• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,683 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

  • ...

The Solace Of Bittersweet Memories

Chapter Thirty Four: The Solace Of Bittersweet Memories

Twilight Sparkle was no more alive than she had been before... but she was only a little more dead, too. One of the few comforts that could be taken among everything that had happened, as the Lich laid in her old room at the library, breathing heavily, with the pieces of her music box sitting on a table nearby. The larger pieces still held a few shards of her essence, and while the phylactery had been battered and broken, it hadn't been completely destroyed: her soul still clung tenaciously to it, and music notes every now and then weakly whispered out of the object. But it had to be replaced, and that would take time, effort, and Twilight would need to recover her strength. And right now, she didn't even have enough strength to leave the broken body she was in without risking simply... dissolving.

Burning Desire was staying with her, and Celestia checked in as often as she could on the violet mare who was friend and family to her. Antares visited sometimes, too, with Scarlet Sage... but right now, Antares was having trouble coping with... anything and everything. Most of the time, he just curled up with the statue of his parents... the rest of the time, he locked himself in their room, laying on their bedding beneath the covers, playing with the star necklace around his neck, thinking of them... and of Prestige Luster.

The ache he felt for Prestige made him think bitterly that everything Celestia told him was a lie. The loss of her hurt worse than any wound he'd ever suffered, compared even to the loss of his parents... but maybe it was even worse, because he knew he was going to bring his parents back. In fact, that was the only reason he was able to force himself to do anything at all: more than ever, he needed to find and save his parents.

Everyone tried to comfort him: no one could do anything for him. He blamed himself for not sensing Cancer, for not saving Prestige, for a thousand other reasons. He was no hero, no leader, everything Cancer had said about him was right, and it made him sick to his stomach. He hurt, and he felt like he was going insane, and all he wanted to do was sleep or cry, but when he slept he had awful nightmares, and when he started crying he found it almost impossible to stop.

Slowly, Antares forced himself to sit up: he was locked in his parents' room, wrapped in blankets, clinging to a pillow. His eyes were reddened, and his pallor was sickly: he looked unhealthy, unstable, and nearly broken. Rustproof had hurt, but Prestige hurt so much worse, and brought back the pain of Rustproof... made him look at death and see all the awful things about it, made him feel... horrific. Made him want to die just so he could be with his friends and his beloved Prestige again...

He swallowed thickly, then trembled before forcing the tears away, whispering: “And Avalon, Aphrodisia, Meadow... they're all going to die, too. And it's going to hurt. Every time it's going to hurt and... why should I go through this pain again and again and again...”

The young stallion clenched his eyes shut, reaching up and rubbing slowly at his throbbing skull before heading quietly towards the door, pushing it open and murmuring: “I am just a failure... I... I am just a coward, why should I pretend any different... I... I just need Mom and Dad back, and then I can hide here forever, and I'll be a foal again and they'll take care of me and it'll all go back to the way it should have been...”

Antares shivered, closing his eyes and breathing harder as he paced slowly down the corridor, then looked miserably up at the ripped paintings around the den. Most of the other damage had been cleaned up by Celestia and Scarlet Sage, and Antares breathed slowly as he turned his eyes to the photographs on the wall, settling on a picture of his parents and Twilight all standing together with smiles marred by the cracked glass that covered it. “I'm so sorry I failed you...”

“Antares?” called a voice, and Antares winced and turned quickly around, beginning to stride down the corridor, but Scarlet Sage hurried in through the back door and across the kitchen, saying sharply: “Antares, wait!”

The young stallion halted halfway down the hall, closing his eyes before he turned slowly around, looking miserably up at his sibling. She was still a little pale herself, not in the best condition, but she had insisted on staying out here with Apple Bloom to keep an eye on him. He looked up at her with an empty gaze as she looked back down at him silently, then she sighed softly and said quietly: “It's been five days, Antares. You're going to mourn and hurt for a lot longer, I know... but it's time for you to start putting yourself together. Come on, Antares. I'll take you into town to see Mom, and you can see your friends, too. You should talk to them before... before the funeral tomorrow.”

“No, I... no. She's... she's not going to get better. Not with her phylactery broken, not stuck in that body.” Antares whispered, looking down and closing her eyes tightly, and Scarlet Sage looked at him silently. “And I'm not going to the funeral. It hurts too much...”

“If you don't go to that funeral, Antares, you'll regret it forever. It's your last chance to say goodbye to Prestige.” Scarlet Sage said quietly, and Antares shook his head and gave a shout as he glared up at her defiantly, even as his eyes filled with tears.

“No, I lost that chance already! She's dead and gone, and the dead don't hear us up in Valhalla, and I'll only ever get to see her again when I die myself... that is, if I don't go to Helheim for being such a stupid goddamn coward!” Antares shouted, breathing hard, and Scarlet Sage only looked at him silently before she closed her eyes as the young stallion whispered: “Goddammit, Scarlet, you have Apple Bloom still. And you've always been more Mom's kid than I ever was, adopted or not. I'm nothing like Mom and Dad wanted me to be. I'm a failure. I'm-”

Scarlet Sage reached up and quietly put a hoof to Antares' lips, silencing him as she kept her head low before saying softly: “Then maybe you shouldn't go to Clockwork World after all. Just leave Mom and Dad to sleep, because I can't think of what would hurt them more or leave them more disappointed in you than seeing you acting like this.”

