• Published 29th May 2020
  • 1,758 Views, 158 Comments

Sunset Glimmer - Ninjadeadbeard

  • ...
1
 158
 1,758

3 - Delayed Sentencing

Celestia dutifully lowered the sun as it came time for evening to descend upon Equestria. She did so from the comfort of the Castle of Friendship’s throne room, entirely without sight of the heavenly orb that was once her charge. These days, she would only raise or lower the sun whenever Twilight was otherwise preoccupied or, like today, magically exhausted.

The lighting of the Castle did not change much between the close of day and the rising of the moon, something that Celestia quite liked about the mysterious structure. It said something, she thought, that no matter the circumstances, friendship would remain constant.

Oh, how she hoped that would be true of other relationships. How she wished it with all her heart and soul.

Sunshine – no matter what name she wore in the present, it was best to keep the two ponies separate – had been put down for a nap by her father, who was even now maintaining a magical Cone of Silence around her, just on the off chance that the evening’s discussions went about as well as the one before.

I wonder, she thought to herself, happy for the distraction, how often does time travel come up for these ponies? It seems to just about haunt poor Twilight.

Despite this somewhat humorous thought, others managed to creep past Celestia’s mental defenses. On any other day, she would have held firm. But today…?

Part of the mystery is solved. But how, and why this happened, still eludes us. Hopefully, Twilight has answers…

… Does Sunset blame me?

The sun jumped, imperceptibly, along its course to the horizon.

… Of course not! the Solar ex-Diarch tried to laugh off the errant thought, Sunset knows I never intended to keep her away from her parents.

Right?

She managed a quick, nonchalant, glance over her shoulder. There, sitting together in between Pinkie and Fluttershy’s throne, were mother and daughter. Sunset and Starlight had sat there, in silence, ever since Twilight had gone for tea. It was almost painful to watch them try and muster the will to talk, only to fall back into tense and unknowing stillness again.

The Princess sighed to herself.

They barely know each other beyond a fairly long-distance sort of friendship, she reasoned, I can’t expect them to… to what?

To what, indeed. Celestia had no idea. And that was a very strange thing to consider. Though recently retired, she would not, perhaps could not, lose the mental acuity that had allowed her to hold the apparatus of state together for over a millennium. The very fact that nothing came to mind now was wholly alien to her.

It’s not like I had expectations. This was all a blind hit-and-gallop, as far as I’m concerned.

And what else could she say? That she felt as though she had somehow foalnapped a child? Or that watching Sunset discover her true parentage wasn’t like having a dagger slammed repeatedly into her heart?

She sighed, internally. I’m awful. Here, my wonderful student has finally found the thing she knew she had lost, and what am I doing? Sulking.

It’s not like I’ll lose her, she snorted, again, internally, I mean, essentially, I raised her. And we both know how she feels towards me. And I her. She wouldn’t throw all that… she wouldn’t throw me aside…

Would she?

Celestia didn’t like this part of herself. The part that demanded love, attention, even worship. The part that shone like the sun… until all else faded away.

Blind fool! she castigated, Was one-thousand years alone not enough for you!? Sunset loves you! But Love can be shared! You know this. Cadance said as much, the last time you talked to her, and she’s the expert on Love...

The Princess realized she was talking to herself. That was one dangerous step away from talking about herself in the third pony, as her thoughts briefly turned back to a certain arrogant blue unicorn.

Arrogant… like I have room to talk.

The squeaky wheel of Twilight’s tea cart brought Celestia out of her own head, at last, as it entered the room. Tea of every flavor, hot and iced, sat stacked atop and below on the cart, with a few pastry dishes almost falling out of their trays. There was even a rolled-up banner bearing a ‘Congratulations’ tucked into the cart’s lower tray.

Twilight herself followed in the cart’s wake, pushing it along in her magic while she guzzled a whole pitcher of iced tea and hungrily threw back an entire plate of chocolate-glazed croissants. Maintaining temporal and chrono-observations spells, like the ones she’d been running for an hour before, worked up a mean hunger. Combine that with the, frankly ludicrous, Alicorn caloric requirements, and Celestia was not surprised in the least by her other student’s eating habits.

