• 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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16 - A Very Good Excuse

“Twilight, it’s a pleasure to see you,” Celestia said, stepping into a spacious open foyer down the hallway from the throne room. Court had just ended, and she had made her way out quickly.

Twilight grinned and walked over to greet her. “It’s good to see you too! I mean, that is why I came, but it’s still good to see you. I’m glad you had time today, I know this is short notice.”

Celestia gave a nod to her guards, sending them off to the surrounding hallways to provide them some privacy. “I always leave time after court for a noble or representative to catch me for a private word. It was just a matter of making sure that noble was you.”

She studied Twilight for a moment, then looked around the open space with its vaulted ceilings and marble floors. It was strange to find her waiting here; surely the guards must have offered to take her to Celestia’s sitting room or some other more comfortable spot in the palace. She wasn’t sure why Twilight had requested this place to meet until her eyes landed on the large framed document that hung on the wall next to where Twilight had been standing.

The charter of Equestria was nearly as ancient as Celestia was, but through magic it had been preserved and was still relatively legible. At least, Celestia could easily read the all-too-familiar Girthshire script, a plain style with the occasional curling flourish. Just seeing it made her body tense, and her eyes scanned the words without taking them in until she got to the bottom.

Platinum’s elaborate signature took up the center, with Hurricane and Pansy’s names written in nearly identical precise script to the right. Clover and Puddinghead seemed to have fit their names in where there was room. But in the same script as the charter, “Smart Cookie” was signed on the left just after the body of the document, where one might sign a letter.

She felt a rush of emotion as his name and voice echoed in her mind and too many memories came back at once. But before those could show on her face she set her jaw and erected a wall of sheer willpower to keep them at bay.

“He—um, he did a good job,” Twilight said softly.

Celestia looked over, realizing she had been silent too long and Twilight had noticed the direction of her stare. “He agonized over it, even as we prepared for the coronation. He wanted something that would protect and preserve Equestria.” She gave a gentle frown that hid the enormous effort the light expression took. “He doesn’t trust princesses.”

Twilight nodded and looked at the charter. “But he trusts ponies, that’s why it’s written for all of us to offer to the pony we think should lead us.” She tilted her head and read the preamble, though she seemed to be equally reciting it from memory. “The ponies united to form the nation of Equestria do hereby grant the charter of Equestria to any ruler duly appointed according to the terms listed herein, in accordance with the following provisions intended to preserve the rights of ponies and lend our rulers the powers necessary to protect and defend the lives and rights of all citizens.

As she finished, Twilight looked over to Celestia with a smile. “I’ve always thought that was a funny phrase. ‘Lend our rulers the powers necessary,’ like they were a book from the library.”

Celestia gave a wry smile in return. "As I said, he doesn’t trust us.”

“I’m not sure if that’s true…” Twilight’s brow furrowed in consideration. “I mean, in some ways when you lend something, you’re asking more of a pony than when you give it to them. Once you give a pony something, it’s theirs to do whatever they want with. But if you lend it to somepony, you expect it to be returned in the same condition.” Twilight smirked and raised an eyebrow. “I think we’d be in really big trouble if we dog-eared the powers to defend Equestria.”

“Spoken like a natural librarian,” Celestia said with a chuckle. “Well, I’ve done nothing that might damage them in two thousand years, no matter how difficult the restrictions made things at times.”

Twilight cocked her head. “You’ve never needed to… suspend the charter or anything? Even when we were under attack?”

“Never.” Celestia smiled. “I’ve found that if you think ahead, and plan carefully, there’s much that can be accomplished between the lines written there.”

“But… then how do you know if you’re allowed?” Twilight furrowed her brow in confusion.

“What do you mean?” Celestia asked with frown.

Twilight nodded to the charter. “If you do things that aren’t part of the powers they gave you, how do you know they’re willing to lend them to you?”

Celestia drew herself up slightly. “They may not be, but they’re mine nonetheless.”

Twilight blinked at her with a face that shifted between forms of curiosity.

“The powers outlined are those powers granted to me—well, to us, specifically, as Princesses. The rights outlined are the limits we and the cities are bound by.” Celestia nodded to the charter. “Anything not written is a power retained by ponies… but we are also ponies of Equestria, and have as much leave to use them as every other pony.”

