• Published 19th Aug 2017
  • 6,431 Views, 201 Comments

Enemy of Mine - Ice Star

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

  • ...

Chapter 4: Husband of Hers, Part 1

Celestia tied a maroon curtain in place so that the light of her sun could pour through and warm her office. The rich floral print fabric was neatly tucked into a golden ring to keep it in place. She closed her eyes and savored the pleasant sensation of the warmth caressing her coat, not needing her eyes to be open to see her elegant office. The colors of the Solar Wing vanished, and Celestia was transported somewhere peaceful. No white and gold walls, oranges, and reds evaporated from her mind. Magentas winked into shadow and the more friendly shades of blue that she preferred followed.

She liked to imagine that she was flying and that the wind tickled her soft feathers. She envied the pegasi, who flew about unbound with their magical speed trails chasing after them with each plummet. The plush carpet under her hooves did not let her mind leave the castle.

The warm aroma of her breakfast tea, Prancian toast, and a few scraps of pancakes soaked in a tasty syrup of the Neighagra region greeted her nostrils again.

She was not flying.

Without even a sigh, she opened her eyes and sufficiently smashed whatever semblance of a daydream that she had crafted before slipping her hooves back into her golden shoes. It was early, and she would still rather be wearing her ladybug slippers. Her large ivory-colored desk greeted her, piled high with papers and butterfly-shaped sticky notes reminding her of all sorts of little things for morning duties.

The desk was spacious, despite mostly having been dominated by paperwork, and still had room for her abandoned breakfast tray, a glass vase of fresh-cut flowers (sunflowers, asters, and azaleas) shone happily on its surface. The coffee mug of the day was a hoof-painted mess of magenta with only '#1 Teacher' even slightly readable on it, especially under all the glittery stickers of wizards and teacher-themed objects, like rulers and apples, that had been carefully sealed with magic so they wouldn't come off. An orange and yellow striped handle was squished onto it by a very young Twilight Sparkle, whose magical exercises still hadn't exceeded making deformed coffee mugs.

Celestia adored it with all her being and refused to ever get rid of the old thing. It sat next to a cluster of objects: the lollipop bowl that was bursting with small candies that used to be reserved for rewards for Twilight when she good grades on her tests. Now, they for anypony who desired one at Celestia's insistence. Also on her desk was a small vase of red stuffed with a few daffodils plucked spitefully from the gardens by Celestia herself; a photo of her and Cadance at the latter's high-school graduation from the Canterlot school she had been moved to; a smaller photo of her and Raven at Raven's first chess tournament with an old good-luck amulet obscuring her own face; and a pet rock that Discord had given her before their daughter was hatched.

She pursed her lips and looked up at the far wall. Where many ponies would keep a bookcase, Celestia had a portrait of her and Luna, and it was hard to believe that it was nearly five years old already.

Centuries of dealings with master painters had led to Celestia being able to maintain the perfect goofy grin for so long, while Luna sat throughout the entire thing with only the slightest curve of a smile hidden under her cornflower mane and an ever-startled expression as she carefully remained under her mother's wing. It did not matter how much their informal poses clashed with the gilded frame and ornate decor of the Solar Wing, it stayed on the wall. Always.

Portraits were timeless, classical things. Celestia simply had to have one of her and Luna other than the official portrait of them as Equestria's sovereigns, the one that everypony saw once Luna's divinity was truly recovered after her return. Any such position would require such a portrait as opposed to a photograph.

Celestia liked to think of this room as her Success Room rather than her office. Instead of dusty old books littering what would be little else but some stuffy study, photos and paintings smiled at her from nearly every wall.

Spike across his many hatchdays flexed an arm and looked into the camera with innocent pride on his most recent one, the wingless drake having grown notably taller. Twilight and Rarity celebrated their wedding, looking in awe at the cake. Applejack posed with her first bushel of Crystal Apples, her Crystalline husband at her side. A young Shining Armor graduated military school. Rainbow Dash embraced her one true love — the sky — by being caught mid-soar, her Wonderbolts uniform new.

And the more Celestia looked on, the more she saw photos she had carefully snapped and collected. Each of them showed the world as she wanted to — or perhaps needed to — see it. Not everything made it into her scrapbooks, but her friends among the staff could find themselves on the castle walls. Maids, guards, and cooks smiled back at her, a clear difference from the lonely castle in the Everfree, where she and Luna lived alone with a festering relationship all those years ago.

Now, she was surrounded by ponies across many generations — some photos were quite aged — and more contemporary ponies she had helped. She only need to look at them again to see herself chatting with a Prancian cafe owner about his mouth-watering selection of pastries, fresh from the oven, as she hoped to obtain a secret recipe… even if she no longer cooked. Or, when she first re-discovered Aquastria and wrapped her cousin in a firm hug with teary eyes (he hated that) and told him how she thought he was gone... only to realize he was the same buffoon as before, with no kind words for her. She played friendly chess with the active Reapers, Scorpan and Thōdan, in Mustainia. She signed a peace treaty with Germaneigh. In another, she contained her shaking, heaving breaths and tears at her first and last meeting with the Great Spider Tribe of the rain forests of Maretonia, utterly petrified by how 'great' was supposed to sufficiently describe talking spiders that were the size of cottages at their smallest. During her first visit, she had to stress how their ancient Emperor Ahgg absolutely could not give her any ritual hugs please please she was fine, really.

Just outside her office were the official portraits of her Faithful Students that lined the halls. The bright smiles of young unicorns across the ages were always ready to welcome anypony into her office.

