• Published 14th Feb 2017
  • 1,977 Views, 244 Comments

Sun and Hearth - bookplayer

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

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4 - By the Stars

The moon rose at its appointed time over Canterlot, and the stars formed their timeless patterns across the sky. Celestia watched from her balcony, treating herself to a raspberry chocolate eclair the kitchen sent up. The pastries the palace made were rich and unfilling; if they’d sent up six she would have eaten them all and probably given herself a stomach ache.

She took this time every night after lowering the sun to appreciate the stars for a few moments. They’d done so much for ponies, acting as a way to navigate and time the turning of the year, as illustrations for any number of stories, as something to wish upon, and as a reminder of just how little all of them, even alicorns, were, compared to the universe. When she was young, the stars had been called as witness to oaths, both important and frivolous, just as her name was used by ponies today. She wondered if the stars found it as amusing as she did; if what seemed constant and eternal to her was simply the course of a star’s life. They winked at her, and she smiled and went inside.

In her sitting room she found a new book and a tea tray. The book was one she’d been looking forward to reading, humorous essays by a unicorn chef in Manehattan. She’d come to prize this kind of book above all others; windows into the lives of ponies felt both familiar and yet unique, with interesting details nopony would have thought to explain to her. She soon found herself idly sipping a Zebrician brew and lost in the goings on of a busy Manehattan kitchen.

She was interrupted by a knock on the door to her sitting room, and reluctantly laid aside her book as she called, “Enter, please.”

Luna stuck her head through the doorway. “I don’t disturb you, I hope?”

“Not at all,” Celestia smiled with barely a glance at her book. “Would you like some tea?”

“Thank you,” Luna said with a nod, sitting across the tray from Celestia, while Celestia’s magic poured her tea and floated it to her. Luna regarded the cup with a satisfied smirk as she took it and took a sip.

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “I take it the tea meets your approval?”

Luna looked confused, then blushed. “Oh, yes, of course… I was thinking about somepony.”

“Somepony with lesser tea?” Celestia asked, taking a sip.

“Somepony with lesser manners,” Luna answered, rolling her eyes. “I’ve been to see Smart Cookie.”

Celestia's eyes darted to Luna, the only hint of her surprise. “And how was Cookie?”

“As infuriating as ever,” Luna grumbled. She glanced down at her tea, biting her lip, before she looked up and said, “Sister, there’s an important matter you must discuss with him. I tried, but even after accepting an apology for my previous behavior, he remained obstinate.”

Taking a sip of tea to suppress her smile, Celestia nodded. “He certainly can be. What’s so important that you’d bother trying to sway him?”

“I’ve seen the dreams of Cadance and Twilight Sparkle.” Luna paused, taking a sip of her tea.

A frown crossed Celestia’s face, and she felt a tension come over her. “There’s something there troubling enough to reveal?”

Luna nodded and continued, “There are fears there… Cadance fears losing Shining Armor one day. She loves him, he gives her strength, yet she knows an end will come. And Twilight fears to even open her heart. She can already imagine the pain of losing her friends, so she guards herself from losing love by hiding romantic feelings in the dark corners of her mind. It is my job to protect them, and assure that their dreams bring them comfort, but there’s no comfort I can offer.”

Celestia relaxed and nodded. “These are fears they’ll have to face, someday.”

“You haven’t had to face them,” Luna pointed out. Her face was steady, there was no accusation in her voice, but Celestia averted her eyes, regardless.

“I have lost ponies, Luna. Mentors, dear friends—”

“But not Smart Cookie,” Luna pressed. “Celestia, he lives through some magic, and if we can find it, Cadance and Twilight can know the comfort you’ve known.”

“I have tried,” Celestia answered. “I’ve taken a number of scholars, at the height of their powers, to try to find the answer. The magic or spell isn’t related to any school of magic they’d experienced.”

“You’ve not taken Cadance, nor Twilight.” Luna raised her eyebrows. “Sister, you know that given a puzzle like this, Twilight Sparkle will find the answer. She has the sharpest mind I’ve seen since Star Swirl passed away. And Cadance… Cadance is the master of love magic.”

“It’s true.” Celestia took a sip of her tea, once again avoiding Luna’s eyes.

“This is no accident. You keep this from them for a reason.”

“Yes,” Celestia said, daring a glance at her sister’s disapproving face. “For the reasons you just said. If you discussed the matter with Cookie, you know there are certain answers he doesn’t want to hear.” Celestia frowned and shook her head. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they could get to the bottom of this, but it’s becoming more likely that the bottom is a place we’d rather not get to.”