Cake was my chosen poison, she recalled a few happy memories out of the depths of time. I wonder if Young-Celestia would be horrified by her older self growing to love ‘the foulest device ev’r construed by Tartarus’s chefs’. She also hated tea, if I recall correctly…

She shook the thoughts free from her mind, before she started referring to herself as the Great and Powerful Celestia.

“Sorry about that, everypony,” Twilight sighed as she sat back down at her throne, a dozen pastries and two liters of tea settling down next to her in Spike’s chair, “I needed a drink after that spell.”

“We noticed,” Sunset and Starlight said as one. The echoing quality was quite unnerving, for both them and the Princesses.

Sunburst took the cue to walk out of the magical silence spell, reluctantly leaving his child behind to sleep. Celestia could tell he was already quite attached to little Sunshine, and made a mental note to teach either him or Starlight a monitoring spell…

Oh. Right.

She maintained her resolve, shutting down even an unconscious reaction to her private slight.

This isn’t about you, Celestia reminded herself, once again.

Sunburst had asked a question, though the Solar Princess had missed it.

“Yes, well…” Twilight answered, and took another sip of her tea, “From what I gather, you’ve already figured out that Sunset… is actually Sunshine.”

Sunset glanced towards Starlight, and Starlight to Sunset… before they both stole another glance back towards the sleeping Sunshine.

“We’re…” Sunset grasped for an answer that wouldn’t make her sound crazy.

“Adjusting,” Starlight offered, “I think that’s the best you can say right now.”

Sunburst took up a spot at Sunset’s side, flanking her with Starlight, “Being on one end of a closed time loop is… disconcerting, at the best of times, as we already know.”

Twilight’s lips drew into a very fine line, and her hooves set down on the Cutie Map with just a bit more energy than was strictly necessary. Nopony wanted to draw attention to the way her eye twitched, nor how her mane began to fray in places, by mentioning Trixie Lulamoon’s own time traveling adventure, carried out in this very room.

“Indeed,” she said, slow and deliberately, exhaling her stress with a sigh, “But I hope my analysis of the timeline will shed light on this whole conundrum.”

“With or without blowing someone up?” Sunset frowned and began flicking her ears with some agitation, “Seriously, you could have killed someone with that scream.”

Twilight’s own ears flattened, and she glanced away from her friend’s deservedly dour face. She smiled, chagrined, and came back with a weak, “Sorry about that? There was some feedback from the spell and I thought my horn was about to explode.”

“It is fine, Twilight,” Celestia nodded sagely to the purple Alicorn, “Please, continue. You said you found something?”

“I did,” Twilight said, and took a large bite out of a cupcake.

And froze. The sound she made was a strange one, somewhere between a maraca clack and a cereal crunch. Her pupils nearly vanished on each of her eyeballs, and her lips became a zigzag pattern across her face.

Slowly, Twilight spat out what appeared to be a rather large, green emerald onto the table.

“Spike…” she growled and rubbed her jaw where the offending gemstone had met her teeth. Then, with a snort, she slid the food away from herself, her bottomless appetite apparently quite spoiled.

“As I was saying,” she sighed, “Yes, I found something. Using the Eye of Doggermotto spell, plus a little memory-reinforcement through a Yearlingan Shadow Archetype with two Memetic Latices and four Marelard Deconstructors. All of which…”

“Eugh!” Sunset laid her head down onto the crystal table with a growl, “I know I haven’t kept up with modern Equestrian magic like I should, but come on! Nothing you said makes any sense!”

“I have to agree with Sunset on this, Twilight,” Celestia added as she approached the young mare to show her support, “While I, naturally, understood all of that, this isn’t an academic dissertation. Could you speak a little more… plainly? For Sunset’s benefit?”

Twilight’s eyes bulged out for a moment, before her look of shock was replaced by a gentle, understanding smile. “Oh… oh! Of course! How silly of me…”

Good, Celestia thought to herself, Now, at least, I’ll have some idea about what’s happened. Maybe I should have kept up with modern magic, as well? Maybe Sunset would like a study-buddy…?

