When tragedy strikes, everyone has a different way of reacting and dealing with their grief. But Cadance is all too aware that, as a princess, her duties must come before her own personal feelings of sadness.
Losing someone can be hard. But it can sometimes be even harder when you never really got to know that person in the first place.
As everyone around her mourns this tragedy , Princess Cadance upholds her role as ruler of the Crystal Empire in the only way she knows how: with dignity and grace. In carrying out her royal duties, she knows she has to put aside her own feelings of grief, and act as any princess would.
No one would ever know that, deep inside, she's completely falling apart...
Princess Cadance stared up at the ceiling of the hospital room as she reassessed her situation. She’d just come to again after another round of painkillers, and it always took a few minutes for it all to click back into place. The flowers that had been delivered the day before were beginning to wilt, she noticed. The heart shaped balloons were deflating just a touch, but the large ‘get well soon’ card signed by most of Ponyville still stood guard at her bedside. But what drew her attention the most was the ceiling, with the nothing and everything it contained. Somehow, staring up into that blank expanse of drywall centered her enough for her to sequence the events of the previous two days.
Two days ago, she’d felt an unfamiliar, stabbing pain in her stomach. A few hours after it started, the bleeding had begun. Shining Armor had rushed her to the hospital, and it was then that she’d been told the foal she’d been carrying for the last two months no longer showed any sign of a heartbeat. They’d double checked. In the unevenness of the paint on the ceiling, she traced out the lines of sorrow in the doctor’s face as he’d told her with a shake of his head that there was nothing he could do.
She paused to take in a deep breath, then let it out in one slow long stream before she continued putting the events in order.
They’d told her that they weren’t sure why the foal had died. That once she delivered him, they’d be able to give her a better answer. It could be genetic, she knew, given that there was a slightly higher chance of fetal death with unions between Alicorns and normal ponies. It wasn’t that much of a higher chance, but it was enough that the statistic lingered in her memory now. The doctor had said they could deliver the foal that afternoon, and recommended that she do so anesthetized, to save herself the physical and emotional trauma of birthing a stillborn foal. She’d agreed without much fight. She didn’t really have much of that to offer in general anyway.
After that, she’d been in and out of consciousness. Sometimes it was welcome, and sometimes it contained images and feelings that she would have preferred to never experience.
Shining Armor had stayed by her side through it all, and every time she’d opened her eyes, he’d been there. But this time, as she’d looked around the room, he had been gone. The panic she’d initially felt on waking up alone had faded, as she’d seen him speaking with a doctor outside her private room. She’d watched briefly as a small box, far too small and too delicate, had passed from one pony to the other, and had turned away so she didn’t see her husband’s reaction.
“Make sure you get his body,” she’d said to him before they put the sleeping spell on her. "For the crystal catacombs. He deserves a place there, make sure you get his body. Promise me.”
He’d promised then. It seemed he had kept that promise now.
She found a single crack in the corner of the ceiling and carefully used it to outline the square of her husband’s jaw in her memory. Unquivering, set tight, gritted, as he’d patted her hoof while the doctor gave them the news. He’d stayed strong as her voice had shook with each question, and everything he’d asked had been about her health, her status, the next steps they’d need to take. She’d looked at him then, but not met his eyes. She just couldn’t do that, and she'd noticed that he couldn’t look at her either.
In the pit of her stomach, through the numbness that was both drug and self induced, she felt a now familiar pang of guilt. She felt this sense that she was a traitor to him now, even as she knew it was her body and not her who had acted out, and that she was the one betrayed by it most of all. But even with that in mind, even as she heard the door creak open, she felt the shame rush over her. She looked away from him to hide the expression on her face, and listened to his soft hoof-falls as he entered and closed the door behind him. She stared into each colorful letter of her get well card one by one as a way of focusing.
“Darling?” she heard him say.
He sounded so calm. Collected. Like he was speaking to a wounded animal and didn’t want to startle it. She was almost angry that he was so calm now, like he wasn't completely shattered by this.
“Yes,” she made herself say, but still didn’t turn to look at him.
“The doctors gave me his…they gave me this box.”
She felt the sheets move beside her as a small and solid shape was placed onto the bed. She instinctually flinched away from it, and a cold prickle went up the back of her neck. It was like she could feel it staring at her.
“Thank you,” she said dryly.
“They did a few tests and…it looks like it was some sort of developmental problem. Something genetic. That’s not saying it would always be like that, it’s just something they say we should keep in mind for…”
He trailed off, and she could hear the biting implication in the unsaid words. For next time? For the next foal she conceived? How dare they talk about something like this so soon, as if this wasn’t a real being she had carried, as if it hadn’t lived and grown and been a part of their lives? How dare they even think of…a swell of anger flared in her stomach and chest, but she forced it back.
“Of course. It’s good they did the tests,” she said softly, trying not to sound as cold as she felt.
“Would you like to…to hold him?”
“It’s ok if you-“
“No. Please,” she said, a little less quietly this time. “Just…take it away for now. If you would.”
She’d carried him for months inside her, and she knew she’d have to carry him again, for just a little longer, as they put him in the tomb. But right now it was a weight she couldn’t bear. She knew she shouldn’t feel guilty for that too, but somehow she did. They’d said he’d had below average weight for his age, probably indicative of his health problem. Who knew that four and a half pounds could feel so heavy?
She felt the bed move again as Shining Armor took the box away.