With that, the Pegasus simply turned and left, and Antares' mouth worked, the glossy-black unicorn shivering violently as he stared after his big sister as her words cut him down to his very soul. He breathed hard in and out, then dropped his head shamefully even as he silently looked up at all the pictures on the wall, all the photos of his parents... and then he trembled before shaking his head violently as he stumbled through the kitchen and outside.

Scarlet Sage glanced up from where she was sitting with Apple Bloom, and Antares walked over to her... then simply hugged her, buried his face against the side of her neck, and started to sob. The Pegasus closed her eyes as she embraced him fiercely, soothing him silently as she stroked through his mane, and Apple Bloom slipped forwards to hug the young stallion tightly as well, keeping him held between the two mares, letting him feel the warmth, the love, the sympathy and sorrows of them both.

Finally, when Antares managed to get himself back under control, he joined them at the little table and Apple Bloom went inside and returned with another mug. She poured him a cup of tea from the kettle on the table, and Antares smiled faintly at her before he rubbed slowly at his eyes and whispered: “I'm sorry.”

“It's okay, Antares. I don't... I can't imagine how hard it is for you right now.” Scarlet Sage said quietly, and Antares closed his eyes, shivering once before the Pegasus glanced across at Apple Bloom, who smiled faintly and nodded slowly. “But you... you do have to keep yourself going. Not just for yourself, or Mom and Dad, but... because Prestige would want you to, wouldn't she?”

Antares nodded silently, looking down and whispering: “And so would Rusty. I keep comparing Rustproof's death to Prestige, but now I realize... I should have been thinking of it the other way around. Prestige gave up her life to save us, and... I don't know and don't care how much of what Cancer said was true. I only know that no matter what happened, at the end, she.. she died to protect us, to destroy him and give us a chance to keep going. I... I need to honor that, no matter what else I might be feeling. I need to... remember her and Rusty, in good ways, not bad.”

“You need to go see your friends, Antares. You need their help... and they need yours.” Scarlet Sage said quietly, and Antares looked up at her for a few moments before he closed his eyes and nodded slowly in understanding, the young mare smiling faintly. “Thank you.”

“No... thank you, Scarlet, for... for always being here. And you too, Apple Bloom, you're... you're a lot nicer to me than you have to be.” Antares laughed faintly, reaching up and rubbing slowly at his face as he closed his eyes. “Okay. Okay, I'm going to wash up. And then... I'll go into town.”

“We'll walk you. Ain't no reason for you to go alone... I want to see Twilight myself anyway, she...” Apple Bloom smiled faintly and shook her head slowly. “She means a lot to me, and she helped me and Scarlet more than she'll ever know, I think.”

The young stallion nodded gratefully, looking up with a faint smile between the two before he shifted and closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards. He simply took a moment to breathe, then he reached down and picked up his mug of tea, drinking it in a few long gulps before putting it down and realizing with something like surprise it was the first thing he'd really had in days. He studied the dregs in the bottom of the cup silently, but he didn't even have to ask for Scarlet Sage to say quietly: “Mom and Dad always had the same problem taking care of themselves, yeah. And... Mom and Dad were always hard on themselves, too. Too hard... like you are.”

“I...” Antares stopped, then he simply smiled faintly and nodded slowly, pushing away from the table and lowering his head in thought as he headed for the door. He made his way through the house to the bathroom, but then halted, hesitated, and instead walked to the door leading into his parents' bedroom.

For a few moments, he simply stood there... then he reached forwards, gently grasping the knob and slowly pulling the door shut. His hoof slipped away from the handle, rubbing quietly over the hardwood before he whispered quietly: “Mom, Dad... I... I am going to do everything in my power to make you both proud. And... and you too, Prestige, and you, Rusty, I'm gonna try and live up to what you all thought of me. I'll never be a hero, maybe... but I'll be... I'll be something. And I'll start doing that today.”

The young stallion nodded firmly, lowering his head forwards and trembling once before he finally smiled faintly and turned away, heading down the hall to the bathroom door. He let himself through, looking into the mirror, seeing his mottled-white reflection grinning back at him, his crimson eyes like spotlights, his-

Antares stumbled backwards, breathing hard, but when he looked into the mirror again it was just him... not Cancer. For a few moments, he trembled, staring at his reflection before slowly striding forwards, and he silently reached up to touch the glass, gazing at himself quietly as he whispered: “I'm... I'm not him. I'm nothing like him...”

The young stallion closed his eyes, shivering once, before he looked up again, and for a moment his eyes seemed to glow red, for a moment, he saw his fangs bared like an animal, in a cruel, vicious expression. Then it was gone, and he was only looking at his pale, sweaty features, his mane hanging around his face, his eyes bloodshot only because of tears. Not because he was turning into a monster, not because he was going to become Midnight Hour, not because he had such a depth of evil and darkness inside him...

Antares studied himself, then he lowered his head forwards and whispered: “No. Like I said... I'm not going to give in. I'm going to do what Rustproof and Prestige did... I'm going to protect. I'm going to be like my parents, and if there is something evil inside me I'll... I'll bend it, and twist it, and force it to turn into something good. I don't have to be anything except who and what I want to be.”

He hesitated for a few moments more all the same, then shook his head and quietly turned towards the shower stall. As he adjusted the taps and then stepped into the spray of water, he wondered silently if this was what his parents had gone through... and as he lowered his head beneath the lukewarm spray, he wondered quietly how strong they must have been to survive as they had. To have made themselves stronger from the experiences they had gone through, instead of allowing those experiences to drain them.

