatting. Telling them they aren't performing their jobs well and when to get back to work isn't a problem. Ponies who think that they can slander me any time I'm alone and say whatever they want about my wife and me without me yelling back are the kind of idiots who would poke a sleeping dragon. They aren't all trembling and passive goody-four shoes who will shuffle off to wherever you order them without objection." The expression of disgust he had was impossible to miss. "You think I've been acting this way unprovoked, haven't you?"

"I... I just..." Pausing, she gathered her thoughts. "Do you even have names?"

Sombra scowled, looking disgusted. "Did you think I wouldn't? I have a list in my study; I'll give you a copy."

"I'll be having a talk with those ponies, then. Such talk is not something that is permitted within the castle, and it certainly is something that is dangerous to say about royalty..."

"Because polite conversation is the surest way to cure the defamation Luna and I endure?" His absence of faith truly stung, and Celestia kept her eyes downcast.

"I... I always like to think so. Do things go beyond remarks about collars?"

"Yes! All the time! I get the worst of it, of course."

Was she really going to have to start looking into her own friends like this? Polite talks were how things started, but depending on the details her ponies could lose their jobs over what they were saying. Luna had tried to talk about terminating the employment of a few of the maids she found particularly nasty, but she had to approve such a decision too. Loyalty to her family and making the right decision by supporting her friends became a choice she kept putting off, so as not to hurt anypony.

She had already lost Raven because of Sombra... and as good as she had been with her staff-friends, Raven had always been better, and a superb pair of eyes and ears among them. How else would Celestia learn of all their birthdays so inconspicuously, without prying into files irresponsibly? Such a sneaky action was meant for... other inquiries.

"I-I see... in what way is that?"

"Everypony says more to me and is more insubordinate with me, knowing you try to restrain me. At the end of the day, Luna still gets hurt by their words, and usually more than I do. Knowing that and having to see her upset hurts the most in all this."

What popped into Celestia's mind at Sombra's last word was when Luna told her about Sombra having bad dreams. Did he have them like Luna had the Tantabus? Was there some deep insecurity he had that he and Luna shared? (Could she even admit to herself that she was still unsure about why he had them?)

"Something will be done about this—"

"Will it really? I've stabbed ponies over less." Sombra coughed. "Much less."

She was just going to pretend that he didn't add the last part. Everything else was stirring a sense of wrongness in her. Did she not have an obligation to at least... look into this? For both Luna and Sombra? Nothing had happened yet, and he already didn't believe anypony would even try and help him...

Nopony had said they didn't believe him or that no action would be made...

He might as well have said to her 'No matter what, I think I'll be blamed instead, and that no help will come'. That mentality was more devastating to her than Sombra's problem could be. Thousands of years of life had let her see so many ponies like that, who felt that because they were an unpopular victim sort, they would continue to be harmed instead of helped by anypony. She may not remember what her cutie mark really could've meant beyond solar power, but she did always tell ponies that her sun also signified bringing a less literal light to them by helping others. That was why Equestria happened; the great kindness and unity of ponies were something she had fostered.

"Yes, it will..." The taste of bile was in her mouth, but her chest felt fluttery with both good feelings and nervousness at what her next two words could bring. "I promise."

Why was it that Sombra still didn't look convinced?

...

There were many things that Celestia could not bring herself to admit, and one of them was that she wasn't sure she liked it when Sombra was happy. Yes, there was improvement between them, but one does not neglect the knowledge that they still speak with a criminal. At the same time, she felt terribly ashamed knowing that Sombra's pariah status was exploited in order for ponies to get away with humiliating him. The whole situation was much like kicking an ugly sort of pet with a foul disposition: no matter how wrong hurting such a thing as Sombra could feel, how could it be seen as entirely unjust?

So far, she had gathered that at least three maids were going beyond toxic with what they said to Sombra... and they were all ponies she knew well as good ponies and easily called friends. Seeing them gone would be almost Raven-tier despair again. Heavens know she still hadn't gotten over Raven. Everything was boiling down to her own guilty procrastination on the matter; she found herself just trying to pretend there was nothing under the rug while doing her best to monitor Lily Blossom, Lemon Fresh, and Clean Sweep discreetly and half-wishing the excuse to let them go for some other reason that would make her feel less guilty.

With so much weighing on her mind, she put so much of her energy into trying to look present and presentable at the garden table, Celestia had let her own tea go cold. Beneath her ivory calm, she was sure the cookie she had to nibble on would taste sour.

Sombra sat across from her, utterly absorbed in a spell book. It was as though the magic circles and symbols marked so clearly on the cover had drawn him through bewitchment. Instead of food, a laughably out-of-place recipe book for pancakes was near him. The silly aged thing was covered in her hoofwriting and such a bright floral pattern that it was starting to become an upsetting sight. She certainly wished she hadn't lent it out to Sombra. Goodness, it felt like he was flaunting it right now.

Overcast summer skies may have given today a boring kind of a drag, with the hint of probable storms, but to her, it was an oppressive and grim climate. She wanted to distract herself from the tangles of obligations and friendship and the knowledge that by aiding Sombra, she was no doubt doing a terrible disservice to all the crystal ponies whose blood was upon his hooves. Distraction from the barb of such negative, nasty thoughts and conflict was what she really wanted to put her energy into. What would be dull enough to cloud her mind?

Her eyes came to rest on Sombra's book. Little inquiries about magic bubbled into her mind; there was something she needed an answer to.

"Sombra, do you know anything about geas magic?"

The book snapped shut and the somewhat bleary look he had in his eyes vanished. She knew he always liked to attribute the latter to caffeine withdrawal; now that their conversations were no longer chock full of awkwardness, insults, and always trying to get around the other in some odd, lengthy way she noticed these things. (Especially when Sombra usually gave glum and tempted side-glances any time she had coffee in front of him, which was often.)

"Geas magic? I think that's Trottish. Geasan arts are something somepony would generally have to dig around to know about..."

Nodding, Celestia watched him through a veil of calm; gears had to be whirling in his head with how bright the spark of concentration was in his eyes. "I'm no expert on it, but I know enough about it. Were you looking for somepony with experience with it?"

She waved a forehoof dismissively. "No, no, not at all. Without Twilight around like she used to be, you've become a bit of a magic consultant to me. I know you tend to have more experience with... trickier kinds of magic. Twilight is more properly a mare of research."

Sombra pondered that for a beat, perhaps unwilling to share his thoughts on being described as such by her. "All my experience with it is secondhoof. Are you sure Luna wouldn't be better with this? She's who I go to for help when I need it. Her magical knowledge is on par with mine."

"You'll be just fine." She caught him eyeing her untouched salad and tea, the former had been pushed around and picked at, but not eaten. "Would you like this? I'm not exactly peckish today, so you may have it if you wish."

With a nod of acceptance, she pushed it over to him. Sombra was quick to pop a few forkfuls in his mouth as though he hadn't eaten in a week. As he did, Celestia felt a rare twinge of discomfort at the dissonance between her tone and how she felt inside.

"Secondhoof or not, what is it you know of geasan?"

Sombra swallowed quickly. "They're about the closest thing to legal mind magic that you're going to get, aside from sedating spells." A tomato fell victim to a frighteningly accurate stab from his fork. "A geas isn't even proper mind magic, not like what dark magic does. I trust that you're familiar enough with them that you know they can only be inflicted upon the caster. Was that what you wanted to know?"

"No, I was already aware of that. If it endangered my ponies, such magic would have been outlawed." She paused, watching him scarf down a few more bites. "I would like to know if you are more familiar with the construct of a geas..." Tiny crinkles formed in her muzzle. "Or if you know their more conventional uses... would that be anything you can tell me?"

She was thankful for his shrug. "Certainly. They're for spies, usually."

Celestia nodded, glad to be keeping up with him so far. "Oh, yes. I've had mine use them throughout the ages. Everything from anti-monster operations to espionage can require them in order to keep ponies safe."

Aside from rubbing at his coat awkwardly at the mention of monsters — perhaps out of fear? — Sombra only affirmed her statement with a nod of his own. "Exactly. When a unicorn can just be taught to construct something in their mind to supply them with an alias and the compartmentalization needed to keep a pseudo-personality fragment separate, conventional disguises aren't required. Those couldn't protect a pony from being interrogated and from any magic or methods to reveal lies. I've known of mercenaries who use them."

No doubt to trick the guards who work so hard to get the more criminally inclined of such a demographic. Such a poor use of an ability. "Did anypony ever tell you how to make them?"

After Sombra took a few thoughtful bites of the salad and nodded partially. "Only that the general idea is to shape the pseudo-personality into anything fairly close to oneself, or an aspect of oneself, only absent of mens rea and knowledge of what wasn't supposed to be shared."

Before she could stop it, there was a puzzled look on Celestia's face, and she was pretending to concentrate on how his magic poised the fork. "How might that go?"

"Think of it from the perspective of somepony in a mercenary's position. You're still somepony who will be spotted now and again. A pattern of behavior can be noted. If I was a unicorn stallion who shaped the geas of a polite, concerned citizen it would be too much of a divergence in behavior. I want to avoid being apprehended for a robbery and escape questioning, not shape myself into a clueless dolt likely to have every unsolved crime in the last decade applied to me for my own incompetence and suspicious behavior."

"Oh..." Was the reason really so obvious? "That certainly makes quite a bit of sense, how silly of me to think otherwise!"

"Yes, unless you are lucky enough to have no real presence anywhere and minimal records sticking to an aspect of yourself to switch to is what works. Earth and pegasus ponies just need disguises and fake names, if you think about it, and there's no real art in that. Is it any surprise they get caught more? That, and it's one of many ways to produce a result closer to 'Do It Yourself: Brain Damage' than a functioning geas." Sombra snorted in disgust.

"Umm..."

"I've heard stories. You won't believe the kind of filthy amateur that can manage to get their hooves on this kind of stuff. There are easier ways to blow your brains about, trust me."

Celestia shuddered and forced a smile more like a grimace than anything else; she was certain that if she held it for any longer than a few seconds the slippery, oversized thing would slide off her face. "That's very creative, Sombra. These tricks really have changed since the last time I paid attention to them. Magic like this escapes my focus for so long, and before I know it such powers have been worked out considerably when they're back under my muzzle... or that is how it feels. I can't say I have my sister's way with words."

Never in her many years of life did Celestia ever think that somepony would find a way to eat lettuce suspiciously, and yet Sombra was doing just that. "Weren't you the one who approved of geasan magics in the first place? How can you say that?"

A wave of listlessness swept over her, and Celestia let her flowing, bright mane hide most of her hollow shrug. The gesture rolled helplessly into the rest of her body like it did not want to be seen at all. "Ponies did not let them remain in their approved fields, as I had intended centuries ago. Now you can encounter materials that instruct in such arts outside of the military and in the hooves of no cultured spy, but those of a common criminal."

Once the word 'common criminal' left her lips, Sombra's expression soured at record speed. Goodness, she should have counted on that, shouldn't she? "Seeing that happen is why I can say that. I approve these things, I do not always see what becomes of them. That isn't even my job, not when it comes to enforcing magical laws."

She wasn't sure what she was supposed to make of Sombra's visible disappointment. He did not even have the pouty variety of disappointment that Celestia had seen countless times upon Luna's features. On Sombra, disappointment was most often blended with annoyance.

"That could be changed..." Flicks of his own aura teased at bits of his mane momentarily.

"Mhm, many things can. Is that all you happen to know?"

"I know only a bit more." Sombra snuck the last bit of salad into his mouth. "Have you ever attempted a geas before?"

"A long time ago. I would not consider myself specialized with them in any way. However, I did make use of them in the Court of the Unicorn Tribe and in the time and after Luna's..."

She never could manage to say it. Not when she felt like herself, that was for sure.

"Starswirl taught you them?" Sombra cocked his head to the side and managed to still look hungry.

Celestia winced inwardly. Acknowledging this would be deeply uncomfortable, to say the least. Already, she could feel how a slight motion already caused a terrible ache to lash through her mind with her flaring discomfort. Every geasan within her mind felt like it was crunching about when she knew no such thing was possible, no matter how things felt. What she did know was that she was going to have to wrangle a stray dissociation like Sunflower under the binding of a geas in time.
Eventually, she nodded. "He taught me some." Each word nearly burned her tongue. "I actually managed the rest of dabbling on my own."

"Dabbling?" Sombra echoed with more interest in his voice than she thought she would hear from the stallion so quick to deem her incompetent. "You've actually managed geas magic?"

Celestia dipped her head into a modest nod. "It's nothing that special. I had Faithful Students who required assistance with them and the first royal spies did have geas training from me. So, you'll find I'm not much of a specialist."

Sombra was quick to scoff at her reply and pull his chair closer. "That's nonsense. Any specialization in geas arts is worth acknowledgment. They're tricky things, if not uncommon, and all this about your ability being 'not much' is ridiculous."

One forehoof waved with the brusque dismissiveness she knew him to have, though his words were quick to stun her.

An embarrassed pink glow was quick to color her cheeks before she could stop herself. What reaction was she supposed to have to such a peculiar murderer saying such things to her? "I... That's very... Er, are you sure that you mean to say—?"

"Take a compliment," Sombra grumbled, his tone holding a sharp, hissing edge, "I do not give them lightly."

One gold-clad forehoof muffled a faint squeak, which drew a snort out of Sombra.

"Never did I think I would see the day when the large Goddess of the Sun managed to sound like an overgrown mouse, and yet here we are. Is there anything else you wanted to ask me?" Sombra nods to his closed spell book. "I wasn't planning on sticking around much longer."

Deciding to focus on her forehooves as she folded them before her, Celestia tried to clear her mind of any awkwardness and distraction. There was something she wanted to ask; she needs only spin it right.

"I haven't done anything with geasan in quite some time, and I trust your knowledge of magic is more intimate than my own."

Celestia's words caused Sombra to lose his nonchalance. The shrugging motion he made looked very uncomfortable, and it puzzled her. The way he did so and ducked his head partially reminded her of a child trying to hide from teasing or troubling remarks made by one's parents to a house guest, often under the guise of a joke. She had seen many examples of such behavior from the relatives of various Faithful Students throughout the ages.

What about anything she just said was able to get such an unusual reaction from him? All she had done was commend him, in a way, for being a variety of magical beasts. Wasn't that worth calling attention to?

"I've wanted to know how a pony using multiple geasan might fare, and your experiences with similar magic and this sort of thing are my best bet." She smiled at him, but he still looked like he wanted his withers to engulf the rest of him with his strange shrugging powers.

"Multiple geasan?" Sombra's mumble echoed some of her words. Clearly, his mind was eager to dissect things. "Are they deconstructing the previous ones before casting newer constructions? Dulling or swapping them out and keeping them maintained and charged? Give me an idea."

"No, I meant more like if... somepony cast multiple geasan and manages them minimally, doing nothing to minimize or take away the others. Each one is kept active long-term. Like cake layers."

"By Luna's stars, that would have damaging side effects. Why somepony would want to try that escapes me." With the shock now gone from his face, Sombra shakes his head and mutters something to himself. "My guess is that they would end up with memory loss. I don't know what degree, and this isn't as educated a guess as I would like it to be. A geas isn't really anything I can feel that well; they're unseeable knots of magic deep in somepony's brain. Those things blend in to my sense because they fit natural magic patterns very nicely unless they're malformed to the point of something nearing a rupture or a natural shift between the geas and caster. Their general stealth is actually rather impressive. Even to me."

"That's fine, Sombra." Her voice was too perfect for her thoughts. Yet, she knew this. She had always known that this would happen. Was she supposed to be surprised? "Do you think anything else would happen?"

"Eventual brain damage, I presume." To something so catastrophic, all Sombra did was tilt his jaw in a manner resembling a shrug.

She knew she was nodding; Celestia just couldn't feel it happen.

"And here I thought that was a realistic possibility for a spy tactic; how silly of me!" Why did she know what to say?

Sombra's chuckle sounded like it shouldn't be coming from right across from her. He belonged entire planet away from where her mind was. The remainder of their conversation should be screamed across continents. "I found the question interesting enough to answer for you. You are distinctly out of touch with magical arts. I'm not much of a tutor, but if there's ever some time when you would want to tag along with me for completely legal hobby trips here in Canterlot, I might consider it. In fact, I have an errand tomorrow. I need a potion ingredient that the castle is out of. There's a great deal I got on it in the city, and you can come with me."

She felt her eyes flutter. Was that not a good sign? "I... I..."

"No, Celestia, I can't always find a 'substitute ingredient' and me trying my hoof at potions isn't a surprise. They're still magic."

"I... I'll think about it...?" Why did she make it sound like a question?!

"At the rate you're taking to answer me, I'll have to be doing your thinking for you." Mere unintelligible grumbles later and Sombra had already pulled his hood over his head and was trotting away. "Meet me here tomorrow if you desire to appear competent. Bring a shovel, too."

...

No matter how great the duties of the princess could be, the days when she woke up feeling so rooted in the life of Celestia were her worst days. She didn't like her, didn't want to be her, and was reminded of her all too often. All she wanted was to work her way into the mind of somepony else by putting a bit of distance between Whoever She May Be and Who Celestia Was each day, then she knew she could manage to feel a bit more grounded, and perhaps somewhere pleasant too.

All Luna wanted was to have Celestia around, no matter how noble the latter's efforts were. She and Sombra were the hardest to hide things from, and she never had to hide anything around Discord, but goodness did she have to make quite the effort with the other two. Now, Sombra actually wanted to go on an outing with her. That alone made her feel butterflies of nervousness beating their silly wings in her stomach while the chilly wind teased her mane.

Celestia only knew he needed a shovel, but there was no way she was going to stand about looking like a fool with a shovel in the middle of the gardens. Instead, she had secured one of her old gardening kits filled with sensible tools like spades, small rakes, and watering cans. She had to spend quite some time cleaning off the dusty thing too; the last time she really put energy into gardening was before she was saddled with then-young Cadance. The fabric covered with needle print marigolds now poked out from under her own ornately-bedazzled saddlebags.

She could count on Sombra to surprise her, but Celestia knew she could never count on Sombra to pack a proper lunch. Her saddlebags had plenty of room for those too, thankfully.

Sombra showed up in a flash of teleportation, neglecting any regalia or armored boots while Celestia refused to do so to hers. Instead of a cloak, he had decided that a trench coat was somehow a suitable outfit for summer and one he didn't appear to find sweltering and ludicrous. He looked straight at her saddlebags first, so clearly judging them. "There had better be a shovel in there."