“They say you can go home today,” he said gently. “You’ll need to take it easy, you’ll be anemic for a while and you’ll need to take vitamins and rest for a few days. But other than that they say you should be ok.”
Physically. She almost snapped the word as a retort, but instead shut her eyes and let out another one of those long slow breaths. This was not his fault. None of this was his fault, or the doctor's fault. Maybe not even her fault. It wasn’t right for her to lash out at these people who were just trying to help. Why, then, did she want to so badly?
“That’s good news,” she said. “Let me rest just a little longer, and I’ll be ready to go.”
“You don’t have to push yourself. We can stay here another day if you don’t feel up to it.”
“I want to go home, Shining,” she said pointedly. “I just need to get my balance, and then I want to go home. Please, just go fetch the discharge papers and I’ll fill them out with you while I wake up some.”
When she didn’t hear him move, she collected herself once more. When she spoke, it was closer to the way she normally sounded. Nurturing. Caring. But she could tell she didn’t sound nearly as motherly as usual.
“Please,” she said again. “I just want to go home as soon as possible.”
A moment of silence flickered in the lonely hospital room.
“Of course,” he said at last.
Then she heard him turn and exit the room. As the door shut behind him, she again turned her gaze towards the ceiling, ugly, cracked, and uneven though it was. Her cheeks felt cold and damp in the sterile air of the hospital, and it took a moment for her to realize that they were wet, and that she had been crying.
It only took her a few minutes to pack. Besides the flowers, which she unceremoniously dumped into the trash, the cards and her tiara were the only things she really had to take stock of. Thankfully, Shining Armor took care of everything else without concerning her. It let her focus on staying calm.
They pushed in the wheelchair just as she thought she had everything packed to go. It was a surprise, and at first she didn't realize that it was meant for her. As she looked from the chair to the nurse, then back again, she began slowly shaking her head. The nurse seemed to sense her objection before she voiced it, and offered a supportive smile.
“It’s just a precaution Princess,” she said. “We ask that everyone who stays overnight at least gets wheeled to their carriage.”
“I don’t need that,” she said dryly.
Shining Armor looked to nurse, whose smile was beginning to droop slightly, then back to Cadance. She could see he was concerned, but not entirely sure how to proceed with the situation.
“Sweetheart, maybe you should just use the chair,” he said at last. “I’ll push you to the carriage myself, no need for doctors.”
Cadance was silent for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited until the sudden tide of negative emotions fell back into itself before she again opened her eyes. When she spoke, her voice was even and matter-of-fact. She could feel the transition in her as she went from just a simple pony to a princess, a ruler, a leader. She could feel the part of herself that experienced grief and loss become a passenger along for the ride, as the rest of her seamlessly took over.
“There are ponies out there,” she said. “My citizens, as well as the press. I will not have them see me like that. I need to appear as I always am, as if nothing has changed for me and that nothing will.”
“Most of them seem to know what happened already, Cadance. It’s not like we need to hide this.”
“I’m not hiding,” she went on. “ I just want them to look at me and see that I am still me. That I still have everything together, can still lead, can still live. I don’t need them questioning my rule because of this tragedy, and I need to be strong for them. So I’m sure I can walk to my carriage without that chair. It’s what they need to see.”
She saw that the nurse had not taken her gaze away for a single moment. She turned and met the nurse’s eyes, looking down at her with the gentle grace of any princess, and offered a slow nod.
“I won’t be needing that, thank you for the offer,” she said sincerely.
The nurse looked like she might protest for an instant, then lowered her eyes and chin in response. She gave a slight bow and pulled he wheelchair away, out of the room. Cadance watched her go with a muted satisfaction. At least she could still command, still give her word and have no one question it. Except maybe her husband. Once she was out of the room and the door had shut, Shining Armor turned to her with a worried expression.
“I’m still going to walk at your side,” he said. His voice was soft, but firm. “If you feel faint, you can lean on me. No one will notice you resting on me, no one will think it’s weird. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
Although she still couldn’t meet his eyes, she suddenly felt compelled to say something. For no reason she could name, she wanted to apologize. She wanted to say she was sorry over and over again, until there was no breath left in her lungs. She wanted to collapse, her neck bent across his chest, and apologize into his fur so that he could feel it against his very skin. But she couldn’t. She had to be strong now, had to put on a good front. It was her duty, and no matter what had just happened, her duties came first.
“If you wish,” she said with a sigh.
“Then let me set my tiara and we can go.”
She gave a final glance towards the ceiling of the private room as they left. In it, she had seen every moment of the past few days relived. She had seen the dotted lines between each event, each word, each singularly excruciating moment. She had seen the outlines of people, places, and even the stabbing edges of one very small box.
It had centered her before. Now she found she hated that empty, all-encompassing ceiling, with more passion than she had ever felt in her life. She wanted to tear it down, so that no one would ever have to look at it again.
She could feel her husband pressed close at her side as the front doors of the hospital opened. There was the usual flash of camera bulbs with each step she took, the usual chattering of reporters with pens poised in their teeth or suspended in the air with magic. Shining Armor pressed a little closer to her, but she kept herself from leaning on him. She didn't need that right now, and would only do so as a last resort. Instead, she focused on each individual step.
Cadance held her chin and head high. She looked ahead as she moved, never to either side, striding evenly and confidently towards the open and waiting carriage door.
“Are you doing alright?” she heard Shining Armor say.
She didn’t answer him.
In her head, she reminded herself carefully: you are royalty. You are the embodiment of grace and love. You are beautiful and strong and you lead the hearts and fates of many. You are their rock, their precious gem. You are princess. Walk like a princess.
