• 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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3 - The Best Kind of Friend

The large house still smelled odd to Celestia, more used to living in stone castles than the wooden building that was her temporary home. Looking out the window, she could see across the bustling young town of Everfree, where her future castle was being built of heavy, comforting stone. Laid out before her were all manner of houses and businesses of stone or wood, freshly finished or under construction.

Work should have continued even now, but instead ponies milled in front of her home. Unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies together gathered in small groups, nervously glancing at the building. At times fights broke out, and with each one her heart fell. She wanted to step outside and calm the ponies, but for that she would need a solution to offer them.

The window she stood before was in her temporary council chamber, where she was supposed to be focused on repairing the situation at hoof. Her mind only wandered the city to escape what surrounded her in the room. Luna looked to her, as did the founders of Equestria, and Star Swirl, with some mix of worry and discontent.

All but one of the founders, at least. While most of them leaned forward or shifted anxiously, Smart Cookie leaned back and studied her, the hint of a smile on his face.

That had been his way since they asked the sisters to rule. She could feel his contempt. It was well known that monarchy wasn’t his prefered form of government, and that he’d only agreed to the sisters' rule after being convinced of the strain elections might put on the newly united tribes. Even with the matter decided, when he spoke to her he called her Celestia; never Princess Celestia or Your Highness. There was no way to disrespect him in kind, he asked no honorific; he was simply Smart Cookie to everypony, high and low.

And he watched her now, smiling at her discomfort.

“Sister, what shall we do?” Luna whispered, her face barely concealing her panic.

Celestia didn’t know how to answer. She bit her lip, fighting the urge to look to Star Swirl and ask the same. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. Magic couldn’t untangle this knot.

The pegasi had dropped too much rain on the reservoir. They had to, Commander Hurricane claimed, or it would have run too far abroad for them to gather it back with their tornado. The surplus was unneeded now, but in a year’s time it would save countless hours of water gathering.

But the dam had burst, and flooded the earth ponies’ fields, ruining their crops. There would be a shortage of food, and the earth ponies lay the blame at the hooves of the pegasi, while the pegasi lay the blame at the hooves of the earth ponies and unicorns who had built the dam and located their farms in the flood zone down river.

The fields could be drained and the dam repaired. Some food could be saved, and she could send ponies around the countryside to gather wild food, though nopony would be happy with that. It would be hard work, and take ponies away from their families, and they would still end up carefully rationing all winter. Tensions were already growing between the tribes, and there seemed to be no answer that would ease that.

“Your Majesties? What is your plan?” Commander Hurricane asked, his face dark. His straight, proud military bearing reminded Celestia that even in united Equestria, the pegasi would stand as a tribe to defend their honor.

Celestia hesitated. “We… we shall drain the fields, and send ponies to gather wild food for the winter.” She glanced at her judges. Their frowns deepened except for Smart Cookie, who nodded. She wondered how low his opinion of her must be, that this pitiful display was what he expected.

“The earth ponies aren’t going to like that,” Chancellor Puddinghead warned. She carefully eyed Hurricane. “We want an apology and aid from the pegasi in draining and rebuilding our farms.”

“If this brings to mind the vision of a foal stomping his hoof and pouting, you’re not incorrect,” Smart Cookie said as an aside to Clover the Clever, though he was loud enough for everypony to hear. Clover cracked a smile, but Puddinghead just glared at him.

“Unification was supposed to mean that we work together, not ‘dump everything on the earth ponies’,” she added.

“We don’t know how to build farms, and we’re still dealing with the weather surplus,” Captain Pansy pointed out. Her voice held sympathy that seemed to give Puddinghead pause, until Commander Hurricane’s harsh voice cut in:

“And as for an apology—”

“You will issue one,” Celestia interrupted. “It was a mistake, no harm was intended, but the pegasi can still apologize for the suffering they accidentally caused the earth ponies. However, the earth ponies will rebuild their own farms, while the unicorns tend to repairs on the dam. And all three tribes will assist in gathering food, we shall need every set of hooves we can get.”

Smart Cookie raised his eyebrows. “The pegasi’s apology should help with that. By the time they’re done swallowing their pride, they shouldn’t need to eat until spring.”

Hurricane frowned and ruffled his feathers, pulling himself up to his full height. “A pegasus would never neglect an apology when they’re at fault!”