Only two portraits were absent, and one of them was Sunset Shimmer's image, back when Celestia still saw her make real smiles.

Celestia tapped her hoof softly as she waited and sighed at the sound of feathers and the creak of a birdcage door.

"Philomena, I do not have to be a big scary magic demon to know that you are examining the remains of my breakfast."

A guilty chirp sounded behind her.

"You know the rule about mama sharing her food with you."

A squawk ensued. She must not have been feeling very talkative today.

"You still haven't asked nicely." She heard the rustle of tail-feathers and talons grasping something-

Celestia turned around with a single fluid movement and fixed the mightiest of scolding mother stares upon the lively bird, who burned with embarrassment quite literally as her 'mama' confronted her, a fork in her beak and... Just as I thought.

"Philomena, please remove my Royal Seal from your talons." She eyes the phoenix with the cool and practiced look of a princess of her status. "It is not a snack, and I shall be needing it for my..." What word to use beyond 'unpleasant encounter'? "...meeting with Sombra. I know I have had very little time to spend with you lately, but I cannot be playing games right now." Her expression softened. "Please understand, he's going to be here—"

A knock at the door disturbed her.

"Sombra...?" Celestia asked, pulling his name from her mouth as though it were something lodged in her throat.

The muffled growl she heard through the door caused the mane at the back of her neck to stand up and her body to feel chilled. The maids were more afraid of Sombra than she, but that unnatural sound never failed to disturb her. And yet, when Sombra was mocked for such a frightening trait, he was the one who acted like he was being hurt or frightened... or...

"The one and only," came that sullen voice. "Will you be getting the door, then?"

She sighed and lit her horn, mouthing the words 'good morning' before he entered. It was a small way of getting around having to say it to him, or preparing to do just that. She was not entirely sure which that would be yet.

Apparently, those were incredibly difficult words to for him say. Philomena's bright feathers puffed out, and for a moment their golden glow increased too. Her eyes widened at the sound of Sombra's voice and when she saw that Celestia was about to open the door. Celestia looked at her with a bit of pity as she flew off, having nudged open a window with her beak. If she had the choice, Celestia would certainly fly off too. Celestia caught herself sighing and nearly bit down on her lip. She inwardly chastised herself, not because Sombra could hear it — he couldn't — but because she let such a behavior slip.

It did not suit the princess.

The door was pushed open by Sombra's own distinct crimson aura, and in he stepped. She was surprised — though she did not show it — to see that his cloak was not the dull crimson traveler's cloak in the plain, hooded style she recalled. Yes, it was still very much that, but it fell a bit beyond his knees now, and an embellishment of bright gold thread wound its way boastfully about the hem. Clearly, he had altered it with his magic, which was not a skill she had ever expected him to possess. The usual metal boots gleamed on his hooves and protected his legs, giving the stallion a far less peaceful appearance than Celestia had. His dark mane and tail were forever the same with how unkempt they looked, only this time, Sombra had half-heartedly pulled his mane back.

If he was trying to subtly draw a bit more attention to his circlet, he did a fine job. The only other feature on his face that normally drew any attention were those eyes of his because no matter how his bangs always spilled across them, the way he looked at everypony unsettled her. At least now one's eyes could be drawn to the dent in his circlet. Some fit after his coronation had produced that, and Celestia hadn't been pleased in the slightest at the damage, and she had begun the impossible duty of lecturing Sombra in taking care of something as important as one's regalia in the aftermath. He had been agitated then, and with a flash of his horn that even managed to be equally brusque, he had rudely left her mid-word.

Now, she saw that the chipped emeralds shone a bit brighter, no doubt a byproduct of whatever enchantments he had placed upon it since they last... chatted. Yes, chatted was the word she was going to use.

"Good morning," she said, her smile tight and painted. "Did you sleep well?"

She didn't add any inquiry to if the 'excitement' of his coronation and the following two days had worn off; Sombra had refused any party at all, even though they were customary for any such event. Twilight had a celebration, and Cadance too, but Equestria's newest and only prince was creating quite the image for himself: that of a pony who wanted no fun.

He was sullen and gloomy, and had run off to heavens knows where to spend time as he dictated, and without a hint of merriment. Celestia didn't even know if he immersed himself in the archives or secluded himself in his study. She didn't even know if he had been in the castle then. Luna had acted no different, and whenever Sombra wasn't talking he reminded Celestia of the unbearable savage isolation of the far corners of the wilds. He punctuated such intense silences with only gestures, and could she really be blamed for forgetting about him?

He was like a shadow, and right now, that shadow was giving her a curt nod to acknowledge her words.

A curt nod.

That was it.

Not the customary verbal reply to such a plain question. Just more silence.

She really would try to talk to him — maybe just a little, he was still quite dreadful — if she could get the feeling that talking to him was different from talking to a wall. Or a corpse.

"...Well, isn't that good!" Celestia tried to smile less awkwardly and respond with convincing false enthusiasm. He wasn't exactly giving her anything to work with.

She waited for him to give the proper counter question, of asking how she was. This was the dance of centuries, the ball of manners passed from pony to pony in long-reigning tradition. Steps and graciousness were paramount. And it was in this dance, that Sombra was somehow more spastic than Twilight Sparkle was with actual dancing. It wasn't that she hadn't tried these past two days, to lure this creature from the depths of gloom. After all, his running from his own coronation speech had created less than desirable headlines, news articles, and gossip in the press, mouth, and ears of nearly every Equestrian. It was discontent in its mildest form, but hardly an outcry. But in a nation where she could apply her control of the press as directly or indirectly (which she preferred) as she wished, it was still notable.