And as she walked, it was not at all as if she could feel a strange, floating emptiness inside her. It was as if she was not feeling a swelling hell inside her, where something had lived and grown, then abruptly stopped. None of them would have known how much she wanted to collapse and crush her hooves in on her stomach to try to block out that terrifying dead feeling inside her. It was as if he had never left her, in more ways than one.
As she reached the carriage, she steeled herself for one final moment of regality. With a nudge to Shining Armor as a signal, she turned to face the media ponies, and offered them a slight nod in lieu of a bow. They fell silent, but strained in towards her, aching for her any word, decree, or hint. She would give them one. Her duty dictated that much.
“Everyone. Thank you for your concern over the health of my family and me,” she said as loudly and as evenly as she could. “I will not be answering any questions right now, but I would be happy if you would attend a memorial service tomorrow in the Crystal Kingdom, at our castle. There we will be entombing…our son.”
She paused, mentally recomposed, then continued.
“I would like to be sure the rest of the kingdoms learn of his passing with your help, so you are all welcome to report on this story, and on the ceremony. Thank you, we will see you then.”
She tried not to think about the way her voice had cracked at the word 'son,' while Shining Armor helped her up into the carriage’s plush interior. She listened to the din of the curious, clamoring media ponies as he closed the carriage door behind them, and the driver pulled them away from the hospital curb.
The mirror version of Cadance squinted back at her as she arranged the tiara on her head once more. No matter how she moved it, it just wouldn’t look right holding down the veil of black that fell around her muzzle and cheeks. She’d never been much for wearing a lot of black, but tradition dictated this, and she couldn’t think of much of a reason to defy it.
In the next room, she could hear Shining Armor talking in hushed tones with Twilight Sparkle and her friends, a few of whom had offered to help carry the casket during part of its journey through the Crystal Catacombs. She could hear one of them sob occasionally, probably Fluttershy, she guessed, and each time she caught the sound of the noise it tugged at some part of her. She wanted to alleviate suffering. It was what she was good at, what she was built for. But right now, she knew that her strength had to be reserved for her kingdom. She knew that to come would be a grand ceremony. She’d speak, she’d hold her head high, she’d mourn quietly and in a dignified way for all her subjects to see.
It was going to be torture.
She gave the tiara a final adjustment, making sure that her hair fell properly around her neck and ears, then turned to leave her changing room.
As she entered the small room where the others were talking, they all fell silent and turned their attention towards her. Fluttershy, Applejack, and even surprisingly Twilight all gave her a slight bow in greeting, and Shining Armor put on a grim smile and moved towards her. Maybe for a hug, maybe just to be at her side as he always was. She wasn’t sure, but she didn’t move to embrace him, and he didn’t insist. As the others raised their heads, she gave them all a nod in greeting and formal gratitude.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I appreciate you offering to help, I’m sure it will make today much easier for everyone.”
“Of course Princess,” Twilight said, and now she realized that her sister in law had damp rims of purple fur surrounding each eye. Perhaps it hadn’t really been Fluttershy who was crying.
“Anything we can do to help,” Applejack chimed in. “I know what it’s like to lose family, so if you need anyone to talk to, you just let me know, darlin. I’m always here to chat with.”
It’s not the same, she wanted to say. You can be sad in private. You can lean on the rest of the rest of your family. You didn’t die a little inside in every imaginable way when you lost them. But this wasn’t a competition. What Applejack was saying was from a place of caring and concern. She wasn’t saying their pain was the same, she was just offering help. Cadance knew that, and that knowledge was enough to keep her from saying what she was feeling.
“Thank you,” she said again, instead of letting her emotions take hold. “Has Shining Armor informed you about how this will go?”
They all nodded. That was good, at least she wouldn’t have to go through everything bit by bit. She wasn’t sure she could do it with a straight face. How was she ever going to manage to walk all the way to the catacombs without cracking?
“Rainbow Dash is going to create a rainbow over the castle as we enter the catacombs,” Twilight said. “She’s all set to do it. Fluttershy will carry the casket first, then pass it to Applejack, then to me. I’ll bring it to the mouth of the catacombs, and then you and Shining Armor will carry it the rest of the way to the tomb.”
“We’ll follow behind until you place the casket, speak, and then you'll lead the funerary procession out. After that…we…we’ll…”
She could see that Twilight was floundering for words. Her eyes darted right and left, some color had left her cheeks, and her voice was getting a tremble to it. She didn’t know what to do after the whole thing was done. She did well having tasks to fill her time, having a list of responsibilities. She needed a place, a system. Without them, she was left with a lack of purpose right now. She was just left with sadness. Cadance put out a hoof and set it on one of her sister-in-law’s shoulders.
“After that,” she said as gently as possible. “I’d like you to make sure that all the media ponies find their way back to their hotels or transportation. They are welcome at the funeral, but I do not want them sticking around after that to try to get special inside stories. The Crystal Empire doesn’t need that kind of press.”
And I don’t need that either, she thought very loudly to herself.
Cadance could feel Twilight’s muscles relax under her hoof as she spoke. Have something needed of her, feeling useful, it was all she needed to hold back the grief for a while. It was how she was going to deal with all of this. Cadence envied her on that much.
“Darling,” Shining Armor said gently from her side. “It’s about time for us to get into place.”
