• Published 3rd Jan 2012
  • 36,065 Views, 787 Comments

Eternal - device heretic



Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle's bond is tested by miscommunication and guilt.

  • ...
65
 787
 36,065

VIII. Eternal, pt. 2

VIII. ETERNAL, pt. 2

~(E)~

It had only been a very small part of an extremely long dream, one of a great many desires, hopes, and visions of a beautiful future.

Twilight had been bottling them up for many, many years; now her heart, finally freed, sang to her mind of the great love it felt for all her friends and acquaintances, and whispered of the many joys and accomplishments it craved to share with them in the future. Twilight let herself drown in the images of the long, rich life she and her many, many friends could share together—building Ponyville into an even more beautiful and happy place, going on many exciting new adventures, and above all, sharing little moments of happiness and comfort.

Luna looked on, with unhidden joy, as Twilight watched these things. The unicorn was trembling, her mouth slack as she shook her head at the wonder she finally let herself feel.

“You are a truly beautiful soul, Twilight Sparkle,” the princess of the moon said, in a speculative tone that would eventually culminate in a bond, made on lonely stone stairs deep under the earth, which would be Luna’s salvation and Twilight’s triumph.

Twilight looked up at her, gratefully. “This is…so much,” she said. “I can barely stand it anymore, it’s so powerful…thank you, Luna. Thank you.”

“I am just honored that I am so present, in your hopes,” Luna said. She had been moved, deeply, by a vision of Twilight and herself wandering through dreams together, Twilight listening as Luna spoke of symbols and riddles and images…which had then transformed into them sharing tea. The significance of this was not lost on Luna, who had shed a few tears herself.

“Why wouldn’t you be? I…” Twilight began, but before she could finish, the dreamscape around them shifted, and she had a deep sense of purpose flow over her.

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Ah, here we are, I think.”

Twilight looked around. “Uh, where?”

“Well, not that all these other things haven’t been very important, of course, but…this is the crisis issue, I think.” Luna said, pointing a hoof. “Go on, now, Twilight…I think she wants to speak with you.”

Twilight stepped forward, feeling a strange sensation of sinking as she was taken in by the dre—

“Princess?” Twilight asked, walking through the tall, vaulted doors of Celestia’s study. The room was lit by the light of early evening. “I, um…I just thought I’d see how you were.”

“Oh, Arch-Mage, thank heavens,” Celestia replied pompously, looking up from a scroll on her desk. She raised an eyebrow and let an impish smile spread across her face. Twilight gave her a wry little grin and stepped inside. “I’m all the better for being attended by my most loyal subject and humble servant.”

“Don’t tease,” Twilight groused, taking a seat in front of the desk.

“Tea?” Celestia asked.

Twilight grinned widely. “Please,” she said, drawing a couple teacups to them from a cabinet nearby. There was the usual busy moment of preparation as Celestia heated the water in a small, worn kettle—very plain, it always surprised ponies—with a little magical flame.

Sweet herbal tea pooled in the cup. Celestia and Twilight Sparkle gratefully sniffed the plume of steam that rose from it, smiling at each other, each taking a small amount of simple joy in the little ritual…

Luna smiled.

They chatted for awhile. What they said was not important; Luna, set apart from the dream, recognized it as the nonsense gabble of dreams in any case, the weird non-speech that filled time that the mind knew had to be there for the narrative of the dream to make sense but wasn’t actually important. What was important was how they acted, and because Luna was there with her, Twilight remembered this very plainly afterwards.

It was in…how they sat. Twilight wasn’t at attention, as she always had been around the princess, even when they were happy. She relaxed, and replied to things Celestia said immediately, not hesistating slightly as she often did, scanning her words for something that might offend her mentor.

And Celestia, well…Luna had to chuckle a little; even in her deepest dreams, Twilight still desired a noble, upright creature, but…one that laughed readily—laughed, not just chuckling a little bit or giving titters of amusement, but big, heartfelt laughter. She could be nervous, and embarrassed, from time to time, and angry, and sad.

She was open with her emotions and thoughts, even in her posture; leaning in to speak with Twilight excitedly about something, or flinching slightly when Twilight expressed displeasure. And while the words were nonsense, their tone was still comprehensible, and it was more animated and excitable the usual eternal serenity Celestia used with everypony.

There was no distance between them, here, in this moment. It was Celestia and Twilight Sparkle, not the Princess and the Arch-Mage. Not even a mentor and her faithful student.

Friends, in a word.

True friends. Close friends. Dear friends. As somepony, in the ancient past, had written: one soul, sharing two bodies.

The thought made Luna laugh. Poor Twilight Sparkle’s soul was spread around quite a bit, wasn’t it?

“Ah, Twilight,” Celestia said, in real speech, now. “There’s something I wanted to show you. I think you’ll find it interesting, as a stargazer…”

Twilight’s ears perked up. “Oh?”

Celestia smiled, and gestured to a westwards-facing window with a nod. “Have a look.”

Twilight, in the dream, got to her hooves and trotted over to the window, looking out over the plains at the setting sun, sitting fat and golden on the horizon. She gasped. “What is that? I’ve never seen it before.”

Luna stepped behind her, curiously.

Shining bright above the setting sun, right on the border of night and day, was a gleam of pink light: a new star, small but proud, the first star of the evening sky.

“Oh, Twilight…” Luna said, heart swelling with affection.

Celestia was suddenly next to Twilight, having moved unnoticed in the way of dreams. “I’ve always thought of sunset as…somewhat sad, for obvious reasons,” she said. “So I’m glad to see that the Sun isn’t alone anymore.” She and Twilight met each other’s gaze, and smiled.

~(E)~

Twilight, who had recounted the dream in a sort of dull trance, stirred. She was still pressed up against Celestia, who had wrapped her wings around Twilight gently. “It seems silly now,” she said, with a strange calm. “But I abandoned dreaming altogether, because I saw something like that, once. A long time ago. I was scared, I mean—to even think of it. Of being something more than your student, or a trusted associate.”

“The mask, Twilight…” Celestia shook her head, sniffling.

“Yeah,” Twilight said. “But even if my mind was frightened, my heart never stopped wanting to end your loneliness, Princess. I love you. I always have.”

Celestia kissed her forehead, again. “You’re so strong.”

Twilight closed her eyes and smiled. “If I am…it’s your fault.”

“Don’t give me credit for that, Twilight,” Celestia said. “As you’ve seen…I…I don’t deserve somepony like you. Somepony as brave and loving as you.”

“Yes, you do,” Twilight said, pulling away to look at the Sun, who was giving them a very odd, conflicted look. “I…now I know why you were doing this to yourself, Celestia and…yeah. It’s pretty bad. Really bad. But that’s between you and the Sun.” She looked back up to Celestia, letting her love for her mentor fill her eyes as best she could. “You’ve never done anything but love me.”

“Nevertheless, I hurt you—“

Twilight shook her head. “Don’t start. Don’t even let yourself start. You didn’t mean to hurt me. You were so desperately lonely, and guilty…” She smiled. “That’s when you need your friends the most, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Celestia said, “yes it is.” They looked at each other, and smiled…one soul, in two bodies. They held each other’s gaze for quite awhile, just sharing time.

“We were afraid.” Twilight said, eventually, putting her hoof back up on Celestia’s chest. Again, Celestia clutched it to herself. “In the end, it was change that we were afraid of; both of us. In all of this, everything—even the Eternal Sun thing. No, especially that. I mean, we both thought to ourselves: we want something. We want to be friends, we want to love each other, without masks in the way. But then we thought of what could happen if we failed, or screwed up, or in your case, what the ultimate consequences would be for you if you stopped being the Eternal Sun.”

Celestia sighed. “Well, now we’re being spared a choice, Twilight. Change...for the worst, it seems…is inevitable now.”

“Change is always inevitable. I think…that’s what we need to learn from this. The only thing that is truly eternal in this universe is change.” Twilight said this with the headlong confidence of someone being extremely philosophical on the fly. If it was a quote from something she’d read, she didn’t recognize it, but it felt true. She looked up at Celestia, who was gazing down at her in wonder. “So we have to try to make the changes we want, despite our fears, and the price. Because change will come anyway.”

The Sun shook her head, chuckling. “If you were half the mare she was, Celestia…”

“I’ve been saying that for years now,” Celestia said. “But it has never been more true. I’ve robbed us, with my weakness, Twilight. We…we should have had a long, happy life together.” She smiled, sadly. “It’s really disgusting, isn’t it, that wanting just that is what made me lose everything.”

“There’s a certain poetic justice to it, I think,” the Sun said, but…speculatively. There was still anger, but it was reflexive and hollow.

Celestia brought her gaze up to meet the Sun’s. “I suppose there is.” She looked back down at Twilight. “Can you forgive me?”

“Can you forgive me, for not coming to you with my fears sooner? If I had been open with you about feeling abandoned—“

Celestia shook her head. “Twilight. No ‘what ifs,’ please.”

Twilight sighed. “Things are the way they are, huh?”

“Wherever you go…there you are,” Celestia said, with a familiar air of divine mystery. “My mistakes, above all, have brought us to this point. And I deserve the punishment I will receive,” she said, looking to the Sun, who nodded with an expression that read: Oh, you better believe you do. “But you didn’t deserve this, Twilight. You, who have shown yourself to be so brave, so strong, so wise…”

“I’m only who I am because of you,” Twilight whispered, tears swelling in her eyes.

Celestia tried to smile. “Twilight, please. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, being your teacher, it’s that I haven’t given you anything but raw knowledge. It’s you who turned it into strength and wisdom. What I did…empowered you. I showed you the way. But you walked it.” Tears trailed down her face. “I’m so proud of you, my faithful student. And I love you, so, so much.”

Twilight couldn’t say anything, because if she opened her mouth, it would only be a sob.

“No matter what happens to me after this, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said, fighting through renewed tears, “nothing will be as much a punishment as knowing I never had the chance to love you as freely and openly as you deserved—no, that I chose not to, out of foolish pride.”

The Sun stirred. “Well, you…you say that…” she said, but it was strangled. Twilight looked to her—she was actually struggling with herself, very visibly; it occurred to Twilight that she would have never really developed a skill for not showing her emotions, which perhaps explained a great deal about her behavior.

It made her feel a little bad, but the politician in Twilight recognized the chance, and leapt on it. She turned and walked, slowly, up to the Sun. “I want to ask you something,” she said, thickly.

The Sun looked down at her, curiously. “Then ask.”

“I want to ask you for some time,” Twilight said, looking up at her as firmly as she could.

“Time?”

“Yes,” Twilight said. “I know it may be a great deal to ask, but—“

“Twilight—“ Celestia began.

“You…you just relax. This isn’t about you,” Twilight said, over her shoulder. “I’m asking this for me.”

The Sun drew herself up, suspicion heavy on her features. “No, you’re not.”

“Yes I am!” Twilight declared. “I meant what I said, earlier—I respect your right to punish Celestia. I’ve set aside my feelings about what she did to you because…well, I don’t know what to do about it. It was terrible, so terrible that I can’t even think about it.”

“In that, you have never said anything more true,” the Sun growled. “But still, you are asking for something that benefits her. Time in the real world. How much? Until your death?”

“No,” Twilight said. “I’ll leave to you to decide, too. But let me tell you why I want the time. Hear me out.”

The Sun nodded. “Speak, then.”

“Celestia’s absence will cause trouble. For me, for the ponies I care about, for all of Equestria. I want her to return to the world with me so that we can arrange her affairs and prepare Luna to rule in her place. Otherwise, there will be no end to the problems. Too many ponies still believe the story of Nightmare Moon, that the jealous younger sister tried to overthrow Celestia. I won’t have a new war in Equestria, if I can help it.”

“Noble,” the Sun said.

Twilight shook her head. “No, this is selfish as anything. I’ll have to live in the world without her, and I have many, many dreams for the future, none of which involve Equestria in flames.”

The Sun looked from Twilight to Celestia, who was shaking her head, eyes closed. “This is a trick. You’ll do something to keep her there—“

“I will not try to escape my punishment,” Celestia said, in a tired voice. “Especially if you give me any time whatsoever to arrange things. If you show me this small mercy, I will only more willingly submit to your judgment.”

“Like you have a choice,” the Sun growled.

Twilight stamped a hoof. “You’re absolutely right. You hold the power. You can set any time you want, isn’t that right?”

The Sun looked at her, warily. “Yes.”

