• 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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19 - To Deserve One Another

As Cookie looked around Twilight’s throne room at the ponies in attendance, he couldn’t help considering the Princesses’ Council of Equestria as it stood today: representatives from each of the cities and towns around Equestria who gathered twice a year to niggle over taxes and weather and propose self-serving changes to the charter which would be immediately voted down. Perhaps some of the individuals were as intelligent and passionate as any of Celestia’s councillors, but as a group Celestia had stopped seeking their advice centuries ago.

The council that sat before Cookie, on the other hoof… this was a council to be reckoned with. Twilight and each of her friends sat on their thrones—brave and dedicated defenders of harmony and Equestria, but different minds from all walks of life. Cadance occupied a chair placed to Twilight’s left, having found time between ruling a renewed kingdom and raising a young daughter to attend to Twilight’s urgent summons, and next to her sat Luna, bearing her keen intellect and hard-earned wisdom with a thoughtful frown.

It had been a very long time since Cookie had seen a collection of minds such as these set to unravel a tangled problem of government, and he was only sorry that the trouble at hoof might get the best of them.

After a few moments, as everypony settled in, Twilight gave them all a warm smile. “Thanks for coming, everypony. I know we’re all busy this time of year, but we have something important we need to talk about. I’m really worried about Princess Celestia, and Chip suggested that as the ponies who know her best, we all might be able to figure out how to help her.” She glanced at Cookie. “I think he had something he wanted to say before we get started?”

Cookie cleared his throat and addressed the room. “Yes. I owe several apologies. To you ladies,” he said, nodding to each of Twilight’s friends, “Especially you, Applejack, I apologize for a deception. My name is not Chocolate Chip, it’s Smart Cookie. I helped to found Equestria, and Twilight has been looking into why I’m still alive. I prefer to not be recognized, so I live under an alias most of the time.”

Pinkie Pie offered a bright smile. “Happy Hearth’s Warming, Mister Smart Cookie!”

Cookie chuckled. “And to you. But please, just Cookie is fine.”

The rest of them looked to Twilight with faces of confusion, and she nodded a confirmation.

“No way,” Rainbow Dash said with a suspicious glance. “This has to be a prank, right?”

Rarity blinked in confusion, leaning forward in her throne to get a closer look at him. “How in Equestria…”

Applejack’s whole face stretched in shock as she turned to him. “You’ve been sleepin’ in my barn… I— I woulda given ya’ a bed in the house if I’d known!”

“It’s a very comfortable barn, and I never would have turned one of your family from their beds. I do appreciate all you’ve done for me.” He offered her a warm smile, then turned back to the group. “In all other matters, I’ve been honest with you as far as I could be. I did have a cottage in Rainbow Falls, and I did recently separate from a pony I loved. Her name is Celestia.”

Cookie heard a strangled cry from next to him, and he turned to see Rarity gaping at him.

“I— you— she—” she managed to say before gracefully fainting, draped over both arms of her throne.

“Should somepony assist her?” Cookie asked the rest of the ponies, none of whom seemed very concerned.

“I’m fine!” Rarity said, gathering herself to a sitting position. “Fine. I just— I gave romantic advice to Princess Celestia’s…” she paused, apparently trying different words in her head until she raised an eyebrow at him. “I beg your pardon… what exactly were you?”

“Her suitor. It was a very long courtship.” Cookie smiled, but it fell to a grimace. “Well, ex-suitor, now.” He sighed and went on, “As we discuss things in this meeting, I felt it was relevant that I’ve known Celestia longer and more closely than anypony here… and that my words may not always be unbiased. Please take them or challenge them as you see fit.”

As Twilight’s friends looked at him, considering, he turned to Luna. “The other apology I must make is to you, Luna. I was… distraught at our last meeting, and I said some unkind things to a friend who went out of her way to help me. I’m not sure we entirely agree on the severity of the situation, but you didn’t deserve that treatment. You have my sincere apologies.”

Luna nodded. “We didn’t agree on the severity at the time, but I’m beginning to understand what you feared. I apologize to you as well; just as I possessed certain facts and understanding that you lacked, you understood things that I did not.” She offered a wan smile. “You said that perhaps someday I might understand respect, Smart Cookie. I hope you were right.”