"Good afternoon to you too!" Celestia piped, forcing a smile. The upbeat Sapphire Shores melody she had been humming had died alarmingly quickly. "I do in fact have some spades."

From under his bangs, Sombra gave the dark overcast sky a wary look. "Those will have to do."

"I packed lunch too." She was extra polite about neglecting to mention that all he had with him was a burlap sack slung across his back.

Sombra was too busy concentrating on the renewed, bright glow of his horn to acknowledge her. The sight of such a red glow on a grim appendage like Sombra's horn on a day when gloom had only been building since sunrise did inspire a skittishness in her, but not one that threatened to ruin their outing with her hidden discomfort. Today was already choked with tiring, buried feelings of emptiness and malaise. Celestia was sure there was no root to them, just centuries of knowing that letting them try and go away was what worked.

What should be working.

She didn't even have time to wince at her own thoughts before Sombra's spell was cast and colors exploded before her eyes, along with the rest of the gardens.

...

Gone were gray-drenched skies and uniform stone paths underhoof. A world of blurred hues and frequent gleams explodes before her, popping brightly in and out of sight. Every bit of the colors of the world that made up her beloved gardens now bleed around her, intangible and muddy.

Celestia hears herself yelp, and her startled thoughts feel like they've been jolted into connecting with the rest of her. She turns her head to and fro, eventually moving the rest of her with the motion, causing the contents of her saddlebags to jangle. Oh yes, she knew that Sombra had done this before because this kaleidoscope plain was familiar. Suddenness was what got her like this; she was the one who was supposed to be prepared for every twist and explain every spectacle of his with certainty to her subjects, not appear equally stunned.

To see something so bizarre from an inside perspective and be bombarded with this kind of shift in perspective and sensation was not to be embraced. Celestia didn't even think it could be. This wasn't like dipping into any magical plains she had been to before, and even that wasn't exactly anything she really liked to do. There was just something so obvious about how she did not belong here, no matter how many times she had seen him do this before.

"All you see is what it looks like inside when everything is in a halfway state." Sombra caught up with his own words, stepping out from somewhere she had not seen. The kind of stoic expression she dreaded having to try and pick apart masked his emotions. "I trust that this shouldn't be a problem?"

His words were a tripwire and she would do herself good just to step over them. Somehow. With an exhale, Celestia bowed her head without resistance to focus on the way this odd place fractured beneath her hooves. "No, it won't be. I... I just don't see what this is meant for."

Sombra pawed at the ground with a forehoof in a clear sign of recognition. "I don't mind a walk over fully teleporting... I'd prefer it, or else I wouldn't have us do this."

A light popped into Celestia's mind, and her eyes widened as her assumption took root. "We'll be going through the city, won't we?"

He nodded. "I like the city."

She wasn't sure if she believed that, or why there would be any need for gardening gear if they were going to an orderly place like a Canterlot neighborhood or shopping district. "Ponies are in the city and—"

"I've had bad encounters with them." Sombra glared at her, the gesture sharper than his tone. "Don't pry."

Such was their rule, but Celestia did find herself thinking about just what it was that he might have experienced during such encounters. If anypony was fearless, it was this cold stallion. She knew that everypony could have nightmares, the dreams of those without the ability she and Luna had didn't have to make sense. But Sombra sometimes acted like there was something to for him to really fear, and she could never wrap her head around the idea that he might be afraid of something as simple as a 'bad encounter'.

She swallowed. "We just walk through all this...?"

"We'll pass through anything as long as we're like this. Just don't try and test anything. 'Shoving' somepony aside is fine, but the second you try and walk through a building I'm deserting you."

"Okay...?" Uncertain, Celestia took the first few steps towards the castle, before Sombra stopped her with a disappointed shake of his head. Why would he not want them to head to the most reasonable destination: how they got into the gardens in the first place?

"Do you even know where we're going to be going?"

Oh. That's why. "No, I apologize. Lead the way, then."

Sombra smirked with the kind of relaxed self-importance she could only assume was the closest to a smile he would ever direct at her. "There's some surprisingly decent company, in case you were wondering. I don't think you'll have anything to mind around them."

Celestia figured she might get a coffee out of this, at the least.

...

Blinking, Celestia stared up at the familiar gold and white gates. Even under the gray sky and limited sunlight, their ancient words were undeniable, and with Sombra's between-realm gone, they were legible. Each carefully crafted letter had what light was visible streaming around the gilded pieces. Not a single guard was in sight, and the gates were as wide open as anypony would expect them to be on a normal day. Why had she been led across most of Canterlot for this?

"Sombra, this is the cemetery."

"Those are some remarkable deduction skills you have there."

Swishing her tail, Celestia let the remark slide and tried to channel her efforts into something other than faint annoyance. She craned her head up as much as she could to see if she could spy a mourner among any of the graves within sight. If anypony was here, they were either hiding in the trees or towards the mountain itself, around or within the even vaster crypts of Canterlot. "Are we supposed to meet somepony here?"

Sombra didn't bother with giving a quick answer. Once he shot enough suspicious sideways glances around, he promptly lit his horn and yanked a spade from her saddlebags. "Not at all. In fact, I'm surprised we lucked out."

"Lucked out...?" Celestia murmured, trying to figure out how one was supposed to 'luck out' in a presumably empty and very dignified cemetery.

Spade wrapped in magic, Sombra nodded for her to follow him. Celestia did, and only allowed herself momentary satisfaction at there being at least one cemetery in Equestria where she didn't knock her head upon the gateway before she cleared her throat.

"There's nopony around." Sombra didn't even stop walking or turn around to look at her. Still, she was certain that he was still doing his paranoid scanning of the area. "That's exactly what we want."

How suspicious. Their hoofsteps were quiet on the dirt path, especially Sombra's, and that was starting to bother her. "Who is our company to be, then? As unconventional as this meeting is sure to be, I would at least like to be a good hostess."

One of Sombra's fuzzy ears flicked toward a row of graves. She was thankful he had no hood, for his silly habit of yanking collars up was bearable today if it meant she had some way of understanding him. Cutie marks, prayers to gods like herself, divine seals, and other expected details too small for her to make out were carved into the stones. None of them stood out as special to Celestia, or as belonging to anypony she had known. The chosen divine insignia of the entire row was her sun cutie mark, which was more than common, but it also could mean that this was a family laid to rest. She walked on, quickening her pacing again, knowing there was no way to tell unless she approached the stones.

"There's nopony there," she informed him eventually, shuddering faintly. The chill of the weather was nippy enough to push her close to a trot, but cemeteries had their own way of disturbing something deep in her if she lingered in them. Maybe Sombra hadn't been wrong to choose a trench coat if this was how things were going to be today. Many of her friends, lovers, and Students lay here, right below her hooves... she could treat this as no stroll in the garden.

"Nopony alive," Sombra grumbled. His steps crunched what few green leaves had managed to fall, and Celestia knew he heard how she squeaked at least once at the sound. How was it that Luna considered such cold, sad places to be relaxing?

Celestia sighed. "You said there would be 'surprisingly decent company'."

She heard a chuckle and caught sight of him twirling the spade in his aura. "I never said they would be alive. Let's head over to an older section."

Celestia ruffled her feathers and slowed her gait, remembering what Sombra mentioned about potions. "Sombra," she said keeping her tone to that of a disapproving parent, "digging up graves is illegal."

"I know." His magic danced along the edge of his hood too. "I wouldn't have invited you along if I was going to do anything illegal."

Celestia pursed her lips, looking at the willow trees clustered around headstones. "But you said you needed something for potions—"

"Potions generally require everyday ingredients. Not flesh and bone."

At this point, Celestia let loose a long sigh and trudged along after Sombra. Being around so many ponies focused on magic and magic itself wore her out faster than most things. Somberness was one of the quickest ways to dampen her spirits to an all-too-familiar empty feeling. Where better to start that tug of emptiness than here?

In time, Sombra found what he wanted. Amid a small grove of trees were old graves that stirred up nameless recognition, but nothing more than the knowledge that they came from an earlier period of her rule. Carvings choked with moss revealed only the hint of her cutie mark, while anything else not touched by age was swarmed with other plants. Celestia recognized larkspur and...

"Moon lilies..." Celestia looked at the tiny white flowers, not wanting to even breathe near something so delicate. The small white blossoms swayed gently as she sat down next to a tree, letting the bark scratch her back and the canopy of willow spill down and tickle her feathers, shading her from Sombra. "No wonder you had to come here for them."

Sombra made a peculiar hum of acknowledgment and found a spot where he could seat himself on the grass, right in front of a grave. Without a moment's hesitation, he stabbed the spade into the ground and began to work out a few roots.

"Have you done this before?" Celestia asked, brushing specks of dirt off her wither and letting her gaze stray to some birds to stave off the gloom of the afternoon.

She heard a deep murr that could only be Sombra's hum. She couldn't believe the whole of this outing and certainly found Sombra doing something so oddly altruistic to be highly abnormal.

The lilies he was busying himself with digging up so precisely were toxic and pesky. Filly Scouts, gardeners, and similar sorts across Equestria were tasked with digging them up and ensuring they harmed no creature. The nasty things were still mistaken as pretty blossoms to many and often permitted to grow in places like Canterlot's grand graveyard where they now sat under the assumption that they surely would be no problem. Their association with the moon was something that made them feared in the earliest days of Equestria, though that had died down to but a vague loathing in modern society.

And Sombra, for want of potion ingredients, was willing to do what was little different from community service in order to put something to use.

Odd, how very odd...

Yawning lazily, Celestia fished into her saddlebags with a few flicks of golden light and withdrew a small cloth bag. From it, she produced carefully wrapped contents: neatly tied baggies of trail mix, polished apples, clinking glass sparkling cider bottles, and well-wrapped sandwiches.

Her traitorous stomach was already growling.

Trilling with curiosity, Sombra's wide eyes quickly found the food clutched in Celestia's magic and her visibly pink cheeks from letting such an undignified sound occur. There were a couple of smears of soil on his cloak. White petals poked out from Sombra's burlap sack. Slowly, a largely ignored grave was getting partially restored through the Sombra's simple acts.

Now she had the intense gaze of a demon zeroed in on the snacks clutched in her magic. Smiling awkwardly, Celestia did her best to speak with the perfect, pleasant tone. "Would you like me to give you something to eat?"

One thing she would never figure out about this stallion was why he could be so quiet. While he did nod very nicely, there was something she was tempted to call eerie about how when he wasn't rambling or yelling... he simply said nothing at all.

Once Sombra was given his share of food, Celestia was careful to retreat to her spot at the base of the tree where she could tower in its shadow and be shrouded in the shade so that the nip of the wind might let her be. With careful nibbles, she sampled the lunch she had as any clean, civilized, and well-mannered pony would. Meanwhile, Sombra ate trail mix by speedily pouring it into his mouth at intervals. Was she really going to have to add that he would never be presentable at events if he kept behaving so?

She was content to make sure their scraps were managed properly and was already considering a nap, seeing the day was not a nice one and Sombra was taking his time filling the sack he possessed when she heard him speak.

"What is this?" His critical tone was paired with an apprehensive glare at what was oozing from the fluffy slices of bread that formed his sandwich. (She had cut the crusts off, but then again, she always cut the crusts off sandwiches.)

Her eyes found his food, and she blinked, momentarily perplexed. Lashes touched her coat, and she let her thoughts click into place. "Have you never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before?"

"Peanut... butter?" She saw Sombra's eye twitch. "Ponies have made peanuts into this?" He waved the sandwich half around, letting red aura sparkle along the offending substance.

"Yes, Sombra. It's exactly what it sounds like. You might like it."

Sombra squinted at the snack for only a moment before ripping into it in the way a carnivore tore into meat.

"S-Sombra!" Celestia's attempt to chastise him was mixed with one very horrified gasp. (And yes, she did conk the back of her head on the willow's bark.) The brutish display was one she found truly unnerving, and she had to hold her own forehooves to keep them from shaking. Didn't he realize how monstrous he looked? "Stop that at o-once!"

"Mrmph?" The stallion looked straight at her, sandwich tatters clutched in his magic with his head tilted to the side in earnest confusion — the kind that a kitten might show if they were freshly placed in their first home.

"Don't... Just please don't do that ever again."

"Hrmphfurr," Sombra churred, attempting to flex his maw.

Celestia pursed her lips. "You did not..."

Sombra tried to open his mouth and managed awkward motions as though she were gnawing at something unseen. Fangs and a considerable portion of his muzzle were visibly adorned with at least half of the peanut butter that was in his sandwich. Shaking his head back and forth like he had the urgent need to sneeze (and flipping his disheveled mane about in the process) was doing him no good either.

"Sombra?"

"Grrmph! Mrr-yurp!" Rapid, nonsensical head shakes were all she had to go with his noises and the following whimpers. Magic was starting to gather on his horn, no doubt to try and free his demon-maw from the grip of his peanut butter predicament.

"Do you need some help?"

"Mmmm!"

...

Even when Sombra's jaw had been liberated from the troublesome peanut butter, he had little to say to her and only offered some grumbles before he returned to work. She didn't try to hurry him, even if she felt bad feelings brewing within her from the cemetery's atmosphere.

Equally bad thoughts were building up in her mind when all Celestia wanted to think of was potential conversations to have with a being keen on having none. So she simply sat in a sad place with dull, equally sad feelings seeping into her with a nasty glacial pace. Maybe she had eaten too quickly as well. Perhaps today was a grumbly kind of day meant for feeling bad, especially when she couldn't will a distraction to come to mind. There wasn't even a single bird that she could hear.

She thought of antiques, not because she still had yet to determine if she could really trust Sombra with something like a griffon dragonfire musket, but because there was nothing like a cemetery to suffocate somepony with the presence of them. All it took was one determined, disgusting grave robber to try and unearth the ponies buried here in their best dress and with their beloved trinkets. Even the stones that she didn't dare lean against were antiques of their own. Celestia hated that word, the lingering age it defined, and the kind of outdated disgust buried in it; there were those who had decided that she was such a thing, however few they might be. But, if that word belonged anywhere it was here, with the departed.

Sombra paused, reading her long before she noticed him doing so. "Did you know them?" He nods to the graves, using the same manner and tone that a normal pony would use to inquire about if one wanted sugar in their tea.

Throat tight, she dipped her head into a tiny nod. She couldn't place it and knew she should be able to, but the cluster of graves Sombra was pulling such bothersome plants from came with the same pang of familiarity that let her know she had known these ponies, and likely saw them buried here. The age was right for the spottiness, she thought. There was just the faintest recollection of that. Whoever lay there had likely worked in the castle, that was the feeling she got.

"I did know them. I know a good deal of the ponies here." She frowned too easily for her liking, the morose feeling welling up in her chest so that all she could do was will herself don't break. Today was just a bad day, especially for this, for unexpected things. This rarely troubled her so deeply, so quickly... "Not all of them, of course. Never that many... I just see so many reminders that ponies used to be here." She swallowed discreetly, sure that she had said the wrong thing. "And yet for all the years of their lives, what really sticks with me is who they were in the end."

Let him take it how he will.

He gave her so little expression to decipher. "I think I can understand some of that."

How? He was a sour, odd sort of hermit who paid ponies so little mind. He wanted no dedication to them, not like her, and they had the same crown. He would not be their machine the way she would. Machine, monarch, and... much more. He was an ex-king, an odd little grouch at his best, and a killer at his worst...

Her lips pursed and the breeze found the back of her neck. A killer...

"Do ponies die with dignity?" The words tumbled out before she could even think to scrape them back in, to patch things up. Too many feelings were clouding perfectly good composure today, she had no reason to be spilling anything so.

And now she couldn't take it back.

For once, Sombra looked astonished. His ears poked forward with sudden confoundment and he was strangely quiet, looking at her with wide eyes. There was such a visible discomfort in them that she normally would apologize for causing such an awful reaction.

Regret promptly made its way into the front of her chest, like it too wanted to be free of her careless mistake. No matter how complicated her relationship was with Sombra, she really did like to think that she was past exploiting him in such a way.

"You ask me this, why?" The very seriousness she usually scorned in him as needlessly dour now had her impatient. He had to have a guess as to why she said the things she did; Sombra was her little — and often pesky — conspiracy theorist and would not ask her something he didn't already know.

"You've killed ponies," she managed, pressing her back into the willow's bark, unable to really look at him. "Really, truly murdered them. Any death you've seen is far greater than anything I have known. Sombra, I have seen the living and I have seen the dead but I have hardly ever laid eyes upon the dying." She paused slowly, carefully licked her dry lips, and tried to concentrate on anything but her heartbeat. "Nothing I do or have ever done can compare to what you've seen. I am not there when my loved ones depart, nor am I ever there when I friend passes away... The executions are brief and I... I just... I've heard things, the same things you probably know of a respectful death, a painless death, and everything else I'm only told but... what really happens?"

Tapping one forehoof to his cheek only smeared dirt on it, and that dirt became mud. The first few, fat drops of rain were falling slowly over Canterlot. Celestia had meager relief knowing she was under the willow, but Sombra took so little mind to the change in weather beyond flicking his ear.

"I haven't seen anypony go out that way," he said after a while. Every syllable, word, and tone was crafted so carefully and thoughtfully that his sudden tact was something eerie. "So while I can't prove there are deaths with any measure of dignity, I've certainly never seen one."

No, no that can't be true... hundreds of ponies and not a single one... no, no...

"Last words are rare," he paused, recalling something, "and due to any complications present can be incoherent."

His matter-of-fact tone and the chill brought by the rain were likely both at fault, but knowing what 'complications' could prevent a murdered pony from speaking was absolutely horrifying enough to leave her eyes rather damp.

"Overall, words just aren't common. Noise is, but not words."

So academic to hear from him, so sickening to her. She shouldn't have asked. She shouldn't have. Just let him finish. Don't break.

"Usually," Sombra's voice was quieter now. Different. "Somepony is called for. There's begging, cursing, or both. Ponies pray often." His voice was growing softer and the light rain was dominating it. "They hated me, and they should've. Many didn't talk to me. Some asked me why. That was all a fair deal of them could think to do."

Celestia registered that she had nodded moments after the action was done, pulling her focus away from concentration on how her crown weighed on her head.

"Don't ever ask me that again." Sombra gave her one pointed look, which was far from the retorts and attempted punishment she had been expecting. Such a thing at least let her breathe again, even if she felt so cold now. "I didn't think you had a mind of anything morbid."

"I don't," she assured him softly. "I really don't, you see I'm just—"

"Pathetically lonely?" Sombra raised one eyebrow sharply and let his magic mind the little gardening he had been doing, but those cursed red eyes were locked on her.

There was the sound of rain far longer than there needed to be.

