• Published 28th Jul 2013
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'Destiny' and Other Lies Told to Foals - Sunchaser

Twilight wakes in the middle of the night, haunted by a terrifying dream—one that's not so hard to see coming true.

  • ...

What Dreams May Come

'Destiny' and Other Lies Told to Foals
By Sunchaser

"And everything's gonna be just fine!"

Twilight Sparkle snapped awake, gasping for desperate breaths and bathed in a cold, slick sweat.

She struggled to free herself from the imprisonment of sheets and blankets twisted about by the thrashing of a restless sleep, throwing the covers violently away from herself.

She scrambled to a sitting pose, her forehooves drawn to her chest in some meagre attempt to contain her racing heart.

Her eyes straining for purchase in the darkness, she lit her horn to a long-practiced gentle glow, that she might place herself in the familiar of her library.

And finally, these things done, she slowly forced herself to look over her shoulder. It didn't feel like it, but she had to see to be sure—

Thank you, thank you, sweet solar heavens.

She released the breath she'd been holding near to pain, and something reasonably described as relief came within her reach at last.

No wings. It was just a dream.


Tap, tap.

Princess Celestia's ears perked up, and her eyes were nearly drawn from the page into which they were two paragraphs invested...

...Probably just the rain freezing in the night air.

The alicorn settled back into her reading. Daring was just about to meet with the mysterious Steward of Gallopfree, rumored to be as ancient and powerful as Equestria's own beloved Princess—

Tap, tap, tap.

Or maybe it wasn't the rain, freezing into tiny hailstones as it fell through the chill night air to strike her bedroom balcony windows. Two was coincidence, but three was a pattern.

And while Celestia wasn't expecting any kind of surreptitious midnight rendezvous, that didn't change the fact that there were a few ponies capable of such means.

One, in particular.

Reluctantly, she tore her attention away from the adventurous exploits of a renowned pegasus explorer, and turned it toward a (presumed) on-occasion-overanxious unicorn protégé.

An errant thought prodded her to an accompanying idea, and she also reached out her magic to a stack of towels in the bath closets.

Tap, tap; more quietly this time. Hesitantly, as though the tapper was starting to think that they were an unwelcome disturbance, that coming here had been a terrible idea.

Towels at hoof, Celestia enveloped the glass doors in her magic, set aside their many wards, and opened them to reveal a shaggy, soaked, and shivering Twilight Sparkle huddling in the rain. Her coat was mussed, her mane tangled and plastered over her face, her ears pressed flat and muzzle all scrunched up.

"...You look like a lost puppy."

It was all Celestia could do not to burst out laughing. As it was, a little snickering managed to elude her usual composure.

A raised hoof and clearing of her throat restored her poise—snicker—ahem, mostly, and the princess shifted her attention from being a terrible pony to addressing her distressed student.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean—come in from the rain, Twilight. Let's get you warmed up."

The disheveled unicorn meekly nodded, silently trudging her way inside and accepting without complaint the layer of towels that promptly enveloped her.

A particularly large and fluffy white one was laid on the carpet near the fireplace, and Twilight took the obvious cue, settling herself down on it. Golden magic snatched a pair of smooth wooden logs from a nearby cabinet, and after they settled onto the iron rack, a sparkling flash burst them to popping, flickering life.

Celestia seated herself before the fire, allowing her student a few moments to warm up and dry out a little before speaking.

"...I haven't found you out on my balcony looking such a state in quite a few years, Twilight," the princess eventually began, quietly, more to push aside the lingering silence than spark any real conversation.

Twilight didn't like silence, Celestia had long ago learned. Particularly so, when princesses were involved. The unicorn was put at ease, and thus tended to think better, when there was just the right amount of distraction.

"And while I certainly do appreciate your visits," Celestia continued, guiding a bit of plush towel to softly sweep the errant strands of tousled mane away from her student's eyes, "...I am admittedly a touch curious as to what's inspired this specific midnight sojourn."

Too little distraction, and she would pour her unclaimed attention into overanalyzing details; too much, and she would quickly be overwhelmed with frustration. It had taken some time to find the balance point. Some...trial and error, you might say, but nothing some weekend masonry or strategically hung tapestries hadn't fixed.

But even those memories brought Celestia a quiet, personal smile, as she unravelled the dampened towel from around Twilight's head and exchanged its fluffy absorbency for the soothing, measured strokes of a hairbrush.

"I haven't been sleeping well lately," Twilight said softly, angling her head forward to assist the brush. "I've been...worrying about things. And given how well that ended the last time I kept it to myself, I thought it best to come to you directly."

"Good of you to have done so," Celestia said absently, her attention more focused on teasing out a stubborn tangle. "I would presume, then, that letters weren't quite a sufficient medium for what's troubling you."

"I thought about writing to you," Twilight offered, a little hesitantly, "but I had no idea what to say, and it would have meant waking up Spike, and—well, you know how much he hates having his sleep interrupted."

The knot came out, and a calm, even rhythm was restored.

"So I decided to just...come to Canterlot," she continued, her voice a bit stronger. "I thought I would figure out what to say on the way."

"I see," Celestia replied, slowing her brushing in a few final polishing strokes. "And did you?"

Twilight sighed softly.

"...No. Not really."

A last adjustment to her bangs, and Twilight Sparkle looked herself again. Celestia laid her brush to rest on its nearby table abode.

"Well, that's alright," she said with gentle warmth. "Take your time."