Cookie returned the expression. “There are few things I would rather be right about. I’m glad you came, Luna. I’m glad all of you came, because the issue at hoof is not an easy one to address, and we shall need to hear from ponies who see Celestia in very different ways to sort it out.”

“What is the issue exactly?” Cadance asked, tilting her head at Cookie. “I mean, obviously it’s awful that the two of you have been having trouble lately, but Twilight made it seem like something much bigger.”

Twilight nodded and stood up to address the group. “The problems Princess Celestia and Cookie had aren’t why we’re here, but they might have been a symptom of it. See… Princess Celestia has been doing some things lately that aren’t…” She paused and frowned, then went on, “that aren’t right. But we don’t think it’s because she’s a bad pony, or that she wants to hurt anypony. She just thinks she has to do them to protect Equestria.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Is this about that prank Discord was pullin’, about the griffon prince? You can’t be takin’ that seriously.”

A snort drew attention to Luna. Her face was dark as she said crisply, “It is true that she is considering marrying a griffon prince, though she’s never so much as met him, and taking control of Griffonstone. I didn’t believe it myself, so I asked her, and… words passed between us.”

“How could she consider something like that?” Cadance looked around the circle in shock, searching for an answer.

Rarity arched an eyebrow. “A rebound relationship is one thing, but this is taking it a bit far.”

Cadance’s eyes narrowed as her gaze fell on Twilight, who sat uncomfortably tight-lipped. “What’s that look, Twilight?”

“What look?” Twilight’s eyes shifted nervously.

“The look like the one you used to get when somepony said the sky is blue and you felt like you had to explain about the spectrum of light and reflective and refractive properties,” Cadance said, leaning forward to study Twilight with suspicion.

“Oh. That look.” Twilight glanced at her friends and cleared her throat as she fidgeted on her throne. “The situation with the griffons is only part of this. There are some other things she’s done, or tried to do… When she thought that Smart Cookie was still alive because they were in love, she wanted to know about his magic so that she could get Fluttershy to fall in love with Discord and become immortal—”

“WHAT?” Rainbow Dash was out of her seat and in front of where Fluttershy sat frozen in shock before Twilight had finished her sentence.

Twilight sighed. “She was worried that he might be dangerous when she… well…”

Rainbow narrowed her eyes. “She can’t do that!”

“Down, girl,” Applejack said to Rainbow, then she glanced over with a look not that different from her friend’s. “Twilight…”

“I know.” Twilight nodded sadly. “Cookie objected too. He tried to argue with her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

Cadance frowned. “That’s what you fought about? You wouldn’t let her do that to Fluttershy?”

“I took issue with her lack of regard for the self-determination of several ponies, myself included,” Cookie admitted.

“She also knew that I would become an alicorn if I figured out Star Swirl’s spell, and she never told me.” Twilight looked down with a sigh.

Cookie scanned the faces of Twilight's friends, from the dazed, wary concern of Fluttershy to the fury that Rainbow Dash was barely keeping in check. Pinkie, Rarity, and Applejack wore more complex mixes that fell somewhere along that spectrum.

Cadance’s frown deepened and her wings ruffled as she turned back to Cookie. “She tried to get me to help her find your magic. She wanted me to use my husband and baby to convince you… she said she was worried about you.”

Cookie clenched his jaw, then let out a resigned sigh as he looked to the large map of Equestria on the table before them. “It’s likely she was. It’s important to remember that the ends she sought were benevolent in each of these actions. She felt that if Fluttershy could love Discord it might prevent harm to Equestria. She felt that Twilight would have had questions and concerns that might have made her hesitate to reach her true potential.”

So?” Rainbow Dash asked, her entire manner poised for a challenge.

“So she doesn’t think she’s doing the wrong thing,” Twilight explained, shaking off some of her disappointment. “She knew she was hurting ponies, but she thought if she didn’t then Discord might destroy Equestria, or I might have been scared to continue my studies, or Cookie might have died.”

Fluttershy hesitantly raised a hoof. “So… um… does that mean I should marry Discord?”