To Celestia's ears, it was all the same — and it was fixable, too! And how? With a smile and a wave! Or five!

(Really, was there a medical condition for virtually never lightening up because Sombra simply had to have such an affliction.)

For two days, Celestia had encouraged Sombra to go out in public, to talk to some of his subjects, to appear in the city, to perhaps kiss a baby (this got a rather strange look from him), and to have a party. She had already been suggesting guest lists, attire, entertainment, and the proper drinks for whatever level of occasion he picked. She desperately wanted to decorate the palace — that always made her feel better, and it would give her the perfect chance to pick up on the exact gossip with her subjects.

He had nearly slammed a door in her face.

She had a terrible feeling that such a rude gesture was going to be quite common. It was hopeless. She needed to be able to peel away at whatever stinky onion outer rings that Sombra had about him to get him down to something that was passable to the Equestrian public, and more conforming.

He needed to change.

Sombra leaned in the doorway, horn lit as he toyed with his mane. The gesture was a vain one that was carried out with such a casual air; something she didn't associate with him. "I don't appreciate you of all ponies staring at me like that."

She stopped, it was as simple as that. Her eyes flicked to the desk stacked with paperwork.

"We're only here to talk."

He just sighed and raised an eyebrow. "Go ahead. Talk."

The princess forced a smile. "I only wish to welcome you, since you are such a record-breaker! Equestria's first prince!" She felt a touch queasy.

"Yes, how exciting," Sombra said in one of the flattest tones Celestia had heard in over three thousand years.

She ignored it and watched him carefully as he stepped inside and the door shut behind him. Her horn glowed dimly and Sombra showed only acknowledgment in his keen eyes, easily able to read against the soundproofing she had just cast.

Just in case, said her eyes, but Sombra never looked like he trusted her anyway.

"Now we won't be disturbed. May I continue?"

An eye roll and shrug was her confirmation.

"The last time Equestria had anything close to a pony in the position you are in, was Princess Cadance before the return of my sister. Yet, even her duties were slight compared to yours. I know that you are... easily informed of things, but we need to talk." She stressed the last four words with a touch of sternness. "Equestria expects you to move mountains, if you will. I'm afraid the other Pantheon members tend to have little fondness for the idea of you in power as well."

"I really don't think anypony does." Sombra's stoicism didn't crack, but his tone sounded almost honest to her.

"Yes..." Celestia said carefully, feeling like she had to verbally tippy-hoof around everything with Sombra to say what was needed, otherwise, he would play a conversation like it was a game of cards. Things were oddly well so far, and she wished to preserve that. "You are here for more than me simply giving you your duties — you will be learning their limits too."

Sombra sat on the floor with a vaguely dignified plop, stubbornly planting himself where he wanted. "I suppose that this means I'll have to tuck all those dear little schemes to take over the world, push all existing nations to join me, and reign everlasting across this planet with an iron hoof. If that is our situation, when exactly, would you say I can engage in such activities as tame as total word domination without the slightest bat of an eye from anypony else?"

Celestia paused, wishing only to move on. "...Preferably never."

"Oh my," a few of his teeth flashed in a manipulator's smile, "that's a dreary prospect. Restrictive, even."

"Most of the limitations you'll be facing will be. Unlike Luna and I, until you earn the powers, in any way, you will find yourself unable to pass laws, reject them, carry out justice, pardon exiles—"

"Exiles?" Sombra questioned, his tail swishing across the floor and head cocked curiously.

"Yes, they aren't common, but the legal precedent for banishment and exile are within the law and used in my nation even to this day. If it weren't for my generosity and the combined efforts of Luna, Cadance, and myself, it would likely be your fate. In Equestria, an exile is any pony who previously held citizenship that is well, expelled, from Equestrian borders and forbidden from re-entry for their crimes. The duration of an exile varies, but can be the extent of a pony's entire life — those, of course, are rarer still. Sunset Shimmer is a pony who has received a lifetime exile, but I doubt you have heard of her."

She paused again, awaiting the littlest confirmation or refutation of this. Sombra's tail swished again.

"His name sounds a little familiar, so I swore that I've heard a rumor or two about him around the castle, perhaps?" A reddish light in his irises flickered, something she found odd. "Purple Eyesore knows them..." Sombra's tone balanced between certainty and doubt. Celestia had to put in extra effort to not reprimand Sombra for his insulting name of her dear Twilight.

Instead, she whispered, unable to control her tone: "Her; Sunset Shimmer is a mare... her portrait used to hang outside." She lowered her ears a little at memories.

Sombra remained unreadable. "And what else am I forbidden from?"

She forced herself to retreat from thoughts of a teenage pyromancer in a fake leather jacket — 'it's like something a griffon would wear' she had said when the princess had asked why such a sweet young lady would want even a reminder of a practice so barbaric to ponies.

(Sunset, apparently, wished to have it for the thrill, and for her love of the screaming metal music that only Luna played in the castle now, ignoring strange looks from the staff. Luna did learn to dance so wildly at Cadance's wedding from somewhere, after all.)

Yes, that was Sunset. A filly who toyed with others like the strands of her mane, faced the princess with a smile — most of the time — and caked her eyes in enough dark eyeshadow to rival a raccoon.

She had been caught in that phase when many fillies thought any respectable adult was a stand-in for a parent, and that 'parent' was Sunset's grandmother, a soft and sunny mare who had raised a city filly full of ambitions and other dangerous sparks. Sunset had only known Celestia as the princess, and the princess quelled a coming sigh. Being the princess was a necessary barrier in many relationships and one that kept any possibility of fractures contained. She no longer cared whether it was a voluntary way of conducting herself.