She let out a quiet sigh, shut her eyes, and recited once more that she was a princess. This was her duty. Chin up. Eyes forward. Steps confident. None of them should know anything but what she chose to show them. When she opened her eyes, she felt stronger. At least strong enough to do this.
“Alright,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”
The other ponies went in front of her as they walked and wound down the tall crystal stairs that passed room after stone-doored room. With every step, she felt her chest grow tighter, but her strides stayed even and sure. Only once did they waver. Only once did the rhythm of her steps break. As they passed one particular door with a heart etched into it. A door that was firmly locked, where she could still see the remnants of tape above the door. Where a congratulatory banner had once hung, and was torn down hastily before she’d had the chance to see it again.
It was only for a moment. Then she continued as if she hadn’t even noticed.
The front gates opened, and she was momentarily blinded by flashes of camera bulbs as they went off in scattered unison. She blinked, and her eyes adjusted quickly. She knew she’d have to be used to those flashes today.
The crowd parted to let them through as ever-silent Fluttershy stayed at the top of the long path. Applejack fell away a little further down, then at last Twilight branched off and took her place. All the while, Cadence could see her citizens, photographers, children, parents, all lining the way. She could hear some crying, and could hear others calling to her, but she didn’t look to them and wave as was her usual habit. She couldn’t look any of them in the face right then. She had carried an heir for them, though she had failed them in that. She would carry him once more, and she’d be sure to do that much right.
“How are you doing?” Shining Armor whispered at her side.
She’d hardly said a word to him since they’d been home. It had mostly been courtesy, polite thank you’s, no’s, ok’s. He’d asked her if she was ok several times now, and half the time, she was fairly certain she hadn’t answered.
“As well as can be expected,” she said softly.
“I’m here if you need to lean on me. If you feel too anemic and don't want anyone to notice.”
“I know, thank you.”
He offered a willing shoulder for her to press against. She didn’t take it.
Ahead, she could see the cavernous mouth of the catacombs, opening up to swallow them in. She stopped by the opening and turned, with her husband, to face the winding path down towards them. It wouldn’t be a long wait, she knew. Once the signal was given by one of her guards, Fluttershy would lift the small coffin on her back. Usually it was done in pairs, but the coffin was so little, so delicate, that one pony could do it fairly easily. Then, she’d begin the procession…
This was a tradition that had not been done in a very long time. It had taken research and planning, and she knew that the occasion was just another tradition to be resurrected under her rule. Under different circumstances, she might have been proud.
All at once, she heard a shrill, distant wail of a single trumpet. Then, like a far off melodious thunder, she began to hear the bells. Deep, droning, like the quiet groans of ancestors past calling out to them. Her guards rang the bells as their unborn prince passed, and she could hear the din of them clanging growing in volume and complexity. Discordant notes struck each other, and she heard another trumpet blow above the rumblings.
Applejack would have it now.
As the strange, formless music continued to grow in its approach, Cadence allowed herself a glance at Shining Armor. He was looking straight ahead, down the path, like he might find something there if he examined it hard enough. Maybe he was willing them to all show up, so this could be over faster. Maybe he wasn’t even mentally here at all. Maybe he was weeks ago, when there had been breakfast in bed. When there had been conversations about names, about what color to paint the room. Maybe he was in that room, clumsily using magic to swing a hammer as he nailed a crib together.
She’d been there too, as of late. Watching him, smiling at his failed attempts and miniature triumphs. He’d worked so hard to make the castle a home for them all. She pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind as she felt tears threaten to fall, and she quickly looked away from him before he could notice the traitorous flush in her cheeks.
Now, in the distance, she thought she could see movement. The sound of a trumpet. Twilight’s turn.
She was sure she could see her now as she rounded one more curve of crystal road. Twilight’s head was low, her wings drooping so they were nearly dragging on the ground. She was crying, shoulders heaving, and her steps swayed as she carried the small purple coffin across her back. It glinted with jewels and glossy fabric in the low light of the afternoon, and Cadence could see, even from a distance, how much effort Rarity had put into making it. But at that moment, she couldn’t feel gratitude. She couldn’t even feel sorrow for Twilight. All she could feel was a stab in some part of her, below her stomach, with every sway of the tiny casket.
Behind Twilight, the Crystal Kingdom trudged dismally, weeping, and shuffling their hooves. Her guards had formed a line behind Twilight, all ringing their assigned bells in a rhythmless caterwaul.
She knew she should offer Twilight a smile, as she neared. She knew she should say something. But as they met and Twilight lowered her head still farther to pass on the coffin, Cadence could only nod a solemn approval of a job well done. Two guards helped steady the coffin between her husband and her, and then the glow of her horn and his both enveloped the oblong little box. It floated effortlessly between them as they turned towards the cave and begin the final leg of the journey.
“Are you alright?” he said again.
She didn’t answer. She had to focus now. She had to not look at the thing resting between them, at the strange little shape that held what was once a part of her. She had to force out each step, each breath. There was no time for her to tell him ‘no.’
She could hear a soft “oooh” and a distant crack like a gunshot as Rainbow Dash flew over, creating an arch of color and light over their procession. She was sure the rainbow was breathtaking, she’d have to thank her for doing that later.
The throng followed them into the low-lit shadows. Their moving reflections became strange formless beasts, with many eyes and one slithering body. A snake wandering on into the darkness. Cadence could see the muted shapes of other coffins encased in crystal on either side of them. Etchings of regal ponies, simple names, or memorable cutie marks differentiated each tomb. The tomb they were coming up on would just have a name. There was really nothing else to work with.