“No,” Twilight answered with a huff. “The magic she thought would help isn’t even the right kind of magic.”

Cadance drew herself up and looked Fluttershy in the eye. There was an cold tension about her that melted as she addressed the timid pegasus gently, “And even if it was, that’s not how love works. Fluttershy, you should marry anypony you fall in love with, no matter what anypony else says.”

“Oh. Okay.” Fluttershy nodded and frowned in thought. “It’s just… well, I’d be very disappointed in Discord if he destroyed Equestria.”

Pinkie Pie shook her head with an unnerving calm. Her eyes stared straight into Cookie’s, full of knowing sympathy. “Princess Celestia doesn’t know how things will work out in the end.”

“Nether do any of us,” Rarity pointed out.

Applejack leaned back in her throne, crossing her forelegs with a grim frown. “So how about if she talks to ponies about what she thinks might happen, and let’s ‘em decide for themselves what they wanna do?”

“They might decide wrong.” Twilight frowned in thought. “She doesn’t trust ponies.”

“She trusts them to an extent,” Cookie pointed out, stepping up to the map at the center of the circle and surveying it. “One has to in order to manipulate as subtly as she does. She doesn’t trust them to place Equestria above all else. She knows that you might consider friendship or love to be more important.”

“But those things protect Equestria.” Pinkie Pie said, rolling her eyes.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, we’ve had, like, seven different kinds of magic explosions to prove it.”

Luna pursed her lips, then spoke. “Yes, but they must be used at the right time, in the right manner, and she feels only she can arrange that.”

“She may have a point there,” Rarity said with sympathy in her frown. “I assume she knows quite a bit that we don’t about what’s going on in the world, and she is a Princess with thousands of years experience.”

Luna cleared her throat.

“Begging your pardon, of course,” Rarity added quickly. “But you were… indisposed for quite some time.”

“Which lends Luna another kind of wisdom well worth considering,” Cookie said, looking up at Luna across the map.

Luna nodded at him. “And Smart Cookie is our equal in years and possesses yet another view. And you all understand the Equestria of today better than any of us, and Princess Cadance might see us from the outside. Each of us sees matters differently, and to assume we alone see all is folly.”

“And if ya’ think what you see gives ya’ leave to lie to other ponies who wanna help, that’s a darn sight more than folly,” Applejack grumbled.

Rarity nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that even if she has her reasons for directing us, it’s unwise to do so without respecting other points of view.”

Cookie nodded. “So we come to the question this council must answer: how might we convince Celestia of this?”

“Tell her?” Pinkie suggested.

Applejack’s face twisted in uncertainty. “Sure, but how?

“If this conviction is strong enough that she’s willing to betray those closest to her, I hardly think a gentle reminder is going to get through to her,” Cookie added with a frown.

“Twilight could talk to her,” Rainbow Dash said, looking around the circle. Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Rarity looked to each other, nodding.

“I’m not sure that’s wise.” Luna shook her head. “She’s recently been confronted by both Smart Cookie and myself on some of these matters, and both ended with her turning us away. You and Cadance are the ponies closest to her whom she still trusts. Given her state, I think it best that we only endanger those relationships as a last resort.”

“Then it would be best to keep her away from the Crystal Empire until this is worked out,” Cadance said sharply. “I have some very strong words for her about her little forays into love magic, and how it absolutely does not work, not to mention how she tried to use me and Shining.”

Cookie nodded and offered her a look of sympathy. “Noted.”

Fluttershy cleared her throat, then asked, “But... why would she listen to a pony she doesn’t trust?”

Luna sighed. “She may not, but if she counts all of us among those ponies, there’s nopony left to speak to her at all.”

“Okay then…” Rainbow Dash gave a shrug. “Magic friendship explosion?

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “I think that may be overkill.”

“It’s the only way to be sure.” Rainbow Dash pounded a hoof on the arm of her throne, her face a grim line.

“We don’t even have the Elements any more,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes.

“They’re in the tree, it’s right over there.” Rainbow motioned in the direction of the Everfree forest. “We only need them for an afternoon.”

