• Published 3rd Jan 2012
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Eternal - device heretic



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

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III. Dooms and Prophecies

III. DOOMS AND PROPHECIES

Discord’s Prophecy + Sobriety + A Little Distance + Luna’s Anxiety + Why Twilight? + The Loyal Assistant + Moving Through the World + Overshadowed + Celestia’s Madness + The Glory of the Sun + Where the Pattern Leads + A Moment + Discord’s Vengeance

~(E)~

“Don’t worry, Princess. We won’t let you down!”

With that, Twilight and her friends charged off to the Palace Labyrinth, Discord’s laughter echoing through the Hall of Records behind them.

Celestia watched them go, heart in her throat. This would be another trial where Twilight and her friends would face a peril that had nearly claimed Celestia herself, long ago, but the Elements of Harmony were the only thing that could help them now.

But she knew her old foe quite well; she had never let herself forget. Celestia waited for the laughter to stop ringing in the hall, frowning at thin air, eyes shut. “They’ll be at the labyrinth in no time at all, you know. Say what you’re going to say.”

Discord, as mangled and horrific-looking as he ever had been, slithered into existence before her, whirling into being from thin air. “My lady,” he said, bowing deeply. “I must say you’re looking…different, these days.” She shuddered as he ran a clawed hand through her flowing mane. “I like it; very…colorful.”

Celestia let him prowl around her, watching him with deep suspicion. “What are you planning?”

“Oh, stop that,” Discord said with a wave. “You know very well I’m not going to tell you. Full marks for the imposing queen act, though, very well done. Alas, though,” he said, affecting a pose of deep, deep despair, “As you have probably already guessed, I am still quite weak from my lengthy imprisonment. Rains of chocolate milk are far from the of the sorts of nonsense I can get up to normally,” he said, his tone growing malicious, “As you well know.”

“Twilight will deal with you in no time at all, then,” Celestia said, harshly. Memories of Discord’s full power lashed at her mind. So much fire, so much chaos

Discord backstroked through the air, clicking his tongue reproachfully. “You know, I was actually disappointed that I wouldn’t get to play with you again. But now I see you’re so much less fun. You’ve let that fire in your belly burn out. Dull, dull, dull!” His mad eyes bored into her. “You seem tired, Celestia.”

Celestia gave him a haughty sneer. “Do I?”

“’Heavy is the weight on the head that wears the crown’, perhaps?” Discord cackled. “Ah, such a shame. But your little ponies seem to have some spirit, at least. Especially that little protégé of yours…so proud, so…loyal. Very powerful, too, I’ve no doubt.” Discord sneered mockingly. “I’ll enjoy breaking her,” he snarled, the mask of amiable, almost friendly lunacy dropping away into a maelstrom of teeth and fury. Here again was the creature out of nightmare, the mad thing that existed to do nothing but cause pain and misery to match its own misbegotten existence.

“You will not.”

“Oh? Will I not?” he crooned.

“You will not—“ Celestia bit back the words, looking away from her old foe irritably. A little flash of terror had loosed her rigid self-control, an all-too-vivid image of Twilight, ensorcelled, her will broken and her spirit dulled by Discord’s malign influence flashing through her imagination like wildfire.

Discord howled with laughter. “There’s that fire I remember!” He rolled and pirouetted in midair, gleefully. “The face behind the queenly mask is worn indeed if a little jab like that is all it takes to get at you, now.”

Celestia gave him an acid look. “I will enjoy passing you in the statuary, once you are imprisoned once again,” she said, icily. “I’ll admit some pettiness, and confess that comparing your face now to the cringing wreck you’re bound to end up as will be very satisfying.”

“Mmmm, I’m sure,” Discord purred, looking bored. “Do you know, this conversation has been a real pleasure. I find I no longer care if I win or lose—because no matter what happens, I can smell doom on you, Celestia. A thousand years is a long time to hold a grudge, and I was never that sane to begin with,” he said, his tone cool and collected but his eyes blazing with fury. “It’s almost enough for me to see that your armor is battered, your mask is slipping…I can see it crushing that proud, proud heart of yours.”

As he spoke, he lost control of his voice, which became more and more filled with a mad, gleeful joy, eyes lit with all-consuming hatred. “And I know your weakness,” he gloated. “I look forward to making her dance in front of you, even if you and your wretched sister are pointing the Elements at me as I start the tune. Oblivion will be worth it, just to watch you break as you see what remains of Twilight Sparkle when I’m finished with her.” His face hovered inches from hers, his eyes wild with spite and rage.

“You will never get the chance,” Celestia said, too aware of the little tremble in her voice. “Twilight and her friends will defeat you.”

Discord’s look of hate broke into a broad grin. With a suddenness that stunned Celestia with terror, his head darted forward and he planted a kiss on her forehead. “I haven’t even gotten to the best part,” he whispered in her ear, almost gently, rolling around behind her in the air. “The best part is that even if you’re right, and I fail completely and utterly, and your faithful student overcomes me immediately—which won’t happen, incidentally—I’ve had the true pleasure of discovering that if I don’t break you…you’ll willingly destroy yourself.”

Celestia rounded on him. “What are you talking about?” she demanded.

“You don’t know?” The mad creature howled with laughter. “Or perhaps you think not admitting it will make it go away..? Ah, my dear Celestia,” Discord said, flying around her slowly, his voice a poisonous hiss. “It’s all so deliciously ironic that I’m inclined to let it happen anyways. You know, I just might! Ha!” He leapt into the air before her. “Looks like your little ponies have arrived—in the wrong place, of course, since they didn’t stop and think. See you in the funny pages,” he said, blowing her a kiss. With a snap of his claws, he vanished.

Celestia rushed over to the window and looked down to the grounds. The draconequus was floating invisibly behind Twilight and her friends, no doubt mocking them with some nonsense task that would inevitably lead nowhere. He was fond of his little games. Celestia just had to trust that Twilight and her friends’ bond was strong enough to break through his deceptions—

Even as she thought this, her chest tightened painfully and she had to suppress the urge to sob. She was trembling.

Deep breaths. In…and out. Relax. Everything was alright. Don’t let them see you bleeding—

The door to the hall slammed open, and Luna strode in flanked by two guards. “Sister!” she declared. “Was that—here!?"

“Yes,” Celestia said, glad her back was to Luna. In the wake of her terror, she felt completely drained. She just wanted to rest.

Luna’s face fell into a look of horrified shock, but she rallied quickly. “We shall summon the guard—“ she said, slipping into the Royal Canterlot Voice in her anxiety.

“Don’t worry, Luna,” Celestia said, drowsily. “Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are already dealing with the situation.” She turned to her sister, weariness almost physically pressing down on her. “They have…they can deal with it.”

“You…you’re sure, sister? Mayhap if we went to their aid…”

Celestia wandered to the central dais and collapsed, eyes half-open as exhaustion rolled into the space in her head so recently occupied by terror. Twilight was a gap in her armor, no mystery there…but she was also the most intelligent and capable pony Celestia could name.

“Everything…will be fine, Luna.” Celestia sighed heavily. “We’ll just monitor the situation…might need a little help later…”

“Sister? Sister! Art thou wounded?” Luna rushed to her sister’s side, her face a portrait of terror. Her guards shuffled their feet awkwardly.

“Just…tired,” Celestia mumbled. “I feel like…I haven’t had a rest…in…a lifetime,” she added between yawns.

Luna sputtered. “But what of Discord? Surely he can’t be allowed to—“

“Trust Twilight,” Celestia said, sleep overtaking her. “That’s…what I do.”

~(E)~

Twilight and Rarity trotted up to the door of the library—her library, now…she’d never get used to that. Wizards were supposed to have towers, weren’t they?

It had gone perfectly. Even the Princess had said so, and Luna had been so impressed, in the sulky way she had when someone took her by surprise—like Rainbow Dash and all other incorrigible pranksters (with the notable exception of Pinkie Pie), she didn't find being on the wrong end of the joke much fun. Through the haze of one—okay, three—too many, Twilight smiled a gleeful grin that extended through her whole body, warming her from forehead to fetlock.

This was sure to set her chat with the Princess off on the right foot. Everything would be fine, if she just kept a smile on her face and her head in the game. She could sit down, and they could talk it out like rational ponies, and now the Princess had seen she was still working hard, still dutiful, still talented, just like she had been that fateful day in the South Tower—the day of that first Rainboom.