“To put it simply,” Twilight collected herself with ease, this time, “What we have here is a marvelous bit of arcane work. Sunshine and Sunset are indeed the same pony, just from opposite ends of the cleanest time loop I’ve ever seen.

“I went over our local timeline,” her enthusiasm came through, though Twilight made certain to drop her beloved technical terms, “And there appears to be a knot of space-time running parallel to our relative… um… the time loop is pretty much perfect, is what I’m getting at.”

“Perfect!?” Sunburst’s glasses nearly dropped off his face as he leaned in, “W-what do you mean, perfect?”

“It’s perfect!” Twilight beamed, “It seems to be perfectly accounting for every Paradox in the book! Hoofstrap! Grandmare! New Comb! Even Zero’s!”

“Ponish, Twilight,” Sunset grumbled.

“Uh… right,” the purple Princess smiled with chagrin, “It’s… well, it’s perfect. It’s self-sustaining, so it can’t be undone without… unthinkable amounts of magical power and skill. I can’t think of a pony who could have done it. Even Starswirl isn’t that good.”

Starlight smirked, “Considering you and I have fixed or perfected some of his spells, is that really such a high bar anymore?”

Twilight shot a quick scowl towards her former student, but seemed to think better on opening up that can of worms.

“But then,” Sunset scratched her chin in thought, “That explains what this is. But still not why.”

Celestia nodded, “Indeed. Who would… or could… do such a thing? Not just in terms of the power and skill required, but in the desire to do so?”

The room lapsed into silence… until a low growl escaped from Starlight’s throat, and her hackles raised.

“Somepony,” she said, slowly, “is trying to take my baby. And when I find them…”

Sunset turned to her, and said, quickly, “Starlight, isn’t my being here proof that whatever happens… happens?”

“I…” Starlight swallowed, her anger simmering a moment at her daughter’s words, “I don’t care! I’m not going to just give up. I won’t give Sunshine up without a fight!”

Her loud declaration echoed through the halls, almost stunning everypony with the sheer volatility. Celestia had never seen Starlight angry before, not like this. Back when Starlight had snapped and swapped Celestia and her sister’s Cutie Marks, that had merely been frustration and stress boiling over.

Celestia held back a smile, “Well, at least the mystery of where your temper came from has been solved.”

Sunset flipped back around, a toothy snarl briefly splitting her face. Sunburst took a step back as he saw her, a flash of Starlight during one of her ‘moods’ crossing his memory like a warning flare.

But as she glared… Sunset’s eyes were already losing ground. Within seconds, her anger slipped away as a chuckle lifted her spirits.

“Heh, yeah,” she laughed, “You got me there.”

“This is funny?” Sunburst frowned.

“You think this is funny?” Starlight reached out a hoof, and roughly spun the amber Alicorn back around to face her, “Sunshine… Sunset. Somepony stole you from me! How are you laughing about this?”

The short-lived air of levity in the room fell like a led balloon. Celestia and Sunset each flattened their ears down at the scolding, with Sunset sheepishly lowering her head as well.

“I… Sorry. I’m sorry…” Sunset finally said, “It’s just… this already happened for me, even if I don’t remember it. I had a long, long time to think about who my parents were, and why they would just… leave me.

“I guess knowing that you didn’t,” Sunset’s smile slowly crept back into place, now accompanied by a mist in her eyes, as she met Starlight’s gaze, “It… it makes it okay, at least a little bit. Does that make sense?”

Starlight worked her jaw for a long moment. Celestia recognized that look, the contemplative stare of somepony internally debating with herself over something important. Sunset had that same look, whenever the Princess had given her a problem or question made to stump her.

The purple unicorn seemed to come to a decision quickly.

“What… if we didn’t?”

“Didn’t… what?” Sunset frowned.

“Give you up,” Starlight took another step towards her grown-filly, “Whatever is going… is supposed to happen. What if we stopped it? What if we kept you? Raised you ourselves!?”