“May I point out that we’re taking issue with Celestia unilaterally deciding what’s best for ponies? I think that using powerful magic to force her into line may not be an improvement,” Cookie said with a dry glare towards Rainbow.

Rainbow glared back. “It worked for Princess Luna.”

“Celestia in not possessed by dark forces. She’s ignoring her friends’ feelings.” Cookie paced a few steps towards Rainbow’s throne, pausing to motion broadly with a foreleg towards the map. “Is this how you react when a pony in Hoofington needs your assistance?”

Rainbow puffed up. “If a pony in Hoofington tried to sell Fluttershy to Discord, I would!”

“Um..” Fluttershy leaned forward slightly, looking at Rainbow. “You tried to sell me to that pony for a Daring Do book…”

“That was different!” Rainbow rolled her eyes. “And I took it back!”

Fluttershy nodded and slunk back in her throne. ”I know. I didn’t mind.”

Cookie rubbed his face with his hoof, and Twilight sighed and said to Rainbow, “How about if we keep the conversation to how we could convince her with words?”

Rainbow slumped in her throne. “We already said we couldn’t.”

“No, I suggested it wouldn’t be as simple as telling her.” Cookie shook his head. “She’s already been confronted about aspects of this several times. She wouldn’t hear it from me, and from the sound of things Luna didn’t fare much better.”

Luna nodded. “She thinks she acts to protect Equestria. To argue against any action she might take seems small compared to that.”

“Um… small things can be kind of important to some ponies,” Fluttershy pointed out, frowning in thought.

“Of course,” Cookie said gently. “But to everypony in Equestria? To Equestria as a whole? That’s how she must view things as a princess, even if she understands in her heart they aren’t right.”

“They can be important to everypony.” Twilight frowned and raised an eyebrow at Cookie. “Like some old jokes that aren’t funny, and how they can make ponies think.”

Cookie froze, then nodded slowly. “Yes…”

He looked around the room at the confused faces of everypony but Twilight, and his brow furrowed as his gaze landed on Luna. “Luna. Why did you turn to the Nightmare?”

Luna looked shocked, then a pained expression crossed her face. With a glare at him she answered, “I was jealous and angry and made a terrible mistake.”

Cookie shook his head. “No. Why did you do it? What event spurred you?”

She pursed her lips. “You know as well as I there wasn’t one reason. Simply centuries of… small things.” Her glare melted as realization dawned on her face.

“Yes.” Cookie looked down for a moment, then back to her with a sad determination. “Luna, I’m sure I was responsible for some number of those small things, and for that you have my deepest apologies. You’ve always known me to be a fool, but I’m afraid I outdid myself, and caused irreparable harm to you in the process.”

Their eyes met, and for a moment an understanding passed between them, apology and forgiveness in both directions. Luna’s sad smile suggested it was welcome, and Cookie couldn’t shake a familiar feeling in the back of his mind.

Eventually Luna shook her head with the same sadness. “Smart Cookie, you were not the cause of all of my troubles.”

“No, but I’m sure I caused my share, and failed in my role as your councillor as well as your friend.” He frowned sharply. “And in doing so I failed not only you, I failed Equestria.”

“Cookie…” Luna said softly. “It’s in the past.”

Cookie nodded. “It is, but we have a problem in the present, and perhaps we can learn from it.” He began to pace around the map, looking at each pony as they came into view. “Celestia believes what she does is not as important as protecting Equestria. I counter that: Small things are a great danger to any nation. Large things can be seen and guarded against, but it’s the small things one rarely notices which form the cracks in our very foundation.”

Twilight nodded. “We caught it this time. But the problem with small things is that they’re small, and they just make sense at the time. So how do we show her that they all add up to something bigger?”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “With something small. Duh.”

“I think Pinkie’s got a point,” Applejack said, sitting up. “Small things can be important to a pony, but they can be good, too. If we can show her something small that means a lot to her, maybe she’d see how the wrong she’s been doin’ means a lot to other ponies.”

Twilight grinned at Applejack. “Right, like when I first found the Elements. I thought that the fate of Equestria didn’t depend on me making friends, it seemed like such a little thing compared to keeping it safe from Nightmare Moon—no offense.” She glanced nervously at Luna.