She remembered in the years after Sunset left, how she had to write to her grandmother, Warm Hearth, and how terrible that had been, to admit helplessness as politely as possible: her Sunnybun wasn't coming home.

Ms. Hearth moved into a retirement home shortly after; Celestia would peer through the cracks of the princess and wonder if she had anything to do with that instead of just Sunset's disappearance. Then, a few years later, the castle started receiving birthday and Hearth's Warming gifts again. Vinyl records of Sunset's favorite bands, and books of magic legends, among other things. All of them came with cards from a... deeply forgetful... Ms. Hearth. A few years later, they stopped entirely.

Princess Celestia knew what that second silence meant.

Sombra calling the name — "Celestia? What in Tartarus' name are you staring off into space like that for?" — summoned her back from the momentary spell while the sound of that name kicked at something within her, and guilt prodded her stomach.

"Oh," she murmured until realization pattered on her head like water drops, "Oh, I did not mean to do that — I'm afraid it's a bit of an early morning for me too, coffee was not plentiful today. As a fellow non-morning pony—" calling him that made her mouth feel sour "—I trust you sympathize. Now, where was I — oh, yes. Exiling. If you do not know Sunset Shimmer, you might know Starlight Glimmer. She is another exile, one who ran a terrible village of ponies that she near-kidnapped and lured with wicked brainwashing. Aside from her particularly wicked brand of republican politics, the ponies that were in her cult have seen much trauma from their ordeal. The village thankfully is no more, and I wish Starlight's crimes could have stopped there, especially with all the resources that have been expended on her former herd. Dear Twilight Sparkle has dealt with her more than I and tried to extend a hoof, but the mare refused her goodness. Both Sunset and this Mrs. Glimmer — she's married, Twilight has mentioned a Lulamoon wife in her letters — have been granted contact with any remaining family and Twilight Sparkle. As the Princess of Friendship, she is right for the job of correspondence."

She looked at Sombra, who now looked a touch bored. Or, at least he looked border than usual. It was ever so hard to tell with him. "Unlike the three princesses of Equestria, you cannot exile ponies or restore an exile's citizenship. You cannot declare war, thank goodness. However, you are able to fire castle employees, provided you consult with my sister and I... for a start, at least. Access to any file and archive of Equestria is yours—"

Celestia blinked and hopped back a step at just how much Sombra — again, Sombra — came to life at the latter statement. His ears perked up and his eyes widened. In a single rush, he was so animated. Though he was on the floor, he was at the edge of his seat in how he held himself. Admittedly, she was a tad startled. He was still a rather imposing stallion, and such a gesture could be seen as threatening otherwise.

"Everything is available to me?" There was a hunger in his voice with that bursting, wild excitement that sent flutters of fear through her chest every time she saw it in him.

"...Yes," she said quietly. "Almost," she clarified, swallowing at the burning, vibrant ambition in those eyes — how demonic their hue was — and what they might be seeing because right now it wasn't her. "Anything within the personal possession of another, obviously would not be included."

She narrowed her eyes at him, and gave one swish of her tail to make her disapproval of any of his thieving plans known. He scoffed and waited for her to go on, observing her intently all the while.

"You must understand, that there are a fair deal of duties that will be restricted to you, and also among them is that you shall not be able to bestow land, titles, and a variety of similar things—"

"Do you have this written down?" he half-asked, and half-demanded, looking over her with a kind of critical disgust.

"Yes," she replied calmly, dignifying him with no emotion, "and while you can see it all later, wouldn't you like it reviewed now?" Each word was drawn from her mouth with a standard, civil tone she would show most ponies, only drained of every hint of friendliness. Yet, it was not cold. She did not manage that well.

"At this point, I would like you to humor me with what I can do."

Those eyes bored into her again — those monster eyes. She looked to her desk and extended a wing towards it, while swallowing carefully. "Half of that paperwork is yours. Every day, you will arrive here to pick up your morning work—"

"Morning?!" Sombra exclaimed incredulously, eyes wide and startled. "Can't you at least have the promise of coffee, if you're going to be so cruel as to impose mornings upon me? Do you even know how long it took Luna to get me up on this morning?"

Each time the word was emphasized, his expression soured just a little more. Celestia gave one long swish of her tail, knowing that it was only around Sombra that she could let even a little irritation slip. Her tone bordered on clipped, and she spoke before she could regret how, to any other pony who knew her, those words would be icy: "Yes. An extra carafe of coffee will be brought for you. But, you must understand that you are to be doing your duty to Equestria above all else."

He smirked facetiously from the floor. "Fine, Filly Scout. We'll see how that works out," he shot her a sharp glare, "won't we?"

Celestia kept her expression calm. "We will," her voice lost all attempts at severity. "You have so much to learn." She didn't hide how deep her sigh was. "So very much."

No matter how much Celestia repeated that, internally or externally, it never really felt like Sombra absorbed it the way she wanted him to. Even when her crown was new, the forms of resistance to her rule that she encountered were different, and in time they were dealt with. He could do all the work in the world — and she doubted he would put effort into anything — and nopony would accept him. Not truly.

He would have to break before anypony so much as did more than simply acknowledge him as a prince.

With every passing century she had ruled alone, Canterlot grew. That was what everypony knew. What they might not have stopped to observe was how, as every bit of time passed, and a new brick was laid somewhere in the city, Celestia built every bit of what was left of her into this city, this nation, and these city walls. In the present, she felt the weight of this; how seamless and suffocating this choice was. She thought of a marionette tangled by her own strings, finding it impossible to divorce herself from the imagery and give any separation between it and herself. To become was so much easier than to be.