The water got hotter and hotter, until steam was rising up from his skin, the heat almost scalding him as he felt his mind emptying out. He stood for a good ten minutes or so under the hot shower, and then finally turned the taps off and watched as the liquid flowed down the drain, swaying a bit before he shook himself briskly out, lightheaded but glad for anything that distracted him from his depression and self-loathing.

He dried off slowly, then frowned a bit as his eyes caught something. A strange glimmer under the sink that wasn't from any water droplets... and Antares curiously leaned down before he softened as he reached out and gently picked up Prestige's single focal earring. He held it and silently stared down at this pretty little silver and gemstone thing, that glowed quietly even now... and Antares closed his eyes as he bowed his head forwards and whispered: “I'm sorry, Prestige.”

He quietly lifted it with telekinesis, then turned and silently made his way out of the room, wondering how long it had been there in the dust, laying on the bathroom tiles, ignored by everypony. Unseen because he had nothing but tears in his eyes and a mind full of garbage and stupid self-pity. A little piece of Prestige, fallen and ignored because... he was so goddamn stupid sometimes.

Antares made his way to his room, and he gently laid the earring down on his table beside his bed. He reached up and brushed back his wet mane, and then he closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards as he promised quietly: “I won't forget again, Prestige Luster. I love you. Thank you... for... for everything. I won't... I'll never forget you.”

He breathed quietly in and out, then frowned a bit as he heard a quiet click before opening his eyes... and then the young stallion swallowed thickly, staring as he saw the earring was no longer alone, but its long-lost mate was sitting beside it now on the table. And for a few moments Antares could only look at this before he closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards, trembling a little as he understood, whispering as he felt a gentle presence brush quietly against him: “Thank you.”

Prestige's funeral was harder than Rustproof's, and yet in some ways, easier, too: Antares had more of an idea of what to do, and Prestige's death had drawn him together with others in a way he'd never imagined had been possible. In a way that was a blessing, for all the pain and suffering her death had caused him and others.

Antares had only handled a little of the funeral preparations: he didn't know how to do this, or what to do, and Celestia had gently taken over for most of it. That is, until Rosewood had arrived from Canterlot, and gone about funeral arrangements quickly and sharply, knowing exactly what she wanted where and how things were supposed to go. She was firm, and seemed distant, and rough with everypony, but Antares saw her pain. How she was trying to cope by making sure everything was in place, as if somehow that wouldn't just honor Prestige's memory further, it would keep her daughter around for just a little longer.

But when Rosewood finally saw him, she had stormed over, and Antares had winced, fear of her cutting through him for a moment... but she had stopped, stared at him for what felt like the longest time, and then slowly, silently reached up and hugged him, trembling. He'd hugged her back, and for that day, at least, they'd been together in sorrow.

Scutum was there, too, quiet and stoic as always, helping Rosewood along, and yet he hurt too. He hurt much more than Antares had expected to see, as the young stallion had sat beside the old, strong unicorn in his pristine Canterlot military uniform. For some reason, during the service, Antares kept looking at him, not at the coffin filled with flowers and trinkets that had been important to Prestige, not at Celestia as she gave the speeches, and even when Antares had gone up to give a quiet, unsteady eulogy, his eyes lingered over the front row most of all: Scutum, Rosewood, a few other unicorns he didn't know, a haggard-looking Twilight in a wheelchair and thick blanket, and Celestia.

It was a blur, and before Antares knew it, they were in the cemetery, and the last rites had been held, and he was watching as the grave was lowered in the ground. Dirt and ash was sprinkled over the coffin, and a prayer was whispered from someone, and Antares closed his eyes, trembling, as hooves touched his back and ponies spoke things he didn't understand, didn't really hear... and when he next opened his eyes, he was standing at the foot of a filled-in grave, and Scutum and Rosewood were the only ponies left beside him.

There was silence, and then Antares looked up at Scutum, who glanced over at him... then he simply nodded slowly before returning his eyes to the grave. The large, one-eyed stallion took a quiet breath as his single eye drew to the funeral marker they had chosen: a simple stone, carved with Prestige's emblem, and then he lowered his head as he answered the question Antares silently asked: “Yes. She was my daughter.”

Rosewood closed her eyes, silently hugging Scutum around the neck and burying her face against his shoulder, and Scutum looked slowly up as Antares stared across at him and swallowed, whispering: “And she never knew...”

“No one did. No one could.” Scutum said quietly, the faintest of tremors running through him. “Rosewood was married to the Mayor. If a Pegasus or unicorn had found out, it would have been over for both of us... she would have been run out of town, I would have been sent to the prison caves, Prestige would have been... they would have relegated her to the slave class and possibly removed her horn. I couldn't let that happen to my daughter...”

“So all these years...” Antares looked silently at the grave, then he shook his head slowly, laughing faintly. “I... so she... she was...”

“We were going to tell her, but... we were waiting until Rosewood had moved into Canterlot. When it would be safe...” Scutum sighed quietly, murmuring: “And now I'll never get that chance. To tell her... why I was always hard on her. Why I always kept myself distant... and how proud I am of her, even if I'm only her father because... a long time ago, I had to spend three days as her mother's bodyguard on some political mission to nowhere...”

“One was the worst day of my life, and the other two were some of the best.” Rosewood murmured, trembling a little before she slowly looked up, shaking her head weakly. “And now my daughter... our daughter... is never going to know that she... she had a good father.”

