• Published 14th Feb 2017
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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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14 - The Crux of the Matter

As she beat her wings against the cool night air and the wind dried her tears, Celestia shoved her emotions aside, considering what she needed of Cadance. She needed Cadance to save him, clearly. If their love had been cracked or broken, she might know some magic…something that might undo the damage.

Of course, she didn’t know what that damage might be, or how quickly it might break the spell.

Celestia clenched her jaw against the anger swelling within her again. He had done this. It was his fault he was in danger and his fault she didn’t know what might save him. If he had just been reasonable and let her discover his magic months ago, none of this might be happening.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she blinked at the stars above the horizon in front of her.

She slowed to a hover. If she knew his magic, none of this would be happening.

She might protect him if he was in danger, of course, but he wouldn’t be in danger. There would be no reason for his anger—the Discord matter would no longer be his concern whether he trusted her or not—and she could reassure him of her honor when the weight of Equestria wasn’t bearing down on it.

Looking to the northern sky, she frowned. She did need to see Cadance, but not like this. She turned towards Canterlot, took another deep breath, and with her lips pursed in determination, she flew for home.

When she arrived, she sent a messenger to arrange an urgent but personal visit with Cadance first thing in the morning, and she gave notice to the charioteers of the same. Another message was written to Twilight, asking her to look in on Cookie in the only place he might have gone. That scroll was set aside; even if Cookie was foolish enough to brave the Everfree Forest at night, she wouldn’t risk Twilight’s neck as well, and she was sure Spike would rather not be woken up with a request that should wait until morning.

She still spent a sleepless night pacing her chambers and praying to the stars that all might go as she hoped, until she left just after raising the sun.

By the time her chariot touched down, not a hint of it showed on her face. She stepped to the ground with a calm smile. Cadance was waiting for her in front of the palace, but her concerned confusion melted as she saw Celestia and moved over to greet her.

“Auntie, it’s so good to see you.” Cadance offered a nuzzle, then looked to Celestia with a wary smile. “I was surprised to receive your message. I hope nothing’s wrong?”

“It’s wonderful to see you, too. I needed to ask a favor.” She nuzzled back, keeping her bearing calm and relaxed. She glanced around at the guards, then back at Cadance. “I don’t suppose we could speak privately?”

“Of course.” Cadance nodded, turning towards the castle. “Would you like some refreshments while we talk?”

Celestia smiled. “Tea would be lovely.”

Cadance nodded and paused to give an order to a guard, then led her to an empty sitting room. The polished crystal of the architecture might have made the room feel cold and formal, but in one corner sat a toy chest with a pony doll leaning half out of it, and the furniture and cushions were upholstered in a simple dark fabric that would render most stains invisible. It still wasn’t exactly a homey room, but it was clearly functional for a royal mother of a young child.

Once a footpony had brought a tea tray and left it with them, Celestia took a seat on a cushion. Cadance sat across from her on a purple couch, using her magic to fix and distribute two cups of tea.

“Now, what seems to be the problem?” Cadance said as she took up her teacup in the glow of her magic and took a drink.

Celestia carefully dropped her smile, leaving a calm but serious expression. She gave a sigh, her eyes cast down at the crystal tea cup on the floor beside her.

“Cookie and I are having a misunderstanding, and… it’s rather important that we end it quickly. I hate to resort to magic, but I was wondering if you might assist me.” She glanced up into Cadance’s eyes with just the slightest touch of pleading.

Cadance blinked a few times in surprise. “I— I suppose I could, but I’m sure you can work it out…”

“I’m sure we could, but Cookie is very stubborn.” She allowed herself to fidget, shifting her face to a worried frown. “It will take time for him to come around, and it’s so hard to tell how urgent the matter really is.”

“You must be concerned if you’d come all the way here to ask me to help.” Cadance frowned, her eyes full of concern, as she set her teacup aside.

“Yes.” Celestia nodded then met Cadance’s eyes. “It may be nothing, of course. I just know so little of love magic, and I hate to take risks when a pony’s life may be at stake.”

“A pony’s life?” Cadance leaned forward, her wings ruffling. “Auntie, what’s wrong?”

“It’s regarding Cookie’s immortality…” Celestia looked away, giving her head a hesitant tilt. “But I shouldn’t have said anything. He did ask that you not look into it.”

Cadance nodded, but her brow furrowed. She paused a moment. “You think it has something to do with love magic?”

“It might. Cookie has been examined by some brilliant mages over the years, and that’s one of the few magics that they knew little about.” She looked to Cadance with a small smile. “Until your work, of course…” She paused and glanced down, taking her tea in her magic and taking a sip. “But, as I said, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Cookie doesn’t want it investigated.”