Sombra was not going to have that luck. Acceptance, credit, dignity, and even the slightest bit of respect... he would have to toil. He was unlikely to have anything in his future where he was even remotely better off. To become anything less than the world's own absolute slave to bureaucracies and any social labors with every bit of his mind, magic, body, and soul would make it unlikely for him to add a dent in the cursed name and existence he held. Nothing short of a miracle would offer any hope of altering this. She truly almost pitied him, had he deserved it. Here before her was the one few creatures who would be forever unforgiven.

"Are you pretending to be a statue to see what your ridiculous boyfriend felt like, or do you really think this poor attempt to avoid conversation will work?"

Inhaling quietly, Celestia spread a tiny smile across her face. "I apologize."

A headache could be felt below her horn again. She ignored it, finding that she had already been distracted enough, and she wasn't going to let a petty remark about her Dissy get to her, if it was meant to at all. He had a habit of speaking that way about everypony, and plenty of others had called Discord ridiculous without any intent to offend.

"But, surely, you understand something of your position?"

Sombra gave her a hard look. "More than you could. What of it?"

She looked calmly at his circlet, avoiding his gaze. "You've spoken nothing on what it is you wish to do for Equestria. Is it really so difficult for you to find a cause to dedicate yourself to and serve? Our subjects are all around us, and it is a prince's duty to—"

"I know you would love to stand there and berate me all day, but there are far more pressing matters. You haven't finished informing me on what I'm meant to do, and keeping stepping around things and going on about 'duty' without telling me what that will actually be. Unlike your silly little students who can't find it in themselves to question you, and need you to hold their hoof every step of the way, I would like to know what my job does and does not consists of, so I can at least begin to perform it adequately," Sombra snapped, harshness imbued in both his stare and voice.

Celestia was quiet for a moment, looking as deep into the shine of those emeralds as she would allow herself. Her headache was flaring once more. She decided against scolding Sombra for his insolence, since she did not wish to be here much longer than she had to.

She bit her lip impatiently, speaking quietly, as though this were some grand secret. "The sooner you can make yourself appear as a supporter of a cause, the less rocky this road might seem for you. Ponies will find you relatable if you pick something important to them and act as a patron for it. The public will is something that lies both above and below the crown, controlling what it ought to. Most of my bits, including a fraction of my personal sums, go to charity. You are to serve the wants of the populace humbly, as I do."

Sombra watched her in slightly less grouchy silence. Maybe he didn't believe her, though such a thing was as obvious as raindrops in a summer storm, and if he didn't, she simply did not care. Sombra being wrong was no oddity to her.

"I cannot help everypony who lives within my kingdom, and even outside of it, but with donations, I can ensure that resources for ponies who need them and can use them better than I can. Gestures of generosity are able to truly aid others in ways that might cannot. You would be wise to do the same, and at least try to remake your image as a champion of ponies."

"However," her tone grew cautious, "you can just as easily waste your resources and efforts by supporting something held to be unpopular. Luna tried supporting artists, playwrights, and crafts-ponies in the age after Discord—" Celestia still had a hard time saying 'banishment', especially around Luna's husband, "—in an age when soldiers were needed. She was seen as frivolous by the masses. Her talk of useful skills, consolation offered by the arts, maintaining the health of magic, healing generations, and the like were all talk to them."

She was thought of as neglectful, weighed three leaden words in an unwanted whisper in Celestia's mind, even by me. Sour regret was tasted upon her tongue, though she spoke not a word. To her surprise, Sombra only nodded curtly. Celestia shoved the hint of regret away with a bit more ease when a distraction like that was presented.

"That is something you can't afford. Your public image is going to be paramount, and you must be careful not to tarnish it. Your standoffish behavior will pass, but no cruelty will. A herd's demands outweigh all things."

She waited, debating whether or not she should tell him that a small part of the reason why he was to have the job she assigned him, a Secretary of Secretaries, if she desired to jokingly simplify it, was because she knew how he detested ponies. Sombra, however, was drawn to tomes, artifacts, and anything he felt he could challenge or learn from. Celestia thought it would be best to take advantage of that quietly, giving him a job that he might have just a shred of tolerance for. Something to keep him out of her way.

And she quickly decided against such a thing. Sombra was not Twilight Sparkle, and she shouldn't assume that he had any true desire to learn as she did, or the curiosity of an innocent soul. Unlike Twilight Sparkle, he certainly was not going to lecture himself, which was something that Twilight had settled into quite adorably in mimicry of her teacher's behavior after she had spent some time in Canterlot Castle.

"I will be certain to make sure you understand the extent of your duties some other time, for now, I would think that you are completely capable of beginning them. There are hardly any breaks so long as Equestria still sits united under my sun."

"What about vacation arrangements?"

That gave Celestia pause. "Vacation arrangements?"

She felt terribly confused. Such words were only used to refer to other ponies, obviously. The staff certainly had vacation days and sick days. They came back with tales of rest, relaxation, and resorts — or more — and were rejuvenated for their job. All things were happy and normal in that sphere. Mares had maternity leaves. Stallions had paternity leaves. Other 'vacations' could be given to a pony going through loss. That must be what Sombra was referring to.

"Yes, Sombra. The staff are not bound here." She gave him a stern look. "They are not slaves."

He remained unflinching. "I wasn't talking about those dolts; I was talking about ponies of our station." The word 'ponies' always sounded fairly deliberate when he said it.