“Oh, Twilight, daaaaaarling,” Rarity slurred, despite herself. “You really outdid yourself…”

“I’was nothing, i’was nothing,” Twilight said, repeating herself as she bobbed her head up and down. It made everything flow around her in a funny way, and she giggled stupidly.

Next to her Rarity snickered and pointed, unable to form a coherent word. Their delusional happiness had as much to do with residual joy from the wedding, adrenaline and endorphins flooding their brains with thought-melting neurochemical glee, as it did with the Apple family’s extremely good cider.

“Shhhhhh,” Twilight hissed, suddenly. “The pernsis!”

“The pernsis,” Rarity snickered.

“Shh!” Twilight hushed harshly. Rarity snickered at her, hoof over her face.

After two tries, Twilight opened the door and they entered, Twilight hushing Rarity every other step, eliciting another set of giggles from the unusually frizzled-looking unicorn. The owl, Owloysius, hooted at her insistently as she walked in.

“Ah! Wuzzat!” Twilight cried, waving her hooves in front of her. “Oh…’s just t’owl…”

“An owl!” Rarity’s hooves slapped over her face and she turned red. Owloysius gave her what, for an owl, was a cool look, turning his head around until it looked like it would spin off and staring at her, eyes wide open. Rarity seemed like she would start hyperventilating any second.

“Stay here,” Twilight said, sitting the trembling Rarity down in a chair. “I’m gonna check on the princess.” Rarity waved her away, struggling to contain herself.

Twilight wandered up the stairs, reflecting that this, very possibly, had been the best night ever they had always dreamed of. And tomorrow, after taking care of some cleanup from the wedding, she’d sit down with Princess Celestia and they could sort things out, and everything would be great again.

Definitely.

She opened the door to her study carefully—

And stared.

~(E)~

Celestia stared out into the first snatches of sunrise over Canterlot from the balcony off her study. The towers and canopies of the elaborate castle were cast black against the golden-red sky. Some might call it a bit…cowardly, but she was privately glad to be here—physically, if not mentally, distant from the painful memory of Twilight’s eyes looking up at her in joy as, once again, her mentor graced her with an evaluation of her spectacular achievements.

The princess had not stayed at the wedding much longer than she had to—which, nobless oblige—was far too long indeed. The faces of nobleponies, slurring weirdly thanks to careless indulgence in the Apple Family’s best (“Apple Family 100% Down-Home Old-Time Country Cider: It’s A Buck in the Head!”), blurred together in her memory as if she, too, had been drunk, their self-important gabbling all so much noise. Her ears and eyes had been preoccupied with the sights and sounds of Twilight, mask of dignity long cast aside, celebrating with her friends…now that she had permission.

Even the words forming in her mind made her stomach heave with guilt.

Their eyes had met again, through the crowd, as the six friends raised a toast to ‘Futtersly’s fyushurr happinesh’, and the thankfulness there had been almost unbearable. Celestia had summoned all her remaining willpower to gracefully extricate herself from Lord Flashhooves and approach the wedding party to excuse herself. She had given each of them a bright smile before she left, almost having to exert individual control over each of the muscles in her face as Twilght beamed at her.

Celestia only vaguely recalled returning to Canterlot—

No, that wasn’t quite…true. She had no memory of returning to Canterlot…just a memory of staring at Twilight’s bed in an agony of shame, her skin crawling as she felt unworthy of Twilight’s hospitality. But the trouble with supreme cosmic powers is that they tended to do things for you, and things got a little confused sometimes…

Her head fell.

Oh, Twilight…what have I done to you, my most precious stu—

No! No!

It took quite a lot of effort to keep herself under control, this time. She wanted to howl her rage and self-loathing to the dawning sun. Let all of Canterlot hear their Princess’ despair and sorrow!

Her mind went wild with guilt, flailing hopelessly for some happy memory to comfort herself, but all that came were thoughts of Twilight—Twilight smiling; Twilight giving her smug little smile of self-assurance as she lectured; Twilight’s face set and determined as she raced off to save Equestria again— each memory lashing against her, a reminder of what she had done, and the wonderful mare she had done it to.

Celestia’s breaths became labored, even as she sat quietly in the balcony, looking outwards.

“So you see how it is, then,” Luna said, quietly, from a deep shadow.

Celestia hadn’t noticed her appearing, but there was no threat in her sister. She didn’t even turn to look at her. “You have known for some time, I take it.”

Silence reigned for a moment. “Yes,” Luna said, subdued. “Twilight is, after all, one of my closest friends.”

“You might have said something earlier.” Celestia’s voice was calm, almost toneless, and her expression was blank. “Instead of playing your little games.”

Luna’s expression hardened a little. “Would you have wanted to hear it? Or understood? This is something you needed to discover for yourself.”

Celestia sighed. “I suppose you’re right,” she murmured, turning her head just slightly over her shoulder.

The princess of the moon wandered out onto the balcony next to her sister. “You’re going to speak with her soon, I take it.”

“Mmm. Today, I should think…I have no desire for this to last any longer. Especially now…” she looked away towards Ponyville, heart throbbing hugely in her chest. “So much worse than I had thought.”

“Have you thought about what you’re going to say?”

Celestia sat silently for a long time. “I’ve…given it some thought, yes,” she said, eventually. “But I want to get some more information, first.”

Luna nodded. “A wise course of action.”

The princesses sat in silence for awhile, Celestia mulling over what to ask or say next while Luna shifted closer to her and nuzzled her gently.

“Thank you, Luna,” Celestia whispered.

Luna hummed affectionately, and looked around. “May I ask why we’re in Canterlot? Wanted to feel a bit removed from things, perhaps?”

Celestia looked down at her, puzzled. “Why wouldn’t we be in Canterlot?”

Luna looked up at her sister in shock. “Well, I’m in Canterlot,” she said, naked anxiety suddenly thick in her voice. “You’re in Ponyville yet—“

Celestia stiffened. “What?”

“Sister…you…didn’t know this was a dream?” Luna looked up at Celestia in shock.

“I…” Celestia looked around. “You’re kidding,” she said, dumbfounded.

Luna looked up, concentrating. The sun sunk back beneath the horizon, dousing the world in night, stars twinkling merrily overhead. The towers of Canterlot dissolved and flowed, eye-wateringly, into a long, endless field of knee-high grass, under a starlit sky.

Celestia gazed at the familiar dreamscape in fascination. No wonder she didn’t remember coming back to Canterlot—she must have fallen asleep on Twilight’s floor in Ponyville.

Which was a problem of its own, but not the most immediate one.

“I…must have dozed off,” Celestia said. “I…”

“Dozed off? You only have need to sleep once a week, sister, I doubt you were overtired.” Luna, once again full and regal in the height of her power, looked to her sister with a serious expression. “We both know what happened.”

You’re getting tired, Celestia…

Thoughts, memories, words unbidden…all rose to the forefront of her mind once again.

Life as a statue in the palace garden was too good for Discord, she thought, a savage growl in the privacy of her mind. Typical of the wretched creature, even in defeat he had managed to re-open old wounds and spread the disharmony he so reveled in—an ancient wound, in fact, that was just starting to re-knit.

Luna’s monthly cycle of waxing and waning was a necessary part of her role as the Princess of the Moon; she reflected the moon’s influence on the flows and tides of magic. In waning times her dream magic strengthened while her waking magic grew weaker; at new moon (and this was a deeply, deeply held secret) she was little more powerful than a talented unicorn in the real world. At full moon her waking powers were strong enough to warp reality by forcing dreams into the waking world, but her powers in the dream realm to influence the course of dreams, or enter the dreams of somepony trying to keep her out, faded.

This inevitability, and the emotional changes that came with it, was part of what gave her a reputation as mercurial and temperamental, beyond her own inclination to be that way in any case. Luna made a great deal of how it was important to the core of her being…which is why the issue of Celestia’s compliance with her own cycle was so contentious between them.

The sun rose and set, once a day, every day. And in turn, so had Celestia.

Not literally every day, of course—she had done it…six or seven times, in the ancient past, renewing herself and rising once more, not unlike Philhelmina.

But not anymore.

It had been at the core of the disagreement that had led to the Nightmare—Luna, terrified to see Celestia’s dawn-pink mane begin its transition to its current, multihued glory, had tried to force Celestia to concede royal authority and set, for a time.