“But you said his life might be at stake?” Cadance pressed, watching Celestia intently, eyes full of worry.

“I said a pony’s life… but yes, it’s his I’m worried about.” She gave a sigh and looked down in shame. “We both showed our tempers, we said some things we shouldn’t have, and, well…” She pursed her lips and fidgeted once more. “I don’t know how fickle the magic might be.”

“Well, it’s worked for two thousand years,” Cadance said in a cautious, comforting tone. She relaxed slightly and took up her cup in her magic. “I can’t imagine it’s that sensitive, even if it is love magic.”

“That’s true. But I worry.” She carefully allowed a genuine fear to tint her voice. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without him.”

“I completely understand.” Cadance tiled her head in sympathy. “Shining and I have only been together for eight years, and I hate to think about it.”

Celestia looked her in the eyes, matching her sympathy. “I’m sure you do. Forgive me if my concerns seem callous towards you—”

Cadance shook her head quickly. “Not at all! Shining and I have a lifetime in front of us, and you’re afraid something might happen to Cookie soon. But… I’m not sure my magic is going to follow the parameters of a two thousand year old spell. I think it might be safer to talk it out and try to make up.”

Celestia nodded sadly at the entirely obvious information. “I suppose you’re right. It’s just so difficult to have so much happiness resting on something so uncertain.”

“I can imagine.” Cadance sighed, and her eyes drifted towards a window looking out over the sparkling city, her tea still held in her magic but forgotten. “Two thousand years… it’s like a dream come true.”

“It is,” Celestia said softly, so as not to disturb her. She watched closely and went on in a quiet, smooth tone, “He’s been my home and my comfort through so much. I’m not sure how I might have borne it without Cookie at my side. I always thought the stars must have seen what I need and granted it to me.”

“You didn’t cast a spell?” Cadance asked, her eyes breaking from the window and looking back to her tea. She took a sip, obviously trying not to seem too interested in the answer.

“Not intentionally. I’ve always wondered if there was something we did…” Celestia looked her in the eye and took a drink of her own tea, then added, “But of course, we’re not to discuss that. We can’t know unless Cookie allows himself to be investigated.”

“Why won’t he?” Cadance looked to her with a tension that betrayed the casual question. “It would be simple for me to find out.”

“He has concerns about how fickle the magic might be as well.” Celestia frowned and gave a slight snort, raising her eyebrows. “Not enough to prevent him from getting his tail in a knot last night... I’m sure he didn’t intend to get so upset, but he really should be more careful.”

“He should be, if he’s that concerned,” Cadance agreed with a frown and a flick of her tail.

Celestia took up the teapot in her magic and refilled her cup, her eyes focused on the activity. “If only we knew, we might be able to find a way to strengthen it, or even manipulate it in other ways.”

“I wonder if it could be cast on purpose…” Cadance said softly, the hint of a question in her voice.

“Perhaps.” Celestia settled back with her cup, then tilted her head at Cadance. “Do you think you might find a way to cast it on Shining Armor?”

Cadance met her eyes and blushed, then focused intently on her teacup, twisting it in her magic. “Cookie doesn’t want it investigated. I told him I wouldn’t look into it.”

“That’s true, but he’s a good pony.” Celestia loaded her eyes with sympathy. “His mind might be changed. He was planning to visit Twilight, I think. I’m sure if he met Shining Armor and Flurry and he thought there was a chance he might help you all, he’d be far more agreeable.”

“That would be—” Cadance started quickly, eyes shining, but she cut herself off. She took a breath and relaxed back on the couch with a sip of tea before starting again in a mild voice, “That might be nice.”

Celestia smiled sadly. “I don’t blame you if you feel strongly about it, Cadance.”

“I know.” She gave a self-conscious smile. “I would blame me. It would be breaking a promise I made.”

“A promise to whom?” Celestia asked, her brow furrowing in confusion.

“Shining Armor. I promised him I would discuss it with him if something like this ever came up, so I don’t want to get too excited just yet,” she said with a small shrug.

Nodding, Celestia offered an encouraging smile. “I’m sure he would be thrilled.”

“It would depend. We know our time together is limited, and he doesn’t want me to focus all of my attention on this kind of thing. And he doesn’t want it to drive me to do something I wouldn’t mean to do. We’ve seen it too many times, beings who wanted something so badly they let it blind them to right and wrong and the consequences of their actions.” Cadance pursed her lips, then a smirk crept onto her face and she raised her eyebrows at Celestia. “He also has this idea I might turn him into a zombie, but I think he’s joking about that.”

Celestia smiled and shook her head.

Cadance smiled fondly at a thought, then looked to Celestia with another shrug. “Anyway, we agreed that it’s his life, and he has to be okay with any magic I look into and what I do to look into it. It’s hard to say if he’d want to talk to Cookie, when Cookie doesn’t want me looking into it.”