“A pegasus wouldn’t, you’re absolutely right.” Smart Cookie nodded. “That pegasus is Pansy. The rest of you…”

“If you were a pony of honor, I’d ask you to step outside,” Hurricane grumbled, shaking his head as he returned to his normal posture.

Smart Cookie smiled. “If you held me to your code of honor, you would have done me in ages ago.”

Princess Platinum spoke up with a frown, “Princess Celestia, with all due respect, this is merely transferring the sour feelings from the earth ponies to the pegasi, while putting the weight of repairs on the shoulders of the earth ponies and the unicorns. It doesn’t actually solve anything.”

“Yes, and we’ll all still have to clean our own chamber pots, as well.” Smart Cookie idly waved a hoof. “Celestia has failed to solve all of our problems. She’s offered a partial solution which is logical and unbiased, so naturally everypony will hate it.” He paused and nodded to Celestia. “Well done.”

Star Swirl gave a snorting chuckle, while the rest of the founders reluctantly nodded.

“Cookie is right,” Clover said, smiling at Celestia. “It’s an unfortunate situation, and there’s more than enough extra work to go around. Nopony is going to like that, and there’s nothing you can do to make them like it, but you’ve distributed it fairly.”

“Thank you, I’ll make the announcement now, before tensions escalate any further,” Celestia said, walking toward the door. While she felt no more certain of her plan, she was glad to know that it hadn’t cost her the respect of her council. Though far more important was whether it would cost her the respect of her ponies.

At least if they hated it, they might direct that at her rather than the other tribes.

“Celestia,” Smart Cookie’s voice cut through her thoughts. She looked up, and he smiled gently at her. “Would you mind if I said a few words first? That crowd out there is a bit rowdy.”

She frowned. “I’m sure I can explain my decision myself. It’s not complicated.”

Smart Cookie nodded. “I’m sure you can explain your decision as well. I’d like to explain why they should listen to that. I’ve found, at times like this, ponies need to be reminded how to go about thinking before they try it themselves.”

Celestia tilted her head and considered what he might mean. Of course they would listen to her, they had been waiting all day for this news. And she knew not all ponies were capable of thinking rationally, she wasn’t sure what Cookie might say in a short speech to change that. She looked to Star Swirl.

Star Swirl stroked his beard. “Well I admit I’m curious. Cookie is well liked by working ponies, at least judging by the amount of time he spends loitering in tea shops and salt bars.” He raised an eyebrow at Smart Cookie, who just smirked in response. Star Swirl looked back to Celestia. “I doubt it could harm anything.”

“Very well,” Celestia nodded. “If you please, Smart Cookie?”

“Nothing would please me more.”

Celestia beckoned Luna to her side. Luna was barely out of foalhood, an awkward, gangly age for an alicorn, and Celestia tried to spare her the difficulties of rule. But she was also a princess and needed to take a share of responsibility for proclamations like this, so that ponies would respect her royal position as she assumed more duties.

The two sisters led the council to the porch in front of the house, which served as a makeshift stage. The small groups of ponies gathered into a crowd in front of them, their faces and manes forming a sea of bright colors. Towards the back pegasi hovered above the crowd and earth ponies and unicorns stood on crates and carts for a better view. Hundreds of eyes watched, and those ponies would be the ones to report to the rest of the town what was said here today.

Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Celestia nodded to Smart Cookie as she stood to the back of the platform.

He stepped forward and the crowd hushed, save for a few voices calling out “Cookie, what’s the word?” “What’re we going to do?”

One loud voice rose above them, “The pegasi will be made to fix this mess, right Cookie?”

A murmur of dissatisfaction followed, and several pegasi rose into the air, searching for the speaker.

Smart Cookie just grinned and answered, “If by ‘this mess’ you mean your mane, Barley, I understand there’s a fine pegasus barber you can see on Dressage Street.”

The crowd tittered and relaxed, and even Commander Hurricane gave an amused snort.

The grin on Smart Cookie’s face changed slightly, and he raised his eyebrows as he went on, “On the other hoof, if you mean this ridiculous display you ponies have been putting on all morning, I’m afraid we wouldn’t let the pegasi build a brig large enough to lock up the lot of you. Much to Commander Hurricane’s dismay.”

Muttered excuses and the shifting and pawing of hooves were the only sounds as the ponies otherwise grew quiet.

“If, by some chance, you’re referring to the current situation facing all of the ponies in Everfree... Celestia is going to explain the plan going forward for this year.” He paused and looked out at the expectant faces, adding plainly, “It’s not a very good one.”