This had happened right after the war with Discord had ended, and Equestria was still in disarray. Celestia had tried to keep the matter private, tried to convince her sister that the need to set was not as pressing as Luna believed it to be…but then the moon had refused to give way to the sun, as Luna euphemistically put it; Celestia’s choice was made for her.

In the necessity of her position, though, she changed; no longer the rose-pink Princess of the Rising Sun, she had—reluctantly, it must be said—embraced her essential immortal nature as the Eternal Sun, shining alone above Equestria.

When Luna had been freed from the Nightmare, Celestia had explained to her that yes, she had changed; but not for the worse. She was still powerful, not diminished in any way, and was still Celestia, her loving sister.

Luna’s eyes had merely lingered warily on the flowing colors and remained silent. The sisters did not speak of it again until Celestia’s weariness overtook her in front of Discord, but even before then the elder sister had caught Luna’s eyes glancing, a little fearfully, to her billowing, multihued mane…

Discord. Wretched, wretched creature. Celestia resolved to give the statue a little kick when she next passed it by.

When Luna had finally worked up the courage to approach her, there had not been an argument. It had just been a quiet insistence that Celestia think about her health: comparisons—inapplicable ones, in Celestia’s opinion—with her own waxing and waning in time with the moon.

And, at the end, a gentle reminder that Luna was dedicated to proving herself worthy of the title of Princess…in every way.

Perhaps Celestia should have taken pleasure in the lack of open argument, but…that was how it had started all those centuries ago, too. And despite her best efforts, Discord’s mocking prophecy lingered in her mind.

I smell doom on you, Celestia. Your days are numbered…You’ll destroy yourself.

With Luna, again, perhaps…his little revenge from the last war. Did he think that Celestia would allow the Nightmare to return? If so, he was more deluded than ever.

“It’s…getting worse, isn’t it,” Luna said, watching the snatches of images roiling around her sister’s dreamscape with concern. An image of Nightmare Moon had flashed, darkly, across the sky, all rage and savage laughter, swirling weirdly into a snarling vision of Discord’s leering grin.

“I’ve told you this many times before, Luna, the fatigue just…gets worse from time to time. It passes.” Celestia shook her head irritably. “The problems with Twilight are just wearing on me.”

Luna stepped closer again, reaching out with a hoof. “It’s alright to be frightened, sister—“

“I’m not frightened,” Celestia said, firmly.

Luna stepped back, frowning just slightly.

Celestia closed her eyes, slowly, and opened them again. “I am…concerned, as I always am when this happens. It is an annoyance, at the very worst. Something to…bear in mind. You overestimate its importance because you have not seen me enduring it for the last thousand years.”

The younger princess gave her sister an extremely cool look, holding her gaze for a time. Celestia responded with as a look as firmly blank as she could manage.

Two kicks, she decided. Cursed wretch

“What information are you going to seek out about Twilight before you speak with her?” Luna asked, her eyes adding that politely changing the subject did not mean she had dropped it for good.

“Whatever can be learned,” Celestia replied, sorting her face into an expression of noble patience.

“And who will you speak to?”

Celestia sighed. “To be honest,” she said, mildly, “To whomsoever my intuition guides me. It has been serving me well, lately.”

“Not very deliberate,” Luna said, a flicker of amusement grudgingly dragging its way back into her voice.

“What other choice do I have? Is there a systematic way to go about finding information that probably only resides in Twilight’s mind by asking everypony else?”

Luna looked away from her sister for a moment, towards a distant star. A sly grin spread across her face. “She’s asleep now, you know. I could have a look around, if you like.”

“I thought—“

“Oh, she dreams…she has such beautiful dreams. And terrible nightmares, as well.” Luna sighed, her grin fading. “She just doesn’t remember them.” A thought seemed to occur to her, which rekindled her amusement. “How many pillows did she go through?”

“What?”

“You know why she can’t remember her dreams, surely?” Celestia shook her head, making Luna chuckle. “You’ve trained her to suppress her magic while she sleeps.”

“Is that why? I had no idea.”

Luna gave her an odd half-shrug. “Part of why, anyway. She prevents herself from drifting far into the natural magic of the dream realm. I have offered, many times, to help her overcome this, but she always refuses—she frets about it while she lives in such a flammable place.”

“Ah, well…with Twilight, it wasn’t pillows—it was walls,” Celestia said, finding herself willing to handle the little jewel of pride despite its edges being made razor sharp by guilt. Above them, a little scene played, wherein a purple filly sputtered explanations to her mentor, who looked down benevolently at her as some unicorns began repairing a ten-foot blast in the side of the palace. “That was her first night in the castle,” Celestia said, sighing.

Luna looked impressed. “I see why you chose her to be your student,” she said.

This statement, uttered so casually, made Celestia extremely uncomfortable. The "student" issue, again, perhaps. “It’s not—it wasn’t about power.”

“Oh? Then what was it about..?”

Celestia’s heart skipped a beat.

Ah, the question. The question. The one she had never been able to adequately answer for herself, though it had been the subject of many hours of pensive reflection.

Twilight Sparkle was immensely powerful, yes…but no more so than a dozen others in the last millennium. Others, in fact, who had been presented to Celestia at court for that very reason, often with the explicit request that Celestia would take this young pony under her wing.

For one thing, Celestia had never liked being told what she ought to do—the prerogatives of royalty being useful now and again—but if she was completely honest, she had been uncomfortable with the idea of becoming so intimately involved in one pony at a time when the demands of ruling Equestria seemed so pressing. So those little ponies had been apprenticed to great practitioners of magic, or gone to the Academy with Celestia’s blessing and an occasional hoof up, and grown to be great wizards, or advisors or, in a couple notable cases, gigantic pains in the flanks.

Twilight Sparkle had been made something…more.

On a whim.

There was something to the idea that Elements of Harmony were guiding themselves to their true wielders, but even if that were the case, Celestia could have easily just kept an eye on Twilight at the Academy like she had so many others over the centuries—guiding them, gently, to special destinies, for the sake of Equestria. Certainly Twilight’s destiny—so to speak—was much greater than most—even if all she had done with her life was restore Luna, it was a legendary feat that Celestia would never allow to be forgotten so long as she lived, and Twilight had done as much and more several times over—but it did not require such…personal intervention.

But on that fateful day, the day of the Rainboom which had bound Twilight and her friends to their inevitable destiny as the wielders of the Elements and friends, Celestia had cradled that tiny filly, who looked up at her in terror as the storm of magical power drained away, and something inside the Princess made a decision.

A whim, which changed her life.

From that day forward, the little Twilight was a constant in the Sun Princess’ life. From filly to mare, pupil to protégé, student to…

“Sister?”

Celestia blinked. “I’m sorry, Luna.” She smiled weakly. “As you can imagine, that is something of an issue for me at the moment.”

Luna smiled back at her sheepishly. “You could flatter your sister,” she said, quietly, as if embarrassed, “and admit that you were a little lonely.”

Celestia stirred, feeling herself ache. Even in dreams, it seemed, the period of lethargy was biting. She nuzzled her sister gently. “Don’t be silly,” she said, fondly, “That would mean, for even a second, I thought I could replace you.”

There was a long pause where Luna snuggled her face into her sister. Celestia felt Luna give a husky chuckle. “You’re…far too good at that, sister.”

“What?”

“Finding really good ways not to answer questions. Even to yourself.” Luna pulled away from Celestia, looking a bit bashful yet. “I wish you luck, sister,” she said, and with a sly wink, faded into the night sky of the dream.

Celestia stood alone in the tall grass, staring into the distance, for an eternity. Everything seemed very far away.

~(E)~

Her eyes opened—her real eyes, this time.

Mid-morning sunlight poured into Twilight’s study through a little round window, filling the room with soupy radiance. Celestia took a slow, deep breath, and felt the remaining fatigue collect and pass out of her, as it had so many times before. She was in bed, uncovered, curled up naturally.

So, Twilight knew. Hmm. A problem for later, though.

Nothing had really been resolved in her discussion with Luna. Her anxieties had been stirred about, mixed together and been prevented from settling in her mind, which was probably for the best, in the long run, but in the now it was making her tense and jumpy.

She closed her eyes and, with the careless ease of routine, went through the little meditational exercise of stretching her legs and wings and neck, quietly and firmly, as she tried to let her mind empty of the little tangled knot of worries she was nursing so unhappily.

