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



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

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Chapter 3: Brother of Mine

Celestia was not a mortal. She did not fear death and she did not know death. The concept was not inborn for one of her kind, and could not be woven with her thoughts the way it would be with an objectively lesser species, though she refused to ever admit such superiority aloud as Luna would. The long and short of death and intimate workings of a concept like mortality, which gods always spoke of as the antithesis to self and intimacy, was not something she could know except vicariously. She could not yearn for it. Even intellectually desiring death itself was beyond the workings of Alicorns — the most she could manage was admiring the side effects.

So, it would be a surprise to anypony to learn that she had something like a last will and testament, as some temporary soul might. Gods could still perish, but their absence was not permanent. Usually not. A will from a ruling god was a sort of undeniable code to be followed in order to keep their nation running until a return was possible and physical form attained once more. Most other divine had one — but only if they were in the position of Celestia, Luna, or Neptune of Aquastria did.

Celestia's will had a few highlights. Notably, there was a lack of any substantial amending since she had originally drafted it five hundred years ago. That was so entirely unlike herself — why, it would almost be hypocrisy (if the Princess were capable of such a thing) that Celestia did not force her need of constant change and revisionism upon something, since it was she who loved to eradicate artifacts. It was a document that primarily dictated any worldly possessions held by Celestia herself, and the management thereof, and it was the closest thing to any kind of statement of universal rights of ponies under her rule. No other kind of exceptions, nor kinds of flimsy charters limited any of the absolute power she had held like a miser for centuries.

The will was dictated without ever mentioning any other family. Luna was a myth at the time it was written, when she was remembered at all in Equestria's often obscured history. Nopony knew that the Bluebloods ever had any relation to the Princess of Princesses upon Equestria's throne. The only reason the current heir to the ceremonial dukedom, Gaylord Blueblood, called her 'Auntie' is because it was the custom. All his kin to bear the title had done the same, and if there was one great similarity between the Bluebloods and Celestia, it was that any tradition to benefit them was not one that was going to be changed. She didn't even know Neptune was well until forty years after she initially wrote it. Even if she had, she wouldn't have included him. Parents? Of course, none were mentioned! As far as Equestrians were concerned, her birth was steeped in hero-tropes and myths filled with seafoam, prophecies, and the small percentage of her population that still clung to the falsehood of all Alicorns simply being matured demigods. The tapestry of Equestria's history was rich with a multitude of lies woven beyond the amount of silk a castle full of spiders could spin, and her heart was warmer each day at the thought of it.

Never would parents appear throughout any tales — or have the kindly effect on her that such miraculous lies held.

Only recently did she amend it to include a few things, while the rest remained untouched. Three, to be precise.

The first was a simple bit to acknowledge that Luna would rule in her absence, as the closest thing she would have to an heir, in the traditional sense of the word that mortal rulers did. It was added a couple of months after Luna's return, among the maelstrom of legal changes that needed to be made to the rest of Equestria, changing it from an absolute monarchy ruled by a lax enough despot (one who pretended to be anything but that, both in her thoughts and on paper) to gradually (truly, it was very gradually) shaping it into a fully functioning absolute diarchy ruled by two despots. Luna gained power from her watchful co-ruler gradually as she adjusted to the modern-day, all while Celestia fussed over the precious, fragile beauty of illusions of finite power over one thousand years in the making.

After that, little was altered for years. It wasn't until Sombra became the world's newest god that she bothered with any alterations again, and those were not something she gave up with a light heart. Sombra would not be tried for any of his despicable crimes as long as Celestia was Equestria's ruler.

The final alteration was that her daughter, Qilin, would remain in her father's care if anything happened to her. That was a very recent addition.

Sometimes, Celestia worried she wasn't very good at writing wills. In her case, it would be more like final orders, anyway — dying was not her worry. (Though, there were times she liked to pretend that it was.)

She wasn't going to die, though she would live now and forever after her sun eventually passed. Why did she have one of these? It was more than caution that had forced her to write the first, and now the thing still had a distant way to haunt her all these years later.

It felt wrong — like she were food in need of an expiration date.

She was thinking about a will, about perishing, and the nature of death. And why?

Not a single thing she could dredge up felt more fitting to think about. She was at Luna's wedding, a little serene look carved onto her plaster face and her breathing practices in top form, so as not to disturb the silver fabric of her dress, or cause the blue sash tied around her waist to stir and resemble a waterfall as it cascaded down onto the floor. She stood in the very same hall where Cadance married Shining Armor years earlier, and a numb sensation of paralysis could only do so much to bury the hurt of the whole situation.

The Crystal Empire had become a popular destination for the most dedicated of lovers to wed, but Sombra was barred from the Empire's borders as long as they still were spoken of. He almost seemed glad by this... or, as glad as Sombra could seem.

Celestia swallowed quickly and carefully, feeling the absence of her usual gold necklace.

Murmurs rang out and reminded her of ominous, distant thunder. Luna would always run off to chase storms, and to sing to the sky rather than show even a hint of the same dedication to any pony. Celestia loved to fly and feel the breeze chill her skin by digging past her coat. She loved calm skies and sunny days. A storm sent discontent through her even still. There was no safety to be found in a storm, the sky was split with so much of anything, and she'd find herself assaulted by icy flicks of rain. Storms were not something to call to her, and it often felt impossible to be anything but alone in them.

Celestia adjusted her smile carefully and looked over the attendees below, pony or otherwise. Everypony was well-dressed, and Rarity had designed everything to look elegant, despite the exact match being made... being one that nopony else could love since all the weight in the room could make nothing else clearer. After all, there was no other designer who would take the job, and Celestia and Luna would not force them to, even if their reasons for refraining from doing so differed.

She didn't say it, but she sympathized completely with wanting to shut the door on this whole attempt at merriment, not that she would ever say so. It held all the love and laughter of the usual somber affair of a funereal. And despite that, there was a surprising amount of smiles that were unexpectedly earnest among the crowd that wore Rarity's lovely designs. The theme for the wedding was a blend of silvers, whites, blue, and black that didn't seem to be the joyous colors Celestia — they seemed entirely inappropriate when contrasted with traditional colors.

But this was hard to describe as just 'any wedding' regardless of how informal certain individuals had been acting. For a multitude of reasons — as many as there were shades of silver among the wedding-goers — the whole ceremony and following party would be private. There would be awkward revelry — she'd try, of course. She really would. The selfish reason for the current ceremony was that Luna and Sombra compromised on a private wedding that wasn't just 'Luna's friends and family watching her and I sign a paper and exchange vows', as Sombra had said. Celestia had raised her eyebrow a little at the implications of Sombra taking wedding vows seriously. She was moderately pleased with the prospect of seeing her Faithful Student regardless of the occasion. Weddings were things that Celestia loved, and that was because of the ponies she got to see. Shutting everypony away at a wedding felt abhorrent, just as pushing ponies away at a funeral prevented sympathy via company, and all the healing powers solitude lacked.

The other reasons for such a distastefully reclusive wedding were not simple because they were politics. Luna didn't want Sombra to be 'harassed' by anypony at a large royal wedding — which Celestia couldn't understand why she'd be against even personally — even though he was cold enough to handle a tomato or two. It was not as though Celestia would break her passivity if he were to have been confronted by those who shouted to remind him of his deeds, and the disgusted looks of the poor crystal ponies who relished in their liberation. Yet, crystal ponies were not even that uncivilized. Luna said it would drive him to have a panic attack. Celestia did not believe Sombra had them, or could, but she did not say that. It seemed as though only she remembered what Sombra really was, and that was not a source of loneliness that Celestia wanted.

Sombra was no victim, he was an abuser, and Celestia and everypony else knew that. She didn't want mobs — though, the Equestrian idea of a mob was a surprisingly tame thing — or the ponies she had so much faith in. For them to be hurt by an entity so cruel as the demon who was going to marry her daughter...

...the one she had to keep calling 'sister'...

She really didn't want to finish that thought — but Celesia's mind rarely let her have choices. She loathed the thought of having to stand up to it even more than the things it would often inflict on her.

Her daughter. Luna could not be anything else, because it was Celestia who knew that Luna was raised by her and her alone. Anything else wasn't true, she wouldn't allow it to be. Luna was her daughter, and she loved her more than any one of her subjects of Faithful Students, and seeing her now broke her heart because Celestia knew who what she was marrying. She knew whose wedding date was a temporary and unofficial holiday. She knew all the reasons that the gold-armored military all across Equestria were on active duty; and not a single soldier at rest just in case. Luna agreed — she said that this safety measure was for Sombra and to curtail all potential unruly displays by ponies. Celestia did make sure to remind her that this course of action was for the safety and well-being of Equestira's citizens. She did not point out that the welfare of their ponies was more important than a demon-god's own because the many always outranked the few. It seemed so obvious — Equestria was founded on the health of the herd trampling upon the hooves of the arrogant minority who would dare threaten their privileges. That was what she reminded herself of in frustrating situations like this when the lessons taught to school-foals were lost upon her daughter-goddess so quick to drown in her own wants.

The Crystal Empire and the safety of its citizens were in Shining Armor's capable hooves. He may not be a god, but he was loved by his ponies, and they did not protest the foreign wedding as... violently... as they might've liked to. Perhaps a burned effigy or two of Sombra would turn up afterward if the Crystalline guard poked around enough, but that would be it. Not to mention, entry into many royal families usually meant that even colony subjects like the crystal ponies would find it anywhere from more difficult (if not outright impossible) to be so blatant about their opinions on an extended family member to the foremost ruler of the nation. Ponies were quite literally past the age of torches and pitchforks... at least most of the time.

Celestia still hid an uncertain fear of anypony getting hurt. Sometimes, and she'd never admitted it, but a little bit of her was unsure of that. She had seen the world when ponies still burned. Instead of allowing herself to be nagged by such a thing, she scanned the guests to find her Faithful Student.

Twilight was not difficult for Celestia to pick out from her own position as best mare — something Sombra surprisingly didn't have any objection to in the slightest. Her chic dress was a dark shade of gray, her smile was polite, and her eyes were as mournful as the dour colors suggested. A little bit of weepiness had streaked some of the makeup she was wearing. Celestia had no doubt it was applied expertly by Twilight's wife. A pastel orange pegasus toddler had her mouth open with hazy delight as she rested in her mother's forehooves. The little filly was staring up at the sitting demigod and pulling gently at her purple and magenta striped mane when she so innocently caught her smile slipping. Stellar Streak only became distracted when she wished to play with the silver link necklace that hung around her neck or the velvety bow that had been stuck in her own royal purple mane.

Next to Twilight was the elegantly dressed Rarity, whose rich purple curls were pulled up with a net of jewels. Silver earrings winked in her pale ears, far out of reach from the little unicorn colt with a silvery coat that looked up eagerly at them. His other mother tutted and adjusted her gown of midnight blue, skillfully wrapping the wisteria sash around her withers while managing her son. Princess Celestia's smile cracked ever so slightly into something a bit more genuine at the sight of the unicorn managing something so simple. A mother and child with her family embodied what Celestia longed to protect most with her rule. Then, her gaze roamed once more. It drifted past Twilight and her wife, who were the only Element Bearers present among the shockingly modest crowd — it had really surprised Princess Celestia that the foolishly arrogant Sombra didn't wish to have everypony, common or otherwise, look upon him, and impose this desire onto his new bride.

My daughter.

Celestia ignored the cutting pang that the thought brought. It was eased somewhat not by the sight of Twilight in the crowd, even if there was a little comfort in Celestia being able to have her Faithful Student invited to a wedding that she might have been barred from otherwise. Discord was able to ease enough of whatever else was plaguing her — was it guilt? — and there was another slight crack in the smile of her heavily maintained facade. The tall draconequus was seated with his top hat askew and his excited eyes focused on everypony but Celestia, looking about without ever really pausing to truly examine anything. He was talking, but to who or what about Celestia could only guess from where she stood. He was her anchor no matter what because he was always changing, and she could count on him to do that — and she loved it. She hated it when she woke up and the world felt the same.

In his talon and paw was the quadruped kirin daughter of theirs. Discord's daughter. That last correction was more of a reminder, really. Luna was Celestia's daughter. Obviously. Qilin was Discord's flesh and blood. She was one of Princess Celestia's beloved subjects. Right now, Qilin looked up at her father with happy eyes of sky blue, cooing as she tugged at his bread with one of her mismatched forelimbs, swishing her tail wildly from underneath the ruffles of her dress while her soft, wavy mane of stripes of gold, sorrel, and orange intertwining with a shade of pale pink much like Celestia's own mane used to be. Qilin's little wings, also mismatched but functional, were carefully tucked out of sight.

Next to Discord, and under his very temporary watch since her father was unable to attend and sit with her, was a snow-white pegasus filly with pale blue around the tip of her wings, as though the feathers had been touched by a windigo of lore. The toddler's thick, rolling curls of deep blue and stormy grays had been carefully pulled away from her face with a pale, lacy headband. Her ruffly gown with sparkles and lace made it seem as though she were among the snow of the Empire she lived in. Skyla looked at everything with deep confusion and curiosity entwined as closely the small ribbons in her mane.

