• Published 14th Feb 2017
  • 1,975 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.

  • ...
7
 244
 1,975

8 - To Everypony's Advantage

Celestia’s official appointment book listed Tuesday at 4 PM as “Advisory Meeting; Canterlot Gardens. Unconfirmed.” Her request hadn’t received a response, but she hadn’t expected one and didn’t consider it any indication of whether or not the being in question would attend.

The spot she had selected was beautiful and colorful, far from prying eyes, and her guards were stationed a respectful distance away. As she leaned down to smell a rose, she hoped that perhaps her invitation had been lost and she would have an hour of peace and quiet instead of the opposite.

Her hopes were dashed in a puff of smoke as Discord appeared next to her.

“Hello Celestia. I’m glad you invited me. I do so like to help with matters of state when I can.” He grinned and a large map of Equestria unfurled in front of them, pressing against Celestia’s muzzle. “So, what are we talking about? Urban planning? Military tactics?”

Celestia straightened herself and smiled gently. “Actually, the matter I need to discuss is you.”

“I happen to be the world’s foremost expert on myself, no matter what Twilight Sparkle thinks.” The map disappeared and was replaced by a large portrait: Discord bathed in a halo of light and giving a thumbs up. “I was born a poor zebra foal—”

“It was your future I wanted to talk about,” Celestia said quickly, motioning towards the grassy spot among the gardens.

As she walked towards it Discord appeared at her shoulder. “Am I getting a promotion?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have a job.”

Discord frowned. “This isn’t one of those conversations where you tell me I’m wasting my potential, lazing about in my dimension, rent free, and I really should be thinking about standing on my own two appendages and paying off my loans, is it?”

“No.” She shook her head as she chose a spot on the soft grass. Discord landed in front of her and she regarded him suspiciously. “Have you been borrowing money?”

“Of course not. I make it appear out of nowhere when I need it.” His eyes lit up. “Oh! I can advise you on the economy! You might want to take some measures to prevent inflation in the coming months…”

Celestia briefly considered whether more trouble would come of asking Discord to stop magically counterfeiting or asking the treasury to try to account for it. She reasoned that any pony who made a career of national finance must enjoy drawing predictions and plans from chaos, and so she would leave it to those who were qualified for the task.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She studied the draconequus and considered how to approach the reason for this meeting. She’d always hesitated to bring this up because it was almost impossible to tell how Discord might react. There was no good day to have a depressed spirit of chaos popping around Equestria, and even that was preferable to what might happen if he decided to take matters into his own appendages.

But if there was some hint as to what he might feel when that sad day came, it would go a long way towards indicating how concerned she should actually be.

In a serious, careful voice, she began, “Discord, have you ever considered what you might do if Fluttershy… wasn’t there?”

“Sometimes I rearrange the books in Twilight’s library, or read Rarity’s diary.” Two books appeared in his paw and talon, and he casually switched them. He grinned, and a straw hat appeared on his head as the books vanished. “Or I stand twenty feet away from Applejack and whistle… Do you know how many down-home similes there are for how annoying someone is? I’ve counted thirty-eight so far!”

“That’s all… well and good.” Celestia furrowed her brow, not sure that those were the correct words. “But I meant in a more permanent way. Would you be content with your other friends, or find new ones?”

He shrugged. “I could always find her. Travel isn’t really an issue for me.”

Celestia shook her head. “What if she died, Discord?” She looked him in the eye, and caught the flash of fear before they hardened. She went on gently, “She’s mortal, you’re immortal, you must have considered this.”

He rolled his eyes and crossed his talon and paw across his chest as he floated into the air. “The future contains infinite possibilities for me. What might happen isn’t something I worry about.”

She casually looked to the side at a tree surrounded by a climbing flowered vine, keeping Discord in her peripheral vision. “Because you’re content to let it unfold, or because you’re leaving open the possibility of taking steps to direct it?”

“I’m not sure you understand the meaning of ‘chaos.’”

“That’s why I’m talking to you.” She smiled at him.

“You could use a dictionary, you know.” An open copy of the Allword Equestrian Dictionary appeared in front of her face.

She laid a hoof on top of it and guided it to the ground. “An orderly book to use to try to understand chaos, isn’t it?”

Discord grinned. “I can fix that for you.”


“Please, don’t.” She gave him a quick look of disapproval. “Maybe you don’t worry about what might happen, but you do make plans. Usually very poor ones.”

“I mean, only if you think they’re meant to achieve some kind of goal. I prefer to look at them as works of art.” In a flash they appeared in the castle ballroom as the Smooze sloshed around the Grand Galloping Gala. Celestia smirked and raised an eyebrow, and the entire scene disappeared as Discord went on, “It’s very postmodern, you wouldn’t understand.”