“Ooh, I see.” Twilight nodded. “So, it doesn’t say anything about the Elements of Harmony, which means that you could use them, but so could anypony else who could connect with them, like me and my friends before I was a princess.”

Celestia smirked. “Something like that.”

“But the rules are different,” Twilight added with a nod.

“Are they?” Celestia arched an eyebrow.

“Well, yeah.” Twilight looked up at her. “When you order the guards to do something, or order ponies to pay taxes, they have to do it. But… well, according to what you said, you couldn’t have made me use the Elements of Harmony any more than I could have made my friends help me. We have to rely on the reasons ponies help each other.” A satisfied but guileless smile came to her face. “So the limits on those powers are the same things that limit any pony’s powers: the laws of the cities and towns, how much ponies trust you, and how good a pony you are.”

It was only thanks to Celestia’s rock solid control that the frown she felt didn’t flash across her face. She considered that perhaps Ponyville wasn’t the best place for Cookie, and something might have to be done about that if he didn’t move along quickly.

But with her normal gentle smile, she cocked her head and looked down at Twilight. “I know you aren’t in Canterlot to look at the charter. You said you came to see me?”

She hesitated a moment. “I just needed to ask you… I, um, needed some books that are related to my research on his magic. You said that he had been examined by great mages throughout history, and he said you kept their findings. I just wanted to look those over and make sure I’m not redoing work they’ve already done.”

“Of course.” Celestia nodded with the same smile on her face and no sign of true emotion but a careful draw and release of breath. “I keep them in my chambers, but we can get them now, if you like.”

Twilight smiled. “That would be perfect.”

Celestia led Twilight through the halls, up to her personal chambers. Once they arrived, she nodded for Twilight to wait on a cushion while Celestia opened the door to a large closet and stepped inside.

She lit her horn, revealing a cave of shelves. Many were filled with scrolls and books entrusted to her by ponies who felt they belonged in her hooves, and a few with a jumble of talismans and artifacts. One shelf was spread with an array of jewelry, and another with personal mementos; stones and keys, feathers and pressed flowers. Her eyes landed on a heavy gold seal of an outdated style, embossed with his cookie and wheat stalks cutie mark. She frowned and turned away to a shelf on the other side.

When Celestia emerged from the closet, it was with a stack of books and scrolls in her magic. She floated them over next to Twilight as she took a seat on a large cushion across from her.

Twilight eyed the door eagerly. “So, what else do you have in there?”

“Personal belongings that I will dispose of as a pony, when I wish, thank you,” Celestia said firmly with a fond smile. “It’s mostly things from my private life. Things written for me by friends and family, journals, mementos. I’m not ‘hiding the good stuff,’ I assure you.”

“Okay. I’ll try to stop imagining it,” Twilight said with a smile. She brought the top book on the stack to her with her magic and opened it, scanning the first page.

“So, do you have any theories?” Celestia asked. She wasn’t sure if Cookie wanted her to know about this, but she tamped down any uncertainty. It was her duty to keep track of these things, whatever he might think.

“Yes.” Twilight nodded, then she gave a thoughtful frown. “Sort of. I know the magic; it has the same markers as a magic that I found in the cave with the Elements of Harmony.”

Celestia frowned. “Could it be related to Hearth’s Warming? That’s been dismissed many times over, but it seems like a strange coincidence.”

“I don’t know.” Twilight stared down with a furrowed brow at the book in front of her, not really reading it. “I’ve always thought the spell on Hearth’s Warming must have been harmony magic, and of course there’s plenty of that in the cave.”

“Naturally.” Celestia nodded.

“But this is a different magic. It’s in my castle, too, in the map, and as far as I know that doesn’t have anything to do with Hearth’s Warming.” Twilight’s eye caught something on the page of the book and she snorted a laugh.

Celestia relaxed back in her cushion, watching Twilight. “I suppose it’s quite outdated in magical theory.”

“No, it’s not that.” Twilight chuckled and shook her head, then she looked down at the book and read, “While one can not rule out anything without proper work, investigation into dark magic shall be perfunctory for now. If future mages find he’s been sacrificing kittens for immortality or something of the sort I offer my apologies, but I’ve got a load of other things to look into which seem somewhat more likely. Besides, I never did like cats.”