Twilight mustered a bit of an appreciative smile, and Celestia rose from her side, measured hoofsteps silenced by the carpeting that separated the princess from her steadfast tea set.

Tranquility had been established. Now, she was giving her student a little space, letting her bring order to her thoughts, and best decide how to proceed.

Now then: Chamomile, Jasmine, or Mint Green...?

Too little space, and she would feel she was being examined, under pressure for an answer. Too much, and she would think the issue was believed unimportant, that she was just being indulged.

Jasmine, I think. Yes, Jasmine will do nicely.

It had taken some time to find that balance point, too. Quite a bit, actually, because mending those mistakes took something more than an appointment with the royal decorator.

Care was always taken. Care was necessary.

Jasmine wasn't Twilight's favorite flavor of tea—she preferred a triple-strength green that ended up brewing so heavy it was very nearly coffee. Celestia understood why, though she had never really taken to it herself.

No, Jasmine wasn't her favorite, but it was the tea Celestia made when there was something important to talk about. It was the tea that said 'this is serious, and I'm listening'.

Golden magic gently raised and angled a large crystal decanter, enchanted some centuries past to draw mineral water directly from the Mount Avalon springs, and the clear, cold liquid silently filled the white porcelain pot into which it poured. A painted blue floral pattern rose up the outside of the pot to match the water within, crowning buds blooming as optimal fill was reached.

The crystal vessel chimed softly as it was set down.

Hm, a touch sharp. I'll have to refresh the enchantments.

That was something that could wait, however. More pertinent matters were at hoof.

A quick glance back toward Twilight found the unicorn now in a sitting pose, rain-soaked towels neatly folded and stacked beside her. She was the picture of stillness as she stared at the crackling fire—almost statuesque, save for the even rise and fall of her quiet breathing.

It was a touch quicker than the princess had expected. Twilight would usually have her first cup of tea before they really got into whatever was bothering her.

A fleeting glimmer of the horn, and Celestia's personal millennia-old, hoof-crafted spell to boil tea water was woven into the porcelain pot. A more persistent golden shimmer then enveloped the silvered tray which held the entire set, and a gentle rattling betrayed hoofsteps that had been silent the previous trip.

The princess set the service down on the carpet to the side near the fireplace, the flickering reds and oranges dancing with the polished tray in reflection.

The tea would be ready soon enough.

"So, my faithful student," Celestia began warmly, turning her head to the right just enough to offer her eyes. "What is it that has you popping off to Canterlot in the middle of the night?"

Twilight was silent for a long moment, her eyes lost in the flames, until she turned them to stare hard at Celestia, brimming with indictment.

"What do you have planned for me?"

...Too little formality, and she would feel uncomfortable; out of place. Too much, and she would be hesitant to speak her mind. Even in the years following Twilight's migration to Ponyville, this familiar little dance had endured. It was, in the occasional moment of quiet honesty, something in which Celestia found solace.

So you'll understand her surprise at Twilight not only refusing the dance, but also stopping the music entirely.

At least it explains why she teleported almost a hundred miles in the middle of the night.

Still, this was...unexpected. Twilight's words were harsh—edged. Her eyes were narrowed in an accusatory glare as she stared at her mentor, unwavering.

A part of Celestia was rather proud of her student, just now, displaying such stalwart resolve. Most of her, though, was suddenly worried, and in no small part confused. Accordingly, the alicorn elected to her tried and true solution to situations where she had no idea how to proceed.

Complete honesty.

"It does seem too late to feign innocence," she began, matter-of-factly.

And then a moment's pause, to organize thoughts.

"...I have had reason behind my recent actions, as I tend to," she continued, meeting Twilight's suspicious eyes with a warm, slightly concerned expression of her own. "However, I do not have any plans for you, that I am aware of."

"Really." Twilight said flatly, an incredulous brow arched. "Having me single-hoofedly save the Crystal Empire from Sombra. Suddenly deciding to reform Discord. Getting me to secure the Equestria Games for Cadence," she listed off shortly, gesturing with an impatient hoof at each entry. "But you don't have any plans for me?"

"No, Twilight, I do not," the princess answered calmly. "However, aside that fact: if Discord's rehabilitation was a test for anypony, one would argue it was of Fluttershy, the mare assigned the task—and who performed quite admirably, I would add," she continued, careful to keep her tone neutral. "As for the Equestria Games, your assistance was specifically requested by Princess Cadence and Shining Armor. I had no hoof in inspiring that; I simply thought you may have wanted to help."

"Is that so," Twilight said indifferently, rising from her place and beginning to pace around the room. "So, then, I'd be wrong to think that the Equestria Games inspection was a means to gauge my pony relations skills and administrative abilities?"

She paused her pacing at a bookshelf, her eyes scanning over the volumes it held.

"And I suppose that would also mean that Discord's reformation wasn't dually purposed to evaluate my ability to trust others to handle important tasks I'd prefer addressing myself."

Twilight turned from the shelf and its bound-paper comfort, laying her withering glare upon the princess once again.

"Because those would dovetail pretty neatly with the plainly admitted test of saving the Crystal Empire from Sombra—showcasing my magical talents, insight and creative thinking, and ability to stay cool during a crisis."

The unicorn maintained her scowling stare, burning it into the impassive princess for a long moment, before shifting her gaze back to the fire.

"When it comes to you, Princess, I may be credulous? But I'm not blind," Twilight spat icily. "And it seems to me all those things taken together point to a pony being evaluated for something—say, tested for their readiness for some sort of official appointment."