She focused on the sound of feathers drawn across one another as she stretched one wing, then the other—

“Oh, Princess, you’re up,” Spike’s voice rang through Celestia’s peaceful mind like a golden bell, bright and warm. Familiar. Comforting.

Celestia opened her eyes. The dragon—only little to her, now, and soon enough not even that—was standing in the doorway, looking pleased. “Good morning, Spike,” she said, calmly, letting the last stretch of her wing introduce the very smallest strain in her voice. “Are you well?”

“Er, yeah,” he replied, unconsciously touching his head. Celestia smiled. “How are you, Princess? Twilight and Rarity said they found you sprawled out on the floor last night,” he continued nervously.

Celestia let the little bolt of anxiety pass through her. Light through glass. Stay calm. “Did Twilight also mention that I found her in a similar position yesterday?” she said, letting the little teasing tone hanging on the end of her statement turn it into a neat deflection.

“Uh, no,” Spike said, tapping his foreclaws together. “Look, uh, we don’t actually have a guest bed, Twilight just kind of—“

“I know, Spike, I know,” Celestia said. “It was my fault, I think, surprising her like that the day before the wedding. A little rude of me, don’t you think?”

Spike gave her a strange expression. The more draconic he grew, the less she could read his face. “I think she hoped you would come,” he said.

Celestia smiled at him. “Of that, I have no doubt, Spike. I suppose I could have been more polite about it.”

The dragon looked a little relieved by this, and Celestia wondered why. “Anyways, uh…you’re okay, right?”

“Absolutely. Just…tired, I suppose.” Spike’s wary expression matched Luna’s too well. “It was a thrilling night, after all. Didn’t you think so?”

“Oh, yeah!” Spike said, excitedly. “Man, that was some crazy magic Twilight did, don’t you think, Princess?”

Celestia nodded. “Even Luna was impressed,” she said. “That doesn’t happen often.”

Spike waved his hands in the air wildly. “Bam! Zoom! Man, that was…I mean, I knew what was going to happen, but it was still amazing!” He gave her a conspiratorial look, wiggling his ‘eyebrows’ suggestively. “I was going to do something with fire breath, but when we showed Fluttershy she flew away and wouldn’t leave her house for an hour. I’m getting pretty good at it these days, you know.”

For some reason this made Celestia uncomfortable. Changes, changes… “I hope you’re careful,” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, quickly. He gave her a sidelong look, as if something was preying on his mind. “Twilight has been studying dragons, you know. It’s been really helpful…”

Something in his tone caught Celestia’s attention. “That’s the second time you’ve tried to advertise her to me, Spike. And you were doing it before, at Sweet Apple Acres, too.” She forced a chuckle. “Is something the matter?”

Spike gave her a blank look. “Uh…not if you don’t think so.”

Celestia’s smile faded, slowly, as Spike looked away from her, suddenly intensely interested in the floor. She sighed, closing her eyes, kicking herself for being so remote from the ever-loyal assistant. “I’m sorry, Spike. I should have been more open with you from the beginning…I know something’s wrong, Spike,” she said, as calmly as she could. “That’s why I’m here.”

“S…sorry, Princess,” the dragon said, bowing his head. He was actually sorry for upsetting her; it was excruciating.

“Oh, Spike.” Celestia reached out with a hoof and lifted his gaze to hers. “Don’t be, please.”

“This is like that thing with the reports,” he said, miserably. “But different.”

The princess smiled down at him. “I know. Come here.” Spike eagerly stepped forward and slipped into Celestia’s embrace, wrapping his scaly arms around her neck. She was momentarily surprised to find that they reached all the way around.

For his part, Spike wasn’t teary or visibly upset; he just wanted the comfort of a familiar and trusted embrace. In retrospect, she realized he had probably been keeping this close to his heart for a long time—just like Luna. The thought of her closest friends—her family—being wary of speaking to her about this was a lead weight in her stomach.

But it wasn’t entirely his fault…it wasn’t as if she had been making herself very available.

Celestia tightened her embrace, and was grateful when Spike gave her a squeeze in return. She felt hollow…and old.

Tired.

The thought made her stiffen, the memory of Luna’s cool glare too recent a wound to be totally ignored, even if her sister was talking about things she didn’t really understand.

“Shh,” she said, unthinking. “It’ll be okay.” To which of them this was addressed, she was not entirely sure.

~(E)~

It was a typical day in Ponyville—the city of Ponyville—and thus, it was entirely possible that there wouldn’t be a Ponyville come nightfall save for all the ponies running around keeping it vibrant and alive.

Ponyville was different than Canterlot, in that sense; the palace, and the eternal royalty there, was an anchor for Canterlot, which kept it busy and was a central focus of much of its activity. Ponyville, on the other hoof, was a city very involved in doing everything at once, young and vibrant, still growing. An adolescent city.

Celestia had gratefully accepted a small breakfast from Spike, who seemed much happier having expressed his worries, and left Twilight’s library quietly. Twilight was apparently still asleep in another room, on a real camp bed borrowed from Applejack this time around, and Spike insisted he’d look after her. It was his job, after all, he declared, proudly.

The princess had given him a beaming smile and taken her leave. Spike agreed that a day of relaxing in Ponyville before she and Twilight talked would do them both some good; Celestia got the impression that he was politely suggesting she give Twilight a little time to gather her thoughts after the momentous events of the previous day.

She found his love of Ponyville infectious, though. Spike had only ever really known the privacy of Twilight’s tower in Canterlot, save for a few of his favorite spots on the main plaza. He was unawed by the glitz and glamour of high pony society in faraway places, in a burgeoning draconic way, favoring instead a more territorial love of his home. He had grown here, with Ponyville, and was enthusiastic about everything that had changed. Rapid-fire he named off ten or twelve of his favorite shops and restaurants, amusements and entertainments of all kinds; he was a natural welcoming committee, effortless and breathless in his praise.

Despite herself, Celestia found herself enjoying the growth as well. It was probably healthy, given the level of heartbreak she was currently enduring.

“It is the sorrow of the long-lived to see something they love submit, inevitably, to change,” she murmured to herself as she wandered through a bustling street, merchant’s tents and storefronts chattering around her, “But their joy to watch them grow to fullness.”

What had that been about, anyways? It had been so long ago…

Oh, well.

She could not avoid attention, of course. Awed looks, stares, whispers…she was not so common a sight here that she went unremarked upon.

Was Luna equally unfamiliar, here?

The thought brought on a stab of guilt, even as she reflected that it was completely outside Luna’s character to go unremarked upon in any situation, if she could help it.

As she walked through the city—indeed, not unremarked upon, but not consuming the attention of the city, either— Celestia felt herself fall reflexively into a careful pattern of thought, thinking of how to behave, how to act, so that she would not disrupt the flow of the world around her overmuch but would yet be moving in it. She watched herself, from afar, talk idly to ponies who approached her, accepting their polite greetings with—it must be said—honest pleasure; and likewise, she considered her wording carefully as she ordered a small muffin from a corner bakery which she understood to be in need of some more attention, and would benefit from being seen to be patronized by the Sun Princess.

As the salespony prepared her order, it occurred to her to wonder: how did she know that..?

Ah, right. The letters. They seemed very far away, now, and when she thought of how concerned she had been by them, she felt foolish. But they had guided her to the deeper hurt, so perhaps there was something to that after all—

“Enough, Dash! Enough! I’m tired of this, okay?!”

A voice rang out across the street, made harsh with anger. Celestia was stirred from her thoughts—awakened, perhaps, would be more apt—as everypony around her looked towards the source of the argument.

It was Scootaloo, tall and long-limbed, scowling and stomping her way down the street as Rainbow Dash hurried along behind her, growling. “I don’t want to hear it, Dash, I really don’t. So save it.”

“Look, kiddo, I was just doing what I thought was—“

“You were undercutting my position!” Scootaloo rounded on Dash, eyes ablaze. “You can’t just…I mean, you’re not captain anymore, okay? You’re not even a ‘Bolt anymore. So don’t spend an entire evening telling my flyers what to do!”

Everypony’s eyes flickered from the squabbling pair to Celestia. She sighed and stepped forward towards the two pegasi.

“Look, I was just giving advice, okay?” Dash declared, dismissively.