"I'm really not, you don't need to be so rude—"

"You certainly can be. I wouldn't have said that if there wasn't some truth to it."

"Sombra, I—"

"We're leaving it at that." Crimson telekinesis hoisted sacks into the air. "We should be leaving, too, unless you want to get rained on and everypony to see you crying when we get back."

"C-Crying?" Was her incredulous tone really so sharp? Good heavens, she must sound like a goose! "You're mistaken, I am certainly not—"

One forehoof shot up to rest on her cheeks and pressed the cold, traitorous tears into her cheeks. Beneath the buzz of shock that was all too fierce in her head, she was clinging to the idea that she might not have wrecked her mascara. She was usually so careful to get good, enchanted varieties for this sort of thing over wasting time magicking it herself, but she couldn't recall if that's what she applied this morning; heavens knew she didn't have the natural, full look to hers the way Luna did. If she showed up at the castle with half her face wiped of what was, in a way, another facet of a mask she knew somepony would worry, fuss, or ask questions.

"So many ponies think you crying to be a mythical event, and here you are doing just that right now."

There was a whimper caught in her throat. Ponyfeathers, crab apples, and great gosh-darn golly goodness I must be a mess. An absolute wreck.

"I want to stay," Celestia said with the croak of tears already slipping into her voice, "Oh great crab apples, we have the time. I can't have anypony see me like this—"

"Not Luna?" Sombra asked, oddly calm in a distant way. Not knowing if he actually cared was good, and the chance that he probably didn't was even better. "With that old nag cursing are you sure you don't want me to get her? Time to spare or not, I really don't think you're going to like being—"

"Staying h-here with you?" She pushed the thought into her head to control her voice more next time and resisted the urge to wring her forehooves. Willow bark ruffled her feathers the more she pushed her back into the tree. "There's less preferable company. I think I'll live."

Sombra's ears lowered just enough for her notice, but she couldn't tell if it was out of anger or something else.

"Well," her voice practically cracked with a sputter on that 'e', "I'll have you know that Tirek is poor for book recommendations, or so I've heard. And g-g-goodness me does he have so little to say a-about the art of proper pie crusts. So, I think I shall stay with you."

She let half a sniffle out, wanting one of the countless little hoofkerchiefs she kept around. Sombra continued to show her a cool stoicism she was sure was some way to mock her, giving her a stonewall instead of how he really felt. But that feeling faded when he plopped his burlap sacks onto the wet ground and used his aura to reach into his pockets. Sombra produced a ragged, patched, and entirely unidentifiable square of cloth that he shoved in her direction with a brusque flick of crimson, all done without a word.

The cloth was quite rough on her eyes, and she was sure that it had been used for countless other things because the colors were hideously worn and the lingering odor of what could be smoke, food, caked blood, and even some kind of grease were still stuck in it. (Those being what she was sure of, who knew what else he had been using it for.)

"Just what is upsetting you this much?" She didn't think Sombra was asking because he cared, but with his usual blunt manner, he sat down, with only his long coat to divide him from the mud. Beneath his rain-dampened mane, she would say he looked bored.

"I wished you hadn't asked me if I knew them." She tilted her horn to the graves Sombra had been tending. "And then left me with time to think on a day as bad as this."

Sombra's response was to tilt his head straight up to the sky to let rain down his scruffy coat. Or was he looking at the sky? She wasn't sure, put at least she could pull her voice back together again.

"I wish you wouldn't do that, too. Sitting out in the rain like that is bad for your health and your mane. I don't want you running around the castle like a wet dog." Drawing a breath, she paused. "When we get back, that is."

Sombra shook his wet mane and she was content knowing she was out of range for any of the droplets. "I'm fine here. Should I ask who these ponies were?"

She'd never told the story to anypony, and she didn't have to, not after a while. At least Sombra wouldn't care, but was she really ready to say anything?

"They were castle workers... and also the parents to one of my earliest Faithful Students."

On top of everything else about this no-good day and the equally no-good feelings and recollections that came with it, Celestia was not going to dare try and read the names on those stones. She didn't deserve to, nor did she even remember them clearly. The faces were in her mind, cursing what her memory had become, but not the names. Celestia was also unwilling to venture into who else was buried in this plot, not wanting to risk a wrong answer.

Sombra nodded for her to go on, still bearing that unreadable, half-bored look. Thank goodness.

"They had a daughter named Fizzy Pop, and you see Fizzy was such a sweet mare. She was a real sweet-lover, too, and had these soft pink eyes. Now, at the time many ponies thought she was ill at first glace — pink eye, you know? Fizzy was very bright and always made treats, stories, crafts — you know, all kinds of little things like that — for everypony, like Daub and I—"

"Daub?" Sombra interjected, eyes sparking with confusion.

"Dapple Daub was the stallion I was with at the time, and he was like an uncle to Fizzy while I was her teacher." Celestia let her forehooves pluck at bits of grass, reminded of how they were green like Fizzy's coat had been. "Her parents worked very hard to get her into my school and do everything for that sweet girl. Equestria was still very young, and this was only a few years after its 150th birthday-"

"When mind control was still legal, despite it generally being known as dangerous? I looked at the laws, then, and that isn't anything to be proud of—"

Oh goodness, he just had to bring it up... "Please." Her voice was thin and too vulnerable sounding. "Let me finish." Let me explain.

"Why isn't her portrait hanging in your hallway? Was she like the ketchup and mustard one?"

"No," Celestia whispered, "Fizzy was always a good girl. She had plenty of magic and could fade out instead of teleport, truly erase herself to the naked eye, and give all these strange properties to bubbles. I never knew what she loved about them, but she had a skill for pastels too..." Celestia's brow crinkled. "There was so much she would put in bubbles. Everything was plain in her work compared to them. Daub taught her art, and she sometimes didn't like how her style deviated from popular ones... but I think, at the start, it was really just in the bubbles. She was a fine student and had all these imaginary friends and things. Everypony in the castle was her friend."

The rain drummed lightly, and Sombra flicked an ear, eyes trained on her. Something she had been saying had actually caught his interest. He nodded. She was supposed to say more.

The ache under her head flared and her stomach churned. "You have to understand that nopony would really notice anything for a while, then. Everypony was trying, and I was too, but mental health care was only evolving then. I always thought it was a bodily thing — if the body is poor, the mind is sick too, but most ponies tended to think that way then. This was an age when onions were still considered fairly top-notch medical treatments, you must understand. Fizzy was only a bit chubby..." She drew in one long breath, a deep one meant for confessions or calming or something. "I admit, that I am not a lean mare, and I was only so much slimmer in figure then..."

Sombra snorted.

"I thought it was a diet problem, so I had her eat differently. We both did, to be fair to her. She was nine, I didn't think she could have serious problems. But when that didn't help, that's when we knew things were wrong. Very wrong."

"What did she do? Did she throw up her food? Start starving herself?"

For a moment, Celestia couldn't say anything. She let the weight of her crown absorb into her as a false focus when her mind was really drifting to what a little filly had been like with a wide, white smile when plenty of ponies had yellow here and there in their teeth at the time. She wore bows in her tail, shined her hooves nicely, and loved rich, cream treats. Celestia knew that her eyes would be described as 'bubble-gum' colored now, and thought that Fizzy would have loved such a treat. Yes, she probably would have thought it to be just like the 'exotic' (and it was at the time) taffy from the shores and chewed and swallowed it, but that was Fizzy.

"She always did things a little differently. I'm not sure how to explain it, but she was foalish at ages when many foals stopped such things. Sometimes she cried when nothing happened. I don't think it was one single thing. I was qualified to work with foals with certain behavior issues, so I always thought that was it. In my mind, that was why she loved being around ponies but had such a hard time giving more than short answers."

Sombra finally padded under the willow, and she couldn't help but notice that he still kept his distance from her even when he looked relaxed. With forehoof and magic he rubbed at his coat softly, ruffling it to help it dry, as he watched the rain. Taking the chance to draw out their break a few moments more, Celestia slid his patchy hoofkerchief back over to him with her foreleg.

"Are you going to continue?" Sombra asked eventually, accepting what she had returned to him. Was that impatience that reached her ears?

"...Do you really want me to? Do I have to?

"Only if you want to. I'm not the one with a grand royal schedule."

Celestia nodded, closed her eyes, and pushed out a tired breath, trying to gather herself and her memory. "Fizzy started talking less at times and claimed she couldn't control it. Other times, when we thought her speech was normal again, her sentences would break apart without her realizing it, and she would sound like cut-up pages of books all tossed together, but she thought ponies still understood her. She saw little things — always little things, fantastic little objects — that weren't there in a way that was going past the imagination of a filly. When I wanted to learn about some of the ponies around the castle that she was talking to, I found out that they didn't exist. She stopped washing her mane as much, and she always did that. Learning was harder for her and the poor girl's senses weren't right. Little Fizzy wouldn't jump in beds or touch things, and she was feeling all these things in the air with her magic that just couldn't be—"

"From my understanding, this Fizzletwist—"

"Fizzy Pop."

"Yes, your Fizzlepop sounds like she had schizophrenia. Luna would probably be able to say for sure. She knows that sort of thing better than me."

"Fizzy probably would have been considered that now." Her wings were folded more closely now that Sombra was nearby, each drawn around her like a shawl of feathers.

From where she sat, Celestia could not see Sombra's reaction and she wasn't sure she wanted to. "Was she disowned?"

"No," Celestia managed firmly, voice raised above the rain for that single word. "She most certainly was not; Fizzy's parents loved her much and wouldn't have done something like that to her. Even if they had, Daub and I would've taken her in. Fizzy was born to good souls and they took her every practitioner under my sun—"

"Did they really?" Sombra's tone was just so purely genuine instead of cynical, as she expected such a question from him to be.

"No, they took her to everypony they could in Canterlot. I offered to pay for travel needs if they had to cart Fizzy all over the region, so be it..." The memory, the four eyes of Fizzy's parents, and their confusion, and frustration welled into her mind. Fizzy's mother had hazel and her father had purple, ages had gone by and Celestia remembered that much.

"Did anypony understand what was happening?"

"Oh, hardly. We knew she hallucinated and it was something completely detached from any magical possibility. That did very little to limit the scope of the problem. She wasn't very good at telling us what was wrong either. With magic eliminated, even I had a hard time understanding where what she saw came from. I knew of various health conditions, but she didn't really seem distressed or sick in the same way other ponies did. Fizzy's spirit and body were sound since she had lost weight on her diet, so I knew not what could be wrong."

"Not even from the perspective of 'it's all in her head'? As crude as that one is, it's still a start to understanding these kinds of things."

"Sombra, I honestly thought my poor Faithful Student was hexed. In no way am I a scholar. The possibility of it being cerebral didn't occur to me because I could not understand at the time how somepony's brain could form something that wasn't really there to that degree and project it outward, especially when their body was healthy. When she started hearing melodies that weren't there, these entire symphonies that didn't exist over just foal-songs I really did think there was something wrong. Fizzy was becoming less verbal and everypony was just so worried, Sombra. The music, the idea that it was rooted in here with these bubbles—"

"What about the bubbles?"

"Oh heavens..." Celestia felt herself stare far past the rain, seeing that dark green coat, those pink eyes... "Her bubble drawings started disintegrating. First with frightful things in them, colored madness, and then her skill just fell away. Forget art block, Fizzy had a whole wall. When that happened, combined with the phantom music, I thought about..." Celestia forced her eyes shut. Don't break. "I thought about ponies and how Discord's magic impacted them. Gray ponies, ponies in the wrong bodies, all sorts of a-awful accidents. I'm aware of how stupid you think I am, but at the time the idea was revolutionary. I thought that what was happening might truly be in her brain, something that could be undone with re-learning like what ponies touched by Discord's powers had to do."

A thoughtful, gravelly sort of warble rumbled like distant thunder in Sombra's throat. "You found somepony who thought the same?"

"No, not quite. Ponies didn't live as long as now, so the generations that knew Discord to be an authentic figure were... ah, murky? He was fading from relevance to them. We found something close to what you would see as a predecessor to psychiatrists."

There was that warble again. "That sounds like good news to me."

"It was only good for her family to hear 'dementia praecox' until I had to translate it to them and fumble to fill in an explanation of what that meant... and that there was nothing to give her."

"Nothing?"

"No medication or anything truly long-term, and that was what everypony really wanted. At that age, the only real treatment was sending her to a live-in ward under the care of professionals or... to use hypnosis and legal mind magics to continuously 'reset' her mental state."

Sombra was too quiet. Even the rain had little sound now. Might it be letting up?

"Please, you must understand and not be so touchy. Surely you know that there are not harmful varieties—"

"I do," Sombra said coldly. "I've done them, and I know full well that the slim amount of 'harmless mind control' is hardly fit to be called mind control or even mind magic in the first place, so if I seem touchy it's for a damned good reason."

"Please—"

"I know Starswirl taught you enough of his talent. Basic memory magic and hypnosis, I would venture as my guess?"

"Admittedly, I only know hypnosis to an extent. Just not anything that can be done on most ponies or utilized with the more practical, severe applications Starswirl had for his. Luna knows. She's always known. Dissy does too. So do others. I realized there was a mistake; none of this stayed legal long after, no loose guidelines, no gray areas, no matter how little the average pony can really use this kind of magic or how powerful they are." Never gray areas. "May I just finish?"

"Fine."

His disdain, of course, was ever-present now.

"At that time, Fizzy's condition was like the old name suggested: premature dementia. She was showing herself to be a severe case, and because of the implications of what was understood and what everypony who knew her could see, it was thought that Fizzy would deteriorate. Hypnosis treatments were thought to dial her back for every step the disease took to maintain as much stability as anypony can like that. She would need it daily, but it wasn't anything that made progress. Fizzy wouldn't be... oh, it wouldn't have been her. Not the right Fizzy. The before Fizzy."

Was Sombra's silence something she should find problematic or relieving? He was certainly offering some input, but she wished that her inference about him not caring about her confessions would continue to be true.

"With hypnosis as the only thing that sounded even remotely promising, we learned that the difficult process would help 'convince' her brain to not produce hallucinations, and certainly not to the degree she had them. While that was sound medicine at that time, to us it just wasn't enough. Her parents, Daub, and I all wanted something to really restore her, anything that could come close to giving her mother and father their little filly back. This talk of gradual stabilization or chats about buying time, they just were not enough for us."

"Did you try more exotic magic next? Arabian jinni? Ancient tomes? Gypsy charms? The cures of hermit witches? Sea magic?"

He could've gone on, but thankfully she was able to stop him with a slow, solemn shake of her head. There was more weight upon her withers today than she had felt in some time, causing soreness to flood her body. "We did none of that. The psychiatrist sat with us and explained as much about her bizarre condition to us that could be told, and what that meant for Fizzy's mind. Today, what he said to us was woefully little... and I felt something like that then, with the push to do something. I knew her parents deserved more, and that Fizzy did too. I pleaded for anything more to understand what was happening and what could be a true solution."

Sombra's silence managed to surpass the rainy afternoon. While she took another moment to engage in deep breathing and gathering herself, she heard Sombra's magic pull his things over towards him so they wouldn't be too soggy.

"Were you able to do anything?"

"Yes. Together, we all came to realize that..."

"That what?"

"...that if her brain caused these problems, convincing it to completely turn off the defective parts that did so Fizzy could be her bubbly self, a student, and a daughter again. Nopony was trained to do something so great, nor would any mortal who knew how have had the ability by power or that level of precision in their magic. Everything fell upon me, though I had already volunteered. For Fizzy." Celestia swallowed, but her throat only felt tighter. "Always for Fizzy."

"What in Tartarus' name did you do...?" Sombra's voice was a steely hiss and she knew that he had to be looking at her because there was no way she could look at him right now.

"I did exactly what everypony had planned. I reached into that filly's mind when even she had looked at me with the utmost trust and given me the consent to use my magic her parents already approved of... I followed every procedure known at the time... Oh goodness, I had prepared and even studied like my Students before their exams... and I 'turned off' what was causing her visions, her behaviors..."

"Celestia—"

"We all k-new there had been risks. I was told as repeatedly as her parents that nopony was entirely sure about any of this, except that whatever result we had would not be reversible, if things went wrong. It was such a big, foggy 'if' that we were given. But I was so optimistic — nothing could happen to such a good little filly, she was safe with me. So little was known about the disorder, it was falsely named, her parents shouldn't have given me consent, I always could have studied more, everything was experimental, she was supposed to be safe with me—"

"Did you kill that filly?" Sombra shoots the question at her with the mercy of an ax swing to an unprotected head.

(That little part of her that always snuck up later, the part she hated, would point out how he didn't sound entirely surprised when he asked this.)

"I shut off the part of Fizzy that was... Fizzy Pop. There was no speech, no... She didn't know who her parents were, who I was, or anything else. There was little she could do on her own, and in a matter of hours, we knew that she was... gone. Her whole body was there, and she was alive, but her eyes were not the same pink... she wasn't my Fizzy. Goodness, she constantly dribbled drool a bit and could barely even whinny. That's what happened, and they called her catatonic — a vegetable — and that... that was like pronouncing her death when she was right there."

"Stars, Tartarus, and hellfire, Celestia-"

"No, please." She was willing to let her tone be begging, to turn and see him with how horrid she looked right now. "Please let me finish before you say anything." Celestia looked at Sombra's jaw; it was all she could handle. That didn't mean she couldn't see how his eyes burned with everything his mouth wanted to say, the way he clenched his jaw...

"My Fizzy was taken care of. She had to be because what I did made her so like a doll. Only, dolls do not grow old... and ponies..."

"Ponies what?" The barb of a growl he put in his words made her flinch.

"They move. Ponies laugh, cry, play, gallop, and respond to things. Fizzy was no doll and she was unable to live the life of a pony. I pleaded with her parents to stay in Canterlot, but the years drove them away to where they wouldn't have to confront Fizzy. I got her a home. I visited her as often as I could—"

And as often as I could force myself to.

"—and made sure nurses took care of her. Fizzy got paintings by Daub and I brought her the treats and dolls she loved no matter if she would never know who I was because I never stopped caring about her. I had to watch her grow old the way nopony ever should, especially when everypony else forgot she had even existed. Had I known about anything that would have resulted from such horrid magic, I wouldn't have done that to Fizzy. She is the reason that the laws on mind magics were made the way they are now."

"Are you saying you knew how primitive your nation was and that you didn't think to forbid mind magics of all things? When you had the free choice to keep them legal or not? Knowing everything else you forbid under the excuse of it being beneficial, do you know how disgusting—"

Don't break, went the rain.