Celestia paused for a deep breath, taking it all in.

Twilight ranted—it was something she did. One way when she was nervous, another when she was frustrated...and, in one particularly heated and angry manner, when she was scared.

That one part of Celestia was still rather proud of her student, so capably taking a stand against a princess. Most of her, however, was becoming very concerned. Accordingly, the alicorn shifted her solution to the situation: from ones where she had no idea how to proceed, to ones where a terrified pony needed fast answers.

Complete blunt honesty.

"You're entirely right, Twilight. Those events were dually purposed to also evaluate you, and it was in regard to a sort of official duty. However," the princess said firmly, when Twilight's head turned and another indictment was primed to spring from her trembling lips, "...I did nothing to orchestrate those events. Your assistance with the Equestria Games commission was, as I said, requested by Princess Cadence. I did see an opportunity to benefit from it, yes. That did not affect my passing on said request."

Celestia paused, drawing another deep breath, relaxing the shoulders she hadn't noticed growing tense. Twilight let the offered silence lie, and so the princess continued.

"As to Discord's rehabilitation: that matter is one I've wished to address for some time. Centuries, to put a word to it," Celestia said, then elaborating with careful neutrality: "Only with the past few years' events did that approach possible. And only recently did Fluttershy become ready for that task. Again, yes, I saw a confluence of purpose. I would have proceeded as I did even without it."

"...And Sombra? The Crystal Empire?" Twilight didn't quite growl, as she furtively glanced between the fire and her mentor.

"That was a test, as I told you from the outset," Celestia said plainly. "That one was orchestrated, constructed out of an opportunity I saw in a controlled situation."

"Controlled?" Twilight asked, incredulous.

"Entirely. Luna and I defeated Sombra before, with little effective difficulty," the princess explained. "His binding the Empire with him in banishment was unexpected then, but easily accounted for in a second encounter. We could have personally resolved the situation in short order, if circumstances deteriorated, though that would have brought certain complications."

"Complications," Twilight said flatly, once again fully engaged in her accusatory glare. "Complications, like, say, not leaving an entire city of ponies to suffer day after day of mortal terror?!"

"Complications, Twilight," Celestia said, coolly pushing aside her student's fiery condemnation, "such as Princess Cadence not properly attaining her ancestral throne. Would you have preferred Luna and I sweep in, deal with Sombra, and then simply install Cadenza by victorious fiat? Or perhaps just leave the Empire ungoverned to fend for itself in the icy north after centuries of banishment?"

Twilight winced. Only a little, only so much as to be noticeable—her ears had been folded down to begin with, but were now angled back. It was a small thing, but one that made the difference between combative and defensive.

...That may have been just a touch sanctimonious, Celestia thought, breathing out some of her renewed tension with a long sigh.

A silence settled between the two mares, alternately punctuated by the crackling fire and the patter of the midnight rain.

"I'm sorry, Twilight," Celestia said quietly. "I didn't mean to snap at you," she added, solemn, her eyes fixed to the carpet at her unshod hooves.

Twilight silently rose, taking slow, measured steps from before the bookcase to a nearby painting, then pacing her way to a well-laden scroll rack.

Pacing was something else that Twilight did—Celestia wasn't always around to brush her mane, after all. It was a means, to just enough distraction. A learned means, truth be told, a habit the unicorn had picked up from a certain teacher who found she sometimes thought best when she was in motion.

"...I know you didn't," Twilight said, pausing mid-step on the open floor. "And I didn't mean to—to bury you in accusations," she continued, her voice a little unsteady. "I'm the one who should apologize, Princess. I just show up in the middle of the night, and then I start throwing hysterical indictments at you. I didn't mean—"

Twilight's voice caught, and she took a deep breath, resuming her pacing.

"It just...came pouring out," she eventually continued, straining to hold a semblance of calm. "You don't need to apologize. You weren't even really all that snappy. And after how I...I'm sorry, Princess. I should have at least figured out what I wanted to say before bothering you. I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry," she said in a dejected whisper, hanging her head and fixing her dampened amethyst eyes on the floor.

"Twilight," Celestia said softly, as she rose from before the fire, "something has clearly very much upset you. So much so, that you came all the way here, as you said, in the middle of the night." She stepped over to her student, and laid a gentle wing over the younger mare. "Then you took a rather bold stand against me—and quite capably, might I add," she said warmly, smiling as Twilight raised her eyes. "The last time you did that, you ended up single-hoofedly revealing the deception of the changeling queen. I have no doubt that you have just as good a reason now."

At that, Twilight's hesitant smile died, and her head fell again.

"...I had a nightmare."

There was a quiet whistle, as the forgotten teapot announced its readiness.

"I see," Celestia said, her horn lighting as the tea set was enveloped in golden magic and brought to rest before the two mares. "Well, Twilight, any nightmare so dire that it drove you to teleport all the way here on a stormy night such as this is worth my time, I think."

Twilight looked on silently as the princess began pouring two cups of tea, the warm scent teasing her nose.

"...You're not angry? Or disappointed, or...something, that all this is just over a bad dream?"

Celestia set the teapot down. "No, I'm not angry, or disappointed," she said as she levitated her large sitting pillow over to set down next to her, and settled herself down upon it. "I've been here for you since you were an adorably precocious filly, Twilight, and that's not going to change just because this isn't a crisis looming before all ponykind. Now, come," she said warmly, smiling and patting the pillow. "Have some tea—and...and you can tell me all about it. What it is that's troubled you."

