• Published 14th Feb 2017
  • 2,012 Views, 260 Comments

Sun and Hearth - bookplayer

Princess Celestia and Smart Cookie have watched Equestria rise. They share a dream that’s entwined their hearts for two thousand years, and a love that’s given them the strength to see it realized. Now they face the ultimate test of that love.

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13 - A Line

The front room of Cookie’s cottage was dim as she entered that night, and Celestia noted there was no tea cup, book, or newspaper near where Cookie sat, no sign that he’d been focused on anything but his own mind. As she walked in, he focused on her, and in the firelight his face seemed to show more years than normal; nothing close to their true age, but there was something venerable and hardened there that gave her pause.

She took a breath and offered a hint of a smile. “You seem calmer than I expected.”

Cookie nodded and glanced at the fire. “I’ve had some time to think.”

“Well then, why don’t we have some tea and discuss the matter?” Celestia walked across the room towards the kitchen.

“I haven’t had that much time, Celestia.” His voice was firm and dark, and she stopped at the door to the next room.

She raised her head and said gently, “Well, I feel I need some tea anyway. I’ll put on the kettle.”

Stepping into the kitchen, she turned on the lights. The brightness seemed normal. The kitchen seemed normal, clean and scrubbed, waiting for Cookie to go to work on something. She allowed herself a moment to breathe.

Her magic took up the tea kettle and filled it at the sink. Her eyes drifted towards the pantry, and she wondered if Cookie had made anything recently and if it would be right to help herself if he had. Any other day she wouldn’t have hesitated, but given the nature of this visit—and the way he had looked out there—she thought better of it.

She floated the kettle to the stove and turned back to the door to the living room, squaring her shoulders and fixing her face with a relaxed but somber expression.

The room seemed even darker compared to the light of the kitchen. She took a seat on a cushion across from Cookie with her back to the fire. “Now. I understand you had a visit from Discord today. Are you alright?”

“Surprisingly, yes. Discord turned out to be the least of my concerns.” Cookie regarded her with an even expression. “When you had your conversation with him, where he discovered my existence… he said you sent for him.”

“Yes.” Celestia drew a breath. “Cookie, I can explain.”

“Please.” He nodded and leaned back with the same stony face.

Celestia looked him in the eye and said with her head held high, “It was my hope that if you allowed Cadance to discover your secret, we might he able to secure Equestria further by making sure he always has the pony he’s closest to. I never mentioned it because I know how you feel about him, and I didn’t want that to influence your decision.”

Cookie leaned forward, frowning. “You do know how I feel. And you knew I wouldn’t be remotely agreeable to this.”

“It was not something that needed to be determined now.” Celestia held eye contact and went on in a steady voice, “I was merely exploring if it might be possible. By the time it became an issue, you may well have decided to find the truth of your power of your own accord.”

“Of my own accord, without the bother of inconvenient information that might influence me against it.” Cookie raised his eyebrows.

She shot him a flat look. “Because that information was not fact, or even a plan. It was only barely a possibility.”

“Yet one which you took action to consider, and purposely kept from me.”

“I study many possibilities every day.” Celestia gave a weary sigh. “You know that I’m responsible for an impossibly large task in preserving and protecting Equestria, and I must have my eyes farther ahead than most ponies.”

“I know that, Celestia.” Cookie’s frown wavered, tinged with sympathy. He looked down and shook his head, then he gave a snort and went on firmly. “So in the present, your plan was to use your dear students to manipulate me into changing my mind on a matter I had already decided.”

Celestia shifted on her cushion, wrapping her tail around her. “That wasn’t why I wanted you to meet them. But I did want you to have all of the information as you made your decision.”

“Except that which you decided might influence me against your wishes.”

“It was not speculation that you’d meet Cadance and Twilight, eventually. That was relevant to the issue at hoof.”