Once again surrounded by the garden, she shook her head clear of the vision and looked at Discord. “Do you have any plans regarding Fluttershy?”

He grinned. “We’re having tea Thursday. And this Hearth’s Warming, I’m either getting her a set of dishtowels, or designing an entirely new species of bird in her honor.” A small, pink sparrow-like creature with rabbit ears appeared in his paw. “This is what I have so far, what do you think?”

Celestia pursed her lips, then gave him a sidelong look. “How likely is it to cause an environmental disaster?”

He thought for a moment, then threw the creature over his shoulder into the bushes. “Good point. Dishtowels it is!”

“Discord,” she said sternly, adding a mental note to warn the gardener to her list. “When Fluttershy dies, what do you plan to do?”

“You’re in a morbid mood today.” He frowned as he floated down to his spot in front of her.

Celestia sighed in frustration at several beings all at once. “I’m trying to make a decision.”

“I usually do whatever pops into my head at the moment,” he said in a suspiciously reasonable tone.

“But you don’t, if it might hurt Fluttershy or your friends.” She considered that a moment and added, “Presumably.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? You’re trying to understand a being of pure chaos who’s inexplicably fond of the most harmonious ponies in the world.” A map appeared in his paw, and he pointed to a spot with a talon. “That way lies madness.”

Celestia chuckled. “I’m beginning to wonder if all roads lead there, eventually.”

“Well, there is a fork in the road that you can take towards not giving a flying feather.” He pointed at another spot, now labeled in bright red letters “Who Cares?”

A silence fell as she considered that. Cookie didn’t want to reveal his secret, neither Cadance nor Twilight had approached her with concerns, and not only was Discord unconcerned and unhelpful in determining how concerned she should be, but she didn’t even know if the information might help him.

For the first time that afternoon, she truly looked at the being in front of her; his mismatched form and shaggy face, with those yellow eyes. He wasn’t an alicorn. He wasn’t a pony. She wasn’t even sure he technically qualified as a being, at least not in the same sense as a dragon or zebra. He was magic given physical form. And yet, he had enough of whatever made something a being to know friendship, in his own way.

“Discord, are you capable of loving a pony? Actually loving them, not simply wanting them close because they make you happy?”

The question was mostly her musing out loud. She wasn’t sure he knew the answer, and didn’t expect him to tell her if he did.

Discord cocked his head at her, considering. “I’m not sure you understand the meaning of ‘chaos.’”

Celestia sighed in resignation.

He smiled, his eyes narrowing. Celestia’s body tensed on instinct. She remembered that smile; she had watched it three times as it tried to bring ruin to her kingdom.

Discord didn’t move, and nothing appeared or changed. Instead, she heard his voice, though his mouth never formed the words. It came from all directions at once, even within Celestia’s head.

“Imagine that you can have and feel and be anything in the world. But you can only have it for a few moments before it changes. Then changes again. And again, and again, and…” The voice trailed off, with a weary sigh. “And one day, you find that if you try, constantly, you can hold on to something. A feeling. A pony. Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, you can see something else, another feeling, and it’s tempting… very tempting.”

Discord’s form finally moved, simply raising his eyebrows and speaking from his own mouth, “But can you reach it? Will you be able to hold it, if you do?”

Celestia hesitated, still on edge. “You might find it’s even more solid…”

“Or you might find it’s a very big potato.” He shrugged and turned his head with a disdainful sweep. “I have a difficult existence.”

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I understand. Thank you. I’m glad we had this talk.”

Celestia nodded at Discord and rose to her hooves. She made a few steps towards the rose bush she had been admiring before he arrived, then Discord spoke behind her.

“We aren’t done yet.”

“Oh?” She paused and looked over her shoulder, but the grassy spot where they had been sitting was empty. She looked around as she turned back to the flowers but saw no sign of him.

“I have a question for you.” He appeared sitting on top of the rosebush in front of her. “Where was Twilight Sparkle last Sunday?”

“She had tea with me, Princess Cadance, and a friend of mine.” Celestia was careful that her face gave nothing away.

He went on, “Was it royal business?”

She took a few steps and pretended to examine a daylily to hide her hesitation. “No. It was personal. Why do you ask?”

“Because that’s what Twilight said and I didn’t believe her.” He rolled his eyes. “Since when do you have a personal life?”

“My job does keep me busy, but I spare a few moments for it.”

“Of course you sometimes take a break from ruling Equestria with an iron hoof.” He waved his talon dismissively. “But what sort of pony do you know personally?”

She looked back to the flowers but barely saw them. In her mind she was looking at Cookie, his eyes alight as they were when he’d developed some new fascination or line of reasoning and couldn’t wait for her to ask him about it. It calmed her in a way no garden could, however peaceful it might be.