The princess lit her horn again, settling a somewhat more typically pony-sized pillow onto the carpet on the opposite side of the tea set.

"Oh, uh, thanks," Twilight said, a little sheepishly, as she realized it was meant for her. She laid down on it, sweeping her tail around herself so her restless forehooves would have something to fidget with.

Celestia set out a pair of saucers, and placed Twilight's cup of tea to cool, keeping her own aloft.

"So, Twilight," she said warmly, blowing gently on her tea. "Tell me your nightmares."

"Really?" the lavender mare said flatly, but Celestia just smiled politely.

Rolling her eyes, Twilight drew a breath, releasing it slowly as she gathered her thoughts.

"...It started out like a lot of my dreams tend to—with a book," she began, staring at the carpeting patterns before her fidgeting hooves, listening to the fire and rain. "You had sent me a package. A letter, and a book – Starswirl the Bearded's last, unfinished spellbook, and you tasked me to complete his final work. Really, I kinda knew it was a dream right then, because my reaction to your letter was to just sort of shrug at the idea of finishing the last work of history's greatest wizard." Her idle teacup was enveloped in a shimmery maroon glow and lifted to her lips, whence – after blowing softly for the heat – Twilight sipped, and tasted Jasmine.

She only makes Jasmine when...

Twilight sat in silence, blinking through thoughts as she reflected on her tea; and once its surface calmed, it reflected to her in turn. Raising her eyes, she found Celestia sitting patiently, looking calmly over at her, waiting for her to continue.

I'm listening, her eyes said, though the tea had already.

"I looked through the book, and over the spell you had asked me to finish," Twilight went on, her voice steady and thoughts ordered. "I couldn't immediately understand its nature or purpose just in what fragment there was, so I resolved to test-cast it for observation. I cleared the main room of the library, and prepared a contained casting space with Golden Dawn's six-point magical seal, the Greater Binding Ritual of Harmony. Now, some would argue that a six-point seal was far in excess of any incomplete spell's potential effects, even one by Starswirl the Bearded, but one can never be too careful."

"Oh, absolutely," Celestia said with an approving nod.

"Right! So, with the area sealed, I laid down my examination enchantments. Standard measurements of ley draw, varieties and strengths of emission, elementometer, even a hard copy recording of any variances in the incantation the spell employed mid-cast."

"Very thorough of you," Celestia noted, while Twilight paused for tea.

"...Thank you. Now, all of that in place, I triple-checked the spell itself for anything I may have previously missed, re-verified my reading of the transcript, and finally, cast the incomplete spell. I didn't notice any obvious immediate effects, so I checked over the data brought in by my enchantments."


"Nothing," Twilight huffed. "Absolutely nothing. Ley draw was indistinguishable from background flows, the only recorded emissions were my own, the elementometer was flat, and the incantation didn't remodulate into any variant forms. As far as I saw, the spell had no appreciable effects whatsoever."

Celestia laughed quietly as Twilight glared at her tea, apparently mad about it even still. "I imagine you weren't pleased with those results?"

"No, I wasn't. I, uh, got frustrated and went to bed."

"But it didn't end there," the princess softly suggested, to which Twilight slowly nodded.

"No. No, it didn't," she said, gently rubbing a hoof against her forehead, forestalling echoes of the headache she'd gotten in the dream itself. "I woke up the next morning feeling strangely...what's the word; jubilant? Celebratory? I burst into song and serenaded my way through the Ponyville morning. Not exactly entirely in character for me, really. I...may have danced on a café table at some point. Well! Dreams, heh."

"Danced on a...well, yes. Dreams. Quite," Celestia agreed, sipping her tea. "I expect, however, that didn't last?"

"I'm sure it would have gone on a little, but when I got into my coda a cloud's worth of rain was dumped on me. While that's not entirely unexpected, given Rainbow Dash being, well, Rainbow Dash, as it turned out it wasn't that simple. I loudly complained about being drenched, but..."

"...But?" Celestia pressed, a brow arched in curiosity.

"...But, Rarity of all ponies is the one who turned to me and apologized for the misbehaving clouds," Twilight answered, shaking her head. "Except that she had Rainbow's cutie mark."

The princess failed to entirely suppress a chuckle, and Twilight eyed her inquisitively.

"Is there...I'm not sure how that's funny, Princess."

"Oh, no," Celestia said with an apologetic smile. "Not that, certainly. It's just...the idea of Rarity handling Ponyville's weather—I just imagined the clouds arranged in paisley."

Twilight started to reply, but paused, considering for a moment before speaking. "You know, there's another strike against my dream. Rarity arranged the clouds in a checkerboard of all things. The real Rarity would never have done something so plain."

"I expect that the rest of your friends were in a similar condition?"

"Yeah," Twilight said, nodding as she returned to her previous thoughts. "Rainbow Dash had Fluttershy's mark, Fluttershy had Pinkie's, Pinkie had Applejack's, and Applejack had Rarity's, and they were all trying to live those lives like it was the most reasonable thing in the world. As you may expect, it wasn't going very well for any of them."

"I see," Celestia said, setting down her emptied teacup. "And I imagine that this was all because of Starswirl's incomplete spell you'd cast the previous evening. Though how might that have happened, exactly?"

Twilight half sighed, half whined. "It was, and it happened because I was an idiot and didn't realize what was staring me in the face the whole time. In the dream, I mean. Uh, another point against it?"