Luna gave a gracious nod. “None taken, do go on.”

Twilight continued, “But it was the help you all gave me in little, important ways that showed me how powerful friendship can be.”

“But what’s small that might be important to Princess Celestia?” Rarity frowned. “She has everything she might ask for, and a staff and guards to help her with anything she should need.”

Cookie paused in his pacing and looked at Rarity. “No. Those ponies serve the princess, so that nothing small might concern her. If this is to work, it must be something that’s important to Celestia, as a pony.”

“Honey cakes?” Luna suggested, raising an eyebrow at Cookie.

Pinkie Pie nodded. “She hasn’t had a pony to bake for her in waaay too long.”

“Yes… but something more as well.” Cookie looked around the ponies.

“It is Hearth’s Warming,” Fluttershy said, glancing nervously around the circle. “Maybe somepony should get her a present?”

Cookie stared at Fluttershy as the feeling in the back of his mind became something he could name: a connection between ponies whom the stars had placed on opposite sides of the board. A warmth unexpected, and all the more precious for it. A Hearth’s Warming gift.

Fluttershy tried to shrink back behind her mane. “Um… it was just an idea.”

“It’s a brilliant one,” Cookie said softly. “That… that is precisely what is needed.” He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, then looked to Twilight. “I believe I know how I might help. I have a gift for Celestia, I just need to prepare it.”

“What is it?” Rarity asked with a tilt of her head.

“Words,” Cookie answered, then he smiled at Pinkie Pie. “And a bit of baking to make sure she hears them.”

“Atta boy!” Pinkie grinned.

“Hold up,” Rainbow Dash darted into the air, addressing the circle. “Somepony tried to sell our friend to Discord, and we have friendship lasers, but we’re going with words and pastries instead?”

“Personally, I support trying any number of things if it means we can avoid treason,” Rarity said with a pointed look at Rainbow.

Applejack frowned and looked between them. “Yeah, but Smart Cookie said he already talked to her.”

“I did.” Cookie nodded. “And I spoke some powerful words in those conversations, but they were the wrong ones. The words I intend to offer her now are among the most difficult to say, and even more difficult to trust, but if they are accepted I can say with certainty that they are every bit as powerful as the Elements of Harmony.”

Twilight offered a suspicious smirk, to which Cookie responded with a smile and shrug.

Luna looked between them and nodded. “For now, I suggest we leave this in Cookie’s hooves, and if his gift seems not to work we can meet again after the holiday.”

Twilight nodded. “That sounds good.”

Cookie nodded. “Thank you. And thank you all for your insights. It’s an honor to have the help of a council such as this one.”

“It is,” Luna agreed, rising to her hooves. “And if I recall, that boon is to be repaid with fellowship and good company in the kitchen afterwards.”

“You’re all welcome,” Twilight said, starting in that direction with a grin. “I’ll put on some tea.”

“Ya’ still got some of that apple butter I brought ya’?” Applejack asked as she joined Twilight, along with the other ponies. “I can whip up some biscuits right quick.”

“I’ve gotta sit on councils more often!” Pinkie said, bouncing after them.

Cookie held back until the throne room was empty. He glanced at the map, then turned to look at the star on Twilight’s throne. It was her cutie mark, and the same one on the trunk of the tree that bore the Elements of Harmony. It represented a power that had saved Equestria, and the very power that had formed Equestria.

If he was to offer Celestia the gift that she needed, the only magic that could protect him was to wish upon this star. But it had heard him once before, and perhaps it might again.

A blizzard raged outside of the Castle of the Two Sisters. A particularly tasteless blizzard, considering the date. Hearth’s Warming festivities had been cancelled, Princess Celestia urging ponies to celebrate the day safe and warm at their own hearths, but for the six ponies gathered around the fire in the kitchens of the castle, the idea of spending this night apart was utterly, totally unimaginable.

Yet for six months now, Cookie had been imagining it. Imagining the blizzard howling outside without Hurricane and Pansy lying next to each other by the fire, without Platinum and Puddinghead’s songs and Clover’s commentary on the proceedings. This night was perfect; in spite of the storm that echoed the Windogos, this room was full of the wit and wisdom and affection that had kept them at bay. But there would be other Hearth’s Warmings, and too many of them...