“One who likes his privacy,” she answered from the distance of her thoughts.

“His?” Discord raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. He appeared laying in the dirt among the flowers. “So this is a stallion you have a secret personal relationship with?”

Celestia feared she had said too much. Still, her words couldn’t be unspoken, and avoiding reasons for Discord to investigate further was top priority, so she nodded. “Yes. It is a stallion.”

Discord disappeared and was suddenly next to her, regarding her suspiciously. “And exactly what sort of secret personal relationship do you have with this stallion?”

“A secret, personal one.” She leveled a stare at him.

“Oh, the extra secret, extra personal kind.” He smirked suggestively. “So, what kind of stallion? One of your guards? A noble from court? A rugged airship pirate with a tarnished soul and a heart of gold?”

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Rarity lent me a book.” A well-read paperback appeared in his talon, and he offered it to Celestia. He whispered in her ear, “The good stuff is in Chapter 17.”

Celestia shook her head and floated the book back to him, where it disappeared. “As you might have guessed from the words ‘secret’ and ‘personal,’ this is not a relationship I talk to other ponies about. And that includes spirits of chaos.”

He frowned at her. “But you introduced Cadance and Twilight.”

“I did.” She nodded. Then she added, “For my own reasons.”

His smirk returned. “He’s that good?”

“Discord.” She frowned and glanced over to be sure that her guards were still at a proper distance.

“Somepony doesn’t want to share her toys.” He raised his eyebrows, and she found herself holding a large sticker reading “Property of Celestia. Hooves Off!”

Laying it on the ground, she narrowed her eyes and leveled a glare at him. “He is not my toy.”

Discord grinned. “Ah, so it’s serious. Should we be planning a royal wedding?” A veil suddenly obscured Celestia’s vision. “I’m guessing Chrysalis is off the guest list.”

Celestia sighed and removed the veil. “We aren’t getting married.”

“Well it’s serious enough that he’s meeting the family. So when is my turn?” Discord tilted his head.

Considering Cookie’s stubborn streak, and Discord’s sense of humor, she knew that was a battle she had no desire to fight. “No time soon.”

A smirk crossed his face. “I can give you some very good reasons to introduce me.”

“And every one will display exactly why I can’t,” she said quickly.

“Oh, come on. I need to make sure he’s good enough for our little Celestia.” Discord wore an awful sweater and smoked a pipe as he folded a newspaper he appeared to have been reading. “You know, stable job, good prospects, knows how to change a cart wheel...”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll let you know when I need your judgement on that matter.”

He frowned, nearly pouting. “I don’t understand what’s so bad about me. I’m reformed. Ponies hardly ever run screaming from me anymore.”

“Discord,” Celestia said gently. “You probably don’t realize it, but some of your previous behavior has been… traumatic for some ponies.”

“For me, it was Tuesday.” He tilted his head and tapped a talon on his chin. “Or was it Wednesday? You know, that’s the problem with altering the course of the sun and moon, it’s so hard to keep track of when your reigns of chaos happened.”

She frowned and shook her head. “Well, my friend finds it hard to forget, and I’m content to give him time to adjust to your reformation.” She suspected a few centuries would do it. She added, “I’m sure you’ll meet him someday, but for now I’ll keep my relationships with the two of you separate.”

“Ah, I see. This way you can have your stallion, and a little draconequus on the side.” A six inch tall Discord appeared on her wing, smirking and waggling his eyebrows. He reclined against her feathers. “I don’t mind, there’s enough of you to go around.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes for just a moment, then composed herself and asked calmly, “How is Fluttershy? I haven’t seen her recently.”

Instantly, Discord was standing next to her again. “...I was joking.”

Celestia smirked.

Discord pretended to ignore her. “Fluttershy is fine. She’s caring for the absolutely cutest little baby bunnies!” His face lit up as he spoke, then he realized what he had said and turned his head to the side in disinterest. “I mean, rabbits. Small rabbits. With adorable pink noses.”

“That’s good. I’m glad she’s well, and you’re enjoying your time together.” She nodded and looked him in the eye. “Now, I hope you’ll allow me some privacy, before I feel the need to write to her. Just to catch up, of course.”

“Blackmail? Really, Celestia?” Discord raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms over his chest. “This is the problem with secret, personal relationships. They make things very messy indeed.”

Celestia smiled. “Goodbye, Discord.”

He frowned at her. “Fine, be that way. But I’m not lending you Rarity’s novel.” Then he disappeared with a pop.