Scootaloo sneered. “You were telling them to ignore me, Dash.”

“I did no such thing! When did I ever say, ‘Don’t do what Scoots says’?”

“And that’s another thing! Stop calling me Scoots!”

This appeared to legitimately wound Dash. “Come on, kiddo, it’s just a nickname…”

“A nickname? Do you think I want a nickname? You think I don’t have enough problems with my authority without the famous, amazing Rainbow Dash wandering around calling me the same thing she did when I was a filly!? Honestly,” Scootaloo snarled.

“Ladies, ladies…” Celestia said, approaching them. “That’s enough yelling, I think.”

The two’s eyes widened in sudden horror, and they dropped into deep bows.

“Yes, yes, thank you,” Celestia sighed. “Please, let’s go talk this out somewhere less…public, shall we? Think of the Wonderbolts’ reputation, both of you.”

Looking chastened, Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash followed Celestia, who rolled her eyes theatrically to the crowd. Ponyville’s residents were well-acquainted with the fiery pegasi, and the princess sharing their quiet fatigue with the pair’s constant arguing was a legitimate comfort. They smiled at her and went back about their business, happy to see the matter well in hoof.

A few minutes later—unusually silent ones with a somewhat suspicious lack of bickering—they had found a quiet place in the corner of a park. Celestia sat on the grass, quietly enjoying the feeling of physical contact with the growing things of the earth. Before her, the brightly-colored pegasi raged, suppressing their voices, but not their feelings.

Long life had turned Celestia’s ears into finely-tuned sieves for information, filtering out the chaff of irrelevant detail in favor of the grains of truth at the heart of the issue, just listening to the two quarrel back and forth, eyes closed, images forming in her mind.

Scootaloo was not happy as captain of the Wonderbolts, Celestia realized quickly. Not in the sense that she wasn’t thrilled with the experience and the attention—she just was suddenly conscious of how unfulfilling it was for her to follow in the direct footsteps of her idol, who Celestia was privately aware had found flying in the ‘Bolts much less satisfying than she had hoped herself. Not for Rainbow Dash the choreographed, crowd-pleasing routines of synchronized flying…she lived and breathed for the thrill of a trick nopony would ever see from anything but first-person, the rush of adrenaline, the mad joy of speed.

Scootaloo was uncomfortable with living up to Rainbow Dash’s legacy of brash, almost irresponsible, but incredibly charismatic leadership, and was chafing under her teammates’ fixation on Dash’s reputation as a hell-raising barnstormer. Scootaloo was torn between wanting to be like Dash, and being an objectively good captain, which Dash decidedly had not been.

For Rainbow Dash’s part, she was…

jealous.

The realization struck Celestia like the thunderbolt emblazoned on the pegasus herself. The two flyers stifled themselves and looked up at the Princess’ sudden expression of distant awe warily.

She was trying to hide it with bravado and self-important nonsense, but Rainbow Dash was deeply, deeply jealous of Scootaloo. Rainbow Dash felt lost, her dream having turned out to be so unfulfilling, and thus she envied Scootaloo’s freedom to resent it. She envied Scootaloo’s bravery in expressing her displeasure. She envied Scootaloo’s freedom to be somepony other than her exaggerated reputation—Dash was driven , by herself and everypony else, every second of every day, to be the legendary flier Rainbow Dash; Scootaloo’s reputation as Dash’s sidekick could, someday, be transcended…if Dash weren’t around reminding everyone what shape her shadow was.

It’s long past time you stepped out from my shadow, Twilight.

“As long as you’re around being Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo growled, “I can’t be anything but Scoots to the ‘Bolts.”

She’ll always be your student, I think.

A great deal of thought happened in Celestia's mind at once. The pegasi gave each other a nervous glance as the ruler of Equestria stared, unseeing, into the middle distance.

“You…have to be…” Celestia murmured, her heart pounding. She felt a wave of disorientation overcome her, and shook her head until the feeling passed. “You have to…outgrow…”

“Princess, are you alright?” asked Rainbow Dash warily. “Should I…get Twilight, or—“

“No!” Celestia barked. Dash and Scootaloo looked at her in shock.

“No,” she repeated, mastering herself quickly. “No, not…yet. I need…I need to think.” She blinked, and looked up at the pegasi. “I’m sorry, you two. Things are a little…complex, at the moment.” She rose, as elegantly as she could, wings outstretched. “You two care about each other. Be honest with one another, and things…things will sort themselves out, I’m sure…”

With a mighty leap, she disappeared into the sky.

“She didn’t sound very sure,” Scootaloo said, looking at the place where the Princess had just been uncomfortably. “What was that all about??”

“Honestly.” Dash scowled. “Put a horn and a pair of wings on ‘em and they think they rule the world.”

~(E)~

High above Ponyville, the eternal sun…

As long as you’re here being the princess, she’ll never stop being your student!

…wavered.

~(E)~

Carousel Boutique was in production mode. Rarity’s two apprentices—a little green unicorn with a mop of white hair, and a tall pink earth pony coiffed in violet—were bent over reams of rich fabrics, the unicorn cutting, the earth pony measuring carefully and marking patterns with a marking pencil.

Rarity was sitting at a desk in the center of the show floor, having long ago learned the trick of a true fashionista—it was just a little gauche to be caught actually working by a client, but the second the door closed behind them, your muzzle hit the grindstone so hard it bled—and you made the bloodstain part of the design because there just wasn’t enough time to do anything else.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique,” she said, eyes closed, with practiced ease. “Where everything is chic, unique, and—“

“Rarity,” Princess Celestia said, stepping in the door a little less gracefully than normal. “I’m sorry, I’m not here for a dress.”

Rarity opened an eye. “Oh,” she murmured. “Oh!” The unicorn sprang to her feet, her face a portrait of delight. “Princess, welcome—“

“May I speak with you? Privately,” she added, smiling at the apprentices, who blushed nervously and bowed.

“Oh, of course.” Rarity clapped her hooves together. “Girls, set everything aside for today, and be on your way home. Please! Sit, princess, I’ll bring some…tea. Ah!” she added, as the apprentices looked at her nervously. “Quickly now…”

“But, Miss Rarity—“ the pink earth pony began.

“But me no buts, Silver Star! This is important.”

Rarity gave the Princess a bright smile and hurried off into the kitchen, while the two apprentices bustled away, giving the princess terrified looks from time to time. The princess put on her best face of polite interest.

“Do you enjoy being apprenticed to Rarity, miss..?” Celestia asked, addressing the green unicorn.

“Emerald Dream, ma’am. Um, yes, ma’am, I’m learning a lot. Um. A friend of mine is apprenticed up in Canterlot and she hasn’t even had her own show yet, ma’am…Miss Rarity is always encouraging us, but, um, we work really hard.” Emerald Dream stuttered this out as she rolled up several large reams of fabric with her magic. Celestia privately wondered if—

“And Miss Sparkle helps, too. Even I’ve learned a lot from her, and I’m not a unicorn,” Silver Star said.

“I suspect she gave you some books,” Celestia said, warmly.

“How did you know, ma’am?”

Celestia gave her a mysterious smile. “We know these things,” she said, delighting privately in the little ponies’ look of awe.

“Isn’t she, um, your student?” Silver Star asked. “My dad said you and she are like, always working together.”

Celestia felt her smiling mask crack under the strain.

“She was,” –crack— “Just like you are for miss Rarity.”

The two apprentices gave each other a thrilled look.

“Now, now, off you trot,” Celestia said, much more calmly than she felt. “If I got you in trouble with Miss Rarity, I’d never forgive myself.”

With delighted expressions, the apprentices exited the front door, chatting excitedly with one another. The princess listened to their chatting for as long as she could, eyes closed.

Rarity reappeared, carrying two glasses of red wine and a bottle above her head with her magic.

“That was kind of you,” she said, putting a glass in front of Celestia on the desk. “Those two are still very new. I appreciate you showing interest; they’ll probably never forget it.”

“Of course,” Celestia replied weakly. The wine smelled excellent—but she was no longer sure drinking it would be a good idea. Her flight from the park had taken far more concentration than she was comfortable with. “What happened to tea?”

Rarity was graceful enough to blush a little at this little admonishment. “Forgive me,” she said.

“No, not at all.” Celestia sipped the wine, just enough to taste. “Quite good.”