Celestia squeezed her eyes shut.

Don't break, thundered the blood in her ears.

Her thick, long mane and the wings she folded around her face so that her feathers were her well-kept cocoon. Luna was the shrinking violet prone to such behavior, but Celestia could only bear to collapse into these things when she was alone... for the most part.

Don't break, groaned every little thing against her, the daily weight of the world.

"Not everypony can be like you are," she managed to slip past her clenched teeth. "You tell me I'm all these things — 'pathetically lonely' — and you don't know about all the work I've done and what I have to do."

She counted exactly twelve heartbeats' worth of rain.

"What do you mean 'like me'?" Sombra's tone was close enough to the one he used to let her know when she was on thin ice with him.

"You and Luna are so lucky."

That got him to shut his mouth for a few seconds, and she savored as much of the upstart's silence as she could.

"Lucky..." He spoke it in the kind of contemplative exhale that had too much emotion for her taste, but she wouldn't dare say such a thing when she was in a fractured state to be hidden from all she possibly could. "Why would you think Luna and I are lucky?"

She could tell he wanted to say far more, if nothing else.

"The two of you are rarities in history. Maybe this life of rulership is all a game to you, and maybe history is too. Either way, you and Luna look back at many of the things around you, like many a book regarding your history that I could elaborate upon—"

"Oh, you lowly bitch-"

"—but I feel they need nothing said about them beyond that they are not present the way they are without reason. You and Luna are lucky that neither of you has had to live through history's fads of belief and outlooks. None of you were caught up in the popular thought; had Luna had the prejudices and ideologies of most ponies in the era instead of being an outcast, her reduction would have to be more rigorous now. Do you two not realize how lucky that makes you? To not be encumbered with what I've endured or know the kinds of mistakes I've had to learn from?"

"That's what you see as lucky?! Luna and I being ridiculed minorities for our way of thinking? For being the pinnacle of controversy ages ago?"

With large motions, she pulled herself out of her shelter and drew herself up. Sombra wasn't the least subtle in showing the disgust he felt, and she had pulled enough fragments of her dear mask together in order to (try) look down on him (other than literally).

"When you have had to do the things I have and found yourself in the situations I have, then yes, there is some luck in that quality, in spite of how defiant it is."

He really did look so repulsed by her words. "You make it sound like she and I are immune to any of our own errors—"

"I would think that you of all ponies would wish to be seen as such, but apparently not. No, Sombra, that is not what I meant. Luna has many problems, but they are not the kind I have known, the woes of a princess who has ruled through what I have, and for as long as I have. You certainly are not without demons—"

"Shove it, you vile—"

"You have no right to speak that way to anypony! And certainly not to me! Not after I've shared this with you!"

Sombra bolted right up and bristled with anger, looking straight up at her without a shred of mercy, as though he weren't the shorter one. "Enough of that! I invited you out to spend time with me, not lose my damned mind to you sliding back into this and wax poetic about every stick you have up your—"

"I did no such thing!" She stomped one hoof into the muddy ground. "Everything is you and your accusations when I so much as bring up something, like what Fizzy meant to me. You asked why I was crying and—"

"That's all I asked! I don't need you acting like you're the one with good judgment and that you have any qualification to pick me apart after what you told me about Frazzle Popcorn. I try and do these things instead of this because it's so obvious that you can't really define me by anything but seeing me as just another pity-quirk you attribute to Luna!"

His angry breathing and Celestia's sharp inhales were all that went with the rain. Everything had lapsed into nothing but that and the tense patter-patter like some breezie gods-mother had sprinkled her magic pollen everywhere and let this awful silence sprout.

Had she known he was going to let those spiteful, dirty words fall from his twisted tongue there would be no reason for her to be stunned. She didn't even know how he figured it out. Wasn't she careful enough? Oh, she had certainly tried to always keep sweet and give him no reason to ever suspect that from her, but perhaps she hadn't done enough.

"What exactly am I supposed to see you as?" There was more frost in her tone than she wanted, but it was better than having her words sound like a true, meeker question.

"A brother-in-law. I don't care if I'm a good one, a bad one, or anything else. If you could see me as that, then I don't think things would be as problematic." Sombra watched for any sign that gave away how she took his words with his jaw clenched with determination. Lingering embers of aggression were detectable in those red eyes of his.

Him, as a true son-in-law? As authentic family? That would be a very great leap above any station she could think to allot him. So what if she did not mind him in the same way that she did before Luna had them dine together? Viewing him that way would still be a highly improper breach of their conduct, and the poorest move she could make as a ruler. Her duties as a princess and the welfare of her subjects came before anything else. Second to that greater good and her country was to do good over wrong, and third was... anything personal. Or, that was how she tried to keep things.

Moving Sombra to such a position was simply impossible, and so clearly against the first two. (Not that she had any objection.) As a princess, she knew that no such thing could be done, and Celestia had no objection to that knowledge. Already, he was a prince and Luna's husband. The demon was overstepping its bounds, getting too greedy with titles and stations it did not belong in.

Turning a blind eye to most of his relationship with her little daughter was difficult and among her greatest challenges. What she wouldn't do was let one blot of ink spill into the rest of her family portrait.

"I didn't think that you would care what I thought of you."

"The way you think of me has had a bad habit of getting in the way of what I want. That, I think, is the best way to put things in a way you would understand. I don't care how you would see 'caring'. Luna tells me her frustrations and all her favorite things about you, and she always had. I've been encouraged to care about you."

She frowned and idly picked a bit of mud out of her feathers and straighten her regalia, only swiveling her ears back to show how she minded him. (How did all this willow get in her mane? Her tail?) "You have an unusual way of showing you care."

The perfect, polite way to put things with the very same touch in her tone. Good. The mask was slowly being slipped on again and with it the constant safety it brought.

"You can tell me I'm shitty at it if that's what you want." Sombra frowned grumpily, quickly running magic through his mane and apparently taking no notice of the mud on his legs and clothes. Only he would risk being seen in such a state while she knew to rub (and with the aid of the rain, wash) at her face until it looked like a victim of the weather in only the lightest sense.

"I'll refrain from using such vocabulary," she offered softly. Those old coarse words were ones she noticed cropping up in him when he was experiencing the brand of impatient frustration that only her company appeared to be able to draw from him. "However, I do apologize for how emotional I was with you. I don't like it when we argue, or to allow myself such displays"

Sombra's grumpy look lessened to something more distant. (Did he believe her apology?) With a short noise in his throat, he slung his stuffed burlap sacks across his back. "If you say so."

"I'm trying too," she offered with a tone dipped in her usual kindness. "I mean it. I wouldn't mind doing something like this with you again."

"Really?" Two fluffy ears were flicking away raindrops. Sombra watched her gather the rest of her things, slipping her saddlebags onto her back gracefully. She would've told him not to wait for her out in the rain if she thought he would listen.

"Oh, yes." No, I'd really rather not. "I'm sure we could do something nice. Do you like miniature golf?"

"Do I like what?"

"Baking contests?"

"I've never been in—"

"Arcades? Karaoke?"

"What?"

"Swimming?"

"I don't know how to do that."

"Something else, then. We can figure it out another time. I just don't want to spend any more of my day in this place."

Taking the cue, Sombra shrugged and started walking the way they had come. He had no protection from the rain, whereas Celestia was quick to place a barrier of gold light between her and any more rain. She dared not stray near another stone — not like how Sombra was weaving through them — out of fear of recognizing another.

"This isn't such a bad place to be," Sombra chimed from where he was walking upon ponies' graves. "Luna has shared so many of her favorite reading spots with me here. I've seen her paint some excellent pieces of this place. Many of our dates have been here — any fools around aren't exactly going to be gawking or running their mouths."

Don't speak ill of the good dead. Warm fireplaces, draconequus snuggles, and the rest of her duties were waiting back at the castle. Were her mind not already stuck in the funk it was, she would consider mentally drafting a letter to Twilight for later. "It's such a shame that you two couldn't go out like other couples."

Even when he was being drenched by rain, Sombra's stare still managed to instill a burning fear in her stomach. "You better not mean that the way I think you do."

"No, you're right." Each word came out with an obvious, nervous exhale that did nothing to hide how she stumbled under the surprise fury of that awful glare. "That came out wrong. You and Luna should have been able to have traditional dates."

"We've had our share of 'traditional' ones. That never stopped me from having some of my favorites here. She taught me the names she gave all the ravens here. A few of them even like me!"

Most of the time, she would have giggled at how Sombra puffed out his chest, with scruffy tufts of his coat poking up in odd clumps. Today, she couldn't bring herself to — it occurred to her that those kinds of statements sounded so dreary from a different perspective. Did he speak such words because he knew nopony liked him?

"I... I have so many bad memories here..."

A number of stray droplets splashed coldly against her coat when Sombra shook his head. "I can't really see why. Cemeteries are just spruced up mass graves, and this one could be a park if it wasn't littered with these." He gave a nearby tombstone a swift kick before she could stop him, and then leaped over it, grasping the sacks held in his magic tightly.

Apparently, he thought parks needed to be somber and ghostly. That was what it was really like here.

"I am reminded of being young here, and that is never a good thing. Resting places like these and the castle are the oldest things in this city. Everything spread out from them and was... pulled over the old city, I suppose you could say."

"Life and death acting as core points in the city of magic... that's very fitting," Sombra mused, and Celestia got the feeling those words were meant more for him than anypony else. "I'm not exactly familiar with you during that period. Admittedly, it's spotty even to my knowledge."

"The dawn of my Solar Millennium was one of the biggest periods of celebrations in Equestria, surely you are familiar with that?"

"Fairly." Sombra wove around a mausoleum with a swiftness that chilled her.

"For me, it was only a reminder of loss and that the recovery from chaos magic's taint was a wound fully healed... and I was going to know it alone, with full knowledge of the mare I had been during the aftermath of the war."

And what greater burden is there than knowledge? Truth was such a curse that its status as an Element confused her, and never ceased to spark doubt as to how Honesty could bring anything but scars that could be sweetened with a kind lie.

"Were you, by any chance, a bitch?"

Snorting, she let his word choice slide and slogged on. "I was worse than that."

"Am I getting any hints, or is this to be a round of riddles?"

"I don't know what you would make of my hints, except maybe finding them misleading. Just think of terrible things to be. Though, I shall ask you to remember that it was before Luna... before Luna left."

"A liar?" His words stung, and the glint in his eyes told her that was how the barb was intended because her wording — 'Luna left' — had stung him.

Her cheek tightened. "That is not what I had in mind."

"You neglected your subjects?"

"I neglected Luna, but no I speak of something worse."

"A tyrant?"

"No, my little ponies saw me as a sign of peace because of my hoof in the relief efforts and how I saw to their needs day and night."

"My guess is that you were a coward in some way."

"I was always cowardly in how I dealt with Luna, and never more so than during that period. Mark my words, I know you think ill of me but know that I do know I have been a horrible family to Luna in the past. Still, I mean something else."

Sombra's eyes were everywhere but her, looking for the familiar gate. "Listen, as much as your rambling isn't bothering me, the gate is just up ahead. I'm not going to be putting up with the evening Canterlot bustle, so just tell me what you want now and we can split up at the gate. I'll see you at the castle."

Celestia hung her head tiredly. The gold light along her horn offered so little glow other than what was needed to keep her from getting rained on. All care was distilled into exhaustion from the day's events. Why, she was certain some of her mane was doing more than grazing the muddy grass.

She couldn't blame Sombra for taking a few paces to realize she wasn't plodding behind (or beside) him any longer. The only way she knew he turned around was watching his legs ahead of her, and how they moved.

"Celestia?"

By the heavens, at least he didn't sound concerned. She would not — could not — accept such a thing from him.

"You've no doubt heard the phrase my little ponies are so fond of in all its variations. 'Lockstep over lollygagging'. 'Contribute, don't criticize'. Regardless of how you've heard the saying, all of it boils down to this: the complainer is always wrong."

"I'm more than familiar with the variations." Contempt had hardened his tone, and she could claim no surprise. Even before he came to the castle and heard a thousand variations of the staple proverb Equestria had spun from her regarding his habits, Sombra and clearly been the target of this exact moral many times.

"Luna had always been my 'complainer' and ponies noticed this." She neglected to add that there were times Luna had complained, then, and that she still did now. "I know that she was near-mute, but that grew longer and harder to pierce with the years. Right before she left, the later years were when that silence was the worst. Before, she had been critical and even skeptical. Of myself. Of Equestria. While the whole country was rising from the ashes, Luna was telling us that the light that we had won was not as bright. Worst of all, she told ponies that they could have a better world — had she not done that, I think they would have been quite merciful."

"Luna spoke out against problems that still persisted when your great herd of fools was convinced that the defeat of the draconequus — something that happened solely because of you and Luna — made them all-righteous and good little things. Tell that to the damn buffalo and every other species that suffered because of the problem of ponies. I've heard this before. I know how Luna was the one who lead the war efforts and called attention to neglected arts and to the broken country that remained."

"You have no idea how broken it was. To hear Luna voice such radical ideas, to suddenly start up what I remember when we were up north absolutely infuriated me."

"There was nothing sudden about it," Sombra grumbled.

"I was optimistic, Sombra. All of us had seen horrors that were best forgotten. We wanted to be heroes and we wanted to forget. Harmony and happiness spread as rapidly as chaos magic had, suffusing everpony with a positivity that all of us had been deprived of for so long. We were on the verge of something new, and I was so painfully optimistic that Luna constantly became the hammer to the castle I had built, because I didn't know that it was glass."

"Optimistic," Sombra spat, lacing everything with such great contempt.

"Yes. I acted the only way I knew how, and with her behaving the way she did I thought that she, who went against every shred of positivity we now had, was nothing but a foul, sorrowful, little wretch. That is much of why I treated her the way I did: in the aftermath of a war against what I knew to be a villain at the time, I who overflowed with this spirit saw Luna as the next villain alongside my subjects, for she was already a pariah. She infuriated me time and time again, and I hurt her so much for it."

"That is the worst trait in a leader. Any leader who sees the world through a rosy tint is still a leader bending the world through an unlivable delusion. Optimism isn't a viable policy in anything past a world made to cater to fools and children, because anypony still thinking like that is only ever going to be prepared to be the greatest fool of them all. Optimism accomplishes no more than its inverse, produces nothing of value, and is the quickest way to get assassinated for being so unfit."

"You don't understand—"

"Yes, I do! I was tormented into maintaining and constructing the tyranny of another. I build leaders, I've studied them. I know what it takes to rule, even if I never do so myself because of the place I was forced into. I endured an utterly miserable existence to make a monster's fantasies come to life and steer him towards effective tyranny to live another day. To make a tyrant, you must know how to rule justly — and avoid doing that in any manner possible. You, my vile sister, have been getting fat on over a thousand of minimal effort derived from the worst possible attribute anypony in your position could have. Forgive me, O Queen of Fools, if I have any contempt for you because of this."

Angry hoofsteps struck the ground, sending mud sloshing about. When all she wanted was to drop her confessions in front of somepony that wouldn't care, should she have anticipated how furious he might grow?

"Please, don't go. I said you didn't understand, and I meant it. Ever since the Longest Night, I've regretted what I put Luna through, and I love her, just like you do—"

"No, you don't—"

"Yes, I do." With her returned propriety, she raised her head to look at Sombra standing a few lengths from the cemetery entrance. "I know how much I've hurt her, and one thing she's never stopped telling me is how there is some good in you."

Surely, he'll accept this? Even the mention of her draws his attention.

I need to get this off my chest. He's the endless well in which I might toss these things, just for a while, and it is a blessing to know that he of all creatures will not catch them and worry for me, or some terrible thing.

Just as she suspected, Sombra's furious gait came to a hesitant halt. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"She always said you were a good listener." You talk too much, I would think, to be one. "Could you not listen a little more?'

"If you run your mouth this time, I'm not going to be hearing from you the rest of the day."

If that was how he was going to tell her that he was angry, oh well. "That can be done. What I wanted you to know is that you can't understand my history. As many regrets as I have, you gave shape to a monster while I had to overcome many things to be the princess I am today. Even when I did things that I will never repeat, I cared about everypony."

"Everypony?" Sombra's echo was a taunting question that he shot above the sound of rain.

"I most certainly did. Every one of my subjects is the center of the world to me. I don't expect somepony like you to know what the loss of one is like, how their pain impacts you, and what it means to care about them—"

"—as recklessly as you do?"

Celestia narrowed her eyes, certain that it didn't look very authoritative with soft aura shining down upon her face. "Excuse me?"

"You said it yourself: you care about everypony."

"Do you doubt that? I do care about everypony."

"I'm not prone to this kind of thing, not by any means. No matter how little you can see it, what you do is completely reckless, and for all the possibilities in the world, there's only one for those who do what you do. If you find yourself really caring for every single pony, eventually you will care for nopony. Making everypony your joy, and your loss, and slathering your every devotion on them is just as bad as loathing them with the same pattern. Consider it a finite resource — and benevolence is especially finite — because any resource needs to be used wisely. Bigotry is always bad but a limited scope of prejudice cannot do the same as the genuine evil of omnibenevolence running its course. This is worse than any populism, worse than any ruler who tries to let their subjects rule them because, despite the similarities, only this will lead to the destruction of everypony. Pink One and I have both always understood that love without limits isn't love at all — anypony needs to know where their limitations and enemies lie, whether they live to wear a crown or not. And populists in particular can go to Tartarus."

All the cold breezes had been tugging at her mane, and her feathers, and past what little warmth her terribly light coat had worn her down to shivering. (No doubt, to Sombra's delight.) "Are you trying to give me advice?"

"This is advice, not an attempt. I'd suggest you listen: by living for others, you lose your own life. Take a vacation one day, preferably far away from me. Especially right now."

Biting back a response, Celestia followed Sombra to the gate and watched him leave without looking back. Plans for an apologetic (truthfully, a diplomatic) gesture were not all that remained in her thoughts, nor was the seething, affronted feeling forming deep in her stomach, burning with her bound magic. He had told her that it was wrong, to live for others, to show selflessness to the degree she had always striven for, and so much more in those words he found to be considered advice.

How that was so wracked her thoughts more than the 'why'. Every single day, Celestia could prove she objectively made life better because of her efforts. That she contributed to society. She enriched and gave back. In everything she did, there was an inherent act of giving, of the undeniable contribution that could be said of any of the duties she did and tasks she performed. Forget even the all-wining card to pull off how she raised the sun, and even that she was a princess, experienced and elegant. Every day was changed and a day she meant to give something when there were always individuals who would do nothing but take their whole lives. With that in her heart, there was a decency she aimed at her subjects.