Clover’s voice cut through his thoughts. “For the love of the stars, Cookie. Chin up. It’s just a bit of snow.”

Cookie sighed, and his frown deepened as Clover sat down next to him in front of the fire. Celestia had retired for the evening just an hour ago, but even before that Cookie had been plagued by more melancholy than usual. Without her his mind was left to wander, and it seemed drawn to the vast emptiness of the future.

“I’m not bothered by the storm, but you must admit it doesn’t promote pleasant thoughts.”

“And we all know that’s what the weather’s for.” Puddinghead returned from the spread of food across the room with a third helping of pie on her back, bumping it onto the table and then taking a seat. “That’s why Hurricane's in charge of it. He’s the very spirit of pleasant thoughts.”

Hurricane snorted, but his haggard face hinted at a smirk.

Lounging on a plain, sturdy sitting pillow left by the servants, Platinum pursed her lips and took a long drink from her goblet of wine. “I must agree with Cookie, it does put one in mind of the days before the cave.”

“No,” Clover said firmly, then she drained the last of her wine. “I won’t allow it. Puddinghead is going to sing the bawdiest song she knows, and I’m going to down a glass of wine for every metaphor for male genitalia I can decipher.”

As she used her magic to refill the goblet from the decanter on the table, Cookie raised his eyebrows at her. “Blessed darkness, Clover. You’ll die.”

Clover nodded. “Yes, but I certainly won’t be thinking about it!”

“I don’t see why everypony has their tails in a knot,” Hurricane said with a frown. “It was an ugly battle, but it was won, and the world’s the better for it.”

“I don’t have my tail in a knot.” Clover took another long sip of wine. “I am very specifically keeping my tail from knotting.”

“By asking Puddinghead to sing.” Platinum motioned with her goblet. “That does suggest that you’re resorting to drastic measures.”

“I am indeed,” Clover agreed with a nod.

Pansy had been watching Clover from her spot next to Hurricane and said gently, “It’s a perfectly normal storm. I watched weather patrol set it myself.”

Clover sighed. “I’m not frightened by the snow.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Cookie asked, shifting to lean against her.

She pursed her lips and looked at the fire for a moment. “What’s wrong is that my only thought during that time was to wish with every bone from horn to tail that Star Swirl was there to fix it. And every time I think of that, I remember he’s no longer here to fix anything, so I am doing my blasted best to think of anything else.”

“Clover, Star Swirl was a talented pony. But you saved the day without him then, and you can go on now.” Pansy’s face was full of strength and certainty, and as Clover glanced at it she set down her drink and nodded with another sigh.

“You know, you lot don't get the credit you deserve,” Puddinghead said from the table, her mouth full of pie.

Clover nodded. “Yes, being celebrated by ponies everywhere isn't quite enough for a spell none of us had any idea we were casting.”

“Pansy got a promotion, as well,” Hurricane pointed out. “And Clover got a title for it. And Cookie got several hours where Puddinghead left off him.”

“An honor I've never forgotten,” Cookie said with a wry smile.

“You'd best not, as nopony's seen the like again.” Puddinghead chuckled as she left the table and joined the group around the fire. “But I was serious. What Clover said was true, you had no idea you were saving the pony race or founding Equestria at the time. At the time, you all simply thought you were befriending a couple ponies who'd be just as pleased if you died quickly so they might steal your cloak.”

“Now Puddinghead, that's not true.” Clover raised an eyebrow. “I was hoping Cookie would die quickly. His cloak was bigger, and Pansy would've been useful for body heat.”

Cookie chuckled softly. “You say that, but you were the one who offered your confidences first.”

“Lulling you into a false sense of security.” Clover smirked, then looked down at her cup as she went on, “In all honesty, the whole court knew I complained nearly non-stop. Pansy was simply the first pony who ever… listened.”

Pansy frowned, drawing her head up slightly. “I had never complained before that night.”

“We know.” Platinum offered her a sad smile.