Taking a sip of tea, Celestia raised her eyebrows over the cup. Then she smiled and said, “I would think looking into immortality—of the non-zombie variety—would be worth a visit to his sister’s castle at least.”

“Probably, but I think he’d sympathize with Cookie. And we don’t know the nature of the spell, or how much work it might take to make it work for us, or if it even could…” Cadance tilted her head in consideration, then shook it clear. “I should probably take things a step at a time.”

“You’ll convince him to see reason. He would never leave you and Flurry if he could help it.”

Cadance offered a sad smile. “I don’t want to convince him of anything, I just want him to decide based on what’s in his heart. Don’t get me wrong, if he didn’t want me to look into it it would be hard.” She swallowed and looked into Celestia’s eyes with sympathy. “But I wouldn’t want to make him agree to anything he didn’t think was best for him or his family.”

“Of course not,” Celestia agreed with a nod. “But sometimes ponies become preoccupied with foolish concerns, and those need to be put to rest.”

“I don’t think that would be a problem. Shining isn’t really a foolish pony. Usually.” She paused and considered. “Like I said, I’m pretty sure the zombie thing is a joke.”

“Then speak with him. And if you do investigate, please let me know what you find…” The shadow of a frown crossed Celestia’s face. “I’m sure you can imagine how worried I’ll be until Cookie comes around.”

“Of course,” Cadance said with a nod, then she offered a supportive smile. “Try not to worry, though. I’m sure you’ve been through plenty of bumps in two thousand years, and I’m sure you’ll be through plenty more in the next two.”

“I hope so.” She returned the support and sympathy with a gentle look. “And I hope you and Shining have that chance as well.”

Cadance held her smile on her face, but her eyes seemed distant as she drew a deep breath and let it out. “So do I..."

Celestia drank the last of her tea, letting a silence draw out Cadance’s thoughts before setting her cup down with a gentle clink. Cadance looked up, almost startled, and Celestia gave an apologetic smile as she rose to her hooves.

“I’m afraid I must be going. I hadn’t planned on this visit until Cookie made it necessary, and I have a lot to do in Canterlot.”

“Of course.” Cadance hurried to her hooves, and led Celestia out into the hallway. “I have a lot to do myself. I have a meeting with Prince Rutherford tomorrow, and you have no idea how hard it is to make a crystal palace smash-proof.” She offered Celestia a weary smirk. “Between the yaks and Flurry, sometimes I wish I was princess of the Pillow Empire.”

Celestia chuckled as they walked out to the courtyard. “Then I’ll leave you be. And I hope that you won’t mention this visit to anypony, since nothing came of it. I may have said a bit too much, and mending things will be easier if you wouldn’t mind keeping my confidence.”

“My lips are sealed,” Cadance said. She added softly, “And I hope you and Cookie can mend things soon.”

“I’m sure we will. Thank you, Cadance.” Celestia spotted her chariot waiting. She leaned over and nuzzled Cadance.

“You’re always welcome, Auntie.” Cadance returned the nuzzle.

Celestia boarded her chariot and gave a nod to the charioteers. As it took to the sky, the circle of the city below tightened until it was no more than a dot on the frozen landscape. She took a deep breath of chilly arctic air and let it out, allowing her worries and exhaustion to wash over her expression. Cookie must be okay, or she would have heard from Twilight. She hadn’t counted on Shining Armor, but Cadance was a smart pony, and she would find a way to deal with him. And Cookie couldn’t possibly refuse a father and mother and their foal; despite having no interest in it himself, the earth pony respect for family had seeped into his bones in Girthshire.

He would be upset with her, but he already was. And he might try to take steps to keep her from finding out the details of the magic, but those could be dealt with. Once the magic was known, Cookie would be safe and their problems would be over, and all that would be left was tidying up the mess they’d made last night.

Some tea and a long conversation should do the trick.

***

Hours after storming out of his own home, Cookie stepped off the train platform onto the streets of the town, silent between late night and early morning. He’d never been to Ponyville, but it seemed very much like Rainbow Falls and countless other villages across Equestria, save for the castle gleaming in the moonlight.

Rage and heartache had faded, replaced by a numb hopelessness that he hadn’t felt in a very long time but knew all too well. That and the chill of the fall air had driven him here.

He frowned at the strange crystal building. He knew he’d be welcome, probably even at this hour. Twilight would insist on offering him a room and a cup of tea. She would lend him an ear, and if he told his story she would offer sensible advice and words of encouragement.

That was the problem, he realized. He didn’t want to be encouraged. He wasn’t sure he ever should have been encouraged, but once upon a time the stars took pity on him…

He looked to them now, finding a few familiar patterns, and between those and the position of the moon he navigated the streets of the town until he found a path that left the buildings behind in the direction of the Everfree Forest.