Duke Blueblood and his partner, Donut Joe were a striking pair and like Twilight, Celestia 'suggested' that they be invited. Of course, Celestia was aware that Duke Blueblood would only be attending for reasons purely related to his status, but Celestia would extend an invitation to him anyway. If she had been feeling up to it, later she might have given Blueblood the usual Teasing Auntie jokes — Luna certainly never did — this time, about him ever having a wedding of his own.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, seeing as the divine hardly wed anyway. Something awful told Celestia that Luna, her dear daughter, might not ever wed again.

How imperfect that would be, echoed something in Celestia's head that she might've known as herself. Might've. Perhaps it was another voice. A dumb little whisper that would peel itself away and shove itself where she wouldn't find it again.

Perhaps, it went again, echoing into a soft shadow in her mind. The silence nibbled at her peculiarly and she shifted politely.

This was the wedding crowd. There were no cameras beyond the one that Discord had just conjured, and Celestia would still make a scrapbook for Luna and anypony who wanted one with her Dissy's photos. Sometimes, it was easy not to think when scrap-booking. Maybe she would be lucky when that time came. Each colorful border, sticker, or appliqué had more of a pattern than words she could not figure out how she might begin to arrange them if she were to tell Luna — or anypony — anything.

Celestia smiled a little, eyes teary with what she had made everypony believe was happiness. Her neck-wear of the occasion, a little string of sapphires on the thinnest golden chain — she always loved a little color of gold to brighten her day — that she had commissioned for the 'celebration' in a fit of numbness she never let anypony see felt terribly icy against her neck. This wedding was on the cusp of spring, March 28th, and the sun was warm outside. Clouds, vast and fluffy, floated in the sky. Only ponies were discontent, and she with them. She did not know why she felt cold though; centuries here had left her well-adjusted to the mountain air, even if she had a slight longing for warmer weather.

Under an arch of blue roses and moonflowers — the latter had been coaxed to bloom so many hours before even dusk touched the sky by a special florist — Princess Cadance had excitement in her lilac eyes. Her mane was done up as the Crystal Headdress, and a giddy smile as bright as the hints of the Crystal Heart's flashes of work in her coat. Cadance was a mare who was authentic and good with love, but not love itself just as Twilight was not friendship itself, but for her to be the vow master at a wedding was truly, and richly symbolic. And at a wedding between two everlasting souls whose love had the chance to be everlasting as well? Luna would call it wondrous.

It was something star-crossed to Celestia, too, because 'star-crossed' had an ugly side to it, as Saddlespeare's famous work and other pieces proved. To be star-crossed was to have a fixed and ugly fate, to grow from something innocent into a tragedy where one is but a puppet to some greater orchestration. Celestia's tears were for her daughter. For Luna. This match was ill, this match was star-crossed. Her heart scraped in her breast, aching for what might befall her sister amidst the numbness and haze of a wedding that should never be. She wanted Sombra to fall, let his pride doom him, but not Luna.

Never Luna. She wished for anything, to wake up, an ax to connect with Sombra's neck as it should've when she first met this stallion who dodged every bit of her magic because then none of this would ever have to happen. Anything, anything. Just to stop this. A part of her even entertained an uncharacteristically absurd fancy of the remaining Element Bearers to burst in, Elements borrowed again and led by the heroic Faithful Student so that they could defeat the vile, lecherous demon. Then, the Bearers could show her daughter the compassion she needed once more. That was all she really ever wanted for Luna now.

Instead, Celestia watched Cadance hum happily, smile widening and wingtips ruffling with glee. Her own dress was shades of soft blurs of white and the foggiest gray, like the puffs of one's cold breath against the smudge of a horizon. The mist-like gown clung to Cadance's frame in an almost enchanting way that made her look like a sorceress straight out of some great legend. Her gown glittered faintly in the afternoon light when the sun's light shone on the fabric a certain way, and reached up to her forehoof now and then to tuck a stray curl away. She hummed a soft tune, the oddly happy melody a contrast to the dire sense of wrongness that Celestia held to the whole event.

Everything stuck out in all the wrong ways, as glaring as the groom did when he was in one of his clearly constant moods. Celestia felt like she was reading a story, or perhaps a film star on the wrong set, as niche a form as entertainment as films were. Fog and clarity of a horrifying, creeping variety alternated in her mind. Beneath her chiseled smile where darker thoughts brewed, she carefully swept through every last thing she could with the trained gaze of a mare who found some very nasty parts of herself in the Unicorn Court, forever unknown to modern Equestria.

She spotted another in the crowd, a sort of weed that fit the strangeness of the surreal horror Celestia felt at her daughter's wedding.

A youth was not the strangest guest at most weddings, but for such a private affair that lacked even a flower filly, a guest that was not a royal toddler was strange indeed. Celestia watched him, a young pegasus colt that was maybe thirteen at most. He had wide eyes that looked about energetically for somepony specific he couldn't seem to find but knew was already there. The way his feathers were twitching was visible from where she stood with a calm that none would guess had an ugly storm going on beneath it. His bright green coat was a little bit of an eyesore, but the strangest features of him were his shock white mane and tail and the beading on his surprisingly formal jacket in the unmistakable style of the buffalo.

Celestia knew little of him but vaguely knew of the role he held that allowed him to be invited, and the stallion who he accompanied.

Feeling rather ill at the thought of the stallion, Celestia coolly gave the monster in front of her, and across from her, a slice of her focus.

Sombra was an enigma, even at his own wedding, and not one she liked to attempt to decipher.

His mane and tail were the same as ever, and his crimson eyes a constant. Their look was... isolated. Reserved. It was like Sombra wished for others to believe there was a world of thought and sharp intelligence behind them — or that they were simply supposed to believe that. Celestia didn't; she even saw the greatest contradictions to any potential intellect: his arrogance and willingness to shut himself away was a most wicked hubris. He was so adamant on carrying himself like his mind was some great machine that could save the world, but he'd never let you see it. Celestia didn't like how he had the audacity to simply do as he wished and the inconsiderate nature that he possessed, one as painfully obvious as Fluttershy's meekness. How was it that he was able to do as he wished and be as he wished no matter how much persecution he faced?

She just... couldn't fathom it. She watched instead. She still tried to scrape up any good reason as to why Luna loved him, or to what her daughter saw in him.

It wasn't exactly an entertaining sight — and 'it', in this case, was Sombra. To refer to him as such was a shallow comfort for Celestia, and each substitution felt like a miniature victory, albeit secret ones.

He didn't like his suit, that much was clear to everypony who bothered to observe him. It was a strange kind of suit, one that Duke Blueblood had remarked made Sombra look like a crime lord before getting a strange, narrowed-eyes and raised eyebrow-raise combo from the bitterly antisocial demon... stallion? Celestia actually really wasn't sure what male demons were really supposed to be called, and applying such a normal word to them made her feel entrenched in an error of what was supposed to be mundane. Not 'stallion' at least. Sombra being a species of one now made her guesses no easier for the right way to part him from her ponies — or describe his species.

Well, Blueblood had simply ended up watching as Sombra shot him a dirty look and flipped up his collar. Celestia had merely watched with distaste. What exactly was he trying to accomplish, Celestia didn't know. Looking as he did, Celestia was astonished that he showed up. Did he want to disrespect Luna so? She had been quite careful and calm with how she had explained Equestrian wedding customs to Sombra, and of course, her earnestly polite effort had gone up in smoke with his every move. How could she not be frustrated by somepony who only thought for themselves?

He knew she was looking at him in that horrible way of his, yet he gave her no attention. She was not surprised by the rudeness of it, but let some of her focus on him dribble away because of it. Sombra bore no medals. He was no decorated hero. Sombra was cold and unapproachable. Every bit of him radiated a distaste of others. The loathsome beast had laid his eyes on her daughter at some point... and never looked away.

He wasn't deserving of Luna.

He wasn't anypony that Celestia's mind could conjure that could ever stand beside Luna and ever have Celestia's approval, and really, almost anypony would do. He stood in his suit, horn lit and tugging his crimson tie away from his neck. Celestia bit her lip delicately at the site to bite back any stern retort she'd love to hiss at him through clenched teeth. She could only imagine how her words would mingle among others at this dreary event. Instead, she smiled a little more calmly. It was a wedding. It was her daughter's wedding. It wasn't about her, and she would never make it so. She would never be selfish like that, not like him. Celestia doubted that he cared even a bit for maintaining the air of formality she wished this event could have beyond what gowns and suits could do, but in her heart, she knew it wasn't there.

Celestia narrowed her eyes at Sombra ever so slightly so that her facade was still what everypony needed it to be in order to bring them any cheer for Luna's wedding. The anti-art of blending in was one that Celestia wore more closely than her own skin. Even after all this time, it took some energy to pretend, and that was pleasantly distracting.

She couldn't believe he had forgone almost all the options he had been presented with in terms of clothing for a royal wedding. She'd always had the hunch that he was greedier than his loner persona let on — and he must have been quietly seething about how one of the most sought-after designers in the world was not good enough for his ego. He wore no regalia and was so possessive of the ring he had never removed from his necklace, even though it would be needed for the ceremony. The empty chain around his neck seemed to bother him, for he cast sullen and impatient glances at the thin links.

Meanwhile, Cadance's horn is lit and she sways delicately on her hooves and fiddling with one of her curls, which had a small streak of black dyed in the otherwise happy multi-colored ringlets. A hyper little grin was on her face. Celestia didn't need to guess as to why Cadance had chosen the color. She leaned forward with the aid of a little sway, hoof cupped around her muzzle, and the shine of her gold shoe dimmed the outline of her smile as she whispered something to Sombra.

Celestia didn't hear anything beyond the muffled sound of words being exchanged, despite her relative proximity to them, but Sombra tsked and rolled his eyes, one of his silly tuft-tipped ears flicked.

She didn't understand his ridiculously fuzzy winter coat — he looked like a lynx — but she did understand two words of his reply: Pink One. She could read it upon his lips, though only barely.

Refusing to let herself frown even a little, Celestia just let her mind slip to earlier...

...

The hallway felt empty and cold as Celestia stepped quietly through it, yearning for any bit of solace or reason before the ceremony began and her daughter's fate would be sealed with her speaking two words and staring into Sombra's pitiless gaze. Familiar columns loomed around her, the tallest princess, with a foreign and subtle sinister air, their shadows seeming all the more pronounced with such a dark event occurring. Even the colors of Celestia's dress, which she found unusually (and yet fittingly) somber in color hung across her pale form with all the weight of a shroud. Of course, Lady Rarity had told her earnestly that it was such a lovely dress for the best mare. Lying, Celestia had agreed with her with a numbness that only she felt — but why? — upon realizing that the dress wasn't that terrible for a mourning mother either.

Her stomach churned throughout her slow stroll, and she felt as though she were an apparition as she walked with an uncharacteristic silence through the castle that she called home. Even the garlands hung heavily, as though they mourned with her. Occasionally, the bunches of lavender, hyacinths, cornflowers, apple blossoms, white lilies, and daisies were a bombardment of color against the ghastly near-gothic event. The sight of such an array of flowers strung in that combination made Princess Celestia's stomach feel just as sour as when she had forced herself to help the maids ensure the vases of honeysuckle and red tulips caught the light of her day radiantly in the halls.

This was the seal to something awful Celestia did not wish to finalize. It had torn at her worse than any other time she had accepted the surrender of a pony's fate, be it something like sending soldiers off under the care of the Royal Guard's Captain or having to personally end the life of the most despicable criminals or criminals that emerged every few centuries before Luna's return. Those types were the serial murderer, who stole the lives of Princess Celestia's ponies, the rarer terrorist who would use the suffering of others to make a brutish statement and callously demand radical change with claims that they stood for the same ponies that they hurt. These ended up being the same ponies that would find them guilty of the cruel offenses against the same populace they were 'helping' and seal the fate of the guilty, as their civic duty to uphold the best life possible could often mean costing the execution of others. Even Luna agreed with Celestia about this — and that was rarer than gray-striped zap apple harvests!

Then it was simple: the life of evil was a thin string, a decent thread. Princess Celestia would cut that same strand quickly, and coldly, with a good deal more mercy than they could have ever deserved in her eyes and the eyes of her ponies.

As time wore on those years ago, she stopped reminding herself that the nasty last act used to be Luna's job. Her daughter was a mare of spells and a master of the blade as well, and a battleax was nothing more than a metal banner to her in combat for how bulky it was, but she could swing it swiftly at least once. It was really all she needed. Ponies feared her greatly for it, but they feared her for many things too. Crime was more rampant in those times than it was now, but that didn't matter. Celestia never gave Luna that job back. It was her penance now.

Luna never asked for it back, a barbed bit of musing reminded her, stinging her from her numb excuse for solace and pause in her stroll. She pursed her lips slightly and stared down at the flower whose petals she had been pulling at absentmindedly, and tiredly looked up to where she had pulled it from one of the garlands. They actually smelled quite nice. Celestia wasn't a mare who liked to be left all by her lonesome often. When she was, she enjoyed all things flower-related: window boxes were a frequent sight in the Solar Wing, she loved gardening, pressed flowers were her bookmarks, floral print her pattern of choice, her favorite mementos and souvenirs were usually floral. One of her favorite gifts — and snacks — was a bouquet of fresh flowers.