Luna took a sip of tea, considering. “Do you agree with whatever reason he has for not wanting to know? He wouldn’t explain the matter to me.”

Celestia sighed. “I… understand it. Maybe I don’t think it’s as dire as he does, but I respect him enough to make his own decisions about the issue.”

Once again, Luna’s eyebrows raised in mild surprise. “Even as it harms Twilight and Cadance?”

“It doesn’t really harm them…” Celestia said slowly, fighting her natural sympathy and desire to protect her beloved students from all pain. “They have fears, but what pony doesn’t? They’ll face them someday, and both of them are strong enough to conquer them.”

Luna nodded. “While you shall never have to.”

Whether Luna intended it or not, Celestia felt the cut in her words. She subtly drew herself up, strengthening her pose to lend weight to her next words. “I loved Cookie well before we realized we’d be together forever, and if he was going to die tomorrow, I’d still love him. I hope nopony who knows me thinks I would hide from those fears.”

“Of course not, Tia,” Luna protested.

Celestia nodded and relaxed, “And if it’s true that my love caused this, then someday Cadance will realize the same about Shining Armor, and we won’t need to concern ourselves with exactly why.”

“And if there’s some simple spell you enacted with Smart Cookie? One that Cadance could easily enact with Shining Armor, if only she knew?” Luna asked.

Celestia pressed a weary hoof to her temple. “Luna. I don’t make this decision alone. You said yourself, Cookie is obstinate on this point.”

Luna set aside her tea, leaning forward slightly. “He is when I speak to him. He’d do anything for you, Tia. You know that.”

“I don’t know that,” Celestia said firmly. “He may, but I’ve never asked him to do more than he pleased for me.”

“Then after so long, I would think he owes you, especially if your love has preserved him for all this time,” Luna pointed out.

Celestia shook her head, frowning. “Cookie owes me nothing. There is no balance sheet to our relationship.”

“One does not need a balance sheet to owe a debt of gratitude, or of honor.” Luna raised an eyebrow. “And it is not for yourself that you ask, Tia. It’s for Twilight and Cadance. I know that you love them, would you not do anything for them?”

“Don’t dare suggest that I need to choose between them and Cookie,” Celestia snapped with more force than she intended.

“Then I will not.” Luna shrank back slightly, taking up her tea again and taking a sip. “But what about Smart Cookie and Equestria?”

Celestia’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”

“Fear drives ponies to make poor choices,” Luna pointed out. “Perhaps Twilight and Cadance are strong enough to conquer that, as you say. But what of Discord? What shall happen when he realizes that Fluttershy may die?”

Celestia hesitated. “Discord knows friendship. He will make new friends.”

Luna tilted her head. “You consider him that strong? That predictable?”

“I…” Celestia couldn’t find an honest answer to the question. She didn’t, of course, and knew he might be a danger at that point. She had accounted for that, and considered it worth the risk in hopes of his true reformation. But she hadn’t considered there might be another option, and it wasn’t an idea to be explored in the time it took to drink a cup of tea.

“Celestia, please understand me.” Luna’s voice turned gentle, but she remained firm in bearing. “I have no lover, and don’t believe I will wish for one for some time, if ever. I don’t fear losing love, I fear that no mortal could understand my experiences. I’m speaking only from concern for my friends, and for Equestria. But I am content to leave it to your wisdom, I’ve said all I have to say.”

Celestia swallowed, but offered Luna a nod. “I understand. I will consider it.”

Rising to her hooves, Luna offered a nod in return. “Thank you, Tia. I must go, my ponies are dreaming.”

Celestia smiled. “Pleasent dreams, then.”

“I do my best,” Luna said, walking to the door with the hint of a smile on her face.

As the door closed behind Luna, Celestia looked to her book and cold tea, but they no longer offered any hope of escape. When faced with a weight like this there was one pony who could remove it, even if only for a few hours, but now even seeing Cookie couldn’t comfort her. She rose to her hooves and walked out to the balcony.

The stars still shone above, now shifted by time but always in their course. She wished that she could navigate by them like the ponies of old. But they offered no path through these waters; they’d watched love and trust and ponies die, they’d watched nations fall. They had never revealed a way to stay safe from that, at least not that ponies had ever found. If they had hearts that were troubled by this, they didn’t show Celestia. They just twinkled in stately grace.

At exactly three o’clock on a late summer day, Celestia stepped into the dim, narrow stairwell wedged between a haberdashery and a store selling dry goods. Her wings brushed against the wooden walls, and when she got to the top it was difficult for her to turn to knock on the door to her right. She was glad she left her guards below at the street entrance.