The path was well-trod, so he expected it would take him to his intended destination; if not he’d likely end up hopelessly lost and eaten by a timberwolf, which would have been just as well at that point.

That was a pleasant effect of the empty, numb feeling that had come over him on the train: as he walked through the dark, wild forest it was easy to ignore the sounds and calls of the creatures, even knowing perfectly well how many considered ponies as a potential meal.

Less easy to ignore was the murmur of words in the back of his head that kept reminding him where he was, again and again. This forest was Everfree. The city he built with his friends at his side. The home of three entire tribes of ponies, where for the first time they counted one another as neighbors and countryponies. Nothing remained.

He realized he must have already walked beneath the area of sky where pegasus Senior Command had floated, and through the district where the first pegasi allowed to live on the ground had made their homes alongside earth ponies and unicorns. Beyond that, to his left, would have been the large manors of the unicorn nobles and earth pony guild masters, who seemed to find a new joy in life in trying to outdo one another.

Before him, at the center of the city, Clover’s stone library would have stood like a fortress among the shops and houses, promising a commitment to magical knowledge for centuries to come. But centuries had come and gone, and turned to millennia, and now nothing stood in place of their work and sweat and promises to the future but dark, wild forest.

There was no longer any sign of the city, not a single cut stone or brick, except as he came close enough to see the ruins of The Castle of the Two Sisters silhouetted in the moonlight. For just a moment he remembered it as it was when the stone was new and the walls were strong and a shining young princess sat upon the throne. The thought made him cringe as the floodgates loosed again in his mind, and he turned quickly for the ravine with the cave at the bottom.

Pain twisted his heart, and as he neared the top of the ravine and saw the mouth of the cave in the moonlight, it mixed with fear and turned to panic. He had to get to that cave. He needed that cave. The night was still, and despite a fall chill there was nothing that could be mistaken for the driving snow or the howls of Windigos, yet it was the same feeling as he scrambled down the rocky steps and darted inside.

Almost as soon as he stepped inside, the panic melted. The crystalline tree stood with its gemstone fruit, now in different shapes but giving off the same dim glow it had when Clover had shown him it years ago.

But more than the sight, he felt it. A warmth like home, but stronger. A palpable sense of love and security. With his eyes closed, there was no doubt in his mind: they were there around him, so real he could lean over and meet Clover’s shoulder.

Cookie fell to his knees as the pain and panic and numbness washed away in an embrace like a dear friend. He felt tears on his cheeks and welcomed the release, sobbing against the cold rock of the floor.

For the first time since tea yesterday he allowed himself to feel everything; the terror at the the nearly omnipotent monster who roamed the world with no more care for it than a tom cat for kittens. The betrayal of an immortal goddess who saw the desires of individual ponies as impediments to her vision of Equestria, rather than the whole of that vision as they’d shared it. The emptiness of a love that preserved his life, that he’d fought so hard to keep in a delicate balance of respect… which had turned out to be nothing but his own ignorance of its lacking.

He laughed through his sobs at the futility of the last. That he hadn’t seen it thousands of years ago indicated that his parents had obviously had a flair for irony. He thought he could balance the feelings of an immortal with those of a pony who by rights should have perished before his third decade, who owed every day after to the mercy of other ponies. He tried to counter magical artefacts and legendary power with honey cakes and conversation. He somehow convinced himself the power of a crown, the power of the sun, might be checked against a piece of paper and the story of a power borrowed for a moment, a spark in the icy dark.

And he thought himself her equal. Celestia, indeed. She had always been a princess. He had been an idiot.

The cave didn’t mind; it softened the pain of the admission. It had always been a warm blanket for foolish ponies.

As his sobs trailed off, he considered whether he should return anyway. Celestia would almost certainly take him back. He knew she cared for him, and she enjoyed his company and a space away from the castle kept warm and stocked with food. A flattering apology and unspoken agreement to pretend he didn’t know what he’d learned last night would allow the pretense that nothing had changed. It would be a mockery of all that was sacred to him, but it might be his only chance at preserving his life.

He’d sold his self-respect once before, to Puddinghead, for a salary that kept him from the poor house. He remembered her orders: he was not to have a single blasted idea in her government. He was to do nothing but sit there as a symbol to the Baker’s Guild. At least Celestia was content to allow him to voice his thoughts. On the other hoof, Puddinghead had allowed him control of his own life and magic and never asked that he pretend to enjoy his servitude.

Puddinghead would tell him he was being a dolt, that he had a cushy house and a beautiful mare and eternity to enjoy them, and here he was worrying about a rump-load of things that wouldn’t matter at all if he was dead. Which was true and of no comfort to him.