Twilight, thus far remaining silent only so that her two dear friends could sort out their family dynamic in peace, frowned at this.

“That would be a bad idea, Starlight…”

Sunset winced as she saw the all-too-familiar flicker in Starlight’s eyes, “You can’t be serious.”

“Why can’t I be?” Starlight drew herself up, “All I’m doing is protecting my family!”

Sunburst stepped in between the two mares, and took a protective stance beside his daughter, “Starlight, she’s already a part of established events! You can’t just…”

“Why not!?”

The stern voice of the Princess of Friendship practically thrummed as it filled the room, “Because you have already done enough damage to Time, and I shall not clean up after you again!”

Starlight spun in place, and shot back with a snort, “Oh, so you’re bringing that up again? I thought we were past that!”

Twilight balked at the verbal assault. She held up a hoof, defensively, to her chest, and said, “That wasn’t me! I didn’t say that!”

The wind in Starlight’s sails faltered, for a moment. Then, as she opened her mouth to either continue her side of the battle or voice some other concern, the room itself began to glow.

A white light filled the throne room within seconds, and an electric buzz flowed freely through the seats, the walls, and even the Cutie Map itself. It felt as though an entire changeling hive had just swept through the Castle, or if one of the Rainbooms’ instruments were being amplified through the crystal-work itself.

Only Celestia, of all the ponies there, had the ability to see what happened next. One thousand years being tied to the very Sun gave her eyes the strength to peer directly into the brightest lights without flinching.

Ah, she thought, a cold, cloying feeling slowly working up from her stomach, I was wondering if something like this would happen. Now, we might get some answers…

For then, a set of hooves landed lightly on the surface of the table itself. The light began to fall away, leaving behind a startling sight; a sparkling purple Alicorn.

An Alicorn that appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be Twilight Sparkle, but who all those in attendance knew was not.

“It was I who created the closed time loop, that I might avert even greater calamity,” the Spirit of Harmony said, in a voice that echoed without the need for the throne room’s acoustics. She swept her eyes, ancient and majestic, across the faces around her.

“Magic,” she nodded respectfully towards Twilight, who simply sat in awe at the sight of her spiritual doppelganger.

“Sun…” another nod to Celestia, who returned the gesture, and noted the Spirit’s use of Twilight and her domain.

Harmony turned her eyes to Sunburst, and Sunset.

“Sunburst… Ouroboros.” The Spirit allowed a brief smile to cross its lips as it nodded to them as well.

Neither knew what to say, or what to do, as the being before them continued to turn, before settling, with a narrow scowl upon Starlight herself.

She said nothing to the other mare.

Harmony spoke again to all assembled, “Ask your questions. I know you will have many.”

The Spirit, upon its pronouncement, strode purposefully across the table, before… she alighted on her wings and drifted towards Rainbow Dash’s throne. There, she made herself to sit, and quickly set her shoulders straight and rigid.

She was prepared for an interrogation, it seemed.

“Uh, guys?” Sunset glanced between both her parents and the Princesses, clearly looking for what cue to follow, “Someone mind filling me in? Why is there a second Twilight!?”

“The Tree of Harmony can apparently manifest itself when it wishes to communicate,” Sunburst offered, though his eyes were clearly locked onto the fascinating magical anomaly that was sitting right in front of him, toying with his inner researcher like nothing else, “It did so to test some of our students before the Cozy Glow incident, and again when the tree was restored by the same students. I just wish it would let me study it…”

If the way the Spirit’s tail flicked itself at that moment was any indication, it was clearly displeased with the idea.

The Princess Twilight finally managed to close her jaw, which hung open as soon as the Spirit had appeared in full. She blinked a few times, and then said, incredulously, “Wait… did I never tell you about the Spirit of Harmony?”

Sunset sent a look laden with almost Rainbow levels of sarcasm towards her friend and pseudo-mentor. “I think I’d have remembered being told about yet another version of you wandering around…”

Her eyes crossed a moment, and her mouth twitched with the hint of a smile, “Uh, no one’s told Trixie about this… Spirit, right? Between you, my Twi, Midnight, and now this one, she probably thinks there’s a conspiracy of Twilights.”