“Then what risk is there to you? If you sense anything going wrong, you hold all the power.” Twilight gave her a pleading look. “What she did to you was…evil. That I benefited from it…” She shuddered. “But…we are where we are, and I am asking you now for some time to make this easier for me.”

The Sun looked down at her for a long time. Twilight matched her gaze, unflinching.

Eventually, the Sun sighed. “And I suppose you’ll want to do something suitably…poignant, as well. To say good-bye.” She gave Celestia a hard stare. “This will be good-bye.”

Twilight nodded. “We’re going to set Equestria’s affairs in order,” she said firmly, “and then Celestia and I are going to have tea.”

~(E)~

Twilight opened her eyes and winced. Her side ached like crazy—

“Princess!” cried a familiar voice from next to her. Twilight turned, groaning, and looked at the back of Fluttershy’s head; the pegasus was gesturing frantically to Luna, who was looking up in wonder from a downcast expression of sorrow.

“Twilight!” Luna said, eyes aglow, stepping forward. Twilight raised a hoof, and turned to the wasted body of Celestia next to her. Behind Luna, the rest of the ponies and a battered-looking Spike gathered, following Twilight’s gaze.

Celestia’s eye opened, slowly.

“You—” Luna began triumphantly, but then she saw Twilight’s expression.

Celestia stirred, weakly, her haggard body trembling with the effort of existence. Twilight nuzzled her gently, and Celestia sighed happily.

Everypony began speaking at once. Twilight had a hard time telling anyone from anyone else; she found herself completely worn out.

“What happened?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Rarity stepped forward. “Are you…alright?”

“What’s going to happen now?” Spike asked.

“Quiet, everypony, quiet,” Luna said, approaching the bier cautiously. She was trying to put on a brave face, but it wavered and twitched sorrowfully. “Twilight…how much time do we—“

“Until sunset tomorrow,” Twilight replied. It hurt to speak; she recognized the familiar ache of a broken rib, a professional hazard of the Arch-Mage’s lifestyle. “We are going to learn how much one pony can really do in a day, I think.”

“And then..?” Luna asked, trepidation thick in her voice.

“And then I’m going pay for what I’ve done, sister,” Celestia whispered. Her voice was weak, and betrayed a physical pain that disturbed the assembled ponies to hear. “We have a great deal we need to discuss.”

~(E)~

How much could be done in a day, by one pony?

The same amount that pony had done every day of her long life: everything that had to be done. It was just that there was more of this than usual, on this darkest of days—literally darkest, for in accordance with the Sun’s demand, the preternatural night would last until the next dawn, when Celestia would help Luna pick up her place in the cycle, and mark the beginning of Celestia’s last day—a period, the Sun had said, that had as much to do with what she was capable of giving Twilight as it did with what she was willing.

Celestia said this to Twilight as they took leave of each other for the moment, her voice so weak and tired that Twilight winced to hear it. The alicorn had smiled down at her stu—friend, and turned to join Luna in her study, leaving Twilight, the Elements, and Spike to the busy attentions of the castle physicians.

Twilight was reluctant to part with Celestia; although she would have had a hard time saying how much of that was because she feared for Celestia’s well-being and how much of it was her own desperate desire to be near her in the brief time they had remaining. A part of her which was always set slightly apart from the rest commented at one point that she should be grateful she had any further time at all, and was quickly shouted down by the rest of her.

Her friends fussed over her relentlessly, but in the manner of wounded people, the attention quickly became annoying rather than comforting. This was made worse by the fact that she could tell her friends were also in mourning for the princess—whom they loved, too—but Twilight got the idea that they were trying to overcompensate for their earlier mistake of trying to get involved with Twilight and the princess’ affairs by making a show of being extremely sympathetic to Twilight’s upcoming loss.

Spike, in his way, was the only one who seemed to understand what Twilight wanted; he sat in the room, only occasionally speaking, and even then it was quiet and about nothing of real importance, just little comments in response to something somepony else had said. He just busied himself being there, not trying vainly to prepare Twilight for a wound she hadn’t suffered yet.

Twilight’s broken rib was inspected, healed, and bandaged. She surprised her friends by being able to guess what had caused it, and by merely chuckling sadly when they told her about restraining Celestia to prevent her from hurting Twilight further. The phantom wound on her leg, where Nightmare Moon had bit her in Celestia’s mind, was also subjected to some inspection, but in the end the doctor agreed that Twilight was as qualified to comment on that wound as he was himself, and wished her the best as he left her, and her assembled friends, to wait on the princesses’ wishes.

Twilight lay back and listen to the discussion, adding little and barely reacting when addressed. She didn’t really want to think about anything, she found; it was easier to just let her mind drift. It lingered automatically on happy memories of Celestia—and far from being painful, as she might have expected, she experienced a fierce but quiet joy recalling the little moments of happiness they’d shared together; moments, she now knew, when Celestia was reaching out to her from behind the mask of the Eternal Sun.

Moments when they had been friends, as well as mentor and student.

Perhaps, Twilight mused, she should be depressed by them now—but no, this was…okay. She was really understanding these events for what they were, now, and it just made them more special and precious.

A messenger came, calling for Twilight, and Twilight alone, to attend the princess’ pleasure. Rainbow Dash, as she always did, snickered at this turn of phrase, until she saw that Spitfire was Twilight’s escort, turning bright red as her old…friend winked at her.

As she was led, slowly, through the halls of Canterlot, Twilight turned to the golden pegasus. “Forgive me, but…I understand you were caught trying to help some dangerous prisoners escape captivity. And yet, I notice you’re not in a cell, or relieved of your duties, at the very least..?”

“Oh, they told you about that, huh?” Spitfire asked, smiling broadly. “Well, the commander’s a pretty understanding pony, in his way…he’s put me on detached service and stripped me of my command, so there’s punishment for you.” The pegasus looked around herself in a theatrical display of conspiracy. “Between you and me, what that really means is he’s making me one of the special agents he keeps around on the quiet. I’m going to be moving to Ponyville, soon…”

“Really?” Twilight said, smiling just a little. “To keep an eye on things, I suppose.”

“Some things more than others,” Spitfire said, her quiet little smile spreading just slightly. “But you and I will be seeing more of each other in the future, which is why he sent me to meet you. Just a little heads up, eh?”

Twilight grinned. “Good to know.” They paused at the stairs to Celestia’s study. “Thank you, Spitfire, for your escort. I…look forward to the next time I see you.”

It felt very strange to say this, and Twilight briefly analyzed that feeling, realizing that she was not really thinking ahead much further than tomorrow. She shook her head, feeling foolish, no matter how justified she might be to do so.

“Should be interesting,” the pegasus said, with a wink. “Until then.”

Twilight gave her a little smile of acknowledgement, turned, and with a nod to the guards on either side of the staircase, limped up to the doors and let herself in.

Celestia wasn’t at her desk; instead, she was resting on a couch, looking as alert and energetic as she had any right to. Luna was sitting across from her, face displaying an unusual amount of agitation.

“Twilight,” Celestia said, warmly. “Thank you for coming. I was just telling Luna about…our mutual acquaintance.”

Luna’s face soured into irritation. “It’s all been very…interesting. But my faith in you was rewarded many times over, Twilight…and your faith in yourself, I understand.” She smiled, at Twilight, such as she could.

“I did what I could,” Twilight said, taking a seat next to Celestia, between the sisters. “But in the end—“

“In the end you stole more time for me than I deserve, and have saved Equestria from its princess and her vanity,” Celestia said, patiently. “Once again, your courage has brought the promise of peace and harmony to our little country. As its princess—for now—I thank you.”

“And as a pony who lost her sister…I thank you,” Luna added, speaking carefully.

Twilight smiled quietly, and shook her head. “I am, as always, happy to be of service to the princesses.”

All three of them shared a quiet, amused little look at this parodic display of formality.

“I think that’s about enough of that, then,” Celestia said, smiling. “There is a great deal we need to talk about, and then you, Twilight, are going to get some rest. Tomorrow…I will want you beside me, for most of the day. Lots of meetings and so on, ponies who will need to see you there with me. You understand how it is.”

Twilight nodded, eyes sad. Unspoken was: I will treasure every second we can be near each other, before the end, even if we are forced to spend them doing what must be done for Equestria. But that was another consequence of this whole affair, Twilight supposed; they weren’t even going to be allowed the privilege of peace, together—the mask, the Eternal Sun, turned everything to the needs of Equestria even as the princess cast it aside—one last little barb.

That said, the three sat in silence for a time, enjoying the first and last moment of quiet peace, just for the three of them—sisters, friends, beloved of one another. They looked to each other, eyes heavy with sorrow but affectionate for all that, as they shared a heartbeat, each regretting deeply how much they had feared that this moment could never be, and how that had almost prevented it from ever coming to pass.

It was all too brief, but in being ephemeral, transitive…it was all the more precious.

Then it was over; duty, and the future, called, and there was much to discuss. It was very late when Twilight finally stood to take her leave of the princesses, mind overflowing with preparations for the meetings tomorrow and with proposals for state business in the future. She and Luna would be spending a lot of time together, it seemed…but that was fine with Twilight. She found she was looking forward to working closely with her new big sister, despite the reality of what it meant.

Celestia seemed to sense this, if Twilight guessed her expression correctly in the little moments when Luna and Twilight got really involved in a back-and-forth about something. It was a smile, sad but affectionate...and a resigned sort of hope was lit in her eyes, as well, which Twilight had extremely mixed feelings about.

When their deliberation was complete, or at least, as complete as it was going to be, Twilight rose and stretched her limbs, yawning. “If I have to endure meeting after meeting with noblepony after noblepony tomorrow…”

“Twilight…“ Celestia began, suddenly, looking warily at Luna. Her voice was unusually hesitant.

Luna looked from Celestia to Twilight, and nodded, smiling very slightly.

“What is it?” Twilight asked.

Celestia’s face was carefully blank. “Would…I…would you stay with me, tonight?”

It was perhaps a sign of how much things had changed, in the last day, but Twilight actually paused and thought very carefully about this before answering. “Yes…I will. I’d be happy to. If Luna would be good enough to tell my friends I will see them in the morning.”

“Of course,” Luna said, rising. She approached Celestia, giving her a slightly harder look than Twilight might have expected. It wasn’t just Twilight whose image of Celestia had been deeply shaken recently, it seemed. “Celestia…I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Until sunrise, then, sister.” Celestia said, calmly, accepting the rebuke.

“Indeed.” Luna turned to Twilight, nodding somewhat stiffly. “And good evening to you as well, sister. I…look forward to our future together.”

“Me, too,” Twilight said, solemnly. Luna smiled briefly and took her leave.

Celestia raised her head, a little hint of magic snuffing the many little candles around the room. “Thank you, Twilight,” she said, in the low luminescence offered by the slim moon hanging in the clear night sky.

“Not at all. I think…the reason I had to pause, actually, was because I was paying careful attention to why I wanted to stay here, so badly.” Twilight grinned, very slightly.

Celestia chuckled, anxiously. “Twilight, about that—“

“Parts of our mind think many things,” Twilight said, quickly. “But I think I really just want to be near you, is all. So...don’t get your hopes up, eh?” She tried to make a joke of it, but it fell flat, and she felt foolish.

Silence reigned for awhile, then Celestia’s voice stirred, quietly, in the darkness. “I’m very frightened, Twilight.”

Twilight stepped forward, hearing Celestia move on the little bed to make room for her. The unicorn, feeling tiny, curled up against her mentor and thought about what to say. “I’m not sure I can tell you anything that will help, really, except…”

“Just stay with me, tonight, and tomorrow…all the way to the end of things. Please.” Celestia’s whispered voice was trembling, and very near to Twilight now. The unicorn’s heart ached to hear that voice, which was usually so calm and confident, miserable with fear; on the other hand…this is what life was like, without masks.

Twilight lifted her head up and reached forward, in the dark, until she felt her muzzle press against the side of Celestia’s face. She kissed it, gently. “I will be with you every step of the way.” Another gentle kiss; this time, Twilight tasted salt on her lips. “I love you.”

One of Celestia’s broad wings splayed out, and covered Twilight. She only flinched a very little bit—her rib, healed though it may be—still ached.

Celestia’s breath came out in a little jerk of a humiliated sob. “I’m so sorry, Twilight. You’ve endured so much for me…”

“Shhh…” Twilight whispered. “Just rest. Your Faithful Student is with you and will never leave you. I promise.”

She felt a gentle pressure, and little drops of moisture, on her forehead. “I love you so much.”