Scutum looked down silently, closing his eye as he shook his head slowly. “No. I don't think I was a good father... I was... I was her father by blood, but I was never there for her. I should have trusted her and told her... and I should have had more faith in her. But I saw her, being raised by that bastard Grindstone... but she was more honorable than me. She was more loyal than me, Antares, look at her: she gave her life for you and these ponies and this village, this village that represents everything she was taught to hate up north by the purebloods and yet... changed her, anyway. You changed her.”

Scutum breathed quietly as he looked slowly up, and Antares only shook his head slowly, murmuring: “No. I didn't... it was always there, Scutum. She was such a pain in the flank for four years but she was holding so much inside of her that... it just... it just needed a place where it could come out. That's all. Because she was... she was a wonderful person, and yeah, she was loyal, and honorable and... I hope... I hope I can be as strong as she was.”

Antares fell silent, and Rosewood closed her eyes before the pink unicorn said quietly: “Antares, my daughter... my daughter adored you. She... she was so goddamn stubborn about it, and not just because of old, stupid traditions, but because she really, honestly believed you were the one for her. She always knew what she wanted, though, and... she was... she was ready, Antares, to spend the rest of her life with you. I understand that's not how things work down here, but up north, you had a period of courtship, but you always... married young. Just like the old days...

“And yet it wasn't those traditions that made her so... taken with you. She talked all the time about you in her letters, she... she loved you. My daughter truly loved you, felt you were her mate, that you were her perfect match... she was scared of losing you. And when you two were moving in together, I... I was happy, because... she could have made a worse choice. She wanted to marry you, and have a family with you, and be part of your family, and she wanted you to be part of our family, too.”

Rosewood fell quiet for a moment, and then she glanced down and said quietly: “So Antares, I'm... I'm not much of a mother, but I want you to know that you are part of my family. Now and forever. And I want you to honor my daughter's memory, I want you to be a better pony than me or Scutum. I want you to remember what she wanted, and... kid, come here.”

Antares only looked awkwardly at the two, and then Rosewood grimaced before she pushed away from Scutum, walking around the stallion and striding quickly over to Antares. The two looked at each other for a moment, and then she leaned forwards and embraced him tightly, pulling him close against her as she muttered: “You're not the kind of son I ever imagined myself having, but... you're going to be that for me right now. We can go back to hating each other later.”

“I never hated you. I was always just... scared of you.” Antares admitted after a moment, awkwardly fidgeting a little... but after a moment, he allowed himself to lean a bit against her, closing his eyes as he dropped his head against the unicorn mare and a tremble ran through his body.

“Then maybe you're more like a son to me than I thought.” Rosewood murmured in response, and Antares laughed a little, then finally reached a foreleg up and hugged her back, and after a few more moments, they finally parted.

The two studied each other as Scutum strode quietly up beside Rosewood, and then the mare closed her eyes and shook her head before glancing over her shoulder at the grave, whispering: “Prestige Luster... sleep well now, okay? Mom and Dad... we both love you. More than you'll ever know, even now.”

“Say hi to Rusty for me, Prestige, and... we'll see each other again one day.” Antares added quietly, drawing his eyes towards the grave as well before he smiled faintly. Then, slowly, he and Rosewood turned away, before the young male hesitantly looked over his shoulder at Scutum, who was only gazing silently at the grave.

“He and Prestige have some things to talk about. Come on, Antares, you and I should... start taking care of ourselves.” Rosewood said softly, and the young, glossy-black stallion nodded hesitantly as he and the pink mare made their way slowly through the cemetery and back into Ponyville.

He spent the entire day that followed the funeral with Rosewood, getting to know her, and when evening rolled around and Antares quietly made his way to the library, he felt... immensely better. Not simply like a weight had lifted off his shoulders... like in the time he'd spent with Rosewood, he had felt himself settling, like for the first time in days he'd managed to see a little bit of good amongst the bad, like the time with Rosewood had somehow given him a little more time with Prestige, too.

All the stories that Rosewood had been able to tell, and how forceful she was, and the way she reminded him of Prestige... it helped, in its strange, weird way, even as it stirred his sorrows. But even though he knew it would hurt for a long time, he had started to slowly climb his way out of the abyss after six days of deep and dark and seemingly-endless misery. And there was only one thing he really wanted to concentrate on, and that was trying to keep swimming to the surface.

Celestia greeted him quietly in the library, and so did Twilight from her wheelchair, the Lich smiling tiredly. Sleipnir, Aphrodisia and Pinkamena were there too, and as the evening wore on, Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom arrived to check in and make sure he was doing okay. They were treating him with gentility and kindness he didn't entirely deserve, but he wasn't going to complain about it.

He spent the night with these ponies who made up his family, and the next day, he walked quietly out of the library in the morning to find Meadowlark standing silently and waiting for him. For a long time, the two just looked at each other, and then Antares nodded hesitantly to her, and the Pegasus smiled faintly as she strode forwards and hugged him fiercely.

He hugged her tightly back, closing his eyes: they were friends first, and friends always, and right now they needed each other. The two turned and strode in silence through the streets of Ponyville, Antares not sure where they were going before he asked finally: “How's Avalon?”

“Rough. We should visit her later, Antares... I know it's asking a lot, but she needs your help. Needs a little support, too. I think she needs to hear from you that... Prestige didn't hate her, and knew that Avalon was her friend. I don't think she'll believe it from anypony else.” Meadowlark murmured, shaking her head slowly. “But I know I'm asking a lot when... you're hurting bad, still.”