“A group of Twilights would be a herd, not a conspiracy,” the Spirit intoned. Then, licking its questionably physical lips, it elected to add, “That was an attempt at levity.”

Another animalistic growl escaped from Starlight. She snorted, and slowly approached the Spirit, eyes narrowed to dangerous pinpricks. Celestia had only seen eyes like that a few times in her long life, and at no time had they presaged anything less than total and utter destruction.

Luna’s eyes were like that, the night before she…

“It fell a little flat,” she snarled, “Now… Spirit, tell me exactly what you meant just then. You created the time loop?”

The Spirit said, with little emotion, “Yes. I did.”

Starlight’s scowl somehow grew deeper as she neared the avatar, “Then… you’re the one who sent… who is going to try and steal my baby.”

Harmony stared at the approaching mare, impassively. If Celestia, who stood to the side of the spirit, could read the facial expressions of disembodied concepts, she could almost believe Harmony truly felt nothing. But she had worn that face before.

What emotion are you hiding behind that poker face? she wondered.

“I would not… did not… and shall not ‘steal’ your child, Anathema,” said Harmony. It didn’t take Celestia’s ages of reading ponies to see the slight wince as Harmony delivered the unfortunate title.

Starlight’s horn suddenly flashed with turquoise fire, causing both Sunset and Sunburst to take a step away from her.

“Then… explain,” her tone hardened, “before I decide to make you…”

“Starlight!” Twilight’s warning rang out over the room, “Don’t threaten the physical incarnation of Friendship!”

Starlight stood her ground, horn humming with magical malevolence.

“Hostility will not be necessary,” Harmony held out a placating hoof, “I promise, the choice to send your foal back into the past will be yours, and yours alone.”

“Yeah? And how do you figure that?” Starlight’s horn dimmed, but only by a degree.

Harmony took a slow, deep breath, which caused Celestia some small alarm, as the motion punctuated the fact that, up until that moment, the Spirit had not been breathing.

“Time,” said Harmony, careful to speak slowly, and match the enraged mother before her gaze for gaze, “has a physical substance to it. It is a woven tapestry, with innumerable strands all coming together to create a pattern far grander and more complex than any mortal… and few immortals could possibly grasp.”

Harmony held Starlight’s gaze for a moment… and then, to the shock of Princess Celestia, it was the spirit who broke eye contact first, turning to look upon Sunset next.

“Your mother once attempted to change that pattern,” she said to the amber Alicorn, “Albeit, in a manner akin to aiming a blowtorch at the tapestry…”

“I’ve heard,” Sunset said, managing, admirably, to not look at her mother. She’d been told the story, long ago, but the newfound familial connection made that dark tale… somewhat harder to consider, it would seem.

Starlight’s horn flared back to its previous intensity as she roared, “I’ve never tried to downplay what I did! Are… are you trying to say this is some sort of punishment for that?”

Tears formed in the unicorn’s eyes, “I tried… I’ve tried to make up for what I did for years! I never let myself forget. I had my whole worldview ripped apart in front of me. I had to face every mistake I’d ever made all over again! I… I made my own Tantabus…”

Celestia held back a wave of physical revulsion as Starlight said this, her mind reeling back to when Luna had first confided in her about the use of such a construct. The very thought of one of her little ponies falling back on such barbaric spellcraft sickened her almost as much as the thought that, given the opportunity, she might have used it herself.

Oh, Starlight… Only you would understand that the greatest… and most shameful, hatred is reserved for ourselves…

“So, is this just your way of getting back at me?” Starlight snarled, though her voice was cracking more and more as she tried to shout down the Spirit of Harmony, “How long do I have to pay for one mistake!?

“This isn’t even a fair punishment!” she cried and jabbed her hoof at the spirit, not even noticing the way Harmony’s wings twitched at every prod, “Sunshine didn’t do anything to deserve losing her family! How can you justify this!?”

As Starlight gulped down air, as much to speak again as she did to calm herself, Twilight chose that moment to speak up as well.