Twilight couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t seem hollow or make her feel foolish, but Celestia didn’t seem to be upset by her silence; she gently clutched Twilight close to her with her wing, and they drifted off to sleep, together.

~(E)~

Twilight went back to sleep after Celestia and Luna departed quietly, in the morning, so as not to disturb the unicorn too much as they stepped onto the balcony from Celestia’s study to discuss the sun’s cycle across the sky. Twilight had rolled away from the sunlight as it bloomed on the eastern horizon and groaned irritably, eliciting a little moment of shared amusement between the two princesses, which relieved a little bit of the tension that still hung between them.

In retrospect, Twilight thought it was a sign of how intense the experience she’d been through was that she couldn’t even summon the energy to eavesdrop on the princesses discussing the intricacies of the cosmic cycles they embodied, a topic on which she had idly speculated at some length over the years. Her main concern at the time had been the removal of the comfortable warmth of Celestia’s wing.

When Twilight woke up in earnest, Luna told her that her friends were waiting in one of the suites, with unhidden overtones of "You’re not the only pony who wants to spend some time alone with her, you know." Celestia seemed uncomfortable with Luna’s tone, but said nothing; Twilight was only a little embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of it herself, although she suspected Luna and Celestia’s time alone together would be significantly more tense than either of them might like.

The breakfast they shared was…subdued, compared to their overwhelming, anxious show of support the previous day. That was the right word—not sad, not really, even though they all were. The Elements had been through many hard times together in the past, though, so by unspoken agreement, and having had time to let the immediacy of the impending sorrow dawn on them, they didn’t unnecessarily make things worse by agonizing over something sad before it had actually happened. There would be time enough for tears later.

They chatted idly about nothing in particular; Twilight actually injected some animation into the discussion by "accidentally" dropping the gossip that Spitfire might be seen around Ponyville a lot more often in the near future, which caused it to devolve into an extremely amusing ten minutes of Rarity and Applejack instinctively teaming up to drive Rainbow Dash up the wall from two completely different angles.

When they were finally summoned to Celestia’s study, Twilight was momentarily distressed that all seven of them had been called upon, not just Twilight, but she chided herself for being so selfish.

Celestia was behind her desk now, looking as proud and official as she ever had. Luna lurked in the study behind her, looking uncomfortable and a little aloof.

There was an awkward moment, at first, as Celestia hesitated to think of what to say. “Thank you all,” she began simply, beaming down at them. Even though her voice was firm and even, everypony was disturbed to see her so worn and tired.

“Uh,” Applejack replied, eventually. “You’re, uh…welcome, o’course. For…whatever.”

“For everything,” Celestia said, swallowing. “I’ve asked so much of all of you, over the years.”

“We were happy to help,” Fluttershy added, smiling sadly.

Celestia smiled. “Still, I am grateful to you. You’ve given and risked so much, at my request…and now, if you’re willing, I’d like to ask you one last thing. Not as your princess…but as…” she faltered, threatening tears. Before she continued, she cleared her throat huskily. “But…as…somepony who loves you, and needs your help.”

“Anything,” Rarity said. She gave Celestia a brave smile, which was returned with a look of deep gratitude from the princess. They once again communicated a great deal with a gaze—Celestia deep remorse, Rarity some slightly reluctant forgiveness.

“As you know, I…am going away; for quite a long time, I think. There will be…hard times ahead.” Celestia nodded to Twilight. “I am going to be putting a heavy responsibility on Twilight and Princess Luna. I want to ask you all to be there for them, in these hard times.”

Even Pinkie Pie’s more or less permanent smile was subdued. “Of course we will! You don’t even have to ask.”

“No, I have to,” Celestia said, quickly. “I want to ask this of you. As a favor. I…” She turned to Twilight, who looked up at her mentor with a firm expression. “It would be unfair of me to just assume you’ll do it. This is a request, from a pony in distress to the only ponies who can help her.”

There was a sniffle. To the shock of nearly everypony, it was from Rainbow Dash. “Darn it…” she grumbled, looking away with a blush.

Celestia smiled. “I cannot give you all what you deserve from me, which is a lifetime of love and all the honor and joy I can give you. Because I do love you all, very much. I am…so sorry that we didn’t get to spend more time together. You’re all such special ponies.” She was weeping, now, but still spoke firmly.

“Thank ya kindly princess,” Applejack replied, gulping. “We’re all mighty sorry there’s nothin’ we can do ta help ya.”

Celestia shook her head. “I don’t know what Twilight has told you, but…I made my bed long ago, and now I have to lie in it. But I couldn’t go without trying to tell you all what you mean to me.”

Then she raised them all to the nobility, to Rarity’s everlasting glee, and with a very forced wink, entreated them to find any and every way to use this status to cause as much trouble as possible. Spike she named a knight and asked to accept the duty of serving and protecting Twilight Sparkle, her Faithful Student; he accepted gratefully, although the traditional ceremony of knighthood was foregone in favor of a very long hug.

“And now,” Celestia said calmly, “I would ask that you all relax for the rest of the day while I steal Twilight Sparkle for some business. We’ll see each other again, I think…if that’s alright with all of you,” she added, gravely. There was a little bit of a plea in it, too.

Nopony said anything, but there was a general feeling of agreement. The Elements and Spike shuffled out unwillingly, the dragon tossing one miserable look back at the smiling but tearful face of the princess as the doors closed.

“Twilight,” Celestia said, suddenly sounding very weak. “Please…”

Immediately Twilight was at her side, accepting a little of her weight as she leaned on the unicorn a bit.

“They, too…they deserved better from me, just as you always have,” Celestia said, wearily. “Even they were weapons I used against myself. I said: they’re Twilight’s friends, not mine—as if being friends with them as well would take them from you somehow, as if any relationship I had with them could ever be as close as your bond. Arrogance, foolishness…”

Twilight said nothing, just nuzzled the princess as she trembled slightly, doing little breathing exercises to calm herself.

“Sister, you’re pushing yourself too hard—“ Luna began, warily.

Celestia shook her head. “This is all as hard as I made it,” she said, in a tone that brooked no dissent. Broken she might be, but she was still the princess. “I will endure...if you two will stay with me.”

“All the way,” Twilight whispered.

Luna stepped next to Twilight. “You stood by me when I returned. and I will stand with you as you depart, sister.”

Celestia smiled at them both. “Thank you,” was all she could find it in herself to say.

~(E)~

It ended…eventually.

There were a great many ponies to see; nobleponies, ambassadors, wizards, leaders of various organizations...all who needed to be told, by Celestia herself, about the upcoming transition before the official announcement tomorrow, so that there would be no questions about it later. A thousand rumors were launched today—"Oh, in confidence, the princess told me…," "Her last words to me were…," et cetera. But that was always the case, and ponies took them as seriously as they ever did.

Twilight knew most of the visitors, by reputation at least, and a few of them greeted her politely, or at least acknowledged her. But she wasn’t here to talk to them—not even to listen, really. That was Luna’s role: to be there, listening to what was said and, more often than not, what went unsaid. In pursuit of this goal, sometimes Luna sat next to Celestia, looking serious; sometimes she lurked in the background, smiling enigmatically.

It was politics, mind games and shadowboxing, and while Luna needed to play things carefully, Twilight’s role for the ponies attending the princess was always to be seen sitting next to Celestia, calmly and confidently, as natural as anything—the message being that while Celestia may be absent, everypony was to consider Twilight invested with Celestia’s full confidence. It was a little intimidating and a little thrilling, as Twilight thought to the challenges and adventures ahead.

That said, the unspoken understanding between Luna, Celestia, and herself was that this was all privately secondary to her just being there. She was a little knot of strength and love for Celestia, who needed to remain the princess all the way to the end, now, to forestall chaos in the wake of her absence—humbled, perhaps, and about to go to a much-needed rest, but still the Celestia that Equestria had looked to for stability for a millennium.

Occasionally Celestia would touch Twilight, very slightly, with her wing—sometimes when she wanted somepony to see her touching Twilight to reinforce their connection, sometimes when she was feeling a little stressed…and sometimes, just when she wanted to feel that Twilight was still there, without looking.

It went on, and on, and on…until it stopped. It was very sudden, taking Twilight by surprise. The only previous pauses had been small, light meals brought in and consumed in quiet haste before the next meeting. Celestia’s appetite had been significantly weaker than normal, and Twilight found herself fretting about that as if it had any real meaning anymore.

Finally,” Celestia sighed.

“Are you sure there’s no way you can spare me all of this?” Luna asked, smiling wearily.

Celestia shook her head. “No, I’m afraid not.”

Luna sighed, with a resigned smile. “Very well…” She looked out the window, and her expression faded into solemnity. “Well, I’ll…leave you two, then,” she said, a little awkwardly. “I’ll be with our friends, when the time comes.”

“What?” Twilight said, confused, and then she looked out the window, too. “Oh, no…”

Celestia leaned down and nuzzled her. Twilight barely noticed, her whole being consumed with the sight of the treacherous sun. It was beginning the final descent into night; the hour was six in the evening or so, now.

Luna walked up to Twilight, put a hoof on her shoulder in a companionable sort of way, and gave her a very forced smile. “It’s okay, sister. It's all okay,” she said, in a voice that made her statement a lie. She kissed Twilight’s cheek and took her leave.

Twilight sat, stock-still, as Celestia busied herself with preparing their last little moment together. The enormity of everything was beginning to descend on her.

Celestia eyed her, carefully. “Twilight…We knew this was coming.” Her voice was strained, and conflicted; she was trying to be strong for Twilight, as Twilight had been for her, and was finding it very hard indeed.

“Somehow I thought…I thought…we’d have a nice dinner with everyone, first. And then…and then you and I, we’d…go, ourselves. Somewhere nice. The Halls, maybe, and…” Twilight stammered.

Celestia spread a wing and wrapped it around her. “That…sounds very nice, Twilight.”

“I thought there’d be more time for us.” Twilight wiped her eyes. “Maybe that was foolish.”

“This is the last price I have to pay for wearing the mask, I think...the last thing we have to suffer together, for my foolishness." Despite herself, Twilight chuckled hopelessly at that, to Celestia's distress. "Was something about that funny?"

“Not at all...I thought that myself, earlier! But I had to hope otherwise, I guess.” Twilight looked up at her. “I’m sorry, I’m losing control, right at the end.”

Celestia placed two cups in front of them. “You’ve been so strong for me, Twilight. I wouldn’t have made it through all this without you…so right now, let’s just be Celestia and Twilight. Friends,” she added, giving Twilight a bright, but glassy smile. “Open with each other. Don’t worry about controlling yourself.”

The kettle rose…

Sweet herbal tea pooled in the cup. Celestia and Twilight Sparkle gratefully sniffed the plume of steam that rose from it, smiling at each other, each taking a small amount of simple joy in the little ritual...for what seemed to be the last time.

They sat, quietly, for a very long time, sipping their tea.

“Openness is,” Twilight choked, wiping her face and clearing her throat, “openness is turning out to be a little different than I thought it would be.”

Celestia looked down at her. “I…would it be bad for me to say that I’ve never felt closer to you?”

“After all that we’ve been through together, I think a little peace and quiet is what we want from each other,” Twilight said, laughing a little.

Celestia chuckled as well. “I suppose so.”

“Still, I feel like…” Twilight trailed off, looking for the right words. She should be crying, something in her said. She should be bawling, inconsolable. But she wasn't...she felt very light. Not peaceful, really...but there was a solemn serenity in this moment, that for all its melancholy was precious and beautiful. “I feel like I should be more upset.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it,” Celestia said, evenly, looking around her study, slowly. “I feel the same way. I feel, ha, I feel like I should be crying my eyes out...”

That was something Twilight never thought she’d hear. “Yeah.”

“I suppose I’m just…very…at peace with things, here with you.”

Twilight looked up at her. “Are you still frightened?”

“Not so much as I was...I just needed to calm down, a bit.” Celestia looked down at her, smiling. Twilight was immensely comforted by it—it was a small smile, between ponies, not the slightly top-down look of gratitude from a superior to a subordinate. “I…don’t get ideas, Twilight, but I really enjoyed sleeping next to you. It was very comforting.” There was the slightest hint of a sly grin on her face.

“When you put me in bed with you in Ponyville…” Twilight began, but stopped herself. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk about any of that, anymore.

Celestia seemed to, though. “That was a little thoughtless of me, in retrospect.”