Celestia sighed so heavily that her head nearly touched the ground as she exhaled. There wasn’t much in Equestria more exhausting than trying to get Discord to leave somepony alone, and even now she half expected him to reappear as she glanced around the garden.

She caught sight of the daisies in front of her and sighed again. Cookie would have to be told about this, and that would put him in a bad mood next time they were together. He trusted her word that Discord was reformed, but he had made it perfectly clear that Discord was to be kept far from him, and even the mention of his name earned a frown. Any hint of her reason for this meeting would end all hope of Cookie’s cooperation in discovering his secret.

Turning from the flowers, she made her way to her guards with a thoughtful frown. If there was a way to change Cookie’s estimation of Discord, that would be the solution to the problem. Cookie would do all in his power for the good of Equestria, without doubt, but despite mounting evidence to the contrary he was certain that Discord had no place in it.

The warning she had to give would make changing his mind impossible for now, but it might offer some hint as to whether he might be budged there. And Fluttershy was a young pony; there was some time, at least. Perhaps this could be turned to everypony’s advantage, eventually.

Her guards saluted as she approached, and she fixed a smile on her face as she nodded. She pushed the puzzle from her mind for the time being. She had a meeting with the Maretonian Ambassador over dinner, and it wouldn’t do to be dwelling on this matter.


The stone hallway of Clover’s library seemed dark and cold as Celestia paced at the bottom of the tower stairs. Cookie stood leaning against the wall and watching her.

Luna was up there now. Celestia had no idea how she bore this alone, but she had declined Celestia’s offer to go up together. Once more Celestia looked at Cookie’s worried face, thanking the stars he was there.

A few moments later, she heard hoofsteps on the tower stairs. As she came back to them in her pacing, she waited as Luna rounded the curve.

Her sister’s face was a stony mask, and Celestia walked over and offered a nuzzle as Luna stepped into the hallway. Luna closed her eyes and nuzzled back.

“Wait for me,” Celestia said softly. “We can walk back to the castle together.”

“No.” Luna pulled away, shaking her head. “I shall see myself back. I wish to be alone with my moon.”

Celestia frowned. It had been nearly forty years since they took their crowns, and Luna had grown more distant at a steady pace. The pranks they used to play had faded; time stretched between the talks they used to share. Luna rarely appeared at council or court, and Celestia wasn’t sure Luna spoke more than a sentence to anypony but Star Swirl for weeks on end. And now, Star Swirl lay dying, and Luna wanted only a cold rock for company...

“Whatever you wish.” Then she added, her heart pleading, “But don’t hesitate to come to me.”

Luna cast a quick frown at Cookie.

He gave her a sad smile. “I can make myself scarce easily. I don’t mind.”

“I’ll keep it in my thoughts.” She nodded, and looked to Celestia, adding earnestly, “Thank you.”

Celestia looked after her as she made her way down the hall, her worry nearly distracting her from the stairway to the tower. It was only after Luna left that the thoughts of what lay ahead drew her attention back to it. She quickly looked to Cookie, who leaned against the wall as steady as ever.

He stood and walked over to her, offering a nuzzle, and said tenderly, “I can stay by your side as easily as I can make myself scarce. I only know Star Swirl as an acquaintance, you and Luna and Clover are my only concern right now.”

She smelled the warm scent of freshly baked bread that always clung to him and drew strength from that. Even so, she whispered, “If you need to attend to Clover…”

“I was at her side all day, and Pansy and Platinum intend to stay the night, just in case.” He sighed. “But the poor girl will need her rest, if she can get it. She’s done nothing but fuss over him since sunrise. I expect Platinum’s wine cellar is more necessary than I am.”

Celestia pursed her lips. “Perhaps we should give him a rest. He may have been tired by talking to Luna.”

“We can see if he feels he needs it. If not, I’m sure Clover will let us know when she feels he needs it.” He leaned against her and nuzzled her shoulder. “Waiting won’t make this easier, my dear.”

“You’re right.” She gave a firm nod and drew herself up, starting up the stairs with Cookie right behind her.

At the top of the stairs was a wooden door. Celestia paused, not sure what to expect behind it. She’d last seen Star Swirl a month ago, or maybe two. He had looked old, but then Star Swirl had looked old since she first met him half a century ago. She prepared herself for the worst, gave a light knock, and opened the door.

The room was warm, with a fire in the fireplace and rich tapestries on the walls. A red couch was set against one side of the room, and in the middle was a large, ornate wooden bed.

Lying in the bed was Star Swirl, mostly covered by a heavy blanket. His hat was nowhere to be seen, and that alone made a change in him. He seemed smaller to Celestia without it. His face looked gaunt, his horn more pronounced, and his white mane and beard seemed thinner.