You aren't a pony. That was what her look at him said. She wished she could still speak to him that way.

Neither are you, a frail shred of a whisper nagged her, floating softly around her mind. She ignored it.

"Vacations for the royals of Equestria?" She still said it as a question. How could it be anything else? Blueblood's face came to mind first. He had little in the way of duty and was simply born into the luxury he bathed in, so perhaps Sombra was jealous of what he perceived as the Duke's eternal vacation. It wasn't as though he was without obligations, but one could not mistake those for duties.

Sombra promptly shot her a skeptical look. "Have you ever even considered one yourself?"

Me, on vacation? Celestia blinked in succession, before shaking her head gently in order to clear her mind.

"N-No...? I've not been on vacation since..." she trailed off and her brow creased deeply the more she sunk into thought, "...ever, really. I don't need them. I shouldn't expect them. I wouldn't want them. Though..." Celestia swallowed, her voice uneven and quiet when she spoke next, "...once, I did leave. I told you, didn't I? Shortly after I lost Luna I flew north." Her stomach was a labyrinth of painful, dark twists when she finished and the dull stab of memory ebbed through her.

I died there.

Sombra's jaw clenched. "Yes," he hissed through clenched teeth, "I remember."

Celestia's gaze lowered to find the floor, relieved that at least one eye was shielded by her mane and gesture. She shuddered slightly. There was something about him whenever he was hostile that made her afraid, and never ceased to elicit those creeping, unwelcome feelings. From how everypony about the castle, save Luna, avoided contact with Sombra as much as possible — as though he were a plague of old — and gossiped about him in hushed whispers, she could see why they were right to fear them. She allowed them their rumors and hearsay, for it was a natural element of their species. Dishonesty about terrible things and creatures were always permissible. To make fabrications on one's enemies was a necessity and form of cultural catharsis. To believe the results of that process was to understand something vital, an equal or superior reality. They were a defense against this imposing shadow of a creature, and she was no tyrant.

She was no tyrant.

Her throat tightened. Those slick words slipped about the knots of her stomach like sticky, wet slugs. Hadn't it been warm in the room mere moments before? She was certain it had.

Flipping through her mind were half a dozen possible attempts to revive what she felt was a dying conversation, when there was still much more to be said. As best a distraction as she could, Celestia picked one train of thought and trotted with it.

"Have you selected a seal for yourself?" Her voice came out smaller than it should have. Her stomach clenched at such a foolish mistake. Were it made in front of any other pony, could it have been thought of as a warning sign? Of something? Of anything? The slightest imperfection was meant to be clipped, pulled under perfection, and disguised. She'd been slipping just a bit more than usual lately, hadn't she?

"Seal?" There was something curious in his tone, and a bit confused. An honesty she held a quiet, immediate dislike for found his way into her words.

"A royal seal," she clarified, "for when you sign a document. You'll find that all of the ones in use bear traces of minor enchantments that cannot be forged. I know that you have, ah, detected them before? Or at least, you have seen my own."

He was quick to nod, and any confusion vanished... she supposed he could be considered a quick learner, or something close to it. That might ease his transition somewhat, and give her one less difficulty with him. Or, many more might spring in place, for did she really want a creature like him to be a quick learner? And how could she say that to him, knowing it would come across as a compliment? She didn't want to do something like that to Sombra unless she had to.

"Felt," he says, direct tone sweeping her moment of silence away. "I feel magic, and your seals are no different. I suppose I'm to decide upon an insignia for myself?"

The princess looked down upon him. "It will have to go past my approval. Should you behave yourself for a week or two as your duties begin, I might be lenient and allow you to choose what you select for yourself, and suggest no modifications."

Sombra no longer looked at her, his eyes became lost in thought, and yet they still bore an intimidating sharpness. Choosing to wait instead of pointing out that Sombra running his forehoof through his mane and mussing it up, Celestia taps her hoof and listens to the soft measured sounds.

"Just remember, your seal will have to appear alongside my Eternal Crown, Twilight's Spark, and Luna's Twin Lightning Bolts. It had best be something respectable. Your image is certainly going to be under my microscope. You had best be sure to prioritize the work you're given too. If I can conclude in any way that you aren't taking your duty to our subjects seriously, we will sorely be in need of a very strong talking-to with Luna about your place in Equestria."

Celestia had to witness Sombra teasing his mane with his magic in an expression of pure boredom. "Don't you ever think that all this disdain is just a waste of time?" she muttered, allowing a golden glow to bloom on her horn. "I do expect you to pay attention to what you're told, as you're just as much a wheel in the machine of Equestria as I am. Seeing how much you enjoy, ah, 'running your mouth' if you will excuse such harsh language on my part, I know you will likely desire to be attending meetings soon, alongside Luna."

She paused, eyeing him with the veiled critical look usually reserved for a Faithful Student. It was a lighter version than what she gave in the past, for she was not eyeing a youth modeled in her teachings as clay was sculpted by steady, orderly hooves in times when she had been doubting who might really be the Spark, if any of them could. Instead, she was looking at this abrasive personality and trying to determine what reaction he might have when faced with a petitioner or attending a meeting. How would this stallion treat a diplomat? Or any guest? She did not know. This stallion was not a piece in her game so much as he was the wild card in another, and that frightened her. The welfare of her ponies depended on the actions of this enigmatic god.