“No, it was…very…it was just too much for me, then. And not, um, in a sexy sense,” she added quickly, blushing furiously. “It was…well, it was too good to be true, in some ways. A gesture of closeness, when I felt so far from you. But I wasn’t in any place to accept it properly…I was so screwed up.”

“Well, I’m…actually, I’m very glad we had the chance to do it when we were both in a place to enjoy it. It is something I have missed very much, from when you were young...”

“Me, too,” Twilight said. “It was a little different this time, though.”

Celestia sighed. “Yes, it was. Better, I think.” Once, they would have discussed how this was the case, but...it wasn’t important, at the moment.

Twilight refilled their cups, and again, they sat next to each other in silence for a very, very long span—not because they didn’t know what to say, but because there was nothing that needed to be said. On her stand in the corner, Philhelmina slept peacefully.

“Ah, would…” Celestia said, then paused as she felt Twilight cuddle into her. She looked down, smiling. “Would you take Philhelmina to Fluttershy, please? Just tell her where you’re going to take her, and she should do as you ask.”

Twilight nodded, sniffling, still resting against Celestia’s side.

“And of course, I’ve left orders that you’re allowed access to my study and my private archives, any time you want.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, absently.

The sun sank lower, and they both drank more tea. In the distance, birds sang gently, saying good-night.

“I want to ask you something, Princess,” Twilight said, eventually.

“Anything, Twilight.”

“No,” Twilight said, sitting up, looking Celestia firmly in the eye. “I want you to promise me something.”

Celestia tried to smile. “Of course. Anything. For you, now? Anything.”

Twilight looked down, raising a hoof, and set it gently on her mentor’s chest. “When you…when you come back, Celestia…” she said this painfully aware that there were probably even odds that this might never happen—but why even think such a thing? Chase the change you wanted, right?

The princess clutched the hoof to herself. “Yes?”

“You…you should take some time to get back in the swing of things,” Twilight said, seriously.

“And then?”

“And then…” Twilight trailed off, almost unsure she wanted to say it. Again she felt a little disturbed that she wasn’t bawling, that tears seemed as distant as laughter. Had she burned herself out on emotion? Or was this like that terrible sense of freedom she felt when Celestia had said that this was the end, at the beginning of their long conversation?

“Twilight, please…whatever it is, I’ll do it.” Celestia smiled, fondly. “For you.”

“I want you to take another student,” Twilight said, firmly.

Celestia was taken aback. “You…well, I…why, Twilight?”

Twilight smiled. “I want you to promise me you won’t let yourself be lonely, anymore,” she said. “And…I’ve been so happy, Celestia, being your student. Everything I am, everything I have, in my life…it’s because of you. So someday, in the future…I want you to keep an eye out, for some lucky foal who catches your attention like I did. And I want you to love them, like you love me.”

“I could never love anypony like I love you, Twilight.” Celestia kissed her cheek. “My Faithful Student. The Faithful Student.”

Twilight shook her head. “It’s not about replacing me, or anything. I just…I mean, even with the mask between us, you loved me so much, and I loved you. It…would kill me to think you’ll think something silly like, ‘oh, nopony could replace Twilight Sparkle—’” she blushed at how arrogant it sounded, but Celestia gave her an awkward look that suggested she’d hit the mark— "and let that get you back into old habits.”

Celestia considered this for some time. “Twilight Sparkle. The Faithful Student. I promise, that one day, I will find a new friend—or friends, would that be alright?—to teach, as I’ve taught you.” Her eyes grew wet with tears. “And when I do, I’ll them stories about my first student, who was so brave, and so clever…”

“That would be…nice.” Twilight snuggled up against her. “Thank you, Celestia. Although I have to say…look at this name I’m stuck with! I suppose I was going to ask Luna to teach me about dreams, anyways, but…”

“Ah, well, student,” Celestia said, blinking and letting the tears run down her face. “It’s language tricking us again. You study things with or without a teacher…”

“I suppose I do,” Twilight said, smiling.

Silence fell over them, again. The light of the sun was heavy and amber-gold, now.

They listened to the birds and insects in the palace gardens whistle and buzz.

They heard Philhelmina squawk a yawn in her corner.

They let the cool night air fill the room around them.

They smelled the rich smell of life rising on the evening wind, picked up from the grounds and gardens, and they reveled in it.

They shared the very last bit of hot water, drinking tea from the same cup.

They did these things. They.

Together.

And finally, when the sun was red and heavy on the horizon, they looked to each other; they both now suddenly felt the strange serenity that had forestalled their sorrow fade away, and thus regarded each other quietly for some time, faces composed carefully but eyes singing volumes to each other.

“I love you, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said, simply.

Twilight blinked, letting the growing tears fall. “I love you, too…Celestia.”

“Then walk with me, now, to the very end.”

~(E)~

Canterlot was not a good place for secrets, and so there was something of a crowd waiting for them as they descended the stairs from Celestia’s study into the corridors of the Palace. It was a furtive crowd—hidden in alcoves and peeking out from side passages, everypony fascinated by the rumors of their beloved Princess’ impending absence.

Twilight looked around, nervously. “You know we’re being watched, I know, but…we could have the guards clear them away—“

“No, Twilight. Let them see me go…” Celestia’s quiet voice was firm, but by choice, not by ease. “They don’t know the whole of what’s happening, but let them see me go proudly to face…whatever awaits me. It’ll be a good story; that will help me when I show up again, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps.”

Celestia grinned, a bit wryly. “They’re seeing you walking next to me tonight, Twilight. I wonder what they’ll say about you..?”

“Probably that I’m your student and we’re very close, and you like me, and…things,” Twilight said, in a nervous rush.

Celestia laughed—a little, weak laugh, but heartfelt. “I can already tell you that they assume I’ve taught you ancient magic, and have given you access to terrible secrets, and so on. They’ll say: oh, they were always so close, who knows what old Celestia taught the Arch-Mage!”

Twilight frowned. “I don’t know anything like that,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of ponies getting weird expectations.”

“Ah, well, they might treat you with a little more respect, too, so it might not be all bad,” Celestia said, idly.

“Still, though.” Twilight said, a little sullenly, “I’d rather they just see that I walked with you. That’s what’s important.”

Celestia just smiled, eyes grateful, and walked on. Twilight got the impression she had to focus very hard on doing so without stumbling too much; as it was, she was trying to give a sense of gravity to her stride to hide that this was about as fast as she could move.

Luna and the Elements met them in the antechamber before the great hall, in sight of the huge, arched doors to the grounds.

“Hail, sisters!” Luna called, and Twilight realized that she was being addressed as well. The unicorn groaned internally—her reputation was going to get ridiculously inflated from these affairs on top of how hard this whole situation already was! No rest for the wicked, it seemed.

“Hello, Luna,” Celestia said, calmly. “I feel like a walk through the grounds. Would you and your friends care to join me?”

“We’d be honored, sister,” Luna replied, rather officiously, for the benefit of the poorly-concealed crowd.

Rainbow Dash, Spike, and Applejack led the way, heads held nobly as the knights they now legally were, giving serious glares to anypony who looked as if they were going to approach the little party too closely. Luna and Fluttershy followed them, whispering quietly to one another, then Rarity and Pinkie Pie, who were both looking proud as duchesses—one for real, the other occasionally breaking into little giggles, amused by the ridiculousness of her faux haughtiness.

Trailing behind were Celestia and her Faithful Student, side by side.

They crossed the grounds, travelling towards the lonely tower in the middle distance, observed from every possible vantage point.

Through the grounds. Across the byway. Under the walkway. Through the gate. Step by step, Celestia approached her doom, head held high, and by her side was Twilight Sparkle, faithful to the end.

They came upon the tower, which was surrounded by a fairly large amount of guards. Luna spoke briefly to the sour-faced grey unicorn commander, and turned to Celestia. “I hesitate to let you remain here. Too many ponies know—“

“I will be safe, there, no matter how long I sleep.” Celestia nodded gravely. “The mountain will see to it, and I suspect between yourself and Commander Stoneface, a suitable honor guard can be arranged. The kind that is more guard than honor,” she added, smiling.

Luna nodded. “How would you like to…descend?”

Celestia looked around, at the assembled ponies, who looked up at her expectantly. Her expression was pained; Twilight could tell that the thought driving to the top of her mind was something along the lines of why, why, why must I be torn from these ponies?

But because she knew the answer, all too well, Celestia was able to suppress it and come to a decision.

“Just you, and Twilight, I think,” Celestia said. “Let me take my leave of the rest of you, now.”

“Princess…” Spike murmured.

Celestia turned to him, smiling weakly. “Spike, my dear, you and I may see one another again, in the future. I’ll need your help, then…” She let her gaze fall on each of the rest of the Elements in turn. “And I’ll want you to tell me everything you remember about your friends. So remember well.”

An uncomfortable silence pervaded the plaza as the Elements tried to think of something to say in response to this.

Celestia's face fell into a gentle, sad smile. “Well, I...well, then.” Celestia’s inability to find something appropriate or comforting to say was at least as disturbing to everypony as her haggard appearance, or her obvious need for Twilight to be standing next to her as she tried to maintain her composure. “I...everything I said to you, in my study, I meant. And more, that even now I can't bring myself to say...all of you, I've come to love you very much, through your letters, and the all too brief time we've spent together.” She looked down on them for a while longer, and then laughed, weakly.

“Uh...” Applejack said, looking around warily. “Are you all right, Princess?”

“Language is failing me, once again,” Celestia said, looking to Twilight. “I have so...much I want to say to all of you. Each of you. But...there are no words...” She sighed, looking up into the crimson sun. “If I must say one last thing to you all...” She trailed off, her eyes suddenly filled with pain as she grasped for words, and failed.

The Elements looked to each other, wishing desperately that somepony knew what to say.

Celestia shook her head, sighing sadly. “Farewell, all of you.”

She kissed each of them then, gently, on the forehead; having done this, she turned and began the approach to the tower, not daring to face them again. With a sad look to her friends, Twilight followed close behind her mentor; Luna trailed a few paces behind them both.

As the doors of the tower shut behind them, Celestia visibly slumped. Twilight rushed to her side, gently brushing against Celestia, accepting the small weight the alicorn put on her.

“There is such a thing as being seen to go with grace, I think,” Celestia murmured.

Luna nodded. “And yet I noticed you let yourself stumble, just a bit. Very mythical, that.”

“Let myself?” Celestia chuckled, darkly. She turned and nuzzled Twilight, who gave an urgent little murmur of distress in response. “Twilight...help Luna with the seal, please. I'll be fine.”

Reluctantly, Twilight pulled herself away from Celestia's side and took her position across from Luna. They gave each other an extremely uncomfortable look as they began the process of unsealing the chamber they were both trying hard not to think of as a tomb. Moving with its strange, distorted inertia, the beautiful stone lifted free of the runic ring and floated aside to reveal the great stone staircase.

Celestia stepped forward, her gait awkward...and paused, hoof raised before that first, deadly step into the descent.

“Twilight,” she said, staring at the staircase before her thoughtfully. “How many plans have you come up with to help me avoid this?”

Luna bristled. “What? I thought you intended to–”

Celestia ignored her. “Twilight?”

“Seven feasible plans,” Twilight said, quietly. “Most of them involve somepony else taking your place, or using the Elements on you.”

“Don't tell me you two–”

“Of course not, Luna,” Celestia interrupted. “But here, at the very uttermost edge of things...I find myself having a hard time taking this last step...I thought I could use something...” She swallowed, and paused, for a time. “Twilight Sparkle...I thank you for giving the matter some consideration,” she said, with forced firmness. “But I'm afraid the time has come for me to face the consequences of my actions.”

Her hoof fell on the step with a gentle click.

Celestia closed her eyes and sighed. “I always thought moments like that were a convention of drama, but I really did have to force myself. I feel like a foal...”

Luna walked up beside her, nuzzling the larger alicorn fondly as she did so. “Come, sister,” she said. “We're with you.”

“Thank you both,” Celestia whispered.

The descent was slow. Celestia was growing very weak and tired; she moved with the drawn-out care of the infirm. Luna kept pace with her, pausing every so often so as not to draw ahead, while Twilight trailed behind them, face downcast.

“I–” Luna began, after a long while, but immediately stifled herself.

Celestia looked to her curiously, but Luna just shook her head.

They kept walking.

The silence was tense, and the strange cavern around the great stone staircase was so unnaturally still that it seemed to be sucking the hollow sounds of hooves on stairs into the black void beyond. Twilight shuddered at the thought—that first trip down had been much more comfortable, even with some of the terrible things they were shown. At least it hadn't been just...hollow, hungry blackness.