“I am. I am hurting.” Antares admitted, and Meadowlark looked almost surprised at his admission before he smiled faintly as he glanced over at her. “But you know what? Helping other ponies makes me feel a lot better. And reminds me that... I'm not the only pony who suffered, who hurt. And I know Prestige always... wanted me to help. To be happy.”

“Yeah.” Meadowlark said softly, and the two looked at each other for a few moments before the Pegasus lowered her head and said quietly: “I'm sorry, Antares. I am, about... everything.”

“No, Meadow... no. It's... it's not okay, but there's no need to apologize...” Antares looked away, shaking his head slowly. For a little while, there was silence as they continued down the street, walking into a quieter area of the village before the glossy-black stallion asked finally: “So where is Ava?”

“Out at the animal care center, working with Fluttershy. It seems to help her a lot...” Meadowlark halted, then she smiled a little as she glanced towards a ramshackle apartment building nearby, gesturing at it quietly, and Antares nodded after a moment with a faint smile.

They headed towards it, following the beaten stone path to the open front door. The exterior was rough, paint peeling and boards loose here and there, but the inside was clean, if old. The two headed up the stairs to Meadowlark's apartment on the third floor, and the Pegasus unlocked the door and let Antares head inside first.

Her apartment was small: one room had a bed, a cluttered desk, a trunk she kept all her clothes in, and there was a kitchenette separated from this single everything-room by old, beaten limestone counters. Everything was worn-down, but it wasn't unpleasant or uncomfortable... just small.

The ponies sat side-by-side on the bed together as Antares looked slowly around: Meadow had a few framed articles on the wall, and a scrapbook was sitting on the kitchen counter, stuffed full of clippings and other things. He smiled faintly, then shook his head slowly as the Pegasus looked at him curiously before the young stallion finally murmured: “This feels weird.”

“I know. I'm... I'm sorry.” Meadowlark said finally, and when Antares shook his head, she quieted for a moment before continuing softly: “Then okay. I'm not sorry, but I do wish that... things were different. That Prestige was still alive above all, but... if that couldn't happen, that we... were really just friends, and not...”

Antares only shook his head slowly, then he reached out and touched her foreleg, Meadowlark blushing a bit. “Meadow... it's okay. It really is. I just... you understand that...”

“Antares, I know we might never be together, I do. It's hard but... all the same, I don't blame you, and I'm not pushing for... for that. It would be stupid, especially right now. And until you've got closure... until after you've... healed as much as you can... I'm not going to press that angle.” Meadow murmured quietly, closing her eyes and shaking her head briefly. “And I know we still have to find your parents first, too, and... a lot of other things. But it'd be even crueler of me to just sit back and hide and not give you these chances to talk things out... to not be there for you, when... Antares, you need your friends and family right now.”

“I do. I know, I'm... I'm not going to fall back into that hole again. If only because Rosewood would beat me to a pulp.” Antares murmured, looking down with a faint smile, and the mare nodded slowly, studying him quietly with a bit of relief, but also concern still in her eyes. Then Antares closed his eyes, reaching a hoof over to take hers, squeezing it silently. “I can trust you, right?”

“Always. And I trust you, Mir. I always have. I always will.” Meadowlark said quietly, and Antares nodded silently before the Pegasus glanced down, continuing softly: “Maybe... you should take a few weeks to pick up the pieces, Antares. You, me, Avalon, Apps... we can go to Subterra, or someplace even further away than that. Spend some time just... healing.”

“No.” Antares glanced up, and Meadowlark looked surprised at the firmness in his voice, before the young stallion smiled a little as he looked at her quietly. “I... I can't let anything get in the way of what I set out to do in the first place. Prestige... sacrificed herself to save us, to destroy Cancer, and that's all created this chance to... to save my parents, too. To get to Clockwork World, and... I have to finish this. I can't let it all be for nothing...”

“It would just be going away for a little while, Antares. It would just be taking time to yourself, to ourselves, to... quiet down from everything.” Meadowlark said soothingly, but Antares shook his head before the Pegasus softened, studying him before she asked quietly: “What is it? And be honest with me, Mir. Why are you so... determined?”

“Because I... I just have a feeling.” Antares murmured, reaching up and slowly rubbing at his face as he closed his eyes. “And it's been... it's been so long, Meadowlark, and we've all gone through so much... I don't want Rusty and Prestige to have died for nothing.”

“They didn't die for nothing, Antares... and they didn't die just to get you to Clockwork World and save your parents.” Meadowlark said quietly, and Antares looked up with a wince, seeing the hurt in Meadowlark's eyes as she leaned forwards and continued softly: “Antares, I understand how important this is to you, saving your parents, bringing them back... but it's bridging into obsession now, and blinding you from... seeing the truth. Seeing what's all around you... Equestria, Ponyville, all your friends and family.

“They didn't die for your quest to save your parents, I'm sorry... they died to protect you, and to stop Cancer not just because it was... some first step in getting to where your parents are, but because if Cancer wasn't stopped he would have killed everyone and everything around him. Can't you see that, understand that, Antares? There... there's more for you in life than just saving your parents. Completing the mission. Bringing back the ponies who yes, loved you and shaped you and brought you up, but... didn't they believe in you, want you to move towards the future, not just the past? Or do you really believe that unless Rustproof and Prestige died in the name of your stupid crusade, they died for nothing?”

Her voice was gentle, but her words drove a weight of shame into Antares that made him feel... small, in a word. He lowered his head, shivering a bit before Meadowlark reached up and squeezed his shoulder, whispering: “Take a week or two. Let's just take a week or two to recover, can you afford that much? Let's just go somewhere nice, and quiet, where you can heal.”