For a moment Pansy’s lips pursed, before she drew a breath and went on, “It was admitting weakness and failure, and I couldn't do that, there was nopony I could trust not to whisper it to my troop, or to Commander Hurricane. I was terrified to speak it aloud, even to Clover and Cookie, though I knew they held no sway among the pegasi. Their mockery would have made it true.”

Hurricane wrapped a wing around her and looked her in the eye. “It was the bravest thing you've done, and I don't say that lightly.”

“Scary enough to make a grown stallion cry,” Clover said with a sympathetic smile at Cookie.

“There's no need, Puddinghead,” Cookie added quickly with a sharp frown.

Puddinghead raised her eyebrows at him. “I didn't say a word. If you were the sort to break easily you'd never have lasted that long in my cabinet.”

Cookie shook his head. “That's a different beast. A pony can endure all manner of things from ponies when he doesn't care for their opinions. But to offer a pony respect and empathy and look for it in return, and instead find betrayal and mockery… that is how you break a pony.”

Platinum nodded and smiled at him. “And yet you managed to offer each other trust, despite being strangers of different tribes with no reason to expect it returned. It was no small feat.”

Cookie shrugged. “To be fair, we thought the consequences would be as short lived as we expected to be.”

“Yes, not freezing to death was nearly as pleasant a surprise as having friends,” Clover said with a laugh.

“But nowhere near as surprising as Hurricane believing us,” Cookie added. “I would have sooner asked the Windigos for help if one had wandered into the cave.”

Pansy rolled her eyes and let out a breath. “Imagine how I felt.”

“You had just saved my life, you know,” Hurricane said, raising an eyebrow as he looked down at her.

She smiled at him. “As if you ever valued your life over the honor of Hippocampus.”

He shook his head. “Honor tied to a flag is no honor at all. The honor is in serving ponies, and when what serves them best is to let them go…” He trailed off with a frown, then finished with a drink of cider from the mug in front of him.

“It was hard,” Cookie said with a nod to the old war pony.

Hurricane returned the nod. “You’re stars damned right it was hard. At least I knew my command was tested.”

Puddinghead smirked at him. “Oh yes, you could have led the pegasi to their deaths in an orderly, predictable manner.”

“Hush, Puddinghead,” Platinum said with a sweep of her tail. “Hurricane is right and you know it. We all had our weaknesses as leaders, but we knew them, and we had our strengths as well. To put the nations we’d just moved the stars and a whole blessed tribe of ponies to save into the hooves of three untested ponies—two of them not even of our tribe—and to trust that they had the strength, wisdom, and vision to unite us?”

“For the record, none of us did,” Clover noted. Then she added with a smile, “But together we seem to have managed it, with some help from the Princesses.”

Puddinghead shook her head, setting her bun wobbling. “I was never bothered by that. Girthshire was a democracy, some other poor mule would have taken over for me sooner or later, so why not let those three have a go at it?”

“We could have put it to a vote,” Cookie suggested. “It’s possible that even Girthshire ponies would have recognized that our platform of “continuing to live” was preferable to your platform of blaming the unicorns and pegasi.” He paused and took a long drink of wine before muttering, “I mean, I wouldn’t have placed money on it, but it was possible.”

Puddinghead chuckled for a moment, then her face settled to a wry smile. “I wouldn’t’ve run. Even if I’d been determined to keep Girthshire independent myself, I would’ve endorsed you at the next election. That was the ice that stabbed me in that cave, and these two as well if they’re honest: realizing the darkness blessed mess I’d made, well beyond what I could hope to clean up by myself.”

Platinum considered that, an expression of guilt forming on her face before she looked down. “I honestly did my best. I did all I knew—”

“We all did,” Hurricane said with a grim nod.

Puddinghead nodded and turned that same smile on Cookie. “And the truly remarkable thing, the thing that convinced me that they might be onto something, is that Cookie never blamed me for it. He had every right to, I’d made him miserable and bungled things every step of the way. He could’ve told everypony how, had they elected him, none of this would have happened. He could’ve tossed me right under the cartwheels and made sure I had no say in Equestria. But he didn’t. He trusted me to play a role in another blasted government, and he gave me a chance to make things right.”