She tried to think of something to say, but was once again struck with an inability to come up with anything that didn't sound false, or hollow. What could she say, that she already hadn't? “I miss you already”? Celestia knew that. “I wish this had never happened”? Obviously. “This is unfair”? Well, no, it wasn't, that was the trouble. Or if it was unfair, it was unfair to Twilight and Luna, not Celestia—and as much as it hurt her, Twilight knew it would hurt Celestia twice over to be reminded of this.

In any case, she would have been hard pressed to say much through her throat, which was about as thick with anxiety as she had ever felt it.

Luna seemed to be equally conflicted; Twilight's mind, bubbling over with unhappy thoughts, gratefully latched onto a passing curiosity—what had she and Celestia discussed in priv–

The dusky alicorn, as if aware that Twilight had been thinking about her, turned and looked at the unicorn over her shoulder, a sad but firm expression on her face. In the light of Luna's calm gaze, Twilight suddenly remembered her making time for Twilight and Celestia to be alone together. There was no accusation in Luna's eyes, but she nodded, very slightly: I will see her again, one day. But this parting wounds me deeply, nevertheless...

Twilight's little gulp and nod in acknowledgment seemed to satisfy whatever was on Luna's mind.

And so they walked on in silence; what was there to say?

All too soon, they stood before the stone doors to the chamber at the heart of the mountain. They paused for awhile, regarding the doors with carefully-composed looks of mild disinterest.

Celestia stirred, clearing her throat in a husky way that spoke of suppressed tears. “I don't want to go,” she whispered. “The Sun was right; any joy we found in this time is torture to me now. She really is good at twisting the knife...”

Twilight sniffed. “But...you have to. We promised. And...”

“And I must face the consequences for what I've done,” Celestia said, resignation thick on her voice. “Still...”

“Sister...” Luna murmured, her face falling into misery.

“Luna,” Celestia said, firmly, turning to her. “I look forward to my return. Whatever awaits me, I look forward to sharing it with you...”

“I...also hope to share a future with you,” Luna said, carefully.

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Still?” The younger alicorn looked away from her, face awkward. “Luna, if you are that worried about it–”

“Twilight Sparkle!” Luna declared, suddenly giving the unicorn a fierce look. “My sister. With my new...responsibilities, and Celestia's absence...I am worried about the things we saw in her mind, yet. The creature that is my fear was not totally erased from being, I think...”

“I counseled her to look to her friends—to seek strength in the love and support of others. Her first thought was of you, and the friends you share,” Celestia said, quickly, as Luna trailed off miserably. “I fear that the Nightmare is a burden she will have to bear for the rest of her life, lurking in her mind, waiting for another chance to take control. Will you help her come to grips with this? Will you be there for her?”

Twilight was momentarily stunned. “Of course..!”

Celestia turned to Luna, smiling gently. “There. You see?”

“It was foolish of me to even think otherwise, I suppose,” Luna said, rallying a little.

“The trouble with power, sister, is that the more of it you have, the more exaggerated the fallout of your mistakes. Take all of this as a lesson about that, as well.” Celestia replied. She stepped forward and kissed Luna's forehead. “I will miss you–”

Luna gave Twilight a serious glance for a second, before leaping forward and clutching Celestia desperately. “Celestia! I can't bear this...I've only just returned, and already..!” She buried her face in Celestia's neck and sobbed gently.

“Shhh...” Celestia said, slowly, agonizingly, bringing a wing around to clutch her gently. “I know, Luna, I know...it hurts me too, so badly...” Luna looked up, and the sisters held a tearful gaze for a long moment. “But this was because I made my own mistakes, just as you did...”

“I'll learn from them, then, as you counseled,” Luna said, looking to Twilight. “I will seek the strength that comes from the Magic of Friendship.” She gave the unicorn a little smile, which despite being a very small expression conveyed both gratitude and hope in huge measure. “I will seek the strength to control my fears.”

Celestia pulled away from her. “I know you'll succeed, sister...and I look forward to walking with you in the world that strength will help you create.”

Luna stepped back from her, nodding, smiling through her tears.

Celestia turned to Twilight, now. Their eyes met. “Twilight.”

They held that gaze for a long, long time, neither wanting to let it go. But finally:

“It would please me, Twilight,” Celestia said, idly, as if it was nothing of importance, despite the tears that began leaking down her face in a slow, but constant stream. “If the first book I read when I return was the collected memoirs of Twilight Sparkle. And that this would be a long book, that took me a long time to read...”

Twilight nodded, matching Celestia tear for tear.

It was all she could do—she was bursting with things she wanted to express to Celestia, but they were all so complex, all images and sensations rather than words. To merely say thank you would not express the intensity of her gratitude, which was spilling into her mind in memories of little looks and smiles and phrases. To say she loved Celestia—to say it now wasn't anything at all, it seemed to her. It had been said as perfectly as she could imagine in Celestia's study, in the light of the dying sun, and she expressed it just as truly by walking with Celestia every step of the way to this, the very end of things.

Twilight felt ready to explode for not saying anything. She was desperate for the right words—or some knowledge of the right way to touch Celestia, something that would be more eternal than the Eternal Sun, a gesture or contact that would never leave her beloved Celestia, though the stars burned out in the heavens and the seas drained into endless deserts...

“Remember your promise,” she rasped, as the words leapt to her mind.

Celestia nodded gently. “I will. I will take—“

“Not that,” Twilight managed. She stepped up to Celestia. “The students...that's just an action...that will help you. Love, Celestia...and be loved. Do that, for me...please.” Long pauses filled this statement as Twilight fought to maintain her poise.

Celestia closed her eyes. “I swear to you, Twilight Sparkle--”

“Don't call me that. Not now. That's just my name...” Twilight reached up and wrapped her forelegs around Celestia's neck, hugging her very gently, as if she were reluctant to touch the alicorn in case this made her vanish.

Celestia let out a sob, which mixed weirdly with a hopeless little chuckle. “I...I...it's hard, Twilight. Doesn't it seem like that would just...”

“Mean this really is the end?” Twilight said, tears gushing out suddenly. She fought her throat for control of her voice again, feeling Celestia's tears falling on her back. “It is the end, Celestia. It has to be. You have to face the Sun for what you did...but we had this day, and we had our time to be...what we were supposed to be. Friends.”

“My...” Celestia murmured. Luna began weeping in earnest now as she watched her sisters' parting. “My Faithful Student...”

“Yours. Always,” Twilight sobbed into Celestia's neck.

“I swear to you, my faithful student, who came to me and saved me from myself...” Celestia said, forcing out each word with effort as her voice was strangled in her throat by desperate sorrow, “I will never let myself be alone again. I will love. I swear it. I won't let my fear get in the way again...because of the strength you've shared with me.” Her voice dropped into a harsh whisper. “And I will never, ever, forget you, or how much I love you, in this moment...”

And they wept, together, even as Celestia pulled away, her face an agony of misery, leaving Twilight to collapse into Luna, who strode forwards swiftly to hold her. It all happened so quickly, events rolling downhill in a blur—Celestia seemed to vanish into the suddenly-opened doors with unreal haste, Twilight reaching out lamely with a hoof, something in her vainly hoping this would stop the inevitable parting.

“Sister,” Celestia said, thickly.

Luna looked up at her, shaking her head, half-blinded with miserable tears; Celestia nodded, gravely. Yes, the time has come.

Celestia looked back to Twilight, for just a moment, renewing the unicorn's quiet sobs, but just as quickly, returned the gaze to Luna, who matched it unwavering. “Watch for sunrise.”

As the doors closed, Twilight's eyes desperately sought Celestia's; and they held each other's gaze until the doors scraped shut and Celestia was out of sight.

~(E)~

Somewhere:

The sun hung fat and red on the distant, watery horizon beyond the cliffs. The Sun, hale and proud, was pacing along their edge, her white coat ruby-red where deep shadow didn't fall in the harsh crimson light of the fading sun.

Celestia stood in the little meadow, as Twilight had so recently, and let the overwhelming sense of realness pass over her. The wind was weak, and the rich scent of the sea wafted on it now. The trees behind her rustled and whispered gently as it passed through their broad leaves; unlike the calming whispers Twilight had heard, Celestia's sensitive ears were filled with a quiet lamentation, a dirge that sang of partings and endings. She momentarily wondered why, but she knew that things here were as they were, and questioning them was pointless.

“So,” the Sun said, across the clearing. She ceased her restless pacing and looked down at Celestia, a strange seriousness about her features.

“So,” Celestia replied, simply. She took a deep breath, trying to still the buzz of anxiety that lived in her stomach. Parting from Twilight had been...

She had thought about it many times, both before and after things started getting really wrong between them, but even in the depths of her delusion, she had hoped for the best. A quiet bed, a quiet fatigue, a lingering absence for the rest of Celestia's days. Nothing traumatic, or sudden, or sad beyond the necessary.

This? This was like tearing a wing off. Her mind was still reeling a bit from that last little sight of Twilight, ever-faithful, eyes widening as the terrible inevitability of the doors closing had really and truly become apparent. Celestia had felt a terrible need to call out to her and to Luna; to say some perfect words that would make it all alright again, that would give them strength and hope, and ease the pain of their parting. But as it had many times recently, her command of language failed her, and she merely watched them fall into each other with the careless ease of reflexive trust.

That, if nothing else, was a comfort to Celestia; they would have each other, and their friends.

Celestia looked up into the Sun's glare, and did not flinch. She submitted to her judge with as much nobility as she could muster, knowing herself to have committed a vile crime.

“Thank you for not embarassing both of us by trying to escape your punishment,” the Sun said, seriously.

Celestia shook her head. “I would be lying if I said that I did not, many times, hope for some escape or reprieve,” she said, quietly. “You are in Twilight's debt. As much as she was a comfort to me, she was a reminder of my obligation to you.”

“You would not have had that time, save for her. How was your day, then?”

Celestia shuddered. “Every moment of peace, and the little moments like happiness...agony, now.”

The Sun gave Celestia an odd look. “Yes. You've arranged your affairs to your satisfaction?”

Celestia nodded. “I have.”

“And said your good-byes?” There was no word for the Sun's expression but leer.

“Some rather hard ones, I'm afraid,” Celestia remarked, weakly. The dreadful sorrow had only abated, not absented itself, and now that tide was turning back.

The Sun cocked her head. “Well, we know who's to blame for that.”

“Now I understand more completely what you meant,” Celestia said, carefully, as she tried to master herself. “That surrender, long ago, would have been preferable to this.”

The Sun nodded. “I have never lied to you, about anything.”

“So we have been hurt, then?” Celestia asked, bitterly.

The Sun grimaced. “...Yes,” she growled, the admission being dragged between her teeth. “I...well. We've faded, a little. Burned too brightly for too long. What will come of it in the long run...” She shook her head.

Celestia sighed. “Foolish.”

“To say the least,” the Sun snapped. She mastered herself quickly, looking irritable. “I want to talk about it, Celestia. About us.”

“As you wish.”

“Mmmm,” the Sun hummed, condescension thick in the sound of it. “Do you remember what I told you about our arrangement, that first time we met? 'A curious thyng,' I believe you said, at the time.”

Celestia sighed, weakly. “I am the part of you that is a pony, and you are the part of me that is the Sun.”

“Yes,” the Sun said.

They stood facing one another for some time, the sound of the breeze moving through the trees and the sea breaking on the cliffs the only sound.

“I've had some time to consider these matters,” the Sun said, idly.

“A millennium--”

The Sun made a dismissive wave of the head. “Just a day. The past millennium has been...well, time works differently here, as you know. But that's immaterial—it was still a long, long time. And more significantly...it was a product of betrayal, Celestia. One compounded by your refusal to release me...”

Celestia let her head fall. “It was.”

“Oh, don't grovel,” the Sun said, looking away from Celestia awkwardly. “I can't stand it. Don't make a show of this.”

Celestia looked up at the Sun, who was regarding her speculatively, and held her gaze for a time. This seemed to distress the Sun somewhat, but Celestia held firmly to honest contrition—the surest way to unsettle somepony who is smug about catching you in the wrong is to actually be sorry about it.

“You...tried to be both of us,” the Sun said, eventually.

“Did I?” Celestia asked. She thought about it. “I suppose you're right.”