Clover would tell him he was lost in his head; that if there was wisdom in any of his thoughts, he’d never find it in a swamp of philosophy, fear, and self-pity.

Pansy would look at him with that even expression and simply ask “do you love her still?”

Still prostrate on the stone floor of the cave, he tried to consider his heart to answer that question and found that he didn’t know. He knew he loved Celestia and always would. Her warm smile and the twinkle in her rose eyes haunted him. But he knew just as well that he could never love the princess who felt entitled to the only power he possessed.

Which was she? Which would she be tomorrow?

But Pansy wasn’t here to hear the answer anyway. None of them were here. Just the warm glow of the cave hushing his thoughts and reminding him that all would be well someday.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been there or if he had slept at some point when he heard a soft tapping in the silence. Hoofsteps. But he couldn’t imagine any pony he had the strength to face.

“Smart Cookie?” Twilight Sparkle’s voice was soft and concerned. The hoofsteps came closer. “Hi. Princess Celestia sent me a note, asking me to keep an eye out for you. She suggested I take a look… well… here.” She hesitated a moment, then added, “It looks like you could use a friend.”

Fighting the urge to start sobbing again, Cookie turned to look at her, bright and guileless in the daylight streaming from the cave’s entrance.

He pulled himself to a sitting position, rubbing his eyes with the back of a hoof. “I don’t know. I— I don’t deserve the friendship of a princess.”

Twilight smiled and sat down next to him. “I’m the Princess of Friendship. It’s kind of my thing.” She smiled at him. “Besides, you don’t care if I’m a princess.”

Cookie frowned. “I changed my mind.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You hate changing your mind.”

“Do I look like I’m pleased at the moment?” he said with a sharp look that he had neither the conviction nor the energy to hold. He drooped from ears to tail with a sigh. “There comes a time when ideals are put to the fire. If they survive, they are values, if they don’t, they are worthless. Many of my finest ideals met the crucible last night, and I’m afraid few survived.”

“What happened?” she asked with a gentle tilt of her head.

“I had an argument with Princess Celestia.”

Twilight frowned. “It must have been a bad one.”

“Yes. I... left her.” He paused, wondering how much information he owed Twilight, not to mention her friend Fluttershy, regarding the details of the fight. It was a subject to be broached carefully and with consideration he wasn't currently capable of, so he simply added, “I’d rather not say more than that right now.”

“Okay.” Twilight studied him quietly for a moment. “So, why did you come here?

“The last time my life was in ruins, I found it rather homey.” He looked around at the rough stone walls. “Of course, it was the only shelter in sight in the middle of a blizzard, so I wasn’t left with much choice.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. “This was the cave? That… makes perfect sense.” She looked around with a new fascination. “Without the tree, with a blizzard outside, this would be a scary place to be.”

Cookie felt a shiver, then closed his eyes bask in the magic. “The tree is very much an improvement. Why are the elements shaped differently now?”

“My friends’ cutie marks.” Twilight said with a fond smile. She glanced at Cookie. “They aren’t princesses, but their magic is tied to the elements, and they have thrones in my castle.”

“Is that so?” Cookie raised his eyebrows.

Twilight nodded. “In a circle. I might be a princess, but we’re all equals there.” She smiled at him. “I couldn’t have used the elements without them, just like you needed your friends for the magic you cast here.”

Cookie gave a snort. “I didn’t cast any magic. I cried on Pansy’s shoulder and admitted I was a failure.”

“Magic is funny that way sometimes. I fixed Star Swirl’s spell by convincing Fluttershy to help Rainbow Dash feed her pets.” She shrugged with a smile. “But, it worked. The magic of friendship picks up on the simple things you do, but it’s the most powerful magic in Equestria.”

Cookie nodded. “It formed Equestria.”

“And you were one of the ponies who cast that spell.” She offered him a friendly nudge.

“I suppose I did,” he whispered, though his every instinct still credited the stars.

“...By admitting you needed a friend.” The smile remained on her face, but her eyes shifted, turning it to a gentle smirk.

Cookie blinked. He smiled at her, and couldn’t help chuckling. “Very well. I admit it: you’re far too clever for me. And I could very much use a friend right now.”

“Only if you don’t mind that I’m a princess,” she said with the same teasing smirk.

“Perhaps I was a bit hasty in changing my mind.” Cookie shook his head with a heavy sigh, actually feeling a bit lighter for it. “It’s been an awful night.”

Twilight nodded and gave a sympathetic frown. “So, what are you going to do now?”

He glanced at her and raised an eyebrow. “Quite possibly, die.”

“Oh.” Twilight looked at him in shock as the pieces arranged themselves in her head. “You’re still alive. If you only had one fight, Princess Celestia probably still loves you.”