“I have to agree with Starlight, Harmony,” she said, with a level of authority the purple Princess often reserved for dealing with the Canterlot nobility, “Besides the fact that Starlight Glimmer has, on more than a few occasions, outright saved the world, if this is some sort of… divine punishment, you would be punishing the wrong pony!”

Sunset said nothing, as did Sunburst, instead allowing Harmony a moment to answer the charges thrown back at her. Though, Celestia did note, Sunburst inched closer to the Alicorn, taking up a protective stance… despite being an inch shorter than her.

The Spirit had stood, stoically, as Starlight raged against her. Yet, she held firm. Though, from much experience, Celestia could tell the weight of those words were having an effect on Harmony’s composure.

She really wasn’t sure whether or not that was a good sign.

Harmony’s wings fidgeted, and her eyes returned, slowly, and with great reluctance, to Starlight.

“This is not a punishment,” she said, her mechanical speaking voice strained somewhat, “This is a consequence… and not one that I could have diverted. When you altered time, you damaged the very fabric from which it was made.”

The Spirit breathed softly out of her nose, and turned towards Sunburst.

“You are the knowledgeable one,” she said, “What is the Second Law of Thaumodynamics?”

The sudden attention caught the stallion off-guard. He stuttered, for a moment, and readjusted his glasses once, before stating, “Oh, um… formulated by Prench Pegasus Lieutenant Selle Cargo… it states that no system of magic can be one-hundred percent efficient, and that all systems seek equilibrium. It’s related to the Plank Constant, whereby…”

“Yes, thank you,” Harmony cut in abruptly.

“Yeah, that’s great,” Sunset agreed, though under her breath, she added, “Where were you when I needed help in Arithmagic classes?”

Sunburst himself said nothing to this, though he did turn his attention back to his wife, who was still one wrong word away from attempting deicide. His gaze softened as he took in the way her legs shook, both from the stress of the day, as well as the raw, adrenaline-fueled magical surge keeping her up. If the birth itself hadn’t gone so well, all things considered, he really wondered if she’d even be conscious right now. Her eyes were watering, as much from rage as they were from not blinking, and her breath was coming on heavily.

Starlight’s composure, already frayed, was coming undone.

Gently, as if she would shatter on contact, Sunburst laid one foreleg over Starlight’s withers.

“Star,” he leaned his muzzle so that it was almost touching her ear, “You need to breathe. The kites are flying high tonight.”

“I don’t need…” Starlight began, but caught herself as another vein bulged out of her neck. Instead of screaming, as was clearly her first instinctive response, she slammed her eyes shut, and began breathing deeply through her nose.

The change was slow, at first. But, as the seconds ticked by, Starlight’s horn dimmed, and her muscles relaxed. Finally, her jaw seemed to unclench, and she looked back up to the Spirit.

“Right,” she said, at last, with a tone that was exasperated, and tense, but restrained in spite of it all, “So… I damaged time when I… when I made that mistake. And you’re quoting some law of magic at me. What’s the connection?”

Before Harmony could speak, however, Sunset’s eyes widened.

“The second law… we have something like that in the human world!” Sunset stood, stunned, a flood of both human and pony memories competing for prominence as she continued, “You can’t have a totally efficient… anything! There’s always some sort of energy loss in any process, unless the process itself is completely reversible.

“Magic… Time Magic,” she shook her head, and then looked back to Starlight, “Is time magic… reversible?”

Starlight met her… daughter’s eyes.

And then, she looked to the Spirit.

Harmony shook her head, “No, it is not. And… without the ability to completely reverse what you had done, there were losses. Compromises.”

Celestia took another step closer to the Spirit, and thought to ask, “What sort of compromises? It sounds as if…?”

“As if you couldn’t save everything,” Twilight finished, her face rapidly losing color, “You… you had to stitch Time back together, didn’t you?”

If Harmony could give an appraising look, it did so now.

“I did, yes. But it is not so simple a process as you might think, Magic.”