“Of course I'm right.” The Sun approached Celestia, so they could speak without having to project their voices over some distance. The proximity distressed her, especially because the Sun's face betrayed little—the reckless spite was gone, replaced by a strange attitude that struck Celestia as evaluative. “You know, I have come to understand your reluctance about the cycle of rising and setting—putting aside the complications of you deciding you're too good for it. But...it must be humiliating, having something like that out of your control.” She said this with a repugnant air of false sympathy—the "aw, poor baby" tone.

Celestia, despite her agony, managed a little flare of irritation. “Yes, it really is. I took certain responsibilities on myself—“

“You love talking about your responsibilities as if they transcend the importance of other things. That was the mask you kept jabbering about with Twilight Sparkle, you know. This...purpose. These things you decided to do with your life—the things you built up around yourself. They were all the mask. Being the princess—“ The Sun laughed. “Celestia, you're the princess! You can do whatever you like, but instead you obsessively fulfilled a role that you created for yourself and then kept telling yourself Equestria needed you to do it.”

Celestia bristled. “What? What do you know about—”

“You didn't think I just sat here, this whole time, did you? I watched! Not as well as I might have if I were free, of course, but...”

The Sun's laughter filled the clearing, bright but a bit condescending. Celestia glowered.

“I watched you try to be the Sun, Celestia. Try to be me. Think about how you described your role as the Eternal Sun,” the Sun said, mockingly. “The eternal center of things. Always there. Always present, and...warm, but removed enough not to burn. The sun, Celestia. Me. You stole my power and tried to be me. Why?”

Celestia stammered for a bit. “I...I was hurting. I was humiliated—“

“You were frightened,” the Sun spat. “You were scared because you didn't know what was going to happen next—like anypony would be. Twilight Sparkle nailed that one on the head; you were afraid that the things that would change would be scary and hurtful, so you stole back your power and clung to your responsibilities for a millennium. For a thousand years, you lived in the past...a past which never existed.” The Sun grinned, hugely. “Just like Twilight did, trying to get back a past where you were perfect.”

Celestia stared at the Sun, who looked immensely pleased with herself. Celestia's jaw worked a couple times, but she said nothing.

“That Twilight Sparkle...smart little filly, sometimes, isn't she?” The Sun gestured, and an image appeared; it was Twilight and Luna, sitting outside the stone doors, finally having given up the stiff upper lip, sobbing in each other's hooves. Celestia's guts twisted into a sudden and intense nausea, and tears welled in her eyes.

“Hurts, eh?” the Sun said, but not terribly unkindly. Nevertheless, Celestia wasn't in the mood.

“Enough,” she managed.

The Sun smirked. “Ah-ah-ah. This is punishment, remember? We're just chatting, now, but...there's going to be punishment, one way or the other.”

Celestia looked up at her, anger flaring to life from her sorrow. “What do you mean, one way or the—”

“So you tried to be the Eternal Sun. How'd that go for you?”

Celestia glared back at her sullenly. She tried not to look at Luna weeping, unrestrained, into Twilight's mane as the unicorn tried desperately to help her calm down again despite Twilight being visibly distressed herself.

“Not so good,” the Sun agreed, nodding. “And that's the point, really, Celestia. You're not the Sun. I am. You're the part of me that is a pony...and you rejected everything about that. You rejected...being a part of Equestria. You set yourself apart, giving in to your fear of making a mistake. You made yourself untouchable, afraid of the pain of loss, like you had when Luna was taken from you. You tried to be something you're not, and can never be. You called it a mask, I call it...misunderstanding the point of your existence.”

Celestia held her head up, haughtily. “And that is?”

“Don't be dense,” the Sun said, sneering. “You are the part of the Sun that is a pony. So be a pony!”

“And what does that mean?”

The Sun rolled her eyes and huffed. “Live, Celestia. Love. All those things you wanted to do, but couldn't do anymore because of this stupid Eternal Sun business. I, the Sun, cannot go to the waking world. All I can do is watch, from here...” Her voice got quiet, and sad, suddenly. “And I love the things I see in the world, Celestia. I'm interested in them.” She looked up at Celestia, seriously. “You can go out into the world, and love, and live, and learn...and then, while we rest...” She looked away, pained.

Celestia once again stared at the Sun, unsure what to say to this.

“And it would hurt, Celestia. Your life would be an agony of loss, outlasting much, enduring upheavals and change. We won't exist forever, but we will go on for some time yet,” the Sun said, raising an eyebrow. “But...look...I don't know everything about this, alright? But that much I know for sure. Just like I know that the rising and setting is important for both of us. We can rest, Celestia—but more importantly, for you...I think it's a way to keep you humble. To keep you in touch with the ponies you live among—they all know that eventually the inevitable change of death will come. You will return from your rest, yes, but by setting you would still feel that same inevitable press of time, sharing that knowledge, in your heart that things will come to an end, someday...”

“I...never thought about it as anything but an inconvenience,” Celestia said, guiltily.

“I think that it's meant to be, yes.”

Celestia looked up, a hopeful little smile on her face “Although I did—“

“Oh, no. Don't even think about finishing that. Not now. Once, I happily sat with you and listened to your adventures, and in me, everything that Celestia loved endures, and every loss that pained her remains unforgotten.” The Sun looked at Celestia seriously, face set in a firm expression of pained reminiscence. “That was before. This is now. Things are going to be very different from this point on...”

Celestia sighed deeply, closing her eyes. “Whatever punishment you've decided upon, I willingly—“

“We'll talk about that in a minute,” the Sun said. “First...” She grinned, broadly, with the slight but innocent malice of a younger sibling teasing her elder, having caught her with a hoof in the candy jar. It was actually somewhat endearing, if perversely so. “I want you to say that you've been a naughty, naughty princess.”

Celestia frowned. “I've made many mistakes. I've done great evils—”

“Oh, spare me,” the Sun groaned. “Say it: I've been a naughty princess'.”

“I've...” Celestia began, uncomfortably. “I've been a naughty princess.”

“I've been arrogant and stubborn and cowardly,” the Sun continued, in a sing-song "repeat after me" voice.

“I have been arrogant, and stubborn...and above all, I have shown immense cowardice,” Celestia repeated, slightly more in tune with her own way of speaking.

“And I didn't like having my dirty deeds dragged out in front of Twilight Sparkle, nor did I like explaining them to Luna.”

“I did not.”

“Did not what?” the Sun snapped.

Celestia was startled by this sudden display of hostility. “I didn't enjoy having to explain myself to Twilight, nor to Luna,” she said, quickly.

The Sun smiled as if this little disobedience had not occurred. “And I have been suffering, every day, for a thousand years as part of the fallout of my stupidity..?”

Celestia heard the little snare in this. “I cannot claim that. I have been pained, and lonely, yes, but...nothing compared to what you endured.”

“My, my, she is clever,” the Sun said. She seemed genuinely pleased, although her smile remained mildly malevolent. She leaned in, getting quite close to Celestia. “I will spare you any forced confessions about Twilight Sparkle, then, because you're quick on the uptake. I saw you two last night...you're terribly cute together.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes and said nothing. The Sun chuckled.

“And as well as being a naughty princess, I was a silly little filly who thought she could be the Sun,” she said, back in the sing-song.

“I misunderstood my place in things. I understand them better now now. I understand a greater purpose for myself than merely maintaining the Equestrian state...”

The Sun rolled her eyes at this verbosity. “How you managed to keep anyone interested in it for more than five minutes, I'll never know.”

“I'm usually a little more engaging,” Celestia said. Something in her made her add: “It's been a stressful time for me lately.”

“Ha!” The Sun's bark of laughter, bitter but legitimately amused, rang out in the clearing, echoing for a long time, in which her face grew calm, and serious. “Are you sorry?”

“What?”

“Sorry, Celestia. Are you sorry?” the Sun asked. She appeared to have something on her mind; it was making her expression seem wary as she held Celestia in a hungry stare. “And don't just say yes,” the Sun added, harshly. “Be honest.”

Celestia held her peace for a time, trying to think up something suitable to say. Her mind, though, kept falling back on Luna and Twilight, clutching one another in the darkness.

“It's just two words, Celestia,” the Sun said. She grinned maliciously. “Are they that hard to say? “

“I'm just...trying to encompass the whole of the situation properly,” Celestia replied, nervously. “You have seen that I could not be more sorry. I am sorry for what I did to you—it was more than just wrong, it was evil. I imprisoned you for a thousand years and hurt us both. And...”

The Sun waved a hoof, irritably. “Enough. Enough of that. Enough fancy language and explanations and so on. This is a true place, Celestia...look me in the eyes, and tell me that you are sorry for what you did.”

They locked gazes, almost instantly, drawn to each other by some strange magnetism.

“I'm sorry,” Celestia said. “For everything.”

The Sun smiled. “See? Was that so hard?” She gave Celestia a conspiratorial look. “And don't you feel better having said it?”

Celestia blinked. She really did. “Erm...yes, actually.”

“Ah, and I feel good knowing you're really, really sorry, I really do,” the Sun said. “I mean, I watched you and Twilight, I've seen what you're losing...”

Celestia's heart stopped. There had been...something in that statement. It was something like the tiniest whisper of dangerous glee. “I have already lost everything,” she said, weakly. It was the first thing she could think of, and helped nothing.

“Oh, my, Celestia...” the Sun said, glutinously. “You seem nervous.”

“What...what are you—”

“Celestia, I really am happy you are sorry for everything! After all...you should be,” the Sun said, a little anger slipping back into her voice. “But you still have to be punished, Celestia. It's only fair. And watching you and your student reconnect...all that soul-searching...” The Sun began circling Celestia, who stood stock-still, anxiety drawing her attention unswervingly to the Sun's voice. “It helped me understand what needs to happen to really settle things between us.”

Celestia swallowed, nervously. “Oh?”

“Oh yes,” the Sun said, giving Celestia a bright smile as she passed in front of her. “I'm shocked it didn't occur to me earlier. I was just going to leave you here, alone, for the next several centuries, while I got some sleep somewhere else...even your stoicism would probably strain after five decades or so of nothing to think about but your many, many mistakes. Guilt is your weakness, I think.”

“Probably,” Celestia agreed.

“But then I thought about this whole situation, and some of the things Twilight Sparkle said...and it hit me!” The Sun paused, standing next to Celestia, her face an expression of delighted wonder. “I mean, I was excited. This is mythical, Celestia, in its scope and meaning. I'm thrilled to be a part of it; it's the sort of thing ponies write stories about.”

“Just come out with it, please...”

The Sun gave Celestia a serious look. “Somepony got ideas in her head. Somepony thought she could be the Sun.” She shook her head, tsking. “Somepony forgot her place in the grand scheme of things. There's an old word for that: hubris.”

Celestia coughed. “I've heard it.” She shied from the Sun's leer.

“Then you know what needs to happen. You need to be reminded of how things are supposed to be,” the Sun said, excitedly. She turned and leaned to whispered in Celestia's ear, gently. “In a word...you need to be humbled. And thanks to Twilight Sparkle, I know just the way to teach you humility...”

~(E)~

“My sister,” Princess Luna began, her voice ringing out in the Great Hall over the hubbub of the mass of assembled nobleponies, but only just. She cleared her throat. “We said...”

There was a busy little moment. Among many, many other things, Commander Stoneface replaced his helmet after retrieving it from the crumpled body of Lord Flashhooves, who had been kind enough to catch it with his face. The Commander retook his position in front of the Princess, smiling slightly.

“Thank you for your attention, everypony,” Luna said, smiling brightly.

It was early evening, on the second day after the unnatural sunset. Technically, nopony knew what the Princess was going to announce; but Canterlot just cannot keep a secret, so Luna was already wearing the tall silver tiara, set with a sapphire, in place of the small black one she was previously inclined to. Add to this a cape of midnight-blue she'd asked Rarity to throw together (“Oh, Princess! Right away!”) which hung off the shoulder in a respectably flattering way, and a healthy dose of her usual mysterious hauteur, and...

The Princess of Equestria looked over her subjects, giving a gentle little smile.

Celestia had coached her well, in the brief time they'd had together; reinforced that in the beginning, it would be vital to be nonthreatening but still new, still different. Make everypony see that change was coming, but assure them it would be pleasant. Celestia might have made gentle overtures, speaking with quiet confidence and enthusiasm about new things, but Luna was not her sister. Her eyes gave tantalizing hints of her dynamism and passion, and her smile was all private secrets, just for you—or so it seemed to everypony in the room.

Things were going to be interesting!