With all the good she did, everything she gave, and the overwhelming amount of knowledge that she could sleep knowing how beneficial she was, there shouldn't be anything wrong. That was a good life, a kind life.

So, why did she still feel so hollow?

(And why had such an emptiness grown with time?)

...

She hadn't expected to see Sombra at lunch the next day. Her motives for saying what she had to him were multi-faceted, and Celestia had a difficult time trying to reconcile everything she knew and was told about him into one stallion. As much as she had been yearning for a less argumentative turn of events so that she could have her hollow confession, she had been trying to make an appeal to any part of him that had been as young as he claimed. If he was a stallion who made mistakes, a stallion that had once known youth, then her words should have surely provoked something to show this and allowed him to demonstrate empathy. Did he not frame his life as one marked by terrible choices in the past? Sombra should've emphasized instead of offering the 'advice' he did; now Celestia had no idea what to make of their outing, other than it being a disaster.

Celestia hadn't expected to be taking her tea with anypony at all if Sombra was not going to show up. She had certainly not expected to find Luna of all ponies seated across from her spot, mane flowing cheerfully while her alert, shining eyes drank in the sights of the garden. Clouds far above them in the sky cast speckled shadows across her face, not unlike Luna's cutie mark dapples on her haunches.

"Hi, Tia!" She popped a fry from the pile in front of her in her mouth and waved one foreleg eagerly. "Won't you have some lunch with me?"

Instinct compelled Celestia to smile, but it was her dissolving worry that caused her to sit down and set her tea tray on the table. (Today's set was predictable and decorated with floral paintings.) "Hello, Luna. Is he not here for lunch? I haven't seen him since this morning."

Luna's eyes flashed with understanding, even if she neglected 'his' name, and something Celestia was certain was mischief. "Sombra is here! Today, I thought I might have lunch with you."

Luna grinned widely at Celestia, who only returned a restrained, closed-mouth, tight ghost of the gesture. The time they spent together had neither improved nor disintegrated, but Luna had generally been in better spirits since the lunches, which lightened both their burdens. Even the bruises that Celestia had been seeing were gone, which must mean Sombra's nightmares ceased. She was not sure if that was the case or if Luna had become better at healing them.

Knowing that Luna was in better spirits was what Celestia really wanted.

"You almost sound disappointed that Sombra isn't here," Luna's half-moon grin brimmed with teasing. Another fry flew right into her mouth with the aid of her magic.

"No, no that isn't what I meant—"

"Oh, hush, Tia. I think that you two don't mind each other nearly as much as you like to think." Luna's eyes twinkled brightly, and complete with a soaring whoosh sound effect she flew another fry through the air and into a paper cup of ketchup.

With a sound between a cluck and the modest laugh of a noblemare, Celestia poured herself some tea, Luna, once again dunked a fry into ketchup, humming jauntily as she drowned it.

In front of her was a fresh oatburger meal still warm and with the familiar smell of being fried in lots of vegetable oil. The mark of one of the fried-food carts of Canterlot was visible on the bag, and Celestia recognized it from being one Dissy gifted her snacks from on the occasion oatburger cravings arose.

"It's nice to have this chance to spend time with you."

Celestia nodded. "Somepony seems to be stealing our chances to eat together, hm?"

"Absolutely. I'm afraid that we'll need to have an intervention, should anything persist." Luna took a too-large bite of her oatburger. "Say, Tia, just what have you and Sombra been up to other than cooking exploits? His tales of these times are all I really know, and as much as I really would love to simply spend time with you, my big, dumb, and favorite sister-of-mine, I did come to discuss things too."

That was a shame, Celestia couldn't remember the last time that she had gotten to enjoy a lot of time with Luna. They talked, joked, and did have time together in the day, that never changed nor were their royal routines so inflexible that they were locked in something absurd, like a day-night shift or...

...Okay, that aside, they just hadn't gotten to really do anything together. Family bonding time. Meals didn't exactly count, and they didn't always eat together in the first place, either before or after she married Sombra. Raven hadn't always had lunch with Celestia once Luna returned either, and Luna usually spun stories to Celestia on days when Raven wasn't around.

Then there was also the matter of the puzzle that was Sombra, and what was said about him.

"That's fine. I actually have a few things I would like to talk about regarding Sombra too."

The faint seriousness emerging in Celestia's tone caused Luna to tilt her head to the side, eyes wide with owlish eagerness, and fries poking out of her mouth. "Mmm? 'ou 'an 'al 'out 'om'ra?"

"Yes, I just had a few questions about him. Things I think I should know, and they are things that are too sensitive to ask otherwise. I've learned a lot," she said, voice growing lower. "I really have. I want both of us to be on the same page with him, as much as we possibly can. No more stress for you, no more tears."

The fries were nearly inhaled out of pure surprise. "Tia..."

"No, I know that tone. No thanking me. I put you through something that you shouldn't have had to go through alone... again. Please let me try and make it up to you."

While Luna did take the chance to swipe sugar cubes via telekinesis from Celestia's tea tray, she melted in a way so that even her mane was flowing with gratefulness. (Just like her cheeks were momentarily puffy with sugar cubes.) "Do you want to talk about that first?"

"Well, if you want to—"

"We can discuss my proposals second! Mine can be second!" Two midnight forehooves clapped together eagerly. Goodness, there might as well be stars of happiness in Luna's eyes too.

"Okay, that'll be fine." Well, it could just as easily be problematic. She had no idea what it was that Luna might say, or if her mood might be swayed to something less favorable. It was... complicated, to say the least.

"Good! What was it you wished to know about Sombra? May I tell him you asked these things?"

"I would prefer if you didn't, not that I want you to hide anything from him." She shouldn't have to, not if things go well. "I just want a few things clarified."

Luna's cheer withdrew into something quiet, showing something with an equal measure of concern, reluctance, and the usual reserved manner Celestia knew her to show. "That does depend on what you ask..."

"Oh, no worries, none at all. I have learned a lot about him. He really does like to cook, has the grumpiest of frowns, will read anything as far as I know, and can sew too."

"Those are all things all of Equestria could guess about him. Your holiday, sister. He wrote those things to the world."

"Ah, well I didn't just get to see those things. He wants to see the midnight sun. His magic means he can't do crossword puzzles any longer, which he doesn't like. Sombra has aided me in many word searches. You gifted him his pet. The only ponies he eats around are those he trusts."

Luna gave a longing look of contemplation to her ketchup cup. "Is that all?" Was she going to deem Celestia worthy of whatever knowledge she kept?

"No, I would be here for too long if I was going to try and produce every piece of the puzzle that is your husband."

She was all too sure she sounded too annoyed, especially with the last two words, but Luna looked pleased to hear them. "Very well then, Tia. I think that you've really made an effort in this, and I will try to give you my best answers... and thank you again. I've seen how the lunches are helping, too."

Celestia smiled and ducked her gaze. She felt like a foal finally allowed a toy back, and that was no good feeling. Still, knowing that Luna was brought this much peace... that was good.

"We haven't been perfect—"

"You've really been trying, Tia! I trust your action and your word. There is no need for modesty. Ask what you wished to."

"Have things been going well with his therapist? He doesn't like it when I ask him about—"

"Psychologist, Tia. That is what he is seeing, and from what Sombra tells me they are still trying to get to know one another. Such a relationship is hard for him to form."

So Luna would still be the most knowledgeable on Sombra... there's an odd romanticism to that, I suppose. "But the things you mentioned..."

Luna's ears swiveled forward and patience shone in her pupils. "Are you saying you... wish to know Sombra's conditions?"

"Luna, what I want is for any part of his treatment to be doable within the castle. You two have talked about starting a family, and I can't imagine that is going to go well if he has anything that could impact a foal."

Luna stiffened and her gaze dropped. While she fidgeted with her forehooves, Celestia knew well enough that the gesture was Luna trying to keep Luna from playing with her mane. "Sombra has no condition that would severely impact any foal of ours if he accepts treatment for them. He and I went through all this before, and the only risk we face is higher predispositions for anxiousness. We have nothing more to worry about, as most of his conditions require environmental triggers, that is what all the papers and books we've had to read together say. The doctors affirmed this."

Enviornmentally-triggered? How strange.

"Really? Nothing more than anxiety for a foal?" Luna could be considered a fairly anxious mare, at least to Celestia. Sombra himself was so beyond just that, so Luna's answer sounded underwhelming.

"We made sure to get consultations. Any foal of ours is going to be fine."

With the utmost discretion, Celestia bit at the insides of both cheeks before speaking. Now all their outings to unspecified doctors and such were adding up. May Luna take her next words well. "I see. Did you ever... consider adoption?"

Luna nodded, completely serious but unoffended. "Absolutely. I'm not sure if you know what it is like, Tia, to desire a foal of one's own blood but..." Those fries were the last thing on her daughter's mind; Luna's eyes were clouded with the mist of deep, somber thought Celestia didn't dare interrupt. There was a vulnerability to the words and subject she felt rather threatened by. "I'll spare you any rambling, but please understand I've wanted this for a long time, to carry and eventually raise my own foal. I'm going to be the one to show them all the beautiful things in the world, Tia."

All Celestia could do was nod and pretend that she understood that kind of maternal pining. The sheer emotion in Luna's words was imbued with such a deep yearning that it was like a plant Celestia did not dare pull from her garden because of the terror that could come from how deep the roots ran.

"I suppose that adoption just did not... fit into things?" She gave Luna a tiny smile, the kind meant for hiding things. Easing things.

"Kind of?" Luna nibbled a few fries thoughtful. "For some time, we were considering doing both."

"Both..." To Celestia, her voice sounded more confused than airy. Perhaps that was a good thing. A very good thing. Some chaos just wasn't worth it, and the chaos that children brought was exactly that type.

"Aye, Sombra and I were discussing having two foals. I'm afraid that with the kinds of foals we were looking to take in, he would have been overwhelmed and the experience would be unhealthy for him. Sombra still isn't ready..." Her last four words were soft, gentle near-whispers that Celestia almost didn't hear.

As soon as Luna finished, she met Celestia's eyes and found confusion there that she knew she should've been more careful with. "Tia, none of the foals we were looking to bring into our family were cooing, sweet little babies, like Twilight Sparkle and her wife adopted. I was looking at older foals, the kind whose papers do not often get attention. Foals who knew they weren't wanted, who have known hurt, and even had parents who are imprisoned for crimes. Few think about how often it is that those most vile and unfit to be parents are, and often."

"Luna," Celestia said delicately, "those are all the hard cases—"

"Yes," Luna began, tone confident enough to startle Celestia. "You needn't tell me. I wanted to call the kinds of foals you call 'hard cases' my own. I wish to take them under my wings, seat them at my table, tuck them into beds under this castle's roof, and for my husband to be their father."

"That's very nice." She gave Luna that same, hesitant smile. "But Luna, even I tried not to have Faithful Students with those kinds of backgrounds. My tests are designed to help rule them out. It's something you have to be ready for."

Luna shot Celestia a sharp glare and stabbed a fry into ketchup. The early autumn wind swirled her dark mane about. "I am ready to call myself the parent of a foal with 'those kinds of backgrounds', but the stallion I love isn't... and there is nothing wrong with that. We're going to wait until it is right for something like adoption." Magic whirled the fry about in a circle. "Consider it a pipe dream, and until that dream can be realized, we are going to have our own foal. They will be no less loved."

(To be fair, no part of Celestia ever doubted that Luna would love the foal.)

(Hypothetical foal.)

Before their lunches, Celestia knew that she would've jumped to unravel Sombra preventing Luna from doing anything, for being a liability of any sort...

Now, she was sure she would feel guilty about it.

"I don't think you'll be anything but a loving mother, Luna. I.. I just don't know how to fit Sombra into things. No worry must be expended for your foal, and I... oh, would it be presumptuous of me to say that everything does seem to be in order?"

"Very much so." Luna took another wolfish bite of the burger and looked at the clouds, and thus away from Celestia.

"I'm only trying to help. Is it the his nightmares of his again...? Are they back?"

"They never really go away, at least not yet. His reaction to them can lessen. When things are good for him, they subside. Lately, their frequency has dropped. I do not speak of his dreams, Tia." Luna frowned and wiped at some ketchup on her cheek, mumbling, "Not always."

Every possible way to express concern was clear on Celestia's face. There was the tiniest frown, the uncertain direction of her ears, the gentle tilt of her head, and of course, she could not neglect the piteous, near-teary gaze that was downright matronly. "Just what is it that troubles him? He told me he was young in the Crystal Empire. Yes, so did everypony else, but all he was called was... I did not realize that you meant he was a minor."

"Youth or adult, none of that changes that Sombra was under constant duress in the Empire!"

"Luna," Celestia kept her voice lathered with sweetness, "I stressed that because I know that you understand how vulnerable the young are..." Her smile widened, stretched thin. "...even Sombra."

Finding herself at the mercy of magic or blade would have been less lethal than the pout and stink-eye combination that Luna aimed at Celestia.

"I mean what I say! Please, there's no need for the face."

Luna stuck her lower lip out further.

"Please. I mean no offense to you; I'm just worried... and I want what's good for you."

Celestia knew she only blinked once, and Luna had changed in that time. Her eyelashes fluttered before her gaze dropped once more, and her hesitance was back again. Her spirited daughter, who usually ate with gusto was now not even picking at the food in front of her.

"I only worry about the risks that come from your empathy, Celestia. How it can complicate." Luna rubbed at her neck, gaze straying even further away. "How it can hurt."

Celestia swallowed, confusion and inklings of guilt flooding her equally. "Empathy is not some foul thing, are you sure you do not mean—"

"I am so very certain of what I mean. Your over-empathy has been a terribly toxic, venomous thing before, and it still can be, in you and in anypony else. You have turned a blind eye so much that I thought you would be willing to give Sombra some peace by doing the same when he moved in and grant him the same inconsequential respect that others get just for being here. You know I thought you would show him that kindness because I love and trust him."

"And I am very sorry I didn't," Celestia said, unable to look at Luna's sullen expression for long. "I still think that you are speaking wrongly of empathy—"

"No, sister, I am not. We both know well your habit for making everypony's success and tragedy your own, and how such a rare facet of true compassion can be soured when thrown out en masse with blinded kindness. Never did I trust that Element, of all of the Good Tree's blessings. I think of bread when I think of your kindness, for you offer it to everypony so that they might be plump and content. Those already well-fed are fattened on the stuff. Meanwhile, the few who are ravenous with want are fed nothing and must starve. I cannot hesitate to describe it as your foremost flaw, for I know flaws. There is kindness, sister. I shall stick with better, truer things. Empathy is itself as it is meant to be when given to the starving, only then does it flourish."

"You were starving," Celestia whispered, blinking rapidly to cull any budding tears.

Regardless of how much forgiveness and healing they shared, family was still family. Sourness could be discussed, revisited, and still seen in little things that time would have to mend with careful stitches. At least, that was how Celestia always felt, knowing her feelings were as empty as a windsock and just as prone to instantaneous changes that demanded a mask to smother them. Sombra had always felt something like a knife to those stitches, though, slicing open old wounds and ready to lift the mask she desperately insisted on away. She was recognized by that mask.

Luna opened her mouth, but shyly decided on a nod. She tensed slightly when Celestia laid a forehoof on top of Luna's. As much as it could be Luna's general reserved state and Celestia moving too fast, she could have easily reacted that way because she felt just as wounded.

Which, of course, meant it was the perfect chance for Celestia to nab a fry.

"Tia!" Luna protested, eyes wide and alert. "Cease this robbery!"

"Mmm, I'd say it was a very tasty robbery."

Getting to hear Luna laugh was what made such a crime worth it, even if she knew now that Luna still sounded happier when Sombra was the one who made her giggle. Thinking that made it all too easy for Celestia's concerned, serious expression to show again.

"Luna, was he really in the situation you say he was, where he was young and pressured?" She needed to know why somepony who wouldn't be able to snag a 'not proven' verdict if he was ever properly tried could be anything but guilty. The princess still had yet to hear if he was suffering from anything severe enough to warrant him being committed, as last resort as such a thing was, if he could hurt himself or somepony else where nothing else would work...

Celestia pursed her lips worriedly. She had too many things to consider without information, and goodness was she trying not to make anymore predictions. Assumptions.

(Truthfully, that made her feel quite helpless, being unable to stay moves ahead of somepony.)

"Aye," Luna's tone held all the conviction and emotion she reserved for the few things that stirred her hunger for justice most. "No part of his life in the Crystal Empire was marked by a mind able to be culpable for what he is infamous for."

"Due to his youth and... arrangement with Onyx?" Trying to accurately convey whatever bond those two had made her feel dirty, knowing the deep dark magic involved, on top of still being puzzled on their exact dynamic.

Luna popped a string of fries in her mouth. "Not just that. You know he doesn't drink, don't you?"

"Alcohol or coffee?"

"As of now, he abstains from both."

Celestia raised one eyebrow in the kind of perfect, collected gesture used to urge Raven on when she fumbled for words and stumbled around something without the kind of tactics Celestia wanted to be used for such movements.

"The latter because it has contributed too much to his anxiety—"

"I take it that anxiety... is formally diagnosed?" Her tone was crisp to match her expression, like she had been inquiring into the catering for a gala or the arrival of a diplomat.

Luna paused completely. Even the flow of her mane was stilled for ten seconds Celestia counted carefully. "Yes," she conceded eventually, "Sombra has been diagnosed with a panic disorder."

The blood rushing in Celestia's ears was scarily loud.

(Had she not mentioned that she never took Sombra for an anxious type? He wasn't like any of her Faithful Students who had somewhat similar dispositions to chronic worrying. Sombra came across as delusional and narcissistic not sympathetic, as anxiety was supposed to be. It was victims of violence that were usually prone to anxiety, not the perpetrators.)

"...Oh," she murmured, wishing for her voice not to feel as shaky as her throat did forming the words. "I imagine that is why he had to... quit coffee?"

Luna nodded.

"...Luna?"

Two dark forehooves were now teasing and worry-combing through a blue-purple mane. Luna was staring past her lunch and made only a small noise of acknowledgment in the back of her throat.

"You said he had diagnoses. That is plural." Luna really had been right about him not being dangerous with a panic disorder... and then about his workplace being unsafe...

'A lot to think about' was going to prove to be an incredible understatement.

"I did say that..."

"Please tell me. Your secret is safe with me."

"'Tis not my secret. Our privacy, mine and Sombra's. That is what this is."