"I should think so, as that's not a word I expect to find on the same library shelf as 'Twilight Sparkle', let alone in the same sentence."

Celestia levitated the teapot over toward Twilight, and the younger mare offered her flagging cup, which joined the princess' in being refilled.

"So what was it that you overlooked when casting the spell? Your method sounded complete to me."

"It was. Just like every other time, except that this time there was something else in the sealed casting area. Something I didn't even think to account for."

The princess pondered for a short moment, before breathing a quiet ah.

"The Elements of Harmony, if I'm not mistaken?"

Twilight buried her head between her hooves, groaning.

"I missed it entirely, both before the spell and after. Before, I blanked on removing them from the experiment area. After, it didn't even occur to me to look for a reason that all my detection enchantments came up completely empty, a completely obvious reason in hindsight."

She raised her head up again, and the look in her eyes allowed the princess to brace herself.

"The ley draw didn't distinguish because the Elements are their own ley nexi. There were no emissions because the spell was contained internally within the Elements' lattices, the elementometer was flat because despite the implication of their nomenclature the Elements don't use any elemental energies, and for all I know the incantation could have morphed a dozen times and been forty-two pages long, because it all happened in an isolated astral space! UGH!"

The tea service rattled as Twilight's hoof slammed down into the carpet, jumping the resting teacups precariously about before golden magic steadied them.

"...It was a dream," Celestia quietly offered. "They often enough do not reflect the care we would take, and the insight we would have, if we were to pursue the same actions in the waking world."

Twilight rose from her pillow, and began pacing about the room again.

"I know," she said, as she walked slow circuits between the scroll rack and near end of the royal bed. "And I shouldn't get so angry, but...I can't just write it off because it was a dream. I have forgotten at times that the Elements are sitting in a case in the library. I'm not sure I wouldn't have really made that mistake, and with everything it did..."

"So tell me, Twilight," the princess said with a gentle smile. "Letting it out helps, but more importantly, through explaining it you can also better commit the lessons of this dream to your memory, so that such a mistake doesn't get made."

Twilight paused her steps, and took a few deep measured breaths, before returning to her pillow. "...Right. You're right," she said, as she settled back down into place. "Sorry. I don't mean to—sorry. Right. Story."

She took a moment to reorder her thoughts, before continuing.

"Once I'd put together that the spell had affected the Elements, I somehow managed to immediately realize the key to using them to restore everyone to normal. How I made that leap I still don't understand, but, you know, dreams. I took everyone to where they were supposed to be, had them help the pony that was struggling with what should have been their special talent, and then slapped their Element amulets on them at some amorphous critical thought-mass or something. Hoofwave, a wizard did it, you know. Anyway, that fixed things, so it was just a matter of doing it five times. Conveniently, the dream didn't go through all of those in terrible detail. Maybe it was pressed for time."

Celestia took it in, blowing on her second cup of tea.

"Well. A spell that switched around all your friends' cutie marks? And it being, at least ostensibly, because of your own mistake...I can see why that might rather bother you, Twilight. But since that issue was apparently resolved...?"

"...Yeah. That's not what drove me all the way here in the middle of a rainy night," Twilight said quietly, her face downcast. "It was what happened after that."

The unicorn breathed a shaky sigh, levitating her refilled teacup to her lips and taking a long gulp of the piping hot Jasmine.

Celestia said nothing, only reaching her own magic out to the cabinet behind her, drawing another piece of wood to renew the dwindled crackle of the flagging fire.

"With the Elements, I restored all the mixed up cutie marks, and then the solution came to me, and I knew how to finish Starswirl's final spell," Twilight began, her trembling voice quieted; almost...fearful? "I rushed back to the library with the rest of the girls, and I wrote down the completed incantation. For some reason, I spoke it aloud while I did, because obviously that wasn't going to end badly." She sipped her steaming tea again, grounding herself in the mild pain over her lightly burned tongue.

"Of course, it did go badly," she continued. "'Catastrophically' is a better word. The complete spell activated the Elements, and the five amulets around me blasted out rays of blinding magical energy to a central point of convergence. A point where I happened to be standing."

Celestia's eyes widened, but Twilight went on.

"Apparently I blew up, or something like that. There was a flash, and a scorch mark burned into the library floor, and I was gone. The Elements poured all their energy into me, and then I went...elsewhere. I don't remember very well, but I ended up floating in some endless space, surrounded by darkness and distant stars, or something like that. It seemed...I don't know; mystic? If that makes sense? Thinking about it now, I would guess that it was supposed to be the astral plane, but since I've never been there before...well, anyway. You were there, Princess."

"...Was I?" Celestia asked, curious. "Well, I suppose, if you just up and vanished somewhere...mystic, was it? And there are less apt terms to describe the astral, certainly."

"I was glad. Relieved, really," Twilight continued. "I didn't know what had happened to me, so...yeah. Anyway, you told me that you had been waiting for all this to happen, and that 'I was ready', that it was time for 'the next step'. And then..."

"And then, Twilight? What happened? What did I do?"

"You...broke out in song."

Celestia blinked a few times, silent.

"...Did I now," she eventually offered, her tone a mixture of amused and bewildered.

Twilight nodded, smiling at the memory.

"You did. We started walking side by side through this sort of gallery of memories type thing, and you had this gentle serenade about how you'd watched over me, and...you know, it was actually really nice! You definitely get top marks for technicals; great range, even timbre, precise pitch control. Thematically, though, your song was a little...off. Sideways, like the other parts of the dream. Like you were just singing what someone else wrote up. At—at the end, though..."