“It is my sad responsibility to inform everypony that my sister, our beloved Princess Celestia, has come to a time in her life when she must rest. In my absence, she endured a thousand years, watching over Equestria with love; now that I have returned, she is free to recover from her long years of leadership.

“It was unfortunate that this came to pass in sudden fashion, but as luck would have it, the Arch-Mage Twilight Sparkle and I were ahoof to aid her in the trying time, and now the sun has set over Equestria. I, for one, do not begrudge its sleep—when I returned, I was stunned by the beauty and nobility of modern Equestria, which grew under the light of the sun. Now, she must rest—a thousand years is a long time for anypony. Take heart, good ponies: the sun will rise again!”

She all but shouted this last line, and it was met with a chorus of echoes from the assembled nobleponies, who instinctively know when their monarch is trying to make a point. They raised their hooves and cried these words proudly, though they'd never heard them before, and as they did, they felt a sense of peace and hope well in them to battle the growing unease.

Luna smiled down at the court in an inscrutable way that was familiar to anypony who knew her well.

“But until it does,” Luna said, in a much more conspiratorial tone of voice than Celestia would have ever dreamed of using, “the Moon shines over Equestria. Under the silver light of the moon, let us make wonders together, so that the Sun will marvel at what we have built when the first light of dawn touches the horizon...”

Cheers rose, even for this simple, general statement of goodwill, because you do that for the princess. Sotto voce discussions were breaking out in the crowd, as well—

“Isn't she glamorous? Who knew?”

“She always seemed so strange...but she's so regal!”

“Charismatic, certainly...”

“I had my doubts about her, but now...”

“And that cape—simple, but elegant. And perfect colors!”

Luna's preternaturally good hearing picked up on the little shift in the wind. Internally, she leapt for joy—she was doing it, she could do this—but the only physical acknowledgement she gave was the way her enigmatic little smile seemed slightly warmer for a moment.

“Where is she!?” demanded a reedy voice from the crowd. A little eddy formed around a thin, greying unicorn mare, who looked up at the princess with the insistent firmness of somepony who has gotten her own way from the very second they were born. Her neighbors were inching away from her with as much haste as was polite.

Luna smiled down at her, one eyebrow raised very slightly. “She is somewhere safe, where she can get the rest she needs in peace, protected by the very best security Equestria could provide. Have no fear of that.”

The mare stomped a hoof. “And how long will she be gone?”

Luna held the mare's gaze awhile longer, finding herself impressed with the complete lack of self-awareness she was demonstrating. A younger, pale red pony was trying to whisper to her, desperately, but the old mare just waved a hoof at him dismissively.

“Do you know?” This new voice was from another mare, a lime-green pegasus in a spectacular gown. Luna recognized this pony as a constant thorn in Celestia's side at court, the worst kind of gossip with a notorious way of stumbling across embarrassing information about other ponies.

She let her gaze fall to the back of the Hall, where they met a very familiar pair of purple eyes. The princess let the silence last a moment, enjoying watching some of the court surreptitiously try to follow her gaze.

Luna gave a sly little smile that would, in time, be extremely familiar to her subjects. Some of them would grow to fear it, some to love it, but everypony would quickly learn that it meant their mysterious new princess knew more than she was telling, and maybe if you were very lucky, she'd pull you aside and put some words in your ear, and you'd find yourself in a new world of intrigue and adventure...

“Well? How long will Princess Celestia be gone, hmm? A month? A year?” the grey unicorn demanded.

“As long as she needs,” Luna said, putting all of her considerable store of enigma into every word.

And then she winked, smiling mysteriously.

In the very rear of the Hall, Twilight Sparkle laughed as the Court enjoyed its first real dose of their new Princess. She could already tell that the next few years would be...interesting, as everypony adjusted to Luna, but they seemed curious and excited about her and this dramatic, mysterious new personality that had hitherto been so aloof and strange.

The Arch-Mage sighed, seeing the long work ahead, but Twilight Sparkle smiled, heart filled with joy for her sister, who was taking the first few steps down a long road of fulfilling herself as a princess...and as a pony. But, everypony else was waiting. The train to Ponyville was about to leave, and she and Luna would speak this evening in dreams—their first real meeting as state officials.

Just one more thing, and then...home, sweet library.

She turned and walked out onto one of the broad balconies for incoming and outgoing pegasi; and indeed, a pegasus stood on the checkerboard tiles, looking out over the palace grounds to the little constellation of lights that was Canterlot Town as day fell into night.

“Ready to go?” Twilight asked, smiling.

The mare turned her head, returning the smile gratefully.

“As ready as I'll ever be,” Celestia replied.

~(E)~

“You and I...are going to spend some time apart,” the Sun said. “I think we both need this.”

Celestia was taken aback. “Wait—what do you mean, apart?”

The Sun nodded gravely. “It's a terrible punishment, I know,” she said. Her tone of voice was a little less mocking, now, but was still clearly enjoying Celestia's shock. “But classically, the punishment for hubris was to be stripped of your powers and cast down from the heavens to live a life of toil as a mortal pony.” She shivered theatrically. “It's so mythical, I'm getting the chills.”

“A...mortal pony...” Celestia murmured.

The Sun cleared her throat and looked up at Celestia, an more honest expression of openness on her face than Celestia had seen in a thousand years. It was unlike the guileless innocence that the Sun had displayed in those long-distant days, though; this was hesitant and and wary, clearly willing to clamp down on the first sign of a violation of the tentative trust.

Celestia's eyes opened wide. The Sun was...reaching out!

“You owe your student...everything, Celestia,” the Sun said, a little anxiety in her voice.

Celestia shook her head, trying to get a hold on herself. “What? Oh...yes, but...”

The Sun frowned. “I'm not like her. I have hated you for centuries. Hated, Celesta, the way that only someone who has loved deeply and been betrayed so thoroughly can. I spent decades coming up with more and more vicious punishments for you...especially after the fight. And this last time, Celestia...” the Sun shook her head. “If Twilight Sparkle had not come, and I hadn't seen an opportunity to torture you a little bit, no matter what she decided to do...”

Celestia said nothing, taken completely off-balance.

“She came for you. She loves you, despite what you did to her...” the Sun shook her head. “And she had the strength to move past what you'd done to her because she could accept you'd done it to her in pain. She really is somepony special.”

“I've always thought so,” Celestia replied, weakly.

“It's the Magic of Friendship that gives her this strength?”

“Yes.” Celestia took a deep breath, and steadied her voice. “The true magic, that comes from the understanding that real friendship is not just about sharing happiness—which is easy—but about sharing other ponies' troubles and pains, taking them as your own, and by doing so, helping your friends overcome their struggles so that there is more joy overall...” Celestia's heart swelled with pride. “Twilight Sparkle is the true master of the Magic of Friendship.”

The Sun smiled, in an awkward, self-conscious way. “It is a powerful magic, indeed...strong enough to move the Sun, it turns out.” She cleared her throat and set her face in a cocky grin. “That's a good line, if I say so myself.”

Celestia laughed—actually laughed!–at this. It was a wild laugh, born deep inside her, which leapt up her throat and burst out of her, unrestrained and unrefined, a powerful surge of relief and amusement overwhelming her now totally expended self-restraint. “It is! It really is,” she said, as she settled down.

“Celestia...I'm not as strong as Twilight Sparkle,” the Sun said, seriously, but she was still smiling, just a little. Celestia met her gaze, and there was still pain and wariness in it, but there was also a fierce determination. “I can't forgive you. I just...can't, the way she did.”

“I wouldn't ask you to. I couldn't...” Celestia said, her mirth fading quickly.

“I thought about...what she really said. And you should, too,” the Sun added, quickly. “She didn't just forgive you. The thing she said was that...you two needed to just stop. Stop the hurt. Stop letting all the mistakes get in the way. And that's...” she trailed off.

Celestia let her think, for awhile; speak, in her own time.

“It made me think about what the point of punishment should be,” the Sun said, eventually. “Especially between you and I. For so long, I wanted to hurt and scare you, just as you've hurt and frightened me...” she smiled lamely. “But Twilight's helped me understand that you've been in constant pain—"

“Nothing, nothing compared to you—” Celestia said, quickly.

“Too right,” the Sun said. “But that's...that's not really important, right now. The point is that we both hurt, not which of us hurt more. It's hard for me to let go of my anger, Celestia, but...we're going to be together for a long time. A thousand years is like a day in a month to us. And frankly...” The Sun sighed, wistfully, and looked away into the sun as it sank into the horizon. “It occurred to me that if we spent the rest of that time at each other's throats...that would just be constant misery for both of us.” She turned to Celestia, looking fierce, daring her to take what she was about to say the wrong way. “And...as much as I hated you...I've missed you, so much. I've missed being your friend...”

“I...” Celestia began, her eyes welling with tears.

The Sun shook her head, irritably. “It just made me hate you more, Celestia. I hated how much I still cared about you...but now I understand why I did. I've always known, deep down, that you acted out of pain and fear. That doesn't make what happened forgivable, but...it gives us a chance, now. I can't just forgive you. I'm still so angry. So I want to take some time apart. To rest, and to try to let go.”

Celestia blinked. “And I will spend time as a mortal pony--”

“No, you'll spend time learning your place,” The Sun said, firmly. “This is punishment, Celestia—you tried to be the Sun. You're not. So you'll live out a mortal life, growing old, powerless to do anything but watch the things you love wither and die around you...” She stepped forward, giving Celestia a very serious gaze. “But it is my hope that this time, you'll find the strength to accept this pain, Celestia. The pain of being. The pain of change. Not try to hide from it by removing yourself, as you tried to. I want you to learn to be a part of everything, knowing that you will have to watch it grow old and transition...so that you can remember it as it was and share that memory with the future. The things you love, no matter how temporary, can know something of immortality...”

Celestia gave the Sun a wry grin, but she was still weeping relieved, grateful tears. “So...will I, what, be born to some poor ponies, somewhere, to learn this lesson? That would be typically mythical. A humble, unassuming life of simplicity, until you return and I ascend once again, with this new wisdom...”

The Sun chuckled. “The thought did occur to me,” she said, shrugging. “But...I feel like I have obligations to somepony else.”

“Twilight...” Celestia whispered, unhidden hope strangling her voice.

“She gave me strength, too, Celestia. And she never treated me as a villain, even though I was going to rob her of you...her wisdom and courage deserve to be rewarded, even if I'm just burdening her with a very hurt pony.” The Sun was tearing up, now, too. “And having watched you all this time, and then when you were talking to Twilight just now...I think you wore that mask for so long that you forgot who Celestia is. The Celestia who used to tell me stories about her adventures, and about all the ponies she knew...”

Celestia took a step forward, and to their mutual surprise and quiet joy, the Sun didn't shy from her. Gently, very tentatively, they touched their heads to one another's necks, a very chaste and reserved expression of affection that, for all that, was the most intense moment of emotion that had ever passed between them.

The Sun sniffed. “Let Twilight help you remember that pony, Celestia. Let her teach you the strength to live in the world, moving with it rather than trying to be an unchanging center. I know...it must be very frightening...”

“But it's my purpose,” Celestia whispered. “I understand that better, now.”

The Sun stepped back, nodding. “Yes, it is. And when I return...we'll see where we are. I'll never forget what you've done. But...I am strong enough now to say that we need to just let the cycle of pain stop. Any punishment I dreamed up would just be petty revenge, which would only breed more hatred and resentment. But this...you need to learn to accept your place in things, so that what happened never happens again. That will be hard enough for you, I think. And now, after everything, I think you understand how much your errors have hurt you and everypony else...”

“Yes,” Celestia murmured. “But still...you're showing me much more—”

“Not me. If it had just been me, I promise, you would have had to endure centuries of every torture I could have dreamed up.” The Sun looked at Celestia seriously. “Twilight Sparkle saved you. She saved us from an eternity of pain, constantly at each other's throats. So I'd start kissing her hooves the second you show up, hmm? For both of us,” she added.

“Oh, without question,” Celestia said. A moment passed between them, where they didn't speak, or think, but instead held a little, tentative pause, feeling the rift between them beginning to heal. That wound would scar, yes—but it wouldn't lie open and fester, turning gangrenous and deadly, now.

“Things won't be the same between us, as they were,” the Sun said, quietly.

Celestia shook her head. “Of course not.”

“Listen,” the Sun said, seriously. “I'm...”

“Things will change. They'll be different,” Celestia said, Twilight's words feeling very strange and alien in her mouth. She said them, anyways, hoping that they would become more familiar with time, and use, and trust. “But we have to try to change them for the best...”