She could see the small, low bed of crystal ahead. See it lit by torches as the soft glow of her own magic. She could see how smooth, clean, neat it was. Everything would look so lovely, like the little coffin was just tucked neatly into bed for a short rest. She’d set him there. She’d settle him. Then she’d leave him to sleep.
She and Shining Armor mounted the steps and carefully set down the casket with a soft click that echoed in the vast catacombs. As it touched down, the bells abruptly stopped, and the lack of their sound made the place suddenly seem even more vast, even more empty. Cadance took one last glance at the small purple box, then turned towards her assembly. She tried not to look at them, to not really see them. She did her best to look through them so that she wouldn’t see the flashbulbs reflecting off the walls, or the gleams of tears in their eyes.
She cleared her throat, and began.
“My loyal subjects,” she said. Her voice boomed in the cavern, rolling away down corridors to echo in distant ancient tombs. “I thank you for coming on this solemn day. I had hoped that, when you met your prince, you would have welcomed him, showed him what a glorious place this kingdom can be. I can say that, though the circumstances are different, you have all done well. You have treated this day with the dignity it deserves. You have proved that, even in darkness, the Crystal Empire shines.”
She paused, unsure if there would be muffled applause at this, but there was quiet. She wasn’t sure how they’d all react to this, so she’d prepared to pause, just in case. She took a small breath to ready herself, and went on.
“Today, I lay to rest your prince. His name was to be Topaz Shine, and I know he would have been a gentle and glorious ruler for you all. He would have loved you, as I love you, and cared for you, as I care for you. So I ask that you offer your respects and your love to him as well. He never had a chance to show you who he would have been, but I know that this would have been his home, and you would have been his people.”
She paused yet again, and she could hear the distinct sobbing of Twilight Sparkle from where she stood in the front row. She could hear others crying as well, but above the others, the sound of her sister-in-law weeping rang clear. She told herself not to look, and somehow she managed not to.
“This is a sad day for us. This is a great tragedy, a great loss. But we are strong. He would have wanted us to be strong. He would have wanted us to carry on and be a nation of love and prosperity. So in his name, I ask that we do that. I ask that you go home with nothing but love in your hearts. I ask that you show each other nothing but kindness. Not only for me, but for him as well. Thank you.”
Now there was a soft drumming of applause. She waited for it to die down before she descended the crystal stairs with her husband at her side. They turned in unison to face the gleaming coffin and crystal pedestal it rested on.
“Guards,” Shining Armor said, his voice even more booming than her own. “Salute your prince.”
She heard the clatter of armor as the ponies raised their hooves in salute. There was a second clatter as their hooves lowered, and then a low glow began as they began their final duty of this procession. Before her, the walls of the chamber were beginning to light up with their magic. Like strange, winding stone fingers, juts of crystal began to grow from he walls. The fragments met, became one, found the floor, found the ceiling. Before her eyes, they began to form a glowing, shining wall of beautiful crystal between her and the box. It rose, higher, stronger with each passing second. Soon she could barely see the outline of the casket through the crystal.
Without warning, she could feel her legs begin to shake. She could feel her lip quiver, and she had to bite down on it hard to keep it still. No, not now, she ordered herself. You can do this. Hold strong. Hold steady. It’s almost over. It will be over soon, you can make it. Then, before she was ready for it, before she’d had time to really think or prepare, the shape faded from sight.
The glow dimmed, and the tomb was sealed. It was gone.
As the crowd parted to let her through, as she turned with Shining Armor to make her way back to the palace, she could feel how unsteady her hooves were. Her balance swayed, she felt woozy, weak from exertion. For an instance, she was afraid she would faint. Once she was past the crowd again, out in front, once she was sure none of them could see too clearly, she finally allowed herself to lean over to him. She felt his shoulder meet hers, and she knew that he’d never stopped offering it to her that whole time. She allowed him to steady her as she walked, and neither said a word about it the entire way back to their home.
“Are you awake?” she heard Shining Armor say from the other side of the dark bedroom.
She’d come inside and gone to bed the moment she’d gotten back from the ceremony. The moment she’d gotten away from the crowd, she’d taken her weight off of Shining Armor and quickened her pace. She’d rushed past the locked room, closed as many doors behind her as she could, found her bedroom, and thrown herself across the blankets and pillows. She’d burrowed into them all like some small, frightened creature, then she’d pulled the blankets up around her ears to drown out the sounds of sad, talking, and mourning ponies outside. She’d stared straight ahead, up into the crystal ceiling, and just let herself go numb again. Like she had been back in the bed at the hospital.
The ceiling here wasn’t so empty as the one there. At first, she hated it less than that cold, empty, white-washed ceiling. But then, as she’d come to see her own, haggard reflection leering down at her, she’d found she hated it more. This ceiling wasn’t as empty and vast as the other. No. In this she saw herself. It was worse this way because, even with another form there, she was still alone in her own head. She’d turned away from the ceiling and had opted to stare at the open window instead.
Shining Armor had not come in right away. He’d left her alone for what was probably hours, at least until the sun had gone down. She’d lost all track of time at this point, but only when the room was dark, when she’d blown out the lamp and only starlight peeked in through the window, only then had she heard the creak of the door as he’d come in. She’d felt the movement of the mattress as he’d sat down beside her, facing away. She’d felt the blankets ripple like a tide as he’d moved them and crawled under. Then she’d heard the silence as he lay there, still.