She seemed to think about her next words, and then said, “My relationship with Time is… complicated. I existed before, during, and after my creation. So, from a certain point of view, I had the task of fixing your damages from the moment Time began.”

“Fascinating…” Sunburst muttered, obviously making what mental notes as he could.

Celestia could see, from where she stood, that Starlight’s eyes were watching Harmony’s with incredible intensity. But they were fading. As the Spirit spoke, her words seemed to beat down what hope, and what defiance, the purple unicorn had left in her.

“Not just anything could be used, however,” Harmony… sighed, “Just like how fixing a wound through stitches requires that one knits the nearby flesh back together, so too does Time. But… Starlight Glimmer, and the Element of Magic, were at the epicenter of their battle across the multiverse.

“In order to fix what had been broken,” she gestured towards the Map, “I had to take something from them in order to hold the world together again. Else, all would unravel.”

“And you chose my baby?” a spark of ire relit in Starlight’s eyes, and she once more drew herself up.

“I could have removed you,” Harmony’s tone hardened, and her voice echoed eerily within the chamber, “It would have been cruel to, say, erase Shining Armor, or Pinkie Pie from the Weave. But you had been the cause of all this! It was your arrogance, and your pettiness, that almost destroyed Equestria!”

Harmony’s eyes flashed with fire, and for a moment it seemed like her whole form had become like lightning. White fire blazed across her wings, and her mane. Celestia and Twilight spread their wings wide in a natural display of readiness, while Sunset quickly stepped up in front of Sunburst.

Starlight stood her ground. She hadn’t flinched. Yet, tears streamed down her cheeks, undammed.

The Spirit slowly faded, until she appeared almost exactly like the Princess she resembled. But, where there had been fire one moment, and passive calculation the moment before, there was something else now. Something that truly caught Celestia, and everypony else, off-guard.

Harmony smiled, sadly.

“I could never do that, though,” her smile grew in size, but did not lose its melancholy, “I could see the depth and breadth of Time, as I worked. I knew the mare you would become. I knew the ponies and other creatures you would eventually help to learn the value and meaning of Friendship. I saw all the good you would do.

“I love you, Starlight,” Harmony’s voice cracked, almost imperceptively, “You… and your children… would make the world better. Your eldest would even spread that joy, that happiness to a whole other world!”

And then, her smile fell.

“But to get there… to repair the damage to Time, all I had to do was break your heart.”

She looked away, Celestia thought, in shame.

“Taking material from the source of the damage was the only way to fix the wound. If I had selected some other time, or some other place… it wouldn’t have worked. It would just spread the damage further and further out.

“I’m sorry,” the Spirit’s head lowered, and she lapsed into silence. Twilight let out a quivering breath as her spiritual other finished, while Celestia impassively ruffled her wings in contemplation.

Starlight remained standing where she had been, though not alone. Her husband was at her side, their bodies pressed together as he wrapped her in his foreleg once more. Sunburst laid his head alongside hers, willing to share in her pain, despite it being obvious by the way his own sides twitched that he was suffering himself.

And on her other side, Sunset’s face went to war. She leaned in, precarious inches separating the two mares, a flash of hesitation and fear struggling against her own heart’s need to help her friend… her family.

Eventually, it was the latter that won out. Starlight accepted the Alicorn’s presence, even the touch of their horns, as she settled into a mirror of Sunburst’s embrace.

And there it is, Celestia’s own heart faltered, The family. Complete, and healing. No need for a teacher, nor anything else…

The purple unicorn blinked through the tears welling up once more. Apprehension pulled at the corners of her face.

“What…” she swallowed, and began again, “What if I say no?”

“Come again!?” Twilight shouted, her hooving slipping slightly as she reared up over the Map in shock.

“Uh…” Sunburst stammered, he and Sunset taking a concerned step back.

Harmony was not so surprised. The avatar’s eyes were locked on Starlight’s, and her expression was not one of despair, or rage.

She looked so tired.

“You will not,” she said, simply.

“I said,” Starlight took a slow, measured step forward, “What if I say no?”