“Very well.” Cookie nodded and fixed her with a stare. “And your personal and inconsequential consideration was that, if I were to change my mind, you might manipulate a love affair between two beings and use the fruits of my decision to secure Equestria.”

Celestia shifted again, but shook her head firmly. “Not manipulate, but perhaps encourage a romance, if the seeds were present.”

Cookie leaned back, relaxing with a disapproving expression that seemed exaggerated by the uneven light of the fire. “Encourage a mare who’s nearly two thousand years your junior and sees you as a deity and her sovereign. There’s certainly no reason to worry about undue pressure there.”

She gave a shrug. “I can’t control those things. I can only help ponies from my current position.”

“And what of the mare in question?” Cookie raised his eyebrows. “Would she be allowed to know before finding herself immortally bound to Discord, or would that be merely speculation that might influence her?”

“We would have to see.”

“Of course.” He nodded. “Like we had to see if you would mention the subject of immortality to Twilight, yet somehow Star Swirl’s work ended up in her hooves before you felt that conversation was relevant.”

Celestia frowned sharply. “She was thrilled. It wouldn’t have mattered, and might have set back her progress if she became impatient or conceited.”

Cookie just met her expression with a casual nod. “Or set back your plans if she had doubts.”

She glared at him. “Do you think I didn’t have Twilight’s best interests at heart?”

“No. I know you did. Just as you have Fluttershy’s and my own at heart.” He pursed his lips and leaned forward. “Yet you are not Twilight, or Fluttershy, or me. And you don’t have only our best interests at heart. This is perfectly understandable, you have a duty to protect Equestria, but for these reasons ponies should be allowed a fair say in their own blasted lives!”

Celestia opened her mouth, knowing as she did that what was about to come out was ill-advised, with just a split second to make the decision whether to let slip.

The whistle of the tea kettle decided it for her, and she closed her mouth and got to her hooves without a word. She turned and swept into the kitchen, where the bright light and strange calm caught her off guard. She was in Cookie’s home, warm and safe from the eyes of ponies.

The kettle on the stove demanded her attention, so she removed it with her magic and prepared the teapot as she took several deep breaths to calm herself. The anger she felt wouldn’t help matters, and harsh words would only make things worse. Cookie could be calmed and reasoned with.

She walked over to the pantry, and her magic took up two cups as she spotted a plate of pumpkin bread, already sliced. She glanced back at the door to make sure Cookie didn’t follow her as she took a slice and stuffed it into her mouth.

The sweet, thick taste gave her strength, and stolen comfort was still comfort after all. But she finished quickly and wiped the crumbs from her muzzle, then put together the tea tray with two cups, in case Cookie had changed his mind.

Walking back into the dim room with the tray in her magic, she floated it to the table. She sat back on her cushion and nodded to it, filling her own cup. Cookie just shook his head, his eyes narrowed.

Celestia took a sip of her tea and said calmly, “Now, you know I want my ponies, all of you, to do as you please. I have never forced an innocent pony to do anything they didn’t like.”

Cookie rolled his eyes. “You know exactly what I’m talking about here. I am not accusing you of being a despot and ruling by force, with no concern for the free will of your subjects. I am accusing you of manipulating matters so your subjects do what you wish of their own free will, entirely oblivious to your hoofprints all over their actions. Do you deny that?”

She frowned. “There have been times when I’ve done as you say, but never for my own benefit.”

“I don’t care who the beneficiary might be, to act this way towards sensible adult ponies shows an astonishing lack of respect!” Cookie gestured with a hoof.

Celestia sighed and shook her head. “Should I not work for the best outcome I can see?” She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “Should I sit back while your indecision leads to Shining Armor’s death and pain for Twilight and Cadance, while Fluttershy’s death leads to pain for Discord and Equestria?”

“You should trust me to see those dangers and make that decision.” He met her eyes with a flat stare. “Do you think that I’m a sadist, with some desire to spread death and misery? Or an idiot who can’t see where my choices lead?”