Cookie shook his head, looking at the cave floor. “As much as she ever—”

He stopped. It was a foundation of his understanding of ponies and love that to be true, such a relationship must be based in mutual respect for one another as ponies of equal worth. He couldn’t imagine the emotion working any other way. It was why he fought so hard to avoid the question of whether she held his life in her hooves; how could a pony truly respect another when they knew they might kill the other by simply casting them aside?

If he had never been worthy of respect from Celestia, she could never have loved him. And even if she had respected him at some point, her willingness to dismiss his reason and desires indicated that period had ended somewhere along the way.

Yet… he was alive.

Questions flooded his mind. Had he been dying for some time already? Had the magic come from his love alone? Was it possible to love a pony one controlled totally, or had Celestia’s self-deception fooled the magic as well? Was it even love magic at all?

“Cookie?” Twilight said, tilting her head at him after some time.

He blinked at Twilight. She held the answers. There was no doubt that whatever the magic, she could determine it. And he was equally sure that there was no answer that could do more harm to the love between he and Celestia than Celestia herself had managed.

And if he was dying, it would be wrong to take the secret to his grave. Keeping it in his power was one matter, but unilaterally deciding that no one might ever know it was another entirely.

“Twilight, I have an offer for you.” He cleared his throat and looked at her, rising to his hooves and drawing up to his full height. “I’d like for you to examine my magic. It can’t hurt anything at this point, my worst fears have already been realized, and you’re welcome to share what you find with Cadance and anypony else who might take comfort in it.”

Twilight nodded, flapping to stand, her face falling into a determined line. “I could also try to make sure we can keep you safe.”

Cookie raised his eyebrows. “However, there is a catch…”

She eyed him, more in confusion than suspicion. “What’s the catch?”

He looked her in the eye. “I'd like to request that you do all you can — all that’s honorable, of course — to keep the information from…” He paused, and went on resolutely, “From Celestia. For as long as I live, at least. And that you do your best to extract the same promise from Cadance.”

Twilight blinked at him. “Why?”

Cookie pursed his lips. “It was the subject of our argument. My magic is my own, to do with as I please.”

“But she’s the princess.” Twilight frowned in thought. “What if she needs to know so she can help keep you alive, or to help Equestria?”

“I’d ask that you trust my judgement,” he said softly, a hint of hope in his voice. “I’m very fond of both living and Equestria, and if I thought telling Celestia would aide either of those endeavors I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What if I don’t agree with you?”

“You can advise me. I would appreciate it very much,” he said sincerely, then smiled at her. “I know for a fact that you possess wisdom beyond your years, and beyond mine as well. But one of us must trust the other to have final say on this matter, and it is my life and my magic.”

Twilight looked at him, deep in thought for several moments.

Eventually she smiled. “That’s fair. I know you think hard about these things, and it is your magic after all… I trust you to have final say.”

“Then I trust you to hold to that.” He grinned and motioned to the bright sunlight at the entrance to the cave. “So, let’s go find out what this mess is about.”

***

It was late in the evening, and Cookie’s hooves clicked quickly on the marble floors down the hallways of Canterlot Castle towards Celestia’s chambers. He was led by a guard, and thankful for the assistance; he hadn’t been here in hundreds of years, and looking around, he felt as if entire wings had been relocated since then.

The guard stopped at the large door to Celestia’s chambers and knocked.

“Come in,” Celestia called. The guard opened the door and stepped inside as Cookie held back a step.

“Your Majesty. A messenger arrived bearing an urgent message from Princess Twilight Sparkle, with orders to deliver it to you personally.”

Celestia froze upon seeing him standing there, but she recovered quickly and nodded to the guard. “Thank you. I’ll receive the message alone.”

The guard nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty.” He turned, casting a suspicious glance at Cookie, and left.

Cookie stepped forward and closed the door after him. The room was full of her familiar scent, her heraldry, and items and decorations that he remembered from long ago. And there she sat on her cushions, tea in front of her, her mane and tail wafting gently in a warm breeze that existed only for her.

It took all of his strength, but he simply nodded to her. “Celestia.”

“We’re on a first name basis again?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Cookie took a breath and let it out slowly. “I think so.” He offered an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry for the pretense. It’s not as hollow as it might seem.”

Celestia tilted her head in confusion. “What would Twilight have to tell me that she would send with you, rather than through dragon fire?”

He looked her in the eye, his heart pounding as it had when Twilight looked at him and first said the words. “It’s not love magic.”

Celestia stared at him, her face almost, but not quite, perfectly composed. “What do you mean?”