“A gift, from a client,” Rarity said, nervously. She changed the subject quickly, with the true society lady’s ability to pretend that any embarrassment which may have just occurred had, in point of fact, not. “How may I help you, if not with a dress? Oh, but you should let me make you a gown, someday,” Rarity added quickly. “It would be a pleasure—“

“Someday,” Celestia agreed, smiling as fondly as she could. “But not today. I’m here to talk about—“

“Twilight?”

Celestia raised an eyebrow at the interruption. “Yes. But why do you say that?”

Rarity blushed. “She was…very upset to find you on the floor.”

“Ah,” the princess smiled. “I suppose I owe you some thanks in that matter as well.”

“Think nothing of it,” Rarity said, staring bashfully into her wine. “We were all a bit…over-exerted by last night’s events, I think.”

Celestia smiled at her politeness and rose, gesturing for Rarity to stay in her seat. The princess paced around the room for awhile, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully, as Rarity sipped her wine. “What made you decide to take on apprentices, Rarity?”

“Why…do you ask?”

“Indulge me. Please.”

Rarity gave Celestia a wary look, her sapphire eyes burning with private speculation, trying to get ahead of the conversation. “It was Twilight’s idea, actually,” she said, carefully. “She suggested it to me a few years ago...I’m not really sure why.”

“No, no. Not, ‘How did this situation come about?’” Celestia paced more and more excitedly around the boutique. “What made you decide that yes, you wanted to train other ponies in fashion?”

“I guess I had always wanted to—“

“So why didn’t you before now?” Celestia asked, insistently.

Rarity looked at her uneasily. “Princess, I…I…” The unicorn stammered, looking frightened. “Princess, are you…alright? What happened to you this morning?”

“What,” Celestia declared, ignoring her, “Is the purpose of training apprentices?”

Rarity kept her eyes on the princess. There was a nervous energy to her that Rarity had never seen before—it reminded her of Twilight when she was stressed. “I…suppose it’s part of being involved in the arts to inspire and train the next generation,” she hazarded.

“Ah,” Celestia nodded deeply. “Yes.” She continued pacing for some time. “And how do you know the apprenticeship is over?”

“Over?” Rarity frowned. “Well…with Diamond Tiara, for example…things just reached a point where we both knew she was ready to strike out on her own. She’d learned everything I could teach her; some things a pony has to teach herself.” The unicorn felt herself getting chatty in her nervousness.

“You both just knew?” Celestia asked, as if this were incredible.

“Yes, well, you know…we—“

Celestia paced up and looked down on Rarity, all her nobility on display. “She didn’t…ask?”

“Oh, many times,” Rarity babbled, frantically trying to piece things together in her mind. “She was so eager to be on her own. I think she asked for the first time after a month of apprenticeship…I just laughed and gave her a new assignment...”

Rarity was hesitant to make any assumptions about the mind of the princess, but it appeared to be reeling; she had the distant, distracted gaze of somepony thinking about six things at once. Her hooves, usually so sure and graceful, seemed to be failing her, and she seemed excitable and hasty, which was very much at odds with her normal attitude of deliberate patience.

“So what does she do now?”

“Oh, well, she’s my competition, now, of course,” Rarity answered, her mouth answering for her as her brain worked on other matters. The statement seemed to frighten Celestia; she froze in place, eyes open wide in an expression of horror, breathing shallowly.

Rarity stammered, desperately trying to make up lost ground. “But—but—that’s fashion! It’s different for other things! Most of the time, in other disciplines, a master is training collaborators, or successors—“ Too late, Rarity clapped her hooves over her mouth.

The Princess, eyes still open in shock, slumped into the chair in front of Rarity’s desk, looking drained. “Successors…I see.”

Pieces—fragments of conversation, tones, hints, rumors, whispers—fell into place in Rarity’s mind, and she realized that things between Twilight and the Princess were worse than she had dared imagine.

Rarity had long ago noticed Twilight’s relationship with the Princess becoming dissatisfying, and had counseled Twilight to just ask the princess about it. Surely the two most rational ponies in all of Equestria, experts in the Magic of Friendship, would be able to talk out their issues. When Twilight returned an Arch-Mage, Rarity had hoped things would improve as Twilight became more and more involved with the higher levels of Equestrian affairs. Certainly she poured herself into her work, and seemed satisfied, if a little harassed. Now that Twilight had begun to become obsessively busy again, Rarity had been relieved to find Celestia personally interested in investigating the purple unicorn’s problems. Clearly, not everything had been totally sorted out.

But now, Rarity realized she had made an immense error—she hadn’t thought about the Princess’ side of things. Too late, she was aware she had fallen into the same trap Twilight was prone to. Rarity, too, had thought of the Princess as an immortal, unchanging source of wisdom and love…not a pony unto herself.

Something was wrong, in the Princess’ mind.

And now she was here, a virtual goddess on the edge of a panic attack…in Rarity’s boutique.

“Princess, please, sit down—“ Rarity began, rising.

“No,” Celestia said. Her familiar, peaceful smile was thin with anxiety. “No. I… I need to speak with Twilight.” She yawned.

“Princess, you look ill, please—“

Celestia got to her hooves awkwardly and turned to Rarity, with lazy solemnity. “Thank you, Rarity, for being concerned about my health.” She looked out at the unicorn through heavy-lidded eyes. “But I need…I need to speak with Twilight.” She began walking out of the boutique.

“I’ll go get her, right away—please, just rest here!”

The princess rounded on her, looking irritated. “Rest?” Celestia hissed the word, as if it were poisonous. “No, no more resting. I’m fine. I just have to…collect myself…”

Rarity scrambled to play along with the irregular tune of a mind slightly out of control of itself. “Okay, no resting…just…stay here. I’ll get Twilight…”

“Stop worrying about me, Luna, I’m fine,” Celestia murmured, shaking her head irritably. She sounded exhausted, suddenly.

Rarity looked around. “L…Luna? Where?”

“Nowhere, Rarity,” Celestia said, a little more lucidly. Her eyes were closed in concentration as she methodically stretched her wings and legs. “I’m sorry, I’m getting a little overexcited by things.”

“No need to apologize.” Rarity approached the princess tentatively, speaking as softly and calmly as she could manage. “Things have gotten a little out of hoof, haven’t they…”

“Yes.” Celestia’s eyes opened wide, ablaze and intense. “And now I’m going to fix them. Everything will be fine, Rarity, please don’t worry.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to—“

No!” There was a whisper of magical command in Celestia’s reflexive rebuke, undirected and uncontrolled. Rarity’s mind tangled into a snarl of confusion, words and images appearing randomly in the forefront of her thoughts. She stumbled and fell, unable to focus, her equilibrium destroyed.

Through eyes that did not understand what they were seeing, she saw pure white wings sweep majestically into the air and soar towards the distant, green blur that was Twilight's Library.

Rarity blinked, trying to focus. That seemed very important, but…why? Nothing made sense anymore. It all seemed so…confusing.

She fell into unconsciousness, twitching and moaning nonsensically.

“Rarity! Rarity!”

The unicorn’s eyes opened, blearily, and she looked up into the concerned faces of Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo.

“Was she here?” Dash demanded.

“Dash, she just woke up—“

Dash gave Scootaloo a wry look. “Rarity’s tough, kiddo, don’t get your feathers ruffled,” she said dismissively.

Rarity’s mind latched onto the sentence, blessed comprehension returning, burning through the magically-induced confusion. “Twilight…” she managed. Her head throbbed angrily.

“Twilight?” Scootaloo frowned in confusion. “What about Twilight?” But Dash was already turning out the door, gaining speed to leap into action.

“Wait,” Rarity gagged. “Wait, Rainbow Dash!”

The blue pegasus skidded to a halt. “Yeah?”

“There’s…no rush…” Rarity groaned. “This is between them.”

~(E)~

“I admit that the way Applejack and Rainbow Dash dealt with the situation was…unorthodox,” Twilight Sparkle said, primly, “But you can’t argue with the results.”

“Ah ‘spose not.” Braeburn sighed. “Well, thank ya kindly for seein’ me ‘bout this, Twilight—Ah do so hate bringin’ up troublin’ business like this followin’ such a joyous occasion as mah cousin’s weddin’. Don’t seem right.”