Her knock was answered quickly by Smart Cookie. He seemed as he always did, save for having brushed his floppy brown mane. She was under the impression, or perhaps it was her hope, that his invitation to tea might have been an attempt to court her. She was a young mare, and not unattractive, or so the bards said; though she had to admit they’d hardly have said anything else of a princess. And the awkward way Smart Cookie had issued the invitation, specifically for her and not her sister, and insisting that he be allowed to host, gave her the feeling she was being asked as more than a formality. Her heart fell slightly, wondering if she’d been mistaken, but she fixed a polite smile on her face.

“Hello…” he said with a smile, stepping back to give her room to enter.

“Good afternoon, Smart Cookie.” She nodded as she stepped into a small sitting room.

She noticed an inexpensive and well used writing desk, and bookshelves messily stuffed with worn books and scrolls. There was a couch with shabby upholstery, partly covered by a bright, well made quilt. On the floor was a colorful braided rug and a few mismatched cotton floor pillows. The effect was that the room felt small and crowded, but it was clean, and it seemed some attempt had been made to present it as well as possible.

Celestia took a seat on one of the floor pillows, curling her tail around herself, while Smart Cookie stepped into another room. He returned balancing a tea tray on his back, which he expertly slid onto a low table. Celestia eyed the large, sugary looking rolls on the tray, but Smart Cookie sat on the couch, making no move to serve.

“Thank you for having me,” Celestia said, trying to ignore the sweets in favor of her host. “I rarely get the chance to visit ponies at their homes.”

“Thank you for coming. I’m sure it’s not as comfortable as your private sitting room...” he trailed off, glancing around nervously.

“Oh, no. It’s lovely.” She smiled gently. “Cozy, I’d call it.”

Smart Cookie gave a laugh, relaxing. “You’d be generous.” He motioned to the tray. “Please, help yourself to some tea and rolls.”

Celestia blinked, though she managed to keep the smile on her face. She’d never served herself tea in another pony’s home. But of course, there was no reason not to, since he offered, and those rolls did look delicious.

With her magic she poured herself some tea, and placed a roll on a small plate, floating them next to her. “Thank you. Are you having some as well? Would you like me to pour?”

“I can get it myself.” He smiled and got up, fixing his roll and tea then returning to his seat. He held his tea in hoof, but set his plate next to him on the seat of the couch. Celestia smirked to keep from giggling at the pony who so clearly didn’t care about the appearance of propriety in the face of practicality.

“So…” Smart Cookie started, before taking a sip of tea as though it had just appeared in his hoof.

Celestia smiled and took a sip of her own tea. “Smart Cookie, may I ask you a question?”

He grinned, relief washing over his face. “Of course.”

She tilted her head and asked as gently as she could, “Why do you not call my sister or myself by our titles?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it and gave a chuckle. “I’m not sure I can answer that. I promised somepony I’d avoid giving you a lecture on my political philosophy.”

“Well now I’m even more curious,” Celestia said, raising an eyebrow. “I promise I won’t tell Clover.”

Smart Cookie raised an eyebrow in return. “Did she speak with you as well?”

She took a sip of tea, letting him wonder for a moment. “No. But if a mare is offering you advice on conversation, it would most likely be Clover. I can’t imagine Captain Pansy being that forward.”

He gave an approving nod that brought a small smile to Celestia’s face. “Well, if you’re willing to offer me confidentiality…”

“I won’t get you in trouble.” Celestia relaxed and took a bite of her roll. It was sweetened with honey, and despite a hearty texture it seemed to melt in her mouth. At the first taste she knew it wasn’t long for this world, and the other rolls on the tray were in mortal danger as well. But she was distracted from the sweets by Smart Cookie.

Smart Cookie leaned forward, relaxed and eager. “In that case... I feel that noble titles exist to divide ponies. They aren’t simply a job title, like Chancellor, or a descriptor, they’re a class. The word ‘princess’ assumes I should offer you respect aside from your worth as a pony or a ruler. To me, this is the same thinking that says I should offer earth ponies respect above the other tribes simply for being earth ponies, and I’m sure we can agree that thinking has caused more than enough trouble. So to me, you shall always be Celestia and Luna, rulers of Equestria, and I offer you my respect as a fellow pony, and based on any accomplishments you both may add through your rule.”

Celestia smiled as he finished, even though she realized that her roll seemed to have vanished. “And you hold me only to the standards you might hold any pony doing their job, you said as much in your speech.”

He nodded. “I do. You are a pony, after all. I’ve not met one yet who’s achieved perfection, though I’ve met many who wished me to believe it.”