Cookie swallowed, not breaking their locked eyes. “Having nothing to lose, I thought I might be of some use to Twilight. She could tell quickly that it wasn’t love, it’s a magic that she recognized but knows little about. It seems to coexist with Harmony magic often…” He trailed off as the details became confused in his mind. “She’s most certainly better equipped to explain it than I am, and she hopes to find out more, but I thought you should hear the crux of the matter from me.”

“It’s not love…” Celestia whispered, then she was silent for a few long moments.

Cookie just watched her. He knew the thoughts racing around her head, of all that had happened these past months that was now rendered moot, and all the things done in service of flimsy theories and hopes that now stood stark and bare without them.

Celestia looked at him and drew herself up, her face revealing nothing. “Well. It appears we’ve both acted foolishly for no good reason. Let this be a lesson to us.”

Cookie walked over and took a seat on the floor across from her. He raised an eyebrow. “What is that lesson?”

“That it’s ridiculous to become so invested in a hypothetical situation that you harm the ponies you love.” She offered a rueful smile.

Cookie nodded and looked down. “Yet… doesn’t that show that if such a situation would arise, those would be your actions?”

“Perhaps. That would depend on the situation and how it played out,” she said gently, taking the teapot in her magic and refilling her cup. “But I’d say this one is unlikely to come up again.”

“I certainly hope not.” He frowned and shook his head as she nodded to the teapot, offering. He looked to the fireplace and went on, “I’m afraid I took a different lesson from it.”

“Oh?” Celestia tilted her head, her cup paused in her magic for only a moment before she continued taking a drink.

Cookie looked at her, remembering the feelings of love and care of their long years together, the anger and self-righteous strength of their fight, and the despair afterwards.

But as he spoke, it was only regret that filled his voice. “I learned that I’m your subject first, always, whether there is reason to acknowledge that or not. And that when your subjects have magic a fraction as powerful as your own, you consider it your duty to direct us in how to use it. I learned that your trust in me is only as strong as my willingness to give you what you desire.”

Celestia sighed. “We both said many things in anger last night. I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart that I gave you those impressions.”

“Did you say anything that wasn’t true?” he asked, looking to her with raised brows as a small hope crept back into his heart.

She glanced at him and shook her head. “Not that I recall, but I might have phrased it better. We both know I tread a careful line between crown and pony—”

Cookie frowned and looked back to the fire. “We do, and for that reason I asked you to allow me to consider my own magic, to avoid placing that burden on you. Which should have been my right as a free adult pony regardless, I should add. Yet you felt no need to excuse yourself for jumping over that line until you were caught in your manipulations.”

“Cookie, I swear by the stars, I thought I was doing what would protect Equestria. That is the only excuse I offer.” Her voice was warm and apologetic, and everything in her countenance spoke of sincerity.

“I believe you.” He sighed and looked in her eyes. “But if whatever magic Twilight finds might be used to protect Equestria, should I expect to be lied to again?”

She paused and then said carefully, “I would hope that you would be more reasonable about it in a different situation.”

Cookie closed his eyes and took a breath. “That was a good many words to say ‘yes.’”

Cookie. This is over.” Her voice warmed with a smile, “Let me pour you some tea, and we can discuss your concerns.”

“No, Celestia. I do need to consider my concerns, but not with your assistance.” He looked over to her, catching the pleading in her eyes. He went on softly, “I still believe you to be good, kind, fair, and dedicated to Equestria. But I don’t trust princesses, and I now know that you’re willing to act as a princess towards even me, if you alone feel it’s best for Equestria. So I have no way of knowing when I can trust you.”

“I am a princess, but I’m still Celestia.” She smiled fondly at him. “What can I do to reassure you of that?”

Cookie swallowed, nearly losing himself in the calm twinkle of those rose eyes. “I don’t know. And I don’t know if I want you to reassure me.”

She shook her head, the smile still on her face. “It would be ridiculous if you didn’t. Our love has lasted two thousand years—”

“I don’t know that,” he said in a soft, firm voice. “I don’t know how long I’ve loved you based on false pretenses, assuming you were true to me and unaware that it was because I had nothing to offer that might cause you to be false.”

Taking a sip of tea, she raised her eyebrows mildly. “And how am I supposed to show you I would never have done what I never did?”

“I don’t know.” He sighed and looked down at the trim of the rich pillow beneath him. “But let us be honest, from the very start I’ve had nothing of note but words and ideas, and I offered those freely and trusted your judgement. There was nothing to lie to me about, whether it was your nature then or not.”

“The charter,” she said too quickly. She drew her head up with a confident smile. “I’ve never broken the charter you wrote, though I always could have easily.”

“That’s true. And it held last night.” He drew a breath, clinging to that. “You don’t seem to care much for the intentions clearly stated within it, but as to the powers and responsibilities laid out you’ve been unfailingly honorable.” He looked to her and addressed her from his heart, “Thank you.”