Twilight was unsettled now, fraying her tail hairs as she twisted them between her fidgeting forehooves.

Celestia set down her tea, and lowered her head, catching her student's eyes.

"What happened, Twilight?"

The younger mare shivered, and shook her head a few times, before quietly answering.

"...You ended your song by saying it was time to 'fulfil my destiny'. And then I was taken up by this strange energy, and wrapped up in light, and...and then I was back in Ponyville, and all my friends were there. And...and I had wings. I had wings. And Rarity came over and said that I was an alicorn, and Fluttershy said I looked like a princess, and—and then...you came down from the sky, and you said that I was a princess, and then I started worrying about being a princess, and—"

"Twilight," Celestia interrupted, if gently. "Did I...in your dream, did I not ask what you wanted during all this?"

"No," the unicorn said quietly. "No, you never did. Not once. You said it was my destiny, and then I was an alicorn, and then you said I was a princess, and—" She paused, sniffling, quickly drying her eyes on the fur of her foreleg. "And then we were in Canterlot. And there was this whole huge ceremony, and a big procession, and you, and Luna, and Cadence were all in some ridiculous formal regalia, and the dress that I was wearing was terrible, some kind of hot pink and banana creme monstrosity, Rarity would have a seizure at the sight of it. You said that because I made new magic—finishing Starswirl's spell I guess—that I had earned the title of princess, like that makes any sense. Unicorns are making new spells all the time."

Shimmery gold magic placed one of the forgotten white towels before Twilight, and she took it up, dabbing at her eyes, sweeping the tears from her cheeks.

"And then we all went out onto the castle square overlook, and there were thousands of ponies, Princess, thousands, and they were all cheering for me. And I smiled, and I said some...generic speech boilerplate, I don't know, and then I sprung up into the air on my shiny new wings, and went merrily flying around Equestria declaring that 'everything's gonna be just fine!'. Well it's not fine!"

The tea service rattled again, the cups tipping over, cold Jasmine seeping into the nearby carpet.

"I just went along with it! I never said a word! Like it was all supposed to be that way! Well what if I don't want wings? What if I don't want to be a princess?!"

Celestia was silent for a long moment, taking in the fervor of Twilight’s desperate protest, before she quietly responded to the quivering unicorn.

“...If you don’t want to be a princess, Twilight, then you will never have to be one. Equestria is not a land where one has their destiny chosen by others and enforced upon them. I would never abide such oppression.”

The princess took a moment to draw a quiet breath, taking the spilled teacups in her golden magic and setting them back onto the silver service tray.

“To wit, Twilight, in regard to how ‘I’ acted in your nightmare—if somewhere out there, in all the possible universes, there existed a Celestia who was at all willing, let alone inclined, to cheerfully puppeteer your life onto a path she had chosen for you from birth, I would have some rather choice words for her. They would not be pleasant."

"I know, Princess," Twilight whispered as she raised her eyes and brushed the lingering tears from her cheeks. "I know. As foalish as it is, I just...needed to hear you say it." She took a deep breath and released it in a long sigh, shivering just slightly in the cool night air. "It was...it just felt so real. Everything fell neatly into place, everyone acted like they should have, it was all so...so plausible, except for the little things that kept going just that slightest bit wrong. And then for you—dream you, Princess, but still—to say that it was all to 'fulfil my destiny'..."

Celestia nodded, reassuring the unicorn with a gentle smile.

"I understand your worries, Twilight. I have certainly played a large part in your life, and it's...not unreasonable, to suggest that I've nudged you in directions you would not have pursued otherwise. But as for 'fulfilling your destiny'? Destiny, Twilight, is one of those words that parents use to convince their foals that the world, with all its mystery and wonder and occasional danger, is in fact pleasantly ordered; and that their lives are neatly and safely laid out before them. It's a lie, of course, as we learn when we grow up and see the world for ourselves."

The princess took a moment to clear the tea service off to the side, and settle another fresh piece of wood onto the fire, before continuing.

"Now, that isn't to say that the universe does not have something roughly analogous to 'fate'; indeed, the errant energies of the world do nudge us along now and then, when we need it. But our destinies are always up to us, Twilight; they are always matters of choice."

"Always, Princess? Even yours?" The unicorn asked, incredulity sneaking the words out before her hooves could fly to her mouth and catch them.

But Celestia just laughed, and smiled. "Now, Twilight, you needn't chastise yourself. It's a perfectly reasonable question, isn't it?"

"I...I guess so. It seems almost rude to ask something like that," the younger mare offered sheepishly, tracing little distracting circles along the carpet with her idle hooves.

"Well, it is something of a personal matter," Celestia considered, tilting her head aside in thought, "but that's hardly an issue here, I would think. And to answer you, Twilight, yes; even mine. My ascent to becoming an alicorn was a matter of choice, if informed by a tumultuous and difficult time in the world. My becoming a princess of Equestria was a choice as well, carefully considered in advance of receiving my crown. And to take the idea to conclusion, even our cutie marks are chosen. Though often held to such origin, they do not appear because a pony has discovered what fate was assigned them from somewhere out there on high, but rather because that pony has discovered something that truly, deeply resonates with them; something that makes them say, down in the very core of their being, 'this is what I want to do'."

Twilight pondered for a moment, her eyes shifting back and forth between thoughts.