There was silence for a few minutes, and then Antares finally nodded and closed his eyes, lowering his head as he murmured: “Okay. You're... you're right, Meadow. I can't rush this. But I don't really want to go anywhere, then, I want to stay here. Close to Prestige and Rustproof, and I want to spend time with all of you, not... as a soldier, or a leader, just as a friend. I want to do what I should have been doing for a long time now.”

Meadowlark nodded with a faint smile, and then she sat back a bit, the two looking at each other before Antares glanced down and said quietly: “I really am lucky to have you around. To keep me... to remind me of stuff like this. I don't know how it is that some ponies can still think so much of me when I keep... you know.”

“It's okay, Antares. I know you're... you're in pain right now, and pain makes you think in silly ways.” Meadowlark reached up, rubbing silently at the scar on her side before she shook her head quickly. “I think that might be a good idea, though. Maybe we can spend some time in the Forest, or out at your cottage. There's... a lot of stuff we can do here. And just spending time together right now, that is the most important thing.”

Antares nodded slowly in agreement before the two studied each other, then the young stallion reached up and quietly rubbed a hoof along her back, Meadowlark smiling a little at him. They were quiet for a little while, just resting side-by-side until the Pegasus finally headed to the kitchen, and Antares let himself drop back on her bed, closing his eyes and letting his thoughts spill out.

The smell of something cooking brought him out of his daze, and he sat up with a curious look towards her before the Pegasus smiled over at him, saying quietly: “Twilight told me that you haven't been eating much at all, Mir. So... I got some of those thingies you like from her, the meatballs.”

“Dumplings, you mean?” Antares asked curiously, and Meadowlark nodded before the young stallion laughed a little, shaking his head and murmuring: “That's funny, Meadow, as I remember you threw up all over the place when we had bacon that one time.”

“I know, but... I know you like them. I can cook it, I just... don't know if I'll ever be able to stomach it.” Meadowlark replied softly, and Antares nodded a bit. They were quiet for a little while, until the Pegasus removed the tray from the stove and poked a bit at the dumplings, mumbling: “I dunno how to tell if they're cooked or not...”

“They're cooked. You left them in long enough and I can see they're all golden and stuff from here.” Antares replied, leaning up a bit, and Meadowlark nodded before she opened a cupboard to take out a plate. She carefully moved the dumplings onto this, then smiled when she put it on the counter and Antares strode over to pick one up, biting into it... and wincing a little as he took a few sharp breaths. “Hot!”

“They did just come out of the stove.” Meadowlark laughed despite herself, and then she smiled softly at him as the young stallion rubbed at his face with one hoof before she hurriedly turned towards her beaten-up fridge on the pretense of getting the glossy-black unicorn a drink, not wanting him to see her blushing. Try as she might, after all, she couldn't bottle up the feelings she had for him... but she would do everything she could to honor her promise and not push him, to be there for him as a friend, and not shove her own agendas on him. Not just because she cared about Antares, but because Prestige had been her friend, too, at the end of the day... and she honestly mourned the loss of the talented young unicorn who had overcome so much, and been such a good fit to the glossy-black young stallion. She had hurt to see them together, yes... but she hurt far worse with Prestige gone, and Antares left in such pain himself.

He ate almost all the dumplings she made, apparently hungrier than he had realized, and Meadowlark hesitantly split the last one with him. But it was a different texture than the bacon she had eaten before, and with the breading, she didn't have to think as much about the fact she was eating meat. The spices were pleasant, and the taste was strange, but not entirely bad... and even though her stomach gurgled, it didn't bother her as much as she'd expected it to.

In the evening, they finally made their way back to the library together: Twilight Sparkle was nowhere in sight, but Burning Desire was talking quietly with Celestia, and Antares hesitated only a moment before he traded a look with Meadowlark, then stepped forwards and said quietly: “I... I'd like to take a week or two to recuperate, Aunt Tia, before I do anything else. Just to spend time with my friends, and recover from things. Then, if the meteor is complete... I'll be ready to go to Clockwork World.”

Celestia was quiet for a few moments as Burning Desire gazed softly at Antares, nodding approvingly, and then the ivory winged unicorn said gently: “The actual physical construction of the probe will be finished tomorrow, but Greece and Tenochtitlan will both be happy to know they have plenty of time to test and ensure everything's in order. In a few days, we'll activate it, Antares, and I'd like you and your friends to be there for that... but tracing the signal will take time and effort as it is. Take all the time you need, Antares, two weeks, even a month. And at the end of it, we'll be ready to open the Bifrost and find your parents. I'm glad you've decided to go into this with a clear head.”

The young stallion smiled faintly, and then he glanced over at Meadowlark, murmuring quietly: “I wouldn't be if it wasn't for my friends, though, Aunt Tia.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” Celestia closed her eyes with a smile, and then she added softly after a moment: “Your mother's upstairs, but I think she'd like to see you, and hear your plans. Why don't you go talk to her, Antares, let her know how you're doing?”

Antares smiled a little, and then he glanced over at Meadowlark, giving her a silent 'thank you' with his eyes before striding around the table and heading to the back steps. The Pegasus watched him go, then she blushed a bit and mumbled something, starting to turn away; before she could even take a step, however, Burning Desire cleared his throat and knocked once on the table, saying quietly: “That could kill you, you know. Most people couldn't juggle those emotions. They'd get bitter and wrinkly... sometimes, it's best to... to let go.”