Celestia’s eyes went wide, and she felt a stab in her heart as a nervous laugh ran through the crowd. Was this his plan, to make her look a fool?

“But it is the best one a ruler could offer. No proclamation can heal divides we choose to build and defend between tribes,” Smart Cookie said, glancing pointedly at the pony who had called to him before. Then he turned back to the rest of the crowd. “And no path forward will undo all of the damage done to our farms and crops. Those are not within the reach of the powers we granted these sisters, and they’re not within the power of anypony who might suggest they could do the job.”

Ponies nodded thoughtfully and glanced at each other and at Celestia. Many of them still looked nervous, but the tension had faded to worry. It mirrored what she felt in her heart though she managed to keep her demeanor calm and controlled.

Smart Cookie seemed to see it in the audience as well, and answered them with a softer, serious expression. “We selected Celestia and Luna not because they are above all ponies, but because they can represent all ponies equally. Yes, they are young and untested, but they are intelligent and fair. Youth grows old and tests can be mastered, but character shines through it all.”

He glanced back, and Celestia felt he intended that for her as much as the ponies in front of him. Then his attention returned to the crowd.

“So with that in mind, I ask that we all do our best in the coming seasons. And I ask that we remember that what should be expected of our rulers, our fellow ponies, and ourselves is honor, integrity, and compassion… but never perfection.”

Amidst shouts of agreement and the stomping of hooves, Smart Cookie turned from the crowd and smiled at Celestia, offering her a wink as he trotted to a spot at the back of the platform.

Celestia felt the muscles in her back relax, and she breathed deeply for the first time that day; maybe the first time in months. She stepped forward and explained her plan with confidence, answering questions and making assignments to organize the various efforts.

But through it all, her gaze continued to wander to the stallion in the doorway; no longer seeking approval or dreading reproach, but offering thanks. In return she felt no contempt from him, simply honest appraisal that she had no reason to fear. The things he valued in her were the things she valued in herself, she could look in a mirror and see if she was living up to them. Knowing that, she felt her heart open to him. She had found the best kind of friend.

...and one with a rather attractive way of smiling at her, she had to admit.

***

As the crowd of ponies started to disperse and Celestia and Luna went back inside their house, Smart Cookie stepped off the porch and into the bustling crowd of ponies in the muddy street. He started in the direction of the farms, to see if he could lend a hoof there and to make sure his part of the message made its way to those ponies along with the assignments for extra work.

He’d only gone a short distance when Clover trotted up beside him, slowing to walk in step. Ponies around them gave them a respectful berth; they were royal advisers after all, and probably going to be conferring about something terribly important like how badly the rationing would affect prices at the pub they went to after council meetings. He looked over and smiled at her as they stepped through a puddle; she didn’t even bother to magically lift her robes.

“Back to the library?” he asked her.

She nodded, glancing over at him. “We’ve all got work to do. I take it you approve of Princess Celestia’s relief efforts?”

Cookie shrugged. “Get the place cleaned up and try to scrape some food together for winter? It sounds reasonable to me.”

“It was kind of you to give that speech,” Clover smiled.

“Ponies were going to mistake it for politics, rather than something that actually matters,” Cookie said with a chuckle.

Clover rolled her eyes, the smile still on her face. “Still, you could have let her discover that on her own.”

Cookie gave a nod to a stallion who tipped his hat to them as they passed, then smirked at Clover. “I know it might seem otherwise to at times, but I don’t actually make a game of making things harder for other ponies.”

“Shall we put that to a vote?” She smirked back and gave a friendly nudge. “I’m just happy the princesses are overcoming your trepidations.”

“It was never the ponies themselves I took issue with,” he pointed out. “I see the wisdom in putting an alicorn in charge, and Celestia is undisputably an admirable pony, though I haven’t seen enough of the younger one to judge. It’s the trappings… the title, the castle.”

Clover shrugged. “They’re just trappings. They must be called something, and live somewhere.”

“And what’s wrong with calling them Celestia and Luna, and housing them in that rather well-appointed house they’re in now?” Cookie motioned back towards it with his head.

“It’s the look of things, Cookie,” she explained patiently. “Ponies expect them to have a castle.”