"I shall not tell a soul." This wasn't even something she knew how to talk about, not with anypony. Not Dissy, nor Twilight. Raven wouldn't want to hear about Sombra, but oh goodness, she wanted to be able to sort this out with somepony other than her own stewing thoughts. To sort through them bodes disaster. Dissy had a way of calming her and cheering her up. Twilight was helpful and adored her so much... she couldn't disappoint Twilight...

Luna mumbled all her words together, making them too hushed.

"I didn't catch that—"

"Post... stress... disorder..." Luna's second attempt gave Celestia clearer words with silence stuffed between where the muffled bits still stuck together. The first hint of a cascade of other syllables died in a barrage of muffled sounds.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder," Celestia repeated in a voice trimmed with too much enunciation and perkiness. It was the voice she used to help Faithful Students when they had trouble reading complex spells.

"Complex post-traumatic stress disorder." Luna pulled her mane close to her face like a scarf and nodded into the blue locks. Her enunciation was only just enough for Celestia to hear her now, like a whisper. "Borderline personality disorder, overt-subtype narcissistic personality disorder, with schizoid and antisocial features. He has a pyromania disorder. One thing that I had a vague suspicion of was that he may be autistic if he was not schizoid."

Anypony with all of those shouldn't ever be allowed to step outside of a mental hospital. And goodness, the under-diagnosing of foreign psychologists. Where is the herd rejection disorder? Where is the empathy deficit disorder? He's missing over half of what he should be labeled with! "I... goodness, that's quite a bit. Is there anything else?"

"Yes!" chimed Luna, as though she weren't the least bit horrified of the conditions that she named. "His psychologist assures us that Sombra is probably autistic, like Twilight Sparkle is. Anything else is irrelevant and private."

Ah Luna... I had always hoped that if you wanted to be with somepony who was also autistic, you would pick Twilight. Why was it that you couldn't love somepony neurotypical, if not Twilight? Or why not somepony consumed with all these nasty things? How could you not be with somepony who would want to help you be normal the way Twilight, a neurotypical pony, or anypony who wasn't insane would want for you? Then you would be so happy!

"I presume that... what he experienced in the Empire caused these?" Did Luna find that her unsubtle pauses were too much? She could only manage so much right now, and there was still a mask to maintain. How could she not help herself to such indulgences of patience?

"Mostly."

"Could you please explain? Was something wrong with him before—"

"Nothing is wrong with Sombra, he's just been hurt very deeply," Luna shot back. "And the part of him that was created from nothing — well, in ways he may truly be 'just like this' as he puts it sometimes. Some of the behaviors and symptoms he recalls being part of him in his first moments."

"I'm sorry, that came out terribly. Please, go on."

With the utmost reluctance, Luna pushed her mane away from her face. Her eyes were clearly starting to grow damp around the edges and Celestia had to refrain from sucking in a breath and trying to reach out and dote upon her. A frown was already on Luna's face and she was close to hunching over.

Gently glittering gold magic tapped Luna's food, a motherly reminder of a certain comfort in plain sight. Her chest grew fluffier with feeling when she saw Luna's eyes flick to the meal, and yet when she ignored it all that fuzz wilted away.

"Sombra has told me that he had panic episodes before the Crystal Empire, and a few other anxious habits wound up in all his anger and moods."

So he had always been a moody, brooding type? The schizoid type — as if those weren't some of the most antithetical to the Equestrian way — who had to be locked up? That Celestia could believe without question, and she nodded readily for Luna to continue. (As soon as she popped a few fries in her mouth; a habit was a habit, after all.)

Luna blinked, and Celestia heard a tiny sniffle. "If he hadn't done some of the things to himself that he did in the Crystal Empire, I imagine he would only struggle with somewhat less, regardless of his disposition towards most of these things — oh you see, he's such an unusual case as a created being."

Celestia's throat was too tight with worry, and too dry with fear for her to do anything more than stare at Luna imploringly, wanting a continuation. This bandage needed to be ripped off.

"That... that is why I was trying to tell you..." Luna sniffled again, biting her lip. "I didn't want you to hurt him... I just..."

"Shh, Luna, everything will be just fine. Are there not... options for him, though? None of these are the conditions I was thinking he had, and I know there are medications for them. For the ponies that aren't locked away."

"No, Tia—"

"There's nothing wrong with needing medicine. Philomena has to have them to keep her feathers healthy. Skyla has vitamins she has to take. Twilight knows ponies who have to manage themselves that way. I've known plenty, too. There isn't any shame in it."

"Of course, there's nothing wrong with that..." Luna looked out to the gardens, taking in the earliest signs of autumn as glumly as possible. "I greatly doubt that any of those ponies were ever told that the effectiveness of their medication would be 'experimental at first' given that none of them have ever been tested out on his species, nor have any divine beings ever needed regular medications. Sombra and I did look into that option, but Sombra is not an experiment. We want to see how he'll do with therapy and if anything can be developed without him being subjected to cruel tests. His safety is paramount. He will not be taking anything that could do him great harm because of 'experimentation' was the best-case scenario for whatever immortal-safe medications could be ready by now. Think about it, Tia! No Alicorns have taken medications before. Stars know I probably need them, and Sombra does too, but we want to invest in their development safely."

"Oh, Luna, I'm so sorry..." She patted Luna's forehoof with her own and wished for the right words to spring to mind, really and truly. "I didn't know."

"I did not even know I had the autism until my return when you took me to see that doctor in Canterlot..." Luna pouted forlornly, her eyes momentarily watery and downcast.

This time, Celestia did not even try to correct her daughter referring to her condition as 'the autism', and instead looked on with all the sympathy she could muster.

Was it even her place to ask about what exactly transpired during Sombra's appointments with anypony? She never had before. Even when she had Faithful Students in need of therapy and treatment, she only ever offered recommendations and didn't even try to broach the subject unless it impacted their education, or if she worried that her Students weren't getting the treatment they needed. Luna had been in and out of therapy since her return — she was a difficult patient, with difficult needs, who had a hard time bonding with therapists properly. She even said some were unhelpful. More than that, treatment options for immortals just weren't properly developed for immortals. Finding Sombra was the biggest turnaround in Luna's mental health since getting blasted with the Elements of Harmony.

"You couldn't know that something would have happened differently. I'm sure that whatever happened that you think worsened—"

"Tia, I said he abstained from more than just coffee. Forgive me if I sound irritable, but what do you think he was doing to himself?"

Oh, dear me...

"Was he not a child...?"

"None of that stopped Sombra from," Luna swallowed, squeezing Celestia's hoof so tightly that Celestia had to bite the inside of her cheek hard not to yelp, "binge drinking. He thought he was going to die there, Tia. Sombra wanted to die there. My poor Sombra was absolutely miserable and it's worse... What he did to himself hurt him too..."

"Shh, shh. Enough of that, you don't need to say anything else. I understand. Eat your food, and please don't worry. You've been worrying far too much."

She didn't. Not one bit. Goodness, what was Celestia to do now? Luna just told her that this stallion so hated by the world was... a traumatized former alcoholic teenager, as she understood it. While she was relieved to know that there were no risks with any foal of theirs, Sombra being so broken explained a few things about him. Maybe even more than a few, like why he was upset by her scolding him for being a 'killjoy teetotaler' when Luna wasn't around and he refused to...

Sombra was in the Crystal Empire for close to a decade.

There was a lot about his temper that was starting to be explainable, that was for sure... along with his sick days... how he was so paranoid...

What she wasn't sure about was what it was Luna saw as a good, lovable quality in him. Sombra was pitiable, yes, but lovable was a stretch. While he was still 'the bad boyfriend' any sensible mother would steer her daughter away from, he was now a different kind of bad altogether. A lonely, undoubtedly depressed, self-destructive sort of broken. What about him was actually likable? Where was the husband material here? All she saw was the perfect candidate for Luna to want to help, but it was hard to imagine wanting to be Sombra's spouse.

She never had to have this particular talk with Cadance when she told her aunt that she was engaged. As hesitant as Celestia was to give her blessing then, it was hard to deny that Shining Armor was a respectable stallion with many good qualities. They deserved their union, so she was not going to be the one to stop them... just because she had feared Cadance might be more loyal to Shining that she would forget about her auntie.

"He is incredibly lucky to have somepony like you, Luna." She finally returned Luna's hoof squeeze, even though hers was sore from Luna's strength. "Don't forget that."

Sourness crept up the back of Celestia's throat. Saying anymore, trying to pull out any specific examples of what Luna and Sombra did for each other would no doubt be too forced and make her attempts at consolation insincere.

"Thank you, Tia. I'm sorry if I've demanded too much... I-I just feel like I can only get you to understand something if I'm begging." The sniffle to rule all her previous sniffles was picked up by Celestia's ears. "I hate that. I hate it so much, for we are sisters, and still, I often feel so low and that I must only be allowed things in an unequal dynamic—"

Then why does it always feel like I'm the one pleading for you to listen to me? To stay where I can see you? To keep you from flying away? To mind your heart? To not despair so? How is it that you have begged me for anything?

"Shh, you're upset." Another hoof squeeze. "Deep breaths. I've never meant for you to feel trapped, not ever. Please, tell me whenever something is bothering you. I know you have Cadance and Sombra, but I'm here and I love you too, Luna."

Luna rubbed at one of her eyes, though no tears were there.

"The bright side is that I know now what has been happening. Isn't that good? Now, is there anything else I can do to help with Sombra? If he has these episodes then won't he have, ah, triggers? Does he have any?"

"Aye, he does," Luna slowly took a few deep breaths before nibbling at the oatburger and fries again, which was a relief to Celestia. "He fears collars. True collars. Belled ones upon pets, the idea of wearing one, and even chokers that are more than a strip of lace are at least creepy to him. Meat-eating greatly distresses him, as do crying babies. Ponies who appear violent or aggressive when intoxicated, as opposed to being oafish, annoying, and anything he finds non-threatening."

"Nopony in this castle is an angry drunk, as far as I know. I don't think he'll have to worry about that. Is there anything else?"

"Anypony who reminds him of Onyx. Larger groups of Crystalline ponies. The very concept of Sombra being in surgery is horrific to him."

"He won't be around any tour groups, then. I think he mentioned problems with yaks before, is this true? Nopony is exactly going to put him under and operate on him in the castle, so there are no worries there."

Tapping her chin, Luna hummed. "A long time ago, Sombra encountered yaks when he was young, at least a few times. They did not have a good impression of one another. Please refrain from asking him about this one."

Celestia had a sneaking suspicion that was why Yakyakistan had refused contact with ponies for over one thousand cycles of the lunar calendar... and would have to see if she could find anything to corroborate that Sombra was behind the general distrust of ponies that yaks had, and why they closed their stronghold-cities. "Will that be all?"

"No, he also is repulsed by unwanted physical contact. Sometimes, it does scare him. He is afraid of being physically restrained and cornered—"

"Restrained how? Is he afraid of cells? Small rooms?" Celestia frowned, pouring herself a cup of tea and taking a long sip. (What cup was she on again?)

Luna waved a hoof. "Think like being tied or tangled up, or detained in certain situations. Anything forcible, like a muzzle. Locked rooms do not exactly trouble him; I've successfully convinced him to stop sleeping in his study when he works late and wanders there. He has been sleeping better because of it. He avoids wine cellars, but I would not say it is out of fear, just discomfort. Generally, any kind of notable sadism will frighten him. The burning of paper will upset him too. Aside from the Crystal Empire itself, there are no others that need be mentioned, for that summarizes nearly all of them nicely."

"Hmm, then I think he won't have to worry. I can see about locking the cellars up more. Do you think he'll be fine otherwise?"

"Of course! As long as nopony tries anything that might bother his magic-sense, all shall be well." Luna's smile was hopeful, and Celestia couldn't help but give her own pleased smile too.

"That is the kind of news I like to hear. Is there anything else on your mind?" A few cubes of sugar plopped into her tea with ease, and Celestia stirred carefully. "Your lunch certainly doesn't call for it, but would you like some tea?" Her smile was as sweet as the pleasant breeze.

"No thank you, sister. I would like to tell you about horn inhibitors if you do not mind."

"Horn what?" Celestia's confusion resulted in a very silly slurping sound.

Luna grinned. "Horn inhibitors are one of Sombra's proposals for Equestria, and I have to say that they are ingenious."

Oh no.

"Are they really?"

"Yes!" Luna said eagerly, producing a scroll with her magic and scanning the contents. "The problem of transporting a unicorn in guard custody has always been a perplexing one with no convenient way to contain and suppress their magic. Such a big show is always made, and so many sedatives are needed. Keeping a unicorn imprisoned for crimes or awaiting trial from using their magic cannot be done with ease like binding wings."

"This is certainly a very relevant problem, but as I understand the only solution to naturally block magic is smooze, which is by no means a plentiful resource. What could possibly be better than the potions and methods we have now?"

"Drugging somepony to suppress their magical capabilities isn't very efficient. The risks of a very powerful unicorn finding a way to resist is always a possibility. Smooze can be cleaned up. Sombra has considered an option that nopony can resist, and a simple one at that."

"I'm listening."

Luna smacked the scroll she held with one boisterous movement of her foreleg. "Bands of äerint are the solution!"

"Oh my," Celestia managed with a half-croak that resulted from an awkward swallow of her tea.

"A single band of Sombra's äerint around a ponies horn or inlaid in cell walls solve what previously was a conundrum. No extravagant engineering would be needed for the bands and only renovation for cells. All that would be needed is Sombra himself in order to activate the rings, for they require dark magic. Might Sombra be able to devise an alternative to that, he will be letting us know." Luna's mane waved happily, and she clapped her forehooves together excitedly. "The very same techniques that were used to ruthlessly restrain the magic of Shining Armor and Twilight Sparkle when the Crystal Empire returned can be harnessed now! Is this not most excellent news?"

"Hmm. Nothing like that has ever been done before."

"Now it can! Sister, this is the kind of innovative insight that Equestria really needs. I told you how much better Sombra could make Equestria. I had the great pleasure of approving this idea of his. Hopefully, Sombra shall start crafting the rings whenever he can."

Wait...

Setting down her tea, Celestia took a moment to wrangle the rising emotion in her to something composed in order to hide her nonplussed state. The way her mane still flowed and was teased by the breeze was quizzical, yes, just not surprised.

"...You approved his idea?"

"Indeed I did! Sombra told me that all his other ideas were delayed or rejected. He was looking for feedback. Once I evaluated his plans and notes, I found that rejecting such an idea would be a crime."

"I see..."

Luna nodded. Having eaten all of the food before her, Luna was now bearing the relaxed, neutral expression Celestia knew meant important things were to be discussed.

"Tia, you know what Sombra's idea being approved means."

"I think that maybe we should reconsider—"

"Reconsider that he has been confined to a desk job long enough? Good. Reconsider that you have overworked him. Better. Reconsider that Sombra has many skills and should begin his real princely duties and training. I saw how many of his ideas had not gone anywhere, and I was truly astonished. Twilight Sparkle is her own special scenario, and even she did not do anything more than ask you about using the map before she had your approval. Why is it that Sombra ended up with dozens of rejected ideas? I had two. Cady had seven."

Folding her hooves calmly, Celestia put on her most perfected calm. The mask of the princess needed to be delicate, even when her words might not be. "I only think that we should consider restraining from giving Sombra such duties, especially after the things we've just discussed. He won't be able to meet with griffons, yaks, or any omnivores. As a rogue god, the Pantheon will want little to do with him—"

"I am a rogue god too!"

"I know. Having two rogue gods with such power could send a bad message to the divine which are aligned with the Pantheon."

"Father and Neptune have not let their alliances with the Pantheon cloud who they speak with. Even Elysium and others still deal with me. So long as Sombra shows some restraint, I see no reason why this would have the impact you worry it shall. He'll listen to me."

"He won't be able to uphold any needed decorum and tradition. What happens when somepony goes to kiss his hoof? Luna, you know that can make me uncomfortable sometimes, and I still know it has to be done. How will he take tea? His knowledge of silverware is poor. Think of what he could be like at events and how that would make ponies feel."

"Does this not apply to Twilight Sparkle as well?"

Immediately, Celestia narrowed her eyes and looked down at Luna's chilly stare. "I do not think I said anything about Twilight Sparkle."

"You neglect to mention how she did not show the most ideal behavior either. A gala was in ruin because of her, and she has no ability to dance. As mannerly as she is, decorum is still something fairly new to her. I supported your choice to push her toward becoming a demigod wholeheartedly. What I did not anticipate was you plunging her into princesshood immediately afterward when Cadance had years of training—"

"This is an unfair claim!"

"No! This is no claim, you know it to be true. Do you know what is unfair? Elevating Twilight Sparkle so highly when she and Sombra have about the same level of rulership experience between them. Letting Sombra struggle for the rank that was simply hoofed over to your student is wrong. He has passed his test. Sombra shall advance, and if he must be mentored, let it be so."

"Fine," Celestia snipped. "I don't want to ever hear you say anything like that said about Twilight again."

Luna's icy glare met Celestia's with ease. "I shall mind my volume, not my words."

"You're his safety net," Celestia hissed. "Keep that in mind. His duties will be adjusted when I can assign him new tasks befitting his rank." Her head thrummed with the start of a strong headache and there sick taste of vomit was growing in the back of her throat. Didn't Luna realize how wrong this was? Celestia's stomach was in a knot with the foulness of her words.

"Thank you," Luna said dipping her head. Her voice was smooth with the steady confidence that Celestia couldn't remember being there before she knew Sombra, or it was something newly returned from where it had deserted her in foalhood's twilight. "Sombra shall continue to be diligent. Just you wait, he is far more than a dreamboat, Tia. He is a dreamboat with plans."

'Dreamboat' was a word for different stallions, not Sombra.

"And should I have let you wait here knowing you would eat my lunch?"

Gasping, Celestia turned to find Sombra standing a couple of paces from the table. Adorning his face was a smirk that was teasing to the point of being criminal, even if he had irritation in his tone, somehow the sharp pull of that smirk and the gleam of his teeth were supposed to soften things. Wrapped in his magic was a small box boasting äerint crystal shards where she had truly expected horseshoes to be, judging by the size.

"How long have you been there?" Celestia demanded quickly, certainly not keen about being snuck up on.

Two forehooves could not mask Luna's smile, nor muffle her giggles. "He has been there only a few moments! Hello, Sombra!"

"Hi, Luna." Sombra strolled over to the table and slid next to Luna, placing his box on the table before Celestia said he could. "I was here long enough to hear I've been promoted."

Not long then, Celestia thought, not dropping her gaze quick enough to refrain from seeing Sombra place a kiss on Luna's cheek...

...or when Luna pulled Sombra closer to return the peck.