“Of course not,” she said firmly then took a sip of tea. “But you balance many concerns, and I know that some are not as worthy as you think them.”

“Who are you, to decide how my concerns should be weighed?” Cookie crossed his forelegs. “I mean it, Celestia. Who in blessed Tartarus do you think you are? I’m your equal in years, I’ve had centuries of experience in government, and many more centuries interacting with ponies. I’ve watched a nation crumble, and laid the foundation for a greater one. I watched what that monster did to ponies, I held you as you cried for your sister…”

As he trailed off, their eyes remained locked. Celestia felt a blush on her cheeks and the urge to look down, and she fought it the only way she knew: by drawing up her shoulders and all her strength.

Cookie’s eyes narrowed. “I can think of only one thing that might make you think that you know better than I how to balance these concerns. And I swear by the stars, if you say it, I’m going to march to Canterlot and rip that charter to shreds with my own two hooves!”

Before she could think, the words shot from her lips, “I beg your pardon, Smart Cookie, I hadn’t realized that you were so wise as to always make the correct decisions, knowing perfectly how benefits and drawbacks ought to be weighed.” She glared at him, setting her teacup on the table with a loud clink. “Silly me, I thought that from time to time you may be mistaken! But if this is not the case, I think we can both agree that it’s you who should wear the crown of Equestria!”

“I am mistaken often, and so are you,” Cookie said crisply. “I had thought that we might counsel one another honestly, and share our wisdom, rather than assuring our faults are mirrored in the other and crafting all foolishness in our own image!”

Celestia snorted, glancing away. “That would be well and good, but there are some subjects on which you will not see reason.”

“And this has never been the case for you? Because I seem to recall a time when you had a blind spot approximately the size of the moon.”

Her face snapped towards him with a wide-eyed stare, the fierce blush rising to her cheeks no longer one she could fight back, if she had even thought to. She looked at him for a moment and then narrowed her eyes and said through gritted teeth, “And look how that turned out.

Cookie leaned back and shrugged. “So what should I have done? Gone behind your back and had the council strip Luna of her crown? Devised situations to bring you and Luna together in animosity, to lessen your affection? Built an army myself and staged a coup?” He shook his head at the thought and went on with an obnoxious calm. “You would have hated me for any of these, and you would have been right to, even as it might have spared you the pain of facing the consequences. You know that I love you, and to feel that I had lost respect for your reason and trust in your feelings would have come as a slap in the face.”

“Perhaps I would have.” Celestia frowned darkly. “And yet… had I not had the Elements of Harmony at hoof, or the strength to act, Equestria might have fallen. I might have hated you, but equally you might have spared our dream.”

His face softened along with his voice. “You would never have known that, neither of us would have, nor that you would have been able to act quickly to save it. And we have no way of knowing what was avoided by my faith in you. The only thing known at the time was that one path bound us tighter in trust, that we would have each other, come what may, and the other was a severing of that. Given the choice, without clear evidence of folly, I chose to trust in you.”

He looked at her earnestly, and she felt her anger draining, replaced by doubt.

She cast her eyes down and answered, matching his calm. “But this is exactly why I spoke to Discord, to gather evidence, to try to see the path we might be treading. And you fault me for this.”

“I fault you for never presenting me with the evidence you gathered, or even the fear that led you to gather it in the first place. You’ve been clear about why you kept it from me, but this displays a lack of trust that hurts me deeply.” He paused and looked down, something seeming to drain from him. “And, more worrying… I don’t feel I can trust you.”

“You can trust me to do what I feel is best for Equestria and the ponies I love,” she said quickly. “I will always work tirelessly for that.”

Cookie didn’t look up, and Celestia watched him closely. The same warm, shifting firelight that hardened his features head on made him seem softer and younger from this angle.

She shifted on her pillow and felt her feathers rising. He had to believe her. She had protected their dream for two thousand years. That was all this was about; she had done what was best for Equestria.