“Well, I don’t.” Cookie frowned, looking around at the shops and houses and ponies going about their business, waving to those who waved to him. “You’re more used to it, so answer me, how can ponies help but expect more from a princess than a pony? How can they help seeing themselves as tools for her to use in the running of a kingdom, and being disappointed when she is not at all times a master statespony? It seems to me a recipe for disappointment and discontent on the one side and an iron cage ill-suited to any pony of flesh and blood on the other.”

Clover nodded, but her face turned to a sly smile. “I suppose that’s a fair assessment, but please, tell me again about the results of earth pony democracy?”

Cookie smiled and snorted. “Everypony expects our politicians to be idiots, and nopony would trust them farther than we could throw them. If there’s an order of the world that can be observed from watching ponies, surely this is nature’s design for us.”

She chuckled. “Not everypony shares your pessimism.”

“Pessimism?” Cookie exclaimed with mock indignation. “To the contrary, it requires unabashed optimism or hopeless foolishness to believe we can work together and build a society in spite of that. You may take your pick as to which I display.”

Clover shook her head, then glanced over at the windows of a hat shop. “Do you find Princess Celestia attractive?”

Cookie blinked. “I thought we were talking about government?”

“You’re always thinking about government, so you always think ponies are talking about it.” Clover smiled at him. “I was talking about the princesses. Do you find Princess Celestia attractive?”

“Doesn’t everypony?” He shrugged. “I’ve heard five odes to her beauty this morning.”

Clover nodded, studying him with a sideways glance. “I suppose, but not everypony is bold enough to ask to court her.”

Cookie stopped short, his mouth falling open. He took a few steps at a trot to catch up to where Clover still casually walked on. “Clover, I believe that one of those potions of Star Swirl’s has finally driven you mad.”

“It’s mad to feel that you might need a special somepony in your life?” Clover smirked.

“It’s mad to feel that pony might be Celestia.” His brain was a jumble, trying to understand how the conversation had taken this turn, but that was the one thought he was certain of.

“Why is that mad?” Clover asked, tilting her head.

Cookie grappled with his other thoughts. “Because she’s a princess.”

“You don’t care a spark about that,” Clover pointed out, smiling.

“It would give the wrong appearance, politically.” He waved a hoof. “What’s the point of selecting an alicorn leader if she takes an earth pony husband?”

“I don’t see a good number of alicorn stallions running about. The common ponies of all tribes love you.” Clover raised her eyebrows. “Of course, it would get under the skin of the nobles to see you so favored.”

Cookie gave her a grim smirk. “Clever.”

Clover chuckled. “That’s what they call me.” She looked over at him. “But, of course, I don’t propose this as a political alliance, I was merely answering your concern. You could keep the affair secret, if you liked.”

“Then why do you propose this?” Cookie furrowed his brow. “If it’s concern for my lovelife, there are more available mares than Celestia that you could throw at me.”

"Are there?” She grinned at him. “I pity the shopkeeper or farmer you try to court; one can only hope she has an unending patience for philosophical debate and a wit sharp enough to keep you at bay.” She shook her head at the thought. “Princess Celestia keeps counsel with Star Swirl, I know she’s your equal. There are few mares I could say that of.”

Cookie raised an eyebrow. “Is it perhaps that counsel she’s keeping with Star Swirl that’s behind all of this? Worried it might be getting closer than the counsel you keep?”

“I’d tell you that things between me and Star Swirl aren’t your business, but that would be rather rich of me right now.” Clover smirked. “Let’s just say that the experiments are coming along nicely, and I’m not at all worried that Princess Celestia might attempt to reproduce them. But I am worried about her. You spoke before of an iron cage ill suited to anypony of flesh and blood… from her conversations with Star Swirl, I fear she knows that’s her fate. He tries to help her become strong enough to bear it, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a pony who could free her from that…”

“She’s the one building the castle, and the one who puts on the crown every day,” Cookie pointed out, frowning. As he said it, the same sympathies that made him speak on her behalf to the other founders and the crowd of ponies snuck back into his mind.

Clover rolled her eyes. “Because it’s expected of her. Just… talk to her? See if she’d like the chance to take the crown off?”

Cookie looked down at his muddy hooves and gave a snort of laughter. It was utterly ridiculous, but he’d never get Clover off his back any other way. “Okay. Very well, I’ll ask if she’d like to join me for tea.” He smiled at Clover. “Happy?”

She shook her head. “No. I’ve still got to pore over maps all night to figure out the most likely places to find food outside the kingdom.” Then she gave him a gentle smile. “But I’m hopeful for the two of you, at least.”