Celestia gave a nod, relaxing back into her cushions. “Equestria is our dream. I will always respect that, and the part you played in making it reality.” She paused and looked him in the eye with all the warmth he could imagine. “I love you, Cookie.”

“...I love you too,” he answered, unable to help himself. Then he swallowed and looked back to the fire. “But to offer you what we had before requires more than that. It requires enough trust in you and confidence in oneself to believe you when you say those words. It requires faith that the pony who feels that way is strong enough to bear the crown you wear without being consumed by it.”

With a sigh, he focused on a glowing ember. He added in a whisper, “Those were lost last night.”

“You’re lost in your head.” Celestia smiled and shook her head, her halo of a mane wafting around her. “Cookie, stop and look at the world around you. Equestria thrives, its ponies love and respect me. At the same time, I have more dear friends than I’ve had since its founding, and until last night your cottage provided me a blissful oasis from castle walls. I do have the strength I need, but you are part of it, and however they worked the stars saw to it that I would always have that strength. How could you doubt that I love you?”

Cookie looked over to her, tilting his head in consideration. “Because rather than step out from castle walls and face your actions as a pony, you hid behind those walls to defend your actions. Because among those dear friends are a pony who had immortality thrust upon her without warning when we discussed many times that it was your duty to counsel her, and one you sought to treat in the same manner after having arranged a romance with a nightmarish creature of chaos.”

He pursed his lips and paused, returning his focus to the fire. “In light of this, is my cottage truly an oasis that gives strength to the pony to bear the crown with her own wisdom, or a convenient hiding place for when the actions of the princess threaten to worry the conscience of the pony?”

“The former, always,” Celestia answered firmly. “My conscience is clear so long as I act as princess in the best interests of Equestria.”

Cookie glanced at her with raised eyebrows. “If your conscience is clear in those actions, in the way you treated me, I’m afraid that it’s already too late, and no amount of strength I can offer you will do you any good.”

“It does do me good, Cookie,” Celestia said, worry evident in her voice for the first time that evening. “You make my life bearable. I need you.”

He shook his head. “I can’t in good conscience give you the strength to bear the life you’ve chosen.”

“So… you propose to leave me, truly?” she asked directly, all of her smiles and warmth fallen to the wayside. “After two thousand years. After all we’ve been through, all we’ve faced together, you want to face the future alone?”

Cookie cringed at the thought, but he turned the pained look to her. “I don’t know. I meant what I said, I love you, and I consider you a good pony with many fine qualities. But I’ve also seen things from you in the past day that shake the foundations I thought our life together— that I thought Equestria was built upon. My decision on the matter needs to take all of this into consideration.”

“If I leave you on your own it’s going to take you years, maybe even decades to reach a conclusion,” she pointed out. “If you would just talk to me, I could put your fears to rest in an evening.”

He looked at her. Even without her smiles, she was still the most beautiful pony he had ever seen. She exuded a gentle strength and power like the wind; but he was well aware how easily that power could blow a pony off their course.

Cookie drew himself up with a sigh. “I know you could, which is exactly why I need to think of this elsewhere.”

Celestia regarded him silently for a moment, so he continued:

“I’m planning to stay in Ponyville for a time while Twilight looks into this magic. Not at the castle, she’s arranged a place less conspicuous nearby where I might be of some use as Chocolate Chip. After that, I might take some time to travel as I spoke of, to see Equestria as it is today. I ask that you leave me be. I give you my word that when I reach some sort of conclusion, I’ll let you know.”

She raised her eyebrows, her face a cold mask. “What makes you think I’ll be interested in your conclusion after that time? Perhaps if you leave me I shall find that I never needed your cottage.”

“I hope you do. But I hope that’s because you find the pony inside stronger than you ever thought she was,” he said softly. “I fully expect you to live your own life. If you fill my place, or no longer have use of me... you have been my world, my life, my hero, and my love for two thousand years. I truly wish only the best for you, however we go forward.”

She drew herself up to her full height with the nobility that seemed her birthright. “I suggest you be careful what you wish for. I promise I’ll see to it that it’s granted.”

Cookie rose to his hooves. He bowed his head with a nod. “My wish stands, and I shall trust you to know what’s best in your own life as I ask you to trust other ponies with theirs.”

“Cookie…” Her mask started to crumble; first her eyes filled with pleading and the beginnings of tears, then the firm line of her mouth began to waver. When she spoke it was in a small whisper, “Please don’t go… we can talk about it...”

He could feel his own eyes filling with tears, and the overwhelming urge to go to her, to nuzzle her and tell her everything would be fine. He willed himself to look away and turn towards the door, and his voice to stay strong as he said without looking back, “Good-bye, Celestia.”