As she stepped into the room he smiled, and his eyes twinkled as they always had. It made her smile, though to see it on his diminished form made tears sting her eyes. Cookie entered behind her and shut the door, hanging back next to it as Celestia approached the bed.

“Celestia, my shining filly. I’m so glad you made it,” Star Swirl said, in a voice that sounded more dry and hollow than she remembered.

“Did you think I wouldn’t make the time? After all you’ve done for me, and for Luna… how could I not… say…” A lump had grown in her throat, and the tears stinging her eyes threatened to overflow if she said what she meant to. So instead she finished, “Thank you.”

Star Swirl raised his bushy white eyebrows. “Please now, you didn’t come to say thank you. You came to say goodbye, which makes much more sense, since I’m dying.”

“I came to say both,” Celestia whispered.

“Then I’ll accept both, if you will.” His eyes seemed to dart over her and the room, sharp and vibrant as ever. “Is that Smart Cookie hanging back there?”

“Yes, sir,” Cookie said.

Star Swirl nodded. “Come forward. Celestia doesn’t need to hide her tears from me, but she’ll need a shoulder to bear the weight.”

Cookie hesitated, then stepped up beside Celestia. Just feeling him next to her, strong and safe, loosed the tears she had been fighting. She leaned over and buried her face in his mane.

“There now,” she heard Star Swirl say, “I’ll feel better leaving you, knowing you still know how to cry.”

Celestia looked up quickly. “How could I not cry?”

He raised his eyebrows again. “Are you going to cry at my funeral?”

Celestia stared at him and swallowed. She would be giving the eulogy; it would only be right for a pony as honored as Star Swirl. She would be standing in front of her subjects, comforting them in the loss of a great pony. They both knew she couldn’t cry there.

Star Swirl smiled. “Now, now, I wasn’t shaming you for it. I don’t expect you to. You’ll stand solemn and strong and regal, and you’ll be a fine testament to my accomplishments.” His smile grew, and he gave a contented sigh as he looked at her. “But you aren’t my accomplishment, Celestia. You’re your own pony, with your own love and joy and sorrow in your heart. That is your accomplishment, and I’m proud of you.”

She smiled back through her tears, remembering all the discussions they’d had as she prepared to take the throne and adjusted to her role. “I understand. I shall fight to keep that.”

With a snort, Star Swirl shook his head. “Don’t. You do enough, ruling this kingdom, guiding Luna. Let that stallion of yours hold your heart for you.”

“I will… as long as he’s by my side,” she said, looking to Cookie. For a brief instant, she imagined him in Star Swirl’s place and fear started to grip her. Then Cookie gave her a small smile and leaned against her, not requiring her strength but offering his, and she drew a breath to steady herself.

Star Swirl’s eyes darted to Cookie and looked him up and down. “He looks quite healthy for his age… quite healthy indeed. You’re the same age as Clover, Cookie?”

Cookie nodded. “Close to that. A year older.”

“Hmm.” Star Swirl pursed his lips, his horn lighting up. Then he gave a chuckle. “The old girl’s got her work cut out for her.” He smiled, the twinkle in his eye stronger than ever as he said to Cookie, “Do a favor for a dying pony. In, oh, about a month, go ask Clover to have a look at you. It’ll be good for all of you.”

“Certainly…” Cookie said, nodding. He gave Celestia an uncertain look, and Celestia just shrugged.

Star Swirl turned his attention towards her. “And as for you, Celestia… tell me, what are your plans for Equestria these days?”

She dried the last of this round of tears with the back of her hoof as she answered, “As always, to rule it wisely and help my ponies to make it the place they dream of. “

“You have no plans to expand it, or enact treaties to enrich the kingdom?” He tilted his head.

Celestia drew a breath and let it out. “Only as my ponies might need. Some are exploring the northern plains, land that borders the Ice Kingdom. I’ve sent word to the King who rules there, that we might discuss where our borders lie. There are explorers to the south, in the jungles, who have met with chiefs and clans of ponies there, and I’m sending ambassadors to discuss whether they’d like to remain independent or be united with Equestria. None of these needs are my own, but I shall do all that I can as representative of the ponies who try to forge these paths.”

Star Swirl smirked. “So, in other words, you don’t know why some ponies seem to think it wise to inhabit some stars forsaken bit of ice, or try to export sand to Saddle Arabia, but you’ll help them do it.”

“Not words I might use, but yes,” Celestia said with a light chuckle.

Cookie cleared his throat. “We know perfectly well why.”

“Do you now, Smart Cookie?” Star Swirl turned to him with the same smirk. “How about you enlighten an old pony.”

Cookie shrugged. “For exactly the same reason some ponies feel the need to muck about with the entrails of the universe, or put on a crown. We all have our destiny to follow, our dreams to pursue, and as foolish as they might sound to others with different paths we trot our own with pride.”