“I appreciated your speech,” she said earnestly. “Are these opinions commonly held by earth ponies?”

He gave a sorry smile. “No, for all that we’ve combined politics and entertainment into the brilliant farce we call democracy, most still hold that a princess is a princess, and to be treated as such.”

“You were a politician yourself, I understand?” she asked.

He took a sip of tea, then nodded. “An appointee, Secretary to the Chancellor, though since the founding my job is more that of a co-representative of the tribe. Making sure you have their interests at heart and all that.”

Celestia smiled and raised an eyebrow. “And do you feel that I do?”

“I hope not. Ruling a country is not a game where you should judge earth ponies winners at the expense of the other tribes. But it turns out that most earth ponies are ponies, and as long as you have the interests of all ponies at heart, they’re unlikely to see the difference.” He leaned back with a smile on his face. “And that, I think, you do.”

“I hope that I do have everypony’s interests at heart.” She chuckled softly. “You’re a strange pony, Smart Cookie.”

“Yes, well…” A blush crept to his cheeks and he looked down. “Clover did warn me not to talk politics.”

“I admit that I hardly talk of anything else. Maybe a bit of magic with Star Swirl.” She considered a moment, still smiling, then said, “But, I like talking about politics with you. It’s refreshing to hear somepony speak with your passion.”

Smart Cookie looked up at her with what seemed to be a genuine smile. “It’s rare that I have somepony so charming who cares to hear it.”

“Thank you,” Celestia lowered her eyes demurely, but she felt a flush of pride, hoping that he really had found such a simple and natural conversation charming.

“So, you’re having a castle built?” Cookie asked, taking a bite of his roll.

Celestia nodded. “We are. It’s mostly for show, there are ponies who would be impressed by nothing less. Though I admit that Luna and I are adding a few touches for our own amusement…” The thought occurred to her that he might think such things were frivolous, especially for a pony of her station, so she hurried to add, “Nothing wasteful. In fact, in a few cases we’re cutting some corners.” She grinned, then noticed the confused look on his face. She shook her head. “It’s… foolishness.”

Smart Cookie just smiled. “Everypony needs some foolishness. Though I find it hard to imagine you getting up to foolishness.”

She smirked. “That’s because I am a princess.”

He laughed. “You’re right, I shall need to try harder.”

“Perhaps you can assist me,” she wondered, considering the pony in front of her. He certainly had a sense of humor, and ‘stuffy’ was the last word she would use to describe him.

“I think I would enjoy that.” He nodded, taking a sip of tea.

“I’ll have to think of something fun.” Celestia grinned. “It would be unfair to bring another pony into my contests with Luna, but perhaps we could prepare some trickery for Star Swirl and Clover.”

He nearly spit out his tea, then laughed. “Star Swirl and Clover? Are you sure that tricking masters of magic is wise?”

She raised her eyebrows. “I thought we already agreed it’s quite foolish.”

“Well there’s foolish, and then there’s having a lark at somepony who can cast you to the bottom of the ocean,” he pointed out.

“They’d never cast a pony that deep. It would be simple to teleport back,” Celestia noted with a smile.

Smart Cookie raised an eyebrow. “Speak for yourself.”

Celestia blinked. “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot you don’t cast spells.”

“I get by, I’m just wary of the other two forgetting that as well.” He laughed. “It would be inconvenient if the cost of enjoying your company was never getting to see you again.”

“Well I’m going to assure that doesn’t happen,” she said quickly, then paused to consider. “We’ll have to arrange it so that I take the retribution for both of us. You shall be my silent partner.”

He hesitated. “That would be less than gallant of me…”

Celestia smiled and raised her head in mock regality. “Then you shall have to be all the more gentlecolt next time you have me to tea. And get more of these delicious rolls.”

“These?” He blinked and looked to the plate on the tea try. “Please, have another. If it weren’t for the shortage, I’d have made something much finer.”

“You made these yourself?” Celestia raised her eyebrows, her magic bringing another to her plate.

“I’m an earth pony, and a baker’s son at that.” He placed a hoof over his heart with a smirk. “I may have saved the pony race and founded a country, but if I couldn’t bake I’m not sure I’d be able to live with my family’s shame.”

She laughed. “That worry should never cross your mind. You did those things, and bake well besides.” She took a bite of her roll, just as delicious as the last.

“I’m very pleased you think so.” Smart Cookie grinned. “So, what do alicorns do? What was their place? I’m afraid you’re the first one I met.”