The language of flowers was among the ones she spoke most fluently, too. While Luna was the botanist of them both and enjoyed hanging various plants — flowers included, to her mother's delight — throughout the halls on many nights, it was Celestia who left the staff floral presents. Luna hung herbs to clean the air, and Celestia made sure each maid had a flower and a smile to brighten difficult days — and she usually ensured it would be her ponies' favorite kind since she was always sure to learn those details all in the chattering she immersed herself in. Princess Celestia would even slip in a few with positive meanings mixed in for the occasion.

Vain mares love flowers, stung a small voice. Maybe it was hers, but Celestia ignored it. It was true. She still ignored it, and let herself extend the radiant smile of the princess just a little more. She simply shouldn't look so morose.

Sniffing the violet thoughtfully, she decided it was best to tuck it back where she found it. Fiddling with things was such an anxious behavior, and she didn't want to indulge in any uncomfortable nervous tics that she might've picked up from one of the castle staff. It would be best to curb the impulse quickly, so not to give any little voice — hers, they were always some bit of her own tone, mixed with something else — anything to whisper about, with each nagging syllable and thought that likely was just whatever shard of her splintered reflection she felt herself drifting toward on that particular day. For her, every new dawn began with a new Celestia and an old, yawning emptiness she buried under a busy schedule, coffee, and as many positive mantras as she needed.

She was the light of her ponies' lives — and only because they affirmed her destiny for her — and it was the duty of all light to cast away what was not fit to be seen, and protect at any cost. Yet, no matter where she was, Celestia always felt as though part of her was a pretty doll. Her coat was pure and bright. She had eyes that never looked to what was behind her, and there was always a delicate smile upon her face. She could have her unnatural mane brushed any way she liked, yet refrained from doing so. Even if she could be herself, why would she want to be?

Quiet rang in her ears, forming a static she told herself would be banished as she yanked all her thoughts away, imagining them like paper she could toss in a fire. It was a new day. It was a good day for everypony, only she had no right to ruin it. Everypony was happy on this wedding day. Everypony but her. She wouldn't steal her daughter's happiness.

Not again, nagged another bit of Celestia. It certainly wasn't today Celestia, whose smile faltered and felt a fog of sadness swirl around her. She wasn't sure if she'd call it 'sadness', but refused to dwell on it. This was a good day. The princess just plucked a rose this time.

Such a simple flower, she thought, anchoring as many detached thoughts as she could gather to something as plain as the red rose in front of her, but conventional and classic nonetheless. Still, blue roses weaved in with red ones? It certainly wouldn't have been my first choice to tie back the curtains, something else... There are many more colors that would go nicely with Luna's blue roses than this absolutely garish red.

She swallowed and gradually tried to correct her smile because this wasn't about her, and none of this would be. It wasn't her wedding, she had no say in anything. She had tried to warn Luna. Princess Celestia didn't want to give her away, she didn't want to have her one and only daughter and lifelong companion ripped from her by a beast who didn't give one iota about her happiness. On top of that, he was terribly reminiscent of Starswirl, only worse...

Biting down on her lip delicately enough that it wouldn't be noticed by anypony, even if she weren't alone, Celestia's rosy eyes wandered over to the garlands strung up opposite of her. Her mind busily worked to drown out all the thoughts that sought to invade a brain that felt like it was stuffed with whispers and cotton — or at least more than usual — in a desperate attempt to anchor herself.

She told herself that she wasn't Celestia, and it was like hitting a window in front of her with glass — a barrier was removed!

She knew some relief! Celestia's daughter needn't worry, the princess would surely take care of her, but she would be neither now.

She was a humble gardener. Her name was Sunflower. She didn't have a daughter and certainly not one who was getting married. She wasn't alone, she was simply browsing flowers. The princess, the happy and ever-dutiful Goddess-Princess of the Sun needed suggestions for better floral arrangements. Red simply won't do, and the princess needs everything to be perfect for the wedding of Celestia's daughter.

Everything had to be perfect for the princess. The princess had to be perfect for her ponies, or so help Equestria.

Her eyes found the violets again, but they weren't Celestia's rosy eyes because she wasn't Celestia. She wasn't a goddess. She wasn't immortal or an Alicorn. She was a pegasus gardener well respected for being opinionated — but free of the vice of being outspoken — on the subject of flowers.

Sunflower smiled and made a happy humming noise in the back of her throat. Every bit of her surroundings buzzed with a whole lot of nothing in the back of her mind and a stupid sense of giddiness. It was like she had too much wine. Yes, she was certain she liked wine. There would be plenty at the wedding, of course, but for now, she must focus on the flowers...

Yes, the violets would do nicely with the blue roses, and would make an excellent bit of support with each blue rose at the center in little vases on tables... Sunflower rambled inwardly about her flowers, as happy as a lark. Her voice was like Celestia's, but not hers. It didn't sound like the princess that ruled all the littler whispers and kept them in check either.

She was Sunflower, and she was simply noting suggestions for floral arrangements because purple and blue went together much better than red and blue, so here she was, a humble pegasus levitating a flower with—

Levitating.

Her horn ached, magic aura flickering so the gold deepened with a strange scarlet tone for a moment — it was really only suggestions of the hue. Sunflower's breath caught in her throat.

Sunflower stared at the purple violet.

Purple...

Twilight...

Her breath caught in her throat. She wasn't...

A momentary abyss overcame her thoughts and brought a dreadful and heavy quiet with it before stacking the weight of the world back upon the withers of whoever she was. She certainly wasn't Sunflower, as vivid as her flower talk was, that mare was merely an echo in the mind of the pale Alicorn.

Whispers hummed their thoughts above the static, always coming out in pieces. There was the beloved princess above them all, there was humble Sunflower, there was the Tia that Luna needed, there was Solara the wicked Sister-Foe, and there was sad Celestia who stood lonely with a flower in a sea of numerous lesser selves... except for the princess. She commanded all happiness. She commanded everything.

She commanded Celestia to smile because she should not let her instincts escape her over something as silly as flowers. It would be a long while before she would see Sunflower again.

Celestia smiled prettily. Her horn still hurt, but such was a common symptom of headaches for Alicorns and unicorns. As long as the aches were not regular, there was no issue. She tugged her breaking heart together with a lasso made of every braid of whispers that she wouldn't ever tell anypony about. She was Celestia and she was happy. She was Celestia and she was okay. She was Princess Celestia and the princess came before Celestia —and anypony else too.

She was the princess, and she couldn't let down ponies who loved her...

So she smiled and put her best hoof forward, tucking the little flower behind her ear — such a pretty violet it was! — and strolling toward where everypony else would be gathering, and thus where she should be too.

Only to see Sombra turning down a corner...

He looked like an utter disappointment. That caused Celestia's smile to slip into something much more polite in terms of a smile. He should not expect sincerity from her, nor would he receive it. He was a disappointment and a monster. Princess Celestia strived to not disappoint ponies. She was comfortable with her perfection, her undeniable wholeness compared to a mere shadow of a being like he was. A fractured mare she was not, a liar she was.

Sombra was a liar.

Sombra was honest.

Sombra could not be believed, no matter how one saw fit to describe him, and she did not have a shred of faith in him. He would find himself treated coolly by her for now, while heated pockets of resentment were welling under her serene exterior like magma at Sombra standing there like that...

She'd really have to keep it in check, no matter how much she loathed him, her experience would have to win. She had never truly hated anypony before, and certainly not like what she felt around and for Sombra. After thousands of years of keeping any improper emotions in check — thousands of years that had rarely faltered since she left the windigo-infested north — would win out in the end.

A sliver of pain shot through her horn, and felt something like a sudden sprain... in a place where there could be none, and yet it faded just as quickly. She gave no outward sign she felt it.

Celestia quietly watched Sombra. By the tone of his voice, he was cursing under his breath as he approached her. He approached her obviously knowing she was there — in the months since he had moved in, Celestia discovered he truly could sense and read magic — and he paid her no mind at all.

Still, from where she stood, Celestia was able to see that he was struggling with his tying his tie as he headed toward the main hall where his wedding was to be held... and she was to be the best mare.

She approached him as she would approach any member of the castle staff, which was something that held far more respect than Sombra could ever, and would ever, deserve. By the time they stood together, with her off to his side and the space of a pony dividing them, Sombra was already rudely staring at her.

"What is it?" he demanded, tail flicking with slight irritation and critical gaze glued to her. His horn was still lit with his crimson aura that clutched at a tie he obviously wasn't able to manage.

"That wasn't a very nice way to approach me," Celestia said, her eyes disapproving and her tone carrying a light sadness that could be expected from an adult lightly scolding a foal. "I have no ill will towards you."

He looked her up and down, thoroughly unconvinced. "You're quite the brazen liar, Celestia."

She never really liked the way he said her name.

"Sombra, everypony has lied at least once. It is usually only because of the aid and experience of an older pony, such as parents, that we can learn the basics of honesty. Though I know that this concept escapes you due to your lack of any natural upbringing, so I will refrain from rambling about the topic—"

"I'm sure you will," he interjected, narrowing his eyes, while his horn still flared his magic testily.

"That was very rude of you," Celestia went on, still speaking with a gentle, but clearly patronizing scolding tone that she used often around his type. "I approach you and we are already at this? Your bitterness is best when it is cast away, I'm not doing anything to offend you."

"You're existing in the same universe that I am."

Celestia just looked at him, struggling to contain her astonishment when eternal tact was required. "I find the level of pride you have in yourself sickening."

Sombra remained unfazed. Annoyed certainly, but not unfazed. "Your disgust in me and the pride I possess are two things as obvious as you raising the sun. Now, what is it you want?"

"Do you always have to be so hostile with me?"

"You know that this is hardly me being 'hostile' — that would be a definite escalation. Go sweep up your pretty little feelings and once you piece the wretched things back together then I'm sure you can talk to me. Who knows? Maybe I'll even stick around and wait for you to clean them up."

Her expression was impassive as she flicked her gaze elsewhere. Must his own always be so... discriminating? "That isn't what I approached you for, and you shouldn't be wasting time by arguing with me here when you are meant to be the groom of this wedding."

Sombra clearly took some offense by her words. "Me being the one to start arguing with you? And does Discord raise the sun?"

Celestia did not dignify him with an undeserved response.

"If you're going to even attempt to convince me that your presence could in any way benefit me presently, I strongly suggest that you actually cater to my ego and say something useful, as well as relevant to my esteemed self."

Ugh, Celestia's stomach felt ill as she looked down at him and his smug, condescending, and irritated smile that struck her as oh-so-false in every way — if it was a smile at all.

"I was going to offer to help you with your tie."

There. She had said it.

Sombra did not look grateful, he looked suspicious of her and his gaze grew even more scornful. "You 'help' me?" That testy tone was so immature to her. "I know that isn't what you really want, so why don't you just spit it out?"

She raised a forehoof. "You cannot attend your own wedding looking like that. Allow me to help you with your tie, please, since you are not managing it well."

"Fine," Sombra said, narrowing his eyes under his bangs and flipping his collar up via magic.

Celestia responded by looking at him coolly and flipping his collar back up with an oddly rough tug of her golden magic. He rolled his eyes, but she didn't dare acknowledge it. The silence between them was sharpened by his rude, flippant stare, and the exact way Sombra's eyes critically watched Celestia's magic weaving.

Celestia herself was giving little thought to the knots that she was tying with tugs infused with brisk, restrained frustration — when would she ever allow herself fury? — while her thoughts raced with anger that her mind squeezed behind her expression. The latter remained twisted with the imperfection of displeasure, and a slight coldness. Nothing more.

'Nothing more' did not begin to describe her thoughts, and how they turned, yanked from any other focus beyond what was in front of her.

Who was in front of her. She simply had to correct herself.

She wished so much that she could correct everything else. Why him? What was there in him that Luna saw that Celestia could truly believe? Why was the stallion who was going to take her daughter away from her standing in front of her, irritated as though she were what was wrong? How could a mare who loved helping and caring for youth, guiding the forsaken and frightened (in ways Celestia could not) ever look upon Sombra — who spilled the blood of those Luna vowed to treasure most — love a stallion who did that? How could she love anypony who did that? It was Luna who had been the cold force of justice in the days when Equestria was young, as well as the one who tried to bring hope for the few who were not within reach of Celestia's light.

Did Luna despise her, the mare she called 'sister' with an almost innocent reverence that was so heartbreaking? Did Luna wish to assert that she was all grown up in the only way she knew how, by running toward one she felt could whisk her away from the lovely life she had been given since her return? Did she loathe her mother, who had no shortage of sorrow over how she had treated Luna all those years ago? (Did Luna think that her mother bore no scars from this time? Or was Celestia simply that good at hiding the bulk of the iceberg?) Was this Luna's way of crying out for help?

What was it? What was it that Luna saw in evil's caricature, and one who could not even tie his own tie?

Why did she not slay this evil when he first stood before her? Why was his throat not cut, or his life not ended in any other multitude of ways when Luna and he stood on a stolen airship? Her daughter was a warrior, a soldier, and the mare of passion and justice who was swift to begin the path that would take her where she wanted to go. She would've slain the monster Celestia saw before her. She would've come home, proud and brave, having vanquished evil... and... and...