“You would rather capitulate to a threat, or an explanation,” the Spirit said, knowingly, “rather than mere implication.”

“Starlight…” Sunset raised one hoof, only to watch it swatted away with a turquoise flash. She yelped, and held it close as she watched her mother descend upon Harmony.

Starlight clenched her teeth, and stopped only a foot away from the Spirit.

“What. If I. Say. No…?”

The last word echoed in the crystalline hall. Even the thrones seemed to carry the sound, even if only a little. It was similar, Celestia thought, to how a windchime sounded on a fell breeze at midnight.

Luna had always loved the sound. It had always made the elder sister cry.

Harmony smiled, in such a way that it was not a smile at all, but rather a silent anguish in plain sight. She slowly nodded, as a single, spectral tear marred her cheek, and laid one hoof upon the Map.

“I will take Time from somewhere else,” she whispered, “But the circumstances that allowed your Sunshine to exist will be no more.”

Sunset’s eyes widened, as did Celestia’s.

The Spirit did not seem to notice. “To refuse… would be to lose her in another way. And more terribly…”

Princess Celestia’s mouth gaped as it happened. Suddenly, all the light in the castle shifted, but she could feel it shift. It was as though the sun itself had moved without her command. The castle’s calm, cool greens and purples became a dull, bloody red.

A similar panic gripped the other ponies in the room, their ears flattening with worry and fear. Their legs buckled as they sought to make themselves small before the very cosmos changing around them.

All except for Starlight, and Harmony, who stood staring at one another. The soft, distant din of battle, of clashing arms, began to build outside the autumnal windows. A sound that drew Celestia’s attention like a moth to a flame.

I still remember the battles we fought, she winced at the idea of returning to those dark days.

“Sunset’s existence creates variables,” said Harmony, raising and lowering her hoof once, “just as her in-existence would as well.”

Her hoof touched the Map, and a swell of hot, venomous green seeped into the walls, replacing the war-like reds and oranges with its own cloying coloration. The roar of battle faded into the low, haunting hum of a million insectoid wings.

“The Rainboom will be averted,” Harmony did not look away from her most cruelly chosen victim, “this time by the tiniest, and most unstoppable, of miniscule minutia.”

Just off, in the depths of the buzzing drone of changeling wings, Celestia could almost hear the insane laughter of the Hive’s former Queen. She spun in place, ears madly swiveling about in a vain attempt to find its source. It seemed to echo through the crystal walls themselves.

Harmony’s hoof tapped the table again.

And with a wave of midnight hues overtaking the castle, that mad laughter became something far, far more familiar. A laugh one-thousand years the subject of the Sun Princess’s nightmares bellowed out, pressing down upon every pony like a tidal wave.

Starlight’s eyes continued to stare, unblinking, at the holocaust of Time. She had seen these images play out a million times in her mind and in her dreams. This was no more than another reminder of the Starlight Glimmer left dead in the past, and the crimes she had committed. Crimes that had doomed her own child.

Harmony raised her hoof again, and said, “What is Equestria without Destiny? Without Friendship?”

Her hoof came down.

The Castle was gone. Instantly, and without flash or pomp.

Twilight Sparkle’s eyes despaired at the sight of a gray sky.

Sunburst quailed beneath the howl of the untempered dust storm.

Sunset nearly wept to see the world undone.

Even Celestia, ancient, and inured to such things, felt the sharp pain of utter dismay and sorrow bite hold of her heart. She had felt it before, one thousand years past, and now again.

“Dust, and death,” said Starlight Glimmer, unicorn, teacher, headmare, mage, criminal, mother.

Anathema.

And then, as Sunburst lost control of his concentration, the bubble of silence around little Sunshine fell apart.

The howl of a scared, helpless foal was the last thing Starlight heard as her body collapsed to the hard, crystal floor. Her soul, wracked with hurt that went as deep as pain could reach, shrieked within herself, and her mind from all her thoughts, and worries, and fears and loves shook free.

She fell into a deep dark, and knew no more.

Author's Note:

I started a joke
Which started the whole world crying
But I didn't see,
That the joke was on me