Star Swirl chuckled. “I suppose there are plenty of ponies who find me foolish.”

“Not at all!” Celestia frowned. “You’ve mastered magics that most can only dream of.”

“And tell me what that means to Smart Cookie here?” He nodded to the stallion at her side.

“I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean that,” Cookie said quickly. “I know enough from Clover and Celestia to respect the things you’ve achieved—”

“Though they’re about as useful to you as a feather grooming kit.” The smirk returned to his face. “For now, at least. One can never know when the path of a fool might lead to much needed wisdom.”

“Of course,” Cookie said, nodding.

The door to the room opened, and Clover stuck her head in. “Princess… I’m sorry to disturb you, but Star Swirl needs his rest.”

Star Swirl rolled his eyes. “I do not. I feel fine.”

“Well of course you do now. It’s tomorrow you’ll be sorry,” Clover said, frowning as she entered the room. She hadn’t aged as gracefully as Cookie. Well on her way to becoming a venerable old mare, her purple mane was greying at the roots and lines on her face accentuated her expression.

“I may be dead tomorrow.” Star Swirl huffed, fussing with his blankets.

Clover raised her eyebrows. “Which is what I’m trying to prevent.” Her magic smoothed the blankets as she approached him.

He smiled at her. “Dear, you’ve spent most of your life trying to prevent that. You must be tired of it by now.”

Clover gave him a sad smile. “I’ll rest when I’ve failed.” Then the smile shifted to a firm smirk. “You, on the other hoof, are going to rest now.” She turned to Celestia and Cookie. “Sorry, you two. You’re welcome back tomorrow.”

Celestia nodded and started towards the door, Cookie at her side. “I understand. Clover is right, Star Swirl. You need your strength.”

Star Swirl nodded, smiling fondly after her. “And you need yours, and probably his as well.”

She managed to see Star Swirl twice more before his passing, though the last time hardly counted and she preferred not to remember it at all. That most difficult time she had Luna at her side instead of Cookie, and it had led to a long talk about the benefits of losing a pony swiftly and suddenly as they had their parents, versus the long goodbye they had made to Star Swirl. Luna preferred the former and Celestia the latter, even with the sad memory of the last visit fresh in mind.

***

The funeral came and went, and Celestia cried in her chambers on Cookie's shoulder, or in quiet moments when nopony could see her. To her ponies she showed only a somber and steady face.

A month after Star Swirl’s death, Cookie kept his promise and went to see Clover. Shortly after that, Celestia found herself once again in the stone library with Cookie at her side, this time in a lower hallway headed towards the room Clover used as an office.

They came to a wooden door and Cookie knocked lightly, then opened it without waiting for a response and led the way inside.

The room was lined with shelves cluttered with scrolls and tomes, which seemed to have overflowed onto the desk in the center. Behind the desk, Clover stood looking down at the scroll directly in front of her and comparing it to another just to her left. A window behind her let in bright afternoon light and offered a view of the forest.

She looked up as the ponies entered and stood before the desk, giving them a smile and nod.

“Thank you for coming, Princess. I’m afraid I’ve got some interesting news for Cookie, and he might need some support.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Celestia said, returning the smile.

Cookie narrowed his eyes at Clover suspiciously. “What kind of interesting?”

Clover raised her eyebrows at him. “Well, that depends on who you ask. In my case it’s the kind of interesting where I’ve got magical research to do for the rest of my life, and sometime past that. In your case it’s the kind of interesting where you’re going to lock yourself in your room for three weeks as you reconsider your place in the universe. And in Princess Celestia’s case it’s the kind of interesting where she’s got to figure out how to stop you from doing that.” She smirked. “So we’ve all got our work cut out for us.”

His ears laid back against his head. “Clover… what did you find out?”

Clover ignored his expression and looked down at a scroll on her desk. “I took the test results and plugged in all the equations I know, and a few things I just figured out. The fact is… there’s magic in you, Cookie.”

“More than earth pony magic or a cutie mark, I take it?” he said slowly.

“Imagine if you were approximately 986 earth ponies at once. Or about 690 pegasi, or 493 unicorns.” Clover looked up from the scroll and raised her eyebrows. “Well, you don’t really have to imagine. That’s how much magic you have.”

Celestia’s eyebrows raised. “That’s nearly as much as an alicorn…”

“This isn’t funny.” Cookie frowned, shifting on his hooves. “If this is a prank...”

“I don’t joke with equations.” Clover floated the scroll to show them, covered with numbers and magic symbols. “I know I’ll get the scrolls mixed up and spend half a day trying to figure out why they make no blessed sense.”