Luna would have come home okay. There were always multiple paths to victory if one had the patience to find it. She could've found another road to victory. She had friends in Cadance and Shining Armor.

Luna could open up. Celestia's proud daughter had the chance to return a changed mare, open and laughing with all who saw her, and not Sombra's coveted prize. Oh, Celestia yearned for Luna to be anything but what she was — still a hermit, still in need of all the good the world had to offer. She need not shed tears or lock herself away. What happiness could she find in isolation? None.

And of Celestia? Celestia knew herself, in part, and all of her felt like an off-kilter reflection sometimes. Princess Celestia did not open up, truly. Celestia was afraid that if she opened herself up, she would find a little filly crying all alone again. So, she didn't. She stayed serene.

If it weren't from the sudden coughs and gasps from Sombra, Celestia would have remained so. They were pained sounds, and she didn't know what or why or—

Her magic. Her cursed magic. Her monstrous magic; the power she buried under her skin with such skill she almost could forget the brutality of her own actions towards herself — if she didn't feel like such a lovely silk purse with globs of wet cement shoved within many fine, tortuously small pockets on many occasions. To experience peculiar burning feelings with the rare slips of power or sprains, only to stifle it all with a smile, laugh, or polite excuse — if it was noticed at all — when she must.

She must do a lot of things. Being kind had always been one of them — her ultimate duty, she always thought, the virtue she swore to defend, for had she not been a Bearer of Kindness once herself?

"I apologize," she said with a sudden sincerity as everything fluttered back to her mind. How dare she let herself show any furious behaviors? Had that really been what she was up to? Simply unacceptable. "I'm sorry. I meant no harm to you at all."

"That would be a first," came a sardonic, grumpy cough that made Celestia's stomach drop. Who was it that she had been...?

She looked into Sombra's eyes, a sharp anger in them that matched his biting tone. His breathing was off, and he had stepped away from her, but she could hear the last few choked breaths in die in the air between them. The front of his suit was a bit rumpled and his knotted tie that she had all but strangled him with when she tied it was gripped in his own crimson aura that shone like an accusation in front of the tall goddess. Celestia swallowed delicately. She hadn't meant to hurt Sombra at all — not this time — but she would not withdraw her apology, as much as she wanted to. Upon realizing it was him she offended, her heart held no sincerity now, though he could keep it.

She really, truly had not meant to harm him...

Later, after all this is over, she should modify her magic, and keep it tucked away more. Ideas were already stumbling through her mind. Her legs felt rooted to the ground and she couldn't say why. Sombra was staring at her. She had a dozen unimportant guesses as to why.

"Are you out to ruin everything about this day?"

"No," came the first word, level as always. "I really didn't—"

"You certainly looked like you wanted to hurt me." A growling edge shot through his words; Celestia's ears dropped a little. She humbly dipped her head.

"Please," Celestia said, quieter this time. "I didn't mean to hurt you. It was a tie, and my nerves are getting to me. This is such a big occasion, and you are to be the prince of my subjects soon."

"Our subjects," Sombra said sourly, though the bitterness was not for her. That was odd; in the years that Celestia and Sombra have known one another, if you could describe what they had as such, she had tried to behead Sombra at least twice. When she stood with him in the halls of a castle of crystal, wanting only to end the terror the crystal ponies endured — and lo and behold, the very injustice stood before her, then.

She tried something like forgiveness towards him the second time, when innocent and loving Cadance vouched for him. She allowed that risk, prying the choice from her mind like it was heavy steel being ripped from a Manehatten edifice with the weakest of magic. Then, she had waited. She sought to at least... keep tabs on him, and found him untrackable. That chance ended when he hurt Twilight. Quietly, she had plotted to have his head again. Her ponies would know no more harm.

He had escaped her.

She watched as he stalked off, though he did not go into the hall where his wedding was to occur, and she was left alone in the hallway again, after he so rudely turned away from her, cutting off their conversation with a gesture that held all the brutality of frostbite.

The suddenness too was not dissimilar.

When he had gone, Celestia still stood there for some time letting the silence squeeze her like a vise's grip and chill her legs. Her body swayed faintly with her mane and tail, in tune to her heartbeat before she steadies herself and stays statue-still.

"I'm sorry," she says to an empty hallway, and even the flower garlands do not rustle.

She doesn't know who she's apologizing to.

"I'm sorry," she repeats, far quieter than before, but she isn't sure who she is saying it to.

Sighing, she moves on with heavy hooves and the start of the most mild of polite smiles on her face, if she were to need it, and part of herself worked on trying to bury everything a little deeper. Soon. She would tell somepony soon. Soon enough. Eventually. She need only find somepony, and plan, and...

...

Celestia wasn't always sure how Sombra's sphere of focus could be so narrow, where everything tied back to him and had to revolve around him. How egotistical and backward such thinking was. If Sombra had lived among the tribes before their exodus, and as a real pony, she'd know exactly what he'd be: a little bit of everything. So many horrid faces of archetypes now extinct in Equestria could be found in him, if only somepony knew where to look: the cruel overseer, the arrogant advisor with words of poison upon his lips, the and heartless miser. Even rarities in Equestria could be reflected in him — an abusive husband Celestia knew he would be if she didn't watch him carefully and protect her daughter.

One face always lingered in Celestia's mind longer than others when she thought of Sombra. If he were a drawing upon a crisp white canvas, every dark blot of him in itself set him apart from every true creature.

She recalled the fading sight of a periwinkle coat, a long white beard, and two deep-set eyes under a belled cap that tingled with every little movement, and the leonine tail that flashed impatiently from under his cape. Celestia knew the ghost of Starswirl every time she looked at the demon who murdered him.

Murder.

It was such a horrid thing. Yet, she'd have never even wished it upon the monstrous stallion who beat her little daughter in front of young Celestia, and how well acquainted the young sun goddess' head had been with the hilt of his plain sword and canes. She wanted death to claim Starswirl in the form of an accident, or for him to have too much drink that his senses were lost. For all that stallion drank, it still wasn't usually enough to rob him of his senses entirely — but if one day he'd just had more than he could bear and went out into a storm. If she bothered to actively desire thinking about his death at all — it — she wanted it to be something like justice in a society that knew none. An execution, maybe. An accident, if she had any hope to wish for.

But never murder.

And now, while her blood ran cold and her whole form felt like a great white apparition detached from all at her daughter's wedding, Celestia stood as Luna would expect her to — a reserved, but still a kindly... sister.

Luna was marrying a murderer.

Celestia's history was an unforgiving one. She was like a thread pulled through some brutal machine throughout it, ending up frayed at the end of it — not that she'd unload that knowledge upon anypony, she just tried to move on, and quickly. In fact, she tried to 'move on' from everything so quickly and jump into the role as a princess — and why wouldn't she want to? — that she deserted all the fragments of herself that she brushed under her title and the daughter who she should've been there for at the time.

Celestia left herself behind to become Princess Celestia, whose history was free of the ugly truth nopony ever had to know. She could be their hero, their guide, and their ruler. She would protect them because she remembered what it was like when they were still cowering in dirt huts, and their ancestors slaughtered themselves in war after war. She had eliminated all of their villains, and her ponies lived in peace. Nopony alive knew Celestia from that awful era except Luna. Discord knew Celestia from far before, he knew Tia and her little sister. He didn't know of a mare called Solara who lived in an age of war, famine, poverty, tyranny, politics, slavery, where the fate of thousands could be transferred from cruel heir to heir as chattel. This was the time when land and ponies could be lost to usurpers, pony or monster, as Tirek was.

With Equestria, Celestia had wanted the life of all her old fairy tales brought back to reality, at least to some extent. She wanted ponies to be kind, generous, and friendly again — that was how everypony was made to be! Celestia wanted to build a safe place — one with resources aplenty and a common goal of Harmony, so foreign to the ponies that she had found, and differences could be put aside for the sake of the equinity they all shared. Pride and selfishness could be done away with for good. Celestia worked in the vile heart of it all: the Unicorn Court, where she was a walking freak show that was thought to be well-trained, but she did what she must, sometimes trusting, idealistic, and optimistic — they were still ponies she walked among! — and other times shrewd. If it was good to lie, then she did just that. She wanted no more death, no more pain.

Sombra was a literal villain from the past — archaic and wrong, standing here before her, marrying her daughter.

Were she not composed, Celestia would have sighed, and just unfurled her wings so that they could lie limp. She — or at least some part of her — wanted to cease this perfect disguise and painted-doll-face routine and let her whole body sag so she could sink to the floor and at least feel something. She wanted to draw something ugly out instead of stifling and smothering everything below the surface, as she did with her magic. Still, she clung to this normalcy because everypony was around, even if they felt a million miles away and cold prickled her coat and under her gown. Mostly, it was for Luna, who would cherish this day. Celestia was not a petty mare; she would not trash the wedding of her daughter. She would lie, lie, lie about how much she — ever so reluctantly — approved of the match because Luna was overjoyed and if Celestia took this away from her...

It took all Celestia's strength not to suck in a breath and remember an old wound in her side, a beam of magic's phantom pain from an ebony mare long gone... and...

This is Luna's day, and it has always been, Celestia chided herself. Would you really want to do anything to ruin it...?

She refused to answer herself and tried to direct her attention elsewhere, only to catch a glimpse of a more alert-looking Sombra prick his ears and turn his head in the direction of the doors.

After months of living with an entity that liked to shift into shadow and phase through walls, as well as teleport instead of using the bigger castle staircases whenever his horribly entitled self felt like it, Celestia had at least become adjusted enough to Sombra's strange senses. She was still suspicious of their encounters and the rather tame rumors the staff had about him so far, but she knew that expression.

It meant Luna was near. Celestia's daughter, her pride and joy, Luna Galaxia — a clan name that Celestia had no attachment to and Sombra was going to adopt as his own, though he had the chance to make his own — was about to enter...

...and Celestia was going to give her away just like that, wasn't she?

Celestia didn't know how her legs weren't shaking even a little at that thought.

At the door, was somepony Celestia knew all too well, his mortal guise purely to get fewer looks and 'get over with this quickly, and see Luna's demon all dressed up like a beloved pet' as he had admitted to her. That was the only reason King Neptune of Aquastria chose to attend the wedding of the younger cousin who had barely not invited him. He was extraordinarily picky when it came to being disguised as a pegasus — he loathed the air and preferred the best next thing to the bond he had with the ocean. Neptune bore a lovely look of restrained boredom and haughty disgust on his face had settled on being a pale, lanky earth pony stallion garbed in Aquastrian scaled armor, which hid his mark and enough of his expression that Sombra only shot him so many burning glares. Celestia would simply look on, watching how Neptune looked away from Sombra's gaze, as though he were a scolded child, before he began toying with a strand of his long aqua mane.

But this time, the doors were open, Neptune having done the one duty assigned to him, and they revealed...

...Two approaching equines, the first a stocky pegasus stallion that Celestia knew to be no pony, but a god. His grayish coat was spotted with dapples of white and the mark of a star upon his flank. His white mane was curly and cut short, and his eyes of purple-gray would never stop haunting Celestia. They looked upon Luna with parental pride — the same look that Celestia gave Luna every day and...

Celestia knew that Luna was her daughter, not his. He had left her, had left them both... and Luna still saw herself as Luna Galaxia. She had never stopped thinking that she was the daughter of that stallion and a broken goddess, whose form was just part of the remainder of Luna and Sombra's previous, ocean-spanning escapade — magical particles and soul wisps adrift in the form of the distant, but colossal magic impression of a tree far from Equestria's shores.

Every time he had written Celestia a letter, she had disposed of it. Every time he looked her in the eyes, she looked past his. She would call him nothing in conversation, not even his own name. She let her words drift around him, and part of him would pretend to understand, and oh, how he would tell her this. And he would apologize to her calm face and think she was earnest in her tranquility.

Liar, liar, her mind would say. Liar, liar — and a filly-deserter too. Liar, liar look at you. Noctus Galaxia, you look at me and don't know that I'm a liar too.

It was all they had in common.

He had tried to talk to her, and get her to visit. To explain. To do anything. She rebuked him all too passively for any conflict to spring up. Whenever she saw him, she felt her stomach ache as though it had been flipped, the first beads of a cold sweat mingle with her mane. Every time he looked at her, Celestia looked away while her body would burn under the gaze of an Alicorn who called himself her father and dared claim to be Luna's too. Celestia's mind would burn as well.

Liar, where were you when she was sick? Liar, where were you when I renounced both you and Lumina? Liar, where were you when I was scared? Liar, where were you when blood was spilled? Liar, where were you when Starswirl lorded over us with threats and mind-touching magic? Liar, where were you when she cried? Liar, where were you when the world was burning and the taint of mortal plagues thick in the airs of their castle? Liar, where were you when I sold myself to the crown? Liar, where were you every time I broke my promises?

So, when the wishing god walked Luna down the aisle, it wasn't him that Celestia looked at. Sombra certainly wasn't looking at him either — his eyes were upon his bride. For once his stare was that of an openly stunned creature. He was so clearly enchanted by the sight of her that it pained Celestia. At all other times, he was otherwise unreadable to the princess, but he always looked at Luna like she was the only mare in the world, all worlds, and had ever been.