Popping sugar cubes into her mouth couldn't get rid of the inexplicable bitter taste stuck there, but Celestia snuck a few more anyway.

"You missed lunch," she said simply.

"Apparently," Sombra grumbled and poked Luna on the muzzle with the stub of a fry, getting her to smile all over again.

"I was only ensuring Tia would not get it first!"

"Likely story."

"He who steals my shampoo shall find his fries stolen," Luna huffed, all her irritation dripping with faux dramatics.

With her ears perked and a suspicious squint, Celestia leaned as close to Sombra as she dared. (Only a few inches closer to him.) "He uses your shampoo?"

"I was borrowing it!" Sombra protested, frowning indignantly.

"Why is it that you 'borrow it' when yours sits untouched?"

"Yours is better!"

"Is it of such quality that you must 'borrow' it all the time?"

"Absolutely! My mane is long and should be well cared for."

"My mane is longer!" Luna shot back. "Why do you even need a shampoo specifically made for Alicorns?"

"Being a part of me, my mane is just as divine as the rest of me. No arguments."

"Then I shall continue to consume your fries every time you manage to get your hooves on them, for you have perfectly adequate shampoo."

"Perfectly adequate isn't perfect for me," Sombra retorted. "Yours even smells better than mine."

"We can get you better shampoo!"

"Ahem." One wave of magic later, Celestia jostled her tea tray's contents so that the clinking would catch their attention.

Luna and Sombra peered back at her, both blinking and wide-eyed.

"I think you two were getting a little carried away." Centuries of friends and relationships had taught Celestia all about arguments. While she was no Princess of Love, she did learn to spot signs that suggested a poor pair.

Luna and Sombra, who she had never once heard quarrel, appeared unable to actually argue with each other beyond a few exchanges regarding shampoo and fries. It was by far among the silliest, most bizarre arguments she had witnessed.

"I suppose we have," Luna admitted, nuzzling Sombra. "I'm sure I spoiled your lunch by being here so long too, so I'll be leaving. Is there not a meeting with Maretonian delegates later this afternoon, Tia?"

"There is, and I should really get-"

"Nonsense, I shall handle it. Perhaps you two have something to talk about. I love you, Som."

They're always like this.

Sombra didn't miss a beat. "Love you too."

If you want to help them, why must this of everything cause such insecurity in you?

Celestia wanted to shrink, at the very least.

Talk to Luna.

One quick light of her horn later, and Luna was gone before Celestia had the chance to protest or come up with her own excuse. Sombra was occupied with sorting through his äerint crystals, presumably looking for a specific one... and he was completely oblivious to everything she had learned about him.

The ill churning in Celestia's stomach began again.

"I don't feel well. Please just leave something in my office and we'll chat about your new duties, okay?"

Gold enveloped her quickly enough.

Fifteen minutes later, she was staring down at a tub splattered with vomit in her gold and marble bathroom, feeling a look of horror she could not place a name to on her face and another heave coming.

...

The next day, Celestia confronted Sombra with a simple question. She needed to hear his side of the story.

"Luna and I had a very serious talk yesterday," she opened, as soon as she had sat down. She brought nothing for lunch except for a grapefruit today — her appetite was non-existent. "She told me what you have been told after working with your psychologist in Germaneigh; you have quite a few mental health conditions I just wanted to confirm. Would you mind giving me your side of things?"

Sombra's ears didn't even perk up, but she caught their fuzzy tips flick. Though, Sombra did look up from his book about the failed Trotskyite Revolution in Sibearia. The look he gave her was as flat as a prairie. "They told me that I'm deranged and hot."

She decided not to press things after that.

...

Tia,

I am sorry you have been so unwell lately. I hope you do not mind if your breakfast is cold. I did not wish to intrude when you feel so under the weather. Do you think that something you ate caused your body such distress? I can consult the physicians for any medicines if you are too tired to meet with them. I only ask that you get plenty of rest and see Discord as soon as you can. Young Qilin and he are quite worried. I fear I can only keep a toddler and fretting draconequus under control for so long. Sombra has been helping but is all too eager to take on the petitions you've assigned him. May you not look outside too much, I am afraid my work with the sun is still a work in progress.

Fret not about it, I think I am grasping it right, if slowly. The moon is just so much more bound to me that the nature of your sun is finicky in comparison. I find it a bit like a hyperactive foal, only on a celestial level. Still, it is not nearly as difficult as sorting through all the get-well cards the staff has sent. That is quite tiring. To think that there are sacks of these when you have a stomach bug. It is not as though your funeral approaches, and that appears to be the tone reflected in the cards. Ponies have an odd brand of melodrama to them. At least we finally have a member of our royal family who is unable to get the feather flu.

I think it would also be best to bring up the issue of Raven's office. I cannot fathom why you saw fit to permit her resignation. Are her letters still coming regularly? While she is one less pony I am forced to justify my marriage to, I know she was your friend. You have my gratitude for working towards being somepony else I no longer have to justify the same too. I'm not sure you understood how maddening that is when I know that he and I do no wrong by being together. Hearing the gossip and words your friends used to degrade something because of who we are as opposed to pointing out truly problematic arrangements hurts terribly. Thank goodness it is more controlled now.

Still, while Raven's office is 'cleared' all her boxes are still there. Old papers and belongings of the crown need to be sorted so that the room can be reused again. It has been months, sister. Need more pass? When you are well again, could that be your mission?

Feel better soon, I shall see if I can bring you some lunch and cheer you up later.

Your grateful sister,

Luna

...

Luna—

Thank you for the breakfast. Please let Dissy and Qilin know that I'm well enough for a little attention. I do need some fresh air in here, though. Would you mind bringing some lavender bouquets? A raid on the harvest of your herb garden for something to sweeten the air in here would be just excellent.

I'll have to talk to everypony again about the gossip. It's intolerable. Do adhere to the plans I've outlined for Sombra. I don't want him to be doing anything at the level you and I would. Track his progress and what petitioners are saying about him because I will be needing that information too. Color code things, if needed.

I'm sorry about keeping my letter so short and sloppy. Migraines again, once more making magic difficult.

The remainder of the things in Raven's office will be cleaned when I have the time. I still need to work on finding a governess for Qilin.

From,

Tia

...

Tia,

You don't need to worry about anything but getting better right now. The office can wait, and I've been managing Sombra's progress notes, the sun, and everything else just fine. I cannot devote as much time to the petitions Sombra has been overseeing as I would like, but he has been contributing to them. Records on who he saw, rejected, and accepted are there. I've made sure to organize any letters sent regarding how he has been overseeing them too. Once you are better, you may see them.

Ponies visiting are very surprised to see Sombra working. They still expect to see you and me on the throne all the time, overseeing things. I have been sent requests from ponies who wish to see somepony else and with such thinly disguised disdain. Do they think that they can order which royal meets with them as though they were dining somewhere and had a petty reason to dislike the server? Would ponies really be so peculiar to think they have that authority? Petitions are only assigned and taken as we see fit, and some ponies are actually wasting breath and paper on this.

The search for a governess is not needed. Qilin is still young, regardless of her aging has been normal and not the prolonged divine youth we had. I would be happy to watch her if you ever need me to! I'm sure Sombra would too. He has been doing so well with Skyla that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend him. I do not know how qualified I would be in anything but taking care of her, such as tutoring, but I can always find the time to watch such a wonderful little filly.

Have you considered asking Cady? Her visits are still fairly regular so I do not think her watching little Qilin would be so bad. Surely Cady helped Twilight Sparkle with homework and the like when she was younger. Would that not be similar to a governess, only without any of the worry?

May you have a wonderful afternoon,

Luna

...

Luna—

Please forgive me if my note has bothered you during evening duties. More migraines. Sleeping. I'm afraid I lost breakfast, too. Yuck!

I need a full-time governess. Professional, with a good reputation. Cadance will not work for that. She is a very qualified foalsitter but lacks the education and discipline to provide all the services a governess can offer. She also has a family of her own and lives away from us now. Qilin is old enough to have one. Your husband also is not trained as a governess, as far as I can tell, nor do I think he could secure the license for that kind of a job. Without that, Qilin will not be receiving the best education possible. It certainly won't even count as education if somepony like Cadance or Sombra were to take it up.

From,

Tia

...

Tia,

Apparently, the qualifications needed to secure certification as a modern governess are as extensive as the background checks, as my nightly reading has revealed. Such high standards are most commendable, I suppose.

Do you not think that it might be worth reconsidering? Any governess is still a stranger rearing one's beloved foals. I could write forever about emotional development is crucial in the early years, especially when caregivers are needed. Instead, I shall spare my rambling. You know how I am on the matter.

I would like to leave you to your thoughts with the hope that you will dwell upon other possibilities, but I think more rest is in order, is it not?

Goodnight, Tia. Sombra sends his grumblings.

Yours,

Luna

...

"How have things been with the petitioners?"

Steam from the hot mug of soup sitting on the table reached Celestia's cheek, warming them. Celestia yanked the scarf over her necklace, pulling it more tightly with the tug of her forehooves. Autumn would soon descend upon Equestria, and after spending two weeks bedridden with the awful flu that struck her. (Castle physicians informed her that she had appeared to have contracted one, likely from a visiting diplomat. She had expressed her distress upon not knowing the cause.) Immortality wasn't much of a boon at all if it didn't enable her to be immune to cases of flu.

Sombra scrawled some marginalia aggressively onto the pages of his notebook before his horn dimmed. "Do you really want to open this route of discussion?"

"Route...?" Celestia blinked, a strong itch flaring under her coat. The lingering grip of her flu cast haze into her mind that saw fit to mingle into a dull ache in her head, right below her horn as usual.

His pen was taken up again and circled something wildly. "Think of the route this topic can open leading to a whole journey of conversation." Pausing to fold a few pages he was pleased to locate, Sombra then added, "Inevitable arguments."

"Like... road work?" Sips of strong soup didn't totally get rid of the sour taste in her throat. Now, Celestia knew it wouldn't be happening but she was craving something spicy, or at the very least, substantial. Two weeks was too much soup.

"Sure."

"As I'm seeing here, a portion of ponies whose petitions were assigned to you found you to be very unusual." She let as many unsavory implications aid in stressing the word as she dare and tapped her forehoof to the stack of papers near her soup. Luna's royal seal was broken, but the ties were still kept to make managing the papers easier.

"I did end up with some odd cases to delegate." Sombra found something in his book to be worth underlining before adding, "All without coffee, too."

"That isn't what I meant. Looking over these kinds of cases brought before you is the first step before you can start making public appearances and be involved in international affairs."

"Most of the cases I looked over were mind-numbingly petty."

"They aren't supposed to be fun. You are meant to serve the public."

"I never anticipated them to be fun. What I did expect was to be making decisions over things that had a reason to be brought to a national level. I am both seneschal and prince in that hall during court, and I expected organization as the standard, not the exception. The same goes for the kinds of cases and their subjects. Give me land disagreements, let me bestow patents, and tell me about important infrastructure plans. Something."

Celestia reached up to adjust her crown. She had selected and limited the kinds of cases that Sombra was allowed and ensured with a steady stream of notes that reinforced this, Luna had adhered strictly to Celestia's wishes. "Did you think that I would be letting you handle a real court case? To decide the fate of somepony convicted of a crime?" Especially considering your history?

"Not at all. Isn't that power rarely used?"

"That it is. I last acted as a judge before I ruled alone. I have overturned verdicts, but with ponies whose entire careers, education, and talents revolve around this task, you'll find little need to use such a power."

"I can't make laws, amend them, or do anything more than decide things within existing ones. That is still frustrating."

After another long sip of her soup, Celestia watched Sombra thoughtfully. He was paying more attention to his notebook than her. "Have you been reading the guides I made for you?"

"I certainly read them."

Biting back a sigh, Celestia refrained from frowning. "Then have you been following them?"

"Hardly. When the only 'advice' you have for me amounts to extensive dribble on how to dumb down, to put out something about 'thoughts and well-wishes' every time some disaster happens, keep my posture an extremely specific way, always wear my regalia, and wear make wearing cologne every day to appear snobbish, I'm not really going to put it to use."

"The word I used was 'sophisticated' not 'snobbish'. I really do expect you to start acting and dressing like royalty."

"Are you going to start leaving me a barrage of passive-aggressive notes about this and the regalia, then?"

"I suppose I could. Do you have a stationary preference?"

"Tartarus, Celestia. What else, do you sleep in those?" Sombra gestures to her regalia with a wave of his forehoof more befitting for indicating cat vomit.

"Oh, sometimes." Really, he wore it so much that even if she didn't forget to take it off, it ended up feeling wrong to do so. "But I think you're being too pessimistic about holding court. You were given very easy work."

"The work isn't easy if the system it's in is a disaster. Should I send my 'thoughts and well-wishes' to that? Or make myself vomit right here and now at the thought of that actually being considered a meaningful expression?"

"As I'm reading here," she tapped a paper for emphasis, "you've been telling ponies that they are 'pathetic' and talking back to them."

"I'm not a cursing colt, Celestia. When somepony comes before me, trying to act like they have the authority in that situation, and that they can act any way that they like then I can call them out. I will call out a pony who proposes something outrageous, has me walk them through why it is outrageous, and then become upset with me for rejecting their petition for being ill-prepared and outrageous."

"I'm sure you're just being negative."

"I had a pony come to me trying to justify a gold statue — and yes, I do mean the metal, not that it was just gilded — in Cloudsdale. That was today. On Thursday, I had a pony refuse to let me review their petition with them to ensure I had the correct pony and demand that their petition now be seeing a different royal. Even before that, I had to review one from this vicious band of nags who wanted to get permission to turn land into a hoofball field."

"What was so bad about them?" In Celestia's experience, no 'hoofball mother' type was really that bad unless you got on their wrong side. All in all, they were upstanding citizens who presented themselves respectably and raised their foals to be upstanding citizens. Princess Celestia could greatly empathize with them in almost all ways.

"They were from Baltimore, which is big enough to have a mayor. I shouldn't have had to deal with that particular petition. It solely should have been confined to a local level because of what it concerned and its lack of severity. Instead, I get numerous petitions like that, and all because some ponies cannot bother with keeping their petition where it should belong."

"The Equestrian royal court has always been an accepting one. You are complaining against something which there is no formal law to regulate—"

"Then there should be!" A sharp jerk of his magic clicked the pen Sombra's magic furiously. (She didn't know why he tended to pick them over quills. He had magic, and quills were less annoying.) "Even after over a thousand years, your court is still a nigh-open one when it doesn't have to be and is no longer feasible to have. There is an influx of ponies who bypass that they have a mayor or even a region to which their petitions can be directed and are taking advantage of this, whether they know it or not. The court should be open to issues that are in line with needing to be addressed by those like us, while strictly keeping everything else at local and regional levels unless they move through the system to reach the national level."

Click click click click.

"I think you need to reconsider—"

Click click click CLICK.

"I think you need to reconsider that the way the Equestrian court has been for years with only minor alterations puts both us and our subjects at a disadvantage," Sombra interrupted with the abrupt boldness she had come to know as a normal display from him. "Entire local levels of authority exist under us and work to uphold the laws we create. There's no way in Tartarus any of us should have had the possibility of being assigned half the petitions I was assigned. I would say that this system was designed by somepony who likes to hear complaining because it isn't good for anything but killing time."

"I'm afraid I'm just going to agree to disagree. Gaining the position you have is a privilege. There have been no disasters resulting from this—"

"I can go into the Archives and find incidents where a pony who should have had their petition reviewed at a certain date did not. Don't speak so hastily when you know evidence can be found. Do you even know the cost of traveling to and from Canterlot? Most of these ponies aren't in emergency situations where they get paid for lodging and heavy escort from the Guard."

"Trips to Canterlot aren't as expensive as you think—"

"They are if you have to make them repeatedly. Lodgings, registrations, and different forms of transportation do add up. Not everypony is just going to put down the bits for a ticket and hop on the next train. Time is what's really wasted in this. Most important of all is the time you, Luna, and I have. Our time is what makes a difference in this damned nation."

The sourness was stronger than the soup now. "All I ask is that you do your job. Every petition is an important one."

"Start barring ponies who have a history of wasting petitions from making them more often. Throw them down to lower levels and bar them from making those if they keep wasting them. Some of the ones I had to review were unimportant garbage presented by pathetic ponies that repeatedly weren't denied entry. I wouldn't be surprised if I had to deal with a Tribalist tomorrow."

"Sombra..." Celestia cautioned, yanking on her scarf again. "Your skepticism and negative comments are not something that has authority over my greater experience."

The way he regarded her showed the pure insolence in his eyes that spoke how he thought otherwise more than any words could.

"This shouldn't be up for debate," came his usual irritable grumbling. "By reducing the number of petitions, as well as the waste of time petitioners, I can have ponies who have traveled a great length and are in greater need of resources arrive and be seen sooner. You're an absolute ruler, so do something absolutely useful with that power of yours."

"Name. One. Good. Petition." Celestia shot him the Sunset Shimmer Look again. "One. You had two weeks of seeing most of them. It is impossible that they were all so bad."

Click click click, went the infernal pen again.

"I granted permission for some cultist village to be bulldozed. I can understand isolation, but the fool who established this place did so in a canyon."

"See, that's something very good. Please just be more productive with your ideas and energy in the future. Smiling more helps too." She gave the papers Luna had collected another glance. "Some ponies actually don't mind you."

Even if his less desirable qualities were garnering attention, she added just to herself. Written right in the feedback section for one sheet was Luna's fine script noting that a retired Royal Nurse found Sombra to be 'direct and no-nonsense' when he approved her petition for a flower garden honoring the service ponies to be established in Hollow Shades.

Another was a Whitetail herbalist seeking for the status of her land to be given greater privacy and Crown-sanctioned signs to advertise this to protect her herbs who praised Sombra's seriousness. Of everypony who sat upon that throne, he was by far the only one who could be described as grim. Luna was patient, Cadance chatty, and Celestia strove to be friendly. This, of course, made Sombra an obvious change in pace...

In fact, it was so obvious that the petition regarding the hoofball mothers had very colorful comments recorded. A number of their complaints revolved around him being a stallion and having the behaviors of 'a typical stallion' followed by a great variety of other sexist comments she found no use to read in their entirety. For all Sombra's bad traits, she knew well enough he cared little about disparaging somepony on such status. There were indeed more than a hoofful of petition feedback documents that managed to weasel suck remarks in there, yet the majority of them just had one or two words to describe negative experiences.