“What you feel is best,” he said slowly as his head rose to face her. He wasn’t angry, but as serious as she had ever seen him. “Not what they feel is best, not to care for them in the manner they wish. You act in all things as a princess.”

Celestia swallowed and drew herself up. “I am a princess.”

He nodded. “Whether I want one or not.”

“If you want me, you want a princess,” she said softly, shifting again on her pillow.

“Is that so?” Cookie tilted his head, regarding her with curiosity. “I want a passionate, intelligent mare who shares my dream. I want a pony who might challenge my assumptions, and who relishes having hers challenged in turn. I want a pony who remembers the past, who remembers Everfree and the vast, unexplored world around it, and lives in the present it’s become, and will stand with me and face the future. I want a pony I can warm and comfort with my baking, who can warm and comfort me with her smile and wing and the feeling of her mane around me.”

Celestia offered a smile.

Cookie met it with a flat expression and raised eyebrows. “I do not want castles or crowns or displays of power. I do not want a pony whose reason and wishes and ideas about what’s best for me come before my own. I do not want a pony who believes that all decisions, all responsibilities, all magic and the lives of her subjects belong in her hooves, alone, without accountability or question beyond her own conscience.” He paused and shook his head. “Indeed, I always thought it was my place to remind you that you are not that pony in your heart. That it is a cage you step into of your own accord, and to offer a way to leave when you wished.”

Celestia’s smile turned weary, holding all of the affection and gratitude she felt towards him, but the weight he could never understand as well.

“You do, Cookie. And I need that more than I can say, and I love you for it. But…” She rubbed a hoof over her eyes. “It’s never been as simple as you make it seem. To be a princess, I must love Equestria and my ponies with all of my heart, I must be willing to do anything for them, to be all that they need. Where is the line I should draw, that I would sacrifice anything except your trust? If I look at something that may bring harm to my ponies, and I fail to act because my trust was in you…”

“If you must think that way, you must assume no pony is your equal and worthy of trust,” he said softly. “And in that case, how can you ever love?”

Celestia stared at him. “I love you. You know this.”

He nodded then met her eyes. “I always thought so. But I thought you trusted me, that you respected me.”

“I do! I trust you further than any other pony. But there is a line, and we have met it in this.”

Cookie frowned, his eyes locked on hers. “There is a line for you, between beloved and subject. There has been none for me. In all matters, I have assumed you to be Celestia. I have trusted you far more than I would trust any other ruler, not because you are the perfect alicorn who raises the sun, but because you are a kind, strong, honorable pony who will seriously consider the rightness of her actions…”

She looked him in the eye and gave a confused nod. “I hope that I am.”

He drew a deep breath. “To that end, I offer you a choice, Celestia. This is your final chance to consider your actions, to consider whether they are right, and to consider all potential consequences.” He went on deliberately, pointed looks emphasizing his words, “If you tell me you have been mistaken, that you needed council to recognize your errors, but that you hope to be more careful in the future, then we continue as always with but one exception: you shall never know the nature of my magic. If I do decide to investigate, for the benefit of Twilight or Cadance or Equestria, or for my own curiosity, I shall take steps to ensure you will never be told.”

She narrowed her eyes. “And if I’m sure in my actions?”

“Then we have indeed met a line,” Cookie said plainly.

Celestia swallowed, her eyes still in a glare. She didn’t answer ultimatums, it was her instinct not to bow. Yet the uneasy feeling that had been plaguing her all night and the steady look in Cookie eyes gave her pause. But when she spoke, it was firm and even.

“If your magic comes from my love, it’s right that I should know as much as you do.”

Cookie raised his eyebrows. “Normally, I would agree completely. But right now I require an assurance to earn my trust.”

“To earn your trust?” Celestia drew herself up. “For two thousand years—”

“I have trusted you, even in light of treatment of other ponies that should have called that into question.” Cookie pursed his lips. “Now you’ve broken my trust and it must be rebuilt. As much as you have opinions on the outcome of the situation, I can easily take them into account and even pursue those outcomes without your involvement.”