Unlike all the mares in gowns and fine dresses around them, Luna was fitted with ceremonial military raiment, outfitted in the manner of a stallion. The dark fabric of her suit, decidedly somewhere between navy and dull black, was decorated with tasseled pads at the withers — each was gold in color to match the more richly colored cuffs of the garment. Medals were pinned to her chest in an assortment that greatly rivaled the decoration of a captain, the highest official of the Equestrian military under the princesses themselves. Luna's medals and badges gleamed in the light, the deeds behind each forgotten in the eyes of the public, though Luna was well deserving of every one.

While her garb was notably masculine for a mare, and especially one of her station, the cut of the cloth was not that of a stallion's resulting in a more androgynous presentation — yet another thing about Luna that separated her from her ruling peers. Celestia knew that in the eyes of her ponies, the role of a royal — though not a leader — was usually assumed to be held by a female in Equestria. For a royal, Luna did not fit the feminine ideal that many would have expected her to have as Celestia herself, Cadance, and Twilight all had. Even Blueblood was more feminine to most than Luna. Eliminating any further visibility of what ponies would have expected to see were the formal, matching dress pants to Luna's striking royal suit that covered her hindquarters, legs, and cutie mark. Silver shoes twinkled on her hooves, only outshone by the look in her eyes... they held Sombra in her gaze, as though he were worthy of that astonished, eager, and all-too-loving look of a wonderstruck mare. Did the egotistical brute need to be given any other reason to think himself the center of the world?

The way their eyes met made Celestia feel so insignificant and imaginary. Luna strode only toward him. If she did not look so vivid and hold such a clarity to her every movement, from her quiet, confident strides, Celestia would say her Luna was spellbound. Luna's feathers shifted silently under the cape Celestia thought more in the style of Sombra. A wreath of flowers was crowning her head and slipped from where they rested in her dark mane so that the floral ornament hung crooked

Celestia ducked her eyes when she felt too overwhelmed — Luna, Noctus, Sombra; it was all far too much, her heart felt squashed in her chest... and then cold, stagnant. Her breathing was controlled. She was controlled, a pretty and distant statue and now she felt like an apparition in her daughter's love story, doomed to fade and be erased as her own pale coat was in the northern winters, so that she couldn't have any hope of finding herself, only losing more and more, bit by bit to the snows...

When she knew Luna and Sombra weren't looking, Celestia dared to raise her eyes. She did so humbly, meekly, sadly. Those two were swept up the excitement and gravity of each other's presences and Noctus had departed to the audience with a quick look she didn't acknowledge.

She lost so much.

Her eyes lingered on Luna's color, her own daughter's back turned to her.

Do I have to lose you too?

Even if she could undo the invisible stitching on her lips and search for each little syllable where it lay, far down her throat, she could never say that to them. Not ever. Even if she wanted to dig up the most ugliest, malformed, twisted, dark, harsh, unkind, and... honest things, Celestia could never bear to tell the truth. Her blood was colder at the thought.

Looking at her daughter and a demon standing in front of her once-trusted niece, the epitome and expert of love, Celestia could not appreciate anything as wicked as irony. Cadance's own marriage was seen as an example of pure, true, and real love. But, here she was, sealing the deal of a relationship Celestia knew was anything but that.

Slowly, she let her gaze fall once again partially as Cadance's song-like voice rattling out words that made Celestia feel very small inside.

"Gentlemares and gentlecolts, gods and mortals alike — we are gathered here today to witness the unusual and rare union of the goddess, Princess Luna Galaxia, brave and wise, and her unexpected suitor. I consider him a dear friend, the god," Cadance tasted the word, asserting it as much as mare of her nature could.

It was as though she was trying to disguise the monstrous nature of the thing she called her 'friend' when everypony else knew better. The looks of those in attendance bored into Sombra, who cast a contemptuous glower in their direction without turning around at all. Cadance continues on, Sombra's gesture known to only Luna, Sombra's despicable self, and Celestia herself, who almost felt a sick sort of luck out of catching something so small. He'd act in such an accusatory way on his own wedding day! The very ponies who showed up to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event, and many who were courteous enough to hide any loathing for him, including a select few with the admirable skill to pretend to like him for politeness' sake.

How was it that a mare as sensitive and renewed as Luna attracted to an intolerant and blundering imbecile like Sombra? Celestia knew she wasn't the only one that thought about this and had it nag at her mind because she had to look away when Twilight Sparkle dabbed at her teary eyes with a hoofkerchief clasped in her aura. She watched how her most beloved Faithful Student bowed her head, shivering with the quietest of sobs, unable to watch as the vows continued. Did Celestia blame her? No, of course not. Were she not meant to hold herself rooted and still, she would extend a kind word and the comfort of wrapping a wing around her Faithful Student. Twilight Sparkle was her most successful project, above all else, and the young mare that was practically her second daughter too. Twilight deserved her happy ending, not all this pain. The very thought of it hurt Celestia like a thorn that she ached to remove.

And Luna didn't care it all. She was too observant not to notice Twilight... and she let her cry anyway. How... How cruel. Cadance was too caught up in her role. But Luna had to know.

And she ignored poor Twilight Sparkle.

Celestia's jaw clenched slightly.

"—the god and recently returned Prince Sombra the Enigma—"

Celestia resisted the urge to remind everypony he hadn't even been crowned yet. The only thing upon his head was the flower crown Luna had stealthily transferred to his head. Sombra cleared his throat in a manner that was hard not to see as entitled. Luna didn't mind, and Cadance certainly seemed used to it. Before any further interruptions could occur, Sombra gave Cadance a pointed look with those unnerving, unnatural crimson eyes.

"Sombra Galaxia," he said, staring at Cadance for far longer than was polite. His tone was nothing but condescending to Celestia, and that name. That horrid name. Luna had embraced it, eagerly reclaiming she thought lost.

Celestia did not address it, like a dying bout of fever, it was an illness well-contained. Celestia was Celestia only. Probably. She was just a pony.

She pretended that Sombra's words did not cause Luna to grab one of his forehooves and hold it in hers. Celestia heard no ever-so-faint murp die half-formed in his throat in the gesture, something nopony past Celestia could hear. His ears flicked forward, and the look between them was so...

Celestia's heart sank further than she thought it could.

...it was so trusting.

"I'm marrying into her family, aren't I?" Sombra asked, the sweeping, piercing look he gave a clear assertion that the question was rhetorical — and a dare, wrapped into one. "I'm sharing everything with her — my time, my secrets, my priceless presence. And she—"

Oh, that look he gave her...

Luna smiled at him, her pricked ears clearly anticipating something only she seemed to have a read on.

Celestia couldn't read the look in Sombra's other than it being some kind of warmth.

"—has been nothing but accommodating to me. If I'm going to be her husband, I'm going to share her name."

How pragmatic of him.

A few whispers died with a disdainful glare he gave everypony. Celestia knew two things. The first was that Blueblood probably was the start of them, being the gossip that he was. The second was that Sombra made no effort to hide how nopony in the audience meant anything to him. The princess could not help but pity her ponies. They did not deserve this treatment. But Cadance still spoke on after hiding a giggle poorly behind her forehoof.

"Heh, alright then. The union of Princess Luna and Prince Sombra Galaxia. Their love is true and undaunted. The devotion they have for one another, undeniable, because everypony here knows some of the various slanders their union has been up against. Even my treasured Crystalline subjects have made their disapproval for the wedding of my dear family clear, but they stay strong."

Sombra and Luna looked so proud to hear those words. Undaunted, indeed — all reasonable opposition and a lack of popular support had not deterred them from standing here today. Strength was not compatible with such insolence. There was even a bit of a smirk emerging on Sombra's muzzle, showing that it was just as haughty as can be. Really though, there were times in private when Celestia mused on what might have happened had they not been so steadfast, just to be less committed, less obsessed with one another. A little part of her would have liked that, and it wasn't the princess part. Or Celestia.

Whatever part it was, she hated that little bit of her.

And she wasn't all that fond of whatever other side of her thought it was right.

Because it was.

Vain attempts to distract herself from her own less than stellar thoughts only made small gestures rub their way into her mind even more. Luna's pure joy and her 'I do' that twisted Celestia's heart, the vows, and Cadance's words like white noise in her ears. Her whole body felt a nameless, numbing chill rising from the inside out. Really, it was as though she were being erased, cleanly and so very, very coldly. Every passing minute at this wedding made her feel more and more like a ghost.

A ghost that Luna had no need of, despite Celestia being something she desperately needed — that feeling and undeniable knowledge that came with knowing she was a true necessity in the lives of everypony, for they would not leave her.

If Luna's 'I do' was a twisting, ugly weight — a reminder that brought all feeling rushing back before dashing it all again, and bringing that slippery slope of thick, cold quiet back — that bruised her heart when her dear daughter spoke those words. It was followed by Sombra's indignant 'Of course, why in Tartarus' name do you think I bothered to show up in the first place?' and then accompanied by a truly generous eye roll that shattered her, no matter how much she refused to show her sorrow.

This was never her day.

And surely it was not just her who felt her heart drop when Sombra said that. Dare she even look at Twilight? And really, part of this felt like her fault — she, the very own cause of her student's tears, having robbed her of a well-deserved happily ever after. Now she stood unable to comfort the filly she had practically raised as the lovely unicorn mare beside her was doing. Thankfully, their foals wouldn't understand why the tears of one of their mothers might not really be 'tears of joy' as they were no doubt told. The ending of that brief exchange felt like it had occupied a much larger window of time. To feel as she felt now in any other scenario, she might need a whole bucket full of ice water dumped on her.

"May we have the rings, please?" Cadance asked sweetly, a soft smile on her face, even when she met Celestia's tranquil, relaxed expression.

With a measured nod and the light of her magic — a glittering bright gold for such a dreary occasion — Celestia probed young Spike, who stood cautiously beside her. He was clearly a bit hesitant to serve as the ringdrake at this occasion, as well as get too close to Sombra. He had grown a few inches since the wedding of Cadance and Shining Armor, but nevertheless, he still had to stretch the ring-cushion clutched in his claws quite high to reach a convenient place for Celestia's magic to lift the cursed things.

She smiled kindly at Spike. "Thank you," she said her voice low. Seeing him smile, however nervously, made the meaningless, purely polite, and conventional pleasantry worth it for her. But nothing else was returned, all those words were like rays of sunshine — bright, flashing, and gone too soon. They always were.

Once Cadance had the rings grasped in her own aura and levitated them over to the bride and groom, Celestia had herself look at the far wall and out the window. She willed herself to be even calmer, to just freeze utterly so that no part of her could thaw. To confront nothing. To tell no truths, to bear no hardship, and let everything inside just freeze away.

She did not want to register how starstruck Luna seemed, mouth in an excited 'O' of astonishment when the ring was slipped over her long, but perfectly normal horn. Her dark mane flowed a little more excitedly, and her tail swished perkily under her cape, and there was some quirky grace to all of her movements.

When Cadance attempted to fit Sombra's ring on his horn, she frowned, levitating the object Sombra was so possessive over awkwardly as she tried to figure out how to make it fit on the abnormally-shaped demon's horn. Looking at it made Celestia's own horn start to ache a little. She was just thinking of how a horn shape like that, so unlike a pony's and impossible in nature, must no doubt hurt too. Celestia knew that one of Twilight's old rivals-turned-friend-turned-pen-pal had acquired a dark magic amulet that was much of a foul object as Sombra himself was. If that mare had kept it long enough and abused it further, a demon is what she would have become.

Before Cadance could do anything else or Celestia could thaw herself enough to scold Sombra lightly for being so difficult and offer Cadance a suggestion, Sombra raised an eyebrow. There was an 'Are we really doing this look?' on his face — Celestia could at least read that much — and lit his horn with his usual, wretched aura. A split second later, Sombra rudely snatched his own ring from a slightly stunned Cadance with a small flash of crimson aura before fastening it onto its necklace home once more.

Luna looked unsurprised and Cadance recovered from Sombra's sudden movement soon after. The latter mare was soon smiling eagerly and finally resuming the last of the vows with a joyous shout:

"I now pronounce you husband and wife, bitches!"

Celestia blinked when they kissed.

It was a somewhat prolonged blink.

She had no idea who kissed whom first, obviously.

Over the blood rushing about in her ears, she heard a few gasps from those attending — and not good exactly ones, but quite a few barely-not-mortified ones. Perhaps it was the one form of relief that the princess could expect from this. Having so much say in the guest list and being able to invite those who would uphold the proper reputation of a royal wedding meant that Princess Celestia was able to invite many of Equestria's most respectable heroes, and Luna had no protest to most of the guests she selected. Heroes were just the type of ponies who would know that any sense of morality was rooted deeply in how one's self-image was interpreted by others, and how immaculate their public conduct and manners were. That was what cemented the ponies with humble spirits like her Twilight Sparkle as honorable. And with that type of company, Princess Celestia was acutely aware of the sympathy that these sorts of ponies would give her.

Rude, she thought, but knew that a reaction like that meant that it was likely Sombra who kissed Luna first.