She wasn’t sure how long they’d remained like that. It could have been hours more, or only moments. She couldn’t be certain.
Now, as these foreign, strange-feeling words rang out, they felt painful. A disruption of the stillness she’d slowly begun to embrace. They were so sharp they cut her, and she winced from the sensation.
“Yes,” she said at last.
“Good…are you ok?”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Cadance,” he said in barely more than a concerned whisper. “Talk to me. I’m here for you. I’m worried. We’re in this together, we both lost someone, so please…talk to me.”
She couldn’t even begin to contain the surge of rage that rippled through he body at those words. No. No, he would not say that, how dare he say that. How dare he even imply…
“He didn’t die inside of you,” she said, each word quiet and cold, sounding distant from them both in the darkness. “You didn’t lose him. I lost him. Don’t say that we both share this, because he was my burden to bear, and he still is. I lost a physical piece of me. You get to be sad, you get to hurt, because you deserve to have your grief. But I have a hole in me now, I had a part of me torn out from the inside. And I can feel it there every minute of every day. You lost a son. I lost a piece of me. So don’t tell me we’re in this together.”
The silence and stillness resumed, and in it Cadance could feel herself shaking. She grabbed hold of her own body, trying to squeeze it until it stopped, but it just continued to tremble. She shut her eyes to blot out all the darkness around her and drew her body in on itself, curling up, trying to become as small as possible. Until she wouldn’t even be there anymore. In that moment, she felt a hatred for herself that she'd never known before.
Then, when she didn’t expect it, she felt a movement on the mattress, and a hoof reached out and touched her shoulder. She shied back away from it as if she’d been burnt, but it persisted, and before she could stop it, Shining Armor gently grabbed her huddled form and wordlessly pulled her in against him in a hug.
“Stop,” she said in almost a bark.
She pushed him gently and firmly away. But he held on tightly, not letting her pull free. She pushed harder, sitting up in bed to try to fight against his arms and the blankets threatening to ensnare her. She felt like something inside her was tensing up, ready to spring. It was like she was going to throw up, like she was going to have a heart attack from him touching her.
“I said stop!” she said more forcefully, and this time the shove she gave him was unmistakable. “Stop, please!”
She didn’t mean to sound so pleading, so weak, but he just wouldn’t free her. Every time she got distance from him, he pulled her back. She felt stifled suddenly. Crushed. She openly fought against him now, nearly beating her hooves against his chest and face.
“Stop! Now…I…I command you…stop! Let me go!”
He pulled her closer with every blow. She was almost shouting at him now, and she felt distinctly like she was going to die, like she was going to suffocate there in his arms. All she knew was she had to get away, that he couldn’t hold her like this, that she shouldn’t allow this. But he was strong, and didn’t let go of her. His limbs were not shaking, he was calm. She could feel his even breath on her ears and forehead, hear his barely-quickened heart beat. How dare he do this to her, how dare he…
“Cadance,” he said in a whisper.
And that was all it took.
In a flurry of release and emotion, she fell against his body, sobbing uncontrollably, all the fight in her gone. Instead of pushing him away, now all she wanted to do was hold him close, to feel no space between them at all.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she wept. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
He let her keep saying it and just held her there in the darkness of their empty bedroom. Cadance felt her throat and lungs burn as coughing sobs ripped from her mouth. She buried her face in the fur of his chest, trying to muffle the ugly sounds coming from her, but they still came, ringing loud in her ears. She felt his hoof run over he mane, over and over like a soft and steady drum beat.
She realized she was clutching him then, like she was afraid he’d get away, or worse that he’d push her away. She had this swell of feeling that perhaps he knew now. Perhaps he really did know this was all her fault, that she had failed them both, failed herself, failed her unborn son. That she was useless, faulty, that she couldn’t even carry a foal as any other normal pony could.
“I’m sorry,” she could hear herself continuing to say. “I’m sorry I couldn’t…that I didn’t…”
The final words wouldn’t come and she just fell back into crying every time she tried. She felt Shining Armor squeeze her a little in a hug each time.
“Don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault.”
He paused, and she felt his heart skip a beat. Maybe a moment of realization or pain. Then he hugged her tightly again. With each sorry she uncontrollably let loose between sobs, he followed it with ‘it’s not your fault.’ They continued the morbid duet for some minutes.
“It’s not your fault Cadance,” he said then. “It just happened. But it’s going to be ok, we’ll get through this. It’s going to be ok.”
“No, it’s not,” she choked out. “It’s not ok, nothing is ever going to be ok again. My son is dead, I felt him die. I’ll never hold him again, I’ll never touch him or see him…”
With those words, a horrifying realization hit her. Her whole body went rigid and she straightened up in his embrace. In the darkness, she knew he couldn't see the color draining from her face, but she could feel it. She could feel the cold chill that moved up her body and the catch in her lungs that made it hard to breathe. And right then, she didn't want to breathe. She didn't deserve it.
“I never saw him, Shining,” she said. “I never saw his face, never knew what he looked like. I don’t know what color he is o-or what his mane was like or…I…I don’t…”
She was shaking, and she gagged on this realization, suddenly afraid again that she was going to throw up. She didn’t know what her own son looked like. And now she’d never know.
“What kind of mother am I?” she said before he could go on. “What kind of mother doesn’t hold her baby? Doesn't know what his face looks like. What kind of mother doesn’t know…doesn’t…”
She closed her mouth at that kind but solemn command. Shining Armor pulled her close once more and she could feel him bury his face in her mane. She felt him breathe a sigh into it, and the heat from it soothed her a little.