Meadowlark looked silently down, and then she smiled a little before glancing over her shoulder, saying quietly: “I'm not most people, Burning Desire. And no matter what happens, I am Antares' friend first. I know how precious that word is to him, what kind of meaning it carries, and I'm never going to turn my back on him or betray him.”

“Good.” Burning Desire smiled a little, then he leaned over to Celestia, winking at her. “Giving up is for sissies, you know.”

“If you haven't noticed, Discombobulation and I are still... us.” Celestia smiled a little despite herself, glancing down and nodding slowly before she murmured: “But Meadowlark, please... keep yourself in mind, too. And remember that this... has hurt Antares deeply. He may never be the same, and things between you and him... might never be.”

“I know. And that's okay. Because I'll still be his friend, just like always.” Meadowlark looked up with a faint smile, nodding slowly and closing her eyes. “I owe him that and more, after everything he's done for me, and the chances he's given me after... what I did in the past. We were just kids, but that doesn't excuse anything or make it any less serious than it was.”

She quieted, then blushed and asked curiously after a moment: “But... about Twilight, and Luna and Scrivener... I've always wanted to know... how did that all start? How did they... come together, when it's so... uh...”

Celestia only shook her head, laughing quietly and replying softly: “Yes, it is strange, and to be honest... I don't know entirely how it really began. I just know that whether I like it or not, I had a hoof in the chain of events that led to that... but it's funny, how some of the worst things can create the best and strongest of bonds...”

The ivory equine looked down quietly, and then she nodded slowly before smiling a little as Meadowlark bowed her head politely. “Come and join us, Meadow, you're welcome here. And maybe you can help me... you're excellent at research and unfortunately, the duties of the barony don't stop just because I'd like them to. I could use a little assistance.”

“I'd be honored, Baroness... I mean, Celestia.” Meadowlark corrected, when the ivory winged unicorn gave her a look, and then the Pegasus blushed and shook her head, adding awkwardly as she approached the table: “I'm sorry, it's just... strange. You're noble, strong, important... I'm... frail, and not a warrior, and... you know. Really poor.”

Burning Desire laughed at the last, shaking his head as he grinned at her before Celestia said gently, smiling a little herself: “And yet Meadowlark, you still keep fighting no matter what. You still stride onto the battlefield to help your friends despite not being a warrior, you still push yourself as hard as I've seen anypony work despite your pain.” Celestia stopped, then she shook her head slowly, murmuring: “There's little to honor in me being stronger than everyone, and walking fearlessly into battle because of that. There's worlds to honor in how you strive to always do so much for the ponies you care about, in spite of your limitations.”

Meadowlark blushed scarlet, dropping her head forwards in gratitude before Burning Desire held up a hoof and added: “And I would be very glad to offer plenty of wealth, Meadowlark, in exchange for a few minor services...”

The Pegasus glowered at him as Celestia sighed and shook her head slowly, and the demonic stallion huffed a bit before remarking mildly: “I'll have you know that at one time, certain ladies of affection were so longed for that they were considered to be among the elite of society.”

“Yes, and yet they weren't often that respected all the same.” Celestia remarked, and then she shook her head slowly before glancing over her shoulder towards the back steps, as Antares quietly made his way down them, looking quiet but also.. almost relieved, like a burden had begun to lift from him. “Antares, would you like to help us with this? You could draft a few responses to these letters for me. They're mostly just announcements and invitations I plan to decline politely.”

“I... okay, but you know I didn't really get Dad's gift for writing.” Antares tilted his head curiously, smiling a little despite himself. “What are the invitations for, though, Aunt Tia?”

“Mostly political events, rallies, and private parties I have no desire to go to.” Celestia shook her head slowly, smiling a little as she said quietly: “I think once your mother and father are back, I'm going to start looking more earnestly into finding a replacement for myself on the Royal Council, however temporary it might be. I would... just like a break for a little while. Rulership has been lonelier than usual, lately.”

Antares nodded slowly as he slipped into a chair, then glanced down at the stack of letters, pulling one over. He smiled a little as he glanced through it, feeling Celestia's emotions and Meadowlark's soft gaze, understanding why his aunt had asked him to do this. To help keep him busy for now, to give him something to focus on, and he was glad for it as they worked late into the night together.

Finally, after Meadowlark had fallen asleep at the table, Celestia gently picked up the Pegasus and Burning Desire volunteered to walk home with Antares. The glossy-black young stallion hesitantly shook his head, however, surprising them both when he said quietly: “If it's okay, I'd... I'd like to just take some bedding into the back room, and I'll sleep there. I... want to be near my friends and family instead of... sitting around alone.”

Celestia had been all too happy to have him stay here, and Burning Desire seemed to welcome it as well. A few minutes later found Antares laying quietly in the back room on top of the bedding they had brought out of storage, the young stallion feeling the same pang of loneliness and pain he always did when he laid down in bed, alone: he'd gotten so used to having Prestige always there... to holding her close, or at least having their bodies resting together, side-by-side...

He shifted back and forth, tossing and turning for a good fifteen minutes as thoughts of Prestige ran around and around in his mind. He couldn't stop thinking about her... and then he sat up with a sigh and rubbed slowly at his face, trembling a little and trying to reel his emotions in before he lost control. Despite everything, he felt himself beginning to drop again, felt bitterness taking hold, and painful whispers etching their way through his mind.