He looked back at her steadily, thoughts hiding behind his vibrant gaze. She was, admittedly, a bit nervous to know them. Something about him always struck her as malicious, and it was a quality he did not quite shed in whatever he did. Was it any wonder she took her ponies' concerns over him so seriously? He was raven among the little sparrows that were her ponies, a pariah, and a threat to them. Celestia supposed that if a comparison of birds were to be continued, she would be the swan to Sombra's raven, protecting those plain little sparrows like a dragon did their hoard. Sometimes, she knew she could certainly be as mean as one. But she always did wish that she was only 'mean' — if that was really the best descriptor — out of necessity, seeing the extent of what the crown and princess could demand of her.

All the stories I hear from my little birdies about how loving you are will never fool me, she thought. The canary that was Cadance and the unfortunate duckling that was Luna had much to say on his behalf. Cadance even tried to play all sides in games that demanded the reality of sticking with one, mediating between Twilight, Sombra, Luna, and others. Luna spoke of feeling cared for and having an unprecedented love in her life, but Celestia nodded along to those things. She had the wisdom of knowing nothing like Sombra, be it his deeds or schizoid temperament, was compatible with the very concept of love.

"Every aspect of life as a ruler you must earn. Your place giving consul to my sister and me, as well as us to you will not likely be easy."

"I never would have guessed," he drawled, aura flicking a lock of his bangs out of his face. He showed only apathy when it fell back into place, but that could also only be because it was all she could discern; his eyes never left her. Celestia had no more words to say. She discreetly bit the inside of her cheek, and no words sprung to mind still.

"That is all, you may rise."

Sombra had to make a show of the permission he was given, and made a sound between a small scoff and an amused snort of some kind in the back of his throat before he rose.

Finally shaping her magic, Celestia picked up a hefty chunk of the paperwork from the piles on her desk and made sure to give them a double check via passing glance that they were the stack she needed. A single softened clearing of her throat and flick of her feather-tips later, Sombra stood up. His eyes were elsewhere for once, and his horn softly pulsing with the ghostly glint of crimson aura, each movement of the light only accenting his curiosity.

There was something always just the slightest bit unsettling about him when he was silent. Celestia's gold aura flared a little, the light rising with her headache as she hurriedly passed him the stack of papers. His aura encircled them wordlessly. Even if no winter tufts adorned them, two gray ears poked out above the mighty amount of paperwork he had just been saddled with.

She bit her lip, thoughts and gaze straying to the vase of bright yellow flowers still upon her desk. Would she really do this?

"Do you have anything else you feel the need to discuss with me before I dismiss you?" she asked, voice restrained and clear. It sounded far surer than she felt, and was more polite.

The part of her that had urged 'just a little bit longer' throughout this exchange was now all too eager for Sombra to leave.

Paperwork could be in disarray and utterly ruin all Celestia wished to compare to flowers. She was careful to levitate the vase as delicately as possible, like a young filly who had just learned to master magic... or with the control of somepony who did not nearly trust their power. Her headache might as well have leaped at that, eliciting the barest beginnings of a gasp from her. Flowers were reminders of what she could do.

Everypony was a flower. She was fire, warming them from a distance and managing them with care. No flower bloomed close to the sun. Even those that turned to face her sun had to be far away to thrive...

"I do," came Sombra's interruption from behind those papers, his voice still distinct, "and I've been thinking on it for a while."

With pragmatic movements of his telekinesis, Sombra set his papers down on the floor. The floor. A frown tugged at Celestia's lips. She looked at those papers instead of him. "Tell me, then."

"Do you remember what one of the first things I said to you was, when you learned that Luna and I were partners?"

Celestia didn't need to know what he said. There were a few things he could be referring to, but she did not like where this conversation was heading. Her headache didn't either. Though, at this point, it might be nearing a hornache, and a physician would have to be hearing about it, depending on how that developed. "I think we both know that you will need to be more specific. You and I had quite a bit to chat about."

His deadpan stare was unwavering. "If you mean we insulted one other with increasing savagery and decreasing maturity with every attempt to push the other down, content only for me to provoke you, and you to belittle me — then yes. We certainly had plenty to 'chat' about. I was hardly at my best then, even if I was relentless and, admittedly, felt like I was at the top of the world... but only at the time." With what had to be a degree of faux shame, Sombra laid his ears down and looked at his hooves.

"Mhm, yes," Celestia said, keeping her voice light, "that was quite the discussion, having to hear you bloat your own ego and imply my sister was only your carnal pawn... and just as I had even begun to consider she ensured no harm on her journey! It is quite clear that you would have little problem with objectifying her then, and that—"

"Stop it," Sombra growled firmly, tail lashing. The edges of it were curling with traces of shadow as he kept himself from transitioning to shadow with... well, Celestia supposed it was an effort. "Right here, and right now it's you who is making me sound so much worse than I am. Did I go for low blows? Yes, I did. Should I ever have involved Luna in them? No. I understand that she got put through more than one awkward conversation because of how you took what was little more than a cruel joke from me..." making a sound somewhere between a growl and a frustrated sigh, Sombra brought a forehoof to his face, "...and you know how much I deceive you. You took what was said at face value, without a thought to thinking about how tricky I can be, even though I barely have those desires. When have I ever shown that I treat others that way? So, part of me is certainly thinking about whether that says you'll do nearly anything to make me the guilty party in anything or if you really trust Luna that little—"

"Enough," Celestia said, unable to keep her tone free from the sternness that marked how she spoke toward any enemy, one that was so stark from how her ponies spoke of her as their goddess-matriarch. It fueled the side of her that her subjects held as the Unconquered Sun.