"So you chose to take stewardship of the sun, then? And when I was a filly, all the way deep down in myself, I decided that learning magic was what I wanted? And for that matter, what about the Elements? I don't quite see how I would have chosen, subconsciously or not, to take up an ancient power I knew nothing about until my late teens."

Celestia raised a placating hoof to stem the inquisitive tide. "In a matter of speaking, yes, I chose to take up the sun, as Luna chose to bear the moon, but that came long after we had our marks. Mine has, as they are wont to do, ended up being convenient to several interpretations, being the Alicorn of the Sun prime among them; but the meaning of my cutie mark, Twilight, as I understand it, is that I wanted to be a guiding light—a nourishing illumination for those around me. My ascent came several years after that, and it was then that I took up the responsibility of bearing the sun."

"And if I want to know about Luna's mark, I need to ask her," Twilight suggested, being met with an affirming nod. "Well, that's fair. But what about me? I mean, I can see my own cutie mark as an abstract representation of magic. And the five-and-one motif of stars ties into my friends and the Elements pretty neatly, but how could I have known about that then? Or are you going to tell me that time isn't a linear progression of cause to event."

The princess chuckled, shaking her head.

"It has been known to unexpectedly wander off here and there, but no; you're right—you couldn't have known about the Elements then, and they would not have informed your cutie mark. That is, not directly."

Twilight blinked.

"Not directly?"

But Celestia just smiled, which the unicorn understood to mean she needed to figure it out on her own.

So Twilight Sparkle set her mind chewing on a problem; something she realized was very pleasantly welcome in its familiarity, even if the subject matter, and setting in which it had arisen, was not. She couldn't help but smile a little herself: Celestia had, as always, carefully considered how much help she'd given. Too little and it would be beyond solving; too much, and it wouldn't teach anything beyond the rote answer.

Not related to the Elements—that is, not directly. But still somehow. Well, there are six Elements, and my mark has six stars...

Twilight craned her neck back to look at her mark. Familiar as she was with it, a fresh look at old data had never hurt science. And then she blinked a few times, as blatant realization stared her in the face, in the form of white and magenta fur.

"...My mark doesn't have six stars. It has seven. Five small white ones bounding, and large center burst overlaying the sixth. Now if I take that to conclusion as arcane imagery..."

She was just thinking out loud, Celestia knew, but the princess responded anyway. "Then you would have...?"

"If I delineate the stars literally, by size and color, then it easily displays a six-point lattice and energy mass...the smallest, most efficient stable and self-contained structure in arcane magic."

She turned back to the princess, brow furrowed in puzzlement.

"My cutie mark is Empyrean Arrangement?"

"Just so, Twilight," Celestia said, inclining her head in a confirming nod. "More to the point, however, is a little piece of magical lore long forgotten."

At this the unicorn's eyes lit up in scholastic glee, and the princess couldn't help but chuckle.

"Oh, it's nothing terribly momentous, my student; just a little anecdote that fell by the wayside in historical recordkeeping. You see, back when I was first learning magic—I won't tell you just how long ago that was; it's a little embarrassing—what is now called 'Empyrean Arrangement' had another name: the Harmony Form."

"So my cutie mark doesn't so much invoke the Elements, but rather the abstract idea of harmony itself?"

"That's the conclusion that I've drawn," Celestia said, tapping a hoof against her chin thoughtfully. "It's not that you were 'destined' to hold the Element of Magic, Twilight, as you presented yourself as a potential candidate. I'm sure you've thought about this before?"

"You mean the Elements being more than just powerful magical artifacts," Twilight replied, pondering. "So then...because of my choosing to dedicate myself to magic, the Element of Magic chose me?"

"I would say that it was drawn to you," Celestia offered, "rather than you being 'chosen'. I don't know that the Elements are what we would call sentient or intelligent as we define it, but on a sort of instinctive level, they clearly know who is suited to bear them, and will seek those ponies out. As you may further infer, they also thus know who is not suited to bear them."

It was an invitation to ask, Twilight knew, as she watched the princess gazing off into difficult memories...

But tonight had already had a copious fill of difficult things, for the both of them, the unicorn decided. For that matter, something tugged at her memory of just those earlier events.

"Princess, what did I do earlier?"

Celestia snapped back into the moment, bringing her eyes back to a Twilight Sparkle whose expression blended curiosity with concern.

"I'm not quite sure what you mean, Twilight. When exactly?"

"Oh, about twenty minutes ago now, I think? When we settled down to really get into things. Just before you set this pillow here for me, something clearly upset you."

Celestia's brow rose, and she blinked a few times in surprise, to which her student laughed quietly, looking back at her knowingly.

"I've spent years of my life with you, Princess. I know how to read you pretty well these days."

"So it would appear," the princess replied, breathing a quiet sigh. "Yes, I was...surprised, for a moment, but it was perfectly understandable at the time, Twilight. It's nothing to concern about."

"And that would be the royal response; ever standing apart from the ponies, a noble example of strength and grace unto perpetuity, right?"

"Have I become so transparent?" Celestia inquired, peering back at her student bemusedly.

"Only to me," Twilight responded softly, before looking into her mentor's eyes with determination. "So this time I won't ask the crown. Celestia, what did I do that upset you?"

The alicorn was taken aback for a moment, surprised at such brazen familiarity.

Brazen, but...not unwelcome, she thought then, a quiet smile stealing onto her lips.