A genuine smile crossed Celestia’s face, the sense of humor instantly familiar despite the centuries. “Clover’s notes,”

“Were you friends with her, too?” Twilight asked, closing the book and settling back on her cushion.

“I was friends with all of them in a way.” Celestia gave a soft laugh. “Though I have to admit that Clover intimidated me.”

Twilight’s eyebrows went up instantly. “She intimidated you?”

Celestia nodded. “When we first met, I arrived with Star Swirl, and it was clear she was unhappy with him. It wasn’t long before she gave him a very thorough dressing down in the manner only she could, with plenty of… colorful language. Star Swirl himself was taken aback, and I was his student, and a young mare, and Clover was among the ponies deciding to offer me a very important position. I tread carefully around her for some time.”

Twilight shook her head. “It’s funny to think of you as a new princess.”

“It is.” Celestia sighed, something inside of her relaxing and allowing the gentle mist of nostalgia across the wall that held her emotions.
“What were you like?” Twilight asked with an eager fondness.

“Spirited, I believe ponies put it.” Celestia smiled. “But that was at home in the age; we had a new kingdom, a new land to explore, new advancements in magic and new ways of thinking about ponies...

“I was often nervous, of course,” she added. “The beginnings of Equestria were constant negotiations between three very different cultures. I had to rule carefully. But I did like my fun. There were my pranks with Luna, and sometimes Star Swirl and Clover as well. Princess Platinum arranged the most enjoyable balls I’ve ever attended, nothing like the Gala today. Even the meetings of council, listening to the wit and wisdom of my friends and advisers, flirting with—”

Celestia nearly choked on his name as visions from memory crossed her mind without warning. She could see him standing across from her in the ballroom of the Castle of the Two Sisters, wearing his lace cravat, mane already unkempt from dancing, waiting to begin a reel. It brought the warmth of affection to her heart, followed by a searing pain she fought to keep from showing.

“Princess?” Twilight’s voice was full of concern. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Celestia reaffixed the gentle smile to her face. “It’s fine. Fond memories from a distant time. Was there anything else you needed, Twilight?”

“Well, no…” she tilted her head and went on gently. “But I made sure I had some extra time, in case you needed to talk.”

Celestia arched an eyebrow. “What made you think I might need to talk?”

Twilight shrugged and hesitated before answering, “I’ve been talking a lot to Cookie, all of us have, and it seems to help him. I thought maybe you could use a friend, too?”

“I can always use a friend, Twilight.” Celestia said with her warmest smile, to set Twilight’s worries to rest. “But I don’t have any special need of one right now. I promise you, I’m fine.”

“Okay…” Twilight said with a frown. “But if you need me, I don’t mind coming here.”

Celestia nodded. “I appreciate it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Twilight smiled and rose to her hooves, her magic glowing around the stack of books. “I guess I should go. I can get some reading done before I have dinner with Moondancer.”

Celestia nodded and stood. “And I have tea with the Saddle Arabian ambassador. I hope I’ll see you soon.”

“Of course. Before Hearth’s Warming, at least.” Twilight offered her a nuzzle, which Celestia returned.

“I’ll look forward to it.”

Twilight left the room, but Celestia held back for a moment. Once the younger princess was safely out of sight, Celestia frowned and took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. She pushed all thoughts of Cookie, old and new, out of her mind. Then she smiled and walked with confidence out to the castle hallways.

***

The next day, Celestia sat frowning in a dimly lit room, waiting for the Chancellor of Griffonstone for a meeting that was not on her official schedule.

The palace in Canterlot did not have a throne room chamber as the Castle of the Two Sisters had. Celestia had made sure of that when the building was designed. She had wanted to protect the shining beauty of the new castle from the things those old walls had heard whispered, to ensure the purity of its airy, upward reaching architecture was never tarnished.

Yet it still managed to have a small, windowless room hung with thick tapestries where nothing good had ever happened. And her subjects, staff, and foreign nationals still requested to meet with her there to unburden themselves—and to burden her—with their schemes, accusations, and offers. She had come to accept long ago that as long as there were castles, there would always be throne room chambers.