Cookie shook his head. “So, let’s say I do have all of this magic in me. Where did it come from?”

Clover shrugged. “Right now, your guess is as good as mine, but you can bet your cutie mark that I’ll do my best to find out.”

“Is… is it something I’ve done?” Celestia asked, glancing between Cookie and Clover. She knew her magic was powerful, but she hadn’t considered that just being around her often might affect somepony.

“Could be,” Clover said to Celestia, though she was clearly keeping an eye on Cookie. “Could be the spell, or something Cookie stumbled on in the forest here, or some spirit that took an interest in him.”

“So what is it doing to me, then?” Cookie asked, leaning forward and tilting his head to try to read Clover’s notes.

Clover tugged her scroll back and raised her eyebrows at Cookie. “Well it’s making you immortal, for one thing.”

“Immortal.” Cookie slowly pulled back, then sat back on his haunches, a bewildered expression on his face.

Celestia sat stunned. It couldn’t be a joke. Clover would never be that cruel. A hope she’d never considered possible filled her heart. One by one, fears burst like clouds as the sky was cleared; Cookie’s body or mind failing as he neared the end; another funeral where she’d need to remain strong and sure while her heart broke; a long, uncertain future with nothing but a blank place where love had been. A bright smile spread over her face as she realized those things might never be.

Clover nodded, looking Cookie in the eye. “More or less. There might be some way you can die, if whatever source the magic is coming from were to run out, or you broke some geas you might be under. But if that magic remains stable, you’ll be exactly as you are now when the universe packs up and goes home.”

Celestia steadied herself. Nothing was certain, she had to remember that. She tried to keep the urgency and determination from her voice as she asked, “If there is a geas, can you find out the terms?”

“What’s a geas?” Cookie asked, looking between the mares.

“A magical prohibition. If you break it, it breaks a spell,” Clover said to Cookie. “For example, you can’t eat rutabagas under a full moon, or you always have to eat oats on Wednesday. It could be anything, really, but it’s most likely something you’d almost always do anyway or almost never happen to do, because otherwise the spell would have been broken by now.”

“But—” Cookie started frantically, but Clover cut him off, turning to Celestia.

“And I don’t know, Your Highness. It’ll depend on the source. If it’s a spirit playing silly buggers with ponies, we might be able to find them and get the information out of them. If it’s Love magic, well… I’d guess it’ll last as long as there’s love between you.”

Celestia tried to keep a smile from her face. It would be beautiful to think that their love was so strong it might bind them forever.

She looked over to see Cookie staring at her, his eyes wide. He didn’t seem at all charmed by the idea.

Clover went on, “Harmony, Chaos, or Dark magic might be more general things… Of course, any of the big ones and we’re in some trouble. We know about as much about them as a foal knows of geometry.”

Cookie’s head snapped to Clover with the same wide eyes. “Chaos magic? Dark magic? How in the course of the stars…”

Clover smirked. “You’re the one stuffed full of magic like a cushion, you tell me.”

Cookie shook his head, and his eyes took on a wild cast as he spoke, gesturing broadly, “Clover, the entire extent of my knowledge of magic is how to make dough rise and not burn the baking, and that I’m meant to help ideas spread and flourish. Unless you happen to know any Dark magic recipes for tarts, I haven’t got the vaguest idea what’s going on!”

“Cookie, please calm down,” Celestia said firmly, frowning. She reached out a hoof to lay on his, but he jerked away from her.

“I will not!” He paced back to the door, then swiftly turned and headed to Clover’s desk, shouting, “This is madness!”

“This is magic,” Celestia said gently.

Clover gave a laugh. “Same thing, in my experience.”

He slammed a hoof on Clover's desk. “You have to get to the bottom of this, now!”

Clover shot him an unhappy look, then sighed. “I’m going to do my best, but it’s going to take time. I’m already working half blind without Star Swirl, and you’re coming at me with the largest magic anomaly I’ve ever heard of.” Her face shifted to sympathy. “All we’ve got to work with is what’s at hoof. The information you’ve got is all you’re going to know until I make some breakthrough.”

Cookie deflated. He looked down and shook his head. “This isn’t right. I’m a normal pony. Star Swirl was the greatest mage in history, and you’re saying he’s dead, and I’m immortal.”

All sympathy fell away from Clover’s face. She glared at Cookie and said crisply, “Then I suppose Princess Celestia won’t have to worry about losing you, will she?”

Celestia’s eyes went wide. She had been focused on her own joy and Cookie’s agitation and had completely forgotten that Clover was just getting over the death of her own lover. She blushed and shifted, trying to make herself smaller.

Cookie dragged a hoof over his face, cringing. “I’m so sorry, Clover. I spoke without thinking.”