“You are a great mother,” he told her. “You’re the mother to this whole kingdom. You were a great mother to him too. Don’t ever doubt that. You didn’t do anything wrong, haven’t done anything wrong. It’s ok. It’s ok.”
Fresh tears flowed freely down her face, staining his white coat a dark gray. Cadance wept effortlessly into him, holding him close, loving every sweet word that he was saying. She loved the vibrations they made against her face, loved the calmness and strength he showed. And she hated and loved that she could be weak now. That she could fall apart now. He had her.
“Shining?” she choked out, hardly recognizing the creak of her own voice.
“Did you see him? D-did you see what our son looked like?”
Shining Armor was silent, and she again heard his heartbeat quicken once and then slow back to steadiness.
“Yes,” he said. “He was pink all over, and he had little wings, like you. And a blue mane, like me. He was beautiful, Cadance. He...is beautiful. He would have been so happy.”
The image pressed itself into her mind, like a wax seal, and as his shape materialized to her, she felt her emotions change direction. She had something now, someone she could mourn. A color, a face, even one in simple colors without lines or detail. As she continued to cry, she could feel she wasn’t weeping for herself now. It was for a small, far too small colt with little wings and a blue mane. She wept for her son for what felt like hours, until there were no more tears to cry. Until she shut her red and worn eyes and fell into an exhausted sleep within the safe embrace of her husband’s arms.
She was alone in near darkness, and she could feel that she was bound by her every hoof. The chains on her hooves were tight and painful, and she couldn't shake them free, couldn't get loose. She could feel how difficult it was to strain against them, how heavy they were. She tried so hard to walk, to move, to continue on…but the chains held her.
Cadance looked back, and she could see a small black box, all chains emanating from it like spider legs. It was such a small box, so delicate. Why couldn’t she pull it along with her? Why was it so heavy that it was holding her back? She strained against her bonds, but the box would barely move. She could hear a loud cracking scrape, like wood being shattered, each time she pulled. But each time, it was like the box pulled back against her chains.
Why wasn't she strong enough? Why couldn’t she break free?
Cadance was crying then, calling out for help. She screamed for anyone, but her words just echoed, like she was last far underground. It was just her and that box, and the chains connecting them. She tugged once more, and it was as if the box suddenly gave way, and she jolted forwards. With a cry, she felt there was no more ground beneath her, and she began to fall.
Down, she fell down and down with nothing but the sound of her clattering chains. She could see the box above her, and now it was so big. So massive. And she knew that, when it landed, it would crush her under it. And then it would all be over. She shut her eyes and waited for the inevitable, sickening thud and crunch she knew would be there.
A loud sound came, and her eyes flew open.
She was in bed. She wasn’t falling anymore. And the box was gone. She was breathing hard, every muscle ached, and she felt like she really had been hauling that heavy box behind her for a long, long time. She felt worn out in every imaginable way. But at least that dream was over again. She’d had it every night since she’d been home from the hospital. Each time she’d felt the weight, and each time there had been the horrible grating noise of wood splintering with her every movement.
But this time, she found that the noise hadn’t faded. In the distance, she again heard the crack and groan of wood. As if someone was hauling that box down a flight of stairs outside her room. She reached out for Shining Armor in the darkness, but found that his side of the bed was empty. Maybe he’d already gone to investigate? With trepidation, Cadance rose from the bed and carefully crept out of the room to follow the strange sound.
The noise grew in volume as she quietly made her way down the stairs, and now she could hear the occasional sound of a voice. There were no words, only muffled noises of exertion, and she hesitated for a moment, unsure if she should continue. But curiosity, and some sense of reluctant suspicion drove her on.
Her throat tightened as she neared a particular door, and she quickened her pace in anticipation of getting past it sooner. But her steps slowed as she saw a crack of light spilling from one side of the stone doorframe. The door, which had been locked since her arrival home, now stood open just a very little bit, and she could hear the horrible ripping noises echoing from inside. With a shaking hoof, she pushed the door open just a little wider to see what was happening inside.
There before her stood Shining Armor. His back was to her, but she could easily see what it was he was doing, and where the noise was coming from. In his mouth, he held a hammer, and with it he was prying nails out of one side of the crib he’d so carefully built only weeks earlier. He grunted and strained, and Cadance heard the tinkle of nails as they fell to the hardwood floor of the nursery. She noticed that much of the crib was already in pieces on the floor, as was a bassinet he’d gotten for her, a small bookshelf, and mobile they’d gotten as a gift from Twilight. All of them were now just fragments of what they'd once been.
Shining Armor gave another huffing grunt as he reached up and tore back the railing to one side of the small crib. It gave way with a groan of wood, then splintered part way down. He gave a stifled roar of frustration and anger, and threw the piece of wood that had come free to the ground with a clatter. The remainder, still attached to the crib, began to glow a pale blue, than began to twist and wrench itself free of the crib. As it too came loose with his magic, Shining Armor forcefully cast it aside, then set his vision on another part of the crib. His shoulders and back were heaving, like he too was out of breath from hauling something heavy behind him. Soon the bars began to glow blue, and she watched them shatter under his magic. The crib squealed and cracked with each tearing motion he made, as one piece after another destroyed itself.
Cadance could hear that he was crying underneath each grunt and muted yell of anguish. She could hear the pain in his voice, mirrored by the pained sounds of the crib disintegrating. How many nights had he done this? Since they’d been home?