The door opened, and a distinguished gray griffon slipped quietly into the room. She rose to her hooves and nodded to him.

“Chancellor Gunther.”

“Your Majesty.” Gunther bowed his head in return.

Celestia sat down and motioned for him to take a seat across from her. Once he was seated she regarded him with a stony, emotionless face. “What is the purpose of this meeting?”

Gunther’s face rested in a sharp frown, but his wings and tail twitched restlessly. He swallowed and looked her in the eye. “Your Majesty, Griffonstone has a problem. Those of us on the council aren’t stupid. We can see the ruin our country is in and the challenges we face. And we know that with hard work, intelligence, and sacrifice we can return our former glory.”

He paused, and his frown deepened. “The rest of our flock… They’re stupid. Or stubborn, or selfish, or sometimes all three at once.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows. “I appreciate your candor, but I’m not sure of your point.”

“The council can’t rule our flock. We would have to institute martial law to enact the reforms we need, and that might just as easily lead to our banishment and a return to anarchy.” He hung his head and sighed, then looked up at her pointedly. “Our only alternative is to find a leader the flock might accept and follow willingly.”

Celestia shifted on her cushion to a more relaxed position and tilted her head in confusion. “Are you suggesting I should be that leader?”

“Yes.” Gunther nodded.

She frowned at him. “Your flock would be content being joined to Equestria? I have no interest in staging an invasion that neither my ponies nor your griffons desire.”

“That… well…” For a moment his beak moved without sound and a look of terror flashed across his hard expression. He steeled himself with a deep breath and went on, “They have far too much pride to admit they would be, but we believe there is a way. We’ve found a griffon we believe to be an heir to Guto’s throne. Griffons still yearn for the days of Guto’s rule, to set him on the throne would be simple, griffons would be thrilled. Of course, he’s an idiot. He’s done nothing but perch on a hovel his whole life. Every griffon would know he’s not actually running the country, and our council would face the same problems but with a symbol for rebellion to rally around.”

The frown remained firmly on Celestia’s face as she stared at him. She had a good idea of where this was heading.

Gunther swallowed and continued, “But he’s a useful idiot, who would be happy to marry and let a queen rule in his place in exchange for no more than an allowance and chambers—separate chambers—in a palace. And when he passed away, well, if that queen was still living there would be no need for heirs…”

“And if that queen was also Princess of Equestria…” Celestia added for him, still otherwise motionless.

He nodded. “She would retain that title as well. Even griffons who might balk at being part of a pony nation would be comforted if it was by happenstance that our queen also ruled Equestria. Then the kingdoms would be effectively joined with no need for invasion or treaties, and with the full support of all but the most stubborn griffons.”

She raised her eyebrows. “That does sound like a possible solution to your problems… but it’s quite a bit ask of our hypothetical princess.”

Gunther closed his eyes and nodded. “Certainly. We can only imagine she might consider it if she had a deep sense of compassion for all beings.” He looked at her and went on quickly, “But it does have advantages to offer, which she might also consider. Our land has untapped resources, it’s a mountainous region and we’ve never been talented miners.”

Celestia fixed him with a flat stare. “I have trouble imagining that if you suspected vast reserves of precious minerals under Griffonstone, your griffons wouldn’t have discovered quickly how to mine them.”

He gave a noncommittal shrug. “That’s difficult to judge, Your Majesty. Since Guto all of our industry has stalled, even in areas we can easily outperform ponies.”

Fighting the urge to roll her eyes, Celestia considered ending the pointless conversation right there. She could investigate this heir herself and see about arranging his marriage to a more suitable and intelligent griffon; perhaps one of Twilight’s contacts. But out of curiosity she asked, “What areas are those?”

“Our military is in disrepair, we lack equipment and effective direction, but the whole world knows the potential of griffon soldiers.” Gunther drew himself up, his certainty showing on his face in a way that had been notably absent the rest of the meeting.

“I do have a military, you know,” she pointed out.

“You have ponies,” he said gently. “With all due respect, were it not for the magic of a few talented individuals, yourself included, Equestria would have fallen seven times in the past ten years. Ponies are not warriors.”