Hurricane snorted a laugh. “Save the tail-kissing for his funeral, Puddinghead.”

Cookie shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “If I ever get one.”

“Cookie, I’m afraid that’s one of those events in life where you simply can’t refuse the invitation,” Platinum said, raising an eyebrow.

Clover looked to Cookie, and he gave a resigned nod. She shrugged, turning back to Platinum. “You know Cookie isn’t one for formalities. He’s skipping the whole death business.”

Hurricane frowned in confusion. “It’s not optional.”

“I didn’t select it.” Cookie took a drink. “It seems that immortality has been imposed upon me.”

“Is that so?” Hurricane said, eyeing Cookie with suspicion.

“Actually, it is,” Cookie said with a sigh. “Clover’s been looking into it, but it seems some magic has taken up residence within me. At the very least I shall live indefinitely.”

“I see.” Platinum looked to Clover, who just nodded. She turned to Cookie and cleared her throat. “I would think that knowing one might live forever should inspire… joy, perhaps? Wonder? At least a slightly better than average mood?”

Clover tilted her head. “You would think that, and so would any other sane pony in the world. So of course Cookie is making himself miserable.”

“Cookie…” Pansy stared at him, her eyes wide. “This is wonderful! You’ll have Princess Celestia, and she’ll have you, and you’ll carry our memories.”

“It’s a travesty.” He rubbed a hoof over his face. “Each of you deserves this far more than I do. Hurricane is stronger than me ten times over, Clover is far more intelligent, and Pansy’s wisdom and judgement is more keen. Platinum can gracefully lead ponies with a toss of her head, and Puddinghead understands their base instincts well enough to have soundly beat me in open election. What do I have to offer the world?”

“I’m sure Princess Celestia can think of something…” Puddinghead smirked.

Clover rolled her eyes and nudged him with an elbow. “Ideas, Cookie. You have ideas.”

“I’ve already given Equestria the best of those in the charter. I could die tonight and the world would be no worse for it, and yet…” Cookie waved a hoof at the absurdity.

Puddinghead shrugged, and got up to refill her drink. “Fine, you don’t deserve it. You’re a sorry excuse for a pony who gets his head so far up his rear end that he’s trying to see through his tail and hear through his cutie mark.”

Pansy glared at her. “Puddinghead, have you ever considered not making things worse?”

“Joke’s on you, nothing I say can make Cookie feel worse. He does more than I ever could to himself. But I can tell him the truth.” She looked at Cookie out of the corner of her eye and offered a knowing smile. “And the truth is, not a single blasted one of us would deserve it. We’ve all been fools and cowards, bastards and liars, hopeless and useless and damned by the stars to an icy grave.”

“Care to argue with that, anypony?” Puddinghead looked around the room, her chin raised in challenge.

Each pony there had the self-awareness to avoid her eyes, looking at the floor or their drinks with expressions that spoke of unpleasant memories coming quickly to mind.

Puddinghead nodded and went on, “But we’ve been blessed, too. And from time to time we manage to be kind and brave and wise, and strong and honorable. We manage to be useful, and to teach and inspire each other. Not often enough to deserve our blessings, but often enough to deserve one another. And that’s enough to make a fire in the darkness, as it turns out.”

She turned to Cookie and pointed a hoof at him. “So stop whining about how you don’t deserve it, and start figuring out how you might do a bit each day so that this day at least you might deserve a bit of it. And when you fail—and you will fail, Smart Cookie—don’t you dare make that all that you are. Because you’re carrying all of the lessons we taught you within you, and that’s how we’re trying to deserve our own blessings.”

Cookie blinked at her for several moments. “Well said. Thank you. I shall remember that always.”

Puddinghead snorted with a fond smile. “Of course you won’t, you fool.”

Hurricane nodded and added, “You’ll spend most of eternity with your tail in a knot over taxes and what the council wants to do with the roads.”

“But we’ve no doubt you’ll remember it when it counts…” Clover grinned and offered him a nuzzle. “Which is good enough for a fire in the darkness.”

Author's Note:

Not much of a post-update blog, but end credits music is here.