"It's about time you two got hitched," she heard Cadance mutter. Princess Celestia creaked her eyelid open just enough to see the sparkle of Cadance's blue magic reach up and tease one of her own curls.

After so many centuries, it became easier for budding tears to never see the light of her day and let her heart clench in her chest than it was to cry. Her mask simply wouldn't crack, even if she wanted it to. And that was for the better. For Luna, Discord and, Qilin, Twilight, Cadance, and Raven. It was even what was best for Sombra — as if he was worth considering at all.

But most of all, it was what was best for Equestria.

...

As she walked through the party following the ceremony, Celestia had to curb her shock. The entire event was like some awful dream, and it wouldn't surprise her if she would find herself bolting up in a cold sweat in her own bed soon. Perhaps she would see only a few hours had passed from last night to now, and then she would find normalcy reclaimed with each instance her heartbeat slowed from a quaking drum's beat to a quiet, if eerie tick, tick, tick of a clock. Then, her utterly normal could begin, couldn't it? Paperwork, petitioners, and other everyday princess-duties would dominate her thoughts. Chess with Raven, lunch with Luna, and sipping tea as she went over Twilight's latest letters. If she was lucky, a visit with Cadance and Shining Armor would be on schedule, and the palace chefs would have a new flavor of cake to sample. Cadance would not speak of Sombra the entire time.

She'd been doing that a fair deal now...

Celestia could look forward to other things too — tennis, golf, or croquet with Blueblood, trying to have Qilin color in the lines in all her coloring books to make something prettier than scribbles while she minded the progress talks with the little filly's governess. Those would likely be over tea too. There was so much that a mare like her could look forward to. Tia could have dates with Discord, doing her best to roll with his most certainly chaotic ideas and play pranks on the gardeners together. Unlike most unplanned events, she generally enjoyed his, especially if it was intertwined with gala hi-jinks since that was Equestria's ultimate party to crash. She had him beat eight to five this year, so of course, she had an image to maintain, naturally. Especially if it involved mini-golf — her favorite, and a real, admirable sport as much as chess was the game of rulers.

That would not be all her routines consisted of, but that was where her thoughts stopped when she looked around at the ballroom that hosted the post-nuptial party, and really looked around at the guests.

Remaining guests, she corrected.

While her expression was as calm a mask as ever, she tried to glance at the shiny surface of the floor to make sure her rosy eyes did not look as sad as she thought they might. No relief coursed through her when she saw that they held a lukewarm sort of emotion. She had already brushed away a few tears expertly when nopony was looking — the only ones that she would shed tonight — but managed to retouch her makeup with a quick trip to one of the castle's numerous restrooms. Most of them were reserved for the inhabitants and staff, so she had little fear anypony might enter a mare's room while she peered into the mirror.

There was still this foggy numbness all about her. Princess Celestia held her head high and stepped quietly as she tried to find somepony to chat with; she ached for some meaningless conversation to dash the shiver-inducing melancholy overtaking her as gradually as vines wormed their way through the crack of a strong, maintained fortress wall. But who could she talk to? Raven, Celestia's dear friend, had no place showing up at Luna's wedding. She was not invited and had expressed no desire to come as politely as possible to Celestia when she had proposed to try and allow someone as dear to her as Raven to attend. Twilight Sparkle, the poor filly, and her family had left when the party started. They had not been given the invitation to stay for this part of the wedding anyway, which saddened Celestia, who had at least managed to secure an invite to the exchanging of the vows. She would have liked to hear how the second draft of The Lessons of Friendship: A Collection of Wisdom by Princess Twilight Sparkle was going. The princess would have liked to talk to Rarity too, since she heard that she had started a line of foal's clothing that was a trending topic in Canterlot's streets and fashion scene alike.

Celestia didn't have the skill with foals that Luna had, but she certainly wouldn't have minded seeing how much Gallant and Stellar had grown since she last saw them. Even listening to Blueblood prattle about who showed up at his last party would be a delight. Knowing which socialite did what and all the latest gossip was far more interesting than... all of this. At many times in her life, Celestia had come terribly close to admitting that there was something more sustaining in gossip and how it brought ponies together than there was nourishment in any broth.

Sighing softly, she noted that everypony else actually appeared to be enjoying themselves. Discord was enjoying his dictation of the event's gramophone, levitating a few record sleeves into the air, pondering which of Cadance's music suggestions would be best to play next compared to his own choices, tucked haphazardly under his other arm. Celestia was certain that Luna wouldn't want Dicord's undeniably elective harsh noise playing at her wedding party.

Celestia watched Discord's tail as it flicked. Then, she caught the sight of Cadance's newest bass leaning against the wall not far from where Discord was standing; Celestia hadn't quite caught what Cadance had named this one, its dark body leaning against its amp, patiently waiting for later that night. She smiled and waved to Discord though, who gave her his crooked snaggle-toothed smile that was so giddy and goofy she had couldn't help but feel just a little bit better.

Before anypony else noticed, he stuck his silly snake-like tongue out and she pantomimed an elaborate gasp of faux horror before politely slipping away to search for anypony who could make low-key small talk. As much as she loved Discord, she didn't want to immerse herself in any zany exchanges right now. Nearby Discord was Noctus, still in his mortal guise. He tugged at his suit's collar with a forehoof, and looked at it with a thin haze of confusion in his eyes that never once caught her; so many objects felt like shadows of what he knew like halfway shadows and lesser versions of things he used to know. How many times had Celestia seen that look before? On Luna, she most certainly had. Only Sombra seemed to keep those little looks at bay — and yet other times she shared it with Sombra or Luna, remembering things they would never share, some connection intertwined between them.

And always, Celestia couldn't fathom why any who have known what gods know would want to remember at all. At times, she wished she could not, and bordered on cursing her immortal mind and all that it had involuntarily bestowed upon her.

Next to him, there was that strange youth again, with a coat of bright green that made the poor colt look like a winged, walking lime. He was excitedly chattering to a half-listening Noctus and upon the teenager's back was... well, it was young Qilin, who gleefully smiled and tugged at his white mane with her little teeth, no doubt having learned such behavior from her attentive father, even if her own teeth were notably flat. The soft wave of her mane bounced in front of her eyes in a peek-a-boo dance, revealing how absorbed in fun, how utterly carefree and innocent they looked.

Quickly, she turned away, and with all the grace of her station stepped elegantly over to the table where she could smell warm treats just ready for sampling. She wasn't able to shake the crushing feeling of this event, and the emptiness that lingered, but she could try to forget.

A small noise startled her, and Celestia bit the edge of her lip as the odd warble faded. Odd, of course, but not unfamiliar.

Her stomach was empty too.

...

Basking in the soon-to-be evening sunlight was the food table. The lovely lavender tablecloth certainly had Celestia's approval (a white trim and a tasteful amount of satin-y ribbons certainly made it visually appealing) but what really had her attention were the contents waiting before her on their all-too-literal silver platters.

The table itself was very long in order to accommodate plenty of food, so Celestia only looked at the part closest to her, and how lavish the spread was! Celestia's mind did not need to drift to the uncomfortable subjects of her daughter, who had done away with the option of a proper and true royal wedding like Cadance had — something that deeply saddened Celestia — for a private white wedding that nopony outside of the room would ever be able to experience. Cadance had at least welcomed the curious ponies and gentry of Canterlot for her own celebration, in a generous gesture befitting an Equestrian princess. Twilight Sparkle showed the same kindness towards the residents of Ponyville. Nopony else seemed to mind, not even Cadance who was so giddy about being the officiant, even though Celestia thought that the whole 'celebration' was very lacking. There were no bridesmaids beyond herself, no groomscolts, no flower filly... how could it not feel incomplete?

Celestia had put plenty of effort into trying to help — organizing everything, sending most of the invitations, trying to help Luna pick out her dress... only for Luna to not want a dress. (She knew Luna was incredibly thankful for all of Celestia's help, as she'd only reminded Celestia a dozen times with a dozen hugs — but still! No dress for the bride! It was absurd!) For all that effort, she certainly felt that she deserved to have a nice break and some food.

Wine bottles lined the table, each cleaned and shining, boasting downright ancient dates when they were first stored in the Canterlot cellars. Sparkling wine glasses waited nearby, silently sitting between the wine selection and the very uncalled-for piece... a fountain of hard cider that Luna had shot a few eager looks at, even though the punch bowl was also quite nice. (The fountain was either a gift from Pinkie Pie or Discord, Celestia could not be sure.) The only drink that was suitable for any of the younger ponies present was crisp, fresh Sweet Apple Acres apple juice that Celestia had tasted herself, and of course, the punch, but Celestia doubted that would last as it was with Cadance around.

The food was thankfully largely traditional. Sweets sat all lined up on decorated platters, each made by the finest chefs in the castle kitchens. Cookies, fruits, and other sweet smells teased Celestia's muzzle. Some of them had already been touched, but plenty was left. Less sugary foods like gourmet salads were available, but none of those caught Celestia's eye.

The cake was what commanded her attention. At every celebration she attended, the cake was what made her knees weak and her stomach grumble. She loved the effort ponies put into designing them, into making sure every part blended into the perfect whole so that no one aspect of the cake stole the spotlight. Cake was something that could be shared with ponies and great with friends. So much could be put on a cake and they came in a wide variety of flavors.

No matter where she went and to what kind of event, Celestia could usually count on there being a cake. Visiting a foreign kingdom for a ball? A fancy cake is in order, no doubt in some exotic flavor she could hardly wait to sample. When she was having lunch with Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville? Sugarcube Corner is a must-visit for a couple of cute cupcakes. Inviting young Spike over to celebrate his hatchday? A simple cake decorated with a comic book hero or hoofball star and colorful candles for Spike to light himself while Twilight clapped her hooves and cheered.

Any sign of cake was the party and get-together equivalent of a friendly 'hello', and Celestia loved to say 'hello' to ponies.

Even if there were always some that never said 'hello' back...

Seeing the wedding cake made Celestia's stuck-fast smile feel a bit more sincere as she trotted towards the foods waiting for her. Her mouth opened in a silent 'O' of excitement as she looked at the wedding cake up close. The frosting was a soft blue that Celestia thought was decidedly like a robin's egg. Icing swirls in classic white and silver sprinkled with confectionery sugar crystals clung to the cake in an almost whimsical way, like sugary mist. Faint whirls had been etched in the frosting and expertly worked in to give the desert a frosty look that was complemented by the silver-colored sugar pearls that were indistinguishable from the real thing until they were tasted.

Celestia hummed faintly as she lit her horn to levitate a knife with a pearly handle and a pristine white plate so she could cut herself a slice as carefully as possible. Luna's wedding cake had such a fairy-tale feel to it despite it being barren of the more traditional motifs, like roses. Usually, a royal wedding would have miniature figures of those who were to be wedded perched atop the cake, but when Celestia tried to search for anypony willing to craft them when she managed the catering, nopony was willing to fashion any likeness of Sombra.

"I'm not sure if you've noticed, but this disgusting icing brick of a 'cake' has gross little beads all over it. While I have no strong opinion about if you were to choke, I know a very lovely mare who does."

Any shred of earnestness in the princess' smile was gone. She calmly levitated her modest helping of cake onto her plate, and selected the correct type of fork to taste the... she eyed the cake's interior quickly, dreading any acknowledgment of that voice, noting that it was unusual: butterscotch-pineapple flavored, of all things. What better way to make Luna's wedding cake than have it be her two favorite flavors of anything? Celestia was glad her cautious optimism had paid off, and that the unusual flavor had some merit.

"Would you like a slice?" Celestia asked, voice level and polite.

It was such a normal thing to say — in contrast to anything that came out of Sombra's mouth — and Celestia liked that. She had heard how Cadance usually brushed off some of what Sombra said with a chime of 'Typical Sombra' and Luna, too, chimed in on this. It was something that Sombra evidently allowed. Celestia simply did not like Typical Sombra... but perhaps Typical Sombra would not mind sharing some cake if she just... grinned and dealt with his antics?

"Absolutely not," he huffed, and Celestia did not look at him. There was no need to. He shattered her silent offer.

In the months that he had been living with Celestia and Luna, she'd hardly seen any bit of him, and what mannerisms he had were frustrating.

He refused to eat around most ponies entirely and only ate around Celestia, Luna, Skyla, Shining, and Cadance. He stared impolitely. He was rarely seen by anypony. He enjoyed pursuing archives without express permission from Princess Celestia herself. He didn't talk to anypony as though they mattered — other than Luna and Cadance. If he talked to anypony else at all, it was to order around a servant, bluntly and without courtesy.

He refused to let anypony cook for him. When Celestia inquired why — the palace staff were friendly, excellent ponies who only were paid to do so — he talked of how if something was to be done 'right' he had to do it himself. Now that was some rubbish he applied to everything else so casually. Though, more than once Celestia caught Sombra himself — and the confirming whispers of the staff — with something that he had cooked for somepony other than himself. 'For Luna' is what he had always declared with a scowl at everypony, and the trusty gossip of castle cooks always cemented this.

Yet never in her life had Celestia regarded freshly baked snickerdoodles with such a deep sense of suspicion. Not unless they came from Sombra.