Twilight smiled a polite little smile. “Please don’t worry about that, Mayor. I am happy I could speak with you about it face to face.” In the privacy of her mind, she reflected that Dash and AJ probably wouldn’t be, but that was another issue entirely.

Braeburn gave a little flash of a smile. “Ah, well. I best get back to the farm an’ help ‘em clean up. Ah thank ya for takin’ some time for me. And mah personal thanks for a spectacular evenin’ last night—nopony coulda wished for a more magnificent occasion outside of—“ Twilight braced herself, politely, “—Appleloosa!”

“You’re too kind,” Twilight said. “Please tell Big Mac that I’ll be along shortly, once I’ve taken care of a few things here.”

Braeburn shook his head. “’Li'l miss, you work yourself too hard,” he said, with an extremely gentlemanly grin. He plucked his hat from his head and bowed deeply, grasping one of Twilight’s hooves and kissing it. “Ah’ll tell Mac you’d love to help, but are unfortunately detained.” He winked. “Don’tcha worry none, the Mayor of—“ Twilight again braced herself, “—Appleloosa will make sure everything’s all rounded up and hogtied bah sundown, even if Ah must do it mah own self.”

“You’re too kind,” Twilight said, earnestly. He really was.

Braeburn gave her another smoldering grin and left. Twilight’s polite smile lasted exactly as long as it took for the door to close, and then she let out a huge sigh of relief.

“It’s a prison, isn’t it,” came a calm, familiar voice from the landing overlooking the library floor.

Twilight turned, stunned. “P-princess! Where have you been? I’ve had ponies looking for you all day—“

The princess leapt down and landed, gracefully, on the library floor.

Twilight stared; the princess was glowing, radiantly, her mane sparkling, her coat pearly-white and luminescent. Magic flowed around her like water over jewels, blurring her appearance into a sparkling dream.

“I appreciate your concern, Twilight,” the princess said serenely, “But it is unnecessary.” Her voice was as majestic and beautiful as Twilight had ever heard it. Immortal peace and wisdom flowed from it like cool streams of pure water, gentle and soothing. Her eyes, always deep and loving, were pools of pure affection.

Twilight stammered. “But—but—you were—I found you on the floor! I can’t believe Spike let you leave the bed, much less the Library—“

“Should I be equally concerned about you?” Celestia chuckled; it was like listening to beautiful silver bells ringing. “Did I not find you on the floor the night before?” She pulled one of the ornate chairs from the library table and took a seat, looking as much like the divine queen in the rosewood-and-crimson as if she had been seated on a throne of gold and electrum in the gleaming heart of Canterlot.

Twilight blushed, but forced herself to hold her ground in the face of her mentor’s knowing smile, which was as mind-clouding as fine brandy. “That was a little different, don’t you think?”

Celestia tittered laughter again. Twilight wished it would never stop; the sound was instantly addictive. “You and Luna worry about me too much,” the princess said. “I’m very lucky, aren’t I?”

“Luna? What does she have to do with—“

“I see you have some hot water,” Celestia interrupted. She waved her horn and Twilight watched in awe as the magic surrounding her swirled and a pouch of sweet herbal tea appeared before her.

It was a simple trick, but…the way the magic had flowed, swirling and scintillating with more colors than even Rainbow Dash could manage to paint in the sky…it had been like watching a million tiny jewels burst into being in midair.

The princess summoned some cups and went about preparing the cup of tea. Twilight watched, in awe, her sight-beyond-sight that allowed her to watch the flow of magic dazzled beyond anything she had ever seen before. There was power here—and Twilight had seen power, been at the whirling, furious center of pure, untrammeled power as the Elements of Harmony blazed around and inside her—but this was like watching Big Mac perform the unicorn art of origami. Powerful but delicate. Strong, but perfectly controlled.

It was unreal.

Steam rose from the cups, sweet-smelling and pearlescent. Celestia leaned in and sniffed it gratefully. The sight and sound of this simple motion was so perfect that Twilight wanted to break into tears.

“Aren’t you going to join me?” Celestia asked, smiling.

Twilight blinked, momentarily stunned. “Uh,” She shook the stupefying haze of beauty from her mind. “Right.” She quickly took a seat and, with deliberate care, also sniffed at the steam. She felt her mind bloom into a haze of peace, as if she were half-asleep, safe and warm.

Celestia brought the cup to her lips and sipped, exquisitely. Twilight almost felt embarrassed to watch, as if she had seen her mentor kissing somepony.

As if she were watching her mentor’s lips descend onto her own—

“Um,” Twilight began, frantically trying to organize her thoughts. “What did you mean, ‘a prison’?” Stop thinking about that stop thinking about that stop thinking about that

“Oh,” Celestia said, looking up from the tea with a little smile. “Forgive me,” she said, looking a little embarrassed.

“…anything…” Twilight murmured.

“I am afraid I eavesdropped on your conversation with Mayor Braeburn. Such a gentlepony, isn’t he..?”

The suggestive tone might as well have been fine wine poured directly onto Twilight’s brain. “If that’s…your sort of thing…” she managed. Somewhere distant in her mind, she realized she was grinning stupidly, but nothing could make her care right now.

Celestia gave her a wink. Twilight’s heart fluttered furiously.

“The prison I referred to, Twilight…is the mask.”

“The…mask..?”

“Yes, Twilight.” Celestia looked around theatrically, at the fine furnishings, the neatly-sorted books all crisp and new on their shelves, the elegant tea kettle and fine cups. “The mask of dignity. The little lies for everypony else, the ones you tell them so they can trust you and look up to you, so that you’re a little larger than life in their minds.”

Twilight tried to say something, but the idea that this perfect, divine creature in front of her was displeased with her in any way turned her tongue into lead.

Celestia looked down at her, a perfect smile of understanding bright on her features. “I knew you would have to learn about it someday. Every great pony does. I’m so proud of you,” she added, the emphasis on "proud" bursting like fireworks of joy in Twilight’s heart. “But part of wearing the mask is knowing when to take it off.”

Twilight nodded, dully. Obviously this was the case. Celestia would know. She knows everything.

“If you wear it for everypony, the mask is a prison. It forces you to be something you’re not, all the time. Your friend Rainbow Dash learned about that when she became a Wonderbolt, didn’t she?” Celestia raised a hoof to Twilight’s unresisting face. “I remember your letter about it. I loved reading it.”

“I’m…so glad…” Twilight murmured.

“Twilight, look at me. My precious, precious Twilight Sparkle.” The hoof guided Twilight’s eyes to Celestia’s perfect, gleaming eyes, which were so full of affection and understanding that Twilight felt like she could have burned Ponyville to the ground and yet this beautiful, magnificent being would love her. “You’ve been wearing the mask for me, haven’t you?”

“Uh huh,” Twilight's eyes were full of tears, shame for her misdeed and the sublime joy of knowing she would be forgiven pouring out of her.

“It’s my fault,” Celestia said. She actually cringed, and Twilight’s heart burned with a mad desire to comfort her.

“No! It was me! I should have—“

“Shhh…” Celestia ran a hoof lovingly down Twilight’s face. “I understand, little one. Things have gotten a little off-track between us.”

Twilight nodded furiously.

“That’s why I came to you, Twilight. I want to make things right. Silly princess that I am, I came here to tell you what was wrong, but I think…you need to tell me. You need to take the mask off for me.” Celestia leaned forward and whispered in Twilight’s ear, which, like the rest of her, was trembling. “You don’t need it, little Twilight...I love you, no matter what. And then everything will be better…just like it used to be.”

At "love", Twilight’s whole body flooded with joy. “Mmm…of course I will…”

“No secrets?” whispered Celestia, her teasing tone caramel in Twilight’s mind.

“I kissed Rainbow Dash,” Twilight murmured. “Twice.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Celestia leaned back, a gentle smile of satisfaction on her face.

Twilight stared at her. Suddenly the idea that there was any conflict or stress between them seemed completely ridiculous; she was so happy right now, just being there with the Princess, just like she always had…been…in…

Canterlot.

Twilight found herself able to look away from the princess for the first time since she had drawn their eyes to meet. Canterlot, she repeated in her mind. There was something…she had thought recently…about Canterlot. It was at the heart of everything…but what?

“Take your time,” Celestia said, sipping her tea. The sound of her voice threatened to let the haze of bliss confuse Twilight’s mind again, but the spires of Canterlot, the peaks of the mountains, rose through the mists, suddenly towering in Twilight’s thoughts.