And it was at times like these, when her tail began to flick just so with impatience she couldn't help but show somepony like Sombra, that she was the Unconquered Sun, even in tone only. Even when this impatience was something she hated and felt so unlike her. Part of her that she had been trying so hard to sweep under the rug just enough always felt like it was slithering back out when these things happened, where it would whisper how justified she was doing treating Luna's precious murderer like this. They floated up amid the sea of doubts, mundane reminders, and whatever other little whispers were all caught up in the hurricane in her head, behind her practiced smile.

But Sombra did stop — or rather, he stopped all but that red-hot gaze that tried to pierce her like iron-seared flesh. She looked at his gift of flowers instead. She had to. "Just what is it that you really want to say? You're not the only one with work to do. I do really wish to be spending my time with somepony a little less prone to digging up past slights of no importance in an attempt to irritate me."

"That's not what I aimed for," he said, voice quieter and steady, with a calculating, measured edge buried somewhere in it, "and I'm certain we both know that."

"I see," she murmured, voice clear of the rather overwhelming disinterest she felt within. Century after century of practiced smiles, perfect waves, and words clipped of truth and other things were a recipe for that, she supposed.

"I'm telling you this because I want you to know that I'm... almost sorry."

Celestia was simply thankful she wasn't drinking anything, or she would have to spit it out against all her better instinct, manners, and simple decency she had practically poured all over herself like syrup on pancakes. How was it that one could be 'almost sorry'? It simply did not make any sense. Sombra had a habit of doing that. Luna looked at him like his every movement was the key to the simplest code, and that emotions could be gleaned from somepony whose expressions consisted mostly of looking bored, aloof, or irritated.

Really, he was prime husband material, for anypony who wanted an atrocious, glowering reverse hen-pecker. The way he looked at her indicated that he could, and likely would, explain himself. Against what she felt could only be her better judgment, she let him.

"I regret that I went for low blows. I don't regret hurting you with anything I said, for one reason and one reason alone. Why?" He shot her a sharp look. "I knew you meant every word of what you said to me. I can't be wholly sorry when I know you aren't."

She offered no response beyond watching him calmly. Confirmation was a bit of a waste on beings like him. Really, the sooner he got to work, the better. If only he were as mechanical as a construct and not an unruly demon.

"Apologizing to me right here, right now, with the only requirement being its sincerity, and regardless of how little I give out apologies, I will make this time an exception. If we can both offer the other an apology for one utterly stupid thing we did, then maybe we can work towards being a bit more bearable in the other's company."

The princess blinked with just a touch of surprise. "...Are you suggesting that you will swallow your pride to acknowledge at least one of your wrongdoings?" Horn lighting as he began to gather all he had placed aside, Sombra gave made a sound too bitter for Celestia to consider a laugh, a sardonic gleam in those red eyes.

"Hardly! If we're to bring my pride into this at all, then I'm doing the opposite. My pride dictates I learn from my mistakes, so here I am, offering you a deal, if you want to call it that... I'm not very good at apologizing myself. Dammit, I'm trying."

I'm to assume that is all out of the sincerity of his demon heart, then? Celestia's brow creased ever so slightly. Do demons even have hearts? I know he bleeds, but... I suppose the semantics aren't worth it. And such morbid ones are really left best unthought of...

Expression collected and calm, the princess found herself in every inch of Sombra's presentation. He lingered about with something in his eyes that said he'd rather be elsewhere — that she could see. But was it only because he let her?

One foreleg raised, one golden shoe pointed, and one horn lit with soft golden magic. One door opened. Sombra's left eye twitched, no doubt in irritation.

The glow of his aura grew brighter, glowing a more sinister crimson briefly, though he was only using telekinesis.

Glancing at him briefly, Celestia was unsure if there was a spark in his eyes too. He was already in a foul enough mood that such a thing could be her imagination as well, and she thought little of it. She smiled at Sombra. A big, kind smile. Certainly not an earnest one. "The door is that way, in case this little display is causing you to see a little too much red. Please depart, since I have plenty of work to do." She even waved.

Sombra broke his intense hot-iron stare and stormed out brusquely, carrying everything with him. Oh, and the terribly moody way he slammed the door. Hadn't he been trying to convince her that he was sorry?

Celestia pursed her lips, leaning forward to listen to him leave. The sound of hoofsteps storming away from her little office was delightful! Finally, she let out a relieved gasp, rocking back and forth on the tips of her hooves with all the momentary excitement that was quickly vanishing.

...What if she had accepted his apology? nagged an unwanted whisper, too innocent to last, to be trusted... it faded easily, leaving just a little echo.

What if...?

What if...?

One headache tightened its hold on her.

One smile slipped away behind closed doors, and Princess Celestia swallowed sharply.

One day had begun.

Author's Note:

The designs of the Solar Wing were partly inspired by things like this.

Since horses don't quite have ponytails, Sombra with his mane pulled back would have a similar style to Blueblood here.

Honestly, part of the fun of this chapter was finding art things and stuffs to inspire little details and reference things I needed. And yes, if you've looked at the title, you can see that this is the first part of a chapter. There's been some issues with jumbo chapters, my mental health, and trying to avoid having to end up with a single chapter that could potentially be near 40k. There's a lot I want to show for the second EoM arc (I guess I'll call it the Sombra arc, since he's pivotal to it, as the chapter title suggests) and I don't want the development of Tia and everything else in such a crucial point in the story to be skipped about. Out of all the chapters in this story, regardless of size, this one certainly works the best being broken up. I'm sure you readers want to be able to not have to wait for almost an entire season for an update too.

[Revised for print on 1/29/2023-2/26/2023]