Sombra allowed rare exceptions for the few that passed whatever ridiculous trust standards he had — the 'few' being Cadance, Luna, and absolutely nopony else. Well, Skyla too. Once again, there was no surprise in those names.

He refused to mail letters through normal services — by the wings of postal pegasi or allowing anything to be carried by the admirable earth post-ponies of Equestria. He slept in until afternoon, and when his ludicrous sleep schedule was followed, he would be up at night — a couple of the maids had reportedly been frightened by his shadow. He enchanted rooms so that only the 'right' ponies could enter them, and the enchantments were too complex for anypony to break them. He whapped Philomena with a newspaper more than once, claiming something along the lines of her startling him or spying on him. He built a pond for his fish, single-hoofed, in one of the castle gardens. His mane was disheveled. He frequently reminded the staff that he hated them. He teleported around instead of using the stairs. He phased through walls as a shadow-creature. He read while walking and didn't bump into anybody, and used this as a substitute for conversation. He wouldn't smile. He burned all the mail he deemed as 'junk' as well as a number of the topiaries.

He had the audacity to use her coffee maker without asking.

But Celestia had discovered that he really could not speak politely no matter what — and it was impossible to speak politely of his habits, too.

"A 'no thank you' would be much nicer." She still wouldn't look at him. She had tried.

"I'm not nice. If you want to call me a big jerk, or what-have-you I'm not going to complain, as long as you're honest. I can't exactly do the same, seeing as the only 'big' thing about you is your rear end."

He smirked. Sombra was hardly being cruel right now, but if she was to be a wallflower, then she would bear her fellow blossoms...

Celestia skillfully hid that she bit the tip of her tongue in disgust while tasting a nice forkful of cake. It was very good! "Insulting a mare's age and weight are both especially rude things to do, and while I am a very old mare—" she fills what would be a pause with a conversational laugh, "—I do not have weight problems. You can stop calling the few times I walk past you on our less-than-cheery encounters an eclipse, if you would please."

(Her various physicians had told her otherwise throughout the years, with a diversity of tone and approaches. None of them lasted very long if they continued to bring up the subject or suggest that they knew her health better than her.)

"Well, I'm not going to, you old nag. I just want to cut a slice of cake for somepony. Since your head is as full of shit as any sewer system, I'll explain this once out of the pure politeness that the Right-Honourable Lord Sombra radiates: me cutting cake isn't the same as me cutting up ponies. I know how terribly similar everything I do in your two-color mind is synonymous with genocide, so having a little reminder that me accessing food at my own wedding is, in fact — and I know this is going to come as a shock to you... but it isn't genocide! Isn't that just a radiant little miracle?"

She was ready to turn on him, and tell him as direly as possible that nothing he said was funny, weddings were supposed to be lovely times, and that genocide was in no way something for any good pony to joke about...or demon-monster, but a little voice made her swallow her cake abruptly:

"Kitty!"

It was the innocent, happy voice of a familiar little toddler. Celestia couldn't believe she had not looked for its owner among the rest of the wedding guests.

So, she finally looked at Sombra and caught him glancing at the little one sitting on his back with a curious expression, a faint trill of confusion in his throat, and his ears pricked forward. "Yes, yes, I'm here. The best grunkle in the history of the universe hasn't gone anywhere, but some nag isn't letting me get you a slice of cake."

So, that was why he wanted a slice...

Riding right on the back of the groom was an-almost-puffball of ruffly skirts. One with her own natural curls, she was the essential image of the sweet little toddler, as well as Celestia's own great-niece... and Sombra's too. Skyla cooed, her own little white forelegs trying to stretch impossibly far to Sombra's face as he looked back at her. Some demon had removed his tie and secured it around her forehead like a headband.

She wiggled her little legs again, fluttering her wings eagerly, pointing at Sombra. "Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!"

He scowled slightly in response. "Yeah, I've got it. I'm here. I exist. We've established this many times. Can't you use your damn words? I'd get you a little bit of cake if you could be patient."

Skyla smiled and pointed one foreleg extra-far, stretching it as much as she could and waving it. "Kitty?"

Rolling his eyes, Sombra levitated the little filly in front of him, almost cradling her in his aura while Skyla cooed and batted at the sparkles before she reached her destination: one of Sombra's forelegs.

Celestia eyed him a little warily, noting what was on his back, below the ruffly layers of Skyla's dress. "Why are you the one managing Skyla right now?"

Sombra looked for all the world that somepony had told him to explain how to breathe. "Cadance wanted me to." His eyes moved to indicate the small saddle bag on his back, crystal heart clasps shining in the light. "There's a couple of snacks and things in there, but Pink One said the kid can have some cake."

Celestia looked very calmly at him. "Oh. It will have to be in small pieces, then."

She also had no idea what a 'grunkle' was supposed to be, or if it was contagious. It certainly sounded like a rather dreadful ailment.

"Have you realized that you're capable of moving something other than your mouth yet so I can get the rugrat some cake?" He snorted, something like a semi-annoyed smirk on his muzzle. "That is, if she can ever tell me what size of a slice she wants."

Looking down at the curious toddler in his forelegs like she was an adult who could understand him, and that this was a typical scene to witness, he talked to Skyla again. "I know you can hear me, kiddo. Are you going to listen to your grunkle and give me the damn details here, or is it going to be apple slices for you, Skyla?"

"Do not swear in front of my grand-niece," Celestia hissed softly. The way she had looked at him on previous instances should have been an indication that he should cease. He did not.

Sombra didn't give any sign he heard her, not unless she was able to count an irritated ear flick.

She looked at him like he was a glittering orb of tinsel, and she a kitten who had never seen anything better. "Gah!" Skyla announced with pride.

Sombra looked down at her, one eye twitching faintly as he peered down at her, his muzzle right within nuzzling distance. "That's not a real word."

Making soft gurgles of wonder, Skyla reached out with a foreleg and began to pet Sombra with the clumsy affection of any filly her age when interacting with pets. "Kitty!" she squealed.

"We'll get you up to 'Sombra' one day, won't we?"

Skyla blinked. "Kitty?"

Sombra just looked at her, slightly confused. "One day."

Skyla patted his muzzle gently, cooing while Sombra purred softly, allowing the young filly to try and touch his ears.

Celestia just placed her slice of cake down and grabbed another plate. She began to cut another in a size that would be fit for Skyla since Sombra was clearly distracted. There was a bizarre confidence to how he acted now, the strange sounds he made — something rarely done in front of her — that only served to separate him from everypony else when he should be trying to blend in, and improve how he's seen. It wasn't like she hadn't given him a few pointers.

However, he would never be enough to fool her. Nothing about his conduct could deceive a mare like her, who knew ponies and the two sides of the board, the black and the white.

She just hummed as she cut a small slice, working quickly and without thought, to cut each piece into something fit for a toddler who would have no difficulty eating, placing any 'pearls' and similar hard-to-chew frills on her own plate. Those might as well be a well-deserved little extra, the perfect sweet reward for having to put up with talking to Sombra at all. Clearly, she was the one who knew how little fillies functioned between the two of them, and yet he was entrusted with Skyla instead?

Celestia looked up to see that Sombra had set Skyla down... right on the table. Ruffly skirts touched the edge of pastries and other delectable treats while the happy filly smiled giddily.

"Her dress is getting in the food," Celestia observed.

Sombra noted this, silently letting his horn glow brighter so that he was able to delicately levitate Skyla. This way, the hem of her dress wasn't brushing up against a tray of cookies and he could balance his plate in his aura as well.

Celestia simply stared at the contents of his plate, only just registering a warm aroma that did not match anything else.

"Did you really have to dictate that pizza be present?"

Sombra doesn't look at her, instead he continues to levitate another slice of pizza onto his plate. "Absolutely. If any event with custom catering is going to have me attending — and as a center of attention — I'm going to have some damned pizza around. If you were in my place, would you not want the same?"

"It would be nice to have a 'thank you' for acquiring vegan pizza for the celebration... it was an unusual request," she said, knowing he'd pick up on the light emphasis she put on the word.

Sombra looked like he might choke mid-bite of the slice he had been casually sampling before adding to his plate and actually turning to look directly at her.

"Vegan pizza exists?" he hissed, stunned.

Celestia contained herself expertly. Again. Must everything about him be so odd? "Yes, and I figured that was what you had always had. To select anything else made no sense, since you are supposedly vegan, aren't you? I made sure that nearly everything purchased was vegan specifically for you... except the cake, I'm afraid. It seems that vegan bakers are not easy to come by, even in my fine city of Canterlot."

She saw one of his eyebrows arch. "You don't have the faintest idea of what I eat, even though we live together."

Not wanting to meet his eyes, Celestia stared at his pizza slices. Green peppers stood out boldly, and pineapple dotted each slice. To her surprise, Sombra followed her gaze.

"Do you want a slice?" He meant it, to her surprise — he wasn't speaking nearly so testily, but yet, there was no friendly feeling at all to his words, merely a pragmatic invitation.

"No thank you," she said with a slight smile and the faintest glitter of disgust in her eyes, "I do not enjoy pineapple as Luna doesn't enjoy pizza. Enjoy your pizza."

She had lived long enough to make sure the last three words did not sound forced, even if they were as barren of sincerity as Queen Chrysalis had been devoid of love.

"Just tell me outright that you want me to choke on it," Sombra scoffed, carefully levitating a pineapple over to Skyla. The little filly's eyes shone with innocent love as she cooed and stretched her hooves out to accept the treat, chewing on it with soft 'nom' noises.

"Even if I thought that I would never say anything like in front of a child... or somepony you care about."

Scoffing, he indifferently returned to selecting another slice of pizza. Celestia stood by calmly observing Sombra chew it. She ignored him and helped situate Skyla briefly so that the little filly was able to sample her small pieces of cake while Celestia contentedly ate her own portion as if he were not there. Eventually, she allowed her mind to slip into the ambient thrall of the party, and Sombra was the one who procured a foal's fork from his bag for Skyla to use.

As she zoned out, further muting his presence from her thoughts, she watched, passed fleeting conversations she deemed irrelevant, to the couple dancing that certainly was a sight to behold.

A palate of bright pastels, snowy fabrics, and those dyed streaks of black that were an utter eyesore twirled elegantly and noticeable with all the enthusiasm as the rest of Cadance, whose joyous smile and energetic dancing was unforgettable. Purple-tipped feathers cut the air with the softness of dandelion fluff as Cadance moved, and her happy lilac eyes saw nopony but her dancing partner.

Celestia had always been a mare who was quick to jump at the chance to learn the latest dances that overtook her ponies and populated parties and other establishments. More than a few dancing tutors had had the 'honor' — that was how they always put it — of guiding her through each step and further instilling a rhythm from which she knew not to deviate from within her until she had taken to each with all the reflex of a heartbeat.

Luna, as ponies would be apt to put it, 'danced to the beat of her own drum' which was to say, with all the actual awe and heart that Celestia's techniques were missing. Where Celestia adopted the necessity of convention with ease, Luna's dark form and swift ways held a hypnotic magnetism like the push and pull of the tides. They could be just as soft or rough as the ocean's lull too, which were the opposite of how Celestia devoted herself to near-soundless grace and minding meters that no longer needed to be called to thought. Even Celestia's detached mind was able to snag onto the distinct movement that made Luna stand out, ever the different one... from everypony.

Could anything be sadder than that?

A sound next to her tugged Celestia's thoughts away from Luna, and she offered no resistance to reestablish her concentration. Now it fell on Sombra once more. He had gone out of the way to summon the sheath that contained one of his swords. Celestia remembered some of their names — Fate, Virtue, and Cacti — but that was because he named them after things that he claimed to be above. It had simply annoyed her too much not to recall such a frustratingly unusual detail.

Such arrogance. She knew only one that was close in levels of pride as Sombra, and he was a stallion with a belled hat who tried to conquer death. His very memory sent chills down Celestia's spine.

She waited until Sombra was done adjusting the sheath, not bother to point out he didn't need any such weapon, and especially not around a young filly who looked at it with such awe. Then she spoke, "Why is it that you aren't dancing?"

She spoke the words mildly, but he still looked annoyed that she even tried talking to him in the first place. "I can't dance."

"It is tradition for the bride to dance with her groom — at least, in this case, where we have one of each. Why don't you give it a try? It's lots of fun!" Celestia finished with a cheerful smile.

Sombra just looked at her flatly for a moment. "No."

Surprise showed on Celestia's face, but only a little. Thousand-year masks do not fall in seconds. Such a conversationalist, he was! What in Tartarus name was it that Luna and he talked about when he was so stubbornly reticent? He's so boring!

"You're the one missing out, then," Celestia said, watching as Sombra turned away, unaffected by her words.

Oblivious to the frosty demeanor of Sombra and Celestia's cool stare, Skyla reached out, pointing and wiggling her forehooves toward somepony other than the alabaster mare and disgruntled demon.

"Pretty!" she exclaimed. "Pretty, pretty!"

Sombra followed her movements with a curious gaze, which was a fairly odd contrast to his indifferent frown, and Celestia followed his eyes. The action was done discreetly, she'd never let him know that he was part of her cue.