Celestia drew herself up to match his posture. “Perhaps you have forgotten, but the pegasi were once the match of the griffons and any other being.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Our legends speak of the entire tribe of pegasi dedicated to war in hopes of countering our raiding parties. Would you want your ponies to do that again?”

Celestia didn’t answer, and her gaze grew distant as she thought of that time. It had been centuries since she sent her ponies to war, and she worked hard so she would never need to again. But if it ever became unavoidable, she had to admit that even Spitfire and Shining Armor themselves were a pale imitation of Commander Hurricane’s troops. She had intentionally, if discreetly, dismantled the world that built ponies like the commander, and as much as she respected ponies like him and Pansy, she would be loathe to ever see it return.

“Griffon soldiers are valued as mercenaries around the world,” Gunther pressed. “With leadership and a full treasury, Griffonstone could offer the finest military force of any nation. Given the threats Equestria has faced, it’s worth a thought.”

“...it is,” Celestia said softly, considering how thin their defenses really were.

Gunther hesitated, fidgeting his wings and clearing his throat. “We aren’t picky about which princess. We understand that Princess Twilight Sparkle already has contacts among our flock—”

Celestia’s head snapped towards him with a glare. “Absolutely not.”

Gunther shrunk back. “Then perhaps Princess Luna?”

“No. Enacting the reforms you need will still be delicate, even for a popular ruler. Twilight and Luna lack experience.” She let her face rest in a stony expression as she entertained an idea that had never seemed possible in the past two thousand years. “If this is to work, I’ll wed your king myself.”

Gunther blinked at her in wonder. “If you're sure, Your Majesty… that would be better than we’d dared to hope. No matter how they feel about ponies, our flock has nothing but respect for the princess who raises the sun.”

“I am not sure,” Celestia said firmly. “I’ll need to give this very serious consideration.”

“Of course.” He whispered, then he shook his head out of a fog. “Of course! Please, take all of the time you require. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to send a messenger.”

“Thank you,” she said absently.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Gunther rose to his paws and bowed. “We only hope this can work to everyone’s advantage.”

Celestia managed a nod to him, and he left the room quickly, glancing back at her several times as if he wanted to assure himself he’d actually been speaking to her.

She just sat there alone, thoughts screaming through her head in the dim silence of the room. A battle had begun in her, her bruised and battered heart on one side and the strength and future of Equestria on the other.

“You don’t wait for the sheets to get cold, do you?”

Snapping out of herself, Celestia’s eyes went wide as she turned and looked behind her in the direction of the voice. Sure enough, Discord floated by the wall, a smirk on his face that stoked her rage more than seeing him rule Equestria ever had.

What are you doing here?” she snapped.

“I like to stay informed on government matters.” He disappeared, reappearing on the cushion across from her. “One never knows when you’ll need my advice.”

Celestia fixed him with her iciest glare. “I suggest you buy a newspaper next time, rather than spying on top secret meetings.”

“I don’t see why I would, if they’re all as juicy as this.” He folded his paw and talon in front of himself and leaned forward with the same smirk. “So is this just a rebound marriage of political convenience, or is it serious?”

Drawing a deep breath, she tried to calm herself. It was the only way Discord might leave. “When did you become so interested in my love life?”

“I’m not sure lying back and thinking of Equestria counts as a love life.” Discord tilted his head. “Of course, considering the last pony, it might be a step up.”

“There will be none of that in this arrangement,” Celestia said firmly. Then she swallowed, pushing down a wave of guilt, and added in a whisper, “And you know nothing about my last lover.”

“I know he’s been moping around Ponyville, whining to anypony who will listen that his life is meaningless without you.” Discord rolled his eyes and snapped, a pink heart made of mist appearing in front of him. “Of course, he’s right about that. But it will almost be worth it to watch when he finds out about this.” The heart cracked in two before dissipating into the air.

Celestia felt the childish illusion far more than she should have, but she set her jaw and frowned at Discord. “He left me, and he gave his blessings for me to live my life as I see fit.”

“Of course.” Discord nodded. “And I’m sure he’ll understand that you see fit to marry a griffon you’ve never met because…” He paused with his mouth open, raising a talon, before raising an eyebrow as he went on, “Oh dear. Why are you considering this again?”