"When I settled onto my pillow, I patted the spot next to me, for you to join me here. I'd had in mind for you to be comforted in that, like you were when you were younger. But..." She trailed off, closing her eyes and drawing a steadying breath. "But when I offered you the spot beside me, you recoiled, with fear in your eyes. I understand why now, and I certainly don't fault you for it, but...well, you've quicker eyes now than I expected. You saw how it affected me."

Breathing out her tension in a short sigh, Celestia opened her eyes again to—

Where has she...?

But then lavender caught the corner of her eye, and she felt a familiar warmth settle down beside her, and a comforting nuzzle against her neck.

"I'm sorry, Celestia. I didn't mean to."

The sun princess was seized just then with terrible, wonderful feeling, cheeks tingling and eyes burning with threat of tears, and it took a great deal of strength for her to choke back the cresting urge to break down and cry right then and there, not least because she knew it would be forgiven.

But she fought it down, and her turbulent heart was reduced to little more than a shaky breath as she laid her head atop Twilight's own, consoling in the comfort.

"I know you didn't, Twilight" she said quietly, her voice steady and composed. But a part of her suspected that, just as she had caught her moment of pain before, the unicorn beside her knew, at least in part, the truth of her feelings just then.

They laid there together for a long moment, in company of the crackling fire and pattering midnight rain.

"...I think," Twilight eventually said, stirring from the hushed embrace, "that the real reason that dream scared me so much was that if you did just arrange my life for me..."

Twilight drew her head up and looked to Celestia, her eyes wide and tremulous.

"I mean, I don't actually know if you can, but if you did just make me an alicorn, and crown me a princess, and, well, whatever else...I don't think I would say no."

To this Celestia said nothing, but just softly smiled as she looked back at the adoring unicorn who had come to define such a great part of her life.

So rich and sparkling, those amethyst eyes. So trusting, admiring...yearning. Dear Twilight, you would do anything I asked of you.

Everything I've always hoped for you; wealth, titles, prestige; accolades, influence, distinguished position...

Twilight was starting to blush now, just a little, unused as she was to such intent attention.

Even those things I only ever so much as dreamed in my most secret moments. The confidant I've always wanted, the daughter I never had, maybe even—

And now the unicorn was burning scarlet, but still she didn't look away.

...All I have to do is ask. She would never refuse me. All I have to do is say a few words, just reach out, and...

"I know what you mean to say, Twilight," Celestia said, her voice hushed. "And I'm very flattered, but that isn't something you should ever offer to another—even me. Perhaps especially me."

"But...would it really be so bad?" The unicorn asked quietly.

Celestia smiled, shaking her head, turning her eyes to gaze into the darkness beyond her open balcony doors. "There is certainly an argument to made for it. That I, with my wisdom and insight and experience, am best suited to choosing the ideal path for my ponies. And indeed it is such a tempting thing, Twilight, for most of all I wish for them to be happy."

The sun princess turned back to her student, her expression gentle, but resolved.

"But it is for precisely that reason that I will never do such a thing. What is best for someone is a thing that they must decide for themselves. If I were to choose for them, not only would that be lost, but I would be robbing them of precious experiences and lessons to be learned through their own honest mistakes. I would be condemning them to lives empty of light, of true happiness sought and earned through their own merit. You cannot give me your choices, Twilight, for I am all too tempted to make them; and though I would wish only the best for you, I would in truth be taking away who you are, and that is something for which I could never forgive myself."

Twilight stared back for a moment, taking it in, as a meek smile claimed her face.

"Well, I think it was just made pretty clear who's the teacher and who's still the student."

Celestia arched a brow, and promptly burst into hearty, melodious laughter. In which her student, of course, couldn't help but shortly join her, their cheerful giggling filling the room.

"...Ah, perhaps, Twilight," the princess managed between persisting chuckles. "Perhaps, for now. But you're young yet, and making pretty good time besides."

"Well, thank you," the unicorn replied happily, settling back into place beside her mentor. "I've put a lot of work into it, you know."

They fell quiet then, for just a moment, before glancing at each other and breaking into giggles again.

That soon gave to a comfortable silence, and the taking of calm solace in each other's company, as they basked in the cool night breeze and gazed out at the few twinkling stars that could be seen now that the clouds had run dry of rain and begun to reveal the sky beyond.

"...I miss this," Twilight whispered softly, when the princess stirred to lay another piece of wood on the nearby fire.

"I love Ponyville," she continued, "and I couldn't give up my friends for anything, but...I miss this, Princess. I miss you."

Celestia smiled, and nuzzled her student gently.

"As do I you, Twilight. You know that you're always welcome to visit whenever you wish?"

"Yes, I know," the unicorn said quietly, then shaking her head. "But you're a princess. It just seems so...so selfish to ask for your time so we can just talk, or have tea, or solar heavens forbid, read together like we did those years ago."

"Well, perhaps it is, just a little," Celestia offered, before leaning in with a conspiratorial whisper. "But now that you mention it..."

Her horn lit in gold, and a book floated over to settle before the pair.

Twilight blinked a few times in disbelief.

"Daring Do and the Star of Eternity? This isn't even supposed to release for another three weeks!"

Celestia turned to her student, and smiled.

"Having a crown does come with some advantages. It arrived earlier today, and I'd only just started reading when you arrived. So, if it isn't too selfish an idea...?"

Twilight grinned, clapping her hooves together excitedly.

"Are you kidding? I've been looking forward to this for months."

They shared a laugh, the chiming of magic accompanying the opening of a new book filled with fresh pages of adventure, and then Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle settled in, and started to read.