“Here.” said a soft voice, and Antares looked up in surprise, almost falling backwards as his eyes settled on the sight of Celestia. She was standing only a few feet away, and there were two glasses floating beside her, as well as a bottle of... “It's whiskey, aged nicely. Sleipnir gave it to me a few years back, and I've been saving it.”

Antares hesitantly reached up and took one of the glasses in his hooves, sniffing at it a little before Celestia sat across from him. For a few moments, they were quiet, and then Celestia said softly: “In the days I spent as Freya, I had a twin brother, named Frey.”

The young stallion looked up in surprise, and Celestia smiled after a moment before she continued quietly: “He was a wonderful, handsome person, and a valued member of the Aesir. Of course, Frey and I were not originally from the Aesir tribe, but the Vanir, but how we came to join Odin and his people, how we came to be known as Aesir ourselves, and I as Queen of the Valkyries... that is a story for another day. And perhaps when you're older... some things growing young stallions don't need to know until they're too old be shocked by certain situations anymore.”

Celestia paused, then she sipped slowly at her glass, and Antares hesitantly took a drink of his own before wincing a bit at how strong the alcohol was, swallowing and wheezing a little as Celestia smiled slightly. “Small sips, Antares.

“But back to the story: Frey and I... were inseparable, at least when we weren't on duty, or I wasn't... indulging.” Celestia smiled slightly, shaking her head slowly as she closed her eyes. “You would not believe the kinds of things I used to engage in. Frey was known himself for his exploits, but... he was quieter about it, all things considered, and he was not known for being a warrior as much as he was an inventor, an artificer. He had countless treasures, and was in charge of the gardens and maintaining both the Ambrosia trees and the weather. He was noble, and he loved peace... I was brash, and I thrilled in war. He was my other half.

“And I lost him, Antares, and it has... never truly healed.” Celestia quieted, then she knocked back the rest of her glass, drinking down the whiskey as Antares looked up quietly at the ivory equine, as her amethyst eyes shone with regrets and memories that had become almost sweet after being steeped for so long in sorrow. “But it was not losing him that has left my heart marred, it was... what losing him made me do. It was the fact that we found my beloved twin brother dead by what looked like the hands of the Vanir... but never, ever, would they have killed him. We had been alongside them once upon a time, after all, and the Vanir had as much honor as the Aesir, if not more so: they were one with nature, and always worked towards what was in the interests of the world around them. They were wild, and free, but being untamed does not mean being savage.

“But... it was too much for me to bear. And Frey had always been my voice of reason, my conscience: now he was lost, my other half was dead, and all I heard were the war trumpets and Odin's call to arms. Even when your mother, Brynhild, tried to stop me... I didn't care. I told her to fall in line, and dragged her and the Valkyries onwards into war with who had once been my own people.” Celestia closed her eyes, pausing to take a slow drink of her whiskey, and then she sighed softly before smiling faintly and murmuring: “We killed them all. We slaughtered them, like animals, with me at the head of the pack. What idiocy...”

She shook her head slowly. “I stained my brother's memory with the blood that I spilled, Antares... and worse, I hurt those around me. I was angry, and I lost my focus, and I never questioned Odin's own actions when he grew more and more... lost. Not until it was too late, and he had damaged the Aesir beyond repair, and he put Brynhild to sleep for refusing his advances. And I would have led a coup if it hadn't been for Helheim's attacks... for Valthrudnir to pour all the furious and animal demons he could into self-mutilated Heaven.

“When I awoke in Midgard, in the mortal world... I felt all that same anger and rage and hatred from my past. I felt the abandonment... and keenest of all, I felt that I had lost everything important to me in one terrible saga. It made me lash out at the world, hurt everyone around me, it blinded me with rage and fury. I was mercenary, and cruel, and worst of all was that I was ruthless even while knowing what I was doing was wrong.” Celestia closed her eyes, then refilled her glass again, but this time she only looked down into the amber contents, saying softly: “But when Sleipnir and Luna managed to become close to me... I clung to them. And in some ways I was even more dangerous, Antares, because now I was able to justify any collateral damage logically and coldly as being done in the interests of protecting them. My family was all that I had, and all that mattered to me.”

She fell silent, then turned her eyes to Antares as he sipped slowly at his drink while looking up at her quietly. “But I've learned to be better than that. That if I truly want to honor Frey's memory, and everything he taught me and meant to me, then I do have to protect my friends and family... but never, ever at the cost of other innocent lives.”

The two looked at each other for a few moments, and then Antares lowered his head before he asked hesitantly: “Could... could you tell me more about him, Aunt Tia? He sounds like... he left a mark on you. That even if you and Mom and Sleipnir all forgot who you were for a long time, he still... you still kept him in your heart.”

“I think, somehow, that even when I didn't remember him... I never forgot him, either.” Celestia said quietly, and then she smiled softly, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards as she murmured: “But alright, Antares, let me tell you about my twin brother.”

And for almost the entire night, Celestia talked, recounting old stories, tales of good and evil, joys and sorrows: Antares listened and clung to every word as the whiskey in the bottle grew steadily lower and lower, until finally it was empty. And not long after, Celestia realized that Antares had slumped down to bed himself, and she simply smiled softly.

The ivory winged unicorn gently tucked the young stallion in, then leaned down and kissed his forehead softly, rainbow mane swirling slowly backwards before she reached down and touched his face gently. She studied her nephew for a moment, but he was breathing slowly, sleeping soundly for the first time since Prestige had passed on... and Celestia smiled softly as she turned away to leave the young stallion to rest, hoping that he would remember her words, and thinking of how much he reminded her of the brother she had lost long ago.