“To unite Equestria and Griffonstone,” Celestia explained, drawing her head high. “Griffonstone would fare better with our resources and leadership, and Equestria would stabilize a neighboring country for good, with its military potential in our own hooves.”

“Ah, yes.” DIscord nodded. “I’m sure I’ll sleep easier at night knowing that Griffonstone… exists. But in a manner I no longer have to concern myself with!”

Celestia threw him a flat glare. “And of course, your concern for other beings is legendary.”

Discord smirked. “That’s what your fiance said.”

She shook her head quickly. “He’s not my fiance. I’m considering the proposal. Ponies and griffons have a long history of conflict; they’re no threat to us now, but they might be again someday. Or in their current state they might easily become a tool of some other being.”

Discord looked up from a griffon marionette that had appeared in front of him, the wooden handle jerking in his talon. “I thought we were talking about making them the tool of some other being?”

“A being with less benevolent motives,” Celestia said with a glare.

“Yes, of course, the white princess’s burden.” He gave the puppet a pat on its head and it disappeared, then he threw open his arms with a grin. “Well, I support you wholeheartedly in this! Consider this my RSVP to the reception. I’ll even bring a gift.” He appeared next to her and shoved a giftwrapped box in her hooves, and added in a stage whisper, “It’s a toaster!

She set the box next to her and said dryly, “I’ll start on the thank you note.”

Discord appeared on the cushion across from her again, this time with a map between them. “Of course, the griffons are just the beginning, right?” He planted a miniature Equestrian flag on Griffonstone. “Once this prince dies, you can marry a yak. Or a changeling. Or a caliph from Saddle Arabia.” A flag appeared on each location he listed. He tilted his head, considering, “I understand Spike has a viable claim to the Dragon Lands, so that one should be easy.”

Celestia gaped at him. “Spike?! I would never--”

“But Celestia, dragon soldiers!” Discord motioned with his hoof and a line of toy dragons in armor appeared on the map.

She gathered herself quickly, in part to erase the fleeting thought of what a force that might be. “The Dragon Lands are perfectly stable under Ember. And the Yaks under Rutherford, and the changelings under Thorax.”

“Oh, they’re no threat to you now, but they might be again someday. Or they might become the tool of another being. A very large blowtorch, in the case of the dragons.” He picked up a toy dragon solder and squeezed it, producing a flame. Then the map and toys disappeared and he leaned forward, smirking. “Admit it, the only place this line of thinking can end is with the world in your hooves.”

“This is a unique situation. The griffons have asked for my assistance,” she said pointedly.

Discord raised his eyebrows. “Have they? Did they sign a petition? Hold a vote? Write your name in stones on a beach, begging for help?”

“Their elected leader—”

“Had a top secret meeting with you to discuss a coup. Always a sign of popular support!” He shook his head and regarded her with a knowing, nearly condescending smile. “I can't imagine how this might blow up in your face...”

Celestia frowned. "I have two thousand years of experience, a half a dozen loyal and extremely powerful magic users to call on, and the griffons can't organize a large tea party at this point. I believe I can handle this situation."

He shrugged. "I'm older than time and can bend reality to my will, but I still ended up as a statue. Twice."

Celestia gritted her teeth and said through them, “We are very different beings.”

“In some ways.” Discord leaned back against thin air, peering down his snout at Celestia. “But it seems like we share that tiny niggling idea in the back of our minds that it would be so much easier if ponies would just let us control everything.”

“I am not trying to control everything!” she snapped. “I’m just trying to protect my ponies!”

Discord pointed at her with his paw. “That’s a very good excuse. You don’t mind if I use that one if it ever comes up again, do you?”

“It’s the truth!” She rose to her hooves, drawing herself tall, her entire body tensed as if to prove the strength of her dedication to her ponies.

“I know, Celestia. That’s the sad part,” Discord said with a rueful smile that was somehow more unnerving than any expression Celestia had seen on him. Then it quickly flashed back to his smirk. “But on the bright side, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of new toasters out of it.”

With that he disappeared, leaving her standing firm and defiant in the empty room.

Eventually, slowly, she allowed herself to relax. She felt hollow inside, as if she’d become numb to her own thoughts and emotions. All things considered, she decided it might be the best feeling she could hope for.

Author's Note:

Post-update blog here!