“It’s the luck of the stars.” She sighed. Then she offered a sad smile. “Nothing we can do about it now, at any rate. Star Swirl promised that if I got any bright ideas about necromancy he’d open interdimensional portals on every street corner.”

An awkward quiet settled over the room, Celestia still wishing she wasn’t quite so obvious. She could only imagine how it must feel to Clover to see her there. Clover may even think that Celestia knew some secret she didn’t reveal, something that might have saved Star Swirl.

After a moment, Clover glanced directly at Celestia, then looked at Cookie and said gently, “I know you’re going to find a million deep, thoughtful reasons why this is the worst thing that’s happened to a pony in the history of the world. But you’d better remember you’ve got at least one reason it’s a blessing, and she’s sitting right there watching you carry on.”

Cookie stared at Clover for a moment, then nodded. “You’re right.” He turned and looked into Celestia eyes, still seeming utterly bewildered. “I’m sorry, Celestia. I must seem like I’m not grateful for…” He swallowed. “For what we might have. I am! Really. I just... stars above… I don’t even know what to think right now…”

Celestia offered him a pitying smile. At least Cookie was a pony she knew what to do with. “I can’t imagine how confused you must be by all of this. If we claimed you thought too seriously about matters before, this must seem to be a bottomless chasm of considerations.”

He nodded. “That’s an excellent way of putting it.”

She smiled more deeply. “I don’t ask that you put them out of mind. That would be impossible. But please, for your sake, try not to think of them all at once?”

He sighed and closed his eyes, turning his face to the ceiling as if asking the stars for strength. “Right now I’d be happy if I could keep one of them in mind for a moment before another shoves it out of the way.” He looked back at Celestia, his eyes pleading. “I feel as if I don’t know anything. Every thought I ever had was based in the certainty that I would die, that my time in this world was short in the grand scheme of things. I feel as if I have no thoughts right now, no ground beneath my hooves.”

She walked over to him and leaned down to nuzzle his face. “Let Equestria be the ground beneath your hooves. We’ll see our dream blossom together. Hold to that, even if you question all else.”

“Yes…” Cookie relaxed and took a long breath. When he spoke again, the panic in his voice had calmed. “Celestia, you are an unending wonder.”

“I hope I always give you reason to see me that way.” She smiled, her heart once again soaring as she realized that it might truly be always.

“That’s all I have for you right now,” Clover said. Celestia looked at her and realized she was staring at them. “You’ve got a whole evening to discuss things. Cookie, I’ll want you here first thing tomorrow to get started figuring out what in Tartarus got into you.”

“I’ve never been to Tartarus, though I’ve been told to go many times.” Cookie gave a shaky smirk that faded to a more sincere smile. “I’ll be here.”

Clover smiled at him. Then she turned to Celestia with a more even expression, saying, “Princess? May I speak to you alone for a moment?”

“Of course.” Celestia nodded, glancing at Cookie. He nodded as well, with a confused frown. But he left the room, closing the door behind him.

Celestia bit her lip and looked down. “Clover, I know of nothing I did, I swear it by the stars. You know I would have—”

“Of course you would have told us,” Clover said plainly. “You’ve done nothing wrong, and neither has Cookie, and the sooner you stop feeling guilty about it, the better.”

“I shall try.” Celestia swallowed, drawing herself up.

“But that’s not what I needed to tell you,” Clover added.

Celestia nodded. “Please, go on…”

Clover drew a breath and looked Celestia in the eye. “Begging your pardon… Celestia, take care of that pony. I know how hard it was for both of us, losing Star Swirl, and Cookie’s going to have to deal with it five times, plus enough guilt each time to drive him mad. I don’t envy him that. And it’s going to be up to you to keep him from falling into his own head.” Her face melted to a sad smile. “And I don’t envy you that, either, but it’s a small price to pay.”

She held Clover’s gaze for a moment, considering what she said. It would be awful when Cookie lost his friends, and his manner of thinking would turn it into a nightmare for him. Finally she nodded. “It is, and I shall do my best.”

“Thank you, Princess.” Clover smiled. “I won’t keep you any longer.”

“Very well.” Celestia turned to leave. “If there’s any help I can offer you in your investigation, let me know.”

“Just a list of anything you’ve cast on or around Cookie would do to start with,” Clover called after her.

“Then farewell, and I shall have that for you by morning,” Celestia said as she walked out the door and joined Cookie in the hall.

They returned to the castle for a very long evening of discussion as Cookie fought fate, justice, and an indefinite future for some kind of balance. But through it all, even as she seriously addressed dozens of rambling concerns, her joy nearly burst out with every heartbeat. Smart Cookie would never leave her.