“Were you…” Twilight said, in a strangled voice. “Ever…”

Celestia looked down at her impassively. “Was I ever what, Twilight?”

The words were hazy and indistinct in her mind, but…she could force the mists to recede, with effort, and they sounded louder and louder in her mind.

“Tell me what’s troubling you, Twilight,” Celestia urged. Twilight closed her eyes, not daring to look up at the radiant vision of perfection that sat across from her. She shook her head wildly, the fog of joy clearing, courage burning through its mind-wilting power.

“Were you ever,” Twilight said, through clenched teeth, “Going to ask me to come back to Canterlot?”

“What?”

“Were you ever going to ask me to come back to Canterlot?” Twilight repeated, her voice thick with conflicting emotions.

Celestia set the cup down on the table, magic radiating off it magnificently. “What do you mean, Twilight?” The immortal serenity had absented itself from her voice, which was no longer cloying and seductive. “Did you want me to?”

“I…” Twilight stood up and turned her back on the princess, breaths heaving in her, emotions running wild. “No,” she gasped. “No, I didn’t. And don’t. Well, what I mean is, I don’t want to go back to Canterlot…but you could have asked.”

“Twilight, I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

“When do you think the problems between us started?” Twilight demanded, eyes clenched shut, back still turned.

Celestia’s voice didn’t sound for some time. “With the dragon. The one at the mountain. A long time ago, I know, but…”

“Not long enough!” Twilight gasped. She heaved great breaths, as if she had just been sick; the physical effects of the magic surrounding Celestia had been incredibly intense. Her muscles ached. “It started when you sent me to Ponyville!”

What?”

“Well, that’s not when the problem started, but…it’s…where the pattern began.” Yes. Patterns. Cling to logic, pattern recognition, sequences, inferences. That’s how we discuss things as rational ponies.

The first time, it had been necessary. “You sent me to Ponyville to make friends to defeat Nightmare Moon and become the Element of Magic. It was necessary and important—it’s been the core of my life! But then you assigned me to stay here and study the magic of friendship. But you didn’t need to assign me to stay here, I would have done it anyways! You could have begged me to return to Canterlot, and I probably would have chosen to stay here.”

Celestia was silent. Twilight took some time to blink tears out of her face, but still didn’t dare look at her mentor.

“I didn’t think about it at the time, but…did you even think to ask?” Twilight brought a hoof to her cheek. The wake of the intense emotion Celestia had inflicted on her was making it hard for her to control herself.

The second time, it had been necessary at the time. “Then…you took my letters away from me,” Twilight sobbed.

“What? I never—“

“Yes!” Twilight shouted. “Yes you did! They were special! They were between you and me, every week! But suddenly they were for everypony, whenever! Spike even went around writing them! I almost threw him out when I found out!”

“Twilight, you were getting completely out of control,” Celestia said, trying to sound firm, but it came out weak and mangled.

“Now why might I do that?” Twilight sniffed, sarcasm running thick through her agony of sobs. “Why would I have gotten upset that I had nothing to write to you? Those letters weren’t just homework, you know…that’s the only time I ever got to talk to you anymore.”

Celestia was silent.

The third time showed where the trend led. “And then,” Twilight gagged, “And then, just so everything was perfectly clear, you came out and told me I wasn’t important to you anymore.”

“W—what?” There was no mistaking the tremble of horrified agony in Celestia’s voice now.

“'No, Twilight, I guess you’re not my student, anymore,'” Twilight snapped, bitterly.

“That’s not what I—“

“I know it's not! But it’s what I heard!” Twilight bellowed, her magic lashing out wildly, books and scrolls flying from their shelves in a blizzard of paper.

“Twilight—“

“Don’t even think of saying that’s not what you meant,” Twilight growled. “That makes it worse. That just shows you weren’t paying attention!” She heaved and sobbed, looking around forlornly at the upended library, tears streaming down her face.

Calm down, Twilight. Celestia will understand...

The unicorn closed her eyes, breathing in and out slowly. With practiced ease, she lifted the books and scrolls back into their place on the shelves. The act soothed her, brought her back to herself.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about things,” Twilight said, her voice barely controlled. “I realize why I’m getting so upset. Everything in my life has been changing, rapidly. I have huge responsibilities now, as an Arch-Mage and here in Ponyville. Ponies look to me for guidance and advice all the time now, when they’re not asking me to save their lives from something. And my friends are as often as not busy doing the same thing.”

Twilight opened her eyes, red-rimmed and sad. “I’m not stupid. I mean, obviously you know that; you raised me that way.” There was a little, choked noise behind her, but Twilight just closed her eyes, swallowed, and continued. “I know your history as well. I know how you are. You guide, you touch, you stay apart. I grew up watching you do it, to the court, to everypony around you—because you worry about doing too much, getting too involved, not letting things be as they’re going to be. You taught me that.”

Twilight closed her eyes and turned around. “I guess…I guess I just hoped—foolishly, perhaps—that I was the exception.”

She opened her eyes.

The radiant vision of perfection had vanished; the spell was broken. What remained was a shrunken wreck, pale and weary, looking out at her with immense fondness from half-hidden eyes sunk into deep pits. Her mane was washed out and barely moved.

“Oh, Twilight,” Celestia whispered. It could have been a moan.

~(E)~

High above Equestria, the eternal sun...

For one thousand years the sun shone brightly. Beneath it, the ponies went about their lives, rejoicing in the presence of the unbroken sun.

But now there was another star, on the distant horizon—just a little star, pink and young and eager, rising to meet the sun. It rose, drawing nearer, rejoicing in the sun’s beauty even as the sun’s brightness made it almost impossible to see.

On the other horizon, the moon rose and asked: Why do you shine eternally? Aren’t you weary? Rest, for a time.

And for a moment, the sun regrets shining so brightly.

A moment is all it took.

~(E)~

“Princess!” Twilight cried, dashing forward to catch her mentor as she collapsed forward towards the table. “What’s happening?!”

“You…are so brave, my faithful student,” Celestia whispered. “I am so, so proud of you.”

“Princess! Princess!

Celestia shrugged at her supporting hooves. “Twilight, listen,” she rasped. “Twilight! There’s something I have to do now. But…I want you to know…I never meant to hurt you like this. I love you so much.”

“What are you talking about, Princess?” Twilight’s terror was so complete that she barely resisted as Celestia pushed her away weakly.

“There’s someone I have to see,” Celestia said, and in a flash of sunlight—weaker and redder than Twilight had ever seen it—she was gone.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash burst through the door, shouting. “We heard screaming! Are you alright?” She looked in horror at the look of complete misery on her friend’s face. “Twilight, what happen—“

“I have no idea,” Twilight said. And even as her friend crushed her in a hug, Twilight couldn't seem to cry. It was all just too big.

~(E)~

Her power flaring around her, Celestia touched down awkwardly in Canterlot gardens, stumbling as she landed.

The pegasus guards monitoring Canterlot air traffic were used to the Princess arriving suddenly and in unexpected ways. She rarely needed their help these days, unlike in wilder times of Equestria’s history, so they only gave the bright spectacle of her sudden arrival a cursory glance at first, until a young and significantly less jaded recruit, armor still shiny and new, called out in alarm.

Something was seriously wrong. Celestia stalked through the statuary drunkenly, staggering and pausing to rest against statues for long moments before heaving herself upwards and prowling on. She meandered her way through the Graces and the Muses and approached the glade of Histories, her awkward steps guided by a terrible sense of purpose. The gate was closed and barred, but this posed little difficulty to the Princess; her horn glowed, irregularly, and tore it from its hinges, mangling the elegant silver gate with radiant power.

The guards descended rapidly, wings beating fast as their hearts. A couple shed their heavy helmets, desperate for speed.

Celestia stumbled up to the cringing statue of Discord. The draconequus’ frozen expression of sudden terror looked down on her mockingly.

“Wha…” she yawned, head swaying. “Wha…did you…do…t’me..?”

Me? I didn’t do anything, replied a silent voice. Didn’t you listen? All I had to do…was watch.

Celestia’s eyes, hazing over as sleep descended, left the terror-filled stone orbs of Discord as they rolled up in her head and she collapsed into unconsciousness.

Unheard by the guards, who gathered around Celestia yelling and barking orders, mad laughter roared out silently into the night.

~(E)~

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