“There are only three— well, now two, Luna and myself.” She saw the question in his eyes and explained, “My mother was an alicorn, but she fell not long ago. I don’t know if you know of Lord Tirek, but she and my father tried to defend her kingdom by might… and…”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Smart Cookie looked down at his tea.

Celestia nodded. “She was born a pegasus—a rather strange story—and my father still was one. They died with honor. But thank the stars Star Swirl arrived, or the whole kingdom, perhaps the whole world might have fallen.” Celestia cringed at the thought. Then she caught Smart Cookie’s look of concern and gave a weak smile. “But Tirek is in Tartarus now, and we’ve joined our kingdom to Equestria. Most of the ponies there hailed from the tribes, but had left for any number of reasons. Being an alicorn, Mother was seen as even and fair to all ponies. Star Swirl felt this was a job Luna and I should do as well.”

She took a breath and let it out with a nervous smile. “I’ll bring shame to more than my family if I can’t live up to it.”

Smart Cookie frowned. “It must be strange, being raised to rule. I was utterly hopeless at running a bakery, I hope you fare better running a kingdom.”

Celestia lowered her eyes and nodded. “Yes… I hope so as well…”

“But, of course, you don’t stand alone,” he hurried to add. “You have your sister beside you, and Star Swirl, and the six of us to turn to for whatever we’re worth. We all want to see Equestria thrive. You need never fear to ask our thoughts, though by the time you think to ask us we’ll probably have offered them to you, and one another, at the top of our lungs.”

She laughed softly. “I do appreciate it. I like to be surrounded by intelligent ponies. If somepony has an idea better than what I can offer, I hope they’ll never hesitate to make it known.” Considering her experiences, she frowned. “However, I fear many ponies have different ideas of how Equestria can thrive.”

Smart Cookie raised his eyebrows. “That’s what’s wonderful about Equestria.”

“How do you mean?” Celestia asked.

“This land is so large and rich, so full of possibility.” Smart Cookie grinned, his voice becoming more excited as he went on, “Every day the scouts and explorers come back with some new discovery; mountains rich with gems, fertile land and new foods to cultivate, dangerous forests to be conquered with wonders in their midst… ponies could live their dreams here for a thousand years or more, building castles and farms as suited them, cities and small towns, or forging wilderness… and without the lines of tribes to fence us in, there’s room for all to see Equestria thrive however we imagine it!”

Celestia couldn’t help but smile, his enthusiasm was infectious, and it cast his face in a very pleasant light. His eyes seemed to be seeing a dream realm of living ideals, which his physical form itched to enter. In that moment, Celestia wanted to join him.

He noticed her staring and relaxed, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, it’s just an idle dream. I can’t imagine that sounds easy to rule.”

She took a sip of her tea. “Easy or not, I intend to do all in my power to make it a reality. It’s a dream I happen to share. And… I believe it will be easier to rule than it might seem.”

Smart Cookie gave a snort. “Celestia, I’m afraid if you think ponies will be easy to rule—”

“Not ponies, Smart Cookie. Equestria,” she corrected, then paused to put into words her own dreams. “Equestria is more than ponies or land. It’s an idea that lives in the heart, that all tribes are not just equal, but united as one. The ponies here are learning to believe this, and they will teach it to their foals. Wherever those foals spread, and whatever they build, as long as they believe it, we shall all stand beneath the same banner.”

She looked over at Smart Cookie, who was staring at her strangely. She bit her lip, and tried to bring her idea back to the present. “If that belief is the aim of our rule, it’s my hope that ponies will follow Luna and myself, no matter how differently we might all live.”

The strange look on his face melted into a warm grin. “I’ve never heard a pony utter words so true. That’s what was born in that cave, we all felt it. If you can spread that feeling across the land, Equestria’s banner will fly over it forever.”

Celestia smiled. “That is my hope.”

Smart Cookie shook his head, still smiling at her. “You are a remarkable pony, Celestia.”

“Thank you,” she said, casting her eyes down, though she wasn’t sure the smile she wore would ever leave her face. “I must admit I’m pleased to hear that coming from you.”

“Because I refused to grant it based only on your crown?” he asked.

“No.” She looked into his eyes and hesitated. “Because… I enjoy your company quite a lot, Smart Cookie.”

“And I yours,” he said softly, not looking away from her eyes. “Please, call me Cookie.”

“It would be an honor, Cookie.”

They talked for hours longer in the tiny room, and only parted when the pretense of tea had been stretched to breaking. But they parted with promises of all manner of future meetings, and as Celestia walked home, flanked by her guards, it was all she could do to keep from flapping into the air to try to keep her soaring heart within her. She didn’t even attempt to keep the smile from her face.