Celestia relaxed and rolled her eyes. “But you won’t.”

Cookie shrugged. “Perhaps not. That is no longer your concern.”

“The wellbeing of my close friends, my kingdom, and my love is no longer my concern?” She raised an eyebrow.

“No. It’s mine,” he said plainly. “And you will have to trust me.”

Celestia sighed, shaking her head. “You’re terrified of Discord, you refuse to meet Shining Armor, you know nothing of magic, you let ethical ideals override practicality, and you become lost in your considerations. And you want me to leave the things I care for most in the world in your hooves.”

Cookie leaned back with a frown. “I had no idea you thought so poorly of me. But it doesn’t matter, because if you will not agree to trust me willingly, I will ensure you never know anyway. The only thing at stake is my esteem, which doesn’t appear to be worth much to you.”

She tilted her head up. “If you wish to play this game, remember who you play with. I can order it investigated.”

“You can order no such thing.” Cookie narrowed his eyes. “I’d advise you to remember who you play with. It turns out that the charter that outlines your powers was written by a pony very much concerned with this sort of thing, who didn’t trust you much at all at the time. Rightfully so, as it turns out.”

Celestia stared at him in the firelight. He was right; she had forgotten who she was fighting. The pony she loved. The pony who watched her crowned. The pony who first dreamed of Equestria. She wondered, at him and at herself, how they could say such things over such a trivial matter.

Her face softened, and she said gently, “Cookie, this is becoming ridiculous.”

He looked down. “I’m pleased to see that you still wouldn’t breach the charter.”

“I shouldn’t need to do any of this!” She gestured with a hoof and looked to him, pleading. “There is a power that might ensure love and companionship for my students, that might ensure a happy and peaceful way of securing Equestria… and you, who are supposed to love me more than any in this world, dangle it just out of my reach.”

“Not all power is yours to command,” he said with a pained expression. “I don’t intend to taunt you, but in this case, I can’t trust you. I already knew you didn’t share my concerns, and you’ve made it clear that you’re more than happy to disregard them.”

She sighed. “For the safety of Equestria.

“Do you think I don’t care about Equestria?!” he shouted, rising suddenly to his hooves. “That this is not among my concerns? Equestria is the dream we share, it’s the legacy of my friends, it’s the only blasted thing in my life that’s worked as I intended! But… therein lies our disagreement. I never intended Equestria to be a place where ponies live safe from all fear, their lives controlled by a powerful leader, however benevolent.”

“I have no wish to control my subjects lives! I can barely keep the monsters that would destroy them at bay.”

He began to pace through the shadowy room. “You would control mine in this respect. And Fluttershy’s. And if you would do this to us, the only thing stopping you from controlling the lives of any of your subjects is a lack of reason for the time being.”

Celestia followed him with her eyes, and he paused for only a moment before he went on in both speech and movement.

“Celestia, if you judge Discord a threat, now or in the future, you must deal with him using the powers granted to you by the charter. A pony’s magic, or their heart, are unequivocally not among those.”

“Yet nothing in the charter limits me in ways I have acted,” she pointed out calmly. “Perhaps they are not to your liking, but I am charged as princess with doing all in my power to defend Equestria, and if that requires that I not reveal my plans to ponies who would thwart them, or encourage ponies in directions to the country’s benefit, it is not only my desire to do so, it is my duty.

Cookie stopped in the light of the fire, in front of where he had been sitting. He closed his eyes and stood for several long moments, still and quiet. Celestia shifted on her cushion and ruffled her wings, wishing he’d say something, hoping he’d see the sense in what she said.

When he did turn to her and open his eyes there was a coldness in them. His face rested in a dark line that sent a shiver up her spine.