The compliments and more obnoxious complaints aside, he still didn't have what she could pass off as an ideal reception. Allowing herself to duck under her voluminous mane, Celestia scanned over the rest of the general responses, free to express any worry if her mask failed her. As expected, numerous nitpicks were how ponies described Sombra. He was never 'just right' but always too little or too much of something, and those things tended to be serious, unfriendly, asocial, informal, and softened nothing he said...

...Each little trait of his became a brick that was used to establish a wall of numerous minor grievances. None of it was anything close to what would be needed to remove him from his new duties, though his lack of popularity was very apparent.

(And while that might not be anything surprising or worth any worry now if this worsened in any way, it would be one for her soon.)

"I think you'll start to find that holding court is not so bad. You might even start to get used to it!" Celestia beamed at him with her usual distilled cheer, but clearly, to no avail.

"Yes, there's nothing I love more than to hear a pony declare how miserable they are when I have court. One of them was like that. Their petition wasn't much more than a way for them to complain about their job. They were one of the ones I called pathetic if you really have to know."

"Why would you say that? Wasn't this pony upset?"

"Certainly. What they also did was put all their effort into getting themselves an audience with royalty in the capital city of their nation so that they could bemoan the various woes of being an unskilled worker with a steady income and adequate, stable housing. Not telling them that they're pathetic for being such a spectacular waste and living up to the term 'unskilled' would have been a far worse thing."

"That was incredibly rude of you." Celestia sipped her soup with clear disappointment. "I do hope that I won't learn you dismissed a legitimate case because you found somepony whiny if I were to flip through these." She gave her papers a tap.

"If they put that much effort into abusing resources under the thinnest of pretenses, I think it can safely be said that they can fix the minor problems in their life and should avoid breeding. You're not going to find anything that contradicts what I've told you."

"I'm still going to be double-checking."

"I suppose you'll be triple checking when you see that what I just told you is true?"

Thin lips were the only way she managed to convey her... conflicted feelings... towards Sombra. "Goodness, I might just have to. Telling ponies these kinds of things is not the kind of image that can be presented. Do I have to start giving you etiquette classes?"

"Hardly. What you need to start doing is addressing problems. A pony who is absolutely pathetic that they've fallen past any threshold of being 'flawed' or however you're trying to justify things needs to be recognized as such. Problematic individuals and groups have no place where they hinder others. Do you let a leech suck your blood, and the blood of somepony incapable of pulling it off, instead of tearing that inferior blob off your skin?"

"Comparing ponies to leeches is in poor taste, don't you think?"

"No, it really isn't. Oftentimes they're hard to tell apart."

"Well, telling me to be confrontational all the time isn't advice."

"I never said to do it all the time. Cauterize a wound for once, because ponies can and will be the infection if there's no prevention taken." The pen gave one last click that Sombra clearly found to be worthy of a self-satisfied shift in his expression. "Those who purposely throw themselves in a ditch when there's been every attempt made to get them out should just be buried at that point."

She was really just biting into her lip now and felt squashed inside trying to mask the gesture in a way that he wouldn't notice. Day upon day giving her subjects the happy princess they wanted was the kind of delicate job, like the construction and decoration of a teacup.

To find all those efforts towards perfection outshone because somepony like Sombra, who was a large, ugly, and bulky coffee mug to her hard work of a teacup, was crushing. He just showed up and acted this way even when she was nice to him, and if he really appreciated anything she had done for him, he would stay in line.

(And to be fair, the princess was still struggling to help him not draw so much attention to himself when she was sure he didn't mean to. Sombra rejected her suggestions of contact lenses, illusion spells to deflect from his height, and proper conditioner to give his thick coat a more pony-like texture since it was visibly so different. At this point, she was tired enough of his refusals that she was going to slip a sock on his horn and hope nopony noticed.)

"I feel that this is a bit much."

"I feel it isn't," Sombra insisted, flipping a page in his book. "Exploiting an important system with wastefulness and refusing to call out the miserably inadequate for being so is outrageous. Anypony should know who to support and who should remain unsupported, and our rank doesn't make us an exception."

"Don't you think that maybe you should let those with more experience have the real say in this?" She watched him with an expression of soft, clear innocence, and every edge kept from her voice. "What exactly do you call it when somepony like yourself who is comparably younger and more temperamental starts throwing ideas to somepony like myself who has been managing this nation for most of my life, hmm? Isn't this just a teeny bit unfair?"

"If by 'unfair' you mean 'you projecting' then absolutely. Ruling for an impressive amount of time isn't an excuse to rule poorly."

That had actually stung, and Celestia choked back a tiny gasp before ducking her head. He didn't understand everything that had to be done for Equestria, and he really never would. "The words you use are incredibly hurtful."

"Don't pull this act on me. You aren't always like this." Cold words from a stallion who was often no different, no matter how much courtesy she extended to him, and rude regardless of the relationship she was trying to maintain. How unsurprising, the kind of unsurprising that just left the gradual hollowed-out feeling to resonate throughout her.

That kind of space was filled with a gradual, misty kind of sadness that managed to cling to her, having a kind of whisper of 'why bother' with it, even if it never could answer what was supposed to be bothered with.

(Had she ever expected it to be anything but the echo it was?)

Managing an easy smile, Celestia looked away from her papers, towards Sombra but not right at him, as she was prone to do. "This," she made an aimless gesture with a forehoof, "is certainly why the foals are right to say 'good vibes only'. If you keep up all this negativity, I will put a sticker with these kinds of excellent little messages on the door to your study until we can exorcise all your negativity. "

She found herself as the target for one deadpan glare, courtesy of Sombra's generosity with such expressions.

"I'm starting to get worried about you," she assured him, her words and tone holding undisguised warmth. "Being down isn't good for you. I'm really just trying to guide you."

Tap, tap, tap went Sombra's pen against the table.

"Please. I would do the same for any of my other friends." She beamed at him and stretched one forehoof closer to him in a kind gesture while her whole mouth filled with the taste of vomit that wasn't there. A pulse of nausea ran through her, but Celestia didn't even have to try and suppress it. "Isn't there something that can help you? Anything I can do?"

There were times when she wasn't sure if Sombra could see past every smile she made, whether they were meant for him or other ponies. It was just a bad effect, one of the littlest worries that came from having somepony around you that stared at others the way a bone cutter would regard the vital materials it was meant to remove. While she was sure that her worry was unfounded, it certainly never stopped hurting her thinking that there was somepony who didn't believe her when she wanted them to.

"Not at all." Sombra's tone was too even, too cool for the visible irritation in the way he clenched the left side of his jaw, or how sharp the color in his eyes became, all without any magic.

To stop him from leaving would have required an assertion, a display of her putting her hoof down, and for what cause? What more could she try to say? Did she really want to risk any more conflict when the path of least resistance shone so brightly? Even if there wasn't a tried and true quality to that way, Celestia was assured of it being the correct choice in this situation, and let her eyes fall again while Sombra wasted no time in gathering his things.

For so many years she had considered herself to be living behind a mask, contorting however she must to help herself and others with the barrier she had ached to establish for so long. There was little reason to think of it as anything else, for what could fit it better?

Unbridled passions and the mercurial natures that stormed through those she knew, especially those closest to her, were something foreign. She was torn between thinking that they could be dangerous and misunderstood. To be able to show, to act, and face something without any shred of presenting oneself as tailored to meet a need created a terrible dichotomy in her life, like somepony hadn't received word that they were an imposter, the way she was. All that remained to be asked and answered was the most pressing question: who was it that could claim that status?

Was it every bold sort? The ambitious and inflexible who directed themselves inward as she would not dare? For the quiet, and the outspoken, could they be the inauthentic in contrast to her? When one's personality was near-forceful to the point of overflowing, wasn't that all the more disastrous? If one was too much of themselves, an entirely oversaturated individual to the point that they came across as a wildfire next to a pine needle, wasn't that all the more artificial in all the worst ways?

That was all the more deserving compared to the ponies like her. She wasn't the only one who bore the status of authority to know that an image was better to build than a reality. To be earnestly miserable would always hurt more ponies than it helped, so there was never anything deserved about insulting any facade. Celestia had always been other-directed enough to be aware not only of just how that kind of blatant lack of control (isn't that really what any passion could boil down to after enough thought?) was just as unappreciated as it was unnecessary. To bite back oneself in that way in order to accomplish something for someone else was an ultimate act of good, one she would not shy away from if her subjects were at hoof.

There was a usefulness to it as well, and who wouldn't want to be useful? What was so hard about that? (Why was it that Sombra spoke of being useful as though it were the same as being used anyway?)

Since her unexpected bout of flu, Celestia's magic hadn't regained its full golden glory and the scramble of geasan had their own sensations to mix with her still-fresh memory of congestion and aches, and none of it was pleasant. This left the now-yellowish light fumbling against her papers one last time and felt as just as hesitant as she was right now. For all she had done to try and point Sombra in the direction she described in his coronation speech, he would not follow. The vast uncharted sea of what she knew to be the inevitable consequences of his loose-cannon ways loomed, and she was wary of their tide.

Behind the plain, attentive smile that instinct knew was meant to be on her muzzle, Celestia knew she had moves to make. No plan was proper if she wasn't a few moves ahead of anypony. From anything from surprise parties for friends (she had to ensure that they were a surprise, didn't she?) to out-maneuvering one's foes, she could only ever try and do her best to remain unsurprised. Sombra made this supremely difficult, even when she tried to help.

There was a great shortage of anything that was easy to do, creating an atmosphere of suffocation in even the most innocuous of situations. The number of things that still could be done without effort she could count on one hoof.

It was the easiest thing in the world to be happy, but the hardest thing in the world was for that happiness to be real.

...

Cleaning up Raven's office was a curse as much as it was an obligatory kindness, the quality of kindness that nopony seemed to remember. There was hardly time for the kind of assurance of purpose held in those words during cleaning, which was understandable. Luna's perspective on the office things was too; she hadn't had the connection to Raven that Celestia had, so when Luna told Celestia that if Raven's things weren't cleaned within a week and the office repurposed, she would throw the contents away Celestia hadn't gotten upset. She couldn't bring herself to.

The situation fell on her like a blanket, and she hadn't realized that she was cloaked in that airy state until she had pulled herself together — a bit too literally — and realized that she had been spaced out for hours the day before, and there was nothing to account for what happened logged in her diary. (Had one of the geasan taken reins when she had drifted away?) Refusing to dwell on something that nopony had really meant to hurt became as easy as any other refusal, once it was done enough.

Luna hadn't been unkind, but she hadn't known that tossing a few boxes away would hurt Celestia either. Celestia didn't want her to, that would hurt just as much, to have to hear an apology. All she wished is that the kindness-optional feeling was struck from all. What else did anypony think they were made for?

A framed photo of Raven and Celestia dressed as pop stars for Nightmare Night stared back up at Celestia. That year, Celestia wanted to try and have the whole castle dress up if they could. When Raven could only stammer out nervous excuses to refrain from fun and dressing up, Celestia roped her into dressing up as Sapphire Shores alongside her. Even when Raven's wig was pulled over her mousy mane and the majority of her face for the day, Celestia was able to enjoy a holiday she normally was torn over.

Don't break, were the only words she had to offer herself. The rest of the day was still ahead; she couldn't afford to be overcome like this even now.

Releasing a sigh choked with weight, Celestia peered around the remains of a once-tidy office. Well, it was still respectable in how neat it was, it was just the stack of boxes that deterred from the interior harmony. Smaller furnishings had been put away by Raven with a halfway effort that still reeked of resignation even after all this time. Everything else that was stacked around her was the books that Raven was assigned to keep.

Nudging one open with a hoof, she gave the records carefully penned in tidy strokes of ink one long look. Various donations jumped out at her, all diligently kept by Raven, who had always been willing to keep any record. Thick volumes of faux leather had the faint shimmer of protective enchantments, and Celestia grasped the book firmly in her forehooves and pulled it away from the others.

Continuing to flip pages, she finally let her smile slip to show the smallest bit of glumness. The dedication Raven showed her for years, and now they were only linked through letters in a long-distance friendship, the kind she found could wear away if she wasn't careful. Somehow, long-distance friendships made her pine in all the worst ways while she found something so breathable and romantic in long-distance romances, which she maintained with Discord when he had his years as Qilin's primary parent. The embers of her romantic wants always found something swoon-worthy and comfortable in those kinds of arrangements with stallions.

There was nothing romantic about the logs in front of her, but they were a comfort over a mere object to her. This was an expression of all the things that she and Raven had worked on, and to her, there was no more poignant proof of generosity and friendship than proof of charity. Unity was more present in numbers than words, and Celestia could respect that over dribbles of poetry and other pieces that failed to strike the kind of chord with her that something this real did. She had loved enough artists — and goodness, they weren't exactly the kinds of stallions that fit her type — to know that art often amounted to little more than fantasy.

Parchment always had a pleasant feeling to her hooves, and she had taken up paper-making, once, in the past enough to have proper opinions on the quality. The longing for somepony else to be there with her drifted in her thoughts like furls of fog, making her gestures aimless until she caught herself stumbling from how she had awkwardly posed herself, alone with accounting books.

Laughter, soft and for the sake of sound, slipped from her along with a few startled whinnies. One very unintentional twirl and a gasp later, a few boxes on the floor had been accidentally disturbed. Plopping down in a shuffle of legs, Celestia righted her crown before she looked at the papers spilling out before her like the tide invading a shore of fine tile.

Her ears were still perked to hear a response to her disorganized laughter, one that would not come.

Moving her hooves carefully, she untangled the awkward arrangement of her legs, ancient embarrassment over the limbs that were impractical in size from a strictly-pony perspective finding its way into a pinkish flush on her cheeks.

Sparing no time, she welcomed wavering yellow onto her horn and winced at the faint ache that came with charging her horn too quickly. Sweeping up papers, she managed to sort most of them neatly between the covers of books and the boxes where they belonged.

Two groups of boxes were needed, one for things that were meant to remain in the castle that Luna likely thought had been moved out when Raven first left, even if they weren't exactly the particular financial records that were needed on hoof at all times. The second was for all the trinkets that Raven had left behind; no matter how trivial the object.

An entire set of exquisite quills had been left behind, ones that Celestia had given Raven for a birthday. While it hurt to see that such an avid quill-collector had left them behind in a dusty desk drawer, it hurt even more to think that Raven could've done it on purpose.

Humming filled the room to clear it of emptiness by letting an upbeat Countess Coloratura melody fill the air. Even when Celestia saw a parchment just barely the wrong shade of any she assigned Raven, the bouncy pop tune continued to leave her lips.

Confusion was all that struck her, because from a distance the paper certainly looked like it would at least belong with the others. All the correct lines were present, and she could see that there was a date was on top, very clearly reading...

Celetia's brow furrowed, and she squinted without moving toward the papers.

...well, it was clearly from a while ago. That was the month when she had first met with Sombra about education reforms, at least according to that date...

Celestia certainly knew she had packed away the official financial logs for that date, and the papers for it were not separate from the ledger. For pony's sake, she had been holding it in her very hooves just minutes ago!

There's no way it can be right there...

The paper wasn't creamy in color either, not like the ledger. The whitish color told her this was cheaper stuff.

Snatching up the papers with a flourish of gold, Celestia swallowed sharply, eyes bulging at the contents.

Oh yes, they were in Raven's horn-writing. Short-hoof jumped out at Celestia, who knew well enough by the strokes and state of the writing that this little stack of papers had been filled out very quickly...

'Still, I really would like to get a look at his finances.'

...the kind of quick writing that came with seeing something one shouldn't...

Somehow she managed to...

Celestia's throat went dry.

"Oh, Raven..." Celestia's whisper was breathy and carefully hushed, even when there was nopony around to hear.

...the kind of speed in writing and short-hoof that came from copying something...

She really went ahead and did this... How long did she even have these...?

Feeling cold wash over her body, Celestia drew her wings close and glued her eyes to the contents of what she now knew was a copy Raven had made of Sombra's own ledgers, wherever that stallion kept them.

The item of least interest — not that she would call what she was feeling 'interest' — was the obvious source of Sombra's income: he was an entrepreneur. Records showed that many of his purchases weren't the odd invention bits, unusual parts, and arcane equipment she knew him to make, but quite a lot of normal books... and what looked like the exact kind of tools needed to maintain a sizable greenhouse.

While there was nothing about where he might have constructed a greenhouse, or similar establishment, there was enough written to show that his source of income to fund all his purchases was not only self-made but very obvious.

Sombra was clearly steadily selling (and growing) more than a modest amount of cannabis.

...She should have expected it, really. Legalize something that can net a pony a steady amount of bits and it will have a large enough appeal — and it had, for centuries. It was the only thing she could see Sombra qualifying for a permit to grow or sell, seeing as the requirements were minimal.

But oh crab apples, based on the patterns she was seeing in this particular month, he was distributing a lot. Had anything been happening in the castle, she would have noticed, so he clearly had things set up somewhere else. Names of ponies (at least, she presumed they were ponies) receiving bits were obviously the names of whoever he found fit to act as distributors for his product.

Had she thought there was anything suspicious about this in particular, she would have paused to scrawl down the names and check records in order to see if his distributors and dealers were licensed too. This was the least suspicious thing that she knew Sombra to do and while that was one reason not to bother with checking, there was something more pressing...

(More pressing than how evident it was by the few times Germane locations and names came up that Sombra was clearly paying for his own mental health services out of his own sizable funds.)

(That actually made a hint of... very mixed emotions touch the back of her neck with uncomfortable heat. Sombra could afford it, certainly, but if Equestrian services were safe for him, he would have no need to spend his own bits on his treatment.)

Past pages of required paraphernalia purchases were something that did stand out for all the wrong reasons, on a date that shouldn't have made her look as horrified as she did. Steam curled from her mane, warm where the rest of her was feeling numb with cold. The hissing of steam sounded too eerie and far away to Celestia.

Marked right in front of her was the depth of just what was wrong with Sombra, the probable cause of all those nightmares Luna was forbidden from, why he had some disturbance she felt that could never be placed, and what was the missing piece to all her attempts to reconcile his guilt or innocence.

This was the piece that she not only wished she didn't have; here was something she wished didn't even exist that Raven had been sitting upon so quietly...

Days before Celestia had visited Sombra's study to discuss his very first proposition, Sombra had withdrawn a sizable sum of bits from his vaults in the castle.

Two-hundred thousand and fifty bits had found their way to a Manehatten shelter, and every one of them had been Sombra's.

Author's Note:

[Revised for print on 6/4/2023-6/22/2023]

oops longest chapter
but that's because the next one is gonna be the finale of this section, a closing part eight
then what's basically the third act i guess???
fuck