All at once Shining Armor launched himself at the crib. He trampled at it with his hooves, punching, not seeming to care as splinters cut at his forelegs. He leapt back, hunched as if he was ready for the thing to attack him back. Then, when it didn't, the whole crib rose into the air, distorted and crumpled and encased in blue, and flung itself at the adjacent wall. It fell in pieces to the ground, and Shining Armor collapsed forward onto the floor of the nursery, weeping openly. The sound of clattering and breaking wood fell away, and all that was left was the sound of his rhythmic and staccatoed sobs.
He hadn’t seen her, and Cadance stood frozen, watching it happen. His body curled around itself, his hooves occasionally lashing out at the floor or something that wasn't even there. She could feel understanding flooding over her then, seeing him like this. Every time she’d seen him, spoken to him, been near him in the last few days, Shining Armor had been calm and collected. He’d been as dignified as her, perhaps even more so. He’d been strong. And what was more, he’d been strong for her. Even when she didn’t accept his shoulder, even when she wouldn’t speak, he’d been there to catch her in case she fell. And when she broke down, he was the to collect the pieces. She had never once seen him shed a tear. She hadn’t seen him grieve.
But he had been. Away from her, he’d found his own way to feel his grief.
As she stared at him, she remembered every unkind thing she’d said. She remembered how she’d pushed him away. She felt a pang of guilt that she had been so cruel to him, all the while not even wondering that he hadn’t been more upset. She’d even been angry, just briefly, that he hadn’t seemed more broken up about this. But while she was being strong for the nation, for Twilight, for everyone else, he’d been strong for her. It was his much-needed turn to break down now.
She wanted to reach out to him then. She wanted to hold him close as he’d held her, and tell him that everything would be ok. But she knew she couldn’t do that right now. With her there, he’d be strong again. With her there, he couldn’t fall apart, couldn’t let himself crumble the way she had, the way she’d needed to. He needed to be alone with his sadness in order to do this, and she knew that. On some level, she even understood it. This was his time to feel, completely unrestrained, and she wouldn’t intrude.
Holding back her own sobs, Cadance turned away from the door. As she made her way up the stairs back to their bedroom, she began to rehearse what she would say to him tomorrow. She began to plan the careful words of comfort she would give him, the way she’d begin the conversation about how they’d work together to get through this part of their lives. She began to plan how they’d make a memorial to their son, how they’d honor his memory in years to come. Even though she couldn’t reach out to her loving husband at that moment, she knew she would reach out. And she knew he’d reach back.
Cadance looked up at the hospital entrance with a creeping sort of discomfort. The day was getting cool, and a soft breeze blew the leaves into a slow swirling dance around her hooves. She shivered, but not from the slight wind that rippled across her coat and mane. She didn’t like coming here again, and hadn’t since the whole ordeal began, but she knew she had to be here now. Alone.
But this time, she alone was by choice. This time, she had stepped away from her empire because she wanted to, because she felt she had to for personal reasons, and wasn’t willing to shy away from that feeling. This was right. It felt terrible to be here, but this was the right thing to do. She again put on her princess demeanor, and pushed open the hospital doors.
Ponies bowed as she passed, all greeting her with the customary “your majesty” or “Princess” in whispered, reverent tones. The doctors and nurses especially did this, and she hoped desperately that none of them felt any guilt over what had happened here only a short week before. She hoped that none of them thought she was angry with them, or that she blamed them. No one was at fault here, and she hoped they all knew that.
She spied the kindly nurse that had been with her before, who had offered her a wheelchair, and now Cadance offered a gentle, warm smile in her direction. The pony hesitated, then smiled back. It felt good to do that again, she thought. And also bad. But…more good than bad now.
The thin, young artist she’d summoned was just where she’d asked him to be, waiting by the main check in desk. When he spotted her, he quickly gave a sweeping brow and beaming smile. Probably so proud that a princess had requested his help with something.
“Your majesty,” he said grandly. “It’s such a pleasure to be here, thank you for asking for me. What can I do to be of assistance to you?”
She smiled at him as well, and he rose from his bow, looking more pleased then ever. She took a moment to order her words carefully, because even now it felt strange to say them out loud.
“I have an assignment for you,” she said slowly. “A decree. I will be sure you are compensated, of course, but this is something I ask you to do, as a Princess. This is for the good of all my people.”
“Of course! Anything in my services that I can offer for your kingdom.”
She didn't say that it was also for her, but she knew it was, and he would probably know that as well. She hesitated a moment more, then took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and spoke.
“I’d like you to paint a mural on every hospital room ceiling,” she said softly.
When she opened her eyes, she could see he looked excited but a little confused. Probably to be expected, it was a rather odd request after all.
“Can do, Princess,” he said, then paused. “What kinda scene did you have in mind? Something royal? Some scene from history or a battle or…
“Nothing that complex,” she said quickly. Then more gently. “No. Something simple. Something basic. I’ll leave it up to you exactly what you put on each one, but it should be a night sky, or a cloudy day, or trees, or sunshine or…things like that.”
“Ah, I see,” he said with a nod. “But I mean, is there…any mood I should really try to bring out here? Any message I should be trying to send?”
She smiled then. A smile for her, for no one else. A soft and sad smile that she felt to the center of her being, where an empty space still curled and slept. When the tears came to her eyes, she didn’t wipe them away.
“The message,” she said, her voice trembling, “is that life will go on. And...that you're not alone.”