Pulling himself up to his full height, he regarded her with a nod. “So we come to a line, Princess Celestia.”

Celestia blinked, and the uneasy feeling she had been fighting all night tightened around her. Her heart pounded in her chest as she whispered, “Cookie.”

He began to pace again. “On one side is the trust and understanding one would give a beloved, and on the other is a princess above all other ponies, with a duty to break trust to defend Equestria.” He glanced over at her. “You have made your choice, why should I not acknowledge your position, Your Majesty?”

She rose to her hooves then instantly tried to shrink back, to make herself smaller. “Don’t call me that. Stop this at once.”

He took a few steps towards her. “Stop showing my respect to our wise and benevolent princess? Perhaps I shall offer blessings instead.” He frowned. “May you have all the power in Equestria. May the lives of ponies bend to your will… of their own accord, of course. And may the weight of this fall on your shoulders, alone.”

“No. Please.” She shook her head, hoping to snap out of what had to be an awful dream.

Cookie just raised his eyebrows. “This is what you need, isn’t it? For Equestria, for our dream? It is your duty.”

“You know that’s not true.” She swallowed. “I need you, Cookie. Please. I need your love, and your council, and your baking. I need your home. I—I can’t—”

“I am yours to command, Princess Celestia.” He bowed deeply. “Command me to advise you, to bake for you. Command me to love you, to comfort you. Command me to live or die. Do with me what you will.”

“What would you have me say?” she whispered.

He looked up without rising. “Who am I to tell you, Your Majesty? I have no title, I have no position, I haven’t even got a name of my own anymore. I am nothing but an earth pony who’s borrowed enough magic over the years to remain alive an unfortunately long time.”

Celestia’s mouth worked a few times in silence before she found the words. “You will die.”

“Perhaps I will,” he said as he straightened himself.

“This is madness, to throw your life away because of a plan I’ve only considered, which you advise against.” She took a step to bridge the distance between them. “Please, we can talk about this.”

“I don’t advise against it!” He stepped back suddenly, eyes narrowed. “I am telling you that it is wrong! Even if it never comes to pass, I know now what you think of me and your other subjects, that we’re pieces on your board to be moved as you see fit.” He turned and walked to the door of the cottage. “Now, Your Majesty, I ask you to grant me my leave.”

Celestia stared at him a moment before speaking. “You live here. Where are you going?”

“To Tartarus!” he snapped as he opened the door. “One of us ought to, and it certainly wouldn’t do to order a princess.”

“Cookie—” she whispered, as the door slammed closed behind him.

She stared at it, in shock, frozen in place. As long as she didn’t move, perhaps it hadn’t happened. As long as she didn’t move, it could be undone. If she moved she might feel anger, or fear, or pain… too much pain to think of. For a long time the only movement in the room was the gauzy rainbow halo of her mane, and the fire crackling to warm a suddenly empty house.

As reality sunk in, and feeling returned, tears stung her eyes. Shaking her head to fight them back, she considered going after him. She wanted to so badly that her heart ached. This was wrong, he hadn’t left her, not truly. That was impossible.

But the words seemed to echo in the empty room, like the slamming of the door. Princess Celestia. That was impossible as well. She could fly after him, she could catch him easily, but what could she do to make him unspeak those words and to undo the damage that caused them?

Did she even want to, really? How could he have done this to her, caused her this pain? All she had done was look into a way to protect the country that she was sworn, as princess, to defend. He heard her give her oath, he knew for two millennia how she had worked and sacrificed to uphold it. How could he be so selfish, to cast their love aside over this nonsense?

She glared at the door through her tears.

Then her face fell. Their love wasn’t all he was casting aside.

Her horn lit, teleporting her outside where she took off into the night sky faster than she had ever flown in her life. She was hurt and she was furious and she was terrified, and for all of those reasons she needed to speak with Cadance immediately.

Author's Note:

I might not have the next chapter ready by next week. The blog post later tonight will have more information about that.