“I'm not sure what the best is, yet.” The Sun sighed. “But with you running around in the world, I can rest more deeply than I can otherwise. Recover faster, and more thoroughly. You'll have a long lifetime, Celestia, to try to learn what you must, and when I return, we will...speak. And see how things want to be, between us.”

Celestia opened her mouth to speak...and paused.

She almost said: “That's more than fair.” But of course it was—this, all of this, was just as Twilight had said it was. Huge, monstrous, so big and complex that it transcended ideas of what was fair and had to be dealt with in terms of what needs to happen, and be moved on from.

She almost said: “When I came here, I expected...” As if anything she said to complete that thought would please the Sun, who for all that she was reaching out, was also clearly hanging onto this decision with her teeth. Trying to flatter somepony who was so obviously conflicted about what they were doing was risky, and more importantly, an insult to their decision to act against their immediate instinct.

She almost said: “I'm sure things will work out.” Because it was something to say, hollow and meaningless, just there to fill the silence with hopeful sounds.

There was only one thing to say, really.

“Thank you,” she breathed. “So much...”

The Sun held her gaze for a long, long moment, her face going through a long series of rather intense emotions, before she said: “If you want to thank me...then work for the change we want. Harmony between us, again, if not friendship.”

Celestia nodded.

“I don't know if we can be friends, ever again...but I know there can be peace. Give me time to rest, and you take this chance to learn your place in things...and we'll see what comes of it.”

“If my desire matters,” Celestia said, carefully, “It is my hope that one day...we can have something like friendship again. But I know that day will be a very long time in coming.”

The Sun walked up to Celestia, their faces separated by inches. She spoke quietly, and without rancor—for a moment, she was that happy, innocent creature she had once been. “Me too,” she said, and then stepped back, face firming. “But as you say, that is a long, long way off.”

“That is another thing I have to suffer for my mistakes, then,” Celestia said, acting on a sudden impulse. She was momentarily frightened, worried that the Sun would take this as an empty nothing; it had leapt out of her, a truth that did not wish to remain concealed. She, too, missed the Sun dearly, and always had.

“Is that so?” the Sun said, quietly. “Well, then...I'll...keep it in mind,” she finished, a little lamely. Celestia got the impression that even the Sun wouldn’t have been able to say how she felt about this statement, at the moment. The Sun stepped back a little. “I think we understand each other better, now, than we ever have. And I...am willing to try to work this out.” She reached out with a hoof. “Are you?”

Celestia stepped forward, lifting a hoof in return, presenting it in a gesture of acceptance. As they touched, bright light swirled around them, and magical power—the deep, primal power of the Sun—surged into them both. “Yes. Without question.”

“Then live, Celestia, and learn,” the Sun said, seriously, as the shoreline vanished from sight, everything around them consumed in a blazing whiteness. “Let Twilight Sparkle teach you to love the world again, as you wanted her to.”

“I will,” Celestia said, blinking grateful tears out of her eyes.

The Sun smiled. “And give her this, from me,” she said, a little sheepishly. She stretched forward and gave Celestia a quick peck on the cheek. “No matter what happens...the Sun will always shine happily on her, for what she has done.”

The little kiss was warm, even after the Sun pulled away; the warmth bloomed and spread across Celestia's body swiftly. She looked down at the outstretched hoof, seeing herself surrounded in glowing, golden power.

“And just because I like you so much, I'm letting you keep the wings,” the Sun said, her voice sounding weirdly distorted and distant. “I know how much you love flying...”

Then all was whiteness, and furious power, and a strange sense of absence

~(E)~

Celestia's voice was smaller, now, somehow. Twilight still found it a little strange; after all, it was still the same pleasant voice that she'd been hearing since she was a filly. Something was absent, in it, though—that sense, she always got from Celestia until recent events, of a deep, inner serenity, a peace, a surety and confidence that transcended the self and was tied to her immortal grace.

Now it was as fraught with background nervousness as any voice she'd ever heard—her own included. Perhaps it was bad, but that more than anything else was helping Twilight get used to this whole idea—and made every moment with the pegasus seem...real.

It was still her—there was something in her eyes that made anyone who was familiar with her sure it was Celestia. That said, to test how recognizable she was, they had walked the pegasus through the halls of Canterlot and nopony seemed to know or acknowledge her; they'd only ever seen the Princess, never Celestia. The guards had even been a bit suspicious of her as they retrieved Philhelmina from the princess' study, which Celestia had found extremely funny for some reason.

She was tall, and of medium build, for a pegasus; not quite as dainty and petite as Fluttershy, nor as athletic as Rainbow Dash. Her coat was a rather dull white, where it had always seemed silvery and slightly iridescent before, and like Dash, her mane was bright and multicolored. It wasn't the teal and blue and purple it had been; instead, it was gold, and red, and violet, like the setting sun that was emblazoned on her flanks, half-hidden behind an arc of horizon.

They hadn't decided on a name yet, but something would come up, in time.

Twilight watched her as she turned and approached the unicorn. There was something of her former grace in the way she moved, but it no longer seemed ethereal and otherworldly; it was just that she had really, really nice legs—

Twilight cleared her throat. “I have to say...this upsets everything terribly,” she said, a little teasing in her voice. “We got everypony completely wound up about you leaving—dying, in a sense—and now you're moving into the guest bedroom. Consternation abounds.”

Celestia sighed theatrically. “It pains me to be such an inconvenience.”

“Oh, well...I'm sure Spike won't mind having somepony around to help him with the chores...”

“Chores!” Celestia declared, happily. Twilight laughed, shaking her head, making the pegasus grin in faux-embarrassment. “Is that so strange, Twilight? I haven't done my own housework in centuries...”

“You can have mine, too, if you like,” Twilight replied. “Come on, everypony's waiting for us...”

They walked back through the Great Hall, where Luna was still fielding questions from the assembled court. They caught her eye, and she gave them a knowing wink in reply to their broad, loving smiles, causing a flurry of rumors to blossom as everypony anywhere near the back of the Hall tried to claim that the wink had been for them.

Luna had realized something was wrong almost immediately, down in the heart of the mountain under the Ivory Tower. She and Twilight had shared a terrified moment, their minds immediately constructing a million possibilities, each more dreadful and heartbreaking than the last...and then there had been a gentle knocking on the stone doors, which were still huge and solid despite receiving the tender and careful attentions of Rainbow Dash and Applejack's desperate anger in the recent past.

Twilight had rushed forwards, leaping from Luna's embrace, and thrown the doors open with a powerful surge of magic, and there she had been, smiling broadly, eyes wet with tears of fierce joy.

Not the princess...just Celestia.

There had been a little panicked moment as Luna and Twilight immediately feared that she had been stripped of her power forever—nothing as bad as what might have been, of course, but it would still have been something important to know right away. So Celestia had explained, there in the deep, protected heart of the earth, about the Sun's decision, and what Celestia needed to learn from Twilight.

She had said: “It is time for me to be your student, it seems...” and had met Luna's gaze with a smile. The memories, fond memories, of the two of them discussing Twilight's friendship reports as Luna readjusted to Equestria, seemed deeply amusing now.

Twilight had put a hoof on her shoulder and said, “No. Now I think it's time for you to be my friend.” It was a little silly, but they had smiled anyways.

They had smuggled her out of the tower by night, after most of the ponies who had been spying on that last little walk through the grounds had lost interest in watching the guards stand around, but there were still a few privileged ponies who had some clue of what the story was about this new pegasus. A couple of guards received some...accelerated promotions in return for their discretion and the promise of future consideration if they managed not to think too hard about what they'd been ordered to do that night.

And of course, the Elements of Harmony and Spike were immediately in the know, their relief and joy overwhelming, their excitement at the prospect of having Celestia join them in Ponyville indescribable. If Celestia had feared that her reluctance to grow close to them before would be reflected onto her now, she was happily incorrect. There had been some discussion about what was going on, and there would be more in the future, but for now...

There was relief, and joy, and hope. It wouldn't last forever, but after all the stress and fear, it was the best medicine for everypony's tired, wounded hearts.

And for her part, Luna had been drunk on that relief. She and Celestia had conferred privately for a short time, but their brief glances to Twilight when they returned from their seclusion in Luna's chambers suggested that most of it had involved un-princesslike displays of affection and jubilation, as the dreadful threat of another thousand years of separation was so soundly dispelled.

They would be apart, yes...but only by so much. Enough that there was room for Luna to grow, and for Celestia to relax, and for their relationship to transition to its next stage smoothly; much better than yet another princess being hurled out of a world she knew and, after a long absence, arriving in a place that was as foreign to her as the bottom of the sea is to a pegasus.

So much had happened. So much would happen, now, Twilight supposed, as she and Celestia left the Hall, Luna's gaze turning reluctantly away from them to Fancypants, who began a long question about something that Twilight immediately, instinctively, realized she had absolutely no interest in whatsoever.

“I can't believe how much has changed. Everything seems new to me...” Celestia murmured, next to her, as they walked down the receiving hall towards the antechamber. She chuckled, weakly. “That sounds so silly.”

“No, not at all,” Twilight said, absently, giving her a gentle smile.

Celestia sighed. “It all started with those letters...that seems so long ago, now. But it was, what, four or five days? A week? And now...” She paused, and made a show of looking down at herself in surprise. “Now Luna's Princess, and I'm off to Ponyville with you...”

“Dreams,” Twilight said, reflectively, remembering her rueful thought as she penned that last letter, which had started this whole affair. “Dreams are coming true all over the place.”

“We did have tea in my study,” Celestia said, nodding sagely. “So you'll have to think of something else, now, I think...”

Twilight grinned widely, shaking her head. Celestia was turning out to be a little more sarcastic and playful than she might have guessed. The former princess had even joined Rarity and Applejack in teasing Rainbow Dash, treating the story of recent events with Spitfire as a huge scandal and reacting to the story of the Elements' failed attempt to escape imprisonment with exaggerated expressions of shock.

She had been having fun, with her friends; not thinking of them as anything but other ponies to share some time with, not trying to lead or guide or watch from a little distance. Twilight had teared up a little, when she realized it; Celestia, catching her eye, had suddenly become extremely reflective, a joyful smile spreading on her face briefly before Rarity whispered something to her that she found extremely funny.

“That's not what that dream meant, as you well know,” Twilight said, playing the straight pony—she had long ago accepted that she was cursed to be so, forever.

“Yes, yes...” Celestia said, smiling lazily, as if that vision hadn't been one of the most tremendously important things in both their lives. Twilight scoffed at this, making Celestia's smile get a little broader for a moment.

They continued in happy silence for some time, moving with purpose but without haste. Before too long, they were at the stairs down to the grounds, which lead out of the Castle and into town, where the train to Ponyville and their friends awaited them.

Twilight paused at the top of the stairs, her face a little worried.

Celestia, a couple stairs down already, turned and looked up at her. “What is it?”

“It's just...this is a big change...” Twilight said, cautiously. “I mean, there's still a lot unresolved between us. Issues. And I'm sure more of them will crop up. I mean, you may be a pegasus now, but you're still, you know...who you are. And that means being who you were, too. It's going to be...weird.”

Celestia grinned at this latest display of Twilight conscientiously trying to sense every possible negative outcome, no matter how remote the chance or distant the timeframe. “Well...yes, I suppose so. But...”

She paused, looking around herself. In a different life, Canterlot was as familiar as the face she had seen in every mirror for a thousand years; now, much like the face that she was wearing, it was a little strange—unfamiliar, in a weird way she couldn't place. Certainly she wasn't as magically connected to it as she had been, but...personally, too, the place seemed apart from her.

This wasn't who she had to be anymore, she realized, thinking of the Sun describing the mask and her responsibilities in the world as something she had built around herself, avoiding her real purpose in the world; much like Canterlot had been a fortress of her solitude both in her mind and waking life.

Now, she was being given a chance to free herself from all that.

Celestia turned back to Twilight, grinning. “A very clever pony told me, recently, that we have to chase the change we want in the world, because change comes whether we want to or not. And we have a lifetime, now, to pursue whatever change we can dream of...” Celestia forced her face to become solemn, as if she doubted the answer to the rest of her statement even for a second. “If that's still something you're still interested in doing.”

Twilight didn't even bother responding; she just let her fretsome look fall into a relieved sort of sigh and began descending the stairs. Celestia fell into step beside her, humming happily to herself, and they shared a brief, affectionate glance.

And so, they walked into whatever awaited them in the future...together.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!