Skyla was looking at Luna dancing, and her laughter followed, ringing across the room. That was what really snagged Sombra's attention quicker than the slowest of fish took the bait on a fish hook. He nearly reminded her of a startled (or intrigued, it was hard to tell with cats, which was just one of the many reasons she preferred birds) house cat. Plus, if she didn't know better, she might have thought the look in his eyes a little starstruck.

"She is," he mumbled. "She really is."

Odd, Celestia thought. Sombra was quick to hate most everypony, but oddly enough, he was always quick to compliment the strangest things about Luna. He proclaimed her extremely clever where it was best to deem her frighteningly esoteric. Her arcane skill was worth many of his words, none of which were the slightest bit wary. Her laughter had his ears perked quicker than Celestia questioning for the forty-sixth time why a pizza pony was in Canterlot Castle, asking about a pizza ordered in whatever absurd name Sombra and a less-than-sober Cadance had devised for the night. He found her fierce instead of temperamental, and to him, her prowess in combat was 'attractive' when the true nature of gods and the depths of their powers was more than enough to traumatize even most of the modern mortals.

It was enough for Celestia to almost want to demand that he just tell her daughter that she was the prettiest mare in the world like a normal lover would — or just a typical stallion of his, ah, temperament. Was it so hard for him to not know what a mare wants? Luna deserved to feel pretty too, and nothing that Sombra typically praised held a candle to what telling a mare about her true, outer beauty and feminine qualities could do.

Unlike Celestia, it was Luna who radiated... some elation, something... this breathtaking earnestness, and how ironic it was. Celestia was the princess of the sun, but she was also the princess of sunnier dispositions, something Luna had never taken to. And yet, all eyes were on her because Luna looked like a real goddess. She was strong, she was strange, her eyes held a mystery that even Celestia's pleas for understanding never managed to unlock in their lifetimes of kinship. She had subtle movements Celestia could not observe any point in, yet marked Luna's free, confident, and organic dancing — every single flow — as distinct in a way that was fitting for only the best self-taught dancers and the otherworldly grace of the divine. No skirt hindered her, but if Luna had worn one, Celestia thought it would be like something out of a breezie-fay tale.

Luna smiled, and Celestia saw her whirl excitedly with Cadance, mid-laugh saying something she couldn't hear. Or perhaps Luna singing some old and long-forgotten folk song that would only linger in the most rustic and out-of-the-way taverns. Those were the kind that Princess Celestia felt were best buried in the unseemly, kitschy grave that called itself folklore and allowed to be pruned from her memory without a second thought when they were no longer popular with her ponies.

An elephant — some creature to the West, near the Llamalayas, found only in pictures and dusty pages — may remember, for their prowess in memory had lent the fable to the Eastern continent long ago, long before Celestia had been born, but everypony knew that an Alicorn never forgets.

Jarred from thoughts by a tickle in her mind, one that just barely acknowledged Sombra was there, next to her, that he was real too, Celestia reluctantly amended herself, though she never would to his face.

An elephant may remember, but a god never forgets.

There, now it was all-inclusive for its sake. Just a bit.

...and when had I ever seen her happier than when she looked at him? When she talked to him?

She watched Luna dance with her dear friend, deliberately ignoring Sombra. Princess Celestia knew that if Luna had chosen almost any other creature as her spouse, then Celestia really would have been overflowing with pride and remarks of congratulations for Luna. Instead, she watched them, wilting internally at her temporary wallflower status, and pretended that Skyla wasn't delighting in mashing a small piece of cake into the fine plates.

Sombra wasn't withdrawing a flask from his suit. He absolutely wasn't pouring a more than adequate amount of Crystalline Empire vodka (the insignia on the flask told Celestia that it had been loaned to him by Cadance) into the otherwise perfect punch bowl.

It isn't like he's going to have any, and frankly, now that he's bothered with that, neither will I.

If it had been Cadance doing so, she would have not minded, because she was certain that Cadance would do no such thing in the presence of a child. She would do it out of mirth too, not the borderline schadenfreude and eccentric reasons that might prompt Sombra to do something so similar. The more upper-crust ponies at Galas had always complained about Cadance's behavior and various pranks at galas and other events when she was a teenager. Her niece had done such similar things then. Long ago, Celestia herself had partaken in similar actions back in the Unicorn Court, and here there was little harm — especially with her around; she'd ensure that everypony could have a fun time regardless of anypony's questionable taste in the fun.

Before Celestia had been put in charge of organizing the whole affair, she had to listen to Luna and Sombra. His compromise with her, his willingness to work with Luna — though Celestia knew when she talked to them that they hardly wanted anything serious in terms of a wedding. Sombra and Cadance's actions might as well be an indirect jab at what this had become.

This had been the final compromise, and Celestia had never stopped wishing it had been something more.

From her position, everypony felt much like a youth at times. She would simply ensure their fun didn't hurt anypony and guide them, regardless of Sombra's odd attitude toward weddings. Though, there were plenty of weddings that got far, far rowdier than a small group of divine and company would today. Trottish weddings were a very vivid example, and Celestia had seen far too many of those for her tastes.

One night of immaturity for this crowd wasn't going to change much. Even if she couldn't be particularly sure of what Sombra would do...

Though, nopony here was likely to mind the little scheme set up by the demon and the demigod. Celestia would politely refuse anything offered to her. Noctus would be eager to sample Crystalline vodka again, and she'd have very little reason to worry about anything with him. Discord would be eager to sample anything that's considered edible. Qilin and Skyla could be kept busy with nice things like cookies and party games, even though nopony would be indulging much while they were still around. The Sage too, was rather young, but did not seem to be a trouble-making type, and would be ushered off with the foals soon, as responsibility was not discarded entirely for the sake of celebration. The castle had more than enough guest rooms to accommodate him, Skyla, and everypony else who had to come. Clearly, whatever Sombra was setting up — and Cadance too — would not be occurring for some while. The dancing and music were clearly entertaining everypony thoroughly.

Luna would certainly see this as some charming little thing. She would no doubt bestow Sombra with some little gesture of affection, a strange burning brand at how this was all so final, every thread was twined from here, Sombra would be living with her and Luna, and starting his own journey to ruling Equestria. Princess Celestia would be setting him up with what would best be defined as the 'Royal Desk Job'. She predicted that he would loathe that, leave it to Sombra to be so obnoxious about everything because Sombra was...

"Kitty!" Skyla had a celery stick grasped in her forehoof, plucked from a gourmet platter filled with the freshest vegetable bits could buy. She waved it in his direction, no longer interested in her leftover cake.

Sombra looked quietly at her, the beginning of an instinctive trill sounding in his throat, a clear question of 'What?'.

"Kitty," Skyla repeated, "eat!" She clumsily but adamantly waved the celery stick while Celestia cast them a sideways glance.

She watched as Skyla's eyes lit up when Sombra turned around. He gave her his undivided attention, observing her quietly, head cocked to the side partway and a single eyebrow raised in what could be mistaken for the barest trace of amusement, his mane falling into his eyes. Without warning, he stretched his neck forward and gingerly accepted the celery stick, clutching it firmly once it was grasped between his teeth. Celestia caught the glimpse of his horn shine with a faint crimson and the subtle shift and movement of magic... and she saw the barest glimpse of Sombra's fangs, suddenly there where normal teeth had been, and the clutched the celery stick tightly.

That is all? Well, his behavior was unusual, but she observed no malicious intent with his magical usage. The God of Knowledge was trickier than Discord. Riddles could be anticipated, jokes, pranks... but the mind, manner, and magic was something spun far beyond the pages of Macavallo's The Prince, as ironic as the comparison was...

Oh, he's looking at me. Celestia gave the start of a calm expression. Utterly effortless.

...Sombra was still right next to her.

She looked at him with no particular amount of scrutiny, directed at his attire. "I would hope that you'll be wearing something more formal for your coronation. It will not be a friendly event like this. There will be ponies who will monitor your public image, which is something that you should start to take under far more consideration."

He crunched the celery in time with an eye roll and responded when he finished consuming the innocent vegetable.

"I'll be wearing something different from this." He spoke evenly, but without any distinct seriousness or nonchalance.

"This isn't a joke. The ponies of Equestria aren't a joke. Soon, they'll be your subjects too, and you shall learn to serve them—"

"—as a cog in a twisted dystopian machine painted with all the revolting colors of sunshine?"

Celestia narrowed her eyes but never denied any of the parts about 'the machine' because Equestria was indeed a machine. A sound, harmonious machine. She sought to keep it that way, running as it should. She would never pull herself away from doing so because she was more instrumental to this nation than the Fires of Friendship cast by Clover the Clever and the rest of the Founders. "Equestria is not a dystopia, and it will never be, not if you're kept under a crown and humbled."

He was unfazed and spoke with measured, but not unnatural confidence. "A tyrant is still a tyrant when she smiles, Celestia and a murder is still a murder regardless of who apologizes for it."

She didn't look at him. Not directly. "And with pride like yours, you shall crumble, like every other creature bearing it does. Mark my words, I would not even give you three hundred years at best. Ponies will make the right decisions, and you will find yourself in charge of none of them."

Demon.

He smirked. "A queen presiding over a nation composed almost entirely out of fools is still the queen of fools if she listens to them and caters to their will." He finished with a snide look and tugged his color in his magic.

Innocent to the venom being tossed between the god and goddess, Skyla crammed half a cookie in her face, drooling around it and watching everywhere and nowhere with wide eyes.

"It's kindness that matters, and showing it to those who are willing to show it in return. You certainly do not qualify. You are cruel, you lock yourself away, you are insolent and incredibly immature. Your intelligence is nonexistent, demon."

He scowled. "Eloquent and benevolent as ever, Celestia. With words like that, I'm thinking you're asleep on your hooves because you have the coherence of anypony who just dragged themselves out of a coma. The Tribal Era called, they want their pettiness back. That's coming from an egotist, but damn if I'm not a self-aware one."

She watched his eyes narrow, enjoying that she found the thread of his temper, silently giving it another tug. His words were laced with ambition, with danger, and a dozen other things that she hated to name. Yet, by watching him... that look in his eyes, the way he stood, how he carried himself was almost hypnotic. Though she watched flames, Celestia of anypony knew more than most to never touch them. And thankfully, while Sombra was fire, no one ever stood close enough to him to get burned, of that she was sure.

"All narcissists are nothing more than fools."

He smiled again, and how wicked it was — really just a smug, exaggerated smirk. "I'm patient, Celestia. You can throw a thousand pebbles at me, but that's all you'll ever do, isn't it? One day, I'll finally drop the boulder I've managed to hang over your head on you. But I won't have to use might or magic to do it. You'll pull it down right upon yourself instead. The ending will still be the same: I'll walk away, cursing the world and continuing with my life. Where did yours go?"

Half-baked responses felt like they worked her mouth open before she could stop herself, only nothing came out. A flurry of words she had itched to toss back at him for the sake of making a single scratch upon him died before they could be properly stoked.

A devilish look shines in Sombra's eyes as his stare pierces her directly and without remorse. "I appreciate a touch of rivalry, but here's a warning: I am patient beyond your knowing. You waited for the mere notion of a sister, didn't you? Celestia, you had the whole damn world all around you, distracting you the whole time, and your nation's history is littered with proof of it. Me? I had myself, nothing more. I have had nothing, and I will always know what it's like to have nothing, and I would never wish that on anypony I love. As patient as I will be, my ruthlessness is no rumor. However," he played with that word as a cat plays with a mouse held between their claws, "I have a question and some advice. Care for it?"

"I'll allow you to speak it," Celestia said, but when she let herself glance at Sombra she saw that his expression made it plain she wasn't 'allowing' him anything. How could he not realize such a generous gesture, even when she was in no mood for such a virtue? When she gave her subjects no such permissions, they clammed up. No egotistical gesture was spared with him if he was to shirk such a blessing from her.

"You consider yourself to be a 'good pony' don't you?"

"Compared to you? Absolutely. In all other circumstances? I have always tried to be." That is not even advice.

Sombra had the audacity to mouth 'liar' at her, anger and cruel delight cycling in those crimson eyes even if his mouth conformed to neither emotion.

She ignored him, porcelain demeanor unbroken. "Your advice would be?"

Sombra scoffed, drawing the tip of his tongues across his still-unconcealed fangs momentarily. "Wouldn't you just love to know the single flaw to your plan to expose me, expel me, topple me, humble me, and dare I say — exorcise me?"

Her rose eyes narrowed just enough that he'd notice, and not a little bit more. Composure was a mistress in its own right, one to be practiced until it was instinct. She would strive for it in the face of adversity always.

Sombra wasted no time with his reply as he plucked Skyla off the snack table, having her sit snugly on his back, and as he sauntered off he called to her, a plate of pizza gripped in his magic, delivering his answer without hesitance or humility:

"You think it will work."


"He who tells a lie is not sensible of how great a task he undertakes; for he must be forced to invent twenty more to maintain that one." --Alexander Pope

Author's Note:

Edit 11/25/19: Fan art (of Luna as of date) added. The lovely work was done by Buttonous. The image is a link to their DeviantArt.

Sorry for the wait! I hope it was worth it!

Up next, Sombra's interlude thing.

[Revised for print on